The Most Meaningful Time of Life
Written Spring of 2010
My father struggled with finding the right job for his skills. In his lifetime he had at least 17 jobs but never seemed to find his professional niche. But there was one time in his life where he shone brightly. This was when he was called to go into Civilian Public Service at age 24.
His life broadened when he left for CPS. The country was at war, and these years seemed to draw in Daddy a newfound strength and courage. He dealt well with the crisis mode of the time, went to his Mennonite bishop, John Lapp, and told him he wanted to be classified as a conscientious objector when he was called by the draft board. So John wrote a letter to the draft board, most likely the Lansdale, Pa., draft board, confirming Daddy’s decision. Soon, Daddy was called to Grottoes, Va., the former Civilian Conservation Corps camp where many in Franconia Conference began their CPS tenure.
I have heard many heartwarming stories of men Daddy met in Grottoes and later Bowie and Clear Spring, Md., but above all, I believe, Daddy experienced a spiritual awakening and a personal epiphany like none he had ever experienced. I believe he was nurtured and entrusted with responsibility and a strong faith in God to overcome some of the ways he was put down as a child. He laughed with the other men, worked hard and experienced life to the fullest. He also witnessed other denominations in the camp and in that way was exposed to people and other faiths outside the small confines of his Mennonite community.
It was a whole new world to have a Peace Committee formed by the Mennonite Church and to present its ideas for an alternative service option to the President of the United States. There was a lot at stake, and the Franconia Conference believed in their young men, supporting them financially, emotionally and spiritually, believing that in this time of great pain around the world, their young men were making a difference. It was a strong statement made by the peace churches: Mennonite, Brethren in Christ, and Friends. They went up against the powers that be that told them they needed to fight against an enemy as in World War I and said we need an alternative for our peace-abiding young men.
This had a profound impact on my dad, who was the sixth boy in the family. He had a determined cry as a newborn, which led him to be slapped across the face for wanting to be nursed so often. He looked bad enough that he could not be taken to church that week. He was named Charles Merrill, after his dad, in hopes that that might bring about a girl in the family. As was typical of the time, Daddy never heard that he was loved by his parents. His mother seemed to prefer his mild-mannered brother, who shared his feelings more readily than Daddy, who was by nature more emotionally distant. His dad taught Daddy to hunt and spent many days with him pursuing grouse, squirrel and pheasant. He taught him to trap muskrats in order to sell their skins, but apparently he rarely laughed or expressed much affirmation. Many in that day believed that to praise your children would create in them a false pride, which could damage their faith.
But during CPS, John Mosemann took a personal interest in Daddy and had him lead worship with chalk talks and found ways to encourage and pull out Daddy’s gifts. Daddy was artistic and saw the beauty in God’s creation. He also had organizational skills and could type, which helped him earn an office job while serving in Clear Spring. The men had nightly Bible studies that challenged them and helped them experience God’s calling in their lives. They were called to serve in this time as a witness of God’s redeeming presence and felt the importance of it.
In a file that my dad kept while in CPS of all the incoming and outgoing CPS “boys,” one campmate wrote: “During my time at camp, I learned to know God better. I know I’ve benefited by it greatly spiritually. I had more time to think on and study His Word than if I had never entered CPS. I also think this life has given me a chance to prove my faith in God to a certain extent, for I think we have gone through some persecution, although not to the fullest measure. Another highlight of my camp experience is meeting and associating with so many fellows I never met before. It is interesting to see how they live and what they think about religious things. I found out that there were a lot more faiths and churches than I ever thought there were. Still another highlight is how much new country I saw. It was interesting to see the Rockies, the big trees of California, the Salt Lake, the prairies and many other beauties created by God. Living close to nature helped me feel the power of God. I am glad for my experience but very anxious for peace and [going] home.”
But things were not easy when these boys came home. For my dad, he had a newborn baby girl and a family to provide for upon his release in 1946. He started working at a broom factory in Telford, Pa., and soon at a shoe factory, then back to the hosiery mill of his father. It was a rude awakening for these young men to come home after being spiritually and emotionally nurtured for four years. Leaders of Souderton (Pa.) Mennonite Church saw unique abilities in my dad, enough to include him in the spring 1948 ministerial lot.
As my dad used to tell the story, there were four men on that Sunday morning, across from four Bibles, when one of the other men took the Bible in front of my dad. I never heard Daddy say he felt like he should have been the one chosen; he only spoke of the honor of being called to this task, his willingness to serve if the lot had fallen on him and a solemn relief tinged with a tad of wistfulness, wondering what might have been. I’m sure my dad wondered how his life would have been different had he been called to be a minister at Souderton.
As Daddy’s search for a good job continued, his family was growing in size. He remained active in the church and held roles such as Sunday school superintendent while working nights at JW Rex Heat Treating Company. By 1961, he had five children and was still searching for that elusive right job. Mom and he attended the CPS reunions every year, and Daddy enjoyed this time of reminiscing. This was a constant among layoffs and company downsizing.
Life felt like a constant fight to provide for his family, so when a call came in 1956 to serve at Salem Mennonite Church, Daddy felt like he couldn’t do it. Somewhere he had lost his peace and contentment of camp days, and the fight to keep his head above water had won. No wonder he talked so lovingly of people he knew in camp, including the guy who said, “Could you be so kind and condescending, so obliging and back-bending to extinguish your nocturnal illuminator?” And the guy who wanted to be awakened in the middle of the night just to know what it would feel like to be able to go back to sleep. He told these stories with a big smile on his face and an irrepressible zest for life.
Over the years, Mom and Daddy traveled to places around the country, including Oklahoma and Montana, to visit “camp buddies.” He didn’t often write letters but managed to stay in contact with a Martins in Oklahoma and a Hostetler in Montana. When Daddy passed away, there were many camp buddies that needed to be contacted of his death.
There is nothing like feeling God’s calling in your life and feeling like you are fulfilling God’s purposes for you. Perhaps this wasn’t discussed much in my dad’s time, but if I read between the lines, I see that the one time my dad felt called was during his CPS service. A few years before he died, he said he wanted to be remembered as a “faithful member of the church, as someone who faced responsibilities squarely (paid bills on time and saved for a rainy day), tried to encourage other people, especially his children and grand-children, and gave four years of [his] life for a principle—nonresistance.” This he did.
Also published at http://www.themennonite.org/issues/13-12/articles/The_most_meaningful_time_of_life