By the time I was 10 years old, I'd been baptized three times. It would take a while to explain why. I was first baptized a Mormon in Bowling Green, Kentucky. The second time as a Methodist in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. And my last baptism took place at a Presbyterian church in Columbia, Tennessee — my grandmother, Miz Lena's, church. She was of the opinion that the first two didn't count and probably weren't going to do me much good.
Miz Lena would say, "Honey Baby, there's good in all faiths, but I don't even think God really understands the Mormons."
Personally, I think it's a great faith. I love that Sundays are dedicated to being with family. A Mormon elder, Elder Straw, taught me how to ride a bike. It's a quiet religion. Tough to live up to. They lost me with the no coffee or dancing rules. I'm what the good people of the church call a Jack Mormon. It means that I need to work on some things.
When my mother informed Grand Mom that I had been baptized Methodist, she was relieved that it superseded my Mormon baptism and that it was a little closer to Presbyterian beliefs. I too, have found the two beliefs to be similar. When I was a kid, I remember thinking that the Methodists sang better songs and maybe a little more on key. Also the Methodists were a little younger. Maybe that's why they could better hit the high notes.
Miz Lena was not an ardent scholar of the Testaments. She just believed in God. Consequently, she didn't take my brothers and me to church every Sunday. When we didn't go, she'd turn on the TV and we'd watch the morning sermon of Billy Graham. It was more or less a tie between the Rev. Graham and Liberace as to who was Miz Lena's favorite man in the whole wide world.
It was great for me. I could sit in my play clothes and do my coloring books while we all got saved. To me, it was kind of like going to the drive-in theater in your pajamas. Convenient and comfortable. I liked that about the Presbyterians.
And I didn't have to put on one of my two monkey suits — one that Miz Lena had bought me for Christmas, the other one for Easter. Neither one of them fit me anymore. I was growing. No clip-on bow tie tight against my neck, choking me throughout those very long sermons. Grand Mom's preacher could talk! I didn't have to wear those hard, non-broken-in church shoes.
Grand Mom loved the fact that the Rev. Graham was a Southerner. She'd sit watching him with her feet up on the den couch, a cranberry-colored afghan covering them. She'd have her cup of coffee, smoke Salem cigarettes and smile throughout the TV sermon.
She would say that men of the cloth from the South, "They just preach better. They just make good sense."
I agree. I like a show with my Sunday sermon. It gets your blood pumping.
If you ask the U.S. Marine Corps what faith I followed, they'd say Catholic. At least that's what's on my dog tags. Naturally, there's an explanation. I'm pretty sure the Good Lord forgave me already. The proof in the pudding is that I didn't die in Vietnam.
At 18 1/2 years of age, March of 1967, I voluntarily enlisted in the Marine Corps — kind of a forced-into, volunteer situation. Shortly after football season, I flunked out of college and the chief of police of the little town from which I had graduated high school suggested I go live in another town or enlist in the military.
My father seconded the motion, and off I went to four years of service with the Marines. Even though the training was tough, I was glad that I enlisted.
Down about three layers, I found out what I was made of. Furthermore, I discovered the red-white-and-blue in me. I became a proud American. Prouder than before. I looked forward to protecting my country and kicking those North Vietnamese soldiers' butts all the way back to Hanoi.
A few days into boot camp, they assign you a service number. You never forget it. I still know mine. Everyone who served does. It's like a military Social Security number. And they ask you some questions: How tall are you? Your weight? Color of eyes? Blood type? And what your religion is.
All of this information is stamped into two silver tags that you wear around your neck. When you get to Vietnam, you attach them to your bootlaces. In case you don't make it, they're able to identify your body.
They measured me at 5-feet-10, 186 pounds, with green eyes and drew some blood from me. When they got to my religion, I told them I was Catholic. Aside from my obvious confusion as to what denomination I really was, I noticed that the Catholics seemed to skip a lot of my platoon's full-combat-gear, 10-mile hikes due to religious commitments requiring them to attend church services.
I was already a Mormon, a Methodist and a Presbyterian. At that point in my life, Catholic seemed to be the way to go. Yeah, why not? I could use a little time off. I didn't give much thought to whether or not the Almighty approved.
In the Marine Corps, especially in boot camp, there's no asking for volunteers for anything.
One Sunday morning, all of us Catholics were getting ready for Mass when a drill instructor stuck his head into our quonset hut and said, "You, you, you and you, Stamps. You're altar boys. You'll be assisting the chaplain for this morning's service.
What did he say? I broke out in a sweat. My heart was thumping. Off to church we marched. Mass was held on base at a huge multipurpose theater. It could hold about a thousand Marines.
After the priest gave me a wrap to put over my uniform and a bell that I was to ring, I walked out onto the stage. At least 500 Catholic Marines were in the house. That's when it hit me. I'm not a Catholic! I wondered if they could tell. Maybe I wasn't holding the bell right.
Once the service began, it became apparent to the other altar boys and the priest that I had no idea what I was doing. The priest kept glaring at me and clearing his throat. He'd rattle off some Latin and then wait for me to ring the bell. I never got it right. I had no idea Mass lasted so long. I'm not sure how I made it through. But I did.
Before I left for Vietnam, six sweet ladies, having read a Marine Corps press release in my hometown newspaper stating that I was a Catholic and on my way to Vietnam, each presented me with a St. Christopher medal. All six medals hung on a chain around my neck the day I landed in Quang Tri.
I was an S2 Scout. A point man. When a firefight started, I was in the middle. I got hit six times. I only accepted three Purple Hearts. Three of the hits were from small fragments of shrapnel. I bled, but I hadn't lost a limb or my life, as had so many of my brave young friends.
Now here's the kicker. Every time I was wounded, one of my St. Christophers went missing from the chain. When I left that horrible, awful country, all that was left was the silver chain. Crazy, huh?
Over the years, I've thought a lot about this. Quite obviously, I was saved by God. So were many other veterans. All of us with our own religious upbringings. We prayed to God. Constantly.
I figure Miz Lena was right. There's good in all faiths. If you think about it, I'm living proof that God must feel the same way.
Bill Stamps spent four decades in the entertainment business before moving from Los Angeles to Cleveland, Tennessee. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or through Facebook.