Bill Guiffredo - Brookfield, CT

When as a child of almost three, my parents divorced, and my sister and I lived with my mother at my grandparent’s home in Connecticut. At three or four years old, I remember that my father would sometimes visit on weekends and take my sister and me on long walks through the town. On occasion we would be with him as he visited the priest in the rectory. Father Garret was the priests name and I recall that as my sister and I played on the floor he would sit at a table with my father and they would talk. Always at the end of their discussion he would gather us together and while placing his hands on our heads he would pray to God for our wellbeing. He was really talking to God and that impressed me. My fathers visits dwindled until the only times I saw him were an occasional passing on the street. He was seriously alcoholic.                            

My mother had become a Catholic prior to her marriage and with what little money she had, as a single parent, sent me to a catholic school for my education. Of course there were crucifixes everywhere but what it was about was unknown to me. Periodically as a school group we would visit the church and the nuns pointed out a candle in red glass hanging over the steps to the altar. They told us that when the candle was lit that God was at home and we should behave and be quiet. I remember the catechism lessons beginning with, “Who made me?” God made me, and “Who is God?” God is the Supreme Being. As a child I never questioned these things.

My visits to church on Sunday were infrequent, as I recall, and aside from small pretty printed envelopes for our offerings I didn’t remember much about a mass. After second grade, for whatever reason, I was transferred to the public school across the street. Once a week we left school to attend religious instructions at the catholic school I previously attended. I remember being prepared for, “first Holy Communion”, when I would receive the body and blood of Christ. Whatever that meant was lost on me as I was only doing what was expected of me. I also tried for the position of “altar boy” but I couldn’t grasp the Latin and there was no help for me from the rest of my family.  For a few years I attended the “stations of the cross” where we as a group would move around the church interior stopping at relief carvings which depicted events leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus. I knew the story but it was just that, a story of what happened long ago and far away.

In 1967 I graduated high school at a time when our country was engaged in the war in Vietnam. My new Dad, Mom remarried, had served in Korea. My father was a veteran and most of my uncles had served during WWII. One served under Patton in the feared 20th Ghost Corp, another was wounded in France and another built tanks in Kentucky. My Grandmother had cherished relics from WWI where her brother survived a gas attack. Military service was honorable in our family. The cold war was real and only a few years previous I huddled against the school hallway walls with the other students as we practiced for a possible nuclear attack. In the last years of high school my history teacher was a truly inspiring man who made history alive for us. He was an officer in the Naval Reserve and only briefly mentioned he was Jewish. The “Six Day War” in Israel as a current event energized our discussions about historical events and our possible role. Another teacher was a former Green Beret who provided literature and encouragement for some of us boys as we talked and anticipated joining the service after finishing school. I had thoughts of joining the Army and attending jump school so I too could become a Green Beret. But that wasn’t going to happen.

One of my cousins visited my grandparents for a weekend and her husband, who was a Navy veteran, took interest in my plans. His tour of duty aboard a destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin produced a slightly different picture than what I had in mind. He told of the horrors and difficulties the troops were facing and encouraged me to instead serve in the Navy and learn a skill that would serve me after the service. I listened and joined the Navy.

At that time there was a delayed entry plan whereby you made the commitment to the service of your choice, so as to avoid the draft, and four months later you would report for duty. For a few years I had been working various jobs after school but by this time I had fulltime employment with a Jewish craftsman building Formica countertops and cabinets. He had a number tattooed on his forearm and a coworker told me what it meant. I had heard about these people and history was all around me. What would my role be? I quit work with three month left to do as I pleased. Many nights I spent partying and drinking with my friends whom I might never see again. On one night in particular near the end of my time at home, I returned home from being out and sat on the front steps of the house where I lived. The sky was dark and clear and the stars beckoned me to look at them. As I lay there looking up I wondered at what would become of me. I remember thinking that God himself high above the heavens could see me and knew all my tomorrows. I believed he was real and indeed the Supreme Being. I spoke to him and told him I wanted to know him. The stars continued to twinkle and I became tired and went inside to sleep. Shortly thereafter Mom, Dad and I were tearful, as I said goodbye to Mom, and Dad drove me to the train station for my journey to begin.

The entry point for my region was Whitehall Street in New York City. There I was mingled with many others as we were physically inspected, signed many papers and took an oath to serve our country. At one point, in the waiting area, we were visited by uniformed workers from the Salvation Army. I knew this organization had a small building in my hometown. I understood that they would help truly poor people. What were they doing here? Everyone was handed a small bag containing gum, soaps, aftershave, deodorant and a small Gideon’s New Testament with Psalms and Proverbs. Everyone seemed receptive to the gift and it became part or our baggage as our group boarded a train for boot camp at Great Lakes, Michigan. Once at the camp we were shorn of hair and stripped of everything we had brought including the little bag of goodies. Our clothing and personal items would be boxed and shipped home but the bag contents were dumped on a pile on the floor and would be swept into a can for disposal. However, the man in charge said we could hold onto the little Gideon’s Bible. And so I did. This was the first Bible I can ever remember having or ever being near to. It seemed something special to me and I felt it would be awful to throw it away.

I didn’t like boot camp. Of course, nobody did. I ate every scrap of food they put in front of me and I believe I still lost thirty pounds. Staying awake for classes wasn’t easy and drill instructions with marching everywhere worked muscles I didn’t know I had. It seemed like the most important thing I would do as a sailor was fold my clothes and keep my locker neat. Sundays were different, no classes and time to relax. On Sunday we were assembled into denominational groups to attend church. The Jewish boys went wherever they went on Friday evening. I went with the other Catholics and attended Mass. At church I was handed a missal and realized I had never understood what a mass was. I began to pay attention and grasp what was happening. I gathered that the mass was a sacrifice of Jesus. Wow, did that ever surprise me. At about the third or fourth week I remember thinking that this sacrifice thing seemed ancient and somehow pagan with this fixation on blood. How could this stuff have survived into the modern age I was in? I was really “turned off” and wanted no part of these goings on. I took the remaining opportunities at church to get a little shut-eye.

The battery of tests we took at boot camp determined what jobs we were suitable for. I had mechanical ability and was offered two choices. I could go to the Construction Battalion School in Rhode Island or Submarine School in New London, Connecticut. When I heard Connecticut I wanted to get as close to home as possible and New London was my first choice. The petty officer all but begged me to choose the CB school instead but I was determined to be near home. Later I learned that many CB’s were being sent to Vietnam and the duty was in the war zone. Submarine duty was for volunteers only and that’s where they assigned me.

After Submarine School I was assigned to a nuclear Polaris missile submarine which had two crews. This was far from huddling in a school hallway. I was on the frontline. The sub would change hands between the gold crew and blue crew for three month periods. Rotation involved a one month intensive fix up of all the ships systems before a two month patrol thru unknown locations at sea. Upon return from sea the two crews would exchange information for four days before the returning crew started a thirty day rest and recreation period followed by two months of study of the ships systems and equipment. Since early school I enjoyed reading. By this time I was into historical novels and would always have books along for the voyage. I never let go of the little Gideon’s Bible, after all it was God’s book and that made it special. As a reader I was curious and maybe I could finally get to know about God. I can remember often opening the little Gideon’s Bible and trying to read it. Somehow I the only thing I could comprehend was that someone was dying and death was spoken of often. I didn’t get it. The ships library must have had a complete Bible including the Old Testament since I remember being fascinated by the title given to Jesus as the “Prince of Peace” in the book of Isaiah. Peace was a desire in that day which motivated many to attend so called “peace marches” aimed at ending the Vietnam conflict. I recall telling a shipmate about this as we were on station in the control room at the ships helm. He began to ridicule me, and as he did, so my interest in Jesus shriveled. I made five patrols on this boat and each seemed to last a lifetime.

For my final months in the Navy I was assigned to a submarine tender stationed on the Cooper River near Charlestown, South Carolina. My duty there was with the engineering gang repairing and monitoring the refrigeration and air conditioning. The pace was lax and interests and activities off duty were shameful to say the least. On one evening as a buddy of mine and I were hitchhiking back to the ship, a big flashy convertible stopped to give us a lift. Somehow the man driving turned the conversation to Jesus. At first I half listened but I really took notice as he invited us to a revival meeting. That sounded real interesting to me and I wanted to go but my friend talked me out of it and as the man dropped us off I had a feeling of missing something interesting. By this time, finding my role in history and serving my country wasn’t interesting to me. I had become self centered and the service seemed like a drag on my life. I could hardly wait to get out.

Within that year I was discharged and found myself working as a mechanic at a chemical factory. To this day I can’t remember what my job consisted of but I do remember the lunch breaks. A lad younger than me was constantly talking about Jesus and quoting from the Bible as we sat having lunch. I don’t remember the exact content of the discussions but I do remember that I sensed he was sincere and interesting. At that point I would agree that Jesus was a good man.

One night I was out with a friend and we met a group of student nurses. I had met one of them before and my friend knew some of the others. We spent time drinking, eating pizza and having laughs. One of them caught my eye and seemed very nice. We split into two groups and traveled to another night spot for some dancing. When the night was done I drove some, and the nice one named Mary Jane, back to their dormitory. As they left the car I asked Mary Jane if there was a phone here, to which she replied, “Of course there is, it’s a hospital.” And with that she turned and disappeared into the dorm. I guessed I didn’t get my interest across and didn’t count on seeing her again as I drove off.  But it didn’t happen that way. After Mary Jane got inside she realized I wanted her number and she had flubbed the exchange. A few weeks later I did get a number to call her at and soon we were dating. Her studies at the hospital ended and she began fulltime work there. I watched for an opening in the maintenance department and within months I also worked there. Falling in love was easy but getting married was a task. Neither of us was religious. As a child she too had attended Catholic Church but grew away from that. We figured on a wedding that would be a simple outdoor affair with a minister to officiate the God part. It was our wedding right? Do our own thing, right?  Not this time. Her mother insisted in the most emphatic terms that what we were doing wasn’t right and that it would be shameful to not marry in the Catholic Church. I remember telling her that it wasn’t like we were leaving God out; there would be a minister there. To which her soft spoken Dad replied, “Yes, you are.” He was right, the minister idea was a token thing and not sincere on our part. With the talk being so heated I pulled Mary Jane out of the house to cool down and collect our thoughts. Dad’s simple insight touched me deeply and I told Mary Jane that to keep peace in the family we should comply with Mom’s demands. She reluctantly agreed and from that day forward we were dear to both her folks.

In those days marriage in the Catholic Church involved premarital counseling. I felt I understood the seriousness of marriage and didn’t want the hurt that divorce causes everyone involved. Couples attended group meetings to talk about various issues and stimulate earnest commitment. Some of the things people said were quite comical but you didn’t dare laugh or show disinterest or you could be reprimanded by the attending priest. I really wanted our marriage to work but these classes just didn’t seem to be something we needed. The gist of what I recall is that we were to be good and faithful Catholics and bring Catholic babies into the world. Now that I thought I knew what it was to be Catholic, I was surely just going through the motions here. We married and moved ahead into our days without church.

Some shifts I worked at the hospital were of a standby sort. After a round of readings in the mechanical spaces you were pretty much on call in the event of an emergency somewhere. This left time to wander the building and from time to time I would stop in one or other waiting areas where there were stacks of magazines and often religious publications. Still an avid reader, I began to browse through material left by so called Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Science, Theosophy and others. Eventually I read them all and looked for the latest issues. I found that I would read what they said and then compare the Bible text references by reading from the little Gideon’s that had traveled with me since my entrance into the service. More often I found myself reading the New Testament and finding the words and ideas there interesting. I remember thinking that Christian Science would quote the bible and then proceed to tell you that it meant something other than what it said. I discounted it as misleading and false information about God. The Watchtower was more interesting but it too used the bible verses as a pretext. They were into selling themselves and I wasn’t buying it. At that time I encountered many Witnesses and had long discussions with them but they always seemed to be pointing to themselves. I never figured they were as perfect as they insisted. Sin was familiar to me, since in reading the little Bible I came to understand that I was a sinner before God. Some things I was doing was not good. I wasn’t too happy about that and having been married for a year I wasn’t too happy in that relationship either. I recall a discussion I had with a coworker at the hospital. He declared that all religion was the same and that Jesus was nothing special. He rejected the virgin birth of Jesus and I was at a loss since I had doubts as to what that meant myself. His disbelief challenged me and I wanted to show him scripture I had been reading that said differently. Instead of being discouraged about knowledge of Jesus I was inspired to study more. Quite the opposite of how I felt at being ridiculed while in the service years earlier.

I reached a point where nothing seemed to be right for me. I had expectations for my wife and she wasn’t meeting them. I was hurting and looking for God somewhere to help me. As a sinner my outlook was kind of bleak. One night I sat at a workbench in a penthouse mechanical room and as I was reading the New Testament I had a thought that unless Jesus really died for me it was useless to continue studying the bible. I put the book down and pondered that thought for quite some time. Jesus died for me ......Jesus died for me….Jesus died for me…………He died for me. I was reading it here in God’s book. He died for me.  It was true and I believed it. Jesus truly died for me. He paid for my sins. I believe it was here that I finally got to know God. He revealed to me that his son came into this world to die for my sins. I was extremely humbled and thankful to God that he showed this to me. Actually there were three things he made clear to me at that instant. It was unquestionably true that Jesus died for me. I should tell someone about this. And that I should love my wife as he has loved me, that is, unconditional love. You see, I was still a sinner. I was by no means perfect or holy as I was. He didn’t wait till I was good; he just made himself known to me.

Some days later a little voice popped into my brain saying, “I guess that means you believe in the virgin birth?” I thought for a moment and said, “Sure, why not. God can save me; he can do whatever he wants.” I now had faith in the Supreme Being and was confident in Him.

I told my wife what happened and she looked at me like I was nuts. At first I was probably repulsive in my efforts to see her get saved also. At one point she told me she was saved, just to shut me up. I took the hint. Showing her that unconditional love as I was instructed, involved a change of heart and behavior for me, but it did work though. About four years later she was in the same hospital delivering our firstborn son. Her room was no more that thirty feet from the location where I met God and was saved. As she was holding our son the truth of John 3:16 became very real to her. “’For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son. That whosever believeth in him, should not perish, but have everlasting life.” She called me to tell me what had happened and we were happily teary together over the phone.

So long ago I asked to know God and he answered me in his own good time. I rejected the need for a blood sacrifice and here I was accepting his Son’s death on my behalf. Seeds of the truth and the Gospel had been thrown at me over the years and I was deaf to his call and blind to his leadings. The Bible says, “Faith cometh by hearing and hearing by the word of God.” I’m an example of that truth. Since that time I have told what happened to me to numerous people. I had finally found my role in “His story.”

At that time, I didn’t know the term “born again” but that’s what happened to me then and there at the same hospital where my mother gave birth to me. That’s right; I was both born and born again at the same hospital.

I’m in a different branch of service now fully employed by another Jewish craftsman who bears the marks of mans hate. I’ve had many experiences in battle with both victories and defeats. It’s an honorable duty I cherish.

 

“He that hath the Son hath life.” 1 John 5:12