Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Floods, Fire, and Footsteps

Today, as I reflect on all that I am thankful for, my thoughts turn to other Thanksgiving Days, such as the one in 1964 when, as a sophomore in college, I told my family about the young man who would become my husband. My grandparents were interim pastors in Valdez, Alaska, because the pastor there had been killed in the devastating Good Friday Earthquake that spring. That Thanksgiving, my family drove hundreds of miles from Seward, and I caught a ride with friends from college to spend the holiday with them in Valdez.

I met Bob Conti at an Intervarsity Christian Fellowship prayer meeting my first week at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where I had transferred my sophomore year after the Earthquake that spring. Next, I noticed him in my psychology class, and then that he sang bass in the Choir of the North, in which I sang soprano. He stood right behind me on the risers when the choir performed. We became friends.

Our first date was November 20, 1964, the week before Thanksgiving that year. When I read my Daily Light on the Daily Path, before I went to bed that night, these verses jumped out at me: "When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overthrow thee; when thou walkest through the fire thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flames kindle upon thee, for I am the Lord thy God, the Holy One of Israel, thy Saviour--I will bring the blind by a way that they knew not: I will lead them in paths that they have not known: I will make darkness light before them, and crooked things straight. These things will I do unto them, and not forsake them" (Isaiah 43:2-3; 42:16, KJV). I underlined them that night.

On June 10, 1967, three weeks after we graduated from the University of Alaska, Bob and I were married in Valdez, the first wedding in the new town built after the earthquake. My parents had become the pastors the Assemblies of God church there, and my dad and grandfather performed our ceremony. We drove 500 miles from Fairbanks to Valdez for the weekend. After the ceremony and brief reception, we drove another 500 miles back to Fairbanks, so we could return to our jobs on Monday. I slept the whole way home, waking only when Bob pulled over to walk around because he was getting drowsy.

Back in Fairbanks, our working schedules were crazy that summer. I worked at the Alaska Purchase Centennial Exposition from 2 p.m. until midnight. Bob worked for the Alaska Highway Department from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Not a great schedule for anyone, let alone newly weds!

July 1st, at about nine o'clock in the morning, Fairbanks was jolted by an earthquake registering 7.0 on the Richter scale. When it hit, I was still asleep, but Bob was already on the job. The violent shaking and the crash of something falling on the roof above my head awakened me. Adrenalin pumping, I hopped up and staggered to the front doorway, the best place to stand during an earthquake, and hung on. The telephone poles were jumping and lines were snapping up and down like cowboys' whips. When it subsided, I went to investigate and discovered that the chimney on our tiny rental cottage had fallen down on our roof.

That summer, we had record rainfall in Fairbanks. And it was chillier than usual. With no chimney, we couldn't use the furnace. The first week of August, the landlord built a beautiful cement block chimney. At last, we had heat. Then it began to rain again--almost nonstop for a week. The Chena River runs through Fairbanks, and one night reports came that it would crest well over flood stage. Everyone stayed tuned in to their radios. We weren't too worried since our place was sixteen blocks from the river.

About midnight, we heard that many basements had been collapsing due to the extreme pressure from the ground water. Our basement had a dirt floor and board walls. The furnace was there, and we had stored boxes of school books, wedding gifts that didn't fit in the tiny living quarters, and winter clothes, shoes, etc. We decided it was time to empty the basement. Bob had no sooner carried up the last box than two cellar walls collapsed, and filthy brown water rushed in with a tremendous whoosh! Our cottage teetered over a huge water-filled mud hole.

Outside, muddy water surrounded our house. We piled everything except two large boxes on top of our bed, chairs, and couch. In back of our house was a small boat dealership. Bob waded over and broke out a skiff. But we had no oars, so we used the leaf from our Formica kitchen table. We packed a few toiletries, our Bibles, and our wedding book into Bob's backpack and climbed into the boat, along with a few neighbors, to "row" to a nearby hotel, where the radio announced that buses were picking up survivors to take them to the high school.

A gray dawn was breaking as we paddled away at four a.m. Tears filled my eyes. Bob said, "Don't cry! We still have each other and the Lord. That's all we really need, isn't it?"

From the hotel, a bus drove us through flooded streets to Lathrop High School, where Bob had attended for ninth and tenth grades. We spent a week there sleeping on the tile floor at least thirty to a room, side by side, head to toe, without bedding of any kind. When the waters had receded sufficiently, we trudged back to the house. The flood had opened up huge craters in our tiny street. If we had not used a skiff to evacuate, we could have fallen in one and drowned.

Inside the house, mud caked everything up to nine inches above a the floor. Cold and damp, with no water, sewer, or heat, and the house teetering over a basement full of filthy water, we knew we couldn't live in it. But the new chimney still stood tall!

Parked next to the house on slightly higher ground, our 1960 Chevrolet Impala had stayed dry inside, although the engine had probably been flooded. Bob let it dry out, then tried to start it. It roared to life! Bob still had work, but the Centennial Exposition on the river had been inundated so my job was gone. We decided to load everything into the car and drive to Valdez (it took two trips) to stay with my folks until Bob's orders to active duty in the Army came through.

There, we lived in the missionary apartment above the old church and had a wonderful three-week honeymoon. We fished for silver salmon, stocking my folks' freezer for the winter, and explored one of the most scenic places in the world--Bridal Veil Falls, Thompson Pass, Worthington Glacier, and the Gulkana River Gorge along the Richardson Highway north of Valdez.

We had passed through the waters (a record-breaking flood of the Chena River), and God had not allowed us to be overthrown by the flood. In fact, He added unexpected blessings. I have written previously of how Bob was under fire in Vietnam and God brought him through that year unscathed. God has led us step by step through paths we could not have imagined on that first date in 1964. We have much to be thankful for!

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Real Enemy

My husband, Bob, intended to make being an Army officer his career. As an infantry battalion intelligence officer in Vietnam, he came to an understanding of the universal nature of sin.

Part of his job there included searching the bodies of enemy soldiers killed in battle to determine from their personal effects where they had come from. On one body, Bob found a notebook full of detailed drawings of the human anatomy along with a letter. After studying the notebook, the battalion surgeon said it appeared that the dead man had wanted to be an obstetrician. The battalion interpreter determined that the letter was addressed to the young man's fiancee. He wrote of his desire to get married after the war and go to Paris to study medicine.

But the young man who only wanted to bring life into the world was dead. And the intelligence that Bob had gathered had led to this man's death. Neither had wanted to kill anyone. Until then, Bob had thought of sin in terms of the wrongs a person committed personally, such as breaking one of the Ten Commandments. He had believed that being an Army officer and ridding the world of Communism was the best thing he could do to bring peace to this world. In Vietnam, he began to realize that sin, not Communism, was the real enemy.

During his next assignment at a small Army detachment in Rhode Island, Bob became very involved in a home missions church in Providence. In our two years there, the church grew from about two dozen to two hundred as the Jesus Revolution brought many hippies in off the streets in a sovereign move of God. After six years in the Army, Bob was transferred to Arizona for the Intelligence career course. By then, he knew that God was calling us into the ministry. He realized that if every Communist dropped dead tonight, tomorrow the world wouldn't be any different, because sin would still be present. Even if the whole world were a democracy, it would still be dominated by the enemy, sin.

Bob knew that leaving the Army would be difficult. As a regular Army officer, he couldn't get out during wartime, and the Vietnam War was still raging. On the other hand, they couldn't boot a regular officer out just because it was peace time. In spite of that, when he arrived at the career course, he went in to see the commanding officer to start the process. His answer? "Impossible! You can't do that now! You owe the Army a year just for moving you here. If you take the career course, you'll owe us even more. You've been consistently promoted ahead of schedule. Why would you want to get out?”

“Because God has called me to the ministry,” Bob said.

"You might have to wait a couple of years,” his commander said, and he wouldn't do anything to help Bob.

Finally, Bob called the Pentagon and spoke to a major. After a string of cuss words, the major asked, “Why do you want to do this?”

Bob said, “I love the Army, but God has called me to be a minister.” He thought the major would really let him have it, but the major suddenly changed his tune. “Oh! In that case, just fill out these papers and send them directly to me. I’ll hand carry them around to the committee members and get your request approved.”

Within three weeks, Bob received approval to get out of the Army on the exact date he requested so we could move to Springfield, Missouri, in time for him to start the second semester at Central Bible College. Because nothing happens in the military in less than ninety days, we knew for certain that God was leading us.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

A Vietnam Veteran's Memories

On June 9, 1969, the day before our second wedding anniversary, my husband took off from the airport in Anchorage, Alaska, and headed for Vietnam. At midnight, he crossed the International Dateline and totally missed our anniversary that year. So I have celebrated one more anniversary than he has! 

As an infantry officer, he was assigned to the 82nd Airborne. In that assignment, Bob was involved in something called “fireflies”--night operations with helicopters. One large helicopter was equipped with a big searchlight made of large aircraft landing lights. A couple of other helicopters carried rockets and bombs. The operations helicopter would fly high above while the others flew near the ground. At night they'd fly in the dark with no lights until they were over their target. Then, the top helicopter would switch on the lights, which made it an easy target for the enemy, while the other two would fly in from the left and the right, crisscrossing under the operations helicopter, firing rockets and dropping bombs. It was hazardous. Some of his friends cracked up doing the same thing and died.  

Bob says, "Every night I’d have to wait for a helicopter to come to the fire base to pick me up. The waiting was the worst part. I began to understand fear. I’m not talking about just being scared. I mean a fear that gnaws at you and tugs at your nerves. The fireflies took place about one or two a.m. I used to wonder if I’d see the sun come up in the morning. Once, we got caught in a monsoon rainstorm and couldn't see in any direction. I really learned about fear that time. During those months, I began to draw closer to the Lord. That well-known hymn, “It Is Well with My Soul,” often came into my heart and mind. I kept thinking that no matter what happened, with Jesus, it is well with my soul. I can handle it. I did. And I made it through.

"One time, as my unit was being relieved by another unit at a fire base, I got into the command chopper with my pilot, and we lifted off. Immediately, the command chopper of the next battalion landed. Other choppers were coming in behind him. Suddenly, Viet Cong soldiers sprang up out of the grass right next to the landing area and fired away, killing their S3 officer and severely wounding the others. The VC had infiltrated during the change over and were already in place when I jogged to my chopper. The man sitting in the same position in that helicopter that I sat in on my chopper had his arm and leg shot off. I thank God that He protected me on that occasion. I didn’t even get a scratch."

The 82nd Airborne went home after six months, and Bob had six more to go, so he was assigned as an intelligence officer, S2, on an advisory team to a Vietnamese unit in Tay Ninh Province. "We had to ride in helicopters a lot. I made it a practice not to fly unless my job required it. Two weeks before I came home, my best friend, Major Barton, the S3 officer on the advisory team, invited me to fly along with him to visit the province chief that Sunday morning. It was a beautiful day, but I said no. I wanted to go to church and then write letters to my wife. That day his helicopter crashed, and all on board were killed."

At the end of the longest year of our lives, Bob returned home on Memorial Day, 1970. Although he suffers from the effects of exposure to Agent Orange, I am especially thankful every Veteran's Day that my husband came home from Vietnam unharmed.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Search

After the Good Friday earthquake that devastated South Central Alaska, I used my "earthquake relatedness" scholarship from the Ford Foundation ( see previous post, "In a Matter of Minutes") to enroll at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. The first week of classes, I attended an Intervarsity Christian Fellowship meeting. There, I met the man who would become my husband three years later.

Bob had come to Alaska in 1959 with his father, a colonel in the United States Air Force, assigned to Eielson Air Force Base, near Fairbanks, as the base engineer. When Bob graduated from high school, his parents were transferred, but Bob stayed in Alaska to attend the university.

Bob's family did not go to church. When Bob was eight years old, his father was stationed in Greece for three years, and the family accompanied him. Another American wife who lived nearby often visited the Conti family. "I haven't been to church in years," she often lamented. "God must hate me!"

Overhearing her, young Bob thought, "I've never even gone to church. God must really hate me."

Early one Sunday morning Bob climbed a tree near their house on the road just outside of Athens. A unit of Greek soldiers often marched by on their way to the Greek Orthodox Church nearby. Lustily, they sang hymns as they marched. Hearing them, eight-year-old Bob felt very guilty because he never went to church.

As he sat in that tree, a warm Presence suddenly enveloped him, as though God had put His loving arms around him. "It's all right, Bobby. I love you, " He seemed to say. And thus began Bob's search for God.

The first thing Bob did was to go to the Orthodox Church. He opened the door and peeked in. The two-dimensional icons frightened him. Then a priest with an upside-down stovepipe hat chased him away. Bob quickly decided that he would wait until the family returned to the States to look for a church.

Bob was eleven years old when they returned to America. That's when he learned that as a baby he had been baptized a Roman Catholic. A school friend took him to church and introduced him to the priest, who enrolled him in special catechism classes to prepare him for confirmation.

Bob faithfully followed the teachings of the Catholic Church. When the priest discovered Bob had an excellent singing voice, he enlisted him to sing the responses in the Mass. But Bob's favorite part of the Mass was the reading from the Gospels. At the base chapel at Eielson, the chaplain-priest gave Bob a copy of God's Word for Modern Man. He loved reading the stories about Jesus, but soon he had many questions.

"Just trust the teachings of the Church," the priest told him. "The layman can't understand the Bible."

But that didn't satisfy Bob. When he graduated from high school, he left the Catholic Church. Working as a surveyor for the State of Alaska Highway Department, he spent his free time out in the woods by himself, singing all the music he had learned in the Mass and praying, longing to know God.

That fall at the university he met a Christian girl who invited him to church. That evening, a visiting evangelist spoke on Jesus' words in John 10:9, "I am the door. If any one enters by Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture." Bob realized he'd found what he'd been searching for. That night, he walked through that Door.

*This story is an excerpt from my nonfiction book, Frontiers of Faith, available on www.Amazon.com or from www.AuthorHouse.com. For more information, see my website, www.AnnaLeeConti.com.