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Atheist Airforce Junior R.O.T.C.

As I went through puberty and genuine “young adulthood,” I was, in every possible respect, the consummate geek. As you may have gathered from my previous post, I was fairly introverted. Unlike a lot of kids, however, I wasn’t entirely frustrated by this.  My frustrations at feeling like an “outsider” were mostly spent before I reached my teens.

It was at this point that I really began to take stock of the world around me. Since the divorce had resulted in our moving out of our rather small hometown, I saw a few other places, and noticed just how many churches there were to be found. In some areas, it would literally be difficult to throw a rock without hitting a church of some kind. If memory serves, I mostly saw Baptist, Presbyterian, Lutheran and a few Methodist ones.

Of course, I hadn’t the faintest clue what the difference between them was. All I knew was that (in a bit of charmingly childish logic), of course we had been Baptists, since I remembered being baptized at around age seven. I had also been given my own copy of the Bible, and I was highly irritated that they managed to misspell my name. I peered through it, though not with any real dedication, as I was never a particularly devout believer at the best of times.  I do recall that I was impressed by how thin the paper was, along with the gold leaf along the edge of the pages. It “looked neat,” but since it had my name wrong, I was never happy to carry it with me. That spelling error may, in fact, have been one of the factors that led to my departure from the church.

Even now, I have only a vague idea of the difference between most Protestant denominations.  That’s not an invitation for anyone to enlighten me, either. Expressing the degree to which I’m not interested would necessitate the use of scientific notation and possibly quadratic equations.

In my teenage years, I never made a particular point of wearing my atheism on my sleeve,  but I wasn’t “in hiding” about it, either… perhaps because I’m stubborn by nature, or perhaps because I like getting into arguments. My wife suspects the latter. Even so, it had never been a particular issue, until 1989, when I was in 9th grade and elected to join my school’s Air Force Junior R.O.T.C.

For anyone who is not in America and/or not familiar with the concept, R.O.T.C. is an elective class, where you basically get a semester’s worth of military-style education and some training. On Wednesdays, we were expected to wear our uniforms for inspection, follow military protocol, that sort of thing. At the beginning of each day of class, the entire school was led in the Pledge of Allegiance… the post-McCarthy version, which most Americans know, with the cadence as follows:

I pledge allegiance
to the flag
of the United States of America,
and to the Republic
for which it stands,
One nation,
under God,
with liberty
and justice for all.

I thought nothing of it; indeed, the idea of it being an issue hadn’t even occurred to me until that day. I had not stood for the Pledge for a while, because I didn’t agree with “under God.” Well, surely enough, the fact that I’d remained seated while in the R.O.T.C. uniform quickly got back to the Colonel, who contacted me and told me to come see him. Well, there was no mistaking what this was about.

Would that I’d had the sheer strength of will to have handled it a little better than I did.

When I got to his office, I was already a bundle of frayed nerves. What else would I be? I was a 15-year-old kid. I wasn’t out to make a statement. I just didn’t want to stand up (physically or metaphorically) for something I didn’t believe in. The R.O.T.C. Colonel, to his credit, didn’t yell at me or lecture me. He just told me what he’d heard (that I wouldn’t stand for the Pledge), asked if it was true (“Yes, sir.”), and asked for me to explain my reasons why. It was during this explanation that my nerves finally got the better of me, and I began to break down in tears. I have still yet to truly forgive myself for this particular weakness.

The Colonel had that effect on people, it seemed… or at least, the kids in his classes.

But I told him that I did not stand because I did not believe in God.  To my credit, I did not lie or try to worm my way out of it. He said that it was my right to believe as I wished, but when I was in uniform, a certain standard of behavior was expected. He offered a compromise: that I should stand and hold my hand over my heart, but I need not say the words.

Presumably, he meant only the two words which offended my sensibilities… but what with me being the person I am, I chose to interpret it as not speaking the Pledge at all. I did, however, go through the motions of mouthing the words, primarily because I didn’t want to deal with the hassle. I was enough of a pariah in school as it was.

It is only with the benefit of hindsight that I realize that I stood on the threshold of what might have been a landmark trial. If I had fought to uphold my stance, I do not know if my family would have stood behind me. Well, I know my mother would not have. My father might. My sister? Doubtful. I might have undergone precisely the same sort of treatment that the now-famous Damon did, so recently.

I almost wish I had.

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