My father was born in 1899. My mother was born in 1900. She and my father were married in 1924. They had six sons, born between 1925 and 1943. I was number two. We were a close, poor, moral, non-religious family. Our parents had very strong convictions which they passed on to their sons in two different ways: teaching by our mother and requirements by our father. The result in us was a sense of superiority which today would be called “self-righteousness” or “holier than thou.” I did not know the terms, but certainly I thought I was better than other kids. I did not use bad language, profanity or slang. Neither did I smoke (everyone else did), drink, or run around. I did not think I was a “sinner.” I had reserved that word for the real bad guys. Because of this “goody-goody” reputation I got in several fist fights in the eighth grade and a final one in the eleventh grade. By my senior year in high school I became a little more accepting of my classmates.
World War II started for the US in the December of my freshman year in high school and ended in the August after my graduation in 1945. I had been very eager to enlist, so on May 7, 1945, I enlisted. It was the day Germany surrendered. I was not called to active duty until September of ’45. Japan had surrendered in August the same year. During my last year in high school my older brother Leonard had given me two books, one of which was titled Room to Swing a Cat. In one of the two books—I don’t remember which one stated that the Navy selected one hundred enlisted men from the fleet every year to attend the U.S. Naval Academy. I made up my mind to attend the NavalAcademy and this book told me how to get there.
While I was in boot camp I saw the notice for the Naval Academy Prep School (NAPS) and immediately applied. After an interview with a board of officers I was selected for NAPS. In January 1946 I arrived at Camp Peary, VA, a former Sea Bee training base. The school had been in session since the fall, so the group that arrived with me was behind. In the spring, 1,200 of us took the entrance exam; 330 of us passed. I barely passed. The NavalAcademy accepted all 330 of us with Secretary of the Navy and congressional and presidential appointments. I entered the NavalAcademy in June of ’46.
At CampPeary; I was not a happy camper. I was moral in one sense and insubordinate in another sense. I would argue disrespectfully with commissioned officers. I would jump chow lines with a friend. I did not have many friends. This was the reason I thought I was unhappy. My explanation to myself was that I did not have friends because I did not get drunk or “laid.” I was not willing to compromise my morals in order to have friends.
However, that was not the real reason.
Around January of ’46 I received a letter addressed to a Jim Wilson Seaman First Class, Radio Technician, Del Monte, California. I was puzzled since I had never been to California. It quickly became apparent that I did not know the correspondent- there must be another Jim Wilson. I do not remember the content of the letter other than that there were Bible quotations in the letter. This embarrassed me. I considered myself moral, but not religious. I sent it back to the originator with an apology for opening it. A few days or a few weeks later a sailor came into the barracks and asked for Jim Wilson. I identified myself. He then said that he was also Jim Wilson Seaman First Class, Radio Technician, and that he had just arrived from Del Monte, California. He had some of my mail. Of course we got to know each other.
I had a real problem with the friendship. Up until I met him I had compared myself with everyone I had ever met and came out on the best end of the comparison. This included my older brother and my father. I admired and respected them very much, their intelligence and integrity, but still I thought I was better. I really was self-righteous.
This other Jim Wilson had me beat. He was more moral and lived it with less effort. He had many friends. He seemed to be happy. He was a brain. He was an athlete. He came from a wealthy, sophisticated home. I felt inferior around him and thought that he was putting me down. He wasn’t, but I thought he was.
For two summers in high school I worked all night in the open air at the Omaha, Nebraska stockyard. I became fascinated with the stars and learned a little about them. So in order to be up on him in something I decided to spend an evening with him in the open naming the stars to him. He did not need to know their names, but my ego needed a boost, so I bragged.
In the middle of my teaching him he interrupted me. It went something like this:
Other Jim: “Jim, are you going to Heaven?” No one had ever asked me that before.
ME: “I don’t know. I will wait and find out.”
Other Jim: “What do you think about it?”
ME: “I think I will go to Heaven.”
Other Jim: “Why do you think so?”
I then told him how good I was and how bad I wasn’t. If I did not make it, Heaven was going to be thinly populated. I was not trying to be funny. He had asked a serious question and I had answered it seriously.
However, he laughed. I thought he was putting me down. I got angry and retorted that if he was so smart, did he know that he was going to Heaven?
Well, he replied that he did know that he was going to Heaven. He said it with such assurance I could not say that he did not know. I asked him how he knew. He told me of his experience with Christ. He also told me, as I remember, that salvation was not a product of being good or not being bad. It was a gift. He also told me that people who thought they would go to Heaven because of their good works would not get there because of their boasting. I had been boasting.
In the ensuing discussion I am sure Jim told me the good news of the deity of Jesus, His death for sinners, and His resurrection from the grave. I did not understand much of what he said. What I thought I understood, I rejected. I think I had fourteen reasons but I can only remember two. (I am writing this 59 years later.)
- I did not think I was a “sinner.” I had reserved that word for the real bad guys.
- If salvation was a gift then the real bad guys could get in just as quickly as a nice guy like me. That did not seem right to me.
Having voiced my rejection I was still intrigued with his life. I asked him where he got all this information. He told me it was in the New Testament. I found one, a pocket-sized King James Version. I began to read it diligently. It made no sense to me. I kept reading it. The war was over; Jim got out of the Navy and entered ColumbiaUniversity while I entered the NavalAcademy. Freshman year was like boot camp with a full academic schedule. I did not try to break rules but I did talk back to upperclassmen. The result was that I accumulated many demerits. I forget how many was the limit before a compulsory resignation from the Academy, but I was close to the limit.
In January of my Plebe year a classmate, Caryll Whipple, saw me with my New Testament. He invited me to a Bible study group. It seemed to me to be a means of understanding what I was reading. I told him that I wanted to attend. Then he told me it met at 0545 in the morning. Suddenly I did not want to attend. That was 30 minutes before reveille. When I gave excuses of not waking up he told me that he would wake me up.
The small group met in a janitor’s broom closet. In this group I met other men like the other Jim Wilson. One of them was Willard (Pete) Peterson 49. He had been a Christian about a year. This group met seven days a week. I went to it for the next 3 ½ years. Sometimes I would argue and sometimes I would try to fake being a Christian. In the meantime my moral will power was running out. I was a goody-goody to my classmates but this pre-reveille group knew I was not a Christian.
The year was finally over. I was in the first boat in the Plebe crew. So while the rest of the Brigade of Midshipmen went to Northern Europe on summer cruise I remained for the National crew races at the Poughkeepsie Regatta. When I finally caught up with the summer cruise fleet it was in Portsmouth, England. I was assigned to the USS Wisconsin, an Iowa class battleship. One of my classmates fixed me up with a blind date. The two girls were from Northern Ireland. They worked in the Hotel Russell laundry, Russell Square, London. Apparently my classmates’ plan (I just followed along. True, but dumb.) was to buy a bottle of wine and feed it to the girls while necking on a park bench in the square. I did not drink but I did help purchase the bottle. The girls got drunk. They did not get friendly drunk. They got nasty. I went back to the ship thanking God I hadn’t lost my virtue with these girls.
There was a daily Bible study at sea. It was on the 011 level (eleven decks above the main deck). I was gradually learning, from the Bible and experience, that I was a sinner.
Back at the Academy my youngster year, I was again attending the daily pre-reveille study and still not a Christian. In early October I turned 20 years old.
It was football season and Navy had a very small stadium. So home games with big time opponents were held in Baltimore. Two of my classmates fixed me and themselves up with a triple blind date that we were to meet on the 30 yard line after the game. (Navy only won two games during my four years there. This was not one of them.) During the game I realized I would be in trouble, morally, if I went on this blind date. I really do not remember whether I showed up and cancelled or just did not show up. In any case I found myself alone in Baltimore on a Saturday night. The section of Baltimore I was in was not very Christian in its entertainment. It may have been the Block. I remembered the Christians had something planned that they were going to but I had no idea where or what. I bought a newspaper and looked at church advertisements. There were many. One of them said Saturday night, corner of North Ave. and St. Paul. I got in a cab and went there. There were two churches on opposite corners. The BaptistChurch was locked and the Presbyterian Church was open. It looked like a few hundred people were there. It was a Youth for Christ meeting. I went up the balcony steps to look over the crowd. There were three midshipmen about five rows from the front. I went down the aisle to sit next to them. One of them was Pete Peterson. The other two were Jim Inskeep and John Bajus, all class of ’49. Pete was surprised to see me. The director of the meeting saw us four midshipmen sitting up front and thought we must be Christians. He came down to us and spoke to me and asked if we would like to testify of our faith in Christ. I replied that I had nothing to say. The other three agreed and went to the platform.
I listened to them tell their personal stories. I had a hard time believing them. I wanted to think that they were lying, that they were hypocrites, but I knew better. They lived the way they talked. There was a possibility that they were mistaken. If so they were happy mistaken men. As I said earlier I was not happy. I envied happy people. There was a third alternative, that what they were saying was true and right.
There was singing, which was impressive. Then the main speaker for the evening was introduced. He was a Filipino. His name was Gregorio Tingson. His text was the first few verses of Psalm 40. Here they are:
I waited patiently for the LORD;
he turned to me and heard my cry.
He lifted me out of the slimy pit,
out of the mud and mire;
he set my feet on a rock
and gave me a firm place to stand.
He put a new song in my mouth,
a hymn of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear
and put their trust in the LORD. (Psalm 40:1-3)
I remember, very well, verse 2: “He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and the mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand.”
After the meeting Pete took me into another room and introduced me to a saving relationship with God the Father through His Son Jesus. I was now ready. I knew now that I was a sinner and could not save myself. I called upon the Lord. I think that was October 18, 1947. Immediately I had joy and peace that I do not recall ever having had before.
I went back to the Academy that night with a desire to tell everyone of the good news of Jesus Christ. Upon reflection I realized that the Navy would think I was crazy and discharge me. My ambition to tell everyone was reduced to telling my roommate and classmates in my company. Then I realized that they already thought I was too religious (daily pre-reveille Bible study) and goody-goody (no profanity, no drinking). If I then told them that I had just been saved from my sins that would really confuse them. “What sins, Wilson? We’ve been trying to get you to sin all year!” I decided not to tell anyone.
In the meantime there were real changes in me that I could see but I did not think others could see.
- I had joy and peace.
- The Bible which I had not been able to understand suddenly made sense.
- I found I belonged with these pre-reveille fanatics.
- My conscience was clear.
- My conscience was more sensitive.
- I realized I really cared for my roommate (loved him in a Godly way).
Several weeks went by when my roommate, Dick Daykin, asked me what happened. I asked why he had asked. He told me that I had been pleasant for the last several weeks.
About forty some years later I stayed with him in his home in St. Louis. We went out for a prime rib dinner. He asked me to tell his wife what I had told him our youngster year at the NavalAcademy when we were 20-years-old. I am now 86-years-old. I now tell you what I told him those many years ago.