Touch Wood

(Told by Robert Brow at the Armistice Day parade of the Princess of Wales Regiment in St.. Paul's Church, Kingston, Ontario, November 2000)

During the war I spent five years (1942-47) in the army. I was called up in India seven days after my eighteenth birthday. When they registered my particulars they asked me what my religion was. I said "I am an atheist." The recruiting officer said there was no way I could be an atheist. "If you get killed who is going to bury you?" When I insisted I did not believe in God, they said "Put him down as an Anglican," and that's how I eventually came to be in this Anglican church for the parade this morning.

A year later I got urgent instructions to report immediately to be an instructor at the Small Arms School at Sagar in central India. The good news was that I would not be sent to the jungles of Burma, where several of my friends had already been killed by Japanese snipers. The bad news was that among other things I would have to teach grenade throwing.

In those days people going in to battle had to train with live grenades. You went down into a small concrete trench, and the fellow was usually shaking with terror. I had to get him to put his left finger in the ring pin. Then when I said "Prepare to throw" he had to pull the grenade away with his right hand. And make sure he held the handle down until I said "Throw." If he let go the handle, the grenade would go off in four seconds. If the grenade did not go off I had to crawl out, lay an explosive charge, and detonate it from the trench.

The worst part was when a soldier would drop the grenade, and I had to bend down, grab it, and throw it out before it went off. I was told that the instructor I had been sent to replace had a fellow who dropped the grenade and fell right on top of it. The instructor tried to pull the man off the grenade but it went off and killed the man. He himself was badly wounded with pieces of grenade in his arms and legs and the top of his head. That didn't help at all. I could picture the same thing happening to me with everyone of the men learning to throw grenades.

In those days I was an atheist. I believed in luck. When my luck held, and I was saved from getting killed, I would touch wood. I felt that if I didn't touch wood something terrible would happen to me. So whenever I was able to pick up a grenade that a man had dropped, and throw it out safely, I would get out of the trench, and solemnly wall across to the nearest tree and touch it. No one ever asked me why I did this.

When I was demobilized the government kindly paid for me to go to university. The first week a student came and asked me to a Christian meeting. I told him I was an atheist. But he said "You have come to this university to study the truth, and you ought at least to hear the other side." I told him I was too busy settling in, but he said "I can see you are too scared to come to a Christian meeting." I said "No, I'm not. I will be there." I wasn't particularly impressed with what was said or the Christian students who seemed like drips as they served coffee in tiny cups. But when I got back to my room I suddenly knew I was face to face with God, and I said "If you can do anything with me, please get on with it."

Next morning I went and bought a Bible, and began reading from Matthew's Gospel. A week or two later I was saved from a sailing accident, and I wanted to touch wood. But I realized I no longer believed in luck. I could now talk to a loving God. Why touch an inanimate piece of wood? And from that day I have never touched wood again.

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