|The war is over!
It was August 1945, and I was aboard an assault transport in the China Seas, preparing for the invasion of Japan. There were no bells or whistles. Just the announcement to the 2,000 men aboard ship that Japan had agreed to surrender.
Suddenly, the thought of going home, of being with friends and family, of being free, of just finding a nest where I could pick up the pieces of my life, which I had left four years prior, consumed me!
It was six months before world events permitted me to give my last salute and to greet the familiar hills of home in Wisconsin.
But, oh, how quickly my hopes and dreams were again shattered. My mother had died. My father had remarried. Strangers were now living in my home, and so many friends were lost forever to the tragedy of war.
Lonely and exhausted, I could not “find” myself. I suffered from what the doctor called “war fatigue.” I prayed for guidance and help. My first decision was to enter seminary in preparation for the Christian ministry, a step I had planned since my early teenage years. It was very important for me to go to a place far removed from the loneliness I was experiencing. It must be a place where I could find myself.
I was led to Princeton Seminary. I arrived on campus one late afternoon to be greeted by a quiet and calm that was far removed from the trains, cars, traffic, and talk that seemed to engulf me. As I unpacked my things, I heard organ music coming from the chapel, a simple New England-style white building across the campus. The organist was preparing for evening worship. Within hours, I felt at home. There was a spirit, a feeling of peace and rest and comfort.
Princeton as a community has a long history of participation in the founding of this country. I discovered that the city fathers had determined early that no highway or railroad would pass through the town. That made it a walking community. It was then, and still is, a town of land and trees and lovely colonial homes. There was a serenity everywhere that fed my need.
As I wandered the campuses of the Seminary and the adjourning university, I felt a sense of history. George Washington had camped there with his Revolutionary War troops. John Witherspoon, the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence, was the first pastor of the Presbyterian church located in the center of town. A walk through the community was a walk through American history.
That first night, as I sat in Miller Chapel, I knew that I was in the right place. I wept when the worship service began. There were 419 male students present. When they sang "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God," I knew I was home!
And home in more ways than I had first realized. I discovered that many of my forebears had lived in Princeton. Aaron Burr Sr. was the first president of the university. Aaron Burr Jr. was the vice president of the United States, and after his death he was buried at the foot of his father’s grave in the beautiful Princeton Cemetery. (Until two years ago, the grave of Aaron Burr Jr. was the most visited and photographed in Princeton Cemetery. That has changed. The cemetery now has a small sign directing visitors to the graves of Mr. and Mrs. Menendez, parents of the infamous Menendez brothers.)
Probably my most memorable moment in Princeton was my class’s Commencement. The service was held in the university chapel, a magnificent cathedral that hovers over both town and campus.
My father, a reserved, private, imperial sort of man who believed it was weakness to show emotion, was present. As my classmates entered in robes with scarlet hoods (the academic color for theology), marching through the nave of that magnificent building, I saw my father weeping for the first time. He was embarrassed to be wiping his eyes, but I knew that he had discovered something in his heart, and I knew that I had found myself at last.
When I visit Princeton, or think of it, my inner being sings the words of Tannhauser in Wagner’s great opera of the same name:
Once more dear home,
I with rapture behold thee,
And greet the fields that
So sweetly enfold thee.