PRISON TO PRAISE- BY: Merlin R. Catheters-1
PRISON TO PRAISE- BY: Merlin R. Catheters-1. This is the Testimony of Merlin R. Catheters. Prisoner- There was the touch of cold metal against my left wrist and the harsh voice in my ear: “This is the FBI. You are under arrest.” I’d been relaxing in the back seat of the car with my left arm hanging out the window. The car was stolen and I was AWOL from the Army. Being AWOL didn’t bother me. It was the getting caught that hurt my pride.
- How could I have been stupid enough to get into a mess like this?
- I’d been a pretty independent fellow from the time I was twelve.
- That’s when my father died suddenly, leaving my mother alone with three boys to raise.
- My brothers were seven and one, and Mother started taking in washing and went on relief to keep us alive.
- She always talked about Dad being in Heaven and how God would take care of us,
- But with the intensity of a twelve-year-old, I turned in fury against a God who could treat us that way.
- I delivered papers after school until long after dark each night, determined to make my way in life.
- I was going to make the most of it.
- And I felt I had it coming.
- I had a right to grab for all I could get.
Oh Lord, help me to strengthen my faith in you.
- When Mother remarried, I went to live with some of Dad’s old friends.
- I went to high school but never quit working.
- After school and all summer, I worked–as a food packer, shipping clerk, linotype operator, and one summer as a lumberjack in Pennsylvania.
- And I started college, but ran out of money and had to go to work.
- This time I got a job with B&W Steel as a steel chipper and grinder.
- Not a very pleasant job, but it kept me in top physical condition.
PRISON TO PRAISE- BY: Merlin R. Catheters-1
I never did want to join the Army.
- I wanted to go off to sea with the Merchant Marine.
- And I couldn’t think of a more glamorous way to get into action in World War II.
- To join the Merchant Marine I had to get reclassified 1-A with the draft board that had given me a deferment to go to college.
- Before I could make it back to the Merchant Marine, the Army inducted me.
- So, against all my efforts, I landed in basic training at Ft. McClellan, Alabama.
- I was bored to death.
- The training was a breeze, and looking for excitement,
- I volunteered for airborne training at Fort Benning, Georgia.
- I was thrilled when we got our first chance to jump from an airplane in flight.
PRISON TO PRAISE- BY: Merlin R. Catheters-1
This was living, the kind of excitement I was hungering for!
- I was a paratrooper and earned the honor of wearing glistening jump boots.
- Still, I wanted more excitement and volunteered for advanced training as a Demolition Expert.
- After demolition school, I returned to Fort Benning to wait for orders to go overseas.
- I pulled guard at the stockade, had KP, and waited some more.
PRISON TO PRAISE- BY: Merlin R. Catheters-1
Patience was not my strong point.
- At the rate the Army was moving, I figured I might miss out on the war altogether, scrubbing pots and pans till the war ended.
- I wasn’t going to sit around doing anything, and with a friend, I decided to go over the hill.
- We simply walked out of the camp one day, stole a car, and headed for anyplace.
- Just in case someone was looking for us,
- we dropped the first car and stole another, and finally ended up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
- There we ran out of spending money and decided to pull a stickup.
I had the gun and my friend waited in the car.
- We’d picked a store that looked like an easy job.
- I planned to pull the telephone wiring so they couldn’t call the police.
- Inside the store, I yanked on the telephone wire as hard as I could, but it wouldn’t budge.
PRISON TO PRAISE- BY: Merlin R. Catheters-1
I was frustrated.
- The gun was in my pocket, the cash register was full of money, but the line to the police was still there.
- I wasn’t about to invite disaster.
- So I went back to the car to tell my buddy, and we were just sitting there in the back seat, eating green apples and talking,
- when the long arm of the law finally caught up with us.
We didn’t know it,
- but a six-state alarm had gone out for us, and the FBI was hot on our heels.
- Our search for adventure had ended in a pretty sad flop.
- I was back in the stockade at Fort Benning where I’d been a guard only a few months earlier.
- I was sentenced to six months confinement and immediately started a campaign to get overseas.
- My fellow prisoners laughed and said, “You wouldn’t have gone AWOL if you wanted to go overseas.”
- I kept insisting I’d gone AWOL because I got bored waiting to be sent overseas.
PRISON TO PRAISE- BY: Merlin R. Catheters-1
At last, my pleas were heard.
- I was placed on overseas shipment and went under guard to Camp Kilmer, N.J.,
- where I was placed in the stockade to wait for our ship to Europe.
- At last, I was on my way. Almost, anyway.
- The night before our ship was due to sail I was called to the Commander’s office,
- where I learned that I wouldn’t be sailing with the rest of the men.
“The FBI wants you held and returned to Pittsburgh.”
- Once more I felt the cold steel of handcuffs, and under armed guard, I returned to Pittsburgh,
- where a stern judge read the charges and asked: “Guilty or not guilty; how do you plead?”
- “Guilty, Sir.” I had been caught red-handed and I determined it would be the last time.
- I would learn the tricks and play it safe from now on.
- The district attorney carefully explained my past life to the judge,
- who asked the investigating officers for their recommendation.
- “Your honor, we recommend leniency.”
- “What do you want, soldier?” the judge asked me.
“I want to go back in the Army and get into the war,”
- was all I could say.
- “I sentence you to five years in the Federal Penitentiary.”
- His words hit me like a load of bricks from the skies.
- I was nineteen and would be twenty-four when I got out.
- I saw my whole life go down the drain.
- “Your sentence is temporarily suspended and you will be returned to the Army.”
- Saved, thank heaven! In less than an hour, I was released.
- But first, the district attorney gave me a stern lecture and explained that if I left the Army in less than five years I should report back to his office.
Free at last!
- I headed back to Fort Dix, New Jersey, only to get another load of bricks on my head.
- At Fort Dix, they looked at my papers and sent me back to the stockade to serve out my six months’ sentence for going AWOL!
- At this point, I had only one thought in my head.
I wanted to get into the war or bust.
- Again I started my campaign to get on an overseas shipment.
- I pestered the command until finally when four months of my time was completed, I was released.
- Soon I was on my way across the Atlantic aboard Mauritania.
- We were piled six high in the hold, and I was lucky enough to get the top berth.
- That way I missed the shower of vomit those on the lower berths often received.
Not that I really would have cared.
- I was thrilled to be on my way and didn’t waste any time.
- I was out to get as much excitement and as much profit as possible out of the war effort.
- And I had developed one talent during my confinement that now came in handy.
- I had become quite adept at gambling, and the days and nights of our crossing were spent in this worthwhile endeavor.
I accumulated a nice little pile of money,
- and the only thing that reminded me of the circumstances of our voyage was a brief encounter with a German sub that tried to hit us and missed.
- And In England, we were put on trains that took us to the English Channel.
- There we boarded small boats and moved out into the choppy waters of the channel.
It rained cats and dogs,
- and on the French side, we had to jump into waist-high water and wade ashore.
- On the beach, we stood dripping wet in line waiting for cold C-rations.
- Then we rushed again for a train headed east.
- Without stopping, we crossed France and were transferred to trucks taking us into Belgium.
- We got there just in time for the Battle of the Bulge with the 82nd Airborne Division.
- On my first day in combat, the Commanding Officer saw my record as a Demolition Expert and put me to work making small bombs out of a pile of plastic explosives.
The pile was about three feet high,
- and I pulled up a log and went to work.
- Another soldier joined me, and I learned that he had been with the unit for many months.
- While he was telling me about his experiences with the 82nd Airborne, I looked across a field at incoming artillery exploding.
- The explosions came closer and closer to our position.
Out of the corner of my eye, I kept watching the other soldier,
- wondering when he’d give the signal to dive for cover.
- He had all the experience, and I was just a green replacement; I wasn’t going to chicken out.
- The explosions came nearer, and my fear mounted.
- If one of those rounds landed near us … the pile of bombs would make one giant crater.
- The other fellow sat there paying no attention to the artillery.
- I wanted desperately to dive for cover, but I wasn’t about to show myself a coward.
- At last, the explosions were on the other side of us.
They had missed!
- Two days later I discovered why the other soldier had played it so cool.
- The two of us were walking through a forest known to be heavily mined.
- I carefully examined the trail for any signs of booby traps, but the other fellow was paying no attention to where he was walking.
- I finally said: “Why aren’t you watching for mines?”
- And “I hope I step on one,” he said.
- And I’m sick and tired of this rotten mess.
I want to die.
- From that day I kept as much distance as possible between the two of us!
- Combat with the 82nd Airborne provided ample excitement.
- But some of the ugly experiences made further harsh impressions in my angry mind.
- At the close of the war, I went with the 508th Airborne Regiment to Frankfurt, Germany, where I was selected to serve as a guard for General of the Army, Dwight D. Eisenhower.
This was a proud moment in my life.
- I, Merlin Catheters, a personal guard for a five-star General!
- I would have liked to see more action, but the spoils of war weren’t so bad either.
- We lived in plush apartment buildings that had belonged to top German officials.
- The previous occupants must have had no more than five minutes’ notice before they departed.
- We found family picture albums, weapons, and even jewels.
- My off-duty time was spent searching for “treasure.”
In Frankfurt, I had plenty of free time.
- My idea of a good time usually involved a considerable amount of drinking.
- I often drank myself into a state of oblivion and other soldiers told me what pranks I had pulled in town the night before.
- I discovered that black marketing was a quicker and more reliable source of income than gambling.
- And, I bought cigarettes from other soldiers for ten dollars a carton.
- With a suitcase full, I went to the black-market area in town where I could sell the cartons for one hundred dollars apiece.
- The black market area was a frequent site of robberies, beatings, and murder, but I didn’t care.
I kept one hand on a loaded, cocked .45 in my pocket.
- Soon I had a suitcase full of ten dollar bills in military money known as scrip.
- The only problem was to find a way to get the money back to the United States.
- Tight control limited each soldier to sending home only the amount he was paid by the Army.
I stayed awake nights trying to figure a way to beat the system.
- At the post office, I watched the men line up to convert their monthly pay into money orders.
- Each man had to have his finance card, which listed the exact amount he had been paid.
- I observed one man with a pile of finance cards, a bag of money, and an armed guard.
- He was a company clerk and was getting money orders for his entire company.
- I suddenly realized that all I needed was a pile of finance cards!
- And I located the unit finance clerk and soon learned that he would be willing to provide me with the finance cards for five dollars apiece.
I was in business.
- I set myself up as the company clerk of my own private company.
- With the money and the finance cards, I went to the post office and had the money orders made out without a hitch!
- With this setup, I now found new ways to accumulate money.
- I learned that men coming from Berlin would give $1,000 in the script for a $100 money order.
- I gladly obliged and then converted the $900 into my own money order.
And I was on my way to becoming very rich!
- Then came exciting news. My time to return to the U.S. had arrived!
- I packed my suitcase full of $100 money orders and headed for the glorious shores of home.
- At Fort Dix, N.J., they tried to get all of us to sign up for the Army Reserves.
- The Sergeant giving the pitch said, “Everyone who wants to sign up for the Reserves steps up here, sign, and I’ll give you your discharge.
- If you don’t sign up now you will have to stay and hear a one-hour lecture on why you should sign up.”
- One hour longer in the Army?
No way, I thought.
- I stepped forward and signed their paper.
- That split-second decision affected the rest of my life.
- I received the long-coveted paper stating I was now a civilian.
- Free! I had no desire to ever see the inside of an Army post again.
- I had plenty of money, and life ahead looked rosy.
- There was a problem of converting my suitcase full of money orders into crisp, green bills.
- I couldn’t very well walk into the post office in my hometown, Elwood City, Pennsylvania, and dump the whole stack on the counter.
Finally, I thought of a solution.
- One by one I began to send the money orders to a post office in New York.
- Soon the money began filtering back.
- My experiences with the law so far had taught me that I had better get into a profession where I would be able to operate safely within every available loophole.
- I had always wanted to become a lawyer, so I began the necessary steps to enroll in law school in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
The Spiritual Message “PRISON TO PRAISE” BY: Merlin R. Catheters
Progress steps: Forgiveness of sins, salvation, child of God, Gift of Spirit
- Grandmother was a sweet old lady, and I thought a great deal of Grandfather, but going to visit them was still an ordeal I avoided whenever possible. They made me nervous.
- Grandmother always found an opportunity to talk about God.
- “I’m doing fine,” I’d say. “Don’t worry about me.”
- But she would insist: “You need to give your life to Jesus, Merlin.”
It bugged me more than I wanted to admit.
- I hated to hurt Grandmother’s feelings, but I didn’t have time for any of that religious stuff. I’d just begun to live!
- One Sunday evening shortly after I’d come back from Germany, I went to see Grandmother and Grandfather.
- I quickly realized I’d made a mistake.
- They were getting ready to go to church.
“Come with us, Merlin,” Grandmother said.
- “We haven’t seen you for so long; we’d love to have you come.” I squirmed in my chair.
- How could I tactfully get out of this one?
“I’d like to,” I said finally.
- “But some friends have already asked if they could come to pick me up.”
- Grandmother looked disappointed, and as soon as I could get to the phone I began calling everyone I knew.
- To my dismay, I couldn’t find anyone free to come to pick me up.
- It was getting close to church time, and I couldn’t say to my grandparents: “I just don’t want to go.”
- At the zero hours, I had no choice.
Off we went together.
- The church service was held in a barn, but everyone there seemed to be happy.
- Poor people, I thought, they don’t know anything about real life out there in the world, or they wouldn’t waste an evening in a barn.
- The singing began and I picked up a hymn book to follow the words.
- At least I had to look as if I was with it.
- Suddenly I heard a deep voice speak directly in my ear.
“What-what did you say?”
- I whirled around to find no one behind me.
- There was the voice again: “Tonight you must decide for Me.
- If you don’t, it will be too late.” I shook my head and said automatically: “Why?”
- “It just will be!”
- Was I losing my marbles? But the voice was real.
- It was God, and He knew me! In a flash, I suddenly saw it.
Why hadn’t I seen it before?
- God was real; He was the answer.
- In Him was everything I had ever searched for.
- “Yes, God,” I heard myself mutter.
- “I’ll do it; whatever You want.”
- The service went on, but I was in another world.
- This was crazy, but I knew God!
- Grandfather was deep in thought beside me.
- I didn’t know it then, but he told me about it later.
He was carrying on his own battle with God.
- For years he’d been smoking and chewing tobacco.
- Forty years of addiction to the weed had him hooked.
- Many a time he’d tried to quit, but had been seized with violent headaches and soon was back to chewing and smoking heavier than before.
- Now he was sitting next to me in the meeting making his own commitment.
- “God, if You’ll change Merlin, I’ll give up my chewing and smoking even if it kills me.”
- No wonder Grandfather nearly collapsed when I went forward at the end of the meeting to make public the decision I’d made during the singing!
- Years later I was at his bedside when his time came to die.
- He looked up at me and smiled. “Merlin,” he said, “I kept my promise to God.”
- That Sunday night I couldn’t wait to get home and read the Bible.
- I wanted to know God, and I read hungrily page after page.
I had a wonderful feeling of excitement inside.
- It was even better than jumping out of an airplane with a parachute.
- That night God had reached down inside me, and I was changed into a new being.
- I felt as if I was standing on the threshold of exciting adventures the likes of which I couldn’t even begin to imagine.
- The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was still alive;
- the God who parted the Red Sea and spoke through a burning bush and sent His Son to die on a cross-He was my Father too!
- I could suddenly understand what my earthly father had tried to tell me.
- When he was thirty-six years old he was confined to a bed for the first time in his life.
Three days later his heart stopped.
- The doctor was there with an injection, and my father’s heart began beating again.
- He opened his eyes and said: “That won’t be necessary, Doctor.
- I am going to leave now.” He raised himself in bed and looked around the room with a radiant glow on his face.
- “Look!” he said. “They are here to take me!”
With that, he lay back and was gone.
- My father had known Jesus as his personal friend and Savior.
- He had been ready to go.
- Now I felt ready too, but even as I voiced the thought to myself, I became aware of uneasiness, gnawing at the back of my mind.
What was wrong? Show me, God!
- Gradually the thought became clearer.
- The money!
- All that money.
- It wasn’t mine; I had to give it back!
- The decision made, I breathed a sigh of relief.
- I couldn’t wait to get rid of that money.
- It was like a sickness inside me, and I knew that feeling would be there until the money was gone.
- I told the post office, but they said it wasn’t any concern of theirs because I hadn’t stolen the money orders.
I could do with them as I liked.
- And I still had a whole bunch that I hadn’t cashed in yet,
- so I took the suitcase into the bathroom and began to flush piles of one hundred dollar money orders down the toilet.
- With each flush, I felt a mounting flood of joy inside.
- That still left me with the money I had already cashed.
- I wrote the U.S. Treasury Department and told them how I had acquired the money.
- They wrote back asking if I had any evidence of how I had gotten the money and the money orders.
- It was too late; the evidence was flushed down the drain!
- I told them I had no proof, just the money, and they advised me that all they could do was to accept the money into the Conscience Fund.
- Once again I was a poor man, but I would gladly have given away everything I owned for that new life and joy I felt within.
There was one more shadow of the past to be encountered.
- I returned to Pittsburgh and reported to the district attorney.
- Three years were remaining on my sentence, and I would now have to be on parole for these years.
- This meant regular reporting and supervision by a parole officer.
- The district attorney received me and asked a clerk to get my records.
- He glanced at them and looked surprised.
“Do you know what you have received?”
- I knew I’d received Jesus, but that could hardly have gotten into my record already.
- “No, sir.”
- “You have received a presidential pardon, signed by President Truman!”
- “A pardon?”
- “That means your record is completely clear.
- Just as if you had never gotten involved with the law.
- ” I wanted to shout for joy.
“Why did I get it?”
- The district attorney smiled.
- “It has something to do with your excellent combat record.”
- He explained that I was free to go and do anything I wanted to; my case was closed.
- “Thank You, Lord.”
- I was overwhelmed.
- Not only were my sins washed away and the case closed at Calvary,
- but God had given me a clean start in the eyes of the United States government as well.
But what was I going to do?
- My motives for becoming a lawyer had been questionable.
- It seemed clear that God did not want me in that profession.
- Soon the thought became very persistent.
- I was to become a minister! Me, in the pulpit?
The thought seemed preposterous.
- “You know me, Lord,” I argued.
- “I like excitement, adventure, even danger.
- I wouldn’t make a very good preacher.”
- But it seemed that God had His plans for me all set.
- I couldn’t sleep nights, and the longer I thought and prayed, the more exciting the whole idea became.
- If God could make a preacher out of an ex-jailbird, paratrooper, gambler, and black-marketeer,
- that would be a greater adventure into the unknown than anything I’d ever tried before.
- I enrolled in Marion College, a church-related school in Marion, Indiana, and I must have been the most excited student on campus.
To supplement my income from the GI bill, I worked six hours a day in a foundry.
- I wanted to get through school as fast as possible so I got special permission to take twenty-one hours rather than the maximum seventeen hours allowed per semester.
- I worked from 2:00 p.m. until 8:00 p.m., studied until 12:00 p.m., slept until 4:00 a.m., and then studied until 8:00 a.m. when it was time to go to school.
- One Sunday I got my first chance to preach in the local jail.
- I held onto the bars and begged the men to give their lives to Jesus.
- Every week prisoners knelt, holding on to the bars from the other side, and wept their way to faith in Jesus.
I went back to school floating on a cloud.
- Saturday nights were free, and I got a group of students together to hold outdoor services on the courthouse steps in the center of Marion.
- To our delight, people came forward to accept Jesus.
- After the service we walked up and down the streets, urging anyone who would listen to let Jesus come into their lives.
- I had never been so busy, yet I felt as if I couldn’t work hard enough for Jesus.
He had saved my life; the least I could do was give Him my time.
- I finished the four-year course in two-and-a-half years and enrolled at Asbury Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky.
- God provided me with a Methodist circuit of four churches where I served as a student pastor.
- Every week I drove the round trip of two hundred miles to serve my churches.
- For this, each of them gave me five dollars a week and I was able to eat bountifully each weekend.
- By squeezing everything I could into the schedule, I completed the three-year seminary in two years.
- At last, I had made it to my goal.
I was a minister!
- I had worked so long and so hard that I didn’t quite know how to stop.
- But this was it; this was what God had called me to do.
- I was sent to the Methodist church in Claypool, Indiana, for my first full-time assignment.
- I threw myself into the work with all the zeal I could muster, and slowly the three churches in the circuit began to grow.
- The offerings increased, the attendance grew and my salary went up.
- Young people accepted Jesus in growing numbers, and my flock accepted and loved me and put up with the blunders of a young minister.
Still, I felt a growing restlessness within me.
- There was a void, an emptiness, almost a boredom.
- Increasingly, my thoughts were drawn toward the Army chaplaincy.
- I knew the soldier, his thoughts, and his temptations.
- Did God want me to serve the men in uniform?
- I prayed about it.
- “I’ll go if You want me to go, Lord; I’ll stay if You want me to stay.” Gradually the pull toward the Army got stronger.
- In 1953 I volunteered for the chaplaincy and was accepted.
- It couldn’t have happened if I hadn’t received that presidential pardon.
- God had known and blessed me in this special way.
- After three months at chaplains’ school, I was sent to join the airborne troopers at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.