Story Submitted By: Charlie Morris
Clutching the Cross
Gary Heeter of Fritch, Texas is a proud American. He served his country in Vietnam, carrying his gun and walking across the enemy’s territory. Inside his shirt hung a necklace with Jesus on the cross. He had purchased the necklace from a Vietnamese child, one of the many who hung out around Army bases. It was pink and plastic more of a trinket then a religious object. But out of the goodness of his heart, Gary bought it and made the kid smile. “Just a lillie necklace I thought. Sure I’ll buy one it’s just 50 cents. I wore it all the time and thought little of it,” Gary said.
Gary says that when you go off to war you pray a lot when you’re being shot at especially at night. You pray with one eye open, you know they may be sneaking up on you. You experience fear all the time and you never get used to it. You pray for deliverance from the great evil that you are engulfed in. Sometimes you are too scared and too engaged in combat to consciously pray. That cheap little plastic cross around his neck was a constant prayer, a constant plea to God for His mercy even when Gary was too busy being a soldier to consciously pray.
Gary’s last day in Vietnam was just that sort of a harrowing firefight. His company (Co.B, 4th Bat., 9th Infantry Div. Manchu)) was under attack by invisible snipers who were picking off GI’s left and right. In desperation, the Captain ordered his men to run through a mine-infested area to get away from the attackers. Gary was carrying the backpack radio and had to stay close to the Captain. As his heavy booted foot fell taking his last step in Vietnam, he heard the click. Gary knew he had stepped on a mine. “I had stepped on mines before, but l was going so fast I couldn’t stop,” he recalled. “I was carrying my gun when the world went blank, and then I had the cross in my hand. I don’t know how I grabbed it so fast.”
It was a “Bouncing Betty” mine and the radio pack absorbed the shrapnel that would have killed him. He was grievously wounded and close to death. Gary spent 36 hours in surgery …with the cross still in his hand. The doctor could not get him to let go of it until after the anesthesia took full effect. After the surgery was complete, the doctor hung the cross over Gary’s bed. It was the first thing he saw when he woke up. “I think that’s why I like to make crosses so much,” Gary says.
Gary makes crosses out of wood and gives them to children. He also makes “remembrance crosses” for the families of folks who have lost a loved one. Gary makes big crosses and little crosses, fancy crosses and plain crosses. He crafts them in his shop and sands them and varnishes them. And then be gives them away to any and all. Each cross that he makes is a continuation of that silent and constant prayer that he started all those years ago when with 50 cents he put a smile on a little Vietnamese boy’s face and a cheap little plastic cross around his own neck. Gary Heeter dearly knows the value of a cross, no matter what it is made of. After all, that cheap little plastic one saved his life.