Harry Taylor — Contributing Writer
Jon Houglum is a genial man who speaks easily and transparently about his life and the winding pathway that brought him to Macon County a number of year
s ago. He is a Vietnam War veteran, an accomplished oil painter and art teacher and a man on a journey of faith. His life arouses a vision of a fine tapestry that could only be woven by God. All these parts inextricably define the man that has evolved during the past half century.
That being said, the best place to begin his story is at his birth. Born in northern Minnesota, he came into this world with his own set of problems. As a child, he was physically small and had weak lungs, which hospitalized him with pneumonia 11 times by the time he was 11 years old. He also was born with, in his own words, “what today is referred to as a learning disability, but 60 years ago all the evidence everyone could shovel at him was that he was dumb.” He was constantly reminded that he was the dumb kid in his family, the dumb kid in his class, and the dumb kid in the school. Through all this he held to his God–given talent of art to sustain him. His painting and his art at this time in his life gave his life meaning and self-worth.
When he was 12 years old, his parents were going through a divorce with all the accompanying turmoil and bitterness. His mother got custody of the children and he did not get along with his mother. He was filled with anger and frustration that was acted out, not only at home but also at school. The pastor at the local Lutheran Church knew the situation and arranged for the church to pay for Houglum and his sister to attend Camp Emmaus during the summer school break.
The siblings arrived at the camp on a Sunday. At the Sunday night meeting, a young student from the Lutheran Seminary in Chicago was introduced to the attendees. He was Matthew Momuya from Tanganyika. He was the son of a tribal chief in Tanganyika who had converted to Christianity. When he converted, he lost his family, his status and his tribe. The seminary sent him to be on staff at the camp and his job was to go about doing whatever he was called to do.
On Tuesday evening, just before supper, Houglum, depressed and miserable, wandered off to a dock at the lake in order to have some solitude. While sitting at the end of the dock watching the fish swim around heard footsteps approaching. (The last thing he wanted was company.) When he looked up, he saw Momuya standing just behind. Momuya was one of the first black people Houglum had ever seen, but he somehow sensed that God had sent him there.
Momuya sat beside him, put an arm around him and said, “Jesus told me to come and sit with you. What’s troubling you, my son?” At that point, Houglum fell apart, weeping and sobbing as Momuya sat there holding him until his emotional eruption subsided. Then he spoke the words that Houglum says were the “first time he had heard the voice of God.” Those simple words sustained him for years to come. Although they did not keep him from being angry, he knew that something of eternal value had begun at the end of that dock. Yet, he did walk through some 20 years that he characterized himself as a “prodigal.”
Houglum graduated from high school in the spring of 1966. Fulfilling the expectations of those around him, he did graduate near the bottom of his class. By this time, the Vietnam War was being waged in full force and he elected to enlist in the United States Army. He was inducted into the Army in September 1966. He had enlisted in aircraft maintenance and assigned to the 365th Aviation Support Detachment. Here he found out that aircraft maintenance was (as he put it) “just a fancy name for a door gunner on a Huey helicopter.
After graduating from basic training at Fort Lewis, Wash., in December 1966, he was transferred to Fort Rucker, Ala., for Advanced Individual Training (AIT) training. At the end of his AIT at Fort Rucker, he was called into the detachment commander’s office and offered the opportunity to train for the Army Air Traffic Control. This offer was based on his test scores and placed him in the 96th percentile. His first response to the Major was, “there’s got to be a mistake,” but this time it was not a mistake. He did share that this event was the first time in his young life he realized that he might be at least an average learner. This one event was the defining moment that changed the course of his life.
He then moved to Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss., for Air Traffic Control School. After the five month course there, he returned to Fort Rucker. He spent six months there working as a tower operator for stage fields training. The stage fields offered training for warrant officer chopper pilot’s school.
January 1968 found him in Fort Benning, Ga., as part of the eight air traffic control detachments being prepared and grouped for deployment in Vietnam. In April, the eight detachments and all their gear boarded ship for Vietnam. They were to travel on a World War II troop ship called the USS Barrett. This was the last voyage for the USS Barrett before it was scrapped.
When leaving Oakland, Calif., as they were sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge, a group of anti-war protesters dumped barrels of rotten garbage down on their ship. That was their departure party as the left the United States. More than a few of the military men there would still like to have a conversation with them.
Three days out in the Pacific Ocean, ship and crew sailed into a violent storm that lasted for three days. Houglum recalled that some of the ocean swells were 40 feet or more, causing mass sea sickness amongst the soldiers. The onset of the storm happened about 30 minutes into the supper routine. They were having tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. Needless to say, tomato soup was all over the floors, causing a scene one might expect to see on The Three Stooges. Men were slipping and sliding. One fell into a wall. Their diet for the next three days consisted of apples and other fruit because it was impossible to cook.
The ship docked at Vung Tau Harbor in the late afternoon of April 21. After some discussion, the decision was made to disembark the following morning rather than that evening. So the USS Barrett backed out of the harbor to a location about three miles offshore. That night the harbor sustained a rocket attack by the Viet Cong. The crew watched the attack from the deck of the ship.
As they disembarked the next day, the crew witnessed the area ravaged by the rocket attack. The attack had come on the very ground where they would have slept had they left the ship the night before. Houglum said he saw a 10-ton forklift that had taken a direct rocket hit and was totally obliterated.
Houglum’s deployment destination was Long Thanh Airfield. In his words, “it was a good place, and a good job.” Yet, it was here that he saw some of the worst carnage of his tour of duty. Long Thanh was a regular target for rocket and mortar attacks.
A Buddhist orphanage was located about two miles from the perimeter of Long Thanh. The soldiers would go there to see the children and carry them candy. The orphanage was a large compound and the monks cared for orphans, the elderly and children left there by their mothers who were prostitutes. The daily bill of fare for the residents consisted of rice soup for breakfast, cooked rice for lunch and rice soup for dinner.
Houglum mentioned that an elephant statue sat near the entrance gate of the orphanage. During his tour there, the Viet Cong packed it with explosives and blew it up simply to create fear and outright terror for the residents inside the compound. This was a terrorist act toward their own people.
It was here at Long Thanh that Houglum experienced his “conversion to education.” During one of the periodic attacks on the airfield, the fighting was particularly virulent and everyone was ordered to the perimeter since a ground assault seemed eminent. Houglum was in a foxhole with two other soldiers and the fighting was so intense that he said, “I was so scared I couldn’t have spit, even if I had wanted to.”
In the midst of this battle, he described an out-of-body experience. He remembers looking at his own body, and shaking his finger at himself, saying, “If you live through this, you are going to college.” He was speaking this to the dumb kid in the school, who graduated near the bottom of his high school class.
He returned to the United States in May 1969, highly motivated to go to college to pursue and study art. He made an appointment with the registrar of Moorhead State College in Moorhead, Minn., for the required entrance interview. He carried his high school transcript and SAT scores with him, neither being very good. He sat down before the registrar, a man named Don Engberg, and handed him the documents to look at. Mr. Ingberg looked at the records, first the transcript and then the SAT results. At this point, he removed his glasses, looked up saying, “Surely, Mr. Houglum, you’ve got to be kidding.”
Houglum already knew the college had to accept him because he was a war veteran, and, as such, he had to be permitted to attend on a probationary basis for two quarters. While there, he maintained a “B” or better average, putting to rest any notion that he was dumb.
Monumental culture shock best describes his first day in college English class. The first thing the professor did was to hand out reading list of 11 books to read in the three months. At this point, he was just south of having a heart attack. He was thinking, “no way.” Then insult was added to injury as the class was assigned a paper to turn in the next week. He submitted the paper and waited for the results. The papers were returned at the beginning of the next class. (Houglum always sat on the front row with students of either side of him.) The student to his left received an ‘A’. The student to his right got a ‘B’ or ‘C’. When the professor gave his paper back, it was folded. As he cautiously unfolded the paper, he saw a note written in large red letters, “Mr. Houglum, I believe a conference is in order.”
At the appointed time, he went to the professor’s office. The professor was sitting there in a very large, overstuffed desk chair. When Houglum was seated, the profeesor leaned his 6’ 4’, 270-pound frame back in the chair and using his most scholarly tone said, “Mr. Houglum, tell me why you are here.”
Houglum proceeded to recount the story of his battlefield conversion to education. The professor sat there listening, never interrupting the narrative. When Houglum finished, the professor, still silent, stood and reached high on his bookshelf, took out a text and handed it to Houglum. He then said, “Then you are going to need Turabien.” (This was a reference to the text explaining how to write different types of college papers.) He was told to use the book chapter by chapter, week by week and he would do okay in the course. With a lot of sweat and hard work, he emerged from the English class with a ‘B’ average.
Even with his commitment to education, he shared that he still fought the depression and anger. He went into the military carrying a sack full of baggage and returned from Vietnam with that sack filled and overflowing. Returning to anti-war protests vilifying and abusing the soldiers accelerated his downward spiral, bringing him to the point of being suicidal. He said he lived because of the grace of God. At the time he didn’t realize that this was the beginning of his journey back to the God he met when he was 12 years old.
Houglum graduated from college with a degree in Art Education. After graduation, he was privileged to study painting privately under the Dutch Master, Antonius Raemaechers in Martinsville, Ind. At the same time, he was studying figures and portraits at the John Herron Art Institute in Indianapolis, Ind. For more than 40 years, he has fulfilled his talent and calling by teaching oil painting, both privately and also in the Florida public schools for 11 years. Today, he maintains a studio at the Historic Cowee School where he paints and teaches oil painting privately and in groups. He says he is one of the most blessed people anyone could meet because he is doing what he is meant to do.
As he looks back on his life, through all his experiences, he can see that the hand of the Lord going ahead of him and preparing the way before him. He said that he was rebellious and ended up in the pigpen, a prodigal. Then, in 2002, after journeying in the wilderness for 20 years, He said he again heard the voice of God speak to him, this time as clearly as possible without actually being audible. This was what he heard: “Do you hate it yet? Do you hate what you are without me?” Then he began to understand the level of brokenness God requires of a prodigal son.
Houglum said that his art is a means to an end. He has to paint. He is driven to paint. His art classes are his ministry and in this venue he feels most alive when he shares the Lord Jesus. His art classes become a place of church, celebrating the love of God.
Houglum‘s website is www.houglumfineart.com and his email is email@example.com . He may also be reached on his cell phone (828) 371-0076.