Many years ago I found myself under an obligation to attend a summer camp at Fort Benning, Georgia, in preparation for time I would spend serving in the United States Army. I spent six weeks learning leadership and military skills and playing military games in the swamps and hills of western Georgia and eastern Alabama. The final week I spent in bivouac, practicing marksmanship and other outdoor skills. The final activity of the course, which came at the end of a truly miserable week of intermittent rains, filthy clothes, sweat and accumulating body odors, was what our leaders had called the “Infiltration Course.”
We marched to a large, flat field and were invited to sit in the bleachers on the north and survey the facility. The Army had leveled and cleared a slightly elevated area of perhaps three acres. At the east end of this dirt covered expanse was a retaining wall, eight or nine feet high. Ladders provided access to the top of the wall, which was on the same level with the field. The flatness of the ground was interrupted in many places by shallow pits and coils of concertina wire. Across the west end of the area were eight squat towers. In each was an M-60 machine gun, positioned to fire back and forth across the level expanse before them. “When you pass the gun towers, you are finished with the course,” we were informed.
Once it was dark, our assignment would be to scale the ladders at the back of the infiltration course, and low-crawl across the field toward the guns while they fired live ammunition over our heads. “Every eighth round will be a tracer round,” we were told, “so you will be able to see where the firing is as it traverses the area. The guns each fire between eight hundred and one thousand rounds per minute. For every tracer you see, there will be seven rounds you won’t see.”
“How high?” we wanted to know.
“Hard to say,” Sergeant Redd responded with a smirk. “Why don’t you stand up and check it for me when you are out there.”
“What are the circular pits for?” another asked.
“Explosives,” was the reply. “In an actual combat situation, your efforts to infiltrate a fortified position such as the one represented by the guns, would certainly be hindered by artillery and mortar fire. Random explosions in the pits will simulate that part of the experience.”
Our discussions and questions continued and our dread increased until darkness fell. But in the half hour before our “assault” began, the heavens opened in a formidable way. We realized in an instant that the rain showers we had experienced during the previous week were nothing more than a preamble for the real thing, which we now witnessed. Sheets of water cascaded from the skies while thunder blasted our ears and lightning crashed through the gathering darkness. It was a rain storm of stunning proportions.
The dirt field was transformed in minutes into a quagmire, the flattened expanse becoming a sodden bog before our eyes. Nevertheless, at the appointed hour, we marched to the rear of the field, encumbered with packs and rifles, and prepared to scale the ladders.
The firing commenced and the infiltration began. I climbed the ladder before me, aware with every rung of the bullets screaming overhead, awestricken by the brightness of the tracers that seemed only inches apart. I slithered over the embankment and found myself settling into several inches of rich Georgia mud. I began to crawl forward (I had no other option). The sergeant had instructed us to stay low, and I did. In fact, I had a strong desire to burrow my way forward.
In addition to the clamor of the machine guns and the reverberating of the thunder, continuous explosions rocked the earth from the pits around me, adding not only to the noise, but blowing geysers of mud and water into the air from whence they fell continuously on me and around me.
I continued to work my way forward, forcing my way down through the yielding mud until my descent was stopped by the firmness of earth not yet saturated by the rains. Finally, I reached the line of the gun towers, arose to my feet, and inspected myself. I had been filthy before I began to crawl. The week in the woods without a shower had covered me with grime. But now I was absolutely vile. My pockets, even the buttoned ones on my fatigues, were filled with mud. My boots were massive collections of muck, on the inside and the outside. The saturated soil had found its way into my pants and through the gaps between the buttons of my shirt. Even my rifle, my M-16, which I had cleaned and cared for so religiously during the previous weeks, was fouled, the breech and barrel filled with wet earth.
I sloshed my way to the waiting truck and rode shivering back to my barracks where I made my way to the latrine. I did not undress, nor did I lay my weapon down. With my rifle and my clothing and my filthy body, I walked into the showers and turned on the water. There, with the warmth of clean water running over me, washing away my filth layer by layer, I began to undress, soaping and scrubbing until every trace of the sludge was gone. It felt so good to be clean!
I have often thought, since that night, that my experience with the infiltration course was a wonderful metaphor for the experiences we all have in mortality. We make our way forward toward the conclusion of our lives, the end of the course, our goal often nearly invisible in the darkness, and our ability to concentrate on that goal hindered by the filth and the noise and the danger of our surroundings.
None of us except the Savior has ever made the journey unblemished. All of us from time to time will find ourselves with a little mud in our pockets. Paul said that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23.) John warned us that “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves . . .” (1 John 1:8.)
But the accumulation of grime is not the most serious problem, provided we do not cling to it in the same way it clings to us. We are invited by the Lord to get into the showers whenever we are inclined to do so. “Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil.” (Isaiah 1:16.) Of course it is always the Lord who provides the water for this cleansing: “Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity,” David pled, “and cleanse me from mine sin . . . . wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.” (Psalm 51:2,7.)
And the water is always available for those who want to be clean. But what a mortifying experience to present ourselves before the Lord with our pockets and shoes dripping with filth. Those who present themselves before the Lord unrepentant, stained with all manner of grime, will not be cleansed by the experience. (Rev. 9:14)
Joseph F. Smith had a dream about this. President Packer mentioned it in conference. Joseph had been ordained an elder and called on a mission to Hawaii at the age of 15.
He had his struggles, and he had a dream. He dreamed he was to attend a meeting with some of the church leaders and he was hurrying, with a small bag over his shoulder, to arrive at the appointed place by the appointed time. Just before he arrived, he passed a building with the sign BATHS in front. He entered, bathed, and found the in the bag he carried a clean change of clothing, which he gratefully donned. Moments later he knocked on the door of the meeting establishment. Joseph Smith opened the door, surveyed him, and said, “Joseph, you are late.”
“Yes,” replied the lad, “but I am clean. I am clean.” (See Washed Clean, C.R., April 1977)
What a joy it will be if we can meet the Lord with those same words on our lips: “I am clean!”