Interview with Janell Nickols, October 7, 2007 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database
Interviewee: Nickols, Janell Interviewer: Zarbock, Paul Date of Interview: 10/7/2007 Series: Military Chaplains Length 70 minutes
Zarbock: Good afternoon. My name is Paul Zarbock. I'm a staff person with the University of North Carolina, Wilmington Randall Library. Today is the 7th of October in the year 2007, and we are tape recording in Williamsburg, Virginia. Good afternoon, how are you?
Nickols: Fine, thank you.
Zarbock: And Ms. Nickols, what is your first name?
Zarbock: May I call you that?
Zarbock: Janell, what individual or series of individuals or event or series of events led you into the selection of the ministry as a chosen profession?
Nickols: It starts way back when I was a youth. My parents were not particularly religious people, but did have a background in at least going to church from time to time. My grandmother was a Christian Science practitioner and my neighbor was a Mormon, so I used to go off to Grandma's church, and I used to go up to my friend's church. And then my parents decided, well, they better get me squared away and take me to churches too. So they started taking me around to various churches. My mother, although she had gone to the Christian Science church, she used to sneak out the back of the church to go to the youth group over the Congregational church in town. This was in the Los Angeles area. So she had some remembrances of the Congregational church, so she ended up taking me. We went as a family to the Congregational church, which at that time, was the United Church of Christ Church in California, La Canada Church, the Lighted Window.
And it was there that I decided to be confirmed. We had to be all baptized at the same time, before my confirmation. That was a week before my confirmation. My parents and I were baptized. I went through confirmation, was very active in youth group activities, and just really loved that and really felt a connection with the church, with God. I really wanted to develop that relationship. We ended up moving up to Northern California. Oh, at the time, there was also a woman at the Church of the Lighted Window that was an older woman. She was in her 60s, I guess, at the time, and she was ordained, an ordained minister, which was rather unique back in the day.
Zarbock: I was going to ask, put me in history, about what year is this?
Nickols: Let's see. That would have been '65 to '68. I think I was confirmed in '68, because it was right before we moved up to Northern California. So we went up to Northern California, joined a UCC church up there, and I was in high school. I ended up having to have a lot of hip surgery, and so I was in the hospital for quite a few times, in and out of the hospital with surgery. While I was in the hospital, I really had felt a crisis of faith. I didn't understand why this was happening, and there was nobody that came to talk with me about that. There was a Roman Catholic priest that came to visit me, and once he found out I wasn't Roman Catholic, he sort of excused himself and left, and even my pastor at the time really didn't come and visit to any kind of depth that could help me understand what was going on. So I really struggled with myself.
Zarbock: How old were you then?
Nickols: I was a teenager. I was a junior in high school, so it was between my junior and senior year, and the year even after. I took off a year between high school and college to have more surgery.
Zarbock: Just an absolute perfect time in development for asking all sorts of tumultuous questions.
Nickols: Right. So I really kind of went through it myself and did a lot of reading, a lot of studying, a lot of praying, a lot of thinking and as a result of all that I was at a church conference. It was a family kind of conference we went to and I just thought over and over, I just thought I was really feeling a call to ministry, particularly to work in hospital chaplaincy, but I didn't know I could do anything like that. There was a man, his name was Guy Kitsom. He was a man that was a member of our church.
Zarbock: How do you spell his name?
Nickols: K-I-T-S-O-M, and he was very active in our church, an older gentleman. He was just a riot. He was a really funny guy, but also very deeply spiritual. And so I would at this conference. I would go off and talk with him and I said to him-- he was the first one I told-- I said, "I feel like that I'm having a call to ministry, but I don't know if I can do that as a woman. I don't know." And then all of a sudden, I remembered that there was this woman at the UCC Church in La Canada and then he told me, "Well yeah." He said, "I've known women that have done that." He said, "I think that would be great." So we really talked a lot on that conference, and that's really when I felt a calling to ministry. And then shortly after that, we came home and I told my parents, and they both said, "We were just wondering when you were going to finally decide that," which is really amazing for my parents because, like I said, they weren't very religious. So I went in care--
Zarbock: But they were perceptive.
Nickols: Yeah, I went in care of the conference as a high school student, and then just kept in touch with my local conference all through college and then through seminary.
Zarbock: Where did you go to college?
Nickols: I went to college at the University of Redlands in California, and then I finished up college at Notre Dame in Belmont, California, and then I went to Pacific School of Religion for my seminary.
Zarbock: You went straight through?
Nickols: Went straight through after the year break. I had a year break, yeah. So it was really, I really think it was this woman-- who, I cannot remember her name-- and Guy Kitsom, were really the influential people. I don't know that she ever realized how influential she was, but he did and actually the really sad thing about that, is that he passed away getting ready to come to my ordination, so he was in the shower and he passed away, so it was really sad.
Zarbock: In seminary? What was the student population in your class, and how many were women?
Nickols: Oh, boy. You know, I really don't know what the population was. There were quite a few women, because this was in Berkeley. It's the Pacific School of Religion. It's a pretty liberal seminary that United Church of Christ people go to, as well as other denominations, so there were a number of women. We were not, it was not unusual.
Zarbock: You weren't the only kid on the block.
Nickols: No. That didn't happen until later so, no.
Zarbock: Well, there you are.
Nickols: There I am.
Zarbock: How are you going to earn your bread and butter?
Nickols: Well that's a good question. The first thing I did was I worked at a church just by where I lived, in Belmont. This was at San Carlos, and I was associate pastor but just a part-time. I was kind of doing my field-work there, and just sort of working there, and so I did that for a while. And then, toward my last year of seminary, I was called to a church out in Lodi, California.
Zarbock: A seminary is three years?
Nickols: Three years for me, yeah. So I moved out to Lodi and I took my last, I think it was pretty much my last year of seminary. I was commuting back and forth from Lodi to Berkeley to go to school, and so I was an associate pastor for Christian education and youth work in Lodi. I left. Then I graduated. I was graduated, was ordained, all that kind of stuff, was installed as the associate pastor, there. I was there for about 18 months more. The church I was heavily involved in was the United Church of Christ. I was very active on committees. I was the chair of a committee. They were not so enthused about being a United Church of Christ Church. They had had some problems back in the Cesar Chavez days and things, and Al Gregor was there, so there was a lot of animosity between the church and--
Zarbock: Twenty, 30, 40 years from now when somebody hears this tape the name won't mean anything. Give us just a little background.
Nickols: It was a-- Cesar Chavez was in charge, he developed a union of migrant workers in California trying to get decent wages and decent housing for the grape pickers, and all the agricultural workers that were migrant workers from Mexico. Lodi is a large grape-growing agricultural area, and so there were just problems with that.
Zarbock: And to say that emotions were running high, would be a master of understatement. Is that correct?
Nickols: Right, exactly. And the United Church of Christ was very much behind Cesar Chavez in offering support, so this church, the relationship between this church and the United Church of Christ was tenuous, at best, and I could see the handwriting on the wall. First of all, they didn't like me going to the meetings that I was going to, because it was taking me away from the church. And the second thing was that they probably were not going to end up staying in the United Church of Christ very much longer and, in fact, they eventually did withdraw from the United Church of Christ. So I ended up moving, being called to a church in Fresno, California, and I was again the associate pastor for Christian education. It was supposed to be a co-pastorate, but it didn't quite turn out that way.
Zarbock: Somebody has to get coffee, right?
Nickols: I know; exactly. So I ended up there. That was a struggle, personally, for me, because the relationship between myself and the senior pastor was very, very difficult, very strained. There were a lot of issues going on there, that I really can't even go into, but we ended up with a mutual agreement a couple of years down the road, that we met with a conference minister and decided I would give my notice. And at that point, I didn't know what I was going to do. I didn't have any other options.
Zarbock: Embarrassing question number X, Y, or Z. How old were you at this time?
Nickols: I was, I have to think here.
Zarbock: I'll take an approximate.
Nickols: Twenty-seven, 28.
Zarbock: And the year is?
Nickols: It was 19-- Well, when I left there, it was 1981.
Zarbock: What were the big events swirling around the world at that time?
Nickols: Well, we had, the Vietnam war was pretty much, that was over. There were, I guess, other kind of social issues going on at the time. It was not really a--
Zarbock: It wasn't a peak and valley moment?
Nickols: I don't know what you mean.
Zarbock: Well, the volatile nature of activities, the social unrest during the Vietnam war.
Nickols: No, it wasn't the same. There was a lot of-- well I have to go back to another aspect of this. While I was at Fresno, I was asked by one of my parishioners to come and be the chaplain for the Air National Guard in Fresno, and he was the commanding officer of this Air National Guard unit, so he asked me to come over there. So I used to come over on Sundays, and I'd do services there and like maybe a Bible study, and we'd just do some things.
Zarbock: But not as a military officer.
Nickols: I was not a military officer. I was a civilian. They didn't have a chaplain, and so he wanted me to do that. There were some people in the United Church of Christ, friends of mine that question that, because there, the United Church of Christ had been very much out in the forefront during the Vietnam war, of being anti-war, so there were a lot of people that I knew that questioned why I would want to be involved at all in the military. I said, "Well, my understanding is it's the people that are serving there need-- they can't come to church. They're on duty on Sundays and they need the support." So I said I didn't have a problem with that. I didn't know anything about the military at the time. My father had been in the Navy in World War II, never talked about it, and so I didn't know anything. I didn't know officer from enlisted. I mean, I knew nothing about military, so it was very much a learning experience. Well, anyway, I decided to give my notice at the church, and I came home. I thought, "Now what am I going to do?" I don't have any place. I don't know what I'm going to do. I have, like, three months and I'm going to be out of a job. It must have been not two hours later that the phone rang, and it was Jerry Rhyne who was a chaplain with the Air Force, a UCC chaplain.
Zarbock: Spell his last name, please.
Nickols: R-H-Y-N-E. The chief of chaplains of the Air Force at the time was Dick Carr. He was also a United Church of Christ. That's C-A-R-R. And Jerry Rhyne worked in the chief of chaplain's office, had gotten word that I had applied to be the official kind of chaplain for the Air National Guard. I had to go through an application process. And he said, "What do you think about going on active duty?" I said, "Well I hadn't really thought about it, but I'll think about it." So in the meantime, I also got some other calls and some other options that sort of came out of the woodwork. So I had about three things that I was kind of mulling around that I would do with myself. And I decided, well I'm going to go for the Air Force. I was single. I was footloose and fancy free. I thought this would be kind of exciting, something I don't know anything about, so that's what I did. So I made the application to the Air Force. We went through the whole procedure. Everything was going along fine, and then all of a sudden, they started asking about the hip surgery that I had had in the past. There was some misunderstanding. They thought that I still had pins and plates in my hips. I didn't. And anyway, it came back that they denied my application, so I was rejected from the Air Force.
We made an appeal to try to go back. They sent me to a doctor, and he wrote up a great letter and everything to try to get me into the Air Force, but while we were waiting for that, I thought maybe I better check into some other options. I thought well, my dad was in the Navy. That might be a good thing to do, but I didn't know how to go and apply to be a Navy chaplain, so I didn't know anybody that was a Navy chaplain. I didn't know what to do, so I just walked into a recruiter's office, and I went and I said, "I want to make an application to be a navy chaplain."
Well, they didn't know what to do with me. They don't recruit officers, and certainly not chaplains. They were great, though. They were really helpful. They found out who their chaplain recruiter was for the area. So I went through all of that process.
In the meantime, I was given the official rejection from the Air Force, but things were moving along splendidly for the Navy. I ended up getting a waiver for the hip surgery. They recognized that it was not anything that was going to cause any problems, so I got a waiver and everything was good to go. I was supposed to go to chaplain school in October. That was in Newport, Rhode Island. I was in California, so I had to plan enough days to get across, and had my stuff packed up. We had a date sort of set to get my things packed up but I was waiting for my commission, go and raise my right hand. Well, about eight weeks before I was due to be at chaplain school, I was riding my bicycle and I hit a section of the pavement that was raised, like this, and I fell off and I broke my wrist.
So I'm in the emergency room. I'm saying, "How long is this going to take to get fixed? Because I'm supposed to be in the Navy in eight weeks." And he said, "Well it's really broken. It's going to require surgery." So I ended up having surgery.
I called the office again. I said, "Okay, now here's what's happened." So we had to get another waiver, so that held up the commissioning. In the meantime, I'm supposed to move, like the 30th of September, and then drive across the country to be there by the 4th. So we waited and we waited and we waited. I'm all bandaged up. And finally on, I think it was the 28th, I'm not sure, I'd have to look at my commissioning papers, but it was really close to the 30th, they called and they said, "The commissioning papers are here. Come on down." So I went down. I took off the little-- I had at that point a little splint thing on my arm, and you can see on the picture of me getting sworn in, I'm kind of like this, and he goes to shake my hand and I'm kind of like, "Don't shake it real hard," so I was in the Navy, and that's my story of how I ended up in the Navy.
Zarbock: But what military training had you had?
Nickols: None, absolutely none.
Zarbock: You didn't know how to put on a uniform.
Nickols: I didn't know anything, so I went off to chaplain school. I didn't even know that when you drove into the base, you're supposed to turn off your headlights when you come through the gate, so I got chastised when I drove into the gate at Newport, Rhode Island by the gate guard who said, "You know you're supposed to turn your headlights off." "Sorry, I didn't know anything." So I was in chaplain school with all these guys. A lot of them had background experience in the military and the fact that a lot of boys kind of have experience. They just know about military, and they're kind of trained by their fathers or whatever but I knew nothing.
Zarbock: A bunch of chaplains have said that being in the Boy Scouts had done a real assistance to them.
Nickols: Girl Scouts didn't help at all. They don't teach you in Girl Scouts what they teach in Boy Scouts. So, chain of command, I had no concept of. It was wild.
Zarbock: We are talking about as green as you can get.
Nickols: Yeah, I definitely was.
Zarbock: You didn't even know how to salute?
Zarbock: Or who to salute?
Nickols: No, I didn't know anything.
Zarbock: All right, now who took the time to say, with fingers extended, enjoined joined you to do the following things?
Nickols: When I was at chaplain school.
Zarbock: Oh, really?
Nickols: Yeah, when I went to chaplain school that's part of what that is, is training you to be in the military. It's seven weeks. Of course, I got there in the evening. Chaplain St. Elmo Noman was the chaplain that was on duty for chaplain school, welcoming the new chaplains that came in. He was also the United Church of Christ, so he sort of took me under his wing, although he wasn't the most military chaplain in the world, either, but he helped me out. And then there were some of the other chaplains that were at chaplain school that just helped me out, and just taught me what I needed to know.
Zarbock: Where did you live?
Nickols: We lived in barracks, and this was kind of interesting, too. The same barracks there was the OCS, which was the other staff corps officers that were just coming in. They had their own school. But we were in one main hallway, and then around the corner, was where the heads were, male, female heads. Well I was the only woman in my chaplain school.
Zarbock: For the purpose of the tape, that means bathroom, yeah.
Nickols: I was the only woman in my chaplain school class. There were 36 of us, and I was the only woman. Well apparently, some of the men thought that there was only going to be men there, so they were rather ill prepared to have a woman in their midst, so there was a big rush out to K-Mart to get robes and things, I guess, because the bathrooms were around the corner, and they were just figuring they were going to run around in their skivvies or something, so that was interesting. And also the fact that some religious groups, denominations, don't believe in women being ordained, so I had to deal with that. There were some that wouldn't even talk to me during chaplain school, so it was a difficult time.
Zarbock: You mean you were really snubbed?
Nickols: I was. I was. Yeah.
Zarbock: Describe that, please: the degree of snub-ness.
Nickols: One of the things that really hit me very hard, was there were some chaplains that I made friends with. We were all in this together, and we're all trying to get through this training, and there were a few that made friends with me, and we would go out and do stuff. Well, of course, most of them were married except for the Catholic priest, but we'd all go out, just as friends. Well, some of the chaplains that were the more conservative ones that didn't believe in having women in the chaplaincy, they started rumors around, that myself and the married chaplains-- there was something going on more than just socially, so they were spreading out rumors and things. Then they ended up shunning, not only myself, but also the other chaplains that I was hanging out with. So it was a very painful time for me going through chaplain school. I mean, for one thing, it was just so new, and I was trying to learn everything-- and then having this other aspect, it was painful. Because I had been in a seminary where there were women, I was in a denomination where there were women. While I knew that this kind of stuff was going on, I had never really been exposed to people that really did not believe in who I was, and that was a very difficult thing.
Zarbock: You were wearing the wrong cover as a book.
Zarbock: And nobody looked beyond the cover.
Zarbock: That isn't true. Some did look beyond the cover.
Nickols: Some did, right, some did.
Zarbock: Well, I'm going to press that one more degree, to find out: in your professional life as a Navy officer, did you run across these people, the very rigid group that you described, did you run across that, from time to time?
Nickols: Oh, yes very often.
Zarbock: How did they treat you?
Nickols: Well, mostly, they just ignored me, or there were some passive-aggressive kinds of things going on. My first duty station was Portsmouth Navy Hospital, which was great. Well, first of all, I had lived in Fresno. That's where I left to go into the Navy, and I went across Newport, Rhode Island. Well, they were ready to send me across there. They were trying to figure out where my duty station, my first duty station was going to be, and they were going to assign me to Lemoore, which is right outside of Fresno, and I had been to Lemoore, and that's kind of an interesting story too.
I had gone to Lemoore to meet up with Ross Trower, who was the chief of chaplains at the time, because I told the Navy chaplain people and the Chaplain Corps Office in Washington, D.C. I said, "I want to know what the expectation is for me as a chaplain, and me as a woman chaplain, and so I'd like to talk with somebody." They said, "Well the chief of chaplains is going to be out in the area, so we'll set up an interview."
So, okay, so I went and met with the chief of chaplains, and I kind of interviewed him. But what was really impressive, was that there were 12 women chaplains at the time-- no, there were eleven, because I was the twelfth-- eleven women chaplains at the time, and he sat and named each one and told me about each one, and I was really impressed. I said, "Well that's the kind of person I want to have as my boss, and that's really what helped me decide to go ahead with the Navy."
So anyway, I had been to Lemoore. It's not a real exciting place, and the commanding officer of the air station at Lemoore, there had been a woman chaplain there, she was just leaving to get out of the Navy, and the commanding officer at the time-- which, I don't know his name and I wouldn't say it even if I did-- said he did not want to have a woman chaplain. Back at that time, you could say that, and they could say "Okay." This was in '81. And so they called me and they said, "They really don't want to have you there at Lemoore."
Zarbock: And you were told that straight out?
Zarbock: By whom somebody at the chaplaincy?
Nickols: Somebody at the chaplain's office, yeah. And I said, "Well, you know what? I joined the Navy to see the world, and I've seen Lemoore, so you can send me someplace else. That's fine." And they said, "Well all we have is a hospital in Virginia." I said, "That's perfect, because that's what I went into ministry for, was hospital chaplaincy." So I said "That's perfect. That's great." So that was my first duty station, was Portsmouth Naval Hospital. There was a chaplain there that did not believe in women in ministry, did not really like the fact that I was there and pushed, because he really didn't like hospital chaplaincy, and he was assigned to the maternity ward and, of course, he thought that that would be a natural thing for me, to be assigned to the maternity ward. Fortunately, Chaplain David Parham was the head chaplain, the senior chaplain for the naval hospital, great guy. He just passed away last year. And he stuck to his. And he was the first black captain in the Navy, and so he had been there, done that, too, and so he said, "No, I'm not assigning her to the female ward. That's not what ministry is about." I wasn't called to the ministry to just minister to the women, but there were chaplains that felt that. They felt that the women chaplains would minister to the women, and the male chaplains would minister to the men. And so, I spent a lot of time kind of trying to get around that. So I ended up, I wasn't just working with the women. I went up on the orthopedic floor and another floor, and so everything was pretty much okay.
Zarbock: You know, Chaplain, you've done an awful lot of path-finding in your short military career.
Nickols: Well, I did. It was a short career, but I did. We did, there were a number of women chaplains in the Norfolk area. Out of the 12 of us, I think there were five that were in the Norfolk or Virginia Beach area, and we used to get together and kind of be a support group to one another. So Chaplain Eileen-- it was Hickey, then and she renamed, changed it to O'Hickey-- but she was the senior of the women chaplains, and so she kind of brought us together and helped us support one another, so she was a great source of support. She was also the United Church of Christ.
Zarbock: How long did you serve in the hospital?
Nickols: Well, interesting that while I was at the hospital the USS California, a guided cruiser, pulled into the Norfolk shipyard that's in Portsmouth, Virginia, and on it was a chaplain, a Lutheran chaplain, who had been out in the Indian Ocean with a Nimitz battle group with a Chaplain Jack Kemper, who was in the office right next to me at Portsmouth Naval Hospital, so they had gotten to know each other out in the Indian Ocean. This was during the Iranian hostage crisis. So when the ship, when the California, pulled in, this chaplain, Nickols, came over to visit his friend Jack Kemper, at the Naval Hospital Portsmouth. In the meantime, he also had an eye problem he had to have looked at, and he was visiting the guys from his ship that had gotten themselves into trouble and were at the hospital. So he's visiting with this chaplain next door. I put my head in. I said, "Oh who's that?" So Chaplain Kemper introduced us. I said, "Hello," and we chatted a little bit, and I thought, "Oh."
Well I didn't know if he-- Chaplain Kemper was Roman Catholic, and I didn't know if he was Roman Catholic or what. So after he left, I said, "So who is this guy?" So he said, "Well it's Chaplain James Nickols." I said, "Well, is he Roman Catholic?" you know, "Another father, another one-a-waste." And he said, "No." We always joked around, and he said, "No, he's Lutheran, but I think he was in some kind of community kind of like--" so he said "I don't know." So I said, "So you don't know, kind of, what his status is, right?" "No."
"Well, this Chaplain Nickols," I said, "Well, if you find out anything more, let me know, because he seems like an interesting kind of person." So this Chaplain Nickols kept coming over, and we ended up, the three of us, going to lunch together, and one thing led to another, and I finally told Chaplain Kemper, "If he wants to have my phone number, you can give it to him. It's okay." So, finally he called me, and we went out on a date and that was about February.
Zarbock: Of what year?
Nickols: Of 1982, and I had just gotten there to the hospital, basically. In March we were talking, and we both come from an Irish background, and we kind of wanted to have a St. Patrick's Day party. We never had a St. Patrick's Day party, neither one of us. He was living in the BOQ, bachelor officers' quarters on the shipyard, but I had a little apartment. I said, "Well, I have a place." He was senior to me. He was a lieutenant commander. I was a lieutenant at the time. And I said, "And you have more money than I do, so we'll have a party at my place." So he said "Okay." So we invited people from the hospital. We invited people from the ship, and we invited them over to my place for this party. They're at this party and they're going, "What?" because nobody knew that we were dating. So they said, "What's going on here?" We said, "Well we're seeing each other." "Oh." And then, May 1st, we announced our engagement, and September 25th, we were married, so that was 25 years ago, we were married.
Zarbock: Two Navy chaplains.
Nickols: Two Navy chaplains. It was the first time any Navy chaplains had married on active duty, and as far as we know, it's the first time any chaplains had married on active duty. So there was a chaplain couple that came in as a couple, Stan and Susan Garman, but we were the first ones to meet and marry on active duty.
Zarbock: And who officiated?
Nickols: Ross Trower, the chief of chaplains that I met, officiated. Jack Kemper, who had introduced us, got special permission to be able to read the Scripture at our wedding.
Zarbock: Where was the ceremony held?
Nickols: The ceremony was at Trinity Lutheran Church in downtown Norfolk. We had Pete Polarski, who was also influential in helping me. He was one of the people working in the chief of chaplain's office that was trying to get me, kind of help me get in. He ended up he was a Roman Catholic priest who my husband had known, and he got special permission to be the best man, so he was the best man at our wedding. The friend that I drove out with, the UCC woman that I drove out with to chaplain school, because she was interviewing at churches in Vermont, she officiated with the communion, and a local Lutheran pastor helped with communion, so it was a cast of thousands. It was great.
Zarbock: I just realized, in order to go on a honeymoon, you had to file certain papers asking for a leave; is that correct?
Nickols: Well, yeah. The interesting thing was about this is that by the time we got married, he had already been transferred down to Orlando, so he left for Orlando in August, and our wedding was in September. What a lot of people do in the Navy, in the military, is if they're getting married to another military member, they get married sort of secretly, file the paperwork so they can be transferred together, and live, stay in the same place, and then they have their kind of ceremony with the family. Well we didn't really feel like that would be very apropos for two chaplains-- to have a spurious wedding like that-- so we waited until we got married, and then I put in for my transfer. So everybody had said it was going to be fine. I'd be transferred down to Orlando. And then the Chaplain Corps decided, "We don't think we can have two chaplains married at the same duty station." Now, it happens all the time with other line officers, but the Chaplain Corps just didn't feel that it was proper. Well, Orlando, there was only one duty station, and then the naval hospital. Even though there were different sites for chaplains on the naval base, it was still under one commanding officer, and they didn't want two chaplains, married, to be with the same commanding officer. So the only thing that they could do is put me at the naval hospital, but there was a chaplain already at the naval hospital. Back in that time, though, they could put in a chaplain in excess. Now they can't do that. So they assigned me in excess to be at the naval hospital in Orlando, but I didn't know this was touch and go, and we had already gotten married. He was already down in Florida.
We went on our honeymoon. We came back. I put him on the airplane. He went back down to Florida, and I waited until December until I could join him, that I was officially transferred down there, down to Orlando.
Zarbock: Of course the up-side of that, is being transferred to Florida in December is not the worst thing in the world.
Nickols: No, it wasn't the worst thing that could happen. That's very true.
Zarbock: You could have ended up back in Newport, Rhode Island.
Nickols: That's right. So that was, and people were asking me how married life was. It's like, "I don't really know, because..."
Zarbock: "I don't see much of him."
Nickols: "We don't see each other--" but it all worked out, and so I ended up at another hospital, which is ideal. I loved it. Eventually, the other chaplain was transferred, and so I was the sole chaplain at the naval hospital in Orlando, and that's where our first daughter was born, our daughter was born in Orlando.
Zarbock: How many children do you have?
Nickols: We have two children, a daughter and a son.
Zarbock: During your military career, a question that I told you off-camera I was going to ask, could you reminisce a little bit about the mirthful, cheerful, hooray, type of events which you observed or participated or arranged?
Nickols: Mirthful events. Well our wedding was a pretty mirthful event. There are some funny stories, I mean, the things that happened to me. When I was at Orlando Naval Hospital, there's a couple funny stories revolving around the time that I was pregnant. So here I was, a woman chaplain, which is pretty unusual for these recruits. There was a recruit training center there as well, a nuclear power school, so a lot of these recruits would end up in the hospital and stuff, and they weren't too sure about military, anyway, and they didn't really know what a chaplain was, but I'd come and visit them and we'd talk. So I was far enough along that I was wearing the maternity uniform, and I came in to visit this recruit. I could still picture his face and everything, bless his little heart. I go in there and I said, "I'm Chaplain Nickols." Well, "Oh," and he goes. "What does that mean? What is a chaplain?" I said "Like a minister, that I'm here to help you and talk with you, whatever you want to talk about." He said, "So, and you're expecting?" I said, "Yes, I am." He said, "Well is that okay?" "Yeah, it's okay" I said. "I'm not a nun. "It's okay. I'm married. In fact, I'm married to another chaplain," I said, "so it's okay." Other times--
Zarbock: How were you, was he solicitous of you, or confused by you?
Nickols: He was. "Is it okay? Are you supposed to be pregnant?"
Zarbock: "Would you define yourself, please?"
Nickols: Other times, when it was in more relaxed company and stuff, and people would talk about me being pregnant and everything, I'd say, "Yeah, and another chaplain did this to me." We'd make kind of jokes about that. Another funny thing about being pregnant was, at the time, the admiral of the Naval Station Orlando was a woman, and Pauline Hardington was her name, and she was retiring and we had gotten to know each other. She had quite an interesting reputation. She had her own mind about her about the way she did things. But we had gotten to know each other, and when it came time for her retirement, she wanted me to be there to give the prayer, the closing benediction prayer, so that's fine. So her aides and everything, they were planning this whole retirement thing. And then they're saying what the uniform of the day is, which was the dress whites, which is the full dress white. Well, there isn't that uniform in a maternity uniform. There's only service dress white in uniform. There's not a full dress white. So when they told me what the uniform was, I said, "Well I can't do that, because I'm pregnant and there is no such uniform." Well, they went back to her and they said, "She can't give the benediction because she'll be out of uniform. She can't give it. You've got to get somebody else." And she just lit into them and said, "It doesn't matter what uniform she's in. She's going to be there for it." So I was there and gave the benediction.
Zarbock: Out of uniform.
Nickols: I was going to be out of uniform so I couldn't do it.
Zarbock: Again for the purpose of this recording, what does that mean to be out of uniform?
Nickols: Certain events that you go to, you have to be in the uniform of the day, and that is determined by what kind of event it is. You have a working uniform you work on during the regular year, and there's a winter uniform, and there's a summer uniform, and then for special events, there's dress uniforms, and you're supposed to be in whatever the prescribed uniform is, and if you're not, you're out of uniform, and that's a bad thing.
Zarbock: That's probably a punishable offense, isn't it?
Nickols: Well, not really, but it's just sort of frowned upon. I mean, I supposed they could take you to task for it, but I don't know that that's ever happened before.
Zarbock: Again, I don't need to flatter you with this, but just again, to say the obvious. A few years and not that many years before you joined the Navy, a pregnant chaplain was probably as common as what?
Nickols: Yeah, I don't think there had been any at the time.
Nickols: I don't know. I don't think so. I think when Susan Garman came in, she already had her children, so she may have been, but I don't know.
Zarbock: Did you get any resistance about being pregnant and a naval officer and a chaplain?
Nickols: No. The women in the maternity ward, they were spreading the rumor that I wasn't married. There were these ladies in the maternity ward and, of course, I worked in all the wards because I was the sole chaplain for the hospital. I found out from one of the nurses that some of these nurses, these older nurses were saying that I wasn't married. So I went up to them and I said, "So I hear that there is some dispute about what my marital status is." I said, "Does this not mean anything to you?" It's like, "Oh." So I don't know why they got off doing that. Really, the only resistance that I met while I was in the Navy, was from the other chaplains that did not approve of women chaplains. The troops, the sailors, were fine. The other staff members at the hospital were fine, the doctors, the nurses, everybody, they were great. When a sailor needs someone to minister to them, they don't really care whether you're a woman or a man.
Zarbock: And that's going to be my question. What sort of problems were brought to you?
Nickols: What kind of problems were brought to me? Well, because I was in hospital chaplaincy, it was mainly medical kinds of issues. When I was at the Orlando Hospital, sometimes it was problems dealing with recruits, that whether or not they were going to get kicked out of the Navy, and some of them wanted to get out, because they just got in and realized, "This is not for me," and others did not want to, and ended up having to get sent home because of medical problems. So that was one of the biggest issues, I think, at Orlando Naval Hospital, was just with the recruits. The other thing was nuclear power students, a really, very difficult program to get into, extremely difficult, very, very bright young men-- and it was men, because it was only men allowed on ships at that time, except for the tenders-- the other ships that could have women-- but they went through a lot to get to nuclear power school, and it's a very strenuous program. So if they ended up with any kind of medical concerns, they were very concerned that they were going to be kicked out of the program, so, dealing with a lot of that, just a lot of worry about what this was going to mean, what their health condition was going to mean for them in the Navy, so that was difficult.
Zarbock: And, of course, there are no facts in the future if you're going to be concerned, being concerned about your future is always the most terrifying and the easiest thing you can do.
Nickols: Yeah, and it's because it's things we have no control over.
Zarbock: That's a trap we've all fallen into. What about drugs and alcohol? Was that a--
Nickols: Yes, one of the saddest things I had was one of our own, um, the name totally escaped me, one of our own people at the hospital.
Zarbock: A staff person?
Nickols: A staff person who I had known, talked with, and knew that he had a drinking problem and he came to me and we discussed it. He was seeing the psychologist, psychiatrist at the hospital, and he was found dead on the front porch after a party. I had to do the service for that, and it was really sad. Every time I hear the song that we played, which is "On Wings of Eagles," I still think about that experience about him.
Zarbock: It wasn't a self-inflicted wound, was it?
Nickols: No. He drank too much and he passed out and he died, so that was difficult. There definitely was some people with alcohol problems. I worked with the alcohol program that we had through the Naval Hospital, especially at Portsmouth. There was a problem, alcohol rehab program that was through the auspices of the Navy, and I would go over and assist with that. I did the same thing in Orlando, where I would be the spiritual advisor to the alcohol rehab service. It was called ARS, but alcohol rehab service, and they would have group meetings, like AA meetings, almost, and I would help out with that, so I did get very involved.
Zarbock: When you say "alcohol," what form did that take?
Nickols: We would have group meetings and I would be the spiritual advisor for the group meeting, so I would be a part of the meetings, and then I was there for counseling, any kind of counseling that was needed for the people that were struggling with that.
Zarbock: I have a personal experience of being in a military hospital overseas on Christmas Eve, where you were in the service over a Christmas or Christmases, several. What were they like? Were you on duty?
Nickols: Yeah. They really try to get most people out, discharged from the hospital. There was no elective surgeries or anything like that. It was kind of like they do now in the hospitals, but certainly they still have our share of people. We would try to make the best of it, and I would have a service or several services. We'd have carolers come in, and they tried to make the best of it. I'd go around and visit everybody. I visited everybody in the hospital, all the patients in the hospital, and we'd just make the best of it-- as best you can. I don't know.
Zarbock: It's such a poignant time.
Zarbock: It's the poignancy.
Nickols: Yeah, it is, but really, it didn't seem to-- it wasn't that much of a problem, we feel. The people that were there, they knew they needed to be there, and we just celebrated Christmas there.
Zarbock: Well, again, off-camera, you picked up one of the bookends, the mirthful things that have happened to you, the rumors about illegitimately conceiving this child that you were carrying, and the mirthful things, and you've indicated one of the sad soulful things, the death of a colleague. Can you reminisce and remember one other time of sadness?
Nickols: Oh, there were many. I mean, hospitals have a lot of sadness. We had one day I got word that somebody had shot himself in the back of the emergency room at the hospital, so I came running over there, and this man had pulled up in his car and gotten a chair out, a beach chair out, put a rifle up to himself, and shot himself. Apparently, he was struggling with cancer, and he had just had enough of it, and didn't want to have any more treatment.
Zarbock: Was he Navy personnel or retired?
Nickols: He was retired. I worked with the police. The police officers came, and we found out where his wife worked. She was a schoolteacher. And so I had to go with the police officer, and go and tell the wife what had happened. And the gun was his son's gun and of course, it was confiscated, and it was several months afterward, she wanted the gun back to give to her son. That was just in the hands of the police, so I had communication with her after that, but mainly because she wanted the gun back, which I thought was just kind of creepy.
Zarbock: Did he leave a note, do you remember?
Nickols: He did. He left something, because when I told her, she alluded to something. I don't think there was a note but I think he had said something, so she was not totally surprised by it, but that was a very difficult time. There was another time that a young man that was at the nuclear power school had come to me and told me that he was concerned about an eating disorder that he had, and I saw him a couple of times, referred him to a psychiatrist. He told the psychiatrist a different story than he had told me. What he had told me was that he was worried about getting kicked out of the Navy, and what he told the psychiatrist was he wanted to get out of the Navy. So we weren't sure which thing was going on.
Zarbock: Could you tell the psychiatrist what the young man told you?
Nickols: If I ask permission from the sailor to talk with the psychiatrist, yes, I can share that. The privilege is to the person that is giving you the information. That's the confidential privilege. It's their privilege. It's not my privilege, it's theirs. So as long as he gives me permission. But when it's in a medical setting like that, we can discuss things. I referred him to the psychiatrist. So we were not real sure what all was going on there, and about I guess it was maybe a couple weeks later I overheard somewhere, I guess I was just going by the emergency room, and I overheard something, that he was in the emergency room and he ended up dying. They weren't sure what he had died from, and what they finally determined was that it was his eating disorder. What he had done is he had eaten and then binged, and then regurgitated and it got his electrolytes all off or something, and he ended up dying from that. (Change Tape)
Zarbock: October 7, 2007, Tape 2, Chaplain Nickols. Take it away. So we've had two bookends, the mirthful times and sad times. Can you reminisce, were there any absurdities that happened? And again, I'm not looking for some expose of the stupidity of an individual, but a massive organization does out-of-control things; can you remember a time?
Nickols: Yeah, when I was in Orlando Naval Hospital; as I said, I was the sole chaplain at the hospital, and my husband was over at the Naval Training Center. He was Lutheran pastor. There were other chaplains that were over there, as well. Well, I needed to get coverage for the Roman Catholic patients at the hospital, and usually what happens, is if there is no Roman Catholic at that duty station, then from another place they come over. It's like with shifts. That's how my husband got to know Chaplain Kemper; it's because Chaplain Kemper was on one ship. My husband was on another ship. There was no Roman Catholic priest on that ship. So Chaplain Kemper would get the holy helo, the holy helicopter they call it, and bring him over, or they'd drop him by or drop him from above. So I was trying to get coverage, Roman Catholic coverage, over at the hospital. And what I was faced with was totally absurd. The response from the Roman Catholic chaplain on the base was, "That's not my parish." And so I'm a lieutenant, and the only chaplain at this hospital, and I'm bucking up against a Roman Catholic chaplain that I think was a Lieutenant Commander or Commander, I think maybe he was a Commander, and trying to get coverage. And I had many instances where there was a baby that needed to be baptized, or there was somebody that needed sacrament of the sick, Roman Catholic ministry, and I couldn't get this chaplain to come over and do it. And I ended up having to go all the way up to the Chief of Chaplain's office via my chain of command, to get a memorandum of understanding written that would require those services to be provided. And even once I got those services to be provided, I still had to struggle to get this chaplain over there.
Zarbock: Again, this passive-aggressive behavior.
Nickols: Yeah, it was just really a struggle. And my husband, unfortunately, suffered from it as well, because he was working with these chaplains. And so he was trying to help me. I'm new to the military. I don't know all the ways to do this, and he was trying to help me forage my way through the chain to do this. And so, it played out on one of his evaluations, where he had to go back and say, "Now that's not fair." So, it was a very stressful time. I was pregnant at the time, and I did have problems with the pregnancy, and I've always thought that was result of the stress that I had. And as a result, my daughter does have a learning disability and a communication disorder. I don't know if it was from that, but I was hospitalized for a few days while I was pregnant, and we think it was stress related. So I don't know. That was a very stressful time, and very absurd. I cannot imagine a person being called into ministry and saying, "This is my parish, and those people over there are not." I couldn't fathom it. That's the biggest absurdity that I can think of.
Zarbock: Again, off-camera I cued you that I was going to ask, was there a time in your military career that you were ordered or hinted at or with a nudge and a wink, subtly and seductively asked to do something that you felt was not in keeping with your religious and spiritual beliefs or Navy regulations?
Nickols: I don't know. You asked me, and I said I would have to think about it. And right now, I really can't think of a time. If there was such a time, it was not so critical that I wasn't able to overcome it, because I really don't remember any instances that were that severe where I would have to say, "I'm not going to obey this order or this hint." I was always able to work things out, I think.
Zarbock: In the other interviews, and we're now in the mid-fifties, the number of interviews, I think there have only been three or four in which a chaplain could recall a situation in which they were ordered or an argument sprung up over an issue. But universally, the chaplain's decision was upheld. It was not infrequently a command officer, a line officer, would order the chaplain to do something in a moment of stress and pique, and then later, when cooler heads prevailed, it was like, "Oh, I'm sorry. That was a dumb thing."
Nickols: Well, I think because I worked at Naval Hospitals, there's already that understanding of the doctor-patient privilege. And so, I think that doctors-- and it was often a doctor or a medical service corps that was commanding officer-- had that same understanding. So I think it might have been more the nature of where I was assigned, that there was already that understanding of privileged information. So it might be different with line officers, that maybe don't have that same sort of understanding of privileged information and what that is.
Zarbock: Would you reflect-- you've got the military traditions, culture, very specific, very goal-oriented, there was a Sword of Damocles that hangs over all officers' heads about the efficiency reports. And here you are, a service unit within a fighting unit that has a different tradition, a different culture, a different chain of command that goes rather high. Did you reflect in your support meetings, or any other, with your husband or friends, did you ever reflect upon that? Was that a situation of stress?
Nickols: Yes, here's what, because my denomination is so liberal and have almost on several occasions voted to be a pacifist church, and it ended up just affirming peace rather than being pacifist. Being a UCC clergy person in the military was stressful, because there is not a lot of support from the denomination. And in fact, I was really feeling that, particularly, I guess maybe mostly when I was in Orlando. I was trying to become, transfer my standing to Florida, and they didn't understand what I was talking about, because I wasn't in a local church. And so they said, "You can't have standing as a military chaplain, because you don't have a local church." So I struggled with this. And then in the meantime, there's also a lot of UCC clergy saying, "We don't even know if we want to have military chaplains at all." And there was a lot of little underlying comments that were going on throughout the denomination, as to whether there was a value in having UCC members be chaplains. And so what happened, was we ended up, and I don't even remember who started this, but we ended up having a meeting of UCC clergy. And we all gathered. I don't remember if that first meeting was at Annapolis or where it was.
Zarbock: When you say the UCC...
Nickols: United Church of Christ.
Zarbock: You mean, only the chaplains?
Nickols: Only the UCC chaplains, military chaplains. We had a meeting, and I expressed at that meeting, my struggles with standing. I said, "I'm not getting information from any place now." And I asked what happened with my husband with the Lutheran Church, and they had a different kind of set-up. So, we were trying to figure out how we're going to keep our standing, how this is going to work, and to which conference we're supposed to be assigned to, if it's our home conference where we came from. But 25 years down the road, are you still supposed to have your home conference for your standing, or are you supposed to transfer every time you transfer? So we had these big discussions, so we ended up as a result forming a UCC Clergy Chaplains Fellowship. And we started that at that first meeting, and I was one of the members of the organizing committee for that.
Zarbock: Was that across military branches, too?
Nickols: Yes, it was across military branches. And so we started, and I think I was, I don't know what I was. I was some officer within it. But we established this thing. It's still going on today. We went, several of us went to our general synod, which is our national meeting for United Church of Christ. And we went in uniform. And I spoke in front of the whole general synod assembly on the need for chaplains. We created ourselves as a special interest group so we could speak to the assembly and explain what military chaplains are about. Because there are a lot of people who were saying we should not have military chaplains. In fact, we shouldn't even have our young people in the military in the United Church of Christ. And that's when we were on the bordering on whether we should be a pacifist church, or a just peace church, is what they were kind of going between the two. So I got up in uniform and spoke to the assembly on the need for military chaplains.
Zarbock: How were you received?
Nickols: I was received very well at that point. I actually ended up talking with the head of the United Church of Christ at the time, which I can't remember his name. But I was well-received. There were still certain people when I would go to different sessions that would say, "I still don't think there's any need for it." But I always just stuck to my guns and said, "Then who's going to be ministering to these people? It's going to be those people that have shunned me because I'm a woman, or don't believe in anything that we stand for. And here we are proclaiming ourselves to be a just-peace church; what better place for us to be speaking, than the military and calling for peace and justice within the military?" So that was a big, big thing. That was really, that was special. And we went to several general synods and did the same thing. It was great.
Zarbock: What is the situation with the UCC, now?
Nickols: Well, because my husband is Lutheran and now I'm serving, helping him with the Lutheran church, I'm a little bit out of touch with the United Church of Christ. So, I'm not sure. There still are certainly UCC military chaplains, and I do know that they are still meeting. We still have an endorsing agent, who I know. That's people that endorse you for the military chaplaincy. So I think they have a better understanding, certainly, over these years, as to what military chaplains do. It would've gotten the word out. We've had articles in our UCC magazine about military chaplains, so I think people have a better understanding of the need for military chaplains, especially UCC military chaplains.
Zarbock: This is marginal and maybe even rather light-hearted compared to the depth of your remarks, but I was astonished the other day to hear, and hear the obvious, that we have occupied Germany for 62 years, 62 years. And have been in war with Iraq for longer that World War II.
Nickols: Yep. So we need to have another voice within the military structure. The RUCC, the latest kind of advertising campaign is "God is still speaking." And that it's a comma, not a period. That God is still in our midst, still acting in our midst. And I believe that that needs to be present in the military, that God is still acting even within our military people, that they need God just as much as anybody else. And they need that support.
Zarbock: The age-old question, Chaplain, if you had it to do over again, would you?
Nickols: I don't know. There's been a lot of changes with the military, some for the better for women, certainly, because women are now allowed on ships, where we were not allowed on ships. They're allowed to fly the airplanes, the jets, which they were not allowed to before. There've been a lot of good changes. There have been a lot of other changes, too, changes within the Chaplain Corps, and just changes within the military and changes within our country. I'm not sure, at this point in my life; I'm not sure that I would go back and do it all over again. I don't know. I had some great times. I met my husband there. But at the same time, I don't know, maybe my time would have been better spent doing something else. I don't know. I guess I'll always wonder if my being in the military had an effect on my daughter. And that's one of the things that I struggle with, that I wouldn't want to have that happen again. So maybe that's what my hesitation is.
Zarbock: Things have improved for women in the chaplaincy?
Nickols: Yes, I believe so.
Zarbock: How often...
Nickols: There's still going to be people that don't believe in women that are going to give them problems. But there are more women now. I don't even know how many women there are now. But there are more women now. I think we've had more senior women. We've had women retire from the chaplaincy. So I think that things are better out there.
Zarbock: How often were you called "sir"?
Nickols: Oh, quite often. They didn't know what to call me. So I was called Sir.
Zarbock: What is the official?
Zarbock: Again, off-camera I cued you that I was going to ask the second to the last question. And the second to the last question is, looking back on the time, all the way from coming of age to educational experiences, family background, marriage and family, military, your whole life span: What have you put together for you as your credo? You are now up against the wall and you are instructed to tell.
Nickols: I think what's gotten me through everything, and there's a lot that I have not shared about my family and a lot of things. I think what's always gotten me through is in every instance to find God moving and to find some joy. And a lot of times for me, that comes in the form of humor. I use humor a lot to get me through things. Sometimes it's not appropriate, but I do it anyway. And I believe that God has a sense of humor, and so I see God in the humor, in the joy of life. So for me I think it's that. It's that I'm always trying to look on, sort of, not the bright side, not so much, but I'm always trying to see where God is speaking to me, here. And where is the positive? Where is the joy? Where is the humor in it? And that helps me connect with God.
Zarbock: So your glass is always half-full?
Nickols: Yes, at least. Yeah.
Zarbock: Well, the last question is really the last question, and here it is. Chaplain, looking in the camera, what would you like to say to your husband and your children?
Nickols: One of the greatest things about the Navy is having met my husband, that the Navy brought us together. I never dreamt that I would ever even get married. I never even thought I would date another minister. In fact, I had sort of sworn that off. But when I met him I knew that he was the right one. I think God put us together. And what would have happened if I would have been sent to Lemoore? I never would have met him. So I think there was a reason for me not getting in the Air Force, getting in the Navy, not going to Lemoore, coming to Portsmouth, being in that office, and meeting my husband. And as a result of that, we have two wonderful children. My daughter struggles, but she's a wonderful young lady. And I hope that she will find somebody in her life that will bring her as much joy as my husband has. My son, he's a crazy guy. He will never be in the military. When the Army calls him to recruit him, I tell them, "You don't want him in the military. You don't want him in the Army. Don't call back." But he's got a good head on his shoulders, and he has learned from our experience in moving around with the Navy, what his feelings are about military and about government. He's studying history and wants to go into, probably, teaching history. So I guess I would tell them I'm glad we're all together and that the Navy brought us together and brought us into being. And for that I'm thankful to the Navy.
Zarbock: And I'm thankful to you. Thank you, Chaplain.
Nickols: Thank you.