Exclusive Interview: Paradise Commander - How a Convinced Agnostic Became a Devout Catholic
An extraordinary story about an ordinary man
Fr. James: I enjoyed reading Paradise Commander. I know from personal experience that writing a book is quite an amazing adventure. What inspired you to write a book about your own personal conversion?
Al Hughes: While commanding Antigua Air Station, West Indies, so much happened, often humorous, I often said without real intent, "I could write a book!" As my conversion began with a flood of miraculous events, "I could write a book" began to take hold of my life. From time to time I wrote notes and snippets, drafted chapters; established a chapter sequence that kept changing on me. The manuscript was a long time coming. In retrospect, Paradise Commander could not have been completed without the insights gained in my religious calling: my post- Air Force 25 year avocation as a lay catechist and retreat master.
Fr. James: In the preamble of your book you write, "It was no surprise that from the ripe old age of 14, I declared myself an agnostic." Can you explain to me and to our Catholic Online readers what it is like to be an agnostic? What goes on inside the soul of someone who claims to be an agnostic?
Al Hughes: In the epilogue, I mention the existence of unknown unknowns. There are many facts and issues we do not know and do not know that we do not know. I was un-churched and un-taught in spiritual matters. You can't delve into matters you don't know exist! I could not ask questions about matters hidden in my personal set of unknown unknowns. However, the indifference and disbelief my parents demonstrated was clear. Juveniles often do as their parents do.
Fr. James: What about the atheist? Practically speaking, you know, based on the day by day stuff, is there really that much of a difference, or what is the difference?
Al Hughes: The agnostic knows he can't prove a negative. One only can say that he has no evidence of the positive. (There can be no evidence of nothing!) When the atheist with his own set of unknown unknowns states with conviction that there is no God, he makes a very real faith statement. He cannot prove it, but believes it, often with militant results.
Fr. James: But, as a self-declared agnostic, you met, fell in love and married your wife Jeannie who has always been a devout Catholic. How does that happen? Is love that blind or is that a part of God's plan that you talk about in your book?
Al Hughes: You ask a biological question! Nature has its ways. I was not opposed to the faith of others. Before the wedding Mass, the priest was interested in one key issue. Would I interfere with the Christian education of our children? My answer was, "Why would I interfere? I have nothing to offer them, but Jeannie does!" He was satisfied. As to God's plan, our meeting and wedding was so improbable (she from Seattle, me from south Louisiana, meeting at a marina in Florida where we both lived on adjacent sailboats), it would seem in the context of all else that happened, only God could put that scenario together.
Fr. James: From the very beginning of your book you talk about your extensive military career in the Air Force and your assignment on the beautiful Caribbean island, Antigua, West Indies. Can you give us a quick summary of your military experience and what it was like to live in Antigua?
Al Hughes: Sure. Through the rank of Captain, I managed development of special purpose radars for Cape Canaveral and the Caribbean air stations. Newly a Major, I was assigned as a Senior Director of the Space Defense Center; later a crew commander of the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System near Fairbanks and still later as Commander of Antigua Air Station. I completed my career as a Lieutenant Colonel, conducting strategic planning ...
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