History’s tyrants and thieves remain with us, and if things get very dark sometimes, then my best hope is to do the right thing in the light of His Grace. That’s all I can hope to do, passing on that Grace whenever I can.
It’s strange how I can’t remember this guy’s whole name but his face and voice come back so clearly. His first name was Batya. I can hear his braying laugh as his team tore us up on the soccer field… grown men, too old to be so involved. We played every Sunday.
I can also see his sullen face turned away from the pitch, stomping out to the parking lot dragging his empty cooler when he finally lost a match. He was hardly graceful in defeat, but he didn’t lose often.
On the days when He’d won and the weather was nice, we’d hang around and shoot the bull. The rich tones of his real-history tales were told with Eastern European flavor and loaded, I suppose, with facts. After the games we would sit until well after sundown, drinking up everybody’s beer… becoming children again.
One of the most remarkable of his remembrances involved his extended family, uncles and their generation who lived through the years when both Hitler and Stalin played out parts of their destinies in Hungary. He was a small boy in those years, yet still vividly remembered.
His family owned the local canning factory, taken by the Nazis, and pressed into the service of the engorged and roiling Reich. The farmers were expected to continue bringing in their beans and squash to the satisfaction of their new rulers. A payment would be made to the farmers and the processed foods would be sealed into cans then sent to the waiting kitchens of the Wehrmacht.
The farmers hoarded and hid some of their produce. Nazi-party officials also stole some. Of course the factory owners kept some back, unofficially, for their own sustenance and to participate more meaningfully in the red-hot black market economy that always flows in times of chaos.
The stolen cans of vegetables and potted meat were sold to anyone who could afford the monstrously inflated prices, with the few remaining Jews being amongst the likeliest candidates. Those not taken into the camps were hiding with their families and their few precious belongings. They could neither work nor flee.
So, Grampa’s gold watch got traded for a can of pudding, and the family’s silver Samovar went for some lentils or beets. It continued for years, and although he never said as much, I imagine other, more precious physical offerings were ultimately yielded up by the starving… the last items available for trade.
Their cannery was still in operation when the Communist soldiers skinned out the Germans. Poppa Joe Stalin brought in the glorious promise of “new management” and directed Batya’s family to hand over the keys to the party’s Director of Commerce and Agriculture or some such politik-speak. They would now be working for “the people.” Wisely choosing to seek more profitable options Batya’s family fled the town. The Communist hierarchy allowed them to travel, but with only as much as they could personally carry. Their horse and wagon were now working for the people. With no transport available they trudged in a small group out through the town. He told me his uncles and aunts looked like bears bundled into multiple layers of fur coats and cashmere. Each adult carried two suitcases stuffed with the loot they had extracted from their starving neighbors over the preceding years. All their pockets were filled. They could barely waddle.
The village children jeered and chased them throwing rocks, frozen road apples, and clods of dirt. When older folks joined in, some suitcases were dropped in hopes of making a speedier exit, and a sort of melee ensued allowing their escape.
Batya’s laugh was rich with echoes of a child’s delight in the discomfiture of his fleeing uncles. He identified more with the boys throwing the stones and filth.
The rich ironies of this flight surfaced later for him as he grew into manhood. As it turned out, irony beset Batya. He came to Canada, then the US, went to university and built himself a very profitable little business making prosthetic limbs. He played in the stock market, doing wonderfully for awhile. He had married a beautiful woman, much younger than he, and was wounded beyond help when the bursting tech-bubble took much of his money. Around the same time he began to suspect his wife’s infidelity. I noticed he was no longer a part of the regular soccer crew, and when I heard he was going through some stuff I called him on the phone, trying to pry him out of his doldrums.
“The game is calling, man… it’s a new season, I’ve found these great new players from El Salvador and Brazil… We’ll kick-butt out there… come on Batya.”
I couldn’t lure him, and he really did love this game. He once told me how he and the other boys would take off their socks, rolling them into a ball so they could play soccer in the apartment stairwells and hard-packed mud of the communist courtyards where his family lived before their escape to Canada.
But soccer was not therapy enough. Batya told me he had some “things” he was working on and wouldn’t give any time to the game anymore. I should have swallowed my pride and tried harder to reach him.
Never magnanimous in defeat, when his stocks bottomed and his suspicions got the best of him, he burned up alive in the lovely house he had bought for his wife and children, murdering her and the kids in the process. I believe he was looking for an end to his pain.
“That’s too strange, that guy was messed up,” we say… “that couldn’t be me… I would never get that far.” But history lessons do include instances where guys (especially successful guys) choose the “end-it-all” route when their times and circumstances converge into darkness.
Consider one well-known example that speaks to our present economic woes: of all the possible important details we remember from our US History concerning the Stock Market Crash of 1929, the fact that some guys leapt out of their office windows shines sharply in our collective memory. How many guys jumped? Hundreds? No. Dozens? No.
From what I read, there were two people who jumped to their deaths in Wall Street immediately after the “Black Thursday” crash. Two people. Eventually the numbers rose to 22 people in 100,000 in the US.
In the USA 126 million people struggled and suffered for 11 years during that Great Depression. Why do we still remember the suicides so well? I guess it’s easier to wrap your mind around a few extreme and desperate acts than to envision the long-long suffering of millions. Even so, I believe this “cancel myself” mental option has passed through the minds of most guys who, at the time, are looking for an end to the pain and that’s why events like this are so memorable. “That guy could be me.” The drive to succeed is fueled by many things and fear of failure is in the mix for most normal people.
What does the nightmare of total inextricable failure do to the mind? It certainly has the power to unhinge us. But where the thought of this suicide option exists, whether born-in or burned-in, there is still a better way out for any man trapped in failure. This is not the end, we are not trapped. We have been given the indescribably complicated gift of life.
Like most people, I’ve had some problems and failure. For me it’s mostly stupid things, but bad enough, nevertheless. I take the credit for my own stupidities and the consequences they engender. Including some recurring memories I’d like to erase. Also, there have been deaths in the family lately, and lots of illness, struggles, and sadness in the homes and families of close friends. Now, since I’ve just been laid off from my job. I can easily imagine dark looming clouds if I want to. But my personal problems and this ridiculous economy cannot crush me.
Here’s why. Some years ago when I was circling the center of one of my personally designed black holes I received a fabulous gift. In an attempt to get an up-close look at some unique stained glass windows I sneaked into a church that was only open on Sunday mornings. I experienced a remarkable thing. The pulpit-pounding “man of the cloth” was carrying on about God’s love and Man’s need for God.
He was answering questions I had been ruminating upon for years. Questions I had been afraid to ask out loud. Nietzsche stuff, and Aquinas. I stayed and listened.
In simple terms, this country preacher laid out the details and asked us all to believe. I did. I still do. This hasn’t done away with life’s craziness, but has granted me an enduring perspective and, most importantly, a place to go when my head and heart are flooding with junk. The fact of a loving God’s existence and the evidence of His acts in my life are indisputable. Add to that this assurance: the end of this life is not the end at all.
Here’s one of my favorite parts of the “Book of Hope”:
“When my heart was embittered, and I was pierced within, Then I was senseless and ignorant; I was like a beast before Thee. Nevertheless I am continually with Thee; Thou hast taken hold of my right hand. With Thy counsel Thou wilt guide me, and afterward receive me to glory.” Psalm 73
So, I add to my list of things not done well my failure to reach out more effectively to Batya in his personal black hole. But I can’t change any of this now, any more than little Batya could have changed his village or his family’s attitude towards their neighbors.
Well, he might have hidden a can of beans here and there and delivered them quietly to the starving. Even to do a little thing like that would seem an act of heroism in the context of history’s greatest conflicts. But he didn’t. He was just a little kid.
I think we’re in the midst of one of history’s great moments now. I am just one person, but I can still deliver some cans of beans. I would rather be one of the littlest heroes than some poster child for the 21st century’s meltdown.
History’s tyrants and thieves remain with us, (they most assuredly do) and if things get very dark sometimes, (count on it) then my best hope is to do the right thing in the light of His Grace. That’s all I can hope to do, passing on that Grace whenever I can. Loaves and fishes; beans and light: Give some.
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The featured image is “Despair” (1894) by Edvard Munch (1863-1944) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.