February 8th, 2023
Thirty-odd years ago, I started working at a trucking company in Milwaukee as a supervisor. Truck drivers and dock workers were part of a rough crowd in those days. None of them were “woke” or “politically correct”. They worked hard and were plain spoken. I never had to worry about any of my drivers being shy around me.
I assigned delivery routes to the drivers, and some of them had areas where they preferred not to go. I understood that, but shipments had to be delivered, and sometimes I had to send a driver into a part of town that they hated. Some of the drivers took that in stride, while others made a big fuss about it. Those guys would argue with me, and our discussions would get rather heated.
I had a loud and angry conversation once with one of the older drivers. Dick was a big man and a former Teamster. He tried to convince me to give his load to a junior man, and I refused to do that. Dick took his paperwork and stomped down to the break room. I could hear him yelling and cursing from where I was standing in the office.
Later, another driver came up from the break room and talked with me. He said,
“Man, Dick was pissed off at you.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“Do you know what he said about you?”
“He called you a little Nazi cocksucker.”
It took me a moment to take that in. Then I laughed.
It was obvious that, at that moment in time, Dick meant what he said about me. But it was so over the top, it was funny. My new nickname stuck, and the guys would tease me about it from time to time. I have to admit that I was more thick-skinned after that incident.
Even years later, the story about Dick and his terms of affection for me was told in the break room. Sometimes, a new employee would come into the dispatch office and whine to me that somebody had ill-treated him. I would look at him and ask,
“Did he call you a Nazi cocksucker?”
The answer was usually, “What? Why do you ask that? Did somebody call you that?”
I would nod and gently tell him to quit his bitching unless he could top it. Nobody ever could.
I tell this story because in my life people have sometimes described me in a way that didn’t match my self-image. Maybe Dick was right about me. Apparently, there was a grain of truth in what he said.
I go to a synagogue on a regular basis. I’m not Jewish, but I feel like I belong there. Most of the other members of the community know that I am Catholic, and that I will never convert. All of them recognize that I am their friend, but I am not one of them.
Except for one guy.
I am tight to one member of the synagogue who is old by any objective standard. He just turned eighty-nine a while ago. We have had similar experiences, which seems odd in a way. My friend is a Ukrainian Jew who became a political refugee after the Soviet Union imploded. He was strongly encouraged by armed members of an ultranationalist Ukrainian militia to leave Kyiv and emigrate to another country. This man has a son who is combat vet, just like I have a son who is a combat vet. His son fought for the Soviet Army in Afghanistan and was severely wounded in an IED explosion. My kid fought in Iraq and got wounded too. His boy has PTSD. So does mine.
My old friend talks to me and I listen to him. We are together partly because he knows that I understand his pain. Often, he will grasp my hand as he speaks. He wants me close.
This Ukrainian refugee had bad experiences with Christians back in the old country. As far as I can tell, he never met a Christian who wasn’t a Jew-hater. Ergo, because I am his friend and because I pray with him, I must be a Jew. Despite my efforts to explain things, he is absolutely convinced that I am Jewish.
I drove him home two weeks ago after the morning service on Shabbat. All the way to his house, he told me about his son and how he worries about him. I just listened. A couple times, the man was almost in tears. I let him speak his peace. He repeated himself a few times, but we old guys do that.
I pulled up to his home, and he grabbed hold of my right hand. He looked me in the eye and said in his thick Slavic accent,
“My friend, you are a good Jew.”
I didn’t disagree with him.
Maybe he’s right.