I’m in a doctor’s waiting room in Huntsville, Alabama, the very buckle of the Bible Belt. I’m leafing through episodes in the life of Elisha, the Prophet, instead of reading about bodily improvements in Cosmopolitan. The Book of Books sits right there on the coffee table along with its trendy companions.
It’s a brief wait. I don’t even get to finish the story in Kings II, about Elisha causing an ax head to float to the surface of the Jordan River. The nurse calls me into the business end of the suite and the doctor-let’s call him O’Neil-checks me out. Later, as I dress, he notices my Jewish Community T-shirt.
“Oh, you’re Jewish. I’m Irish.”
He hesitates. O’Neil is normally a quiet man who doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve. I can see that he’s deliberating, considering whether or not to share the thoughts that are visible on his face.
I encourage him by using the old psychotherapeutic technique of neutral repetition.
“Oh, so you’re Irish. That’s nice.”
“Yeah,” he says. “Ya know, a Rabbi blessed my Daddy just before he died; and a Jewish boy who rose to be President of Midwest Grain came to my Daddy’s wake.”
Here it comes, and it sounds like a good one.
“We lived in a dusty, little town twenty miles from Galveston. My Daddy was the head accountant-you might call him the office manager-for Midwest Grain Corporation. It was a good job in the late 30s-plenty of groceries for the family.
“Anyhow, in our town there was an old Jewish guy. I’d often see him on the street, dressed all in black, full gray beard. Instead of a Stetson, he wore a wide-brimmed black hat. Can you imagine walking around in a black suit in a hot, South Texas town where the river dries up in July? I never understood that.
“Well, seems like most every weekend, Daddy would go visit the fellow with the beard. Me and my brother and sister, we’d stay in the car and listen to the insect noises that filled the night. Daddy would stay in the house about an hour. He never said what they talked about, but one thing I remember is he always came back to the car with a handful of papers.
“In those years, you know, it was hard for Jews to get into the U.S. They had to have a sponsor and a bona fide job waiting for them. My Daddy, we found out later, was working with that Jewish Rabbi-I’ve forgotten his name-arranging for German Jews to immigrate to America. Jobs were a prerequisite, so my Daddy, in his official capacity as office manager, hired seventeen Jewish office boys. Seventeen!”
In a happier time it would have been a comic scene out of a Marx Brothers movie. Seventeen office boys falling all over themselves speaking Yiddish or fractured English. Midwest Grain must have given their Galveston region manager a huge corporate wink. He had more office boys than invoices. He and the old Jew in the outlandish hat worked it out, Doc O’Neil told me, and one of those office boys rose to be President of Midwest Grain!
“And that’s why the President of Midwest Grain and a Rabbi who looked like an Old Testament prophet came to my father’s funeral.” Dr. O’Neil paused to remember a wake in South Texas: a room full of Irishmen and two Jews. “You know,” said the doctor, “those Nazis were mean.”
The Doc was probably repeating words he’d heard as a child as his dad sat in his large living room chair and read the headlines. Here was a Texas Schindler. His actions were all the more praiseworthy since he was so remote from the catastrophe; totally disconnected from the victims. He never saw the broken lives. He heard no widows’ cries.
All this was reeling around in my head as I buttoned up my shirt. Just goes to show, I thought, how life can occasionally threaten a curve ball and instead put a big, fat pitch right over the plate. Thirty minutes with a medico and I get: A) a small innocent lump painlessly removed from my neck, B) a good report on the content of that lump, and C) an inspirational jolt that makes me feel a whole lot better about my planetary brothers.
In Jerusalem, in Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial, there’s a section dedicated to righteous Gentiles-heroes who saved Jewish lives during the Holocaust. I nominate this South Texas Schindler. He’d probably be the first Galveston honoree.