Monday, October 5, 2015

Jack's Idols

Everything in Jack’s life had an aura of idolatry. A staff sergeant, he was at the tail end of his second enlistment, quite ready to re-up for a third because he thought he had a beautiful life.
About a year remained of Jack’s assignment at a German military base when I arrived there. He was about 27 and I was 18. There was little appealing to me about my new assignment with its olive drab buildings and somber soldiers trudging through the early winter snow. There was a cinema on base, a delicatessen, a dayroom in the barracks with a pool table and an enlisted men’s “club” but there did not appear to be much else to occupy one’s hours away from the job. (That is before I discovered the library, the darkroom and the bowling alley).
But I saw right away that Jack occupied his time well. First, he had a well-coifed mustache that went way beyond regulation. It even curled up on the ends, except on inspection days when he trimmed it down or tucked it in somehow. The rule was that your mustache must be well groomed and half way between your nose and upper lip, not extending beyond the corners of your mouth. Jack consistently and easily got by with his extravagant “stache.” He was a friend of the officers in our unit. I think they considered him a charming eccentric that could do no harm, not to mention the fact that he wrote a weekly column for the Stars and Stripes newspaper. He did report abuses in that article, so maybe that is why he was treated with such privilege.
Jack drove a second-hand Jaguar that he kept immaculate and sparkling. He even cleaned under the hood and painted the tires with that black stuff. I helped him wash his car one Saturday and he invited me to play chess in the dayroom. He allowed me to accompany him to his lavishly decorated suite in the barracks—how he rated such a big private apartment, I never knew. There, he retrieved a carved meerschaum pipe from a rack of some 20 such works of art, filled it with aromatic tobacco from a small painted Grecian urn, grabbed an embossed leather case full of a hand-crafted chess board and wonderfully carved chess pieces, and we settled at a table in the dayroom. The conversation was sparse but congenial as he puffed on his Nordic-headed pipe and beat the socks off me two times in a row.
The dude had a temper, too. Once just outside the chow hall, he was taking the bowl out of his calabash pipe and it cracked. I never heard such bad language from a civilized person. He hurled the whole shebang into a trash can as he ranted on and on. Another time, I don’t know if someone keyed the trunk of his Jag or if he had driven under a limb or something, but when he discovered the scratch, he was apoplectic. His countenance fell, his visage reddened and his breathing quickened as he began to defy Heaven itself with his insane invective. To put it succinctly, Jack was an idolater and when anything went wrong with his idols, his whole universe was spoiled.

I learned that it was fine to like your possessions, but not to the extreme of mustachioed Jack the pipe-smoking, chess-playing Jaguar man. 

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