‘I see ya brought a helper’

My dad drove a gas truck for the local farmers cooperative when I was a kid. He delivered bulk fuel to farms for tractors and furnace oil to village dwellers for heat.

In the summer or on a school break dad liked nothing better than for me to go with him on the truck. It wasn’t for any big help I could offer. It was for company, for hours of father/son time that we didn’t often get because he worked long days.

If the farmer was home when we pulled into his yard, he sauntered over to visit with my dad, who was highly regarded in four counties. Visiting so many households, he knew the news  and was a mobile encyclopedia of current scuttlebutt.

Invariably when I hopped down from the cab and popped my little buzz cut head around the corner to unreel the hose, the farmer would call out, as if he was the first to notice or to think it, “See ya brought a helper with ya today, Marv.”

I knew I really wasn’t much help, but the implied compliment buried in that observation never got old. I puffed up a bit each time someone called me my dad’s helper.

I walked quicker and straighter and leaned into pulling the long, heavy hose while trying to act as if it was no effort at all. If I needed to roll an 80-pound liquid gas tank around to the kitchen, I hoped they couldn’t see that it took every ounce of my strength. Dad handled them like they were as light as baseball bats.

Fifty years later, or last week for those of you keeping score at home, I was with dad in Wisconsin. He doesn’t drive the gas truck anymore. In fact, I did the driving.

We went to the county nursing home where dad assists his pastor in a monthly communion service for residents. Dad brings the communion vessels, wafers and Welch’s, which he keeps in a large, plastic, covered bin.

Dad punched the security code, held open the door and I carried the box in for him. A couple of other volunteers were waiting on us to help set up the worship area in the common room.

“See ya brought a helper with ya today, Marv.”

I didn’t see it coming, that line from across the room, or across the decades. But it zinged through the air like William Tell’s arrow splitting the apple atop his son’s head.

I’m still my father’s helper. It’s a role I cherish and a compliment I don’t deserve.

That nine-word phrase bookends my life. The phrase is the same, but everything between the bookends is different.

I’ve grown from a child to middle age, from a kid to a grandfather, from innocent to wary. And although I’ve earned some frameable papers, been to three county fairs and a hog killin’, swam in the ocean and written things that must be said, perhaps the highest compliment I’ve ever been paid and the most important task to which ever I’ve put my hand, is to be my father’s helper.

What would you trade for a life?

High drama packs nearly every scene of the 1993 Oscar winner for best picture “Schindler’s List.” It’s the true story of businessman Oskar Schindler ruthlessly profiteering from WW II by using cheap Jewish labor from internment camps in his factory.

Eventually he realizes the ultimate fate of his labor force, as they are reconscripted from the factory to trains heading for extermination ovens at Auschwitz. He scrambles to trade his wealth to save them.

In an exceptional moment near the end, Schindler collapses in pain and regret. Grief overwhelms him, as he finally comprehends how his selfish preoccupation with wealth kept him from saving more lives.

Schindler, a hero only to Jews and drinking buddies before the movie elevated his name, was a war profiteer. An unsuccessful businessman in his native Czechoslovakia, he joined the Nazi party knowing the coming war would make many men rich. He wanted to be one of them.

He worked deals to secure cheap Jewish labor, seduced contracts from German officers and manufactured enamelware, making “more money than any man could spend in a lifetime.”

An opportunist, he sensed the war’s pending finish. Germany was collapsing and Schindler’s labor source was being sent to fuel the ovens in Auschwitz. As he packed his money into trunks to return home, he had a revelation about the real value of his wealth. He could trade it for lives.

Schindler bargained with sadistic camp commandant Amon Goethe to “buy” 1,100 Jews and save them from Auschwitz. Schindler had to transport the Jews to Czechoslovakia, house them and reopen a factory there, all at his expense.

When the war ends seven months later, Schindler is broke. Because he was a war profiteer and collaborator, he must flee the Allies. During goodbyes to his grateful workers, he collapses in grief.

He looks at the car that is to carry him to safety and cries, “Why did I keep this car? I could have bought 10 more people with it.”

He clutches the Nazi party pin on his lapel. “And this gold pin?” he sobs. “Why did I not give it to Goethe? He would’ve given me two people. One at least. One more person.”

And Schindler falls, sobbing, to his knees.

War measures men. It sizes their hearts, weighs their capacity. War searches souls for a seed of greed and nurtures men’s desires in exchange for their soul.

War made Schindler rich beyond his dreams. Then the spotlight of the human cost of war illuminated his deepest recesses. And he realized the frailty, the brief, temporal nature of all that he’d pursued.

In exchange for a few “things,” like dollar bills or a car or a pin, he could purchase life.

In that context, what is “sacrifice?” War redefines it. In the face of threat you do not consider as sacrifice the things you do without to support your tribe’s war effort. It is simply redistribution to a greater good.

When I first wrote about Schindler’s list in 1994, I said we are at war in America. “But it rages mostly undeclared and undetected while we live as in peace,” I said.

But we are not at war for two reasons:

1. As awful, fruitless and unredemptive as is war, it at least focuses effort. And we are totally unfocused on any of the “crises” manufactured by each day’s headlines. Yesterday’s news wraps fish.

2. No one is willing to redistribute a nickel for the tribal good.

Issues like education, health care, more people in prison than in any other country, restless, angry unemployment among the poor, crumbling infrastructure, spending on military that outstrips the next seven nations combined, fatherless homes, family collapse, rebellion, a rising U.S. oligarchy, religious-political strife, a warming earth and hardened battle lines between opposing opinions fragment focus until we just muddle through the days, grateful to collapse behind a locked door and a blaring television set.

We have little time or interest to evaluate our possessions and consider if we own them, or they own us. What gold pin, or car, or house, or boat or vacation trip will we trade for lives? Schindler finally came to the wrenching realization that each dollar he spent on revelry was a dollar no longer available to purchase a life.

What trinket will you trade for a life? Will you put off a new car to shelter a single, pregnant girl who is considering abortion? Will you trade a new suit for a poor family’s groceries? Will you eat beans instead of steak so another family can eat beans instead of nothing? Will you trade an hour to tutor a struggling student?

Schindler’s Jews now have more than 7,000 descendants. Would you trade your trunk of money for such a legacy?