Manny and the Beads

I had a Jewish roommate who hailed from Long Island during my Sophomore and Junior years in college.  Although David was not what one would call a practicing Jew, he was very sensitive to the spiritual.  I underwent my ‘Damascus Road’ conversion during our residency together and he was nothing but respectful and supportive of the radical change that had occurred in my life.  This story is meant to be an entertaining (and hopefully inspiring) tale of the harmony that can exist between dissimilar cultures when respect and dignity form the basis of relationship.  Manny and the Beads was inspired by that special relationship.

“So this Boniface guy threatens to cut down the sacred oak of Thor, right?  He dares the Norse god to strike him dead when he lays the axe to the trunk? I did not read this in Stan Lee’s Marvel Comic version. MESHUGGINA![1]
Aaron was in his element.  Among his favorite serial topics in the running conversation with his gentile roommate was the superiority of Hebrew biblical heroes over Catholic saints.  He would often trigger the ongoing debate by asking for a rundown on the “saint of the day” from the calendar hung on the wall next to Kevin’s bedside.
Kevin willingly engaged his friend, for he knew it was all part of his roommate’s endearing personality.  His shtik[2], as Aaron would say.
“That’s right, Aaron.  Just picture this.  Boniface is a missionary to a foreign land, surrounded by devotees whose culture and identity revolve around their worship of this sacred tree.  A solitary figure, surrounded by strangers, he challenges their entire belief system, taunting Thor to strike him dead for his apparent blasphemy.  Can you imagine the drama?”  Kevin leaned back, his hands behind his head, awaiting the inevitable counterpunch.
         “So, of course he survives.  He cuts down the tree and the Mighty Thor is suddenly gornisht[3] and the enlightened natives abandon everything they ever believed in and live happily ever 

[1] Meshuggina: Crazy (Yiddish)
[2] Shtik: Refers to an individual’s unique way of presenting themselves (Yiddish)
[3] Gornisht: Nothing, often used in a sarcastic manner (Yiddish)
after.  This is what you are telling me?”
        Kevin nods triumphantly.  “Even better.  As soon as Boniface puts the axe to the tree, a sudden wind uproots the mighty oak.  When Boniface remained unharmed, the amazed people converted on the spot.  Boniface then used the wood from the tree to build a chapel.  What irony, eh?  Germany was never the same.”
        “Oy Vey,” Aaron rolled his eyes, “don’t even get me started on Germany…thanks for nothin’, Boniface!”  Then with a glint in his eye, “Now my luftmensh[1], let me remind you of one Elijah the prophet and his little kibitz[2] with the prophets of Baal.  Now that was an encounter!”
        Aaron strode to the center of the room and stood as tall as his diminutive stature would allow as he swept his arm in an expansive gesture to embellish the power of his narrative.

        “Now, picture this…and think William Wyler here – a good Jewish boy, by the way, OK?  King Ahab is the flunky king of Israel.  Elijah is King Ahab’s nudnik[3] – a real pain in the tusch[4], OK?  Ahab has a contract out on him.  So Elijah saunters up to the king, kvetching[5] about his infidelities to foreign gods and then orders, mind you, orders the king to assemble the 450 prophets of Baal to a showdown on the top of Mt. Carmel.  Think Fortune 500 CEOs vs. the guy with the hot dog stand in Times Square, OK?  Once assembled, Elijah confronts the people - everyone of them a

[1] Luftmensh: A dreamer.  One whose head is in the clouds (Yiddish)
[2] Kibitz: To offer comments that are often unwanted (Yiddish)
[3] Nudnik: A persistent and annoying person. (Yiddish)
[4] Tusch: One’s backside. (Yiddish)
[5] Kvetch: To annoy or be an annoying person.  To complain. (Yiddish)
shlemiel[1] – to choose between Elohim or Baal.  The spineless schlubs[2] are saying nothing, no one has a kind word for Elijah – talk about your “solitary figure”.  But not to worry, this is Elijah, not some axe-wielding missionary.”
         Both boys were enjoying this interplay immensely.  Passersby in the hallway were gathering around the open doorway.  The antics of Aaron and Kevin were a source of popular entertainment for the floor residents.  Aware of his growing audience, Aaron continued with relish.
        “Two altars are set up.  One for Baal, one for the God of Israel.  The deal is this:  the real deity will light the fire from the sky to burn the offerings put on the altar.  The phony one will do nothing.  Fair enough?”
        Aaron looked around to acknowledge the shrugs and nods of his now rapt and growing audience.  A few of the students had entered the room, taking positions, some now sitting on the floor.
        “So, Elijah allows the schmuck[3] prophets of Baal first shot.  They dance around, intone, plead, wail to their god.  Elijah ridicules them, keeps looking at the sundial strapped to his wrist, wondering if maybe Baal is out taking a leak or something.  This goes on for hours.  Nothin’ is happening, OK?  So now it’s Elijah’s turn!”
        For effect, Aaron pulled the cover from his bed and wrapped it around his shoulders like a mantle and raised his arms. 

[1] Shlemiel: A dummy; someone who is taken advantage of; a born loser (Yiddish)
[2] Schlub: An insensitive, ill-mannered person. (Yiddish)
[3] Schmuck: A detestable person. (Yiddish)

“Elijah, the faithful prophet of Israel, orders that his altar be drenched with water.  Not once, mind you, but three times!  The wood and the meat is soaked, water is running down the sides of the altar.  The crowd is silent.”
        The gathering of student observers was equally quiet, spellbound by the passion of Aaron’s storytelling.  He rotated slowly, engaging each face before continuing.  And then, raising his eyes to the ceiling he sent chills down every spine as he unabashedly shouted out the prayer of Elijah….
O LORD, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, prove now that you are the God of Israel. and that I am your servant and have done all this at your command.  Answer me, LORD, answer me, so that this people will know that you, the LORD, are God and that you are bringing them back to yourself.”
        At this point, Aaron broke character, to add further color to his presentation.  “Now, before I go on, let me point out the big difference between asking a deity to strike you down as a proof and requiring the deity to actually do something empirical as proof.  So, my distinguished guests…Kowalski, get your feet off that chair…I ask you, which is easier: Invite the deity to strike you dead, or invoke the deity to light a fire?  Any shmeggegge[1] can defy God to strike him down with the same results as Boniface.”

     With a mischievous smile Aaron pointed to a bearded young man in the hallway.  “Bennet, the Philosophy major, does it at least once a week, y’know – daring God to strike him dead - so ....Boniface's 

[1] Shmeggegge: A petty person; an untalented person. (Yiddish)
challenge was a pretty safe bet even without the windstorm.  Not so here with Elijah.  Any guesses on what happens next?”
        A pimpled student with thick glasses, now sitting on the chair by Aaron’s desk blurts out, “I’m guessin’ lightning from the sky sets the offering on fire.”
        Aaron harrumphed defiantly.  “You wish that’s all that happened!  No, my boychick[1], we are dealing with some real fershtinkiners[2] here.  Fire from heaven is not enough to wow this crowd, OK?  No, not only does lightning ignite the offering, but totally atomizes the wood, the stone altar, the pool of dripping water, the phony prophets…everything is plotz[3]!”
        Aaron took a stage bow to the applause of the assembled crowd.  Michael Schwartz cried out, “Koenig, you can fill in for my rabbi any time!”
        “Hah!” rejoined a slender boy wearing a yarmulke, “first he would need to show up at Temple.  Do you even know where it is, Koenig?”

        Nonplussed, Aaron conceded with a shrug “Don’t be such a shvitzer[4], Rosenberg. Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, I’m there.  Good enough for this Reformed Jew, OK?  My Bubbala[5] and me,” he nods to Kevin, “we are even developing our own ‘ecumenical’

[1] Boychick: An affectionate term for a young boy. (Yiddish)
[2] Fershtinkiner: A stinker.  A louse.  (Yiddish)
[3] Plotz: To burst.  To explode.  (Yiddish)
[4] Shvitzer: A braggert.  A showoff. (Yiddish)
[5] Bubbala: A term of endearment. (Yiddish

observance.  Of which I don’t think you would approve.”
        Aaron did a double-take, as if he saw the gathered body of onlookers for the first time.  “Who invited all this dreck[2] in here?  Gay Aveck[3]Get out of here!  Or, if you are going to stay, at least take your shoes off.  This is holy ground!”
        Kevin was shaking his head as the murmuring crowd dispersed.  “You really enjoy this don’t you, Koenig.  I only wish you believed half of what you profess to know.  You realize your amusement borders on blasphemy, don’t you?”
        Aaron was now seated on his bed, juggling a pair of apples.  “Bubbala, who told you I don’t believe?  Did Manny tell you that?  Or maybe it was his mother?”  Aaron nodded toward the crucifix hanging above Kevin’s bed.  It was congenitally impossible for him to utter the name ‘Jesus’ aloud.  So it was to his everlasting delight that he discovered, during Kevin’s explanation of the incarnation, that the founder of Christianity was to be named Immanuel.

 He had blurted at the revelation.  “Why didn’t you tell me his name was Immanuel.  I have an uncle by that name.  Uncle Manny!  Manny’s a great name!   Half the ballplayers from Puerto Rico are named Manny!”  And from that point on, Manny was the name by which the subject of Kevin’s devotion was referenced.  And so Aaron spoke of Manny often in his dialogs with his roommate, as one would speak to a child about an imaginary friend.  But in the recesses of their hearts, both boys knew it was all in jest.  Aaron was amused, mystified, and inspired by his gentile

[1] Chanukkah: Commemorates of the rededication of the Temple after defeat of occupying Greeks.
[2] Dreck: Excrement.  Can refer to the ugliness of objects or people. (Yiddish)
[3] Gay Aveck: Go away!  Get out of here!  (Yiddish)

friend.  He deeply respected his apparently unshakable faith, his goodness, and his implacable friendship.  He would often watch from the dorm window as Kevin walked the perimeter of the courtyard below in the early morning and late evening, meditating on the mysteries of the beads, “talking to Manny’s mother (behind his back, no doubt)” Aaron would cajole his friend.
        “What’s not to believe, Bubbala?  God and me, we’re inseparable.  I’m part of the chosen – even Manny will tell you that, right?  Give me time, Bubbala, and I will even convert you.  It’s a good life, being among the chosen.  The whole world resents you, of course, while depending upon you to excel in Law, Science, Philosophy, Medicine and Finance.  When your enemies tire of tormenting you for your efforts, the God of Abe, Isaac, and Jake is there to dish out some more just to keep you in line.  It’s a good life to be chosen! Ay-Yay-Yay!”
        “That’s what I mean, Koenig!  Have some respect for your own tradition, already!”  Kevin flung a sponge exercise ball at Aaron, who grabbed it midair, and spun it into the juggling rotation.
        “Look, Bubbala!  A Trinity!”

        And so it had gone on this way for the three years the boys shared a dorm room.  Thrown together by the random pairing of the university housing gods, the odd couple never considered changing the arrangement as so many other mismatched freshmen did at the end of the term.  By the second year they were even alternating holiday breaks at each other’s homes.  Thanksgiving at the Koenig’s
on Long Island one year, at the Miller’s suburban home in Warren, Michigan the next.  Each was lovingly accepted by the host family.  Something much deeper than friendship was bonding between the two.
        Aaron even arranged for his lapsed family to attend Temple during the holiday visits so that he could further enrich the interfaith bantering he would resume upon their return to campus.  (He could still picture the childlike joy that radiated from Kevin’s face the first time he placed a yarmulke on his head and attempted to follow the intoning broche[1] of the Cantor. You Goyim[2] got no rhythm!)  And Aaron would dutifully attend Mass when visiting the Millers for the same reasons.
        “Bubbala,” he would rant, “the statuary creeps me out, and your candles are too small and too few. We stopped using an altar about the time your bunch attempted to re-tool Judaism, and it’s nice to see you figured out a way to avoid the blood and cutlery.  That ‘unbloody sacrifice’ is a clever innovation. You could do with a bit more real gold in the accessories. But all in all, it is obvious from where you stole the ideas.  We give you a B minus for effort.”

        In Aaron’s mind, the ongoing theological rivalry would never end.  He projected their growing friendship into the landscape of his future.  Kevin would witness him crushing the glass at the chuppah[3] and would help lift the mitzvah chair at the wedding dance to follow.  Aaron in turn would attend every baptism, communion, and confirmation of the Miller brood.  Kevin would be

[1] Broche: Prayer.
[2] Goyim: Plural term for Gentiles. (Yiddish)
[3] Chuppah: Jewish wedding ceremony conducted under a canopy.

at every bris[1], and Bar Mitzvah[2]. (Upper limit of two – but no telling how many events Kevin’s children would necessitate – OY, these Catholics breed like rabbits!)  Their families would vacation in the Catskills and they would grow old and fat and bald together.  Aaron’s fertile imagination played out these scenes with anticipation and pleasure.
        “Bubbala,” Aaron intoned, “if I ever bring some young
in for some shtupping[4], you have to do something about Manny staring at us from that cross.  Cover him up…put him in a closet…something!  He’s a real mood killer, you know!”
        “Sorry pal.  There will be no shtupping in this room if I can help it.  I made a promise to your mother, remember?  I am to be the guardian of your virtue.  I assured her you are saving yourself  for a fine, practicing Jewish virgin.  And she said….”
        “Oy-Yoy-Yoy!  Let me guess! From your lips to God’s ear.’    Am I right?  What is it with you and Jewish mothers!”
        Of course, Aaron knew that his mother would conspire with Kevin to preserve her only begotten son’s innocence.  Kevin was every Jewish mother’s dream son – if he were only Jewish!  Their first encounter was among his classic recollections.
        “Pops”, he began after the formal introductions were completed, “show Kevin those beads you carry around your neck.”

[1] Bris: Circumcision ceremony.
[2] Bar Mitvah: Literally, “Son of Commandment”; the coming of age ritual for Jewish boys at age 13.
[3] Shiksa: A gentile girl. (Yiddish)
[4] Shtupping: Sexual intercourse. (Yiddish)

Mr. Koenig unfastened the top buttons of his polo shirt and revealed a worn leather pouch attached to a golden chain.  He reverently removed a weathered rosary.  The beads had obviously been handled much, as the wood grain was showing through the black finish.
        “I had this pouch made.  My chest hairs would get stuck in the metal links.”  Mr. Koenig betrayed no embarrassment at this admission.  Aaron explained.
        “Pops parachuted into Normandy on D-Day.  The chaplain gave one of these to all the GIs.  Pops has worn it ever since.  A lot of soldiers died or were dismembered, so Pops thinks the beads had something to do with him returning in one piece.”
        Kevin’s eyes moistened.  Mr. Koenig and he exchanged a tender, knowing glance.  This did not escape Aaron’s attention.
       “Bubbala, don’t get all ungabluzum[1]!  Pops also has a rabbit’s foot in his pocket…and a horseshoe hanging above the garage door!”
       Mr. Koenig embraced his son in a mock headlock.  “Such a shanda[2] you are.  And this is the fruit of my loins?  Ay-Yay-Yay!”
        Trying to change the tone of the conversation, Kevin thanked Mr. Koenig for the gift of a stylish raincoat he had sent with Aaron’s last ‘Care Package’.  Mr. Koenig was a garment wholesaler.  He dismissed the compliment with a wave of his hand.

[1] Ungabluzum: To look as if one is going to cry. (Yiddish)
[2] Shanda: A shame, a scandal. The expression "a shanda fur die goy" means to do something
    embarrassing to Jews where non-Jews can observe it.

        “Kevin, it is nothing.  It was seconds, you know.  But only a skilled tailor could spot the defects.  Still, we cannot sell them retail.  I hope it fit well?”
        Again, Aaron interjected.  “Not to worry, Bubbala.  In our family we all wear seconds.  Pops, you make the gift sound like schlock[1].  It looks great on Kevin.”
        Aaron’s mother put an ample arm around Kevin’s neck and gave him a warm hug.  “My son should be so sweet.”  And then in sotto voce, “You must keep this boychick of mine from getting all ferdrayt[2], Kevin.  Watch him, he respects you.  Especially with the tchotchkalas[3]!  A good-looking boy like Aaron – he can resist just so much temptation!”
        Kevin’s assurance earned him an affectionate cheek pinch.
        “Mom, Pops, I couldn’t help notice in the shower but Kevin here could pass for a Jew from the waist down.  Never had a proper bris, of course.  His moyl[4]  was probably some overworked intern, not a rabbi, but what do you say…if he promises to marry Miriam, would you foot the bill for his Med School?  I’m halfway to converting him.”
        Kevin was unsure if Mr. Koenig’s response was not entirely in jest.  “Kevin, we could discuss an arrangement.  In six years Miriam will be twenty-one.  She is a shayna maideleh[5], to be sure.”

[1] Schlock: A shoddy, cheaply made article, something that’s been knocked around.
[2] Ferdrayt: Dizzy, confused. (Yiddish)
[3] Tchotchkala: A sexy but brainless girl.  (Yiddish)
[4] Moyl: The man who circumcises baby boys at a bris. (Yiddish)
[5] Shayna Maideleh:  A pretty girl. (Yiddish)

 On one of his visits to the Koenig home, Kevin was fascinated by the small decorative cylinder placed on the front door.  Unconsciously, each of the family members would kiss their fingers and then touch the cylinder before entering.
        “It’s a Mezuzah,” explained Aaron.  “There is a little scroll inside with the shema Israel[1] handwritten in Hebrew.  That’s the passage in Deuteronomy where God commands Jews to keep His words constantly in their minds and in their hearts.  Jews kiss their fingers and touch it like a prayer, or a reminder.  Most people just do it out of reflexive habit without thinking.  When I went to your church service I noticed that most people dip their hand in the water and do that sign thing – y’know, like the Italian ballplayers do before going to bat.  Same kind of thing, a ritual habit.”
        “Koenig, it’s not just a ritual for me!”
        “I said most people, Bubbala.  You’re not ‘most people’”.
        Of course, while in Long Island, Kevin insisted that Aaron take him to a shop where they could purchase a Mezuzah for their dorm room.
      “It’s not like we haven’t brought enough scorn on two of the Western World’s great religions!” was his reaction.  “But I draw the line here.  No blood on the lintel at Passover, Bubbala!”

        Aaron recalled fondly the day they returned to the dorm. A curious crowd had gathered to watch the lanky gentile affixing the new ornament to his door.  Kevin patiently explained the significance of the mezuzah to the gentile observers.  The Jewish

[1] Shema Israel: “Hear O Israel.  The Lord Our G-d, the Lord is One!” 
students were both amused and impressed by his explanation.
        “It’s not straight, Kevin,” offered one of the onlookers.   “Step back here where I am and look.  It’s obviously crooked.”  The Jewish students were quiet, but shared smug smiles with each other.
        Kevin patiently explained.  “It’s fixed at an angle because the rabbis could not decide whether it should be placed horizontally or vertically, so they compromised.”
        To Aaron’s exasperation, Kevin insisted on preceding the touching of the mezuzah with the sign of the cross.
        “Make up your mind, Bubbala, you can’t have it both ways.  You are either Jew or Gentile.”
        “But what about Jesus?  He never stopped being a Jew.”
        “That’s fine, Bubbala.  That’s fine for Manny.  But you’re not Manny – at least not yet!”
        Aaron’s many Jewish friends could not understand the strange relationship between the roommates.
       “So what’s the story, here Koenig?  We have a pool going on who is going to convert whom.
        “Let me know the odds”, quipped Aaron, “I could sway the outcome in the most profitable direction if you’ll let me place a bet.”

        But of course, Aaron knew there would be no conversions.  It would ruin the symbiosis between them that he so cherished.  And did it really matter who was right?  (As if there were any right or wrong in either of their perspectives).  No, Aaron reasoned, we will
have all of eternity to sort this thing out.  It will give us something to look forward to!  Besides, they had an understanding, his Bubbala and he.  Aaron anchored this understanding on a conversation they had after Aaron had been confronted by a pair of overzealous campus evangelists who were doing door-to-door proselytizing.
        “I’m telling you, Bubbala, these fanatics were giving me the creeps.  You need to talk to them.  They give Manny a bad name.”
        Kevin was perplexed.  “What do you mean?”
       Aaron scratched the stubble of the beard he was nurturing.  “They seem to believe that everyone who doesn’t believe EXACTLY as they do has a one way ticket to hell – do not pass GO, do not collect two hundred dollars.  And they didn’t have anything nice to say about Manny hanging above your bed, either.  According to them, you and I will still be roommates in the hereafter, but with a definite lack of much needed air-conditioning.  Before I showed them to the door I informed them ‘when I meet people like you it makes me think that if God lived on Earth, all his windows would be broken’.  It sounds like a lot of bobbemyseh[1] to me.  So what’s the deal?  Do you believe I’m going to hell?”
        Kevin was quiet.  Aaron could tell that his friend was cross-indexing his mind for just the right response.  He picked up the well-worn Bible resting on his bedside table and started thumbing to find a passage.

[1] Bobbemyseh:  Old wive’s tales; nonsense (Yiddish)

“Aaron, as you are so fond of reminding me, you are part of the ‘Chosen’.  God made a covenant with your people that transcends time and space.  If you are faithful to Him, He will be faithful to you.  I believe that my Catholic faith, built upon that same foundation, offers additional graces – divine help, if you will, to assist us in following God’s will and to realize all the great things He has in store for us – that is, for everyone who will respond to the invitation to enter a new covenant to be God’s people.  But that is just an invitation.  There’s no condemnation for others.  God is still gracious to everyone else.”  Here Kevin looked down at his text and a knowing smile warmed his countenance.
        “The book of the prophet Micah – from the Hebrew bible - has a verse that sort of sums up the basic minimum requirements, so to speak.  And I think this applies to all people, of any faith, background or culture.  If those well-meaning evangelists had laid that rap on me, I think I would have simply read this line and let it go at that.”
        Kevin then cleared his throat and quietly read from Micah, Chapter 6.

        “You have been told, O man, what is good, and what the LORD requires of you: Only to do the right and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God.”

        Aaron was moved more deeply by this reading than he dared to show.  The simple dictum sunk into the depths of his heart and took root.  But as usual, he resorted to irreverence.
        “I can live with that, Bubbala, though I have to work on that ‘walking humbly’ part.  But, hey, two out of three ain’t bad!”
        It was in the winter of their junior year that the winds of history blew harsh reality into Aaron’s idyllic dance through life.  The Viet Nam conflict had escalated to the point that not enough qualified young men were available to fill the ever swelling need for soldiers.  Selective Service boards across the nation had found a solution to the massive manpower vacuum created by student deferments.  On December 1, 1969, a lottery would be held to determine the order of call up for military service based upon one’s birthday.  In dreaded anticipation, students on campuses across the country fretted over how this would affect their academic futures.  Betting pools sprung up in every dorm; cash winnings would be of little comfort to the drawing’s ‘winners’.
        Aaron was philosophic about the prospects.  “Bubbala, when you do the beads, put in a good word for your good Bubbee Aaron.  I figure Manny will do right by you, but because of my many indiscretions, I stand a better chance with his mother.  Let her know how fermisht[1] I will be if we have to break up the team.”
        “It’s all in His hands, you know, Koenig.  His Will be done.  You might put in your own word with Him.”
        “But Bubbala, you forget that I’m of the Chosen!  I’ve seen how he treats his chosen…look what He did to Manny!”

[1] Fermisht: All shook up, as in an acute disturbance.  (Yiddish)

Kevin picked up his rosary, signaling he was about to begin his evening meditation in the courtyard.  “I’ll be back in a bit, Koenig.  I think the drawing is at seven.”
        Aaron clicked on the radio.  “Not to worry, Bubbala, the miracle of modern technology is the prophet of the age.  It’s all they’re talking about on the campus stations.  And speaking of miracles, when you’re talking to Manny’s mother, remember, Aaron Koenig, September 14, that’s ‘Koenig with a K’.  A number in the mid 300s would be nice.”
        By the time Kevin returned there was a sizeable group of students huddled around Aaron’s stereo receiver, anticipating the news, hoping to disprove the statistical analysis of one engineering student that at least two of the gathered males would be in the top fifty.  There was an air of anxiety colored by nervous joking and high adrenaline antics.  A hush fell across the room as General Lewis B. Hershey got the party rolling…
        “General Lewis B. Hershey!  Talk about letting the cat deliver the cream,” quipped Aaron.

        “Pursuant to the executive order, the Director of Selective Service is going to establish tonight a random selection sequence for induction for 1970.  I will ask Congressman Pirnie to come forward…“

        “Who the hell is Congressman Pirnie?” queried a boy flashing two crossed fingers.
        “Don’t be such a pisher[1],” cried Aaron as he waved for silence.  “He’s a representative from the great state of New York, where the fate of America’s finest, I might add, is at stake.”

and we are going to ask him to choose first.”
        The assembled boys listened to the shuffling sound of the Congressman’s hands as he searched among the barrel of 366 capsules for the lucky birthday that would be deemed #001 in the coming year’s draft lottery.
        Aaron locked his gaze on Kevin and flashed a sardonic grin.  His roommate betrayed no emotion.

        “September 14th.”

        All but Aaron and Kevin contributed to the collective sigh of relief.  Bennet, the keeper of the betting grid, quickly scanned the matrix he had put together.  “Gentleman, we have a winner!  Mr. Aaron Koenig, you’re three hundred bucks richer, but one unlucky S.O.B.!”
        Aaron fell back on his bed, a goofy smile lighting his face.  “I am such a shlimazel!”
        “You’re gonna have to translate, Koenig.  You’re a what?”
        Schwartz explained.  “Shlimazel is a very unlucky person.  When a shlimazel buys an umbrella the sun comes out.”
        Bennet held his had up.  “Shut up, everybody.  They’re ready to draw the second capsule!”
        The General then introduced some hapless college student from Rhode Island who came forward to draw the next capsule. 

[1] Pisher: A bed wetter.   A young, inexperienced person of no consequence.  (Yiddish)

“April 24th.”
        Bennet again scanned his charts.  When his finger located the relevant square, he did a double-take.  “Guys, I’m outta here.  This is the most unlucky room in the dorm.  That’s Kevin’s birthday!”
        Kevin gave a slight shrug and offered a weak smile.  “Luck of the draw.  Somebody has to come up short.  Good luck to the rest of you.  At least there’s no more suspense for Koenig and me.  Why don’t you guys take the party somewhere else.”
        Quietly, the boys shuffled out.  Radios were blaring from every adjacent open room and the students quickly distributed themselves to continue their gruesome vigil.  Kevin gently closed the door.
        “Aaron, is a shlimazel worse than a shlemiel?”
        “Absolutely.  A schlemiel  is the kind of person who always spills his soup.  When the shlemiel spills his soup, he spills it on the shlimazel.  But don’t be changing the subject.  What’s the deal, Bubbala?  Did you convert on the sly?  Or did you do something to really tick off Manny?”
        “I didn’t pray that we would be spared.  That would be presumptuous.  I prayed that God’s Will be done.”
        “And this is God’ s Will?  That we be shipped to Asia to die a meesa masheena?[1]  Oy, Vey!  What are we going to do, Bubbala?”

        Kevin stroked his chin.  “I’ve been thinking about this, y’know, in case my number came up short.  I never thought it would be that

[1] Meesa Masheena: A horrible death. The phrase "a messa mashee af deer" means a horrible death to you and is used as a curse.

short, or that we would be in this situation together.  I’ve heard that if we actually enlist, rather than wait to be drafted, we stand a better chance of getting more of a say in our assignment.  They even have a ‘buddy deal’ - if you sign up with a friend, they will allow you to serve together.  What do you say, Bubbee?”
        “Hmm.  Enlist before they draft us.  My Bobe[1] used to say ‘You can't control the wind, but you can adjust your sails.’  Is this what you are telling me?  We can adjust the sails?”
        “Yeah, Aaron, something like that.”  Kevin paused, and added gravely.  “You know, if we do this, there’s no guarantee we’ll come back in one piece.  But, if we can pick our options, we might better the odds.  I was thinking something like the medical corps.  That way we can be helping people, not shooting at them.”
        Aaron shrugged.  “
Dying young can have certain advantages in old age.  My Bobe used to say ‘If a man is destined to drown, he will drown even in a spoonful of water.’  So, why not?  I’m in… ‘buddy’.”
        Just then the phone rang.  Both boys announced in unison “My mother!”

        As he left the recruiter’s office several weeks later, those parts of Kevin’s personality that were not completely submitted to the disciplines of his faith were engaged in a spirited tug-of-war.  Although by no means a coward, the prospect of participating in a war in which loss of life was a daily occurrence caused him no small amount of inner turmoil.  Against the advice of his spiritual director

[1]  Bobe: grandmother (Yiddish)
and confessor he decided to not apply for a Conscientious Objector deferment, for which he could most likely qualify.  After all, he had given his word to Aaron that he would enlist as his ‘buddy’.  As a matter of fact, he had even initiated the proposal.  Was it in the heat of emotion that he had suggested such a move, or was it a prompting of the Spirit?  He was perfectly aware that a special bond existed between the two, but to what extent was he this ‘brother’s keeper’?  He clung to the peaceful resolve that enveloped him each time he sought confirmation in prayer.  The rightness of his act was not related to any sense of patriotism or fear of governmental reprisal.  These were peripheral, objective concerns.  No, it was some deeper sense of duty that beckoned Kevin Miller to accompany his friend to the battlefield, but he did not know how to articulate it, even to himself.   For all of Aaron’s blustering charade of confidence, he would need a second, human guardian angel to survive the ordeals of the mandatory two year enlistment. He took comfort that he would be allowed to serve as a medic, which could actually prove beneficial in his study of medicine.
        Aaron and Kevin were re-united for the first time since the winter break from college when they met for Basic Training at scenic Ft. Polk, Louisiana.  Aaron’s curly black hair would have been shoulder length had it been straight.  He sported a scruffy beard.
        “Koenig, I hardly recognized you.  You’ve really gone to seed.” 
        “Not to worry, Bubbala.  I understand we get a free haircut and shave.  I want to make sure I get my money’s worth.”
        After several hours of waiting for the arrival of the other recruits, a host of nervous young men were assembled, single file, to face an intimidating drill sergeant.  He studied the roster on his clipboard, walking up and down the line, trying to correlate names with faces.  After terse instructions on army etiquette (“Yes Sir, No Sir, No Excuse Sir”) he would bark out each young man’s name and then further scrutinize him.
        When he came to Koenig and Miller he announced, “Well, ladies, we have among us two gentlemen who have decided to serve this man’s army on the Buddy System.”  He studied the unlikely pair, the lanky and clean cut Kevin Miller and the short and unkempt Aaron Koenig.
        “So, what do we have here?  Mutt and Jeff?”  Stifled laughs ruptured the deadly silence and were dismissed immediately with a grimace from the sergeant.
        Without missing a beat, Aaron retorted “More like Jonathon and David…SIR…and I would be David!”
        The biblical reference went over the sergeant’s head.  His lip curled as he scanned the face of this rash new recruit.  “The facial hair is going to have to go, son, along with the rest of those greasy curls.”
        “Better a Jew without a beard than a beard without a Jew…SIR!”   That wisecrack earned Aaron the first of many unpleasant extracurricular duties.
        Aaron and Kevin survived their eight week ordeal of Basic Training and then moved on to learn the fine art of battlefield Medical Procedures at Fort Sam Houston in Texas for another six weeks.  As ‘buddies’ they administered saline shots to each other, drew each others’ blood, hooked each other up to IVs, and practiced various techniques of bandaging, setting bones, performing CPR, simulating tracheotomies, and treating seizures.  They learned more about venereal disease than they cared to know.
         Kevin was fascinated and saw the value such training would have on future emergency room stints.  Aaron was disgusted.

        “Oh, vey!  If the rich could hire other people to die for them, the poor could make such a living.”
         The pair amused and fascinated their fellow recruits in much the same manner as they had their college associates.  The theological bantering was constant, often drawing fundamentalist Christians into the vortex of Aaron’s clever exegesis.  Kevin’s crucifix hung next to the Mezuzah in their barracks.  Kevin unashamedly said his grace before every meal in the dining hall.  Although Aaron always rolled his eyes during this ritual, everyone noticed that he did not lift a fork until his companion had finished his closing sign of the cross.
         Fit, trained, and eager for a change of venue, the boys were assigned to the 358th Transportation Company, 27th Battalion located at Camp Vasquez at Phu Tai in the Republic of Vietnam.
Their primary responsibility was to accompany the never ending convoy of trucks and tractors that supplied a network of camps with the necessities of life and battle.   Aaron and Kevin treated numerous non-battle related wounds, as the combination of men in a hurry and heavy machinery provided a steady stream of occupational hazards.  An occasional sniper attack would wound a hapless driver or two, but for the most part, their tour was without major incidence.
         They would occasionally be required to accompany all night guard details that patrolled the camp’s perimeter.  In the boredom of the vigil, Aaron would resume his discourse.
         “So you are telling me this French Jesuit so impressed the Iroquois who were roasting him alive that they cut out his heart and ate it, hoping to absorb some of his courage?.”
         “Yes, Aaron.  He was tortured in unbelievably inhumane ways for over four hours.  The whole while he never complained or begged for mercy, but rather shouted encouragement to those witnesses who were in line to face their own torture.”
         In the darkness of the night watch Aaron mulled over this account.  After a few moments he asked “Bubbala, was the Frenchman’s mother in attendance?  Was she urging him on to remain faithful and courageous at the hands of his tormenters?”
         “Of course not!  She was probably in France, praying for his safety.”
         The ears of the other sentries were tuned to Aaron’s rejoinder.
         “Now my luftmensh, let me remind you of one Eleazar and the seven brothers whose mother witnessed the dismemberment of her sons, encouraging each through the entire ordeal before she herself was executed.  All for refusing to eat a ham sandwich, of all things.  Manny’s mother would like this one, Bubbala!  Now that was some courage!  The first one….” 
        “Shut your pie-hole, Koenig!”  shouted the lieutenant in charge.  “Charlie could sneak up on us while you’re filling the air with all this blather!”
        “Not to worry, lieutenant”, Aaron offered.  “If that is the case, then it’s a ‘win-win’ situation.  If Charlie succumbs to the persuasiveness of my elocution he will no doubt rush in, surrender, and insist on circumcision immediately.  At my inexperienced hand, the poor shmendrick[1] will probably bleed to death.  If, on the other hand, he yields to the inferior arguments of my Bubbala here, in his zeal he will no doubt drown him in baptism.  Either way, it’s one less enemy, who now has a real shot at Paradise, I might add.  Such a deal!”
        The greatest point of contention between Aaron and Kevin was where and how to spend R&R.  The locale of choice was the bustling city of Saigon where every illicit pleasure known to man could be easily purchased for American greenbacks or their military equivalent.  As Kevin was required to treat the various strains of VD contracted by GIs returning from their escapades into the nether world, he had a low opinion of the celebrated city.
         “It’s like Sodom and Gomorrah from your book or ancient Corinth from mine – take your pick.  Either way, why would you want to go there?   Haven’t you helped treat enough cases of the Clap to understand the main attraction there?"  Kevin was 

[1] Shmendrick: A weak and thin pipsqueak.  A physically small schlemiel. (Yiddish)

adamant.  “Besides, I still have that promise to your mother I need to keep!”
        Aaron slapped his forehead in mock astonishment.  “Oy!  Saving me for the Shayna Maideleh - how could I forget?  But as my Bobe always said, ‘With money in your pocket, you are wise and you are handsome and you sing well, too.’  I may not get too many opportunities to be all three of those things at the same time.  Bubbala, there are over 500 establishments with pretty girls waiting to hear my dulcet tones.  You would deprive them of this gift?”
        Kevin threw a wad of bandage wrap at Aaron’s head.  “I will go with you, but I won’t step one foot in any of those ‘establishments’, understand?”  And then as an afterthought Kevin could not resist adding  “..and as to that talent-enhancing money of yours, didn’t your Bobe also say ‘If you want to know what God thinks of money, look at the people he gives it to’?”
         On their first weekend excursion to Saigon Kevin made prior arrangements through the chaplain to visit with local Vietnamese Catholics.  He agreed to rejoin Aaron on Sunday evening at the bus stop that ferried serviceman back to their base camps.  Aaron was intent on taking in the unseemly sights of the city. 
         “I’m detaching my guardian angel to double-team you, but it would help if you at least tried to stay out of trouble,” Kevin exhorted.
         “Ah, Bubbala!  This cross you carry for me, it is heavy to carry, but you cannot throw it away, can you?”
         Following the stream of seemingly experienced and knowledgeable servicemen departing from the buses, Aaron eventually found himself strolling down Tu Do Street where his senses were assaulted by the sounds of American Rock ‘N’ Roll, exotic smells of frying delicacies, and innumerable and equally exotic Vietnamese women in flattering silken apparel that shimmered alluringly with every graceful movement.
        He ambled into Mimi’s, a club that seemed to be a favorite of raucous GIs and the affectionate women who were eager to service them.  He was fortunate enough to find an empty seat at the bar and ordered a gin and tonic.  Within seconds a delicate and fresh faced young girl in a glimmering red mini-skirt was pulling at his sleeve.
        “You good ‘ooking G.I.  Trade MPC for Sunny love?”
        MPC was Military Pay Certificate – the currency provided to servicemen which local merchants could exchange for U.S. dollars.  He deftly discerned the crude proposal and was disturbed that it could issue from such an innocent face. 
        “Is that your name…Sunny?  My name is Aaron.”
        “Ay-En.  Yes.  Come with Sunny.  Come to quiet place.”
        Before he could protest, Aaron found himself being dragged from the club by a slip of a girl probably two inches shy of five feet and weighing less than ninety pounds.
          “Whoa there Sunny!  Where are you taking me?  You haven’t even heard me sing yet!”  Aaron was caught up in a maelstrom of sensations.  The thumping of the music, the gyrating of dancers in the open clubs they whisked past, and the adrenaline rushing through his veins was concocting a brew of emotions he found to be pleasantly intoxicating.  If two angels were tugging against the tide of this exquisite creature, they were no match.
        “Oy, vey,” thought Aaron, “there is always confession, is there not.  How could my Bubbala refuse forgiveness?  I know not what I do!”
         In his mind he started to construct arguments against the reprisal he knew he would face with his friend.  The woman caught in adultery – will you cast the first stone, Bubbala?  And did not Peter deny Manny not once, but three times?  Perhaps he could even purchase a crowing rooster from one of the street vendors for effect!
         “I’m sorry to disappoint you, Bubbala,” he rehearsed in his mind, “You must accept me for the nebbish[1] I am.  If things are not as you wish, you must wish them as they are.”
        Sunny deftly propelled them through a maze of alleys and dark corridors until they eventually stopped before a leaning hovel in what appeared to be the very worst part of town.  She parted the strings of hanging colored beads that served as a doorway.  So much for security, mused Aaron, but what could any thief possibly hope to find in such a place.
         They entered a tiny room.  Huddled around a makeshift table and seated on an assortment of boxes and crates was a man and women and three young children.  Their clothes were threadbare and patched, but clean Aaron noticed, as were their faces and

[1] Nebbish:  An inadequate person; a loser (Yiddish)

hands.  Out of a cracked bowl in the center of the table they were picking at cold rice with their chopsticks.
        No one looked up.  No words were exchanged between Sunny and what Aaron assumed must be her parents and siblings.  He could not read their expressionless faces, but Aaron sensed a cloud of guilt and shame hung over this family.  Sunny was leading him into a small room separated by another series of hanging beads.
        “Come Ay-En.  Sunny love.  Ten dolla MPC.”
        The tiny bedroom was sparsely furnished.  There was a burning stick of incense to mask the pungent odor of decaying fish that reeked in this neighborhood.  The walls were adorned with colorful pictures torn from magazines and a small bed was positioned in the farthest corner, made up with crisp and clean sheets.  Sunny began unbuttoning her flimsy silk blouse.
        To his horror, Aaron noticed a crucifix hanging on the opposing wall.  He motioned for her to stop undressing and pointed to the cross.
        “Sunny, you are Catholic?”
        She turned to look at the object, and flushed crimson with embarrassment.  A look of confusion colored her face which was now staring at the floor.  She slowly raised her head to face him.
        “Ay-En Cat-Oh-Ick?   Ay-En no want love?”
        Aaron sighed and sat on the single chair in the room.  He ran his palm through the stubble of his scalp.  … to do the right and to love goodness…the exhortation from Micah echoed in his head. 
        He looked up and smiled.  “Love?  Yes, ‘Ay–En want love’, but let me show you a better way.  Do you like to shop, Sunny?”
       The young girl looked at him perplexed.
       “Oy, of course you do.  You’re a girl aren’t you?  Come, Sunny.  For ‘ten dolla MPC’, I’ll show you Love.  But you will be required to give me a guided tour of the food district.”
        Through hand gestures, facial expressions, and the pidgin English through which Sunny communicated Aaron was able to convince her that he intended to re-supply the family larder and allow them to prepare a proper feast.  She became a giggling child as her ‘wealthy’ G.I. relieved stall after stall of fresh fruits and vegetables, canned meats, fish, chicken, and whatever else (with the sole exception of pork) delighted Sunny’s eye.
        Laden with bags and packages, their final stop was at a stall that carried an assortment of trinkets and toys.  After finally conveying to her his intentions to purchase gifts for the children, she was immediately drawn to a shelf that displayed porcelain dolls dressed in lacy formal wear.
        “For your sister?”   Aaron asked.
        Sunny’s eyes moistened, betraying an innocence stolen by war, poverty, and dire necessity.  “For Sunny, Ay-En.”  She looked at him imploringly. “For Sunny, si vous plait?”
        The homecoming was indeed a festive occasion.  Aaron seated himself on a vacant crate and took great pleasure in the incomprehensible chatter that ensued.  At every gracious glance in his direction, he simply nodded.  “Yes,” he thought “it is a good thing to be both wise and handsome.  Perhaps after dinner I will delight them with an Elvis impersonation or two.”
        While Sunny and her mother prepared a meal and the children played with their little toys, Aaron shared a cigar and a glass of plum wine with Sunny’s father.  With the aid of Sunny’s translation ‘skills’ he proposed an arrangement.  He would provide enough MPC to sustain the family so that Sunny would no longer be required to ply her trade in the Saigon bars.  When his intentions were finally understood, there was a flurry of crossings and nods toward the crucifix and statue of the Madonna that adorned a corner of the crude sitting room.  Aaron shook his head.
      “Manny…I do the heavy lifting and you get all the credit!  I am such a meshugener![1]
       Aaron relished his reunion on Sunday evening with Kevin, whose face was full of consternation and curiosity.
       “Your angel got a real workout, Bubbala.  I blew the better part of a month’s wages.”
      “And what did you get for your money, may I ask?”
      “Now, my luftmensh, I’m not expecting you to understand, but I became very intimate with a very attractive and attentive young lady.  After allowing me to experience the delights of companionship she prepared me a lavish meal.  She was a real berryer.[2]
        Kevin’s eyebrows raised in arches.  “You didn’t.  You schmuck!  How could you?”

[1] Meshugener:  A crazy man. (Yiddish)
[2] Berryer:  Denotes a woman who has excellent homemaking skills.  Considered a compliment in the pre-feminist era.

        “How could I not?  Providence was obviously at work.  A very exclusive future arrangement we have as well, I might add.”
        “What?  You’ve turned some poor girl into a ‘kept’ woman?  Do I need to treat you for VD when we get back, for crying out loud.  Koenig, sometimes I just can’t believe you!”
        “Oy, Bubbala, believe.  ‘Ye of little faith’, believe.  But not to worry.  Preventative intervention occurred.  I think I can even thank your loaned angel for that.  Very creative and alert fellow, that one is.”  Aaron leaned back, a satisfied and self-righteous look glowing back at his friend.
        “How can you be so blind, Koenig?  What’s wrong with you?”
Aaron simply shrugged, thoroughly enjoying his friend’s discomfort.
        “As Bobe used to say ‘The longer the blind live, the more they see.’”
        Aaron’s secret support of Sunny’s family continued as he enlisted fellow servicemen whom he could trust to drop off a sealed envelope to an address on an obscure street in the Saigon slums during their weekend leave. 
       When his R&R rotation came up he would revisit the family bringing fresh food and gifts and enjoy the fawning attention of his grateful Vietnamese hosts.  The local priest had helped Sunny secure a position as a housekeeper/nanny for a wealthy western family doing business with the Vietnamese government.  Her English was improving dramatically, as her generous employers allowed her to sit in on their children’s tutored classes.  He delighted in the many improvements his assistance had brought to their humble home – real chairs, a working hot plate, a small refrigerator. 
        “Who would have thought,” he pondered, “that I would find a real mishpocha[1] here in the middle of hell!”
        Kevin was very quiet on their bus trips back to the base.  He had resigned himself to his friend’s arrangement and regretted he had not provided enough inspiration and support to prevent Aaron’s ‘fall from grace’.  Aaron, for his part, took a perverse pleasure in perpetuating the illusion, scheming about when and how to redeem himself in a manner that would maximize the dramatic effect of the revelation.  In this, Providence again stepped in.
        It was in the final year of their tour that Kevin tendered an invitation to attend Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve in the historic Cathedral of Notre Dame in Saigon.
        “Notre Dame?  In Saigon?  That sounds French, Bubbala.  Will the service be in French?  Will there be Frenchmen there?”
        “Yes, of course.  Vietnam was colonized by the French, so most of its Catholic roots are heavily influenced by the French.  But don’t worry, I can help you follow the service.  It’s the same Mass as you have attended in Warren.  Only the language will be different.  The music will be beautiful and there will be a large reception afterwards with lots of great French and Vietnamese cuisine.”  And, as an afterthought that Kevin could not resist, “You might find it a pleasant alternative to your usual R&R …. diversions.”

[1] Mishpocha:  Family, usually extended family.  (Yiddish)

        Aaron feigned consideration, sensing the tension this was fomenting in his friend.  “Well Bubbala, I probably should do this – it would mean a lot to you, wouldn’t it – if I attend?”
Kevin nodded hopefully.
        “OK, Bubbala, I will accompany you.  But….if any Iroquois show up, a nechtiker tog[1]!  I’m outta there!”
        Aaron was impressed by the large gathering of Western and Vietnamese worshippers in attendance.  The unavoidable theme of ‘Peace on Earth’ struck an ironic chord in him as he considered his own discoveries during the past two years.  He had come to understand that where Good Will exists, true Peace had a fighting chance.  He was also impressed (as he was sure Kevin intended him to be) by the many people in attendance who knew his friend well and seemed to hold him in high esteem.
        Afterwards they mingled in the reception hall, delighting in the abundant delicacies.  Numerous people would engage Kevin in conversation as Aaron stood by his side, nursing a drink and enduring endless introductions.
         “Ay–En!  Ay–En!”  The small party around Kevin turned to see a band of Vietnamese peasants surround Aaron with apparent reverence and joy.  There was much bowing and hugging and animated chatter that escaped Kevin’s comprehension.  Aaron was the obvious object of much admiration and discussion.  A small Vietnamese man was introducing Aaron to associates whose faces lit with wonder as they bowed in his direction.  The priest who had celebrated the liturgy was part of Kevin's present coterie and was

[1] A Nechtiker Tog: Forget it! (Yiddish)

awed by the interchange he was hearing.
        “Kevin, please introduce me to your friend.  He seems to be something of a local legend, from what I can gather.”
        Utterly in shock, Kevin drew Aaron away from his circle of admirers.  “Fr. Hung, allow me to introduce you to my very good friend Aaron Koenig.”
        The priest shook Aaron’s hand firmly.  “Aaron Koenig.  You are Jewish, no?”
        “Despite the unrelenting efforts from my Bubbala Kevin here, yes Padre, I am guilty as charged.”
        Fr. Hung turned to Kevin.  “Kevin, it seems that while we have been toying with vain discourses in theology, your friend here has been living the gospel in the streets of Saigon.  According to what I am hearing, he has spared this young woman from a life of prostitution and enabled her family to find dignity, hope, and a return to the faith.”
        Fr. Hung went on to explain the depth of Aaron’s intervention and generosity and the notoriety that it had garnered in the district of Sunny’s family.   Kevin stood open-mouthed and speechless.
Aaron winked triumphantly at his friend. “Bubbala, so they have discovered another Jewish god!  Get over it!”
        It was the evening before the final day of their tour of duty.  Aaron and Kevin were sitting on the edge of their bunks, facing each other.
        “All and all it was a good experience, Bubbala.  I have shaken the hand of Bob Hope, kissed Jill St. John on the mouth, and even as we speak villagers in Saigon may be composing ballads to honor the beneficence of their beloved Ay-En.  And Uncle Sam is going to foot the bill for our senior year, I understand.  Such a deal!  Mazel Tov[1], Viet Nam!”
        “Just think, Koenig, in less than forty-eight hours we will be touching down for good in the U.S.A.  Do you think you will kiss the ground when we land?”
        “Oy, not with lips that have kissed Jill St. John!”
At Kevin’s request the Catholic chaplain offered a special liturgy for the servicemen scheduled to leave the next day. 
        “Ah,” replied Aaron when he heard of the arrangement, “the Last Supper – Vietnamese style.”
         As he often did, Aaron sat at the back of the chapel and observed.  He had not yet plumbed the unfathomable depths of what Kevin claimed he experienced at the Mass.  He pondered the mystery of his friend’s faith.  First, to accept that the Creator of the Universe would become a creature, born of woman.  Then to be slaughtered like a Passover lamb – but OY, no lamb was so sadistically prepared as this one!  And to believe that this God-become-man, risen from the dead, seated at the right hand of the throne of God (whose nature, by the way, he shared!) compressed Himself into the tiny wafers that the faithful consumed with such reverence.  Indeed, his Bubbala and he would require

[1] Mazel Tov:  Good luck; congratulations.

several eternities to sort this one out! 
        And so Aaron observed.  He glanced at the tabernacle – a mini Holy of Holies if he understood correctly – where Kevin claimed Manny resided so that his followers could visit with Him face to face, so to speak.  “Do you ever talk back to them, Manny?” he wondered.   As he studied Kevin, kneeling with bowed head, digesting the wafer, he believed that Kevin believed that he was truly having a conversation with Manny.  He tried to imagine what that must be like.
        Their final detail was a routine milk run to a nearby camp.  There was an air of frivolity and relief as their convoy bounced noisily back to base.  Several of the men would be departing in the morning and celebration would be the order of the evening.  Their truck took up the rear of the caravan, and through the dust of the setting sun they noticed a young boy shouting and waving his arms as he ran from the side of the road in an attempt to reach the back of the truck.  The soldiers often held back a few supplies to give to needy supplicants such as this.
        “Koenig, toss me that can of boneless chicken,” commanded the corporal in charge.  He then banged on the window of the cab to get the attention of the driver.  “Sammy, slow down would you.  We have one last customer before we close shop.”
         The truck slowed to a near halt as the corporal flashed a smile to the running boy.  “This ought to make his day, fellas.  This can will feed five or six of these little guys for a week.”
        The boy bowed politely and exchanged some words in Vietnamese with the corporal.  He stuffed the can in a sack he was carrying and turned to trot away.  The truck shifted gears and began to accelerate.  The boy suddenly turned, pulled something from beneath his shirt and tossed it directly into the back of their trailer.  Aaron noticed the pin protruding from the boy’s teeth as he turned again and began running in earnest.
        The grenade landed with a thud in the center of the open trailer bed.  For the next three seconds time froze and a dozen soldiers stopped breathing.  In that brief span of eternity every minute detail crystallized.  Aaron noticed a mosquito swelling with blood on the neck of the man in front of him and followed a drop of sweat that rolled down the side of the man’s cheek, collecting dust in its descent.  He glanced over at Kevin who was smiling in his direction as their eyes locked.
        “Shalom, Bubbee, l'shanah haba'ah birushalayim[1]
        Kevin then dropped to his knees, stretched out his arms and fell on the ticking grenade, which he then embraced in a fetal hug.  There was a muffled sound of concussion and then Kevin’s body appeared to rise a few inches from the floor of the truck before landing hard.  Acrid smoke curled from the damp red edges rapidly soaking the outlines of his uniform. 

[1] L’shana haba’ah birushalyaim: Next year in Jerusalem (Hebrew). These words are recited at the end of the Yom Kippur service and the Passover Seder.  It is a traditional phrase expressing the Jewish hope for the coming of the Messiah.

        The trance broken, Aaron hastened to his fallen comrade and gingerly turned him over.  As he did, Kevin’s helmet slid off, exposing an unblemished face. 
        “Thank God!”  Aaron remembers thinking.  His face is undamaged.  This will be a comfort to his mother.  Kevin’s eyes were open, as was his mouth, staring up at Aaron as if he were just rousing from a restful night’s sleep.  Aaron gently stroked the eyelids closed and then cursed when he saw traces of his soiled and bloody fingerprints mar the serene mask of his friend’s face.  Aaron cradled the body as the hot blood seeping from Kevin saturated his own uniform.  For a moment, one observer recalled, the two buddies evoked a touching caricature of the Pieta.  But then Aaron noticed the mangled mess of bone and organs peppered with fabric and shrapnel.  He reared back his head and howled like wounded hyena.
        Because of his relationship to the deceased, Aaron was able to extend his enlistment in order to officially escort Kevin’s remains during its arduous journey to his family in Warren, Michigan.
        Not usually a stickler for neatness, PFC Aaron Koenig took great pains to become an exemplar of military decorum during this last assignment.  His uniform was sharply pressed, his shoes shone to mirror-like gloss.  His duty was to ensure that during every stage of the journey home the cargo container with Kevin’s remains was treated with the honor and dignity befitting a man who made the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of his country.  
        Kevin’s container, (along with too many others, realized Aaron) would be placed in overnight storage at Dover Air Force Base before it was boarded onto a plane scheduled to fly to Detroit Metro Airport the next morning.  Even though the airport personnel assured him the storage area was secure, Aaron insisted on remaining in the cavernous hangar next to the container.  He kept a silent vigil, seated on a chair next to the box that held the earthly remains of his best friend.
        The night watchman persuaded him to take a bathroom break, to which Aaron agreed, but only after the security guard promised to maintain the vigil until he returned. 
        “Sure, soldier, I’d be honored.  I served in Korea, you know.  Too many of my buddies came back like this.  Did you know this fellow?”
        Showing no emotion – which greatly surprised the guard – Aaron simply said “He was my brother.”
        The plane touched down in Detroit at 9:00 AM and Aaron stood at attention as the container was loaded onto a waiting hearse which would take it to the funeral home assigned by Kevin’s parents.   Aaron recognized the Miller family huddled near the entrance as they approached and steeled himself to lend as much dignity to this affair as he was able.
        He again stood at attention as the casket was removed by gloved attendants who placed it on a wheeled dolly that would provide mobility from this point on.  As soon as the casket was ushered inside, Kevin’s family approached him.
        “Oh, Aaron, it’s so good to see you.  Thank you for accompanying Kevin home.”  Mrs. Miller gave him a long and affectionate hug.
        “I understand you were with him to the very end, Aaron.  That gives us great comfort knowing that.  Kevin thought the world of you.”  Mr. Miller, an older version of Kevin himself, gave Aaron a warm and firm handshake.  The calm peace that seemed to envelop these people somewhat unnerved Aaron, as he had braced himself for a spirited display of uncontrolled emotion.  His own mother would be wailing inconsolably, barely able to stand, let alone compose a single sentence not drawing attention to the magnitude of her grief. 
        Aaron remained numb during the Requiem Mass.  The ceremonial standing, sitting, and kneeling rolled past him like a dream.  He momentarily came out of his trance when the homilist read Kevin’s citation.
        Pfc. Miller distinguished himself by conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity while serving as a medic on a supply transport near Camp Vasquez at Phu Tai in the Republic of Vietnam. The truck in which Pfc. Miller was riding was part of a convoy supplying camps in the surrounding region. At the conclusion of a routine delivery, an enemy hand grenade was thrown into the truck in which Pfc. Miller was riding. Instantly realizing the great danger, Pfc. Miller threw himself directly onto the grenade. Through his indomitable courage, complete disregard for his safety, and profound concern for his fellow soldiers, Pfc. Miller saved the lives of the other members of the truck crew while sacrificing his own. Pfc. Miller’s conspicuous gallantry, extraordinary heroism, and intrepidity at the cost of his life, above and beyond the call of duty, are in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit on himself, his unit and the U.S. Army.
        Aaron’s gaze was fixed upon the crucifix that stood prominently behind the altar.  Why Manny?  Why this?  What is it with you and suffering?  Is this how you treat those who would devote their lives to you?  You have made your followers the ones the schlimazel spills his soup on!
        For a moment, Aaron feared his tired eyes were playing tricks on him, as the bowed face of Manny morphed into the face of Kevin.  From the depths of his memory he recalled asking Kevin the purpose of such a horrible death, and why one would celebrate it.  Kevin had immediately thumbed to a passage that he read with slow deliberation “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends.  You see, Aaron, He was the ultimate Passover Lamb, His blood covered all sins for all time.  To fulfill some kind of cosmic justice way beyond my understanding, this was necessary to restore us to God.  So He shed every single drop of His Blood for me, for you, for every human creature because He considers us His friends.”
        “So that’s it Manny?  He was trying to be like you?  I don’t understand!  It’s all meshuggina to me!”  Aaron suddenly became aware of two distinct realities: He was talking to Manny AND he was angry with Manny!  At some point, he reasoned, he had come to believe that Manny was more than just a figment of a collective imagination.  He realized that part of what he was missing in the absence of Kevin, was the presence of Manny.  It was really Manny, after all, that provided the fulcrum for the dynamic between them. 
        Dazed, Aaron was oblivious to what transpired from this point on.  He remained a frozen sentinel at the back of the sanctuary as the mourners filed past and the pallbearers moved the flag-draped casket to the vestibule.  As he continued to probe the image on the crucifix for understanding he unconsciously drew Kevin’s rosary from his pocket, finding comfort in the feel of the beads.  Unable to allow Kevin’s mother to receive the blood-stained and shrapnel-chewed sacramental, he had substituted it for a close facsimile purchased from a street vendor before departing from Viet Nam.  The battered relic now hung from his drooping hand and he realized that, like his own father, he would carry this memento of war with him to his grave.
        Aaron’s reverie was broken by an incessant tugging on his sleeve.  He looked down into the angelic eyes of Kevin’s baby sister Erin.  He was present at her First Communion, nearly three years earlier.  He recognized the blue crystal rosary she held in her hand, a gift from that occasion.
        “Aaron, are you alright?  Do you want me to say a rosary with you?” she implored as she pointed to the beads hanging at his side.
        As he recalled, little Erin worshiped her big brother.  It took a while to convince her that they did not share the same name, and Aaron remembered writing the two on her little blackboard to demonstrate that while the names sounded similar when spoken, they were quite different when spelled out.  But, she preferred to believe that her brother would choose as his best friend someone with the same name as his ‘favorite’ sister.
        “I’ll be OK, Erin.  Don’t worry.  I don’t know how to pray the beads.”
        Erin’s eyes lit up.  “I can show you.  It’s real easy!”
        With great deliberation she placed the small crucifix between the thumb and forefinger of her right hand and waited for Aaron to do the same.
        “First,” she explained, “you look at Jesus, and then you kiss Him before you make the sign of the cross.  Like this.”  The child closed her eyes and tenderly kissed the cross and then carefully accented the movements of the signing for Aaron to imitate.
        Very tentatively, Aaron held the crucifix before him.  The chipped image was stained in rust-colored blood.  Aaron trembled slightly as he gazed at the image, which again morphed into the face of his fallen friend.  He closed his eyes and brought the object to his lips.  As his mouth made contact, he shuddered with shock.  The hot metallic taste of blood coursed through his system like an electric charge, and everything around him hazed into a mist. 
        Slowly, like a strong wine drunk too quickly, the burning sensation gave way to a glowing warmth that both soothed and comforted his frayed nerves.  He opened, or at least imagined he opened, his eyes to behold before him Kevin and Manny.  No longer hanging in horrible contortion, but standing hale and hearty, beaming with joy.  They both looked at him and the affection he experienced was overpowering.  The peace that passes all understanding was the phrase Kevin used to describe Holy Communion.  Aaron had a small taste of that elusive sensation. 
From the corner of his eye he caught sight of a statue of Mary, Manny’s mother.  Instead of the lifeless and garish plaster he had always noted before, it was now glowing with life, and beauty, and … love.  “Manny, your mother is a real Shayna Maideleh, for sure.” 
        Aaron remembered how Kevin, attempting to bridge the gap between their two traditions, told him of the Transfiguration, when Moses and Elijah appeared to Peter, James, and John.  The passage indicated that they did not want to leave that glimpse of glory.  He understood now.  He sensed that there were others in this place.  Not only Moses and Elijah, but scores of angelic beings and untold numbers of souls filled with light and peace, as he was now.
Another tugging at his sleeve returned him to earth, the mist dissipated, and he was again in the sanctuary looking down at Erin.       
        “Aaron, I will need to show you how to pray later.  I think people are waiting for us.”
        Aaron glanced to the vestibule.  Kevin’s family was waiting and appeared to be concerned about the inexplicable behavior of their military escort.
        “Yes, Bubbala, we need to leave now.  It’s time to bestow honor on your brother.  But I want to come back to this place.  I think that there is a door to heaven in here, don’t you?”
        Erin nodded in affirmation.  “Yes.  I know you miss Kevin…like I do.  But, Aaron, you don’t need to be sad.  Kevin is with Jesus now and I know he is happy.”
        Aaron grinned right back at her and gave her a playful hug as they moved toward the waiting mourners.  “I believe you, little sister.  I really do believe you.  But now, my luftmensh, let me remind you of one Kevin Miller - my Bubbala – a man of great courage and sanctity who valiantly gave his life to save his friends.  He did the right, he loved goodness, and he walked humbly with his God. Now there was a saint! Let me tell you about the time…”