A Coming-of-Age Tale
I was twelve years old when I discovered the power of potatoes, rocks, and, especially, kind people. Let me explain…
Like most people reading this, I graduated high school. Many of you went on to graduate from college. In my local culture, they celebrate graduating from kindergarten, elementary school, and middle school. But a graduation that may have had the most impact on me, many years after the fact, was from Sunday School in Heidelberg, Germany circa 1970.
The life of an Army dependent overseas in those days, at least from my perspective, was idyllic. We lived in safe, comfortable communities that were diverse in every way. My friends were from all over the United States, all races, all backgrounds. All of us were contained in a fenced and protected community with all the amenities of home. Safely riding a bike, walking to school, running around doing shenanigans were all taken for granted. Maybe we were spoiled, although not wealthy by any means, and maybe that’s why we were called Army Brats.
One of the multitude of activities afforded to us brats was the Base Chapel. We were Protestants, so your story may vary, and going to chapel on Sunday morn was a given. I would get up, shine my little black shoes, and put on appropriate clothes. At Patrick Henry Village (PHV), where I lived, I was dropped off at the elementary school for children’s classes and service. It was the usual stuff – stories from the Bible, craft activities, an assembly with a grainy black & white film depicting an important tale out of the Bible. I liked it, actually, it was an extension of school to me, which I also liked, so no complaints there. Plus, there were snacks, and I liked snacks, and most of my friends were present, too.
It’s also where I met Mr. & Mrs. Lobocki.
My last school year in Germany I was in 6th grade. It was a large base, so we had several classes. Sunday Morning meant a room full of kids my age. And that last year the Lobockis taught my class.
Throughout life we all encounter people who rise above the bare requirements and leave an impression as they propel you forward. That was the Lobockis. They tried to make the Sunday School class meaningful and interesting. They did not have children of their own, so teaching elementary Sunday School was not an obligation. It was obvious they did it out of pure human kindness. Love, even. And while I can’t tell you a theological concept they imparted, I can tell you they taught me valuable life lessons.
That’s where the rocks and potatoes come into our story.
As the year wound down there was a ceremony and with pomp and circumstance, we were all recognized for completing our year. I’m sure no one failed Sunday School, and some of us little over-achievers actually were awarded for perfect attendance. I would take great pride in that accomplishment but being twelve I had little say in the matter – we were headed to chapel on Sunday morning!
The Lobockis, though, took it to another level. They decided to have a dinner party for us, at their home. Now, home on an Army base meant the same for all, except for a certain level of officers. The Lobockis lived in the same type building as I did, three stairwells, four levels, painted green over stucco. Which was odd – they were not military, nor were they schoolteachers. Why did they live on base? They were Polish, too, and Poland was part of the Eastern Block of the Soviet Union. Were they State Department employees? Or maybe they were CIA – spies! It had to be, to my twelve-year-old mind.
Back to the potatoes…
It turns out this fine middle-aged couple had pulled out all the stops for us. I recently discovered the hand-typed and hand-drawn menu. We were being treated to a full dinner of Polish specialties! The table was full of Golabki, Mlode kartofle a pietruszaka, Pieczone kurczeta and many others. They even made a game out of it, having us guess the interpretation of the menu items and we dutifully wrote down our interpretations (see pictures). It was a grand afternoon in Germany, enjoying Polish food and the hospitality of good people.
And the rocks?
Apparently when Mr. Lobocki wasn’t busy teaching Sunday school or engaging in Cold War espionage, he liked to find and polish rocks. He had a rock tumbling machine in the fourth-floor storage unit along with an amazing assortment of shiny rocks. He wanted me to have some to take home with me, and he proceeded to give me a bag of polished stones. I was stunned – I would not have been more stunned if it had been a bag of gold coins. He took the time to tell me the names of many, and I dutifully scrawled them down in pencil with a rough outline of the shape.
I remember them taking our class on a walk in the woods. I had just had my second thyroid surgery and they were both protective of me. While the other boys crashed through the woods, Mr. Lobocki walked with me and talked. He was kind and reassuring, letting me know that while I had been through a rough time, it was going to be okay.
Potatoes, rocks. And kind people.
This was the end of my Dad’s three-year tour so we were about to head back to the States, to Fort Belvoir, Virginia. Mr. Lobocki had me come by, as he wanted to give me their address so that I could write them when I got stateside. I carefully folded up the paper and put it in my wallet (I always had a wallet, a watch, and a pencil on me – I was that kid).
As I flew back to the United States, I took with me lessons learned from the Lobockis. Not about rocks, or potatoes. Not even theology from Sunday school. I flew back having learned about life. About serving, about letting your passion guide you, about being a part of the lives of others. I learned about the kindness of strangers, and compassion, and giving freely of what you have.
I have few regrets in my life, but this one was a biggy. That carefully folded address in my wallet? I was leaving the Fort Belvoir PX with my Dad and was stuffing a dollar or two in my wallet, when a gust of wind blew and the contents of my wallet scattered. I recaptured what I could but watched in anguish as the little slip of paper, my connection to the Lobockis, blew away out of reach, lost forever.
I will never know what happened to the Lobockis. I hoped they were not sad that they never heard from me. I thought about them often but, like most childhood memories, they became part of the fog of the past as I grew up.
Their influence on me, the seeds they planted, took some time to germinate and bear fruit. As an adult I became a Christian and later realized that much of what I knew about the subject of eternal things was kindly, gently, introduced to me by that couple.
Take the time to be kind. Expend the effort to be a positive influence. Go the extra mile to love someone else. Folks like them are the Gold Standard of humanity, they are part and parcel of the Great Command, to “love your neighbor as yourself.” The world could sure use more people like them.
Be like Mr. & Mrs. Lobocki.