Saturday, January 23, 2010

Joachim S. Porzig

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Herr Porzig, a one-armed former artillery officer in the German army during World War II, was one of five or six instructors responsible for training the eight of us to speak his native tongue. As young soldiers, we often had a hard time understanding his south-German accent spoken at light-speed because we were more used to our other instructors, who all came from the north, and all spoke in the clipped, sharp-edged accent common there.

Joachim S. Porzig had had his arm blown off during service on the Russian Front. The only thing he couldn't do was put on his leather-banded wrist watch, he said. None of our German teachers at what was then called the Army Language School had ever fought against the French, English or Americans on the Eastern Front. As students, we used to laugh about it as if, perhaps, the teachers had lied about where they served in order to find work with the Americans.

Besides being an upright and impeccable man, Porzig, who died in 2002 at 86, had an avuncular side. He was not above imparting the kind of advice an older man might dispense to a younger one. He once, for example, looked me straight in the eye with utter seriousness and said, "You can do anything -- anything you want." As an uncertain 20-year-old, I was both wonder-struck and dubious about the encouragement.

And on another occasion, he told the class a little something of his father -- a man who had saved discarded nails and bits of string. Nothing should go to waste, the old man told his son ... nothing.

And I thought of Porzig this morning as I remembered the Zen Buddhist teacher Lin Chi/Rinzai, a Chinese man who grew up thousands of miles away from and hundreds of years before the Germany in which Joachim S. Porzig and his father grew up.

Lin Chi, who said, "Grasp and use, but never name."

Waste nothing.

What is useless always has a use.
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