Sometimes the memory of a few minutes lingers for the rest of your life. And teaches you a profound truth about life.
Jerome (Jerry) Katz was a psychiatrist in the Chicago area some years back. Jerry died in his 70s after a very long career practicing in Chicago’s northern suburbs and in the city itself.
He was a big man with a gentle soul, despite his days as a high school football player. Someone who, at least professionally, always seemed to be at ease — an inviting smile on his face, a soothing voice, and a twinkle in his eyes — as if he knew something that the rest of us hadn’t figured out quite yet.
I didn’t know Jerry very well. It was the kind of relationship that is cordial, saying hello, passing a few words here and there, telling a joke as Jerry often did, but never much of anything more. From time to time Jerry would consult me for my diagnostic opinion about a hospitalized patient. Beyond that, I suspect we never had a conversation that lasted more than five minutes.
Except for one day.
We were sitting alone in the doctors’ cafeteria at Forest Hospital, at the time, a private psychiatric facility in Des Plaines, IL. It must have been more than 20 years ago. Uncharacteristically, no one else was around and we were undisturbed for the entire period of our lunch.
The conversation turned to Jerry’s youthful service in World War II, “the good war.” I don’t remember whether Jerry said that he was underage when he enlisted. But, like many young men of the time, he felt service was his duty and he made his way through basic training to the killing fields of France after D-Day, the Allied Invasion of Europe on June 6, 1944.
Jerry could not have been more than 17 or 18 when his view of life changed because of a single German soldier.
Katz and his unit were “dug in” that day. They’d taken a position with relatively little cover, perhaps behind some rocks, dead trees, and some hastily created earth works. It did not sound like the conventional trench of World War I, but something more ad hoc.
A German force attacked: in effect, an infantry charge. And Jerry, a strapping young man of perhaps 6’2″ did what he had been trained to do. He held his ground and fired into the oncoming assault.
Soldiers fell at a distance, but a few continued their onrush. One in particular — a towering giant of a young German — bigger even than Katz, built like a mobile fortress, and seemingly indestructible.
Jerry and his comrades kept firing, and no amount of speeding metal seemed to deter the attacker. He just kept racing toward them.
Jerry remembered the surreal nature of the event. He and his comrades had fired enough bullets to kill 20 men. But somehow they must have missed this soldier. He was now almost on top of their position and on top of Jerry.
Finally, the man lunged at Jerry with his bayonet — and collapsed, close enough for Jerry to touch the enemy and the blade intended for his flesh. Had the giant German only one more second of life, the future psychiatrist would have lost his own.
In a very real sense, Katz was touched by this combatant, because he thought this soldier would be his executioner. The man who wanted to end Jerry’s life, had instead transformed it.
“Since that day,” Jerry told me, “everything in my life — every day of my life — has been a ‘lagniappe.'”
It was a word I had not heard before. “What does that mean?” I asked.
“It’s a French expression,” he said. “It means ‘something extra.’ Like when you go into a bakery and they give you a 13th roll because you bought a dozen. A kind of gift.”
The conversation ended not long after Jerome Katz told me that story.
Like most of us, Jerry had his ups and downs in life. Heart disease was one of his challenges; a loving wife and family one of his boons.
But, when I think of Dr. Jerome Katz, I’ll always think of that story. I’ll recall how every day of his post-war life was “something extra.”
And I’ll remember how the ever-present twinkle in his eyes got there.
The image above is The British Army in the U.K. 1939-1945, which comes from the Imperial War Museum and is sourced from Wikimedia Commons. This is a staged bayonet-charge as part of a training exercise that took place on the Isle of Wight, August 10, 1940.