Jack, an incredible life
And what will you name the little bastard?” the stern-faced midwife asked rudely as she turned to pick up her bag. Expecting no answer from the stoic young German immigrant, she departed with a grunt, leaving her comment to bounce around the room.
Katie clutched her tiny infant close, burying her face in his blanket. “How can I protect you from such hurt?” she murmured. These would not be the only tears to flow as she attempted to raise Jack alone in the ghettos of Chicago during the Great Depression.
By the time her son reached school age, so many miracles had occurred in Jack’s life that Katie wondered if God didn’t have some special plan for her fatherless son. Sisters at the Catholic school he attended showered him with love, and Jack thrived on their attentions.
Then one day when he was almost 10, Mother came flying through the door of the Chicago apartment they shared with kind relatives. “We’re going to Germany!” she shouted. “Isn’t it grand!”
The transition from Chicago’s slums to the idyllic German countryside was dramatic, and Jack immediately loved the farm, his grandparents, his uncles and aunt, the animals. So much so that the family decided Germany would be the perfect place for Jack to spend the next year. Until they took Katie to the train station for her lonely return to America.
“Please don’t leave me here!” Jack shrieked, clinging to his precious mother. His panic-stricken face revealed wild terror as he fully realized that she was leaving Germany without him. For a year! Had the family known how long it would actually be, perhaps everyone would have wept. As it was, his beloved uncles pulled him, kicking and screaming, off Katie as she quickly boarded the train, broken-hearted and tearful at her son’s strange demonstration. One last train whistle, and Mother was gone. Gone to America. Gone. Gone.
For many days Jack could do nothing but weep and mourn, despite Grandmother’s tempting food and loving kindness. But gradually he eased back into the harsh German farm life that was now his. Grandfather helped make him feel important, however, especially after Uncle Fritz was drafted into the army. Jack helped milk twice every day, and did other farm work from before the sun rose until long after it had set, six days a week. Soon he was speaking German as fluently as his classmates at the village school. By the time summer came around again, Jack was counting the days until he would leave for the United States, home and Mother. Her letters too were filled with anticipation.
Then, in early September, just days before Jack’s scheduled departure, Hitler invaded Poland, and World War II began. Jack would not be leaving Germany.
“But maybe the war won’t last long.” The youngster optimistically threw himself even more vigorously into helping Grandfather, mainly because Uncle Joseph, the youngest son, was also gone away to war. That left Grandfather, Connie, and Jack to harrow, sow, plow, hay, pull weeds, fell trees, harvest, winnow, and mow, using only the oxen and the ancient farm equipment. Grandmother anxiously fingered her rosary and murmured her sons’ names as she worked. Laughter all but disappeared from the home; grim survival was the name of the game.
Deprivation became a way of life, month after endless month. After three desperately hard years with no communication from Mother, Jack graduated from the eighth grade, harboring an idea. Did he want to continue the harsh farm life or prepare to enter the university? Perhaps with his love of engineering, he could become a pilot! Now that would be thrilling!
“I’ll not hold you back from your dream,” Grandfather said wearily. “School might keep you off the front lines until you graduate.”
Trapped in a labor camp
“How do I get to Koenigswusterhausen to the engineering school?” an eager Jack asked the station master. The food basket Grandmother had packed held no interest as the train pulled out, Jack was so excited. I wonder if someone will meet me at the station?
Sure enough, a tall young soldier greeted him as he descended the train steps. “Your name?” “Good.” “Follow me.” The stern-faced Nazi strode slightly ahead for about a half-mile before Jack saw the barbed wire.
He gasped. This is not a school! This is a Nazi labor camp! And this is a Nazi guard leading me into a labor camp!
It was true. But there was no time for sympathy—for himself or his pitiful captive companions. While used to the 4:00 a.m. rising time, Jack was not accustomed to working all day on a nearly-empty stomach. The bread and water diet contained very little bread. His thin straw sleeping tick was infested with cockroaches, lice, fleas, and other vermin. Even in bitter sub-zero temperatures, inmates had only a lightweight blanket, so they learned to sleep fully clothed, including coat and shoes, just to survive. The acrid odor of unwashed bodies filled the barracks. With the intense cold, brutally hard physical work, and near starvation diet, Jack’s once strong body wasted away.
One incredible miracle after another preserved his life over the next two difficult years, which included a couple of escape attempts. But eventually the war ended, and Jack returned to Grandfather’s farm. Fritz and Joseph had both been killed in the war, so 16-year-old Jack threw himself vigorously into helping his grandparents all he could. The entire country was in shambles. Even mail could not get through, but Jack began thinking more and more of Mother, Chicago, and home.
Reunion with mother
Amazing events reunited Jack with his mother, her husband Lee, and their four-year-old daughter—Jack’s new sister—Marie. Back in Chicago, his stepfather soon recognized that all Jack’s new freedom was a bit too heady for him. Lee owned a short-order restaurant, and before long, young Jack worked his way from dishwasher to night cook in the café.
“Son, you really ought to finish high school,” his mother chided after Jack began to associate with some questionable friends in a neighborhood gang.
“Yeah, sure,” he responded sarcastically, “and still work 10 hours a day?” Actually, his language had become so coarse that Mother cringed when he spoke.
Then Lee heard of a night school at the University of Chicago and Jack enrolled. Eagerly his active mind absorbed the education he had missed for several years. School also took him away from his rough associates. The foul language, however, clung. Finally, a kind teacher explained why there were so many red marks on his papers. “This is not fit language for polite society,” she said, and Jack began a real effort to change.
A tumultuous period in his life erupted, and Jack separated himself from the church of his childhood, sorely grieving his mother. At a drinking party, a very drunk Jack made a veritable fool of himself in front of many people. Soon thereafter, being forced to register for the military draft, Jack dropped out of college and joined the U.S. Air Force, hoping to leave the restaurant business forever.
Finding the true model
The recruiting ads depicted stalwart young heroes, manly and strong, steadfast and true, jaws set, eyes purposeful, manners impeccable. Jack wanted a hero to copy, a model life to emulate. Reality was severely different. He found no heroes. Everyone seemed to cave in at a price. Keenly disappointed, Jack struggled with the realization that he had only ever heard of one person worthy of full respect: Jesus Christ. He made a remarkable determination: Christ will be my example.
The Holy Spirit had begun a miraculous work. Bad habits which Jack recognized as wrong or hurtful began to disappear. Smoking, drinking, and profane language vanished almost immediately. Amusements, reading materials, and diet shifted slowly but dramatically. A book at the base library which Jack thought was a Bible became his source of information and inspiration.
One day another young airman said to him, “I understand you’re interested in religious things.” Carl loaned Jack a book: The Desire of Ages. Carl also mentioned some Bible correspondence lessons he was enjoying. One stirring providence led to another until Jack and Carl were baptized together in a beautiful blue lagoon off the island of Guam.
Thinking his mother would be pleased with the about-face his life had now taken, Jack wrote her a hasty note just prior to his baptism, explaining his awakened love for Christ and his desire to follow wherever Jesus led. A few days later, he excitedly tore open what he sensed was her written response. Stunned, he read, “If you go through with this wild notion (of being baptized into a Protestant church),…you will not be welcome in our home and should never expect to eat at our table.…I am embarrassed.… You are turning against the whole family and against God.…”
The letter was short, abrupt. Its stinging rebuke left Jack hurt and confused. But after much thought and prayer, he determined that God’s love would triumph. He decided to write his mother daily, expressing love and gratitude for her.
There was no answer. Days passed. Weeks. Months. Jack continued writing every day. He also became involved at the Seventh-day Adventist island mission, reading avidly from their library and absorbing the Adventist lifestyle. He discovered that life in the military became much more challenging once he determined to keep the Sabbath.
Finally, his mother began to answer his letters, and eventually, it appeared she’d had a slight change of heart and was looking forward to his coming home. Jack thought, I’ll find the address of a Chicago church and ask the pastor to visit her. Maybe then she’ll be ready for baptism by the time I get home. It turned out, in answer to his request, that a Bible instructor did go to visit his mother, but Jack received a disappointing letter from her.
“I’m sorry I was unable to begin giving your mother Bible studies…Perhaps the Holy Spirit has a different timetable.” The letter was kind and gracious, but his mother obviously had shown no interest.
Terribly disappointed, Jack tossed the letter in the trash. No one knows Mother like I do, he reasoned. I’ll handle it when I get home. On second thought, he retrieved the envelope just in case he might need the return address, later discovering that God’s hand was over even that act!
For the rest of the story, read Jack, An Incredible Life (Review and Herald, 1998), the exciting story of God’s workings in this man’s adventure through life. The book is available at your local Adventist Book Center. Dr. Jack Blanco is currently Dean of the School of Religion at Southern Adventist University.
Jolena Taylor King works in the Human Resource Department of McKee Foods Corporation in Collegedale, Tennessee. She and her husband Roger, a retired dentist, live on a beautiful mountaintop where they enjoy playing with the grandchildren, hiking, gardening, reading, entertaining, and many other hobbies. Her address: P.O. Box 3302; Collegedale, Tennessee 37315; U.S.A.