Thursday, March 03, 2005

Those Earthy Germans!

Back when I was still a struggling graduate student, I spent six years (1989-1995) in Tuebingen, Germany pursuing my doctoral research. Professor Otto Betz, of the Protestant faculty, was my genial advisor, and I attended his weekly New Testament Seminar, which had the advantage (for me) of being held in English. Except for the Greek, of course. And the Latin. And the Hebrew. And the Aramaic. And the Coptic. And the ... but I'm getting off topic.

Betz used to relate a host of interesting anecdotes, including from his time in the 1960s teaching in Chicago, where he had even had Jesse Jackson as a student. According to Betz, Jackson often skipped class "to fight sin in South Chicago" but would drop by his place at midnight for a cup of milk.

Politically, Betz tended toward social liberalism. Theologically, he was conservative. Personally, he was generous, both with his time and his advice. He was the sort of advisor who always found time to chat, on practically any subject, and we often met for coffee and wide-ranging talks. Some of these meetings were arranged; others were purely by chance.

This one was a chance meeting. I was sitting in the theology building's cafe, enjoying a cup of bitter coffee in one of those small cups that Europeans like to use for cafe creme -- unlike an American cappuccino that'll mug you. Betz happened in, saw me, and shuffled over to join in a cup and klatsch. At that time, around 1991, he was in his 70s, so he was slowing down, physically, and was even a little stooped in the shoulders, but he was mentally alert and had a spry sense of humor (rather atypical for a German).

Somehow, our conversation wound onto the topic of my grandparents. I told Betz that my grandfather had been a pack-a-day smoker for his entire adult life, and that the habit had finally killed him at 87.

Betz smiled at my dry remark.

"Grandpa did manage to stop for a few years in his late 70s," I noted, "but when he got into his 80s, he took it up again, and Grandma let him."

"He probably got some pleasure out of that," Betz observed.

"Yes," I agreed.

Betz's words reminded me of an old joke, so I said. "There were two men talking about old age, and one of them boasted, 'My uncle never smoked, drank, or chased women, and he lived to be 105!' The other man retorted, 'What for?'"

At that, Betz laughed so hard that his shoulders shook and his eyes watered, so much so that he had to rub them dry.

When he had recovered, we talked a bit longer, but only a minute or so, for Betz had to go. As he was slowly raising himself up from his chair, I politely inquired, "You can't stay a little longer?"

"No," he replied, "I've got to go home and chase my wife."


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