A Pat on the Back from God

Anthony Zimmerman
Book: Where Angels Walk
pp. 46-50
May 1992
Reproduced with Permission

On January 15, 1948 our party of eight freshly minted SVD missionaries alighted at Yokohama port, Japan where 1 was to spend most of my life as a missionary. That evening the other seven embarked once more on the SS General Gordon and continued their way to China. But less than two years later one of them, Fr. Wiesen, would be coming to Japan too, being ordered out of China before the Communists would catch up with him and the others. Eventually quite a large number of missionaries came from China to Japan. They could read the ideographs which are quite identical in China and Japan, and so learn Japanese with less trouble than others who did not know the ideographs.

I remember well how it felt when my feet landed on the pier, after riding the waves for 12 days: because the pier was not swaying the way the boat had been doing, I felt myself swaying instead, while the pier held firm. Fr. Albert Bold, SVD, veteran missionary who had lived through the war in Japan, smiled broadly to greet the second American SVD missionary ever to Japan, the first to come after the war. My 117 trunks of luggage were carefully lined up on the pier, and the tax officials examined only the manifest, without opening the trunks to see what was inside. Actually there were lots of things for the war-deprived missionaries and myself: army surplus shoes, winter underwear, jackets, caps, shirts, canned goods and sundry, a bicycle and a tiny motorcycle. After all the boxes were identified and measured, the official stamped all the papers and waved us through. General Douglas MacArthur had given the word that missionaries were welcome to Japan, and his word cut the red tape. The trunks were loaded. onto a box car and sent to the town of Tajimi, my first destination, where I would study Japanese, and commute to Nagoya to teach English.

Waiting taxi drivers stood by; smoke curled up from an outlet above the radiator of the taxis: in those days of gasoline shortage, they used wood stoves which generated lots of flammable gas, which was diverted into the engine in place of gasoline when they drove. We passed them by and went to the train, where the ticket man waved us through; Fr. Bold. had a pass from the Occupation Forces, and indicated that I was with him. The train had special quarters for Occupation Forces, but Fr. Bold preferred to be with the people so we avoided that special treatment. Some of the broken windows of the train car had not yet been replaced, and the cold air of the early evening of January 15 blasted straight into the car as we sped from the Port of Yokohama toward Tokyo. I was glad, then, that I could pull the khaki army surplus coat close around me.

The missionaries in our Kichijoji house in Tokyo gave me a warm welcome. We went to chapel to thank the Lord for the safe journey; I don't remember, then, about thanking my Guardian Angel specially, but I usually kept in touch with him at morning and evening prayers, so I think I nodded to him then too, asking that he accompany me during the future days in Japan.

All the other missionaries were Germans, veterans of the war; they had been up many a night manning the buckets and pumps, listening to the whine of bombs and the thumps which followed. They felt safe about the bombs whose whining they could hear: they would land somewhere else, not on them. The B 29's had been from America, and I was American; but no matter. I never felt any ill feeling against me because I was American. They spoke either Japanese or German, and most spoke English quite well. They spoilt me, these missionaries, happy to have me aboard.

My arrival called for a celebration said the Rector, warm hearted Father Emil Naberfeld. Flourishing a welcome salute, he then lit a newspaper, and nursed the reluctant flame in the stove; generously he took one piece of split wood which they had saved for the occasion. Everybody gathered tight around to be warmed by the radiating heat, while it lasted. It was a good start. Those were the days of food and fuel rationing in Japan, when families were selling precious heirlooms at bargain prices, to get what they heeded to survive. It was a time when Americans, to the astonishment and joy of most Japanese, helped them generously through the darkest days, with food and fuel; soldiers gave chocolate and chewing gum to the children, who began to believe that all Americans are like Babe Ruth. The black market was dangerous, but kind Japanese Christians took pride in depriving themselves if they could help their beloved missionaries.

Father Aloysius Pache, SVD, kindly accompanied me to Nagoya, 200 miles from Tokyo. We would travel by special express, eight hours then, as I remember. (The bullet train does the run in less than two hours today.) Everybody held handerchieves to nose and mouth when we went through tunnels, because smoke poured in through holes and broken windows.

Fr. Paul Chaplitsky, SVD, met us at Nagoya station with a broad smile; his car was parked illegally, but he notified the police who respected his pass as chaplain to the Occupation Forces. A line of taxi's also waited, with smoke billowing up to the sky from the wood-stove fuel sources under the hood. We drove to Tajimi, speeding over a mountain road which I would have taken more slowly. Again at Tajimi, a grand welcome, a visit to the spacious seminary chapel, and a welcome in the dining room.

Tajimi was then a budding seminary with a beautiful community. I remember the Gregorian Chant of these German fathers and our first Japanese seminarians; singing with them was worth coming to Japan for. Soon the pipe organ was restored, and the music, especially on Christmas and in Holy Week, lifted our spirits right out of our pagan surroundings, high into the heavens. I remember other things, too: the cold, the food, the humor of the confreres. There were no flushing toilets in those days. We didn't always like the food. When I asked Fr. Stan Masciozek what it was that I smelt, he, with a wry wrinkle of humor, tweaked his nose, then volunteered: "Either it's supper; or it's the toilet."

I studied Japanese part time, and taught 17 hours per week of English conversation at our Nanzan school in Nagoya; I commuted usually by a little putt-putt Czech motorcycle, about one hour each way. Looking back now, I think my Guardian Angel did not approve of all the risks I took, but I prayed to him daily, and tried to keep him on my good side just in case.

Two years later I re-located to Ehocho parish in Nagoya, where that dynamo of energy and self-made master of all situations Fr. Wilhelm Puhl, SVD was pastor. He claimed he could cure my stomach of ills which were acting up. He was enormously popular with the parishioners, and baptized 50 adults the first Christmas I spent with him. From there I commuted to Nanzan school, also to Hachiko School, which was part of the national university system. Professor Imagawa took advantage of my presence at Hachiko, by gathering his best students, if they showed interest in Christianity, to his house, where we would pray the rosary together, then discuss about Christian teachings and many things, in the English language. Many a good convert eventually came from this group; others declined Baptism, but remained friends.

I accompanied Fr. Puhl on some of his hospital rounds, especially to the Sanitarium for terminal TB patients in Umemori. Once I had become acquainted with the territory and people, I also went on my own. It was in the spring of 1950, after a visit to that Sanitarium, that an event took place which had a major effect an my entire outlook on life.

After visiting the patients in the rooms, then offering Mass in a larger room with those who could come, I packed everything into the jeep and started the drive back to Ehocho parish. I was never good at finding roads, but drove on anyway expecting that somehow I would get back safe. Anyway, my thoughts were lost in a reverie about the people whom I had just left. The name "Sanitarium", is a euphemism, I thought. Most of the patients knew that they would not be healed there; they would die. That was in 1950, when Japan was still staggering under the poverty and immense destruction caused by the war. The government did not expend lavish funds on terminal patients. Care was minimal. Some caretakers extracted pay by way of forbidden pleasures from patients who had little cash. The long wait before death was gloomy, bereft of joy and hope. My heart bled that they did not know the joys of the Resurrection. We came again and again. The number of those who listened to the Good News, who received instructions, grew bit by bit. They were our consolation. For them we could open the doors of heaven.

I was nearing a crossroad now, but I didn't know the crossroad was there. It was a wooded area, trees and shrubs crowded to the road's edge, and I saw only the continuous path of the road straight ahead. There was no stop sign, and I barreled the jeep onwards to get back to Ehocho parish. That was when it happened. The strange behavior which my jeep suddenly began is etched forever in my memory.

The jeep began to roll from side to side, and swing up and come down, up again and down again. What's the matter? I pushed the brakes as hard as I dared, fearing to upset if I pushed too hard at the wrong time of the swaying and buckling. I brought it to a stop. Just on time: not fifteen yards ahead an enormous truck came roaring from the side road which I had not seen, and tore through the place exactly where I would have been had I not made that emergency stop. That truck, had it hit me, would have totaled the jeep. The jeep, and likely also me. I gasped. I looked to heaven to thank God for being alive. I recall the moment as clearly today as when it happened.

What was wrong with the jeep, I thought next. From experience, I judged that it must be a flat tire; completely flat, and on the left rear wheel. That's where I looked. But there was no flat tire. None at all. What about the road? It was smooth and would not have caused the jeep to rock. Carefully I started the motor again, and drove, more carefully now. There was nothing wrong with the jeep anymore; absolutely nothing. I then spoke to my Guardian Angel. "Sorry about that," I said. And "Thank you immensely."

What does it feel like at such a time? It feels like a pat on the back from God, who says: "I know you're here, and I like what you're doing. I also have more work that I want you to do. So hang in there! But be more careful." One does not forget such a time and event.

The rocking of that jeep is etched into my memory forever. I think my Guardian Angel must be special, if he can manhandle a jeep like a toy. My Angel - he saved me that spring day in 1950, for more missionary work in Japan. I am grateful.

Since then I returned to the States, took my doctorate in Moral Theology at Catholic University, eventually returned to Japan in 1960 to teach in the major seminary and to do family life work. I have written some books on papal teachings and overpopulation. "Stick with the Pope's teaching," I have been saying to families. "Learn the natural methods, and have nothing to do with contraceptives and abortion." That was the message I always gave to our seminarians and university students too.

As I write this in 1991 I am retired from teaching at 73, and spend my time in what I like best: 1) write; 2) promote natural family planning. When I sit behind the word processor my Angel seems to be more relaxed than when I was driving jeeps and motorcycles in the past. I love to write. This year I could publish two books: ORIGINAL SIN: WHERE DOCTRINE MEETS SCIENCE; the second book is: THE RELIGION OF ADAM AND EVE; both are published by Vantage Press, Inc., 516 West 34th St., New York 10001. The theological issues connected with original sin are fascinating, telling us much about ourselves and our ancestors. God's wisdom, goodness, and our good fortune come to light in the books, I think. They may help the missionary cause, as well as young people.

And a recent development in the area of natural family planning promises to help Japanese families immensely, and families in other nations as well. We have been doing what we can to popularize NFP in Japan, and so to make an end run around contraception and its failures, which end in abortion (maybe 2,000,000 abortions a year in Japan, in this nation of 123,000,000 people). Our Japan Family Life Association also brought Mother Teresa to Japan in 1981 and again in 1982. She became "First Lady," here, the darling of the nation. When she spoke on TV during a major league baseball game, the ladies wanted her program, whereas the men wanted baseball. So NHK repeated the performance. It is said that 20,000,000 finally saw it; telephone calls poured into stations until past the midnight hour. Mothers wept, telling that they would never again abort a baby. She told the audience:

And I think we should train our children for the future by respect for life, by respect for the dignity of life; of that life which is a creation of God; the children will be able to face the future by using simple means, natural means, the kind God has created.

And so ... we teach our poor people natural family planning; we teach the young people so that the future will become simple for them; and the poor people told me that from the time they are practicing this way of life "our family has remained united, our family is healthy, and we can have a baby whenever we like." And it has brought so much peace and unity into the lives or our poor people. That is something so wonderful to see, the peace of the family; because they are not destroying anything; they are not killing anything; they are using their body to glorify God in the sanctity of their family life. (Tokyo, NHK TV, May 24, 1984).

Missionary work becomes twice as easy with help like that. Our Dr. Shigeru Murayama learned from many women that they were trying to use the temperature method for natural family planning; 60% of Japanese women tried it for a time, his studies indicated. But most gave up again because the digital thermometers are not exact enough, and there is little public support for that.

Again, maybe it was my Guardian Angel who put me in touch with the inventor of a brand new device which many Japanese are now buying as an aid to natural family planning. Mr. Nishimura worked for six years to bring a thermometer to peak perfection, then integrate it with a mini-computer which ladies can carry in their purse. If they take the temperature regularly in the morning, and just enter their cycles into the device, the computer then shows them the fertile and infertile times when enough data has been entered. So far the nearly 10,000 people who bought the device appear to be very pleased. I hope that it augurs well for natural family planning in the future, not only in Japan but in the world. I'm helping to market it in Japan and abroad. In heaven I'll know for sure, but I have a feeling that my Guardian Angel is going to tell me that he already knew all this was coming for me, and that is one of the reasons he made that jeep rock so strongly to keep me from being killed.

Just now I called by telephone to my classmate, Fr. H. John Wiesen, pastor of St. Pius Xth Church in Nagasaki. "Oh," he said, "then write up my story too. He told it as follows.

Fr. Wiesen, after we said goodbye in Yokohama in 1948, studied Chinese in Peking. He sometimes went to a convent in the morning to offer mass for the sisters there. He knew the way to the sisters very well: it was a direct and straight road all the way. He motioned for a coolie with a pedicab to take him to the sisters by that straight and direct route.

Peking was already surrounded by the Communists, and the rumble of distant artillery could be heard. "Straight ahead!" said Fr. Wiesen to the one who manned the pedicab. "No sir!" said the coolie. Fr. Wiesen was used to bargaining, but this time it was different. The coolie insisted on taking a very round-about route, which would take fifteen minutes longer, and cost more. "Straight ahead!" Fr. Wiesen said again. "Round-about!" responded the coolie. "You win," Fr. Wiesen, as the pedicab began its circuitous and seemingly senseless detour.

Well on the way, a massive explosion ripped through the air. A bomb made a direct hit on the road which went straight to the sisters, about where they would have been had they taken that road. Fr. Wiesen has been working in Japan since 1950, a marvelous missionary, always a good friend to many and to me. Guardian Angels are special for missionaries.

Original version sent to Joan Wester Anderson, who edited and published it in the book WHERE ANGELS WALK, Barton and Brat Publishers, Sea Cliff, New York, 1992, pp. 46-50, "A Pat on the Back from God."