The outer door of my office building opened, then slammed shut, followed by the sound of boots clomping down the hall, until they stopped at my door. I looked up to see Father Wlad dressed in camouflaged cargo-pocket shorts that reached below his knees, a faded pink-and-green floral buttoned shirt, greenish-brown combat boots that had seen better days, and thick, dark green, used-to-be-knee-high socks that had lost all elasticity so that they drooped down to the tops of his boots. His left hand held a table tennis racket. I burst out laughing at the apparition that filled the doorway.
“Want to play ping pong?” the priest asked.
“I’d love to,” I managed to say, mentally rescheduling the tasks on my to-do list. I had been praying about Father Wlad the past few days, hoping for an opportunity to spend some time with him. He was faithful in his ministry as a Roman Catholic priest, conducting daily mass and confession, yet I sensed he needed a friend, just like I did.
We chatted as we walked over to the MWR, which was a combination gym and entertainment facility. The bottom level had weight machines and free weights. There were treadmills, stair climbers, ellipticals, and stationary bikes. The floor was concrete, and one side had a large, bright blue mat for floor exercises. Upstairs were pool tables, a stereo, books and magazines, card tables, sofas, and a humongous internal-projection big screen TV. In the center of the large, open, linoleum-covered area was a brand new, heavy-duty ping pong table. Father Wlad had planned this ambush, and had asked the MWR staff to reserve the table for our use.
“You never told me you play table tennis,” I scolded.
“Table tennis is big in Europe. Everybody plays.”
“Do you have a table in your parish hall in Poland?” I asked.
“Of course.” It was like he was saying, “Silly American. Don’t you know anything?”
Had I known there was to be a table tennis match today, I would have dressed for the occasion. I would love to have changed into my PT clothes. Instead, I was wearing my Army Combat Uniform with boots. What I wanted most was to be wearing athletic shoes.
Not having the right clothing wasn’t my only worry, though. Europeans don’t consider table tennis to be a casual game; it’s a serious sport. Father Wlad had brought his personal racket when he came to Iraq. I had to use whatever the MWR happened to have on hand, which wasn’t as good as the equipment I used at home. Not only that, Wlad was left-handed, which presented a different set of dynamics to the game. This could get ugly.
We took about ten minutes to warm up, batting the ball back and forth to get a feel for each other’s style of play. News spread quickly that the two chaplains were playing ping pong: Catholic versus Protestant, Polish versus American, Lefty versus Righty. By the time we began the first game, an audience of about twenty-five people had gathered to witness this international, interdenominational slugfest. They shouted, egged us on, and groaned or cheered with every shot and every miss.
The first player to 21 wins, but he has to win by at least two points. Father Wlad won the first game with a score of 21–10. It took me that long to figure him out—and to remember the coaching I had received as an 18-year-old freshman at San Diego State. An encounter with my cousin, Elmer, flashed into my mind.
Elmer, who was eight years older than I, invited me to have dinner with him and his wife, and while we were eating, he asked, “Do you play ping pong?”
“Are you any good?”
“Yeah, I’m pretty good. Why?”
“Well, I just bought a new ping pong table, but I’ve never played. S’pose you could teach me? Maybe show me a few things after dinner?”
“Sure. I’d be glad to.”
After eating, we went out to the garage. I should have known as soon as we walked in that I was being set up. Brand new table, prominently placed in the center of the room. A rack on the wall held ping pong balls and paddles. Chairs for spectators along each side.
“Pick any paddle you want,” Elmer graciously offered. Then he pulled a case from the shelf and took out his personal racket that nobody else was allowed to use . . . or touch . . . ever!
“So, how do you play this game?’ he asked.
After I gave a few of the basics, we got started. We played ten games, and I never scored a point. He skunked me ten times in a row, right after I told him I was pretty good.
“OK, cousin. I know two things about you. You’re a great ping pong player and a good liar.”
After he stopped laughing, he said, “Don’t ever call it ping pong, Son. It’s table tennis. And this is not a paddle, it’s a racket.”
“OK. Where did you learn to play . . . table tennis?”
“I played in the Army, competed in the Servicemen’s Table Tennis Tournament in Germany several years, and even won the thing once.”
My cousin was a champion–a champion who apparently delighted in taking advantage of his naïve, overconfident, younger cousin. I learned later that he enjoyed pulling this prank on many of his friends.
“So Elmer, s’pose you could teach me? Maybe show me a few things?”
“Sure. I’d be glad to.”
During the next few months, he taught me how to play the game: the rules, the etiquette, technique, how to return spin with spin, keep the ball rotating the same direction, unless, of course, you decide to override the rotation of the ball with power. Never touch the table. How to serve. The thickness of the rubber on the racket. The guy knew the game inside and out, and under his tutelage, I became a much better player.
As Father Wlad started serving game two, suddenly, his serve, his spin, and his leftiness were not insurmountable. I won the second game 21–18. I also won games three, four, and five—each game by two or three points. The final game was long, going back and forth, neither of us able to get a 2-point lead for the victory until finally I beat him 32–30. We were exhausted. The Polish Catholic priest took the first game by 11 points. The American Protestant pastor took the next four games by a combined total of 10 points. So, he had more points, but I had more games. The fans cheered for both of us.
“Let’s go back to my place for drinks,” my opponent suggested.
“Sounds like a great way to spend an afternoon in Iraq,” I replied.” Then, thinking that he might only have beer, I asked, “Do you have any soft drinks?”
“Come. I will take care of you.”
The Polish soldiers had built the chapel for Catholic mass and confession, but off to one side of the wooden structure, they added a large office and Father Wlad’s living quarters. While I lived in an aluminum can, my compadre had a 600-square-foot, two-room apartment, complete with running water and a refrigerator. They knew how to take care of their priest.
Wlad went straight to the fridge, pulled out a beer for himself and a Diet Dr Pepper for me, smiling as he handed it to me. “See. I told you I take care of you.”
I was impressed. Father Wlad had taken time to plan this day. The little store at Camp Echo didn’t have my favorite drink very often. I had asked the manager if he’d order some Diet Dr Pepper once in a while, and he agreed. Whenever it was in stock, I bought a 12-pack or two. Wlad had gone over to the shop a week earlier to pick some up, knowing that’s what I liked. He lit a cigarette, put his feet up, and we spent the afternoon talking like old friends getting together for drinks at a roadside café somewhere in Europe.
(This story is excerpted from chapter 12 of my book, Safest Place in Iraq.)