The Pastor

This post has nothing to do with investing. While I have been quite busy with my investing recently, I haven’t found anything useful to write about it. Instead I find myself opining on the jobs market and practicing my writing with random pieces like this one:

Once upon a time, I lived in a part of the world you’ve never been to. Plenty of people visit this country each year, but I guarantee you’ve never been to this particular location. It was a dingy boxing gym down a side-alley in a third-world back-street, and I wondered every day if I’d be raped or bashed walking down the alley to get my workout. Actually it was one of the safer neighbourhoods in town, a locus for promising young men who preferred to spend their time in disciplined striving, as well as a safe space for women to exercise in a culture where men literally get away with murder – but I digress.

One day I was at a kickboxing lesson there, and I met a US citizen we’ll call The Pastor, although his real name was Alex. The Pastor was utterly unremarkable, about 170cm, precisely average height, and I guess about 35 years old and 85 kilograms. His physique was average, if you didn’t look too closely. He had a totally ordinary face, a slight paunch, and routinely wore a red t-shirt that was two sizes too big. He was handsome in an unremarkable way, mostly due to the broad face, smooth cheekbones, easygoing manner, and the glow of obvious good health that radiated from his every pore.

The first thing I noticed about him were his hands when we shook; they were like dinner plates. This sounds like hyperbole when you read it in the stories, but truly his hands dwarfed mine. I was a weight lifter at the time and I had also never seen an ordinary man with forearms this beefy, especially since his physique did not appear overly large. He did not have a ‘V’ shaped torso, nor was he bulky or slim, just strong. As we shook – he did not squeeze hard – I saw rigid steel cables bulging under the skin where his forearm muscles should have been.  That’s curious….

We partnered up for training and went through the usual indignities. I kicked him in the stomach and it told me of a high carbohydrate and low-protein diet not unlike what the locals ate. When I tried to throw him down – futilely, the underdog pride of a young man who knows he is outmatched – I caught a glimpse of his leg muscles. His calves were monstrous. Taut steel cables ridged his legs where I heretofore thought only muscle grew.

He let me go and I kicked him again. My foot hooked in his loose shirt, stretching it out, and for the first time I saw the logo against the red material. It read ‘NSW’ and there was a US flag next to it.  Bizarre. Why does New South Wales have a US flag next to it? Curious… The answer hit me like a thunderbolt, and I stopped mid-step. Suddenly he whipped his hands around the back of my neck, yanked my head forwards and down, and jammed his knee into my solar plexus; the air whooshed out of my lungs.  I clacked my elbows into his collarbone, forcing a space between us as he let me go. Try this with your friend or partner – very gently tap the point of your elbow into their collarbone.  It is exceedingly unpleasant, but the man did not so much as wince:

‘That’s a Navy Special Warfare t-shirt, isn’t it?’

“No, no I have a buddy at Coronado, he gave it to me. I’m not with…” he trailed off.  That’s not what I asked…

For the uninitiated, NSW in the US military stands for Navy Special Warfare and it is the acronym for the command that (among other things) trains US Navy SEALs at Coronado beach. In my insignificant little corner of the world, I was pretty sure I’d just stumbled across a bona fide Navy SEAL. These are not dissimilar to our own SAS. (If you’re interested in physical or mental fitness in any way, let me recommend a book called The Warrior Elite about SEAL training, truly remarkable.)

“I see. So you work at the embassy here then?”

‘No man, no, no…. thank you though, no, I’m a pastor.’

He said he’d been in the country for 5 years. At that point I pegged his physical fitness as a side effect of his activity with the locals, probably digging ditches and building houses and that kind of thing. I have seen a couple of people with a similar build in the construction industry and once when I worked at the scrapyard I also saw my body grow in a similar way as his, though not to the same extent – not even close. (In my experience, physical labour seems to affect your forearms, your calves, and your thumb muscles most noticeably.)

Thinking about it in hindsight though, he definitely is or was in the navy. His musculature was a dead giveaway, because the taut muscles were those of someone who does extraordinary amounts of sustained exercise without necessarily lifting heavy weights. You do not get muscles that firm in construction because the work is not hard enough (even though it might be very hard). Equally, you cannot get muscles that powerful by lifting big weights while still maintaining a physique of ordinary size. The only way to get muscles like that, and I say this as a connoisseur of these things, is by doing hundreds of repetitive, light weight-bearing motions, like doing pushups or hiking long miles with a heavy pack. Even the kickboxing instructor at the gym, an active semi-pro in Thailand (a well-fed and fierce Westerner, not a skinny Thai), did not have this kind of musculature.

The other dead giveaway was The Pastor’s physical toughness. He’d only been kickboxing for a week and already he was hard enough to trade full-contact blows with the instructors or advanced students. This is 100x more remarkable than it sounds on paper, and if you’ve ever played a contact sport like rugby or boxing, you know what I’m talking about. (Advanced students can connect with enough force to break bone, and it is not uncommon to take dozens of these strikes in a three-minute practice bout. The only way to avoid injury is conditioning…unless you’re The Pastor.)

Physicality aside, probably the most remarkable thing about The Pastor was his total self confidence. He was an incredibly nice guy, at home in any situation, and would regularly give genuine praise or ask insightful questions that drew people out of their shells. To this day, I cherish his kind words about the power in my round-kicks. With these skills he could definitely have been a pastor, although I never once heard him mention God, church, religion, or anything related.

He never fessed up to his prior career, but I have known many fit men of varying professions and hobbies, and none came close to fitting his mould, either physically or mentally. I choose to believe that he was previously a Navy SEAL, and became a pastor afterwards but did not abandon his physical fitness regime. When I get a chance I hope to go back and find him, because I think men like him are exceedingly rare, and I wonder what I could learn from his experience and his worldview.

Is there a point to this story?  Not really, I just wanted to tell you about a remarkable man I knew.

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