My youth is full of mostly good memories — of parents who loved me, grandparents who cared, siblings, uncles, aunts, and friends who made my life full. Church, Sabbath observance, tithing, avoiding coarse language — these were also realities which circumscribed my life. In my family, the writings of Ellen G. White were taken seriously. An argument could easily be won by quoting “We have been told…” Your knowledge of the exact book and page number of the reference cemented your position as being correct and your argument as being irrefutable.
During boarding academy years, I began to question some of the verisimilitudes. How could we be so sure that the music of the Beach Boys was evil and degenerate? Why was it wrong to wear Levis, the most popular pants for adolescents of the day? Was it okay if they were white? And why could we not even walk from the administration building to the girls’ dorm with our favorite girl friend?
And there was that semi-condemnation of the table games of chess and checkers. I don’t recall the exact Ellen White quote and resist even today the inclination to seek it out; suffice it to say that we occasionally played checkers in our home but never chess. The game was a mystery to me that was not to be cleared for years. The disapproving statements were not absolute, thus providing a little “wiggle room” for interpretation. But they were clear enough to discourage any thoughtful engagement with this apparently “dangerous” table game.
An acceptable table game was “Five in a Row.” Golf tees were used in a board you could make at home by cutting a piece of perforated hardboard into a four-foot square and attaching a wooden frame. Two colors or more of tees were used one at a time with the goal to achieve five tees in a row with your assigned color. Perhaps because of its sheer simplicity and low cost, this game was just fine.
We also had a carrom board and played that game occasionally on Saturday nights. We also used the same pieces to play checkers at times but without chess pieces, I never played chess until I reached medical school.
One of my earliest chess memories comes to my mind whenever I visit my wife’s youngest brother Harry. As an eight-year-old, he challenged me, a nearly-graduated physician, to a game of chess which he won in a memorable three or four moves! Ah, the humiliation and chagrin are unforgettable!
As a freshman at college, I was invited to a blind date with one of my classmate’s sisters. I was attending Andrews University in the autumn of 1966 and was pining for my girlfriend from academy. So, I did not really give this date much of a chance. Since the young woman was related to one of the faculty members, we were invited to his home for the dating experience. His name was Dr. Earle Hilgert and he was professor of New Testament at the Seminary. He passed away recently, and his obituary appeared in Spectrum Magazine online.
I recall his generosity and the liveliness of the evening, but neither the young lady nor I made arrangements to further develop our relationship. One thing I recall about that date, strangely enough, is a furniture piece that was present in the living room of Dr. Hilgert’s home. It was a lovely wooden table, with drawers and accompanying chairs and the top of the table was a chess board, made of inlaid hardwoods. I had never seen such a beautiful table and the very thought that a Seminary professor might be interested in playing chess was intriguing!
As I recall, chess was not played that evening. There were too many people to be entertained and other activities to engage us. But the table remained in my memory.
From the recent obituary for Dr. Earle Hilgert, I now know that he was Vice President for Academic Administration for Andrews University at that time. Then in 1970, he left Andrews University — and the SDA Church — for a position at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago.
I had no further encounters with Dr. Hilgert but his chess table has been in one of those memory banks that remain accessible to this day, more than fifty years later.
This chess table, or the memory of it, became associated with other memories, dreams, fantasies, and concepts as time has passed. These accretions have complexified into a rich set of associations which were constellated for me by the reading of Dr. Hilgert’s obituary.
His chess table was on the margin of my boundaries at the time, a symbol of independence from the advice and admonitions of my parents, church, and Ellen White. It was not necessary for the game of chess to actually be played for the table to be representative of liberation from previous indoctrination. And yet it was not far enough from the boundary to be unacceptable either. A deck of playing cards would probably not have had such symbolic value for me, since it would have been far enough from my world to be plainly unacceptable. This table stood just over the bridge and invited me to cross the river!
The table also represented craftsmanship. It was a beautiful carved masterpiece, at least the way I remember it. I was used to products from Harris Pine Mills but this table — this chess table — was crafted from hardwoods that would endure. As a furniture piece, it was obviously valued and chosen for decorative and social reasons. It made a statement of quality and beauty.
Chess is one of the most intellectually challenging of games. Having just recently viewed the series The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix, I have just been reminded of the depth of commitment required to really play the game well. Some people are obviously better at the game innately, but anyone who attempts to beat another player at chess must learn to think with complex subtlety. For me, the Hilgert Chess Table also represented intellectual aspiration at a time in my life when such thoughts were just beginning to emerge. The table might not have been as powerful an archetype for me several years earlier. But at eighteen years of age, I was eager to engage with cerebral pursuits.
The Hilgert Chess Table nudged its way into my mind, then, as representative of the Good, the Beautiful, and the True. It thus became an archetype for me, a riff on an “original table” with added significance. It had become a symbol of Union, Completion, and Wholeness.
I had these thoughts as I read Dr. John Jones’ obituary for Earle Hilgert. They led to feelings of sadness and loss as well as joy and satisfaction. Being aware that each person who knew Dr. Hilgert remembers him in a different way made my little perspective feel very small, yet important to me at the same time. Archetypes live on, having a persistent existence related to their primordial associations. We recognize them since they remind us of a reality we already know at some deep level. I invite the reader to ponder their own story that Dr. Hilgert’s Chess Table evokes.
Gary Huffaker, a graduate of Andrews University and Loma Linda University's School of Medicine, retired several years ago from the practice of pediatric ophthalmology, lastly at Southern California Permanente Medical Group. Since then, he has obtained an MA degree in Integral Theory from John F. Kennedy University. Father of three, husband of one, and new grandparent of one, he is entering 2021 with freshened hope!
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