When I was in high school I had a friend who was a Nazi. I’m not talking figuratively; Dave was an actual Nazi who would one day join the National Socialist Party of America. We became friends because we shared an interest in science fiction literature. One day he talked to me about the Nazis, who had recently established headquarters in El Monte. We laughed about it because, at least to me, the idea of Nazis setting up shop in El Monte, of all places, just seemed too ridiculous.
“Do they wear uniforms?” I said. “Like in the movies?”
“Oh yeah,” Dave said. “And they have meetings. On Wednesday nights the public is invited.”
Dave wanted me to attend one of the meetings with him. I was tempted but not because I took their ideas seriously. To me Nazis were interesting in the same way zoo animals and creepy stories are interesting. I mean, here are people who cling to the most spectacularly failed ideology of all time. It’s like watching a boxer get pummeled so badly that he dies on the way to the emergency room and then turning to your friends to say, “Man oh man, I want to be like that guy!”
Dave and I drifted apart but I sometimes wondered about him. Years later I mentioned him to my friend Rob who told me that, yes, Dave had become a card carrying Nazi which resulted in his family disowning him. I was stunned and appalled. To this day I also feel a little guilty. I tell myself that I should have realized that my friend was attracted to real, muscular, bloodthirsty fascism, that he wanted to express fanatical hatred and the most extreme form of intolerance. At the time, though, it just seemed too improbable. I would have found it easier to believe that he was a time traveler or that he could make himself invisible.
My most persistent character flaw is that I tend to think that, deep down, everyone is basically like me. My anger is transitory. However mad people make me, I can’t find it in my heart to hate anyone. I have to keep reminding myself, though, that not everyone is like me. The quiet man sitting next to me on the bus may be plotting my extermination. That friendly, smiling cashier I like so much at the supermarket may daydream about annihilating the human race. As hard as it is for me and maybe some of you to accept or believe, hatred can become our most prized possession, the sweetly exhilarating emotion that gives life meaning and purpose.
When I returned from the Navy and settled back in El Monte, I spent one afternoon with a man I had grown up with as a neighbor. His name was Billy. We were never very close but I remembered him as a sweet, quiet little boy, the youngest of three children. I think now that life was probably not easy for Billy when he was little. His father, a railway worker, was injured at work and as a result lost both legs. The loss of blood caused extensive brain damage. I remember seeing the poor man slumped in his wheelchair, chain smoking and babbling words only his wife could understand.
Despite this I didn’t mind going over to their house. I especially liked seeing Mary, the older of the two daughters, washing her mother’s car in a bikini. But by the time I was in high school the family left California and moved to South Carolina where Billy’s mother had originally come from.
Now, as a young man, he had come back with his mother for a visit.
“Why don’t you boys go out and do something?” my mother said to me.
I looked at Billy, who stonily stared at empty space, and said, sure, why not? We got into the two-door Chevy I had purchased from one of my father’s co-workers and then headed for town. I talked about this and that, asked Billy questions and tried to make conversation but the kid was not easy to talk to. He was quiet and seemed remote. Politics was off the table after he grumbled that, “Liberals think they know everything.” There wasn’t much to say about education, since I was in college and he was living at home doing whatever young people do when they are not going to school or working.
We got a bite to eat and then watched a movie. I don’t remember what we saw but I do remember seeing the trailer for Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
“Holy cow.” I said when we got back into the car. “Do I want to see that movie!”
Billy just shrugged and looked out the window. Something was wrong and it began to get under my skin. He hadn’t cracked one smile and seemed depressed. I’m not given to prying but finally couldn’t help myself.
“Uh, Billy,” I said. “You, uh, all right? Is something like, you know, bugging you?”
He glanced at me, twisted his mouth into a bitter smirk, then looked out the window and said, “Jews.”
I felt my jaw hit my lap. Jews. Jews? Did I hear that right? Jews? As in…Jews? I wondered if I had missed something. Maybe a rabbi had attacked Billy for buying a box of Milk Duds on the Sabbath. Had Israel just declared war against South Carolina? What the hell did Jews have to do with the price of butter in Finland for crying out loud? This was nuts. I was sitting in a car with a crazy man.
Being the coward that I am I didn’t say anything. I’ve never been good at confronting irrational prejudices. A few days later Billy and his mother returned to South Carolina and I never saw them again.
Thoughts of Billy always make me sad and angry. I imagine him by my side as I shake my fist, bellowing to whoever poisoned this once sweet little kid, “Do you see what you have done! Does this make you happy?”
Mary, the girl I had my first erotic fantasies about, went to college, married and worked in the banking industry. The others kids, my mother told me with a sigh, never left home and did nothing with their lives, living on the money they received from the railroad company. I hope this isn’t true but my gut tells me that it is.I imagine an old Billy sitting alone in his kitchen, sipping black, bitter coffee and occasionally muttering, “Jews!”