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My grandfather on my mother’s side (I never knew my other grandfather) was a grumpy, stern man. I can’t ever remember him smiling. Even his wedding picture looked grim. This manner, I always attributed to that famous Germanic humorlessness. As Robin Williams once said, “They killed off all the funny people.”

However, I came to realize that perhaps this brusque, unfriendly manner had its source in something else.

He grew up on a farm in Austria, about 25 miles outside of Vienna. Not far, as it turned out, from my grandmother, whom he met only after coming to this country. My grandparents spoke both German and Hungarian since their territory switched hands so many times in their youth. They acquired English later, here. They both came over on the boat after World War I. My grandfather had been conscripted and fought on the Eastern front on the German side. He was probably 18 at the time. He was captured by the Russians, who, not known for their hospitality towards their enemies, imprisoned him in Siberia for several years. He didn’t like to talk about it. I always pictured an interminable train ride across a bare, forbidding landscape, followed by a long internment in a snowy place far, far from home. I think all he ever said about it was that they cut down trees, and it was cold.

When my giant family (there were eventually 13 in all, including my parents) would visit, we would sleep on a pullout couch, a bed, and cots spread all over the dining/living room of their tiny one-story home.

During the day, my brothers and I would occupy ourselves with riding my parents old balloon-tired bikes, playing wiffleball in the yard, and our all-time favorite, pushing each other in my grandfather’s green wagon with the ball bearing wheels. It was amazingly fast, and steered easily, and we would careen around the tiny sidewalks that skirted his gardens of flowers and vegetables and wended the passageways through his perfectly manicured hedges. It was a blast and we would howl with delight. Grandpa, on the other hand, would yell at us to slow down and watch out for his borders and hedges that we were always crashing into. One time he caught me by the hair, and then shook me by the shoulders after we bashed into and made a serious dent in the front hedge.

In the evening, we would watch TV. My father, who always took over wherever we went, commandeered the recliner. The rest of us would be on the floor, dining room chairs or pullout couch.

One time we were watching a war movie about World War II. My father loved to watch these. He was a signalman in the Navy in the South Pacific during the latter part of the war. However, he was fortunate never to have seen any action.

“Grandpa, why don’t you sit down and watch TV with us?” My father said, with that magnanimous ‘your house is my house’ tone of his.

My grandfather refused, turned around, and headed back to the kitchen. As he left, he spoke in a typically grumpy tone, this time tinged with pain, “I’ve seen enough war.”

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[This is the 4th  installment of a hitchhiking trip I took in my twenties; see the first  post to read from the beginning]

After the Prairie Dogs

 Not only were my hosts on their way to join the New Zion Army, they were also stopping in Charlie’s hometown, Minneapolis, so they could live with his mom, get jobs, and save some money.

“Hey,” Charlie said, “When we go up to South Dakota to do some camping, we can do some shooting too. They have those prairie dog towns. You just sit there for a while and wait for them to pop their little heads up.”

“Sounds like fun,” said Ken.

“Yeah, it’s a ball. It’ll help you relax, get your mind off your troubles.” Charlie laughed; they both laughed. “We could use a little fun after Las Vegas.”

I wasn’t sure I still wanted to go camping with these guys. I wasn’t sure I wanted to see prairie dogs splattered all over their mounds. It wasn’t how I liked to experience nature.

The sun set orange over the mountains in the west.

“You wanna drive straight through?” said Charlie to Ken. “We’ll stop when we hit South Dakota.”

“All right,” said Ken.

Ken always went along with Charlie. He looked up to him. Charlie was a very self assured person. He always knew what to do.

The lengthening evening gradually shrank the vistas outside the car windows. There were few lights beyond the head beams of the little Celica and few cars on the interstate.

“I can kill a man with my bare hands,” said Charlie to no one in particular. You just have to grab ‘em by the throat and twist. I did some in Nam…It was fucked up there.” His voice got very dark, like the night outside the windows of the car. “The bastards killed my buddies right beside me. I killed as many as I could. After I finished my tour I signed up for another.”

I was very quiet. I felt sorry for Charlie and all the “Charlies” Charlie had killed. I could understand an anger that can’t be quenched; however, I never killed anyone. As a matter of fact, I’d only been in two fights my whole life. The thought of being in a fight scared me; I didn’t want to get on the wrong side of Charlie.

I could feel some kind of plan that was shared by my two Samaritan friends, but that I was not party to. They had gotten quiet, aside from the occasional curse or bitter remark. Charlie gripped the wheel his eyes knifing into the road ahead. Ken sat at attention, both hands in fists, one arm across his lap, the other under his nose supporting his head, his brow aiding his intensity by pressing down like a collapsed accordion.

“I hope I’m not too much of a bother,” I said.

“No bother,” said Ken.

“Hmmph,” said Charlie, “What?”

“I hope I’m not too much trouble.”

Charlie turned his head, “Nah,” he half smiled then looked forward down the road.

The little car ate up the interstate like a Chihuahua nibbling a midnight snack.

Why did they pick me up? I thought. The glow I’d felt from having my problems solved with a ride clear to my destination, had worn off. I was tired like my traveling companions. I hadn’t had much sleep and we’d been driving for hours. The grim reality of my situation began to dawn on me. They had gone to a lot of trouble to fit me in. There was no good reason for them to pick me up. They were best friends, I was a stranger. They had a cramped vehicle even before I got in. They had guns and other weapons. The driver was nuts and a trained killer.

The blood drained from my face. My heart pounded. I felt they must hear it above the sound of the engine and tires on the road.

They would take me up to South Dakota, way out in the country. They would camp, kill a few prairie dogs, then kill me. They wanted my money.

Many thoughts, like visions of poisoned sugarplums, danced through my head. Maybe they would make me get down on my knees and blow my head off. Maybe they would beat me to death.

I knew I didn’t stand a chance against these two. And, since I wasn’t sure they were going to kill me, that maybe it was just my overactive imagination, I couldn’t try to escape or tell someone. Doing that, would cause a lot of trouble, and that would really piss Charlie and Ken off. In addition, I’d lose all my belongings since they were secreted throughout their car. Besides, I’d be too embarrassed. I would look like a fool if it wasn’t true.

“I’m getting pretty tired,” said Charlie. “I wanted to drive straight through, but maybe we should stop.”

Ken agreed, “Maybe we could all share a room.”

A glimmer of hope lit my manacled brain. Maybe this nightmare would clear up with a good night’s rest and maybe, when they saw I had only traveler’s checks, they’d reconsider murdering me.

We pulled into a Howard Johnson’s. Just as I thought, when I paid my share of the room with a traveler’s check, Charlie let out an annoyed hiss.

I was glad if it ruined their plans. I didn’t want them to benefit from my demise.

We got a room with three single beds. I was given the middle one. When Ken opened his suitcase, he showed me the throwing knives. “I can stop a man at 30 feet with one of these.”

“Yeah, and do you see the blades on those?” added Charlie, “They’re tapered so the wound won’t close. Anybody who gets one of those in him will bleed to death.”

It seemed that Charlie and Ken wanted to be sure that I didn’t try anything in the middle of the night.

I lay in the bed, lights off, peering at the faint ceiling above me. Part of my thought was terrified, panicking, Maybe I should make a run for it, tell the manager, something, another was so tired that it said, Wait till morning, this will probably all clear up in the morning after everybody’s had some sleep.

I was so exhausted I felt I would take the chance they’d at least wait till tomorrow. So I closed my eyes.

 

Next Week:

 Road to Minneapolis

 

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[This is the 3rd installment of a hitchhiking trip I took in my twenties; see the first  post to read from the beginning]

Volunteers for the New Zion Army

 A man going to work took me to Cedar City, a town in southern Utah. I could see I was going to spend a lot of time trying to hitch out of there. A car would go by no more than once every five minutes traveling north on the near empty interstate which lead to Salt Lake City. Since it’s illegal to stand on the interstate, police will give you a ticket and remove you, I had to stay on the on ramp. There, a car would only pass every half hour.

I decided that, since it was warm and I’d be there for a while, it would be a good time to sno-seal my leather hiking boots. I’d been planning to do this for a while but never found the time. I took everything out of my pack—the boots were on the bottom. With my belongings spread out on the grass, I opened up my can of sno-seal, a very slimy substance, and smeared it all over the leather, working it into all the pores and seams. After that I set the slimy, glistening boots in the warm sun so the leather could soak up as much as possible. I intended to repeat this process until the boots could take no more.

After I’d applied the second coat, I sat on my sleeping bag and thought about cracking open a book. It looked like I was having a yard sale. I wasn’t afraid it would hurt my chances to get a ride since there were so few cars anyway. Oddly enough, the very next car pulled over, a Toyota Celica.

“Where ya going?” said the smiling passenger on the driver’s right, a handsome man about 25.

Minneapolis, Minnesota.”

“Really, that’s where we’re going. You want a ride?”

I was thrilled, how lucky could I get. I thought it would be all day before I got a ride even as far as Salt Lake, “Yeah, that’s great!”

It was then I noticed their car was packed to the ceiling with clothes, boxes, shoes, stereo equipment and other flotsam of the human condition—there was no room.

“Where we gonna put my stuff?” The back seat was jammed to the ceiling. Where will I even sit, I thought? I felt my enthusiasm waning. These guys, who were both big to begin with, sure were generous to make this offer, but there just wasn’t room.

“Don’t worry,” the driver said, we’ll fit you in.” He was a stocky ruddy guy with scars on his face left over from adolescence, yet he had an attractive air about him due to his enormous self-confidence. “We can put some in the trunk and some in the back seat.”

They took individual pieces of my gear and clothes and stowed them in nooks and crannies between all their belongings. There were a few pieces that wouldn’t fit so they opened up the trunk. That’s when I saw the rifles.

“We’re hunters, you don’t have to worry, we’ll protect your stuff,” said the driver with a dry laugh.

I took my foam sleeping pad and folded it up to make a seat for myself on the console, the only place left to jam myself between these two six footers. If I was big like they were, I would never have fit.

“Boy, thanks a lot, you guys. This is really great of you to go to all this trouble. My name’s Larry, by the way.” I reached my hand towards the driver.

“Charlie,” he shook my hand.

“”I’m Ken,” said the handsome passenger, he shook my hand too.

We chitchatted a half an hour in the afterglow of finding a joint purpose. More than just a coincidence, I thought, this all came together too perfectly to be just a coincidence—all of us going to Minneapolis. Must be part of some higher plan.

“Where’d you stay last night,” I asked.

Charlie stopped smiling, “Vegas, the fucking assholes, I’d like to go back and blow up the whole damn town.”

He turned and looked at me for a moment to emphasize the weight of what he was saying, “We were trying to get up some money. We quit our jobs and are starting over in Minneapolis. My mom lives there.”

“We shoulda stopped when we were ahead,” said Ken. They both looked at me at the same time.

“Sure is beautiful out here,” I said trying to change the subject, “Ever do any camping?”

“Did all the camping I wanted to in Nam. But, what the hell,” Charlie’s eyes narrowed and his mouth contorted from a grimace into a half-smile, “You want to do some camping along the way? We could stop when we’re up in the mountains for a day or two.”

“That’d be great,” I said, not getting the picture.

We had left Cedar City on I-15 heading up toward Salt Lake City. We stopped in a bar a couple towns up for a beer; there were lots of jackalopes on the wall. The jackalope is a jack rabbit with antelope antlers. I wasn’t sure it was a real animal. I asked the bartender and he said, “Yeah, but they’re pretty rare, aren’t they, Dale?” winking at one of the patrons.

Charlie turned around on his stool and addressed the two ranchers behind him, “I thought you Mormons didn’t drink.”

“Well, if you’re a Jack Mormon, you can drink,” he laughed.

The countryside we were driving through was broad and flat with mountains on the eastern and western horizon. The monotony of the unchanging landscape hour after hour gave me plenty of time to worry. Little things started to occur to me like why were they so eager to share their tiny car, especially since they had to move all their stuff around? Also, when we got to talking about the Vietnam War, which hadn’t been over that long, the driver said something noteworthy in relation to Nixon, “Yeah, I’d like to kill him.”

I had brought the subject up and enjoyed how they immediately got onboard about what a jerk he was, but became concerned with the vehemence Charlie lent to the subject, “I’d like to kill the fucking bastard. And I wouldn’t kill him fast; I’d kill him slow, by the death of a 1,000 cuts like the Vietnamese do.”

He’d been to “Nam” for two hitches—four years. “Yeah, I went over there and so many of my buddies got killed, I was pissed, real pissed, so I signed up to go back and kill some more.”

I got real quiet. Up to that point, Charlie had been confident, funny, and friendly. He was still confident, but confident like a crocodile sizing up his prey. He’d done a lot of killing in Vietnam.

The further we drove, the angrier they got about things. I was very careful to be nice. They told me about losing $300 in Las Vegas, about Vietnam, about being best friends, about their jobs delivering Silver Springs water in Watts, about how Ken was running away from his wife, “Maybe I should call her.”

“Naw, don’t do that. Don’t give the bitch the satisfaction.”

“She might be worried,” Ken was worried. He wasn’t sure he was doing the right thing. His wife didn’t know he was leaving.

The more tired all of us got, the darker their moods became and the more paranoid I became. They obsessed about the money they’d lost in Vegas while trying to develop some cash for their new life. Their eyes were narrow black apertures peering down the road in the twilight. They both looked at me squeezed between them in the middle, sitting on the console, as if I were part of the solution to their problems.

“You hear about the war that’s comin’?”

“What war?” I asked.

“We heard all about it in Watts. We know all about it. The word on the street is the Red Chinese are going to attack in the spring. They’re going to pour over the border from Canada,” said Charlie.

“Yeah,” agreed Ken, “We’re going to go and join the New Zion Army up in the Colorado Rockies.”

“We’ll be a million men strong and we’ll fight the Red Chinese. You want to join us?”

“I don’t think so,” I said, “I’m going to a friend’s wedding and then to Michigan to see my family.”

“Well, then you could come after that.”

“Maybe.”

Next Week:

After the Prairie Dogs

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When I was in high school, I held a war poetry reading. It was during the Vietnam War. I liked poetry, but not the war.

I put up signs to meet in a classroom during lunch period. I also talked to my friends—many were onboard with the idea and said they would read.

When the time came for the meeting, who shows up besides my friends but all the pretty girls in the class. In particular one I had a crush on—most every guy did, she was beautiful. She even did some modeling.

These girls didn’t show up to help put on the poetry reading, they came because they thought someone was going to read some poetry to them. There I was standing on the dais with all these admiring females (or at least I thought so) looking up at me, expecting to hear some poetry. So I obliged them. I recited my favorite poem, Byron’s “She Walks in Beauty“. A poem that I’d hand copied and sent anonymously to the girl I had a crush on.

It was well received by the group, but less than nothing came of it. The girls were disappointed that this was not going to be a reading, but only was an organizational meeting. While some agreed to read, none turned up for the rehearsal. And, because these “popular” girls even evinced an interest in the production, my antiestablishment friends refused to have anything to do with it.

On the day of the actual poetry reading, none of the girls showed up to read or even listen, only a few students attended and one faculty member, Mr. Brown, the band director.

The six of us guys sat onstage on stools and took our turns reading the poetry I’d selected to a nearly empty auditorium. One of my friends, since he was for the war, read Richard Lovelace’s “To Lucasta, Going to the Wars” whose final line is “I could not love thee, dear, so much, Loved I not honor more.”

I read Randall Jarrell’s, “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” in a deadpan. It is a hypnotic epitaph by a soldier who in the last line gets washed out of the turret with a hose.

At the end, Mr. Brown told us he found the reading moving. Then he asked us how it made us feel. I was taken aback. I was against the war; I liked reading poetry; I thought what we’d done there was pretty cool, but I didn’t have any real feelings about it. I looked at him with my mouth open. I’d been so wrapped up in the production; I’d lost sight of why I was doing it in the first place, which was to move people about the war. And here I was, unmoved. “I don’t know,” is all I said. The irony of the situation left me feeling hollow.

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I did a little research when I wrote the last post. I wanted to be able to say that the Allies, after the Second World War, followed the Geneva Conventions at the Nuremberg trials. To my dismay, I discovered that the trials did not follow international law. Another item I found dismaying was that American treatment of German POWs immediately following the war, was not up to very high standards either. A disputed but excessively high number, by some accounts up to 20%, of German prisoners died during internment in American camps in Europe. In spite of the fact that there were plenty of supplies and accommodations, prisoners were extremely undernourished and were kept in camps where there was barely enough room for them. Apparently Eisenhower wanted them punished with some of the same harsh conditions the Germans inflicted on others. Oddly enough, 98% of American prisoners returned alive from German prison camps (See paper).

War brings about atrocities from all sides. This is not to exonerate the Germans or Japanese whose behavior was hideous; the Allies had every reason to seek revenge. It’s just that war brings out the worst in all of us and should be a last resort. The Second World War had to be fought to save the world. WWI and the Korean, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq wars seem to have given us nothing but death, dismemberment, paralyzing grief, and mental anguish.

I like the idea of a Nonviolent Peace Force  that can go into volatile areas to help deal with problems at their root before they erupt into violence. We spend just the tiniest fraction of our budget on prevention as compared to our military budget (by some accounts, over 50% of the total national budget) solely for putting out fires after they’ve already started or paying for the consequences of our past wars. If what we want is world peace, this is a tad backwards.

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The very entertaining movie, Inglorious Basterds, seems to condone the worst sort of brutality when it is done to the Nazis.

I must say, I liked seeing the Nazis brutalized; after all, they deserved it, right?  Revenge is sweet, even if it is only fictional.

I’ve watched the movie several times and enjoyed it immensely each time.  The only part I closed my eyes for was the baseball bat head-bashing scene.

It’s especially gratifying to see Hitler and all the top ranking Nazis killed as they stampede and scream in terror—the terror that they inflicted on millions of people.

History has condemned the Nazis and rightly so.  I’m just wondering about the Nazis that were merely pawns of the regime, like the young soldier in the film who said that when the war was over the first thing he would do was hug his mother, and that he was going to burn the Nazi uniform.  Did the soldier deserve to have a swastika carved on his forehead?  Or young Willie, whose wife just bore him his first child; he in his trusting naïveté was deceived and then shot.

Now, you may be wondering, am I out of my mind?  It was just a comedy.  We aren’t meant to take this stuff seriously.  The things that happen to those two soldiers are meant to be ironic like what happens to the seemingly sweet but exceedingly evil (and funny) Colonel Landa.

We are not really meant to admire the Brad Pitt character; he is not a shining example of humanity either.

But what I’d like to point out in all this is the subtext, the underlying assumptions about the brutality we see here and also the torture we see now being inflicted by good cops on bad guys on TV or the dubious treatment of prisoners in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantánamo.

We have the overwhelming historical record to prove that the Nazis committed atrocity upon atrocity on both a small and large scale.

Do we have that for our current enemies?  And do they have that for us?  Even having undeniable proof of inhumanity, are we justified in using brutal means against them?  Is not the same reasoning being used against us to justify equally terrible things?

In many ways, we are what we do.  Do we want to be inglorious bastards too?

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