Tuesday, November 22, 2016

It’s Thanksgiving And I’m Thinking About Nazis

The Weeping Frenchman, Paris, 1940

It’s Thanksgiving and I’m thinking about Nazis.

I was born in 1951, and WWII had ended for only 6 years. I grew up with my family talking, talking, talking about the Nazis, about privations, about war. We were Catholic, but we were Italian and the Italians had changed sides during the war. The conversation went like this:

“Would the Nazis kill me?” I asked.
“You? Ha! They would have loved you! You’re exactly what they wanted! Blonde hair and green eyes! The Italians! Now, the Italians, we would have been next after the Jews! The Italians changed sides, they changed sides.”
“But, Grandma’s Italian and I’m half Italian!” I worried.
            “Ah, next they would’ve started on people with freckles,” Daddy grumbled.
            “Do I have freckles?”
            “A few,” Mama said.
So, I would be next, after all, my expression told her.
            “Don’t worry, the Germans lost the war!” Mama laughed.

All the while they were discussing the war, what had happened, how could it have happened, can you believe it, I still can’t believe it, I could hear the glimmer of fascination and (could it be?) admiration sneaking into their voices. The cunning of the Nazis, their incredible intelligence, their power. That power. That power over my family’s lives. Over everyone’s lives. Over the world. 

Let me be clear - I'm not a Nazi. I'm a writer. Cursed to observe and write about human behavior. I was brought up in the Kennedy era to believe as The Declaration of Independence says: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness."

Watching television as a kid, I began to see that physical perfection of the Nazi ideal, especially in the women. “Women,” I wrote in Holy Days, “were the only ones who had not escaped the Nazi ideal. You had to be perfect. Physical perfection was the minimum daily requirement.” I watched beautiful women dancing with that crumbled old creature, Lawrence Welk, and I knew. I watched beautiful women standing next to cars or refrigerators, kissing men, kissing children, and I knew.

Of course, in the ’50s and ‘60s, physical perfection was precisely defined: low forehead, large wide-set eyes, long eyelashes, pert nose and breasts, preferably impossibly large breasts, long legs, slender waistline. Blonde was the best – “Is it true blondes have more fun?” But, lush brunette was good too. In fact, some men did not prefer blondes.

Then, the Sexual, Social Revolution came and we eradicated all that. Everyone was beautiful in their own way. And, you know what, mother fucker? We fucking meant it.

The flag turned upside down and I’ve been seeing it upside down again lately after nearly 50 excruciating years of first watching the Revolution turn into disco and later into the Kardashians. Okay. All of that is okay. But, it wasn’t just a hairstyle. Or a way of dressing. It was a Revolution. A revolution in thinking, in being. 

When we studied the first Thanksgiving as kids we loved to hear how the New England natives had welcomed the settlers and taught them how to grow corn and they actually had helped the newcomers, for how could they have known what would happen next? As hippies, we celebrated Native-Americans: we learned about them, we wanted to be like them, their strength, their wisdom, their ability to live in Nature and in harmony with Nature. Now, we, as a nation, are pummeling them with high-pressure waterhoses, dogs, guns, tanks, bright light and loud noise nighttime torture techniques as they demonstrate and huddle together trying to protect their sacred lands and water. Water is Life, is their slogan. And it’s not only a Standing Rock, North Dakota Native-American fight. People in Flint, Michigan can light the water coming out of their faucets on fire and Flint is not the worst example of fracking water or poisoned water coming out of the faucets in America.

I read an op-ed written by William Kennedy Smith, himself an accused rapist, about Trump and his neo-fascist government. Smith wrote about his uncle, the immortal Robert F. Kennedy, did I mention, #WeHadGods? Robert, you might recall, if you lived through it the first time, was gunned down like his brother, another immortal, John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, another immortal, gunned down, all three of whom believed in the equality of men and women, believed in America.

So, it’s Thanksgiving and I’ve been thinking about Nazis. Here is a chapter from Holy Days, about another Thanksgiving many years ago, and lessons we failed to learn that day.

My mother died on Thanksgiving. No condolences, please. She was special only to me and my family. She was one of the first angels I knew. Oh, yes. Did you know Gods and angels were flawed and beautiful?
 By the way, we’re eating Italian this Thanksgiving, in honor of my ancestors. We'll be grateful to be together.

NOVEMBER 22, 1963

What difference does it make to history or anything else where any of us were at the precise moment we heard?
      The difference is this: that was the moment we all, collectively, stopped believing.
      We stopped believing in goodness.
            Mama used to click her tongue, whenever she thought about it, in her vague, muddled way: “The Nazis fixed everything, they fixed everything, they fixed!” She was right. The Nazis made it so we could get used to anything. Someone, a man who had survived the death camps, talked once about being forced to shovel graves for the Nazis. He talked about how enormous the hole was and how cold he and the other shovellers were, how very cold. He talked about seeing a weed blowing in the cold wind and thinking how happy he was to be alive, just to see that weed, to know the weed was alive under the freezing snow and how grateful he was to feel the terrible cold because he was alive - and he knew, then, that human beings could get used to anything.
      For a long time, the Nazis were very far away. First, they were in Europe, then, they were in the past. The Nazis were not us, but we became them. We invited them in.
      From the moment the shot rang out, the Nazis, like the Devil himself, rose up from hell and rushed to our side. From that moment on, we learned to turn our heads and check our backs; we learned suspicion and fear. At first we were horrified at ourselves and then, we got used to our fear. And then, we got used to our horror. And, then, we became proud of our horror and began to wear it ahead of us, not as a shield, as a medal.
      We were so frightened by the Nazis, that we became the Nazis in order to keep it from happening to us again. We had the comfort of knowing, no matter what we did, no matter how evil, we could never be as bad as the Nazis.
      In Revere, bad had become a virtue. Bad was it. I heard of kids who wouldn’t come to Revere. That struck me as funny, because there were other cities, like Dorchester and Roxbury, where I was afraid to go, even in the car with my parents. Sometimes, bad is all there is. It starts to look good after a while. Bad makes you tough. It makes you ready.
      I was walking out of school at lunchtime. I was looking down. I always did, looking introspectively at the black tar of the schoolyard that plunged downhill, watching the bits of broken glass twinkling in the sunshine.
      Someone spoke in a normal voice: “The President’s been shot.”
      I watched as the black tar ran out from under my feet, ran backwards, ocean waves of tar sparkling with glass, running out like the ocean, pulling the earth out from under my feet, the black tar ran on and on, spinning endlessly, and I went cold with fear.
      I looked up to see everyone running, kids were running home. As though an air raid had been sounded, as though we were being bombed, kids ran for shelter.
      The President can’t be shot, he can’t be! He’s the President! That alone should protect him! He was so beautiful, so perfect! So good and fine. Didn‘t those qualities protect him? How could anyone dare? How could anyone not love him? What more could anyone want?
      I thought of him sailing as I, too, ran home and the seagulls flew after me, cawing hoarsely after me, “Dead! Dead!” He was sailing, his hair filled with spray, and also in the boat, his fine wife and children, sun-colored, flying on the wind! What more could anyone want?
      When I got to the highway, the crossing guard was crying, the tears making a trail of black eye makeup in her orange rouge. When I got home, Ma’s nose was red and swollen; her beautiful eyes were swollen with sorrow. The television was on and everyone on TV, women and men, cried openly. Men choked when they tried to speak. Daddy came home early from work. He put his head down on the kitchen table beside his beer. When he lifted his head, he rubbed his eyes over and over.
      The whole world was crying. The television was on for days. There was no school, but Ma made me watch the funeral.
      “You sit there and watch this, this is history!”
      “I can’t stand it! I wanna go to the library!”
      “The library’s not open! Everything’s closed! Look! It’s history!” She was right. The streets were deserted.
      But, I couldn’t bear it any longer. Black, black, black, the slow march of black.
      “Why don’t they wear white? Isn’t he in heaven? Why isn’t everyone happy?”
      I couldn’t imagine him anywhere else. I was sure he was an angel now.
      “Doesn’t the priest wear white for a funeral mass?” I asked.
      “Shut up and be quiet!” Ma sniffed.
      I was tired of mourning already. I’d watched the television enough! John John was saluting. They made him do that. The riderless horse frightened me. It was ghostly. I wondered if the President had ever ridden a horse. I couldn’t remember him on one, but I thought he’d look perfect. Then, I confused the lone horse with the headless horseman, and I remembered it was Jackie who’d ridden.
      I was confused for days, as the TV droned on and on, the funeral procession marched for days. John John saluted all day long, the black horse rode alone, Jackie’s suit was covered with blood, and we had a new President, President Johnson, who was a joke on the Vaughn Meader album. We’d all sat around the kitchen table, it seemed like years ago, in our pajamas. We had my little record player on the table and we laughed and laughed, as the little boy rang the doorbell at the White House and asked for Caroline. President Kennedy himself answered the door (really Vaughn Meader doing an imitation, who, afterward, refused to do another album) and told the little boy that Caroline was in Hyannisport with her mother and the little boy said, “Well, then, what’s Lyndon doing?” I’d needed it explained to me, but, after that, it was hilarious.
      And before, during the election debates, hadn’t Ma knelt down and smooched Jack Kennedy’s handsome young face on TV and didn’t she turn and press her round ass to the set, and cry “Kiss my ass!” whenever Nixon’s ugly mug had come on?
      And, simultaneously, while the funeral marched endlessly and the eternal flame burned in the dark rain, young girls were being strangled to death, one by one, because they’d trusted too much in their mutual sorrow and let the Boston Strangler* in the door.
      It was evil; evil had wormed its way into Camelot.

*Joann Graff, 23, the Boston Strangler's 12th victim, was strangled with her nylon stockings; found on November 23, 1963 in her apartment at 54 Essex St., Lawrence, Massachusetts.

Note: If you don't believe the musings of a child, please look into this book, written 45 years later by a Rhodes Scholar and well-respected author, The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot, A Citizen's Call to Actionby Naomi Wolf, who noticed the changes in our country. Chapter titles include, "…the Fragility of Democracy," "Establish Secret Prisons," "Restrict the Press" and "Surveil Ordinary Citizens." Ms. Wolf began to realize we were on a path similar to the Germans before WWII.

©Patricia Goodwin, 2016

Patricia Goodwin is the author of When Two Women Die, about Marblehead legends and true crime and its sequel, Dreamwater, about the Salem witch trials and the vicious 11-year-old pirate Ned Low. Holy Days is her third novel, about the sexual, psychological seduction of Gloria Wisher and her subsequent transformation.