Last week, my son complained I was hogging the Netflix account.
"You and mom always watch the same stuff. I think you should let me pick. Let me expand your horizons dad."
"Expand my horizons? Are you kidding me? I challenge you to find a more eclectic mix of titles than what's on my “recently viewed” list!"
"Chya, right." Ben snickered.
"OK, what exactly do you think I spend most of my time watching?"
"Oh, that's easy dad. You watch either documentaries, or war movies, or documentaries about war - especially Nazis. Honestly dad, your obsession with Nazis is a little disturbing."
"I've told you, it's a study in pure evil. I'm fascinated by how a nation could be so totally duped by a bunch of sadistic thugs - although they did have great fashion sense."
"Whatever. Can we give it a rest tonight?"
"I guess, what do you want to watch?"
Ben suggested a sitcom I hadn't heard of.
"Does it have a laugh track? You know I can't stand laugh tracks."
"No, I don't think so."
"Fine, let's watch what you want to watch."
Ten minutes into a lampoon about summer camp based on some movie made a decade earlier I never heard of, I began to reflect on his impression that I'm obsessed with Nazis."
I don’t think it’s that I’m obsessed with Nazi’s per se. It's just that I've been a student of World War II for as long as I remember. Maybe it's because I grew up in the shadow of those who fought in the war. As a boomer, all our fathers were touched in some way by fighting Nazis or Japs. The war in the Pacific didn't quite hold my attention like the European front. Something fascinated me about being at war with a race that was also assimilated into the American experience. Did you know Hitler loved dime western novels by Karl May? May was like the German equivalent to Zane Grey.
Anyway, raising five kids, I’ve lived through each trying to be the antithesis of me, much as I did my father. My father? He was a liberal intellectual who shunned militarism. A hippy before there were hippies. Imagine his chagrin when I insisted on wearing army fatigues to school on the first day of class. I was heading into the 3rd grade and couldn’t wait until I was old enough to attend military school.
"Dad, why don’t we have to wear uniforms in public school? They have to wear uniforms at St. Jude’s."
St. Jude’s was the catholic school only a few blocks from our home. We were among a handful of Protestants who lived in the neighborhoods surrounding the school. Households all led by men, Catholic men, who served some role in the war. Don Robertson. He survived Iwo Jima. I hung out with his son Paul, who discovered a footlocker of war booty his dad kept hidden in the attic. Frank Lowry helped liberate a concentration camp. He kept stacks of pictures hidden in his garage. Long before they became the iconic images associated with the holocaust, his son stumbled on the shoebox tucked away in the rafters. When he shared the discovery with us, we thought the faded black and white images were the most horrific thing a kid could ever hope to encounter.
Then there was my dad. Like all the other men who returned from the service, he never spoke of his experience, though I did my best to pry it out of him.
"So dad, were you in World War II?"
"No son, I wasn't"
"But you were in the Army, right?"
"I served during the Korean War."
"So you were in the Korean War?"
"No. I was in Germany."
"YOU WERE IN GERMANY? What did you do?"
"Nothing of any concern, son. Did you finish sweeping out the garage like I told you?"
"Da-ad, come on."
"Do it NOW."
A diversionary tactic he learned in the war, no doubt.
By the time I was in 6th grade, I no longer wanted to wear fatigues to school. Instead, I read everything I could get my hands on about Hitler, the 3rd Reich, and their conquest of Europe. I recently finished Albert Speer's "Inside the Third Reich" and had moved on to conspiracy theories regarding the disposition of Hitler's remains.
"Dad, Hitler's not dead you know."
"Oh really? Who told you that?"
"It's in this book. It says Hitler escaped to Argentina."
"Is that so?"
"Ok, well it says, he COULD have escaped. That or he was captured by the Russians. Another book I have says the Russian’s keep his brain in a beaker of formaldehyde."
"Son, both those books are a pack of lies."
"Really? How do you know?"
After hemming and hawing, my dad knew I wouldn't be satisfied by vague assurances, so he left me with my conspiracy-theory books spread out on the shag carpet in the living room. Finally, he returned from his study with a large file folder bound with a brown elastic strap.
“Here son, this is how I know.”
He proceeded to open what appeared to be a dossier on Hitler's final days - including a picture of a charred corpse and dental records.
"Dad, WHERE DID YOU GET THIS?"
"This, son, is what I did in the Army. I was an intelligence officer. I was privy to this kind of information. I kept a few of the files as souvenirs."
I COULDN'T WAIT to tell my pals.
"Guys, you're not going to believe this."
"My dad? Yeah, my dad WAS A NAZI HUNTER."
"WOW. ARE YOU SERIOUS???"
From that point forward, I felt it was my duty to carry on the tradition…to learn all there was to know about Hitler and his henchman. I had a keen interest in a very specific span of world history that began with the Weimar Republic in Germany and ended with a post-war Europe ravaged by years of war.
OK, my dad wasn’t exactly a Nazi hunter. I would later learn he was only a private, sent on meaningless gopher missions to collect soviet propaganda during the Berlin blockade.
The cold war, seriously?
Have you watched "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy?" How was I supposed to get excited about that?