FRESH YARN presents:
Spot to Gone
I was nervous. I was in Solvang, on the side of a dirt runway, just outside a trailer that was the main office. I'm always nervous before I get on a plane. This one had no engine. A glider. That's what they call it. I imagine you're supposed to be comforted by that. As if it's someone's paper airplane. They never really crash badly, if you think about it. I wasn't much comforted, but waited my turn as my friend went before me.
She was towed over the hills going from plane, to shape, to spot, to gone, in moments, and I stopped watching. I looked down just in time to see him coming toward me - well, toward his glider. I was just sort of in his path. A small, aged, man in an endearing one-piece gray flight suit. Somehow he looked even smaller close up. He asked if I'd gone up yet. I answered no and asked if he flew. He pointed to his glider leaning on one wing tip behind me. We talked about its weight, its price and the furthest distance he's gone in one flight.
"How long have you been flying?"
"Oh, a long time. Since I was fourteen. I flew planes for the Nazi Youth."
It came out effortlessly, like when you ask someone their name or where they live, without an ounce of apology or regret. And, it was laced with a German accent that I had detected earlier, but had not one thought about until that moment. I wondered if he always said it like that. There must have been a time where he had to hide this fact, and it bothered me that he thought that time was over. I felt this rush of disgust build from just underneath my lungs and climb toward the back of my throat. And all of those things that you might fantasize about doing or saying to a member of the Nazi party poised themselves right next to where my disgust settled. But, nothing came out.
I moved my eyes back to his and wondered if I could actually learn something from this man, or if I should just walk away. I stayed and struggled with the feeling that maybe, by continuing to stand there, I was a part of some larger problem with the world. But, I figured, if he can say it so casually, I am allowed to ask questions.
"Nine years, until the end of the war. They got you when you were young; they attracted you with these planes. What young boy doesn't want to be around planes? So, we flew for them."
There was hope for him yet.
"That can't be easy to deal with. I mean how did you reconcile that?"
He looked at me as if he didn't understand the question. Or, he just didn't want to answer. He was, to his credit, not of the therapy generation and I knew that going in.
"Were you relieved when the war ended?"
"No, we lost. No one wants to lose a war."
You lost? I thought. I wasn't aware anyone lost when Hitler was taken down.
"But, you were fighting for the Nazi party. That's not a bad war to lose."
"We weren't really aware of what we were doing, we weren't really told."
"When you learned what was really going on, how did you deal with that, how did you deal with what you were a part of?"
"It wasn't easy. I just did."
No, he didn't. It crumbled from his mouth with no history behind it at all, like it's what he made up so people would stop questioning him. He continued.
"We were brainwashed. We are all brainwashed, by our governments."
"I know. I agree, to a certain extent."
"There are a lot of stories you heard here in America that weren't true. A lot of things that you heard about that didn't really happen."
Uh oh. There it was. What a person must believe to remain sane.
"Oh, really." With anger now. "Like what?"
"Look," he said, infused with some of his own anger, "you were lied to, we are all lied to."
"OK. But, about what, specifically? What's one thing we were told happened that didn't?
He talked around an answer, not really saying anything and putting on a tone that suggested I was a little girl who didn't understand much. I came back at him with the same question a few times, and he, naturally, had no example to back up his claim. I could see him staggering between justifying his life and knowing what he had done. It's a delicate balance, I guess.
As I pushed, he got more defensive. It became more important for him to be right than admit that there were atrocities that he was a part of. It was a patchwork 71 years in the making that I didn't expect to pull apart that day.
"Were you held as a prisoner after the war?"
"By the Americans?'
"By the French."
"Were you treated well?" Hoping the answer was no.
"Yes except the food. You know you see all those pictures of those people "
" we looked like those people."
I was done. Infuriated. How dare he compare himself to victims in the concentration camps. How dare he be alive and well in America, how dare his wife love him, how dare he be free, how dare his mind be strong enough to protect him from the way he should really feel. I imagined his brain all folded in on itself like an old deflated football, as if the part that knows the truth, that can reason the truth, had been sucked out by denial.
I wanted to lay into him then, but I saw something familiar. A sore on his arm, those sores older people get when even their skin starts to fail. They are caused by nothing, about the size of a quarter and they bleed. It was fresh, glistening, and I notice a swipe of blood on his clothes from where his arm brushed against the fabric as he walked. I see these on my dad all the time; he was about my dad's age. I'm not sure where the justice is in that. A man the age of my father, who contributed to the death of millions of innocent people, can live his life in Solvang and have his only misfortune, on this particular day, be that he forgot to put a Band-Aid on and stained his jumpsuit. I felt as if he should be living a long life of apology shuffling down the street with only two words coming out of his mouth ever. I'm sorry.
My friend's plane landed, I was standing speechless, my anger now snagged on that shiny red stain.
"My turn." I took a slow step away from him and toward the runway. My weak attempt at an exit.
"If you enjoy it, you could take lessons. I'm sure there is a good ladies flying club nearby."
At least he was consistent.
"Good bye." I said, and officially turned away.
Walking toward the plane I could think of only one thing: My friend Jeremy's dad. While courting Jeremy's mother in the fifties, he sewed her a dress for every date they had. And he was the only one in a family of five to walk out of his concentration camp. Had Hitler's power held for one more day, his father might not be here, and no Jeremy, and no hand-made dresses.
I had been too nice, too forgiving. My questions didn't have enough fuel behind them. I gave him the space to speak and the dignity of a goodbye.
I tried to talk myself down as I got pulled into the sky. The area where we spoke shrunk beneath me. It didn't exactly look like a place of change, but maybe it could have been. I could see him, too, just a spot moving around its glider in a pre-flight check. I wondered about other Nazis living in America, maybe their only concession to their guilt is the small, out-of-the-way places they live.
Maybe we should make them wear armbands.
And, certainly, when given that kind of chance, we should walk away with no regrets. My chance went from a spot, to gone, in moments.
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