The Littlest Hitler

LittlestHitlerThen there’s the time I went as Hitler for Halloween. I had gotten the idea after watching WWII week on PBS, but my dad helped me make the costume. I wore tan polyester pants and one of my dad’s khaki shirts, with sleeves so long they dragged on the floor unless I rolled them up. With some paints left over from when we made the pinewood derby car for YMCA Indian Guides, he painted a black swastika in a white circle on a red bandanna and tied it around my left arm. Using the Dippity-Doo he put in his hair every morning, he gave my own hair that plastered, parted style that had made Hitler look like he was always sweating. We clipped the sides off a fifty-cent mustache and adhered it to my upper lip with liquid latex. I tucked my pants into the black rubber boots I had to wear whenever I played outside and stood in front of the mirror. My dad laughed and said, “I guarantee it, Davy. You’re going to be the scariest kid in fourth grade.”

My school had discouraged trick-or-treating since the razor blade and thumb tack incidents of 1982. Instead, they held a Harvest Carnival, not officially called “Halloween” so as not to upset the churchy types. Everyone at school knew the carnival was for wimps. All week before Halloween the kids had been separating themselves into two camps, those who got to go trick-or-treating, and those who didn’t. My dad was going to take me to the carnival, since I, like everybody else, secretly wanted to go. Then we’d go trick-or-treating afterward.

There were problems with my costume as soon as I got on the bus that morning. “Heil Hitlah!” the big kids in the back chanted until Mrs. Reese pulled over to reprimand them. We knew it was serious when she pulled over, being that the last pulling-over incident occurred when Carl Worthington cut off one of Ginger Lopez’s pigtails with a pair of scissors stolen from the library.

“That isn’t polite language appropriate for riding the bus!” Mrs. Reese said, “Do you talk like that around the dinner table? I want you both in the front seats and as soon as we get to school I’m marching you to Mr. Warneke’s office.”

“But I didn’t do anything!”

I felt somewhat vindicated but guilty at the same time for causing this ruckus. Everybody was looking at me with these grim expressions. It’s important, I suppose, to note that there wasn’t a single Jewish person on the bus. Or in our school, for that matter. In fact, there was only one Jewish family in our town, the Friedlanders, and their kids didn’t go to West Century Elementary because they were home-schooled freaks.

When I got to school Mrs. Thompson considered me for a moment in the doorway and seemed torn, both amused and disturbed at the implications of a fourth-grade Hitler. When she called roll I stood up sharply from my desk, did the seig heil salute I’d been practicing in front of the TV, and shouted, “Here!” Some people laughed.

After roll was taken we took out our spelling books but Mrs. Thompson had other ideas. “Some of you might have noticed we have a historical figure in our class today. While the rest of you dressed up as goblins and fairies and witches, it looks like Davy is the only one who chose to come as a real-life person.”

“I’m a real-life person, too, Mrs. Thompson.”

“And who would you be, Lisette?”

“I’m Anne Frank.”

Mrs. Thompson put a hand to her lips. Clearly she didn’t know how to handle this. I’d never paid much attention to Lisette before. She’d always been one of the smart, pretty girls who everyone likes. When I saw her rise from her desk with a lopsided Star of David made of yellow construction paper pinned to her Austrian-looking frock or whatever you call it, I felt the heat of her nine-year-old loathing pounding me in the face.

“This is quite interesting,” Mrs. Thompson said, “being that you both came as figures from World War II. Maybe you can educate us about what you did. Davy, if you could tell us what you know about Hitler.”

I cleared my throat. “He was a really, really mean guy.”

“What made him so mean?”

“Well, he made a war and killed a bunch of people and made everybody think like him. He only ate vegetables and his wife was his niece. He kept his blood in jars. Somebody tried to kill him with a suitcase and then he took some poison and died.”

“What people did he kill?”

“Everybody. He didn’t like Jesse Owens because he was Afro-American.”

“Yes, but mostly what kind of people did he have problems with?”

“He killed all the Jews.”

“Not all Jews, fortunately, but millions of them. Including Anne Frank.”

The classroom was riveted. I didn’t know whether I was in trouble or what. Lisette smirked at me when Mrs. Thompson said her character’s name, then walked to the front of the class to tell us about her.

“Anne Frank lived in Holland during World War II. And when the Nazis invaded she lived in someone’s attic with her family and some other people. She wrote in her diary every day and liked movie stars. She wanted to grow up to write stories for a newspaper, but the Nazis got her and her family and made them go to a concentration camp and killed them. A concentration camp is a place where they burn people in ovens. Then somebody found her diary and everybody liked it.”

When Lisette was done everybody clapped. George Ford, who sat in front of me and was dressed as Mr. T, turned around, lowered his eyes and shook his fist at me. “I pity the foo who kills all the Jews.”

***

Recess was a nightmare.

I was followed around the playground by Lisette’s friends, who were playing horse with a jump rope, berating me for Anne Frank’s death.

“How would you like it if you had to live in an attic and pee in a bucket and couldn’t walk around or talk all day and didn’t have much food to eat?”

It didn’t take long for them to make me cry. The rule about recess was you couldn’t go back into the building until the bell, so I had to wait before I could get out of my costume. I got knots in my stomach thinking about the parade at the end of the day. Everybody else seemed so happy in their costumes. And then Lisette started passing around a piece of notebook paper that said “We’re on Anne Frank’s Side” and all these people signed it. When my friend Charlie got the paper he tore it up and said to the girls, “Leave Davy alone! He just wanted to be a scary bad guy for Halloween and he didn’t really kill anybody!”

“I should just go as someone else, I said, sitting beneath the slide while some kids pelted it with pea gravel. This was Charlie’s and my fort for when we played GI Joe.

“They can kiss my grits,” Charlie said. He was dressed as a deadly galactic robot with silver spray-painted cardboard tubes for arms and a pair of new wave sunglasses. “This is a free country, ain’t it? Hey! Stop throwing those son-of-a-bitching rocks!”

“Charlie!”

“Oops. Playground monitor. Time for warp speed.” Charlie pulled on his thumb, made a clicking sound, and disappeared under the tire tunnel.

Despite Charlie’s moral support, I peeled my mustache off and untied my arm band as soon as I made it to the boys’ room. There were three fifth-graders crammed into a stall, going, “Oh, man! There’s corn in it!” None of them seemed to notice me whimpering by the sink.

Mrs. Thompson gave me her gray-haired wig to wear for the parade.

“Here, Davy. You can be an old man. An old man who likes to wear khaki.”

I knew Mrs. Thompson was trying to humor me and I resented her for it. Lisette, for whatever reason, maybe because her popularity in our classroom bordered on totalitarian, got to lead the parade. I was stuck between Becky Lewis and her pathetic cat outfit and Doug Becker, dressed as a garden. His mom and dad were artists. Each carrot, radish, and potato had been crafted in meticulous papier mache, painted, lacquered, and halfway embedded in a wooden platform he wore around his waist. The platform represented a cross section, with brown corduroys painted with rocks and earthworms symbolizing dirt, and his fake leaf-covered shirt playing the part of a trellis. For the third year in a row Doug ended up winning the costume contest.

By the time our parade made it to the middle school I was thoroughly demoralized. I had grown so weary of being asked, “What are you?” that I had taken to wearing the wig over my face and angrily answering, “I’m lint! I’m lint!”

***

My dad made wood stoves for a living. When my mom left he converted our living room into a shop, which was embarrassing when my friends came over because the inside of our house was always at least ninety degrees. My dad was genuinely disappointed when he learned of my classmates’ reactions.

“But everyone knows you’re not prejudiced. It’s Halloween for crying out loud.” He folded the bandanna, looking sad and guilty. “I’m sorry, Davy. We didn’t mean for it to turn out like this, did we? Tell you what. Let’s go to Sprouse Reitz and buy you the best goddamn costume they got.”

We drove into town in the blue pickup we called Fleetwood Mack. Smooth like a Cadillac, built like a Mac truck. The Halloween aisle at 6:30 p.m. on October 31st is pretty slim pickings. There was a little girl with her mom fussing over a ballerina outfit–last-minute shoppers like us. I basically had a choice between a pig mask, some cruddy do-it-yourself face paint deals and a discounted Frankenstein mask with a torn jaw.

“Hey! Lookit! Frankenstein!” my dad said, trying to invest some enthusiasm in the ordeal. “Don’t worry about the jaw, we’ll just duct tape it from the inside. Nobody’ll even notice.”

“I want a mask with real hair. Not fake plastic lumpy hair,” I said.

“You don’t really have a choice here, Davy. Unless you want the pig mask.”

“Fine. I’ll go as stupid Frankenstein.”

My dad grabbed me by the elbow and spun me around. “Do you want a Halloween this year or not? You can’t go tricker treating without a costume and this is about your only option. Otherwise it’s just you and me sitting on our asses in front of the television tonight.”

That night the grade school gym floor was covered with the same smelly red tarp they used every year for the PTA Ham Dinner. Teachers and high school students worked in booths like the Ring Toss, Goin’ Fishin’, and the Haunted Maze, a complex of cardboard duct-taped together. All the parents were nervously eyeing Cyndy Dartmouth, who’d come as a hooker. She was the same seventh grader who’d shocked everybody by actually dyeing her hair blonde for her famous person report on Marilyn Monroe. Her parents ran the baseball card shop in town and every middle school guy in West Century wanted to get into her pants. She seemed womanly and incredibly sophisticated to me as we stood in line together for the maze. I liked her because she stuck up for me on the bus and one time told me what a tampon was.

They let you into the maze two at a time, and Cyndy and I ended up going in together.

“You go first,” I said as we entered the gaping cardboard dragon’s mouth. She got on her hands and knees in front of me and for an incredible moment I saw her panties under her black leather skirt.

The maze took a sharp right turn and the light disappeared. Cyndy reached back and grabbed my arm. I screamed. She laughed and I tried to pretend I wasn’t scared. The eighth graders had done a really good job building this place. There were glow-in-the-dark eyes on both walls and a speaker up ahead playing a spooky sound effects album. I held onto her fishnet ankle and begged her to let us go back. We passed a sign reading “Watch Out For Bears!!!” and entered a tunnel covered in fake fur. I started crying. Cyndy held me, whispering it was all just made up, none of it was real, it was just cardboard stuck together with tape, holding my face in that magical place between her breasts that smelled like perfume from the mall.

Suddenly light streamed in on us. One of the high school volunteers had heard me crying and opened a panel in the ceiling.

“Ross! Mike! Check it out! They’re totally doing it in here!” the guy laughed. I looked up to see four heads crowding around the opening.

“Leave us alone, you fuckers!” Cyndy said, and it seemed a miraculous act of generosity that she didn’t tell them the real reason for our embrace.

We quickly crawled through the rest of the maze. When we emerged a group of kids was waiting for us.

“Hey Cyndy, why don’t you crawl through the tunnel with a guy who’s actually got pubes?”

I panicked, hoping my dad wouldn’t hear. I didn’t want Cyndy to get picked on, but I kind of liked the idea that the other kids thought I’d done something naughty with her in the maze. When Ross Roberts asked me if I’d gotten any, I sort of shrugged, as if to suggest that I had, although I didn’t completely understand what it was I could have gotten.

Cyndy bit her bottom lip and disappeared into the girls’ room with three other girls who would end up sending me hate notes on her behalf the next day at school. The rest of the carnival was awful after that. I carried my Frankenstein mask upside down because I’d forgotten to bring a candy bag. Most of the candy at the carnival was that sugarless diabetic crap, handed out simply because one kid in sixth grade had diabetes and we all had to be fair to him. My dad walked around the perimeter of the gym, pretending to be interested in each grade’s Autumn crafts project, not really mingling with any of the other adults, even though he’d sold wood stoves to a few of them. I could tell he didn’t want to be here and when I told him I wanted to leave he nodded and said it was time to do some serious trick-or-treating.

I liked my dad because he didn’t seem to follow a lot of the rules other grownups seemed obligated to follow. He let me watch R-rated movies, showed me how to roll joints, and told me how to sneak into movie theaters. We bought our Fourth of July fireworks from the Indian reservation and used them to blow up slugs. The only times I felt like he was a real grownup were when he was figuring out the bills or being sad about my mom. But tonight we were the closest of co-conspirators. In Fleetwood Mack we sang along to the Steve Miller Greatest Hits tape and picked the richest-looking neighborhoods to trick-or-treat on. With a greasy Burger King bag salvaged from the floor of the truck, we went door-to-door, my dad hanging out behind me, waving politely. Somebody even tossed him a can of beer.

I didn’t know we were at the Friedlanders’ house until Mrs. Friedlander opened the door. Word had it they were among the parents who didn’t let their kids go trick-or-treating since the razor blade and thumbtack scare of 1982. Hannah Friedlander sat on the steps up to the second story of their split-level house, leaning over in her sorceress costume to see who it was. Mike, her brother, came up the stairs from the rec room and joined her, breathing dramatically in his Darth Vader mask. I wanted to do something nice for them, wanted to just hand them my whole bag, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I’d be too embarrassed, I’d make my father angry, I’d call too much attention to the fact they couldn’t go trick-or-treating. So I chose to do nothing but accept Mrs. Friedlander’s individually-wrapped Swiss chocolate balls and thanked her, then walked back to Fleetwood Mack with my dad and drove home, looking at all the Halloween displays through the nostrils of Frankenstein’s nose.

“So did you have an okay Halloween after all?” my dad said, carrying me upstairs to my bedroom. I nodded and got into my pjs, then pulled the covers over my face and let him bite my nose through the blanket like he did every night. Later, when I could hear him snoring through the wall, I tool the bag of candy from my dresser and tiptoed downstairs to what used to be our living room. There was a stove hooked up to each of our three chimneys, one which was cold, one with some embers inside, the third filled with flames. I opened the door to the flaming stove and thought about throwing my whole bag in there, but then remembered the rule: wood and paper only. Besides, I had an entire Snickers bar in there; I wasn’t insane. I sat for a long time, eating chocolates one by one in front of the fire, then plunged my hand into the stove to see how far it could go before it really started to hurt.

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