Janna did this smart-guy post about choosing five famous living or dead people she’d invite to dinner. And I was like, Hmm, should I go the Abraham Lincoln, Jesus route? Or should I do the same list I did when I was, like, 12, and the first person on my list was CALIGULA? And my brother was all, “You know, Mrs. Kennedy, the real Caligula probably wasn’t anything like John Hurt.” At the time we were white-knuckling it through the first American run of “I, Claudius” (or, as we called it, because of the limits created by trying to mosaic and/or chisel the alphabet, “I, Clavdivs”), and I found Mr. Hurt’s Caligula devastating. So seductive; so willing to slit open your belly, tear the fetus from your womb, and smash its head against a tree. Which is what my brother was trying to get at. Still, a Roman emperor, after enough good wine? I think he’d have some stories.
Did I ever tell you about the time I met a real live Nazi? During Easter break during my year at the University of Edinburgh, my parents got on an airplane in Denver, and I took a few twisty train rides south (remind me to tell you about that some time), and we all found each other in the Frankfurt airport. Good luck on my part because after I managed to find the airport I realized that I had no idea (1) what time my parents’ flight was due in, (2) what airline they were on, or (3) how to speak German. In my been-sleeping-sitting-up-in-a-coat-that-stinks-of-cigarettes-for-three-days state of mental dishevelment, I just happened to shuffle past the baggage carousel, and there they were.
My father is an absolute nut about World War II, to the extent that he reads endless volumes of World War II German army division histories, in German. When he runs out of new ones he rereads the old ones, even though, unbelievably, new ones are published every day. He occasionally corresponds with the authors of these histories, and he wrote to one author, named Otto Weidinger, who went so far as to supply my father with an autographed photo and an invitation to tea at his house. In Germany.
We showed up at a tidy middle-class house in Aalen, and were led to seats in a somewhat formal sitting room where the author’s somewhat formal wife offered us tea and cookies. Unfortunately, the limits of my vocabulary force me to describe Herr Weidinger as dapper, as I guess I would anyone of a certain age who combs his hair with Brylcreem and wears a suit to his own living room. I could tell my father was nervous (certainly we all were underdressed — Americans! tromping down the Rhine in Reeboks), but I wasn’t sure how to encourage him. His German was great when it came to chatting with taxi drivers and Chinese immigrants*, but sitting there with a native speaker while a million questions rose up and then fled from his head, well, we had more than one awkward silence. Somehow it came out that he was seventy years old, a fact that my father repeated politely for my mother and me. “You’re SEVENTY?” I shouted. I thought he was, like fifty. (This was 1985, so if he was fifty then, that means he would have been leading the Der Führer Regiment out of Oradeur at the age of ten. Yes, my grasp of living history was THAT STRONG.) Anyway, you should have seen his face light up. Nothing flatters a man more, apparently, than a young woman with no grasp of the historical timeline of the twentieth century. Then we hit upon the fact that Herr Weidinger spoke French, as did I, and the big spotlight swung over to me. Suddenly everyone looked at me expectantly, as though a hidden aquifer of sparkling conversational French would suddenly bubble over and drown the kitten of my father’s shyly inadequate college German. Unfortunately, I did what I always do when under pressure: I underperform until somebody says it’s okay to quit.
It wasn’t until we were driving away in our rental Ford Escort that the 40-watt bulb that powers my brain finally flickered on. “Dad, was that guy a NAZI?” I asked. If there’s one tiny flaw my father has, apart from his occasional but alarming alignment with the paranoid right, it’s his belief that the holocaust absolutely did not happen. Kidding! It’s his ability to defend an indefensible position with academic clarity. With footnotes, even. “Well, not everyone in the German army was a Nazi,” he began mildly, and wah wah wah until I saw that by not answering my question he had answered my question, and I was left staring at the passing scenery with a fat gray cloud over my head, and the uncomfortable feeling that I had just eaten a bunch of cookies made from the ashes of thousands of G.I. Jews.
And the other people at the table would be Jesus, Abraham Lincoln, Betty White, and Al Franken.
*At some point in the trip we went to a Chinese restaurant for lunch, and I was shocked, shocked! to discover that Asian people emigrated to countries other than America, and struggled to learn a second language other than English. My father actually pieced together a conversation, in German, with the owner’s Cambodian wife about the killing fields, and both of them were nearly in tears. If there’s one thing I need to learn from my father it’s knowing when to lay off the ghoulish interest in the details of other people’s tragedies.