When I was seven in 1966, World War II had only been over for 21 years. Think about that. Twenty years ago today we (and by we, I mean old farts like me) were focused on blue dresses and dried semen; when this story took place, almost every dad I knew had been part of the military in a huge war. Every evening at dusk, all the dads, unconsciously, I think, would be outside, walking the perimeter of their property, making sure the enemy wasn’t near. Many of the TV shows I watched were either set in or informed by The War. From McHale’s Navy to Combat! to Leave it to Beaver (Ward was a Seabee and referred to it occasionally) to, even, The Dick Van Dyke Show (as I recall, Rob and Laura Petrie met on a USO tour in the Pacific.) World War Two was so much a part of the cultural DNA, I didn’t recognize it was even there, if that makes any sense. Even my mom had Home-Front war stories, although she was just a kid of 12 when The War started.
In 1966, though, my mom was not a kid; she was a grown-ass homemaker of 37. Having grown up in Durham, she had a lot of townie friends; being a reader and having been part of the young married set—until I came along, I suppose—she also had a bunch of educated friends. By and by, I imagine I’ll write about some of those friends, but now I just want to talk about one—Marie Myers.
Marie was Jewish. Marie was German. Marie’s parents lived in Durham as well, and while the chronology was never made clear to me, I knew Marie’s parents had escaped with her from Germany and the Nazis. Other than that, Marie Myers was just another one of my mom’s friends, someone we’d visit every now and then, my mom and Marie talking about old-lady stuff while my sister and I went off with Robin, Marie’s daughter, to play or stare sullenly at each other depending on mood. My first memory of the Myers family was going out to dinner with them when I was in first grade. We went to Yokens, a local seafood restaurant, and for some reason I ordered veal, having declared I didn’t like fish and having no idea I’d ordered calf. I remember not caring for it either and developing a reputation as a picky eater, undeserved, since I’d eat anything that was salty and/or sweet, as long as it didn’t come from the ocean or remind me of babies.
My second memory of Marie Myers is much clearer and has stayed with me ever since, informing much of my view of history. I’d spent the day with Marie and her family at the lake, because I know we were driving on the north side of Winnipesaukee at night, Robin and Jennifer asleep in the back seat and me wide awake and yammering with Marie in the front. Marie was a kind chain-smoking woman, so her face was regularly illuminated by the burning tube in her mouth.
Given my logorrhea and ability to jump from topic to topic, Marie was mainly a captive audience. At one point, I started talking about my favorite television shows of the moment, giving a seven-year-old’s critical impression of such classics as “My Mother the Car,” a sitcom based on the premise that Jerry Van Dyke’s mother had died and been reincarnated into a 1928 Porter Touring Wagon, speaking to her son through the radio. Think of it as an edgier “Mr. Ed,” with the radio’s flashing light replacing Ed’s moving lips. After I’d gone through “Bewitched,” “Flipper,” “Gidget” and “Gomer Pyle,” I moved on to more grown-up fare, mentioning how funny I thought Sergeant Schultz and Colonel Klink were on “Hogan’s Heroes.”
At the mention of this show, Marie stopped being an uncritical ear to my blather. Throwing her cigarette out the window, she slowly pulled the car over to the shoulder, pulled on the parking brake, turned on the dome light and looked at me. Although I clearly don’t remember her exact words, my memory of the moment follows.
“Keith, you like me, right?”
“Course,” I said, no idea what this was about.
“And Robin’s your friend, right.”
“Yeah,” I said, not bothering to go into the complications of a boy-girl friendship in second grade.
“The two characters you mention from that show are not funny. They wanted to kill me and Robin and Billy and every Jew you know. The Nazis wanted to kill my parents, and that’s why we came to America, and no TV show should portray them as anything but monsters. Remember who they are. Remember what they wanted. Remember this: the Nazis wanted to kill your friends.”
“Okay,” I said. “I won’t watch it anymore.”
To the best of my memory, I never did. Even today, I can’t walk through a room where the show is airing in syndication without delivering a sermonette on how wrong the premise of “Hogan’s Heroes” is. Nazis were not bumbling fools—they were efficient killers of my friends.
An Addendum: Marie would later be my high-school social studies teacher, trying to teach me world politics, a task made difficult by my jackassery. The culminating experience in the course was a model-UN experience where each student represented a nation he or she had been studying all semester. At the time, Muammar Gaddafi was a dashing young colonel who’d recently seized control in Libya, the country I’d chosen. By the time the UN sessions began, though, I’d decided my goal was the end of the world. As my classmates were negotiating trade treaties with Belgium or international aid deals for Nigeria, I was lobbing bombs at all my neighbors. Had Marie known this was the future of the little boy sitting next to her on that long-ago car ride, she might have included a powerful soliloquy on the importance of taking school assignments seriously, or, at the very least, not trying to end the world.