Distinctive Differences

Hans was the eccentric old guy at the photo lab, where I worked. He was a technician and good at his job. He came across as a kindly old gentleman with a German accent. He minded his business and didn’t bother anyone.

It seemed like everyone in Minnesota had an accent, German, Scandinavian or the weirdest mix of all, Minnesotan.

One day, while on break, he told me about growing up in Germany before WWII. Then he told me about joining the German army and fighting for the Third Reich in Yugoslavia. Then he told me about how their leader, Adolf Hitler, was misunderstood by the world. Poor old Adolf “did a lot of good things,” he said. With great power comes great forgiveness, as Spiderman says. No, wait.

Mel Brooks’ “The Producers” had been released a few years before. My impression of Hans blended with the hilarious, Nazi playwright from that movie, waxing ecstatic over “what a wonderful dancer” Hitler was. Hans wasn’t so demonstrative but he did insist ‘der Fuhrer’ was misunderstood.

A few years later, on my first day of film school in Tampa, Florida, all the buzz was about one instructor, Karl who was a former Luftwaffe pilot in WWII. All the Jewish students were anxious about taking his classes.

Not to worry, Karl, though as severe in countenance as his reputation would suggest, never betrayed any prejudice against any group or individual. He treated everyone with the same superior disdain in keeping with his perfectionist temperament. Considering the styles of some of the other instructors, Karl was consistent, predictable and a purveyor of solid technical information.

Karl also had a dry sense of humor. At least that is how we chose to see it. A fellow student, Bill, once drew Karl into sharing some personal history with us. He was pressed into the German military service as a young teenager and trained to fly a reconnaissance plane, which were unarmed. He spoke tersely of getting captured when a British squadron of fighter planes came out of the clouds and forced him to land.

Bill asked, “But since your plane could fly higher and faster than theirs, couldn’t you have escaped?” Karl gave Bill a look that would unnerve a hawk and delivered a perfect Teutonic response. “You never retreat.” For years we would quote him with our best approximation of his German accent.

Karl came to the United States when he was released from the POW camp. He never looked back.

Years later, in Los Angeles, I worked for his niece, Karola. When I interviewed with her for the job, hearing her last name, her accent, and seeing those familiar features, I knew she could be no one else’s kin. It was an unusual application of my ‘old school tie’.

In the ‘80s, I edited a ‘sword and sorcery’ flick in Buenos Aires, Argentina, a popular genre then. Before going there, all I knew about Argentina was their ‘open door,’ non-extradition policy that welcomed Nazis escaping prosecution after WWII. Mad Magazine always poked fun at their pompous, latter day fascism.

While visiting the set one day, the studio photographer approached me and introduced himself as Juan Schultz, in a curious, German/Spanish accent. In conspiratorial tones, he told me proudly about his being Hitler’s staff photographer. He claimed he documented Hitler meeting Mussolini, and shaking hands with the Pope. He challenged my disbelief with insistent defensiveness. Alas, photographic proof was lost in his hasty exit from Germany.

He escaped to Argentina and changed his name after the war, like many others, to avoid prosecution. He was well on in years, and it could have been true. A shame about that proof.

I’ll never understand why anyone would brag about that, even if true. It is hardly the stuff one puts on their resume. Or, at least I wouldn’t. But in Buenos Aires, it seemed to open many doors.

People cannot keep dark secrets from the light. The same qualities of character that lead us into dark actions, are those which cause us to proudly broadcast them.

My co-worker Hans was an Al Bundy type, nostalgic for the glory days of that game winning touchdown. How could condemning something so glorious be anything but the result of a misunderstanding?

Karl was not nostalgic. He was no ideologue. As anyone would, he pursued opportunities to forge a new life in his adopted country. But he didn’t trade on his past.

Juan was the oddest one. While successfully escaping responsibility for his participation in infamy, he also made his fortune from those associations. And within the right context, he burnished his reputation from his sordid past.

These three men are familiar types. Not specific to one time or place, they are found throughout humanity. We each find ourselves carried by the currents of history. How we choose to respond to those forces is what is telling.



The Territorial Imperative

I rented half a duplex in Tampa, Florida after graduating. The cockroach infestation was included at no extra charge. At least they weren’t the euphemistically named ‘Palmetto bugs’ which are roaches with a bad case of gigantism.

Someone suggested I buy pet lizards, reputed to eat cockroaches. I could then have pets and the upkeep would be low. But I worried that should my pet lizards become too successful at decimating the roach population, I would then have to import more roaches, lest they starve.

Or if the lizards themselves became too intrusive, would I have to import a suite of armadillos or whatever their natural predator is to control the exploding lizard population. It promised to become much too complicated, so my roaches got a reprieve. Clever buggers.

Previous to that, I shared a house with several others, known to the neighborhood, simply as ‘2001’. There was no number on the house. My housemates had erected a tall black monolith around the mailbox and the United States Postal Service intuited the rest.

This house was reclaimed from the swamp. When moving in, an early project was removing the stand of bamboo growing up through the floorboards in the living room.

Another day, one of my housemates gingerly removed a pygmy rattlesnake from one of the closets. I would hate to be polishing my snakeskin boots only to get polished off myself.

But we didn’t have roaches.

I don’t know if there was a connection but we also didn’t have heat. Warmth is generally taken for granted in Florida, until it snows. It was more comfortable studying in my closed car than to huddle beneath a blanket in that dank house.

Many a chilly evening was spent happily passing a bottle of Jim Beam around the campfire built (a safe distance from the house) from scrap wood lately detached from the decrepit shed (known as ‘2001 Junior’), also on the property.

As marginal as it may sound, this was a huge step up from my one month sojourn sharing a mobile home. What a pit that was. Situated in a cow pasture, I was awakened every morning by a flock of turkey vultures energetically tap dancing on the tin roof above my room. It was a long month.

So, one night at the 2001 house, I entered my room planning to read until I got sleepy. I turned on the light and saw a female mouse spider attempting to scare me away with an aggressive territorial stance. This was no recluse. It was huge and aggressive.

Spiders give most people pause. But the Florida brown mouse spider can be truly daunting, though they are not thought to be dangerous. Greyish brown and hairy, it would barely fit in the bottom of the average coffee cup. With its legs stretched out, you would have trouble hiding it under a coffee filter. Think of a tarantula but not as cute or exotic.

So, it was on my bed doing its version of pounding its chest while laying claim to my bed. I was not in the mood, so I waved my arms and it retreated, out of reach, down the far side of the bed.

Silly me, I went about my business and forgot about it. I got into bed and started reading my book. I read until I came to the word ‘spider’.


Hmm. What happened to the spider?

As if on cue, it plopped down onto my book from the ceiling.  I convulsively threw the book and leaped from the bed with a shout. The spider’s timing could not have been better, making its point very effectively. Who knew spiders could read? (So that is where those indecipherable marginal notes came from.)

This was a true nemesis. I could almost hear the shout “Touche!” as she scurried Ninja like, under the bed to safety.

I made a concerted effort to locate and be done with her at last. A master of guerilla warfare, she had melted into the gloom without a trace.  How does one flush a determined spider from an undetermined location?

Was it really down to her or me? I knew she wanted me to dismantle my whole room in my search. But I also knew she was probably long gone. The house was about as weather tight as a cardboard box. Spider tracking was obviously not in my Mark Trail, survival kit.

Exhausted, I shut the light and went to sleep. I spent the night with no further disruptions.

However, the next morning, in the bathroom, I discovered something horrible. On opening the medicine chest I found the remains of two such spiders obviously having fought to the death over territory. It was a tableaux fitting the dark end of some Shakespearean tragedy.

One spider lay crumpled up on the top shelf. The other, badly wounded, had valiantly dragged herself to the bottom shelf. Too weak to exit, she had expired in the corner with several legs trailing behind her. It was a shocking sight.

Imagine blearily reaching in there one morning only to discover one of these things riding on your toothbrush! Yecchh!

I cringed at the memory of what I yelled that night, during my desperate search.  “Pick on someone your own size!” What had I wrought?

With the reverence appropriate to the sad occasion, I disposed of both carcasses, and my toothbrush. I was only happy they didn’t have opposable thumbs.


I miscalculated. The car sped toward me and there was no time.


Tires squealed and metal impacted my flesh…


Did you ever want a job so bad you’d die for it? Lots of people want jobs they’d kill for, but die? The film business generates that kind of… passion in some people.

I didn’t want to die for my first Hollywood production job. But I almost did. I was trying too hard.

I was just out of film school. A bunch of us were making do, getting occasional commercial gigs here and there. We’d worked some low budget stuff, but a Hollywood crew with a name director? What a dream!

They were going to be shooting at the classic Don Cesar Hotel on the beach in St. Petersburg, Florida, built in the ‘20s and painted the color of Pepto-Bismal.  The movie was HealtH.

Everyone was trying to find their way onto the crew. There was no way. There had to be a way.

There was a way.

I got on the show and through me, others got on. We watched each other’s backs. We were called Production Assistants. We were grunts.

Shooting a major motion picture is like a combination of a military operation and a three ring circus, with all that implies.

The politics of holding onto a grunt job! The director, Robert Altman, was famously anti-union. The local Teamsters sent him their regards. One of the local union reps ‘generously’ handed out Teamster logo emblazoned t-shirts to all the locals hired by the production. Cool! Free t-shirts!

The next morning ‘Teamsters’ were everywhere. The Altman thought he was being strong armed. Word came down that anyone seen in “one of those shirts” would no longer be on the show.  Those t-shirts disappeared. But the Teamster’s local made its presence known.

Bill, one of my buddies almost got fired one day after drinking lunch with the editors. The editors congregated in the hotel bar for lunch every day. They were a relaxed and friendly bunch, very collegial. These were the rogues who ‘borrowed’ someone’s 50 foot sailboat for an hour or so one night after closing the bar down. They didn’t get caught, but the boat’s owner could have sworn he moored the boat facing out. Curious. So Bill took their invitation and tried to keep up.

Lunch over, our boss detected Bill’s inebriated state, and told him to take the rest of the day off. Bill protested that he was fine. Our boss said he wasn’t fired. He just couldn’t be on the set in that condition. It shook him, thinking he could have been fired. You learn to roll with things.

One afternoon we secured a monstrous set piece in the hotel courtyard, so it wouldn’t fall and kill anyone. It was a tree of sorts, made of styro-foam but weighing about a ton. It consisted of several styro-spheres on stalks, standing almost two stories tall and painted a bilious green. Next to the pink hotel, it was quite memorable.

We anchored steel cable to the roof and ran it down to the ‘tree’ from several locations to stabilize it. Wouldn’t you know, but that night a huge wind storm blew in?

After hours a bunch of us hung out in a meeting room and actor Paul Dooley treated us to a spontaneous demonstration of his amazing sleight of hand. He manipulated a small rubber ball, mysteriously making it disappear and reappear, for several minutes. However, his most amazing trick was creating the illusion of the ball appearing and disappearing, while he was empty handed!

Done for the day, Bill and I were exiting through the lobby of the hotel when the night manager asked if we were with the production. He pointed out the window where we saw the giant ‘tree’ ominously straining against its cables in the gale force winds.

He was genuinely concerned, not only that this looming thing was going to take out a hundred panes of glass but also that innocent guests, or staff, might get injured. I could see his point.

I assured him that I was there when the ‘tree’ was secured and I was certain that it was safe. He asked my name and if he could call me should need arise. I assured him I was with the production company and vouched for the safety of the hotel guests. The night manager took my name and shook my hand in thanks.

Bill and I looked at the ‘tree’ thrashing violently like some nightmarish creature about to break its bonds.

He turned to me. “Are you nuts? How can you be responsible?”

“You think they can make me responsible? That’s what insurance is for. He just needed to know it wasn’t on him. Do you want to hold his hand all night? Chutzpah, my friend. Let’s get out of here.”

We left. The wind subsided and the ‘tree’ stayed put.

One of our tasks was to load a rental truck with props and stuff that had been delivered to the local warehouse and bring it to the location. I was walking to meet the truck when it drove by, honking and proceeding through the intersection without me.

I needed to be on that truck and so made chase. The light changed just before I reached the curb. I made a snap decision that I could make it through before the stationary traffic could get moving.

I ran the red light and discovered the traffic was already in motion and speeding up. I had nowhere to turn as the phalanx of cars bore down on me.

There was no time. The driver slammed on his brakes, but too late. I jumped and rolled onto his hood. He screeched to a stop which threw me off the car. I landed on my feet and I literally hit the ground running. I didn’t look back.

Shaking from the adrenaline rush, I got into the waiting truck. The driver asked if I was okay and all I could say was, “Yeah. Great. Let’s go!”

You just have to roll with things. And have a guardian angel.


Of Water Skis and Mangroves

You know how when you take on a task the more you practice the better you get? And as you gain proficiency you tend to push the envelope to keep it from getting boring? This is how babies become figure skaters and so on.

Sometime after graduating from college I took up water skiing for a brief time. A friend of mine, Bill, had a boat and we both had an embarrassing amount of free time to spend while we awaited for our ship to arrive.

I had tried water skiing in Minnesota, land of 10,000 choppy lakes with little success. But in Florida, a calm and lazy river flowed through Tampa making a perfect environment for skiing. Of course, the enhancement of never knowing if an alligator was going to bite off your leg whilst awaiting the boat made it all the more exciting. This was long before wearing a helmet was standard practice.

As I gained proficiency, merely skiing behind the boat in a safe, predictable wake became a little tedious. Night time skiing on the river was tried. Night time skiing outside the wake was attempted with mixed results. Nothing like getting knocked into the water by a branch or a log and then waiting for the boat to find you while checking to see if you have all your body parts intact. Ahh, the echoing sound of a bull alligator grunting from an indeterminate location!

No one I knew ever got attacked by an alligator but everyone knew the potential. Generally, the speed one traveled on skis kept that worry at bay. But treading water in the dark for several minutes made for some tense moments. Who would find me first, the boat or the gator?

I moved from two skis to one fairly quickly. The final hurdle was to complete a 180 degree turn on one ski. That would have been a major accomplishment. Getting past the apex of the turn was beyond me.

I can only attribute it to pilot error that Bill made his U-turn in a narrow part of the river. All I could do was hang on and complete the turn. When I wiped out that should have been it. But I was traveling so fast I couldn’t get into the water to save my life. I skipped across the surface doing what probably looked to be a Wiley Coyote impression as I hurtled toward the bank and the stand of mangrove trees growing there.

I’m told a team of alligators lunged toward me like defenders of a penalty kick in a soccer match but I was too preoccupied to see it. Unfortunately the trees were my only net.

I stopped abruptly and hung in the branches of a tree for several seconds while I became aware of my surroundings. I still had my eyesight and my manhood. I wasn’t in severe pain. I was alive. All my limbs seemed intact.

I extricated myself from the tree branches, lowered myself gingerly to the ground and picked my way carefully back to the water. While swimming back to the boat I heard a round of applause rise from some nearby houses.

I was done for that day.

However few days later I made a fateful decision. I think I was still shaken by my close encounter with the mangrove. I wasn’t feeling well but I let myself be cajoled into going skiing again. You know, get back on the horse after it throws you and all that.

This time, the strain of the rope, the angle of the fall…  Apparently, what was a hairline crack became a full blown fracture. My elbow separated from the rest of my arm and came to rest elsewhere. This time, swimming back to the boat drew no applause. I had to be lifted into the boat as my left arm was useless.

The doctor in the ER informed me he needed to operate. Following the advice I had always heard I told him I wanted a second opinion. I thought it was merely dislocated and I wasn’t going to be taken advantage of. His honest attempt at containing a smile convinced me that he probably knew what he was talking about. He said he would find another doctor to weigh in but I told him it wouldn’t be necessary after all. He did a good job reconstructing my elbow.

I recovered fully but somehow have never again had occasion, or desire to put on skis of any kind. Oh well.