The Führer

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n the small town of French Lick, Indiana, a lone man walks up a winding street. The wind whips at his coat; he shivers as he pulls it tightly around himself. The silence is eerie, almost suffocating. He thinks of Ine, of all the things he wants to tell her; how life has been unbearable since she left him. Nestled somewhere deep in his fear, he feels another emotion—something that resembles hope: perhaps she will speak to him this time. A street lamp up ahead gives one last weak flicker until it succumbs to the darkness too. The stars shine through the thick black blanket of the sky. They seem to mock the man’s plight; they fill him with doubt. They whisper, suspended above him. “Give up, old man,” they seem to say.  “Go home.” He keeps walking. “Herman,” he asks himself, “how has it come to this? How did you become this beggar?” It’s late now. In most of the windows of the homes he passes, the lights are out, dinner long past. Dishes are done; people have turned in for the evening. They wouldn’t notice an old man trudging up the black pavement. When Herman finally reaches the house, he hesitates. For one last time, he considers turning around. Then, silently, he walks along the path and stands outside of her window. It gives off a faint light. The curtains open, and he glimpses the illuminated face of his beloved.

“Ine,” he says.

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Candle in hand, Irene, who had heard something, scans the darkness and sees her husband Herman—it’s Herman again—standing outside her window. His shoulders are slumped with the weight of the world—or his conscience, she thinks. Perhaps it has become too much for him to bear. In any case, nothing she feels comes close to sympathy, or even pity: what she feels is closer to hate.  Quickly she closes the curtains and hobbles back to the comfort of the bed. Her leg still hurts, especially when it is cold outside, or when it rains. She listens for Herman’s shoes along the pavement, and when she hears nothing, she knows that he is sitting below her window… that he will sleep outside of it tonight.  True, a man that old could die in cold like this, but she doesn’t care. She pulls the blanket up to her chin and thinks back on a time when she suffered so much. It began on a night like this, some 40 years ago.  Now it feels like someone else’s nightmare.

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On that night long ago, she was a girl of fourteen sitting alone in her room. She heard a tapping sound on her window pane. Rising from her bed, she crossed the room and pulled back the curtains, a candle in hand then as now. Outside, there was the face of a young man staring back at her with determined eyes and tightly pressed lips. She was shocked and confused, but was able to understand that he wanted her to open the window. Out of fear—perhaps because he was older than she, perhaps because she saw the implied order in his expression—she opened it. He came climbing into the warmth and comfort of her room, letting in the cold nighttime air. “Ine,” he said matter-of-factly, “I have come to take you away with me to be my wife.” It was a statement rather than a question, but Irene saw the look in this young man’s eyes and knew more than to refuse. He grabbed her by the elbow and started to lead her out the window with him. She wanted to scream but could not. She was completely terrified. She grabbed a few of her things, mostly money, it wasn’t much, and followed him out the window still in a state of shock and horror. In the cold, in the darkness, his hand hurting her elbow, she frantically tried to think of what to do. Irene knew the young man; his name was Herman Walters. He was older than she by a couple years and worked in a mechanics shop. They had talked a few times in passing; he had always made her a little bit uncomfortable. The twinkle in his eye reminded her of a hunter watching a clever rabbit run away after it has once again eluded his trap.

Forty years later, she is safe in the bedroom of her daughter’s house; the monster, which she finally fled, lies asleep below her safely locked window. She settles back into a restless sleep.

 

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rowing up, I had heard stories like these about my great-grandfather, Herman, and his wife Irene. They left me confused and in awe. Who would believe that their great-grandfather climbed up their great-grandmother’s window, essentially kidnapped her, and forced her into marriage when she was only fourteen? I could not imagine being fourteen, marrying a man whom I neither loved or liked, let alone marrying one whom I did love. Nor have I ever been able to square the character of the man whose life unfolded between these two encounters outside Irene Walters’s window. His contradictions astound me.

To understand this man, you need to know about Herman Walter’s past. His family came to America from Germany, moved to French Lick, and when they arrived they made the poor choice of building their house on a hill. A storm leveled it, killing everyone except for my great-great-grandfather. One sudden act of a cruel and indifferent Nature determined whether or not Herman would be born; it was with this same cruelty and indifference that Herman lived his life.

As a young boy and through his adulthood, Herman was very proud of his German heritage, to say the least. He kept many framed pictures of Hitler around his house because he thought him an admirable man. It was Hitler who had made Germany strong again; it was Hitler who had nearly succeeded in exterminating the Jews. (Like Hitler, Herman was racist to the core. Along with Jews, he hated black people, Hispanics, Asians—anyone of a different ethnicity. Actually, he could take one look at someone and dislike them even because of the way they were dressed.) Like Hitler, he was also paranoid and scheming; he knew his enemies well, and they were legion. His hatred and fear of others knew no bounds. Once when my mom was flipping through his school yearbook, she noticed that the eyes of numerous classmates were poked out.

And yet if his admiration for Hitler was one of his most horrible characteristics, another was the fact that he was a mechanical genius. During his early years, he worked as a millwright, putting together huge pieces of equipment and making sure that these machines’ stress-tolerance levels—that is, their ability to work and not blow apart—were precisely accurate. He invented and then crafted his own special tools and devices that allowed him to lift, say, an enormous piece of equipment precisely one inch off the ground in order to fit into the conjoining piece of another. He would then sell these homemade tools to other millwrights—work which made him a good living. During World War II, he was chosen to teach soldiers how to use machinery at the Louisville Defense School, and soon earned a reputation as a man who could fix anything. Assembling large machines was only one of his talents; he was also gifted in electrical and mechanical engineering, as well as plumbing. People came from different states to get him to fix a refrigerator or an old radio that someone else had deemed irreparable. He would strip these machines under repair of any new parts that they had and replace them with older ones, then keep the new parts for himself. They still worked like new and he was stocked with stolen goods.

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 Herman didn’t stop at swindling common people, however; he even cheated the government. When the war was over, he neglected to return the tools and equipment back to the Louisville Defense School, convincing them that somehow all of the machinery had been misplaced. In truth he had hidden it in an old shed on his property.

Over the years of his life, Herman managed to accumulate an impressive collection of tools in his mechanics garage, including an enormous Airstream mobile home which my mother called the “bullet.” My mother, Herman’s favorite granddaughter, said, “Over the years he had managed little by little to outfit the ‘bullet’ with various objects from the house, much to my grandmother’s vast dismay, so that it always appeared as if he were preparing for some important journey.” He probably would have traveled back in time to help lead the Third Reich. My mother also told me that no one was allowed to touch or go near the garage, let alone the “bullet.” It was one of many of Herman’s belongings that only he was good enough to handle.

For instance, no one but him was allowed to use the family’s toaster. No one but him was allowed to eat butter or candy. The list was endless. My mother describes a red plastic parrot with suction cup feet he’d made which would walk up a wall when you pulled its string. No one was allowed to play with this toy of Herman’s either, except for her; he would bring it out when she was around. “I think that he felt it would be safe from the other grandchildren who were afraid of him,” she said, “but I could tell by the way he watched me when he was working it that he knew I wasn’t scared and that I would take it. I guess he thought I was like him and I realized he was baiting me and trying to get me to steal.” Her fearlessness endeared her to him. She would tell him that she hated him and that she wanted to kill him, threats he thought were very funny, and this was exactly the kind of hatred that Herman wanted people to have for him. If people hated him and feared him, then he must have power over them. This language of hatred—Hitler’s language, after all—was Herman’s native tongue.

In spite of his respect for her, my mom came to dread visiting her grandparents because she would have to see him. Upon arrival, she would find the same scene every time: he would be reclined in his chair with his feet propped up, watching his two TVs, which he stacked one atop the other.  Ironically, his mechanical genius did not extend to anything broken in his own house: the bottom TV provided sound and the top the picture. “Ine,” he’d shout to his wife, “take a letter! Ine, fix me something to eat!” Biddy Girl, his beloved dog, sat curled on his lap; as soon as he saw his beloved granddaughter he’d say, “Becky, come give grandpaw a kiss.” Reluctantly, my mother complied; she may have hated him, but he was the master of the house.

As the years passed, my mother came to realize that Herman had begun to stage horrible displays for her whenever she came to visit. The worst were when he made Biddy Girl attack Irene. He would think of an errand to have Irene do, making her walk into the living room. He’d shout, “Get her, pooch!” The dog would jump up and bite the woman—so badly sometimes that she required stitches. My mother was convinced the dog didn’t want to attack Irene. It would stand there for a second, a look of pity and hesitation on its face while Herman made his series of claps and commands, the dog torn between its master’s orders and a woman that had never given it anything but love. Later, the dog would curl up on her lap as if trying to apologize.

Along with my mother, Biddy Girl was Herman’s other great love. She gave him her obedience and fear and he expected the same from his children, but they never fully submitted. Their hatred of him was too great. He made a substantial living repairing machinery, securing cheap labor by making his sons work in his shop and pocketing their wages, beating them with chains when they were not doing a satisfactory job. Even the gold coins that his sister Leda gave the children for their baptisms were put into Herman’s personal self -preservation fund. He would tightly press and roll his paper money, hiding the cash in tin cans in the garage or burying them later. The family never had enough food because of his hoarding. He never put his money in the bank because he thought financial institutions were corrupt. He always demanded payment in cash from customers so that he would not have to pay income tax. When he died, his son James discovered Herman’s buried treasure in the floorboard of a rusting old car. James never told any of his siblings how much money it was, but the same year that he found the money, he retired and built both of his children new houses. Worst of all, Herman didn’t believe in taking his children to the doctor; as a result, they were constantly near death. When his daughter, Genieve, contracted polio, he refused to get her medical attention. “If she is going to die,” he told his wife, “she is going to die and there is nothing that a doctor can do to help.” Thankfully, a concerned neighbor stepped in and took her to a doctor. She had to be put in an iron lung and walked with leg braces for the rest of her life because the polio left her crippled.

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Herman Walters was also an arsonist. When overcome with the urge to burn things, he would grab whatever was in sight: framed pictures, papers, furniture. He would pile it all on a carefully chosen location on his property. He would feed the fire and watch it blaze, admiring its power and fury. For him, it was like putting on a show. I can picture Herman lighting his bonfire. He probably pretended that he was Hitler, burning piles of books for the good of the Nazi cause. His compulsion wasn’t limited to his own property: fire, for him, was a legitimate weapon to get back at his enemies. Once, after a fight between him and his brother, a storage shed on his brother’s property mysteriously caught on fire.  It was full of personal items that Herman’s brother was storing after a recent divorce.

Sadly, his wife continued to suffer his love without mercy. When Irene was released from the hospital after an illness, the doctor insisted that she stay with her daughter Patricia and Patricia’s husband Bob. Herman was very angry and wanted Irene to come home so that she could do her household duties. My grandfather, Bob, said that Herman even went so far as to threaten that something bad would happen to them if they did not send Irene home. “I became very afraid that he would do something,” Bob said. “We knew that he had the ability to cause an explosion with the natural gas system in our home and that there would be no evidence.” After only a few days of convalescence, Irene went home to prevent retaliation against her sister. Everyone in her family knew what Herman was capable of. It’s not surprising considering his flagrant disregard for other people that there was talk in the town that someone would “knock him in the head someday.” Once, an unknown man tried to run him over with a car.

 

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till, there were a few brief moments when Herman showed compassion, though it was usually limited to animals. My mom remembers a time when Herman was mowing the yard and accidentally ran over a mother bunny. Herman gathered up her litter and raised the babies as if he were their mother. When they were old enough to survive on their own, he set them free. After his neighbor’s dog had puppies, he bought one of them and carried it around everywhere. One morning, he woke up to find that the pup had hung itself in the fringe hanging from the blanket that he kept on the back of his chair. After the discovery, he cried for the entire day like a child. He grasped the pup’s limp body until Irene came and took it from him. She buried it under the Mulberry tree in the back yard and asked the neighbors if Herman could have another puppy, which he accepted with the thrill of a child, forgetting the old one almost immediately. A dog was an ideal companion for Herman. No matter how many times a dog is kicked, it will still obey its master. Cruelty was Herman’s way of showing love, and obedience was the way others could show it back to him.

Not surprisingly, when my grandfather Bob courted my grandmother Patricia, Herman hated him at first: he saw Bob’s potential marriage of his daughter as a territorial threat and a form of insubordination. He was so unfriendly to Bob that he felt he was walking on pins and needles every time he was around the man. Soon after they were married, Bob began to mow Herman’s yard without being asked. Herman never mentioned it, but his attitude towards Bob started to change. It pleased him that Bob took the initiative to mow his yard and humble himself before Herman. That was as close to a relationship as a person could have with Herman Walters.

I know of only one time that my great-great-grandfather showed his wife true kindness. After she was diagnosed with diabetes, she became so sick that she had to go to the hospital. When she returned home, he did all the cooking and cleaning. Alas, he soon returned to his old ways. Because the car was one of his untouchable objects, he made her walk everywhere. Ironically, this final act of cruelty saved the remainder of her life. When she was walking to the grocery store one morning, she slipped and fell, breaking her leg so badly she was hospitalized once more. It was this fall that caused Irene to snap. After 50 years of marriage, she decided that she never wanted to see Herman again. When her leg healed, she moved in with Patricia. According to my mother, Herman would come by the house and stand outside waiting for Irene, but she would not utter so much as a word to him. As long as she was firm, he was as powerless as the little dog that he loved, something that took her half a century of cruelty to understand. Irene lived with Patricia’s family for a few years until she moved in with Patricia’s brother, James, to help him raise his daughter who was struggling with drug addiction. At the age of seventy- two, Irene died of pneumonia, finally free of Herman Walters.

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erman lived out the rest of his life in his mechanics garage. All he had to keep him company was Biddy Girl. In his late 70’s, Herman was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, a degenerative breakdown of the nervous system that leads to the loss of muscle control. The end comes by way of suffocation—a fitting and ironic death for a man who fought to suffocate everyone close to him. Occasionally, he would come and visit my mother and my grandmother. My mother tried to talk with him, but his condition made conversation nearly impossible. “I stood anxiously awaiting his reply,” my mother said, “but when he tried to speak, he couldn’t.  The words came out in whines such as those that a baby would make. He tried to make words, but they weren’t words. I was struck with the helplessness of him.” Soon he lost complete control of his vocal cords and could no longer speak. He was pitiful and miserable. Patricia’s brother Kenny decided that he needed to go live in a hospital where he could be given care around the clock.

Once, my mother and grandmother went to visit him there. The whole time he gestured wildly, grumbling and scribbling notes on a napkin that demanded he be removed from the hospital so that he could go back to his garage and see Biddy Girl. When my mother and grandmother left, they told the nurse that Herman was very agitated. To their amazement, they saw Herman running out of the hospital doors as they were driving from the hospital’s parking lot. He flagged them down and then banged on the widow, gesturing for them to let him in the car. Once inside, Herman motioned my grandmother to drive. Confused and with no way to call the hospital, my grandmother told him she would take him home but that she first needed to get some gas. At the station, she stopped and called Kenny who then called the police, but when Herman saw the squad car drive up, he ran. The officer caught him and dragged him, kicking, screaming, and crying into the back of the police car. On the return drive to the hospital, Herman jumped out of the moving car, fleeing briefly once more but finally being caught and returned forever. My mother never saw him again after that day. She always thought that it was very sad to see this man who was once so powerful become so helpless. He just wanted to go back to his garage so that he could die in his favorite place with Biddy Girl.  It was at this hospital that Herman took his last breath, and his only friend Biddy Girl was not around to comfort him. Biddy Girl lived out the rest of her days with Kenny.

 

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ven in his passing, Herman left his mark on everyone he encountered. None of his children had successful marriages. None of them speak to each other. It is almost as if they cannot talk to one another because they remind each other of a man and a past they all want to forget. When I asked my grandmother about Herman, she was reluctant to talk about him. She doesn’t want anyone to know what he was really like, because he was her father. It is human nature to fear becoming like our parents, especially if they are as horrible as Herman. No one wants to think that somehow an evil streak is alive in them.

Herman left his mark on Patricia in other ways. Because my grandmother grew up with nothing, she spends most of her money on things she doesn’t need. It is her way of compensating for her childhood; she feels that it’s owed to her. My mother constantly wonders, “What is it that Herman saw in me that made me his favorite and why did I remind him of himself?”

 

-- Emmy Weikert