05 April 2015

The Seemingly Unbelievable But I Swear to God True Story of When Edwin Meeks Disrespected Hitler

Edwin Meeks
This is a true story and I’ll fight any man who says it isn’t. It’s about what happened when Edwin Meeks met Hitler. I know a lot of people have called me a liar but I’ve put this story together from FACTS. I came upon those FACTS from letters, newspaper accounts, talking to folks and from what mostly from the himself. I happen to know more about Meeks than anyone else outside his family probably ever did. Come to think of it I knew MORE than anyone in his family because he barely had a family. His folks both died when he was growing up and his brother moved off when Meeks was just out of high school and his sister and him didn't much get along. It's me who knows Meeks and his story. Anyway, here it is.

Meeks was a writer. He pounded out stories for the local paper every day of the week. Drunk driving arrests, high school basketball games, city council meetings, record sized fish caught, you name it. He also re-worked wire service stories, although that generally was just a matter of editing them for length. He hunted and pecked at his old Royal typewriter on the old pine desk in the old room he had in the old newspaper office, often with his hat still on and a cigarette between his teeth. Besides the editor, Sam McGee, and the ad man, Chester Grant, Meeks was the only full timer on the paper. And there weren't too many part timers at that.

Thing about Meeks was that he fancied himself more than just a purveyor of local trivia and scandal. Why when Meeks got home the first thing he'd do was to sit himself down and start pounding out short stories, fictional ones, that is, on his other Royal typewriter. His plan was to someday compile the stories into several collections to be published to, these are his words, "widespread acclaim." Oh sure those few fiction pieces he’d had in print so far — mostly in a county magazine — had been called things like  “simplistic doggerel” or “base humor” or “unimaginative and cliche ridden” by snooty critics, but Meeks didn't care, he said he was saving the good stuff. No way he was putting his best material in those low circulation periodicals. Nope. He was aiming higher.

Everyone in town knew Meeks. He had been born and raised in Catchings and had hardly strayed except when he went to the state capital (that was Madison because, you see, Catchings is in Wisconsin) for some kind of story or once when he vacationed all the way down in Florida. Meeks had a wife for a short time but she run off with a salesman who came through town once. Meeks had never seemed interested in replacing her. “One wife for a lifetime is enough,” he'd say. But secretly he really missed Sadie and hoped that once he hit it big she’d come running back or that he’d find himself another gal. "Maybe one a lot younger and prettier than Sadie" he'd say, though that was not likely for Sadie was a real beaut. Speculation was she wanted more out of life than a town like Catchings and a fella like Meek could offer, so hitched her wagon to the first real hotshot that came through town and showed an interest in her. Last I heard she'd busted up with the guy and was waitressing in some dive in Chicago. Serves her right for runnin' off.

Yeah so Meeks was a homebody. You could generally find him at his desk in the Catchings Gazette or at home or at Merv’s. That was a cafe where Meeks took a lot of his meals. He’d almost always order whatever the daily special was for dinner. That was Meeks, a creature of habit. The only variance to his usual routine was when Meeks chasing a story or when he would go down to the Badger’s Bucket to wet his whistle -- which he’d done most Friday nights since prohibition had come to a merciful end three years before this story commences. Meeks was not a big drinker but he could hold his own with some of the big, rough loggers who sauntered into the Bucket.

Sometimes Meeks would, as he put it himself, "quaff beer" and other times it was whiskey. Meeks was a medium sized fella with a pretty good build. He'd played some ball in school but never starred. I suppose he was a handsome enough fellow though a few people over the years poked fun at his bigger than average proboscis. "It's cause I got a nose for news," Meeks would say to explain his schnoz.

Me, I'm Brent Hillegass and I'm the baker in Catchings but also chief of the volunteer fire department and the best amateur fisherman and hunter in the area. You can ask anybody, they'll confirm it.

What happened to Meeks was something so amazing he'd have never imagined it for one of those stories he was always writing.

It was a Wednesday the first of April 1936. I remember exactly because I'd been complaining early that morning to my wife, Maude that now that April was hear the dang snow was welcome to leave. And I know it was a Wednesday because that's the night of the town council meetings which I always attended and there was one that night that was mostly gonna be for jawing about building a new bridge over Willow Creek.

It was late morning and I stopped in at Merv's to see if they needed anything special for the next day and how was the new rhubarb pie I'd baked selling. Meeks was at his usual spot at the counter sipping a coffee and smoking a cigarette and ogling the new waitress named Beulah who was as cute as could be and damn well knew it. I sat for a spell next to Meeks, us being good pals and all, and we shot the breeze. I noticed that he had a bunch of letters in one of this coat pockets and happened to ask what they were. No reason, just making conversation. Meeks said: "my morning mail. Haven't opened it yet. I like to let it age a bit before seeing what I got."

"You're an odd duck in some ways," I said. I added a big smile just in case Meeks didn't know I was kidding him.

"I suppose," he said. "If it'll make you feel better I'll take a look at what I got." And with that Meeks tore into them. The first three were nothing of interest, bills and such I guess. But when Meeks started reading the last of them his eyes got as big as pie pans.

I noticed his wide-eyed gaze and asked him, "what the dickens is it, Bub?" ( I usually called Meeks, by that nickname, Bub.)

"I just can't believe. I can...not...believe it. It's my brother, Hank."

From that I figured ole Hank had died and this letter was notifying Meeks of that fact. I was wrong.

"Bad news, there Bub?"

"Not hardly. Hank is in Germany of all places. And he's invited me to come to the Olympic games there this Summer."

I wouldn't have guessed such a thing if you'd given me a million chances. "Since when has Hank been in Germany?"

That's Merv's with Merv at the counter and yours truly.
Then by way of explanation Meeks read me the pertinent part of the letter: "Came to this part of the world last year and have made a lot of money so have settled for awhile. I want to share my good fortune with my only brother. Feel bad that I haven't seen you in so long and this will be a way of repaying you. If you agree to come out I will arrange passage on an ocean liner all paid for and you can stay with me in Berlin for the entire time of the Olympics. Course I'll also cover expenses for your trip home too."

"He say what kind of business?"

"Not here but I imagine its in plastics. That's what he'd been involved in last I heard." Then after a pause Meeks practically shouted, "holy cow my brother is doin' business with the damn Nazis." Beulah turned around to see what the fuss was and ole Merv himself gave us the eye from over at the cash register. Merv liked a lot of chatter in his cafe but he didn't care for raised voices or cuss words. "That's for the Bucket," he'd say.

Meeks apologized. We talked some more and Meeks did some thinking and realized he hadn't seen Hank since 1925 and then for a day, when he swung through town. He'd not seen him before then since Hank left Catchings in 1916 when Meeks was just graduating high school.

The way Meeks figured it he had to go. There was no way in the world he could pass up going to Nazi Germany and to the Olympic games and covering them not just for the Gazette but for other nearby rags that'd be getting exclusive reports from a local lad. Heck, Meeks figured he could write up some stuff that would get national play. That was Meeks, always the optimist.

Of course Old Man McGee was glad for Meeks to go to Germany and find out what it was all about over there and write it up for the Gazette. He probably knew he'd need to hire several part timers to fill in for Meeks while he was gone in addition to doin' a bit of extra work himself, but McGee was probably glad to get Meeks out of his hair (what little he had) for awhile. Like I said Meeks and I were pals but I knew good and well he could be a pest, especially to work with, what with all the ideas, inspirations and suggestions he constantly had.

For the three months before he left, Meeks was doing one of three things: researching and planning for his trip; talking about his trip; or doing his usual routine at the Gazette. Most of us were good and ready for him to be on his way when he finally took the train to New York (which is where he was booked on a liner for Europe). He'd damn near talked all our ears off. I've never seen a grown man more excited in my life.

Now I wasn't a witness to the rest of this but I pieced it all together from various sources including the letters Meeks wrote direct to me. Whatever else Meeks was he was no liar nor even a teller of tall tales. Heck, the man didn't so much as exaggerate. So here goes.

Of all the surprises and shocks and who'd've-thunk-its from Meeks' trip, one of the most stunning was that he had a shipboard romance. It was with an English woman name of Cynthia Dixon of who was some highfalutin society dame. Why she fell for a regular fella like Meeks when she coulda landed her a duke or an earl or maybe even a prince I don't know. But she did. Like I said earlier Meeks was not exactly on the prowl for a romance so he really must have been taken by this Dixon gal. Anyway she was going to Germany for the Olympics too so they arranged to sit together on the train from Hamburg to Berlin. Whether they carried on like a married couple -- if you know what I mean -- I cannot say nor would I. Meeks sure wouldn't have told if they did. But in his own words they were "mostly inseparable."

When they got to Berlin Meeks' brother was waiting to take him to this big fancy apartment he had there. Miss Dixon went off with her people which included her folks, a brother and a sister. The sister was in an Olympic horse riding competition, which is why the family was in Berlin.

The way Meeks tells it his brother was making big business deals with the Nazis selling them things to use plastics for or plastics to make things with I don't recall which. Meeks flat out told Hank that he thought it was wrong to be selling to Nazis. But Hank told him there was nothing to all the stories about Hitler and them being so awful. Sure they didn't like Jews but they weren't going to do them nor anyone else any harm. Meeks never believed his brother and thought all he cared about was making a buck and would do business with the devil himself (which he pretty much was doing).

That bastard Hitler's in the middle of the picture at the Olympics.
The Olympics started and a day or two after Meeks got there. He was at the opening ceremony where he saw Hitler himself. Hank had managed seats that were pretty darn good. Turns out Hank had gotten to be a pretty big wheel. He was making big money and meeting all the top brass not just in Germany but wherever he went.

Meeks was writing up a storm about anything and everything he saw including all his impressions and thoughts and feelings. He suspected that the Nazis had swept a lot under the rug before their visit (boy howdy was he right about them). Meeks was no fool and he'd been studying up on them since they came to power. He was the first person I knew of to predict that they'd bring nothing but trouble to the world and they were making life miserable for their Jewish citizens. He didn't like the way the Germans were smiling and acting like everything was jake during the Olympics, it just didn't set with everything he knew. Plus their way of marching around and always "Heil" this and "Heil" that seemed wrong. Meeks saw right through them sonsabitches. After a day or two he realized that arguing with Hank about it wouldn't come to nothing so he let it go. Besides Hank was his brother and had provided this opportunity for him

Meeks may have been able to put differences aside and get along with his big brother but Miss Dixon had no such luck with her family. They didn't cotton to her being squired around by some common American fella who couldn't have afforded to pay his own way around Europe. Seems Miss Dixon was what you might call quite a playgirl and had been going out with all manner of hotshots from all over the world. The family was ready to see her settle down and they didn't want her wasting time with the likes of Edwin Meeks, reporter from Catchings, Wisconsin. I guess they had the pull with her to make their objections law so that was that for Meeks' romance. In other circumstances Meeks might have suffered a broken heart but he was so excited about his journalistic adventure that he managed to put the affair with Miss Dixon behind him with no bitterness towards the family. He's a better man than I ever was.

Much of the ado at the 1936 Olympics was about the great U.S. Negro runner Jesse Owens and his gold medal wins that made a fool of Hitler and the whole Nazi notion of a master race. Meeks wrote all about it and even managed an interview with Owens and you can find his stories in the Catchings Gazette as well as other papers and magazines. Meeks also wrote what he thought of Berlin and the Olympics and the damn Nazis and made the papers with them. There were enough other reporters who were there long before and stayed well after that no one was so interested in what Meeks had to say other than papers around our area. When it came right down to it Meeks was a good but his writing wasn't special enough to interest the big city rags or national magazines. I hate to say it about an old pal, but Meeks was no great talent. A man to be admired and respected and in places like Catchings valued, but nothing out of the ordinary.

It was towards the end of the Olympics that Hank was invited by the top Nazi brass for a reception and dinner that featured none other than Adolph Hitler himself. Being a bigwig Hank was able to finagle an invite for his baby brother. Meeks was overjoyed. It wasn't that he was so excited about shaking hands with the head of the Third Reich, it was more that he could turn his observations of the occasion into a story that editors all over the U.S. would be unable to resist.

So now we get to the big event of this whole story and practically the whole purpose for telling it. Meeks was a journalist and a dedicated, hard-working one who took his job seriously. But he was also a very moral man who didn't care for things like fascists or bullies or big phonies. Also, Meeks was -- as I didn't find out until later -- half Jewish. His mother's maiden name was Horowitz.

Come the day of the reception and Meeks was of two minds. I don't know about you, but I believe when you've got a task at hand its best to be focused on it and have your mind made up. But Meeks went to that reception half way thinking he was a journalist who was recording history and half way thinking he hated these people and what they had done and were liable to do and wanting them to know it. Its plain that the second half one over.

The reception was in some huge hall that was decorated all fancy and of course had them big Nazi swastika flags all over. Meeks and his brother were greeted by some English speaking Nazi who knew Hank pretty well. He told them all about the protocol like what to do and say when they met Hitler. Meeks said he didn't hear much of the what this mucky muck said because he was beginning to do a slow burn being among all these uniformed Nazis and them big flags and Nazi symbols. Wasn't too much later that they were led into a big room were Hitler was greeting people. Meeks and Hank got into a line to shake the Fuhrer's hand. Meeks tried to talk himself into doing the proper thing and shaking the bastard's hand and saying this greeting he'd learned in German. I believe he really meant to. But as the moment came Meeks thought about his mother and what lousy bastards he figured these Nazis were and he couldn't do it. Meeks said it came to him only as he was next in line. What he did was that instead of shaking hands with Hitler he took one step back away from him and thumbed his nose at the head Nazi. It was the full thumb to nose and fingers wriggling treatment. Then Meeks broke away from the line not knowing what he was going to do next.

Well he needn't have worried about his next move, that was settled for him. Before he knew it Meeks was surrounded by angry Nazis and his brother Hank who was angriest of them all. There was quite the commotion as Meeks was led out of the building and told he'd made a big insult and practically ruined the evening and strained U.S.-German relations and on and on. Hank followed Meeks out and gave him what for telling him to get the hell out of his place and he wasn't no brother of his anymore and that was it between them and that he'd better not have ruined his business deals and that he was worse than the Nazis for being so rude.

Next day Meeks was led by some Nazis to the train station and sent to Hamburg to take the next boat out of Germany and don't ever come back.

This whole time Meeks was thinking two things: I sure screwed up and by god I'd do the same again. For the rest of his life he held in his mind these two opposite feelings of the occasion. Personally I agree with him on both counts.

Meeks came back to Catchings and everyone wanted to talk to him and hear about Germany and the Olympics. Most of us thought he was a hero for thumbing his nose at Hitler although at that time a lot of folks never believed that Hitler would amount to much of a threat and would have laughed if you'd said he'd start another world war or kill of millions of Jews. There were also some yokels who didn't believe Meeks' story. The hell with them, I say. Like I said, Meeks was no liar.

Of course Meeks went straight back to work at the Gazette where he ran of series of articles about his trip -- leaving out his romance and the fact that he thumbed his nose at Hitler. A few papers in the area picked up his stories but Meeks was never able to get anything published outside of Wisconsin, nor even Milwaukee for that matter.

Meeks kept writing at the Gazette and he kept writing his short stories many of which now included Nazis in 'em (I know cause I often read Meeks' stuff). But he never got any of his fiction published. Not one story. When the war broke out everyone told Meeks how right he was about the dirty Nazis. Meeks had a notion to try to go to Europe to cover the story but somehow could never get out of Catchings. It was during the war that met he met a school teacher who'd move into town. She was a widow by the name of Nora Bowditch. They was about the same age and they hit it off and before you know it were married. Meeks was happy.

When the war ended and everyone found out how horrible those concentration camps were Meeks again was reminded about how he'd seen it coming. I don't know that the man took much satisfaction in being proved right about such terrible things.

Meeks kept pounding away at his royal typewriters, the one at the office and the one in the little house he lived in with Nora. Everyday the Gazette was filled with his articles, but try as he might none of his fiction ever got published anywhere. Meeks kept at it until late late in 1953 when cancer laid him low. He'd been diagnosed that Spring but kept working as long as he could. Nora took leave from the school and stayed at his bedside. Meeks finally passed on February 27, 1954 at the age of 56.

That was six weeks ago and I've finally been able to write his story. Now that I have I'm not sure what to do with it. Maybe in the future someone will find this and think it worth sharing. But right now I miss Meeks and wish that instead of writing this I could be sitting with him in Merv's drinking coffee and having a slab of pie.

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