I remember this guy named Herschel who I met once at a party. Herschel was unlike anyone I’d ever met or have meant since. He was wearing a bow tie which was odd given that this was one of those college bashes on a Saturday night and everyone else was dressed real casual. I also recall that he had on a white shirt with those thin vertical stripes. He had really curly hair but he combed it in big waves, I think using hair gel.
So Herschel kind of stuck out from the rest, plus he had this huge ear-to-ear grin which it seemed was a permanent fixture on his face. I was instantly attracted to him but not of course in a sexual way me being a straight male. I just mean that I wanted to get to know him. Odd but interesting was the way he looked. So anyway I sidled over to him at one point and introduced myself. “Pleased to meet you, Richard,” he said while pumping my arm vigorously. I’d never received such an enthusiastic handshake before, least of all from someone who was hitherto a stranger.
“I’ve not seen you around before,” I told my new friend.
“No, no, of course you wouldn’t have, I’ve only just arrived in this lovely little berg.” Herschel acted like there was nothing more pleasing than speaking to me. As he spoke he would variously look me right in the eyes and glance around the room as if he was expecting something. I couldn’t help but think him an odd duck yet one I -- for some reason -- wanted to become acquainted with.
“Where you from?” I asked him. At this he looked me square in the eye and said: “The great state of New York, all the way on the other side of the country. The upstate part near the border with Canada.”
“What brings you out to California?” I wanted to know.
“Visiting, seeing things, meeting people, exploration and vacation.” His answer contained many words but told me nothing. Then Herschel began to ask me questions in a manner akin to an interview. Indeed I would have felt that this stranger was surpassing the boundaries of good manners had his voice and countenance not been so downright cheery.
I obligingly answered all of his questions even when he got on to the subject of politics. “Many of the people here in this town and certainly attending the university and at this very party would seem to be to the left of center politically. Does that include you?” Herschel asked me.
“It certainly does, Herschel.” I'm proud to say that I've been a raging liberal from the time I could form my first political opinion.
“You’re not a commie, are you?” he asked as a particularly wide grin enveloped his face.
I thought that perhaps Herschel was joshing and that was reflected in my answer. “Not a card-carrying member, at any rate. I broke with Stalin after World War II,” with that I chuckled and drank the rest of my beer.
Herschel’s smile and generally happy air vanished. With complete earnestness he said, “we should have kept fighting after the Germans capitulated. We should have marched on Moscow and wiped out the Red Menace then and there but of course we had the wrong kind of government, one that was lacking in steel. They handed over a large part of Europe to the Soviets and we’ve been fighting this stupid Cold War. You see…” but just as suddenly as Herschel had begun his tirade he stopped at mid sentence and let the smile re-emerge. “Anyway, I suppose this is a topic for another time.”
There followed an first awkward silence an occasion which I used to excuse myself to get another beer. In the kitchen I spoke with a good friend, Kyle, who noticed that I’d been in deep conversation with Herschel. “He’s Becky’s cousin,” Kyle informed me. Becky was the host of the party and an ex girlfriend of mine who I’d broken up with on happy enough terms that we were still friends.
“He didn’t mention that,” I told Kyle and added, “interesting fellow, hates Communists, it seems.”
Said Kyle, “naturally, all fascists do.”
“Fascists?!” My attitude at the moment can best be described with one word: incredulous.
“Yup, he’s a fascist, all right. And I’m not even kidding.”
I knew Kyle and could tell he wasn’t. “I’ve never met a goddamned fascist before. I don’t now whether to punch him or study him like some rare virus,” I said.
“Well, he seems pretty harmless. It’s not like he’s trying to lead a government takeover. Least one that we know of.”
“So how did you come to find out Herschel’s political leanings?”
“Oh Becky told me. They’re cousins after all. She said he’s been a right wing nut job since like junior high. He’s in some organization but its just to talk and study about fascism. He seems resigned to the fact that fascism isn’t going to catch on in the US anytime soon.”
“Wow. A fucking fascist right here right now and at this party. My mind is blown.” With that I returned to the living room where the revelry was in full swing. I noted that Herschel was locked in conversation with someone else. This time it was a woman. She was a pretty girl of about 19 with hair down to her rear. She was wearing torn jeans (long before it was fashionable) and a loose revealing tie dye shirt. A simple description of her would have been — hippie chick. I don’t know what the two of them were talking about, although I could tell she was doing most of the talking and Herschel was doing his big smile routine. Funny, if I’d imagined a fascist before then it would have been a sullen looking Aryan with a crew cut and a crisp uniform of some sort who never cracked a smile. And there was old Herschel in a bow tie, striped shirt and his weird hairstyle with that gigantic smile.
I forgot about Herschel the fascist for a bit and circulated around the room, chatting with friends and meeting new people. At one point I looked back over in Herschel's direction and happened to see the hippie woman grimace and shake her head. Then it looked like she and Herschel were arguing. I decided not to be interested and struck up a conversation with this woman, Rachel who I'd long been attracted to. We were getting along quite nicely and in fact she accepted my offer of a date for next weekend when the hippie came over, it turned out she was Rachel's roommate. "Rachel, you wouldn't believe it but this guy I was talking to is a fascist."
"Why, what did it say?"
"He said he was a fascist, I mean he told me. He said all this pathetic, horrible right wing kind of stuff and when I said that he sounded like a fascist he was all like, 'yeah, 'cause I am a fascist.' And I'm like, 'what do you mean?' And then he just flat out tells me he's a fascist. I even asked him if he liked Hitler and he was all like, 'yeah, ya know, 'cause Hitler wasn't so bad.' I mean it was so weird."
"I talked to him too," I said.
Then Rachel introduced us, her roommate's name was Melody.
"Isn't that just so freaky?" Melody asked me.
"Yeah and the odd thing," I said because it had just occurred to me, "is that his name is Herschel which is generally a Jewish name."
Rachel asked if he was an anti-semite.
"Aren't all fascists anti-semites?" Melody asked both of us.
"Well, I don't know that it's a requirement or anything, the Nazis sure were but I guess you could even have Jewish fascists," I said.
Rachel wondered where he came from and I told her that I heard she was Becky's cousin. As if on cue Becky walked by and we grabbed her. "What's the deal with your fascist cousin?" Melody asked her.
"Oh, Herschel. Well what can I tell you, he's family. If you don't talk politics he's a pretty decent person but the whole right wing act has made him kind of a pariah in the family," she told us.
"How do you stand him?" Melody demanded.
"I don't hate him. I keep thinking he'll change. Like he'll see the error of his ways."
I watched as Herschel was talking to two other people. "I'll say this for him, he looks like a happy person."
Becky said that she didn't think he was. His mother -- her Aunt -- had died of cancer when he was 8 and his father was an alcoholic. His brother and sister were much older and had never had much to do with Herschel. All the cousins and aunts and uncles were nice to Herschel but when the fascist stuff started they tended to be pretty cool to him and were downright hostile if he ever introduced his political views to a discussion -- which he invariably did.
I kind of felt sorry for the guy.
Rachel asked Becky, "you ever try talking sense to him, about politics I mean?"
"God yes, all the time. It gets nowhere though. I'll keep trying. I mean he's family, what can you do?"
Around 11:00 people started either to leave the party or to dance. I was one of the latter group and was dancing and sneaking kisses with Rachel. Herschel was dancing too, which kind of surprised me because I didn't think fascists danced. Live and learn.
Rachel and I left together a little after 1:00. I said good bye to Herschel and told him it was nice meeting him and wished him well and we shook hands and he said it was nice meeting me and he enjoyed our chat. His grin couldn't have been bigger as we spoke. I said a few more goodbyes and as we went out the door I looked back and saw Herschel talking to someone else, still smiling. Rachel asked me why I was so cordial to an avowed fascist. "What would be the point of being hostile to him or ignoring him? Neither approach would influence him to change his views. It's better to be nice to people like that, set an example."
The last time I saw Becky was a few years later. I'd moved out of town by then and was back for a visit. I asked her about Cousin Herschel. She said he disappeared a year or so ago. No one knew where he'd gone or if hit been a victim of foul play. Rachel said he'd talked of moving to a country that had a fascist government so that he might feel more comfortable. I hope he did. I hope he did and found out how awful it was and that he changed his views and that today he holds mainstream political views. I also hope he's still got that big smile. It was a nice one, I tell ya.