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A Tale of Two Americans

by Denny Meyer

In the darkest days of Nazi tyranny during World War II in Europe, Jews across the continent desperately struggled to survive.  This is the story of two boys, me and my friend Diek*, born at the close of WWII to two Jewish families that had managed to live through the perils and horror in Europe and immigrated to America as refugees.  One of us grew up to volunteer during the Vietnam War and served honorably for ten years in two services.  The other fled to Canada to avoid the draft, where he remains to this day.  The proud American Veteran, I am and always have been gay; the proud Canadian, my former friend, is straight.

We met, when we were 13, playing gym class volleyball on opposite sides in junior high school in an outer suburban  northeastern town.  We each immediately saw a fellow nerd who was totally awkward at any kind of athletic activity.  That was how I spotted Diek, and thought, "Oh my God, he's as pathetic as I am at this."   So, seeking a friend, I said hello to him after the game.  He told me his name was Diek.  "What kind of name is that?" I asked.  "It's Dutch." he told me.  "Oh, are you Jewish?" I asked.  "Why? Is that a problem for you?" He snarled.  Ouch!  "Um, n-no, I'm Jewish too and my parents were Holocaust refugees, and...."  "OH!" Having been born in a postwar DP camp in Europe, that was all he needed to hear.  His hostility gone, we were instant friends.  Anyone listening to us after that would have been mystified because we switched to speaking a mix of Dutch, German, and English with each other, hardly even aware that we had.

As the Nazi war machine occupied Holland in May of 1940, Diek's father, mother, and grandmother went into hiding in Amsterdam, much as Ann Frank and her family had, their lives changed forever.  Diek's grandmother had been a famed Dutch Blues singer in the 1920's, her daughter, his mother, married his father, a house painter.  Now, instead of their active assimilated lives in the vibrant Dutch capitol, they were confined together day and night in a tiny two room attic, requiring absolute silence nearly all the time.  Over the nearly five years that they were in hiding, Diek's mother went nearly insane with worry that at any moment jackbooted Gestapo in black leather trench coats could suddenly kick in the hidden door, their dogs barking viciously, aiming their machine guns at the terrified family.

On a chilly spring day in 1945, with tears in their eyes, the little family was able to emerge from their attic for the first time in five years and breath fresh air; the Nazis were gone, the City was free, Allied tanks rolled thru the streets as millions cheered.  They celebrated in the most natural way possible.  Diek was born in a Dutch Displaced People's camp while his parents awaited their turn for the Jewish Agency to facilitate their move to America.

My family was somewhat luckier.  In the dark late autumn of 1938 a young Jewish woman fled the heart of Germany for America.  She'd known that it was time to get out following Kristalnacht (the night of broken glass) when the Nazi government sanctioned the sacking of Jewish property throughout Germany.  The windows of Jewish-owned stores were smashed by gleeful looting crowds, synagogues were set on fire, bibles and prayer books were burned to ash, and Jews of all ages were assaulted on the streets in unspeakable ways.

My mother arrived in America as a refugee, essentially illegal, and was interned on Ellis Island, in New York's harbor, within sight of the Statue of Liberty holding its torch aloft as a beacon to those seeking freedom.  After much fussing with paperwork and a bond posted by a distant cousin, she was admitted into this land of unlimited promise. Like many immigrants, she first cleaned toilets to survive.

At about the same time a young Jewish lawyer fled Berlin, heading west through relations in London and after a long journey landing in New York.  He worked in the chaotic wartime offices of The Jewish Agency, which was frantically trying to relocate Jews out of Europe to wherever they would be taken in.  My mother came to those offices in New York desperately hoping for help in getting the rest of her family out of Germany (alas, at the height of World War II, in 1941, it was too late).  There they met and married.  I was born, just after the close of the war, to these Holocaust refugees and reared on the Upper West Side of New York City.  Every conversation there was multi-lingual, as was every child growing up there in those heady bustling days of postwar revival. In those days, in the late 1940s, the refugee community there was a hotbed of activist advocacy where every spare moment was spent raising funds for Jewish refugee rescue and relief; Diek and his family were likely among the thousands brought to America through those efforts.

We assimilated and moved to suburbia in the late 1950s.  There, on a chilly spring day in 1960, two boys met, bearing in their souls similar legacies of the hell their parents had experienced.  We became inseparable, forming our own adventures.  We rode our bikes together to a nearby town to participate in one of the early Civil Rights demonstrations in the northeast, nearly getting killed by rock throwing angry bigots.  We'd been reared to believe that there was nothing more precious than American freedom.  Together, we founded a civil rights organization in our school in our all white suburb.  We were already suspect as Jews in a nearly all Christian town, now we were subversives who were watched closely by the school principal.  Diek's father, a factory worker, was a robust man who made up for his wife's worries with existential ebullience, forever indulgent in driving us boys around in his minivan, cursing like a sailor, much to the giggling delight of two young teenaged boys.  It was from him that I learned how to curse fluently in Dutch.  Our mother's simply fed dinner to us together at whichever home we ended up at in the evening.  We were a part of each other's families.

The best adventure of our generation was the 1964 World's Fair when we were 15.  Our little gang of boys had found a hole in the fair's fence and went there by train nearly every day that summer.  One balmy August evening, when it was time to catch the train in time to be home for dinner, Charlie Frost and I announced that we'd decided to stay and experience the fair in the evening breeze and see the nightly fireworks.  Diek and the others told us we were nuts and left.  Charlie, a Lutheran lad with a Midwest background, began a long monologue about himself as we strolled through the dusk at the fair.  An hour later I began to get an idea of what he was leading up to and it terrified me.  He was coming out to me, and I had barely begun to come out to myself at that time.  Finally, as the fireworks went off overhead,  he told me that he was gay, and my throat went dry with anxiety.  After a very long pause, I told him, "Charlie, you're not the only one."  It was the first time I'd ever admitted, even to myself, who I was.

From that day on, Charlie and I remained close friends for decades, until the day he died of AIDS in 1990.  But, in that summer of 1964, Diek and I were still "best friends," or so I thought; and I had to tell my best friend the most important thing I'd ever discovered about myself.  It didn't go very well at all.  He was disgusted and rejected me and told everyone in school that I was a queer.  We didn't speak again for nearly 50 years.

Just four years later, at the height of the war in Vietnam in 1968, I was inspired to leave college and join America's armed forces when I saw fellow students burn the American flag in protest against the war.  "It's time to pay my country back for my family's freedom," I thought.  President John F. Kennedy's inaugural words rang in my ears; "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."  Well, I was young and idealistic, but I don't regret a day of the ten proud years that I served.  The fact that I was gay, and had to serve in silence, didn't stop me.

Diek, meanwhile, having been born rather closer to the thundering boots and bombs and horrors of war, fled to Canada to avoid the draft, horrified at the idea of ever having to hold a gun against a fellow human being.  I'd heard from mutual friends what he'd done, and since then I had always thought it somewhat ironic that the gay boy of our friendship had volunteered to go off to war, while the straight one had fled to avoid it.

Almost half a century later, as a disabled old vet, I had the time to wonder whatever became of Diek.  Through the wonders of the internet, I was able to find him living quietly in Ottawa.  After the initial troubled times of his having been a fugitive; he'd settled in and become a proud Canadian citizen, married, raised children, and had a respectable career driving streetcars and buses.  When I phoned him out of the blue after a lifetime, he was already semi retired.  He was astounded to hear from me.  To his credit, after he searched his memory to figure out who the hell I was, the first words out of his mouth over the phone were to apologize for the way he had rejected me so long ago.  I hadn't expected that.  But, he wasn't particularly interested in resuming a friendship or a dialogue after a lifetime.  He hadn't expected to hear that I was a proud veteran of ten years of military service.  We were too different now.  He'd spent his life as an anti war activist, after all; and I'd had a military career.  Whatever compatibility there had been when we were boys was long gone.  Still, speaking with him after so long, and hearing his apology, closed a a very long hurt.

-Denny Meyer, Gay Veteran

*(The story is true, though I've changed some names and details to protect people's privacy).

  2012 Gay Military Signal