This is not a traditional pre-Father’s Day remembrance, but it is what I think of lately when I think of my father. It’s about the Ku Klux Klan.
The KKK is still out there, popping its ugly little head up in public from time to time around the nation, displaying its usual signage and hateful messaging. While membership in the organization itself and its overall dominance on the white power/racist/hate-group front lines has diminished greatly in recent years, the sentiment, ideology and actions it advances have found new sunlight all across America in the hands, mouths and activities of smarter and more calculating and effective people than them.
Still, their images have the desired effect, raising all kinds of inner terrors. As much as I dislike giving them more publicity, I feel a cautionary tale coming on and am compelled to tell my father’s story of his own brush – however casual – with the KKK, and what it wrought in him.
It was 1960 and I was a teenager driving with my father through central Florida when our car broke down in Ocala. My mother was at home in Miami, some 300 miles south of there. I don’t know what was wrong with our 1955 Hudson, but my father found a place to have it repaired.
He dropped me off at Silver Springs, a large tourist attraction built around a group of artesian springs, which offered glass-bottom boat tours and delightful swimming in the coolest and clearest water I’ve seen in my life. I spent several delicious hours there while my father tended to the car.
When he picked me up, car all fixed and ready to roll, he was ashen and visibly shaken.
I’d never seen him like that. He was the quintessential stoic German, inwardly capable of the full range of emotions, but, heaven forbid, never letting any of that show on his face or in his demeanor. He was, after all, born in Germany during hard times, so he came by it honestly.
What had happened on that sunny day was that while waiting for the car to be fixed, he saw a barber shop across the street, and he decided to get a haircut. When he went to pay, my father stepped over to the cash register, which stood on a counter, behind which was a curtain covering a doorway that led into another room. The curtain wasn’t closed all the way, and my father told me he could see that there was activity in the back room. He looked a little closer, over the shoulder of the barber, who was putting the cash into the register, and saw that a meeting was taking place there, populated entirely by a group of people in white robes and pointy white hoods.
I’m not sure if my horrified father stayed to collect his change or if he just turned and walked out. After him telling me what had happened when he picked me up, he and I never talked about it again.
My father, whose name was Werner, was a young boy during World War I, living outside Berlin. He was home with his mother and younger sister while his father fought in the war. His father returned to the family during the war with grave wounds, which claimed his life before long. So at somewhere around 9 years of age, young Werner became the man of the family. His mother worked, but still, there were the bread lines he stood on and all the wreckage of postwar Germany that he went through.
He never talked to me about any of that. I did learn as I grew older and could read and research for myself, that a lot of Germans split politically after WWI, some going left, some to the right. I knew that my father leaned left, but that many in his family had moved to the right – some kind of passively going with the flow, but others clearly buying into Nazi ideology. It was the cause of great pain for him, the details of which I learned from my mother – later on.
Werner was 18 or 22 (I don’t know exactly) when he came to America in the 1920s and lived in New York City with an uncle who had emigrated earlier. He worked at a variety of jobs and sent money back home to his mother. In 1936, he married my mother.
As time went by and the seemingly clownish (at first) house painter named Adolph Hitler began his moves, my father and his like-minded ex-pat German hiking buddies got involved in serious anti-Nazi activity in New York City. I don’t know what all of that entailed, but I did learn of one ongoing effort – they infiltrated Nazi rallies that were held secretly in the Brownsville section of the city, and when the faithful began singing the Horst Wessel Nazi rallying song, he and his friends broke out into an as-loud-as-they-could rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner. I think it got pretty ugly inside the facility when that happened.
He died not too many years after I was married (and living in Spokane), so I never had any adult conversations with him about his relations with his family in Germany before and after WWII or his anti-Nazi efforts – but my mother filled me in about a lot of that, too – also later on. There had been an ongoing all-family conspiracy to shield little Steffi from it all.
There are more facets to his story, but flash forwarding to when we moved to Florida and I was busy growing up and being involved in school, swim team and then doing teenager stuff, the only conversation I remember having with my father remotely touching on any of these things was when he once opined that he didn’t think America would fall to communism.
We’re too entrepreneurial, said my proud-immigrant naturalized-citizen father.
But to fascism, oh yes, he thought America was quite vulnerable and susceptible to blaming troubles on scapegoats, blindly following charismatic leaders and embracing cultism. I don’t know why he chose to say it out loud to me. I never asked him.
And when I was an adult and knew more of his story, I never got the chance to ask.
So when he was shaken by that KKK meeting he saw in Ocala, he had a lot of history behind him. I can only imagine what he must have thought. And why he was so unnerved.
I do know this. That summer day in 1960 was the only time I saw my father frightened.
I will never forget it.
Voices correspondent Stefanie Pettit can be reached by email at email@example.com