"He's got feet downnnn belowwww his knee
Hold you in his armchair you can feel his disease"
From the Beatles Come Together
"Goddamn it, Tony, why do you always have to get into some stupid trouble!?" I said to myself as I got out of my Beetle and proceeded to walk up the front steps of my Godforsaken High School. Tony, my girlfriend's hippie/slacker brother, had gotten busted, again. This time he had been caught in World Civilization class with a bottle of liquor. I sighed; my girlfriend (a sweet-hearted girl who happened to come from a mildly disreputable family) was always begging me to get him out of trouble, as I was relatively respectable and, when I wanted to be, fairly charming. Basically, I could talk my way out of almost anything, and when people around me realized that, they all wanted to take advantage of it. This led to all sorts of awkward situations, such as my current one. Oh well, such is life, I suppose.
It was late on the day of December 1, 1969 and I was heading up to Mr. Walther's office on the fourth floor of the school. He was Tony's (and my, though we were in different periods) World Civilization Teacher that year. I don't think World Civ was anyone's favorite class, as it was well known that the teacher, the old German immigrant Henrik Walther, was one of the loonier instructors this side of the country. The old fart was well-known for his crazed rambling on all aspects of the class, from the Battle of Hastings ("A Jewish Orchestrated Plot!") to Pearl Harbor ("A Communist Orchestrated Plot!"). The faculty supposedly kept him around more out of sheer pity than any actual respect.
The guy had been a big German Patriot (and Nazi) before World War II, but had seen his belief in Aryan Supremacy ripped to bits during the German Invasion of the supposedly inferior U.S.S.R. There were all sorts of rumors that had gone around for years about the shit he had supposedly seen during the war in his Army Service. Rumors that said he was almost too old to serve at the time, but the Krauts would take anybody and he had joined out of "patriotism". Rumors about how he had managed to desert towards the end and surrender to American Forces, who tended to treat prisoners, shall we say, a little better than their commie allies. I smirked, imagining what would have happened to old Walther if the Soviets had caught him. One thing I knew, the Soviets wouldn't have let the old bastard get to my school, and I would NOT have had to put up with his impossible bull during Class everyday.
I left the stairwell, turned right, found the hallway where his classroom was located, saw Room 466 (students liked to call it 666) and entered. The S.O.B. was there alright, as he always seemed to be. I wondered if he ever left. More likely he just stayed up here, rotting.
I stood just inside the doorway, hesitating. Walther didn't seem to have noticed my presence at all. He was sitting right behind his desk, his back turned to me, engrossed in the contents of some old box that sat at his feet. I suddenly had almost no desire to interrupt him at all. The guy was well known for his weird moods that came over him at the slightest of provocations. One of my friends, Frank Heller, had had the misfortune of interrupting him during one of his sulks. Walther had nearly ripped Heller's head off, and then he'd started sobbing. Like I said, he was one crazy bastard.
This scene had the feel of one of those moods written all over it. On the other hand, I had come all the way up here, and I did have something important that needed to be discussed, so I figured, what the Hell.
"Mr. Walther, I'm sorry to interrupt, but…" oh shit, I thought. The old geezer had turned around so fast that I was sure he had whiplash. He didn't look angry, sad, or vengeful, he looked happy...in an odd, drunken manner. I had never seen him look really happy before. I didn't think anyone else had either, at least not since 1945. And now I could clearly see the contents of the box at his feet. It wasn't an actual box, but a smallish record player that he had apparently been listening to, as a pair of headphones hung loosely around his neck. That surprised me; the only music Walther was known to like were Heavy German composers like Wagner. He sometimes forced students to listen to his Music collection. We had quickly termed these songs "Adolf Hitler's Greatest Hits".
But the record he was listening to wasn't any Goddamn Wagner. It was Abbey Road, by the Beatles. I could barely contain my shock; the oldest, craziest teacher in the school listening to a band that was still popular with Hippies?
"Ah, Frederick, what the hell are you doing here?" he queried me in a voice that seemed to have just a bit of slur. I was about to answer when I noticed the bottle of vodka sitting under the desk. It was mostly empty. I stared at him. He couldn't be getting that drunk at 6:00 P.M. on a Monday, could he? After a prolonged pause, I answered him.
"I think I better go, Mr. Walther" I said. There was no way I was going to stick around this crazy, drunk old bastard.
"Frederick!" he shouted as I turned to leave. It was the sort of voice that held a command in it that you can't disobey. I turned around to face him.
"Now Frederick, I'm sure that you came up here for a reason of some sort, but at the moment, I don't give a damn. All I can think of tonight are exactly two things: the date and this wonderful album by this wonderful band. You know Frederick, what happened twenty four years ago on this date?" He spent about two seconds looking me over.
"Obviously you have no way of knowing what the hell happened. What was I thinking?" He suddenly turned and saw the vodka bottle, as if for the first time. "You know, Frederick, I'm not nearly as drunk as this empty bottle would make it seem. I've been going through this bottle since 3:30". He seemed to think that made him almost sober. He suddenly giggled and started to talk.
"You wouldn't believe where I got this bottle! I saw a boy in my last class of the day showing it to another student. He was one of those goddamn longhairs, Frederick, would you believe it? They've liberalized the dress code, so you can't hurt them for most of their stupid ways, but I could have expelled him for this! So of course I confiscated it and as I was doing so I saw this record inside his book bag". He giggled again. "And on a whim, I took that too!"
He suddenly seemed to sober up a bit. "And after I had kicked everyone out of the classroom, I decided to take a look at the record and start drinking a bit of the vodka. And as I looked at the cover of this record, the first thing that I saw was the first man walking across the street in the picture. And all I could think was that this man looks almost exactly like…..my son".
He softly started to cry. "And, Frederick, that brings me back to my first question, what happened on this day twenty four years ago? And the answer is my son, my only child, was killed in the advance on Moscow. He was the driver on a Panzer. His vehicle hit a mine. And that was the end of his life. A life that held so much promise; he always loved Mechanics, you know. It was why I encouraged him to try and get into the Panzer Corps. 'You'll be perfect' I said, 'and think of how much safer you'll be, with that thick layer of steel between you and the bullets'".
He was now looking down at his feet. "The man who informed me of his death was a friend of mine, you know. He assured me that Klaus had died quickly. But later, I was out drinking on a spot of rather uncommon leave. And I ran into a Panzer crewman who had just been pulled out of the line. He had been a crewmate of Klaus. So we got drunk together, and when he found out who I was, he started telling me about how Klaus had apparently been maimed when the mine went up and how he couldn't get out and how Klaus had burned to death inside the Panzer. His screams could be heard for miles, the crewman told me!"
His sobbing starting to intensify, and I suddenly realized just how enthralled I had become. I had never, for the life of me, expected anything like this out of the old man. One thing was abundantly clear, the old guy had completely forgotten about Tony. He hadn't even mentioned his name, even though it was well known that I was constantly getting the kid out of trouble. He suddenly looked at the album cover. "Do you know who that first man is?"
I looked at the cover. I couldn't believe it. It was almost too goddamned ironic, the author of Give Peace A Chancelooking enough like Walther's Dead Nazi son to set the old dude to tears. "Mr. Walther, that's John Lennon" I said softly.
Maybe everyone has a twin somewhere. Or maybe Walther was just losing his mind. Who knows? I certainly didn't. All I knew at the time was that he was so out of it that he hadn't seemed to have comprehended my answer. He just grabbed the bottle and guzzled down the rest of the vodka. It was very clear to me that Walther had already forgotten about me and Tony. If he ever recovered from the Vodka drinking fit, he would be lucky to remember his name. So I beat a hasty retreat.
I couldn't just leave the poor old guy like that. I went as quickly as I could to the Main Office, where I informed them of Mr. Walther's condition. No one seemed too surprised. The secretary told me she would check on him right away. I guess incidents of that nature happened once in a while with the guy.
Walther was missing from class the next day. The substitute informed us that he was "sick". It wasn't until next Monday that he showed his face back in the classroom. When he did come back, he had returned to his normal and abrasive self, promptly ripping students heads off for the slightest of errors. He never again mentioned the episode to me, and, for the most part, acted as if it had never happened at all. The only time I noticed any hint of the incident in his behavior occurred about two months afterwards. A student had worn a Beatles T-Shirt to class (with John Lennon's face prominently displayed), even though lettered shirts were forbidden by the dress code. Walther would normally have been the first to land on the student, but he simply stared at it for a second, and then ignored it entirely.
Not long after, I graduated and moved on in life. Ever since then, I've tried harder not to judge people based on my initial reaction. To understand that maybe the biggest assholes in the world all have their own personal tragedies.
Henrik Walther died a couple of years later. Heart Failure was what I heard. I'm pretty damn sure that the alcoholism helped him along. My thoughts turned to him a while back, when some Lennon Fans were busy commemorating the 25th anniversary of his death. There was all this B.S. on the local Classic Rock Radio about "The Tragedy of John Lennon". I wasn't sure if the radio people would believe it, but there are a hell of a lot worse tragedies everywhere around them than a multimillionaire who died at the age of forty.