Hitler’s Head

I figure the world is always better for a story about fucking up Nazis, so here’s one from the vaults.

My grandparents had this utility room in their basement, with a brick red cement floor and walls lined from top to bottom with wooden shelves jammed with a countless array of enticing piles. Years worth of National Geographic magazines. Strange hat boxes full of other hat boxes. A box of comics and magazines containing one of my most cherished forbidden fruits of childhood: some sleazy pulp magazine from the 70s (I reckon) called Gasm. How that got into the mix, I never found out. The cover, I remember with shocking clarity, depicted a sexy, big-breasted female robot standing against your typical 70s sci-fi world that looks like something that would be airbrushed onto the side of a stoner’s custom van.

There were a couple sexy illustrations and classified ads inside, but being a particularly twisted young thing, I was more enthralled by the illustrations that accompanied one of those “true tales of adventure” type articles about a group of men whose boat sank, forcing them to fight for their lives against a seemingly endless frenzy of flesh-hungry sharks. The lead illustration was of a stubble-faced man shrieking in horror, holding aloft into the sky a handless arm. Where the hand should have been, the artist had piled on an eye-popping atrocity show of amputation by shark teeth. Amazingly, the shark had bitten off the man’s hand and left a perfectly smooth cross-section of arm with a bone protruding from the wound while blood spurted toward the clouds in a great geyser. Bobbing behind him were various severed arms and legs sporting the same smooth cross-sectional amputation and spurting more blood. Half a man bobbed next to him with intestines spilling out from under his half-exposed rib cage.

I never read the actual story, but every time we went over there, I stole a peek at the illustration. I believe that eventually I took it upon myself to color the illustration in. It was even better than the encyclopedia that had the entry on human anatomy with transparent pages so you could peel away the layers of man and gawk at his innards and blood vessels.

Gasm was one of the two great treasures back in the utility room. The other was boxes and boxes full of green Army men and their accompanying grey Nazi and beige Japanese opponents. This was no meager collection, understand. There were hundreds upon hundreds of pieces. Soldiers, tanks, troop transports, Howitzers, little plastic coils of barbed wire—everything you needed to mount a realistic campaign over the floor and up the washing machine. I spent hours setting up vast, elaborate battlefields so that I could demolish everything in under ten minutes when “crazy Kowalski” from the infantry hopped into a half-track and tore through the entire scene, single-handedly defeating the German army and rescuing all those useless “guy in crawling pose” Army men that had become stuck in the barbed wire. I didn’t care for those guys, but you know how it is. Kowalski wouldn’t leave a man behind, no matter how useless that grunt’s pose may be.

On the shelf above the buckets of Army men was some war memorabilia of a different nature. It was there that my grandfather kept the German helmet he’d brought back with him after the war, where he’d managed to storm Utah beach on D-Day then storm across the continent as part of Patton’s Third Army. Somewhere along the way, he got separated from the greater portion of the American force and, in a scene that seems straight out of a movie, found himself pursued by German soldiers to a small French farmhouse, where the sympathetic locals hid him in a hay bale that the Germans went through with a pitchfork. He also sustained some shrapnel damage to the lower leg, but I can’t remember exactly when that occurred.

Near the end of the war, when it was obvious to the German regulars that they were going to lose, that the Nazis were crazy, and that this was no longer any cause worth dying for, my grandfather and members of his platoon found themselves facing off against a group of their German counterparts in some small Bavarian town. Or maybe it was still in France. The details elude me so many years after first hearing the story. Whatever the location, it was obvious that the Germans no longer had their heart in the fight, and the Americans were not all that interested in killing beaten men. The town had been in the midst of some manner of celebration before the opposing forces had descended upon their narrow country streets and set up camp on either side of the main square, which was, it turned out, occupied by a couple huge kegs of beer mounted on wagons.

With the war for Europe winding down, this seemed a far more promising prize. Someone took a couple shots at one of the oversized wooden barrels, poking a hole or two in it and allowing the brew within to spurt out in an arc to the ground. Then an American would run toward the keg and fill his helmet with beer while the Germans took potshots at his feet. Upon his return to the safety of his comrades, a couple minutes would pass, and then a German would run from the opposite end of the square and fill his helmet with beer while the American GIs shot at his feet. This went on long enough for everyone to get good and drunk, and frankly, given the amount of beer that was doubtless consumed that night, it’s a wonder no one actually got shot.

He came out of that war with a whole host of stories, a German helmet, and his most prized souvenir, the “Little Nazi,” a Luger he’d taken from a dead German officer. Few and far between are the Christmas get-togethers that don’t involve Grandpa Harley trotting out the Little Nazi for show and tell.

“Jesus Harley,” my grandmother would exclaim, “What are you doing? That thing’s not loaded, is it?”

“Of course it’s loaded,” he would respond. “A gun ain’t no damn good if it isn’t loaded. It’s not going to go off. The safety’s on. Now,” he would say as he flipped a switch or pressed a button somewhere, “now it could go off!”

He regaled us with stories about how, when they were shorted food and ammunition by “that yardbird Harry Truman,” they would have to run across a field and catch bugs in their mouths if they wanted to eat. “Yardbird” was the very worst of the insults Grandpa Harley could level at someone, a tag reserved for those he truly hated: Hitler, Harry Truman, and whoever was coaching the University of Louisville’s basketball team. He would also tell us about how the Turks who fought alongside them would cut off the ears of Nazi officers, dead or alive, and string them onto trophy necklaces. Most of his stories rang true, though even as a little one I had my doubts about the bug eating thing. It did invest in me a healthy disdain for Harry Truman, though. And I never doubted the thing about the ears. For years, Turks both excited and terrified me.

Mixed in with the relics of the war and of life in the 50s and 60s was a particularly gruesome curiosity that held my fascination nearly as firmly as the gory sleaze of Gasm magazine. It was just one of those ugly heads made out of a coconut, some useless and tacky souvenir grandpa and grandma had picked up one year on a vacation down south to Florida. But the thing was ugly. It had feathers glued all over the top of its head, hideous eyes, and most chilling of all, actual human teeth glued haphazardly into the rough-hewn mouth. I wasn’t exactly a well-traveled kid at the time, so I didn’t even know what a coconut looked like still inside its shell and not made into a radio or a car by the Professor on Gilligan’s Island. This would prove to be a mortal weakness.

“You don’t want to go messing around with that,” my grandfather once admonished me in an attempt to keep me from scaling the rickety shelves like some devil-may-care Alpinist in an attempt to get a look at that malformed head. “Do you know what it is?” And then he would smile. An evil smile, though I didn’t realize it at the time. “That’s Hitler’s head. I cut it off during the war and brought it home with me.”

“Really? No it isn’t. Really.”

“And if you go messing with it, it’ll come to life and scream at you.”

“In German?”

I still remember asking that bizarre question. Here I was, confronted by the disembodied head of Adolf Hitler, and the only thing that amazed me about the possibility of it coming to life and screaming at me was that it could do so in German.

“It doesn’t looked like Hitler,” I commented, still a tad bit skeptical about this wild yarn.

“That’s because we dried it out on the boat back to America.”

“Where’s his mustache?”

“I tore that off myself and sent it to Harry S. Truman.”

From that day on, I was terrified of Hitler’s head. Up late one night watching one of those They Saved Hitler’s Brain type movies with friends, I would explain to them how I knew where Hitler’s head actually was. In school, I once got in trouble for telling classmates that my grandfather had Hitler’s head in his basement, and that it would scream at you in German. My teacher—I would guess this to have been around second grade—told me the story was silly, and that my grandfather had just been pulling my leg, but what did she know?

“Who you gonna believe?” my grandpa asked me. “Her or the guy who was actually there?”

And he was right. She hadn’t seen the thing, with its foul, cracked yellow teeth and hair of green and red and blue feathers—just like the real Hitler!

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