I’m friends with many young people on FaceBook. I’m cool that way. And one of these people, I’ll call him Moose, recently posted a picture of his new tattoo (the latest of a dozen or so) – an eight on each elbow. Eighty-eight? Not wanting to be the obviously confused old lady making a public comment, I Googled “88” and found out that it is the corresponding number for the letter h; double h signifying Heil Hitler. This made my heart stand still. Moose is nineteen. I have known him since he was eighteen months old; he was one of the first kids in my day care home in California. He used to hit my daughter on the head with the strike-a-ball hammer (until it “disappeared”.) He was a high energy distractible toddler, and I imagine he is the same as a young adult.
Kids go through stuff. I myself was a member of a wanna-be punk rock gang of toughies in 1980. We dressed in black and wore safety pins in odd places. We spray-painted graffiti on the bike tunnels in Boulder. My crazy friend “Eagle” painted swastikas and the anarchy symbol; I wrote “Iggy Pop is God.” (Coincidentally I moved to NYC soon after, became lovers with my idol and found out he was cool and all that, but definitely not God… but that is the subject of another blog, perhaps!)
We must have been bragging about our misdeeds, for it got around. My boss at work was Jewish, and she took me aside and talked frankly about swastikas and their meaning, and what that symbolizes to people whose relatives went through the horrors of Auschwitz and concentration camps. A few friends and I went back to the tunnels and painted back over the symbols the next day.
Teenage years are a time to find ones identity. If you don’t do the expected and go straight to college, and you hang out with the same friends you had all through school, and none of those people are doing anything productive, either…well, some kids tend to look for trouble. Or at least they look for something to do, positive or negative. I get it. Some of us, not all, have been through similar things.
I hesitate to compare the punk rockers of the seventies and eighties with this new crop of white supremacy enthusiasts. For one thing, we rebelled against authority, the older generation, not our own. But the white supremacy movement singles out specific groups: ethnic groups with skin darker than theirs, gay men and women, and mostly people their own age. People who are, whether the 88 crowd likes it or not, their peers. The hardcore followers single these people out for hate crimes.
“American History X” is a movie my children have seen many times. Recently my daughter insisted I watch it. In it, a young man (Edward Norton) loses his dad, becomes uncontrollable, gets into white supremacy groups and associated hate crimes, and goes to prison. In prison he is raped and beaten, but eventually befriended by a black man. Meanwhile at home, his brother is following his path. I won’t give away the ending, but I find it disheartening that there is a moral (hate is bad) and kids who love this movie appear to ignore that fact and focus on the gnarly violent scenes (the very ones I closed my eyes through.) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0120586/synopsis
I saw Moose and his family a few summers ago. He’s a neat kid, energetic, funny, and the family clown of four boys. I have no reason to believe he is involved in anything more harmful than tattooing questionable things on his body. But I’m scared for him.
I know someone who went through an unnecessary difficult path because he started out a bored rebel like Moose. My little friend Eagle moved to L.A.and got involved in the hardcore punk and heroin scene. He robbed twenty-nine banks, went to prison, and got out to raise his daughters alone after their heroin-addicted mother had abandoned them. He’s a tattoo artist now, and he’s clean. He still has the old glint in his eye and the frenetic rapid-fire speech pattern of the kid I once knew. But his eyes tell the story of a hard life; one he almost didn’t live to tell about. Last spring Eagle did a tattoo for me. A lotus blossom with a glowing Om above the flower. Buddhists believe the lotus is a symbol of tenacity, a flower that grows up from the muck to thrive and become beautiful despite the odds.
If Moose gets another tattoo, I hope he gets a lotus.