My one daily chore, when I was seven, was to fetch the newspaper from the front yard. The Sacramento Bee. My father was—and still is—a newspaper publisher, but his paper—The Willows Journal—wasn’t a daily, and wasn’t delivered in the mornings. So he would read the Sacramento paper while he ate his Cheerios and drank his coffee. I didn’t really think of it as a chore, though—in fact, I liked doing this. I didn’t need to be asked, and my father always said “Thank you” when I brought the paper to him, and it brought me happiness to know that I had pleased him. I loved my dad, and I loved that he loved me.
On one particular morning I ran from the front door into the yard, squishing the dew-covered grass under my small, bare feet. I would run to the newspaper, grab it without stopping, then turn around and run back to the house, fast as I could. Like I did every day. I suppose I thought I was training for some type of athletic competition—maybe for the day that newspaper recovery and delivery became an Olympic sport.
As I was running back to the house, I noticed that something seemed different. I stopped and stared. The house was different—there were strange designs all over it, designs that I had never seen before. The house—which my parents had built—was a Southwestern style, pueblo sort of dwelling. “You don’t paint this type of house,” my father had told us as the house was being constructed. Yet someone had painted it. Or at least painted on it. These designs appeared all over the front of the house, from the garage on one side all the way to the wall by my bedroom window on the other side—whoever had done this must have gotten onto the porch.
I walked into the kitchen. My father smiled at me and held his hand out for the paper.
“I need to show you something,” I told him.
Standing on the lawn, his shoulders slumped, my father shook his head and muttered, “Aw, no.” Then he went inside to get my mom to show her.
They had even painted one of these designs on the hood of my father’s car.
“It’s called a swastika,” my mother told us as we sat at the kitchen table while my dad talked to the police. Because my mom sometimes speaks with a New England accent, I wasn’t sure if she was saying swastika or swasticker. I made a mental note to ask my dad what it was called. “It’s a symbol of people who did horrible, horrible things to Jewish people. It’s a terrible, nasty symbol.”
“But we’re Catholic,” my brother pointed out. “Why paint a symbol about Jews on our house?”
My mother didn’t have an answer.
Later that day, my mom picked us up from school and we drove to the newspaper office to pick up Dad, who had to be driven to the car dealership, where they were removing the offensive symbol from his car. Then, we would all go home—my brother and sister stayed in the station wagon with Mom, but I got out of the car with my dad. I wanted to ride home with him.
Inside the dealership, a man I’d never met before shook my father’s hand and put a reassuring hand on his shoulder. “It’s just disgusting,” he said. “Awful.”
“Thanks,” my dad replied, taking out his checkbook.
“There’s no charge,” the man said. “I’m happy to do this for you.”
My dad tried to protest, but the man wouldn’t hear of it. “You’re a good man, Joe. This shouldn’t have happened to you.”
My dad thanked him, and we walked out to the car. Dad didn’t put his seatbelt on right away, though. “Wait here,” he said as he got out of the car. He returned a moment later. “I couldn’t convince him to take any money,” he would tell my mom later.
From time to time, I’ve wondered about the man who painted the swastikas on our house nearly three decades ago. At first, I was frightened by the idea that he had been right outside my bedroom window, that he might have even seen me, fast asleep. I thought that I was lucky he didn’t decide to murder me—all crimes were the same, as far as I was concerned back then. I never learned the man’s name, but I do know that he was someone who had worked for my dad, who my dad had fired. I think perhaps the man had stolen money or equipment, maybe to support a drug problem, but sometimes I think I just made up that detail when I was a kid in order to explain why my dad would fire somebody and cause so much anger and hatred. The Dad I knew liked to tell jokes and play Pac Man and teach us how to throw a spiral. I couldn’t imagine someone hating him. But someone did—he seemed to think he knew my dad in a way that I did not. My brother and I didn’t understand it at the time, but the vandal wasn’t trying to use the swastika to intimidate us—he was calling my father a Nazi. And he must have felt justified—he bought spray paint, drove out to our house in the dead of night, crept around the yard, up on the porch, and certainly must have seen the second grader asleep in his bed beside the window while he left his mark. Did he reconsider when he saw me? Did he delight in the idea that my parents would have to explain what had happened, what he had done, to their kids? Did he feel sorry for me, believing that I was an innocent child being raised by a fascist? Did he hate me too? Does he ever think about me now, 29 years later, the way I still think about him from time to time?
My parents were apparently frightened by the idea of a stranger coming up on the porch and peering in on us while we slept too, though, because a few weeks later we got a big dog – a German shorthair, who spent every night at the foot of my bed for the rest of my childhood.