It was the last day of classes that semester, only finals remaining, and for us that was a light load. Vikki was a fashion design major, so her grades would mostly be determined by sketches and garments created during the semester. As an English major, most of my grades would be based on term papers (we still typed on paper back then), and if I hadn’t done the reading assignments necessary to pass the finals, it was too late to cram.
So we celebrated by going into town for dinner. Nothing fancy, just some pasta and enough wine to make us happy and talkative.
As our tongues loosened, Vikki grew serious for a moment and said, “Somebody asked me to join the Nazi party.”
I gulped my wine.
“She asked…” “I was so shocked…” “Me too!” “I couldn’t believe…” “…thought it was a joke.” “…didn’t know what to say.”
Our words tumbled together. If you’d been sitting at the next table you might have overheard and thought we were discussing some hot gossip, but it was more serious than gossip.
Finally, in unison: “My father was in World War II!”
We took deep breaths, laughed with nervous relief, calmed down, and compared stories. Both were the same, more or less: the same woman had approached each of us when we were alone, spoke disparagingly of other races, and invited us to join the Nazi party. Apparently her family were members.
Vikki and I both responded the same way, too. Shock, disbelief, then stammering out “N-no.”
Don’t we all like to think that if we were some day faced with an important ethical choice we would respond with eloquence? Well, Vikki and I did not. We were taken by surprise and barely able to speak. We were horrified. But we said the one word that mattered most: No!
Our fathers had both served in World War II, both in the Navy, though neither did any fighting. Vikki’s Dad served on an aircraft carrier. My Dad, slightly younger, enlisted after high school when he was still 17. By a fluke of timing, he boarded a troop train out of New York’s old Penn Station on V-E Day, and spent his time in the Philippines. But, yes, both had joined the United States military intending to fight against Nazism.
Four decades later, their daughters were asked to become Nazis.
I have thought about that dinner conversation many times in the years since we graduated, but most of all since last year’s election, when white supremacists and the “alt-right” have revived both the Confederate battle flag and the swastika as symbols. Now, when all our choices seem to matter a little more, I want to hold on to that time when Vikki and I said “no” to bigotry and hate.
How many people recently have faced the question that so shocked Vikki and me? How many have stammered out a bewildered “N-no”?
Alas, I cannot ask Vikki how she feels. We had a falling out a couple of years after graduation and lost touch. From time to time I’ve tried Googling her, but it seems she didn’t use social media or have a website in her name. Her name, in fact, was a problem: Victoria is her middle name, and in the five semesters we were in college together she went by Vicky, Vicki and Vikki. (I’ve chosen to use the spelling she used when last we were in touch.)
In early 2016 I tried Googling again, using her full first, middle and last names. What I found was an obituary. She died late in 2015, much too young. I’m sorry we don’t have an opportunity to find each other again. She would have been outraged by the events of 2016 and early 2017 and we would have remembered that conversation of long ago.
This post, then, is my memorial to Vikki, on what would have been her birthday. Our friendship had its ups and downs, but I know that when we faced the most important moral decision of our college years, we both said “no.” And for that I will always respect her.