Kevin L. Hoover
ARCATA – The term “Nazi” is not unknown to Arcata politics. Public comment on subjects ranging from cannabis to homelessness, water fluoridation, even solid waste policy and simple regs against blocking sidewalks have been marked by accusations that actual fascists, sometimes of a Hitlerian flavor, somehow control Humboldt’s most liberal city.
The casual invocations of history’s most bloodthirsty criminals, and the aspersions that Arcata is some sort of 21st century National Socialist redoubt have become routine and are all but ignored, which poses a question: what would happen if unformed Nazis really did turn up on the streets of Arcata?
Last week, we found out.
Northcoast Preparatory Academy’s production of Wandering Appetites, includes characters from The Sound of Music, including two Nazis: Von Shreiber and Herr Zeller. The production, staged at Abruzzi in Jacoby’s Storehouse, requires the actors to wait outside the restaurant’s various entrances for their scenes.
It turns out that young men in military uniforms with red-and-black swastika armbands do not go unnoticed in Arcata.
The Abruzzi show began Tuesday night, Feb. 9, and word of the loitering Nazis spread quickly. It snowballed, too.
NPA Principal/Superintendent Jean Bazemore, who directs Wandering Appetites, said word came back to her that “a whole bunch of Nazis were running around on the Plaza.” But it was just the two young thespians, not running, just waiting by the door.
As it happened, Thursday morning was the time for the monthly liaison meeting between the City of Arcata and Humboldt State University. There, HSU officials brought the matter to the City’s attention.
“Some of our students and staff had seen these people dressed in Nazi uniforms and were worried that some marginal group had moved into Arcata,” said HSU President Rollin Richmond. “We simply asked in the meeting if any Arcata personnel had more information.”
Fortunately, one of the attendees, Public Works Director R. Charles “Doby” Class, had attended the play the previous night, and was able to assuage fears.
“We were informed that they were most likely actors engaged in a play at Abruzzi,” Richmond said. “We passed that information along to people on campus so that they could stop worrying.”
Camden Bruner, who portrays Herr Zeller, and Gabe Trepanier, who plays Von Shreiber, experienced a range of reactions from passersby as they hung out on H Street in their Third Reich regalia.
“Almost everyone who saw the swastika acknowledged it,” Bruner said. Reactions followed the usual bell curve from hostility to joviality, with thoughtful curiosity most common.
A fourth of the people had a “nasty reaction,” Bruner said. “They would honk or flip us off.”
More troubling to Bruner than those who expressed hostility were the one-fourth who thought there was something funny about Nazis on Arcata’s streets. “Some people ‘heiled’ us,” Bruner lamented. “That bothered me the most, even though they were joking.”
About half the Nazi-noticers simply asked the young actors why they were wearing Nazi symbols, and were told that it was for a theatrical presentation.
“They were completely understanding,” Bruner said. “Some asked, ‘Do I have an understanding of what that symbol means?”
He does. In fact, Bruner’s interest in and understanding of Naziism likely exceeds that of the average Arcatan.
His German great-grandfather worked in a factory during World War II. When it was bombed, he was sent to the Russian front, where he deserted and eventually surrendered to the United States.
As a result, Bruner’s father was half-German and his mother American. “They were on both sides of that war,” he said.
The familial involvement piqued his interest. “World War II has always been my favorite history to study,” he said.
On Veterans’ Day, Bruner won an essay contest with a piece on how his family views veterans of military service from either side of WWII.
Backstory notwithstanding, Bruner tried to obscure his Nazi garb as he waited outside Abruzzi so as to avoid the inevitable interest of passersby, but logistical problems prevented this.
“I was trying to put a hand over it [the swastika] or have it face the wall,” he said. But constantly clutching his arm was tiresome, and in order to hear his entrance cue, he couldn’t stand with his sleeve to the wall. “There was very little I could do to conceal it,” he lamented.
For all the kerfuffle, Bazemore drew a comforting lesson in community consciousness from the non-Nazi sighting.
“The community is engaged and aware,” Bazemore said. “I think that’s wonderful.”