Next week, the “Crossroad of the West” gun show returns to the Salt Palace, in downtown Salt Lake City. I went last year, at the direction of a sleazy local tabloid, with instructions to smuggle in a hidden camera and take incriminating pictures. You see, although there are ethical hunter types who attend this event, there are also those folks who enjoy collecting KKK and Nazi paraphernalia. And so they go to the gun show, to purchase Nazi armbands and KKK hoods and books like How to Hide a Dead Body.
Maybe I should have bought a copy of The Poor Man’s James Bond first. I bribed my friend Chrissy into being my photographer, and after a visit to Fred Myers, where we purchased a tote bag, a disposible camera, and lots of duct tape, we jury-rigged a spy camera. We managed to take lots of pictures of the foam lining of the tote bag, and every time Chrissy went to take a picture, she pretended to look for chapstick. It was obvious we were up to something, which is why security palookas lurked behind us the entire time we were there.
We were going on the assumption that we would find something evil. You see, when I was 20, I actually went to the gun show on a date. This guy knew everything about guns. His dad made them. He told me about sitting in the basement as a kid, melting lead, making bullets with his daddy. The first thing he and I encountered at that convention was something that was much more than a “gun.” It was made out of black fiberglass, and looked like some kind of irrigation device. The video they were running at the table explained that it was designed to pick people off from two miles away, especially if they were from the Divsion of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
We saw elephant guns and grenades and special slide shows about Armageddon. The worst thing in my mind was the fact that they featured table after table full of old SS handbooks, Nazi armbands, Nazi daggers, Nazi uniforms. And very nearby to this curious flea market, there was a family: a skinhead mom, a skinhead dad, and a kid who couldn’t have been more than three years old, wearing a Garanimals jacket with a swastika embroidered on the back.
Don’t get me wrong. I despise lentils. I wash my feet. My dad taught me how to shoot a rifle when I was twelve. I have shot the hell out of Folger’s coffee cans with a Smith & Wesson, and I have torn Sprite bottles to shreds with automatic weapons. I had a crush on The Man With No Name for years; I have a crush on him still.
I don’t underestimate the fact that guns are fun to shoot, and lots of people have a hard-on to run around and play GI Joe. There is a reason the clay pigeon was invented. There’s a reason guns come up in the Constitution. Watching one episode of “C.O.P.S.” should make that clear. Say “duh,” if you must, but it’s not the guns, per se. It’s all of us, from Hoss to Fuzzy Wuzzy. However, spending several hundred dollars on KKK merchandise, at least for me, falls into another category entirely. I have been accused of spreading My Little Pony sentiments about the Gun Show, and being an enemy of First Amendment Rights. The sleazy tabloid made it into a “citizen tax dollars” issue. For me, it’s an “uh, this really looks like a precursor to genocide, folks, let’s slow down here” sort of issue. Which is why I went to unveil the secrets of the gun show.
Most tables at the gun show are lined with milk crates full of bad western novels from the ’50’s, boy scout badges, old cigar bands, and clear tupperware full of weird little metal parts. Last year, there was a Russian guy with a table full of those little dolls who fit inside of each other, but instead of little-moon faced gypsies, they were Gorbachev and George Bush. He was also hawking those infrared Silence of the Lambs specs. The next several yards of tables were packed with sparkly sweatshirts with sensitive-looking cats and wolves, and framed pictures of geese flying and deer walking through the snow. An odd prelude, as Chrissy pointed out, to the next stretch of booths, otherwise known as the Ed Gein Varmit Gallery.
With a label that read “critter faces/ five for a doller,” was a row of wicker laundry baskets full of animals â€“ except nothing remained of these animals but the skin off their backs, and their faces.
Faces, complete with ears, and holes where their eyes and noses should be. Fox faces. Coyote faces. I’d seen them before; if I were to pick one up and stick my hand inside, it would become a very sick muppet. Like a prop from an Ozzy Osbourne Punch & Judy Show.
“Hey girls,” said a Libertarian from a nearby booth. “You look like you need to take a poll.” A guy with a strawberry-blonde moustache and a young fellow who had “intern” written all over him, winked at us and handed us clipboards.
“Hey, I’m a Libertarian,” I answered, counting on my fingers and writing down my score.
“Hey, me too,” said Chrissy. But just as she was putting the dot on the scoring grid, a huge fly fell from the ceiling and scored it for her. The moustache laughed. “That’s our trained fly,” he explained.
“It’s not dead,” Chrissy said. “But it’s not moving, either.”
“Would you girls like some literature?” asked the intern. “That’s just like Amityville Horror,” Chrissy mumbled as we walked away. “Don’t you remember ‘Jody?'”
“Yeah,” she answered. “You know? The imaginary friend? The pig … it was really a demon … and it lived in the room full of flies?”
Speaking of which â€“ the heart of the gun show.
Have you ever read the Inferno? There’s a part where Dante and Virgil go to the sewer lake; the air is full of demons who propel themselves through space via flatulence, and along the way, use their tridents to push the heads of sinners deeper into the shit. Well, that’s where we were, except for the florescent lighting and racks of bumper stickers that said, “Never trust a man who likes cats,” and “Queers suck.” (Ha, ha, ha, even better than “Friends don’t let friends vote Democrat.”)
The bookracks in the darkest corners of a gun show don’t include ratty old Zane Grey novels. You can pick up How to Dispose of a Body, or manuals on murdering a neighbor’s annoying pet in such a way that it will appear they died of natural causes. This lovely little tome also comes with an appendix full of ideas on torturing the offending pet in the meantime. There are books on how to blow people up, books on how to get rid of your social security number, conspiracy books on how the media is run by Jews, and how they are helping the Antichrist take over the book-publishing industry, the newspapers, TV Stations and movie production companies.
As in: Damn Jews, that’s why they’re all in Hollywood. Nobody is better at special effects than they are. How do you think they all fooled us into believing that scam they call the Holocaust?
Speaking of which: we were about to leave with no story at all, when we stumbled by the back exit.
And there it was. One lonely booth full with Nazi memorabilia.
Though the table didn’t seem to get much attention from the crowd, Chrissy’s chapstick routine immeditately caught the attention of the booth’s proprietor. He asked us if he could help us seven times. I was afraid; I felt like a ingrate looking at the albums of photos shunted off to the side of the main table while Chrissy took pictures of Nazi armbands. The two guys behind the table watched her like a pair of assasins until some customers arrived, hoping to buy the very armbands she was trying to take pictures of.
Speaking of pictures â€“ I was looking through one of these albums. I thought, certainly, that the pictures of trains arriving, the pictures of men in stiff military clothing, were pictures of American soldiers. It wasn’t long, however, before I realized they were Nazi S.S. portraits. Albums of trains pulling up to a nameless concentration camp, Jews being led out in straight lines.
I turned the pages slowly. I looked at the captions over and over to make sure I wasn’t jumping to conclusions. And then I turned a page to find an actual snapshot of bodies. Bodies, stacked up by the hundreds. Emaciated bodies in ditches. Photos of camps with smoke churning into the sky.
“Can I help you, miss?” asked the guy running the booth (who strangely enough, also had a strawberry blonde moustache). He watched Chrissy digging around in the tote bag.
“No, I was just … well, I’ve seen everything else, I … uh, I always look at pictures. Heh, well, uh, I guess I’d better get going.”
“You know,” Chrissy said as we walked up the sidewalk, “I’ll tell you what was going on in there. They all feel powerless. And when you feel poor, and powerless, and angry, that’s when you decide you need a gun. And not soon after that, you decide you need a gun that shoots faster than the gun that someone else might have. It’s like Spy vs. Spy. It gets really wierd after that. You start rigging up bombs that look like sexy girls and blow the other guy up, for no other reason than to blow him up before he blows you up.”
“Those pictures are going to suck,” she added. “All they’re going to be is a bunch of grainy dots.”
As we stood at the ATM, I suddenly had an epiphany. Why were we trying to do the spy camera thing, when I could just go in and buy a stack of old photos that were infinitely more horrible than a new, muddy photo of an armband under glass?
“Back so soon?” asked the moustache at the Nazi booth.
“I had to go to the ATM,” I told him. I was terrified, which for some reason made me a really good liar. “I’m teaching a history class,” I told him. “I came back to get some of your pictures.” He seemed very pleased, maybe speculating that finally Hitler was going to get some better press, even if it was in a piddly little history class.
That’s how we win the good fight, mates, one step at a time.
“Where do you get these?” I asked him, going through the albums a little too carefully.
“Oh, different places,” he said, looking out across the expanse of the gun show. “Different places. Sometimes collectors bring them in, you know.”
He started a little pile of black-and-white photos for me. The gun show would be closed in fifteen minutes. I was afraid that if I pulled out the concentration camp pictures right off the bat, he’d have my number. I don’t know what would have happened if he had caught on, and I still don’t.
“What about these pictures of the Furher on a train? Did somebody take those?”
“That’s for something called a ‘cigarette book,'” he told me, and went off to retrieve one from the merchandise cache he kept under the black tablecloth. “When Germans bought cigarettes, they’d get points, and then they could,trade them in for these little cards,” he explained. “Ah-ha! Like Camelbucks.”
“Yeah, a little like that, except these went to support the war effort. Anyway, you’d paste them into these albums, or ‘cigarette books,’ and try and collect all of them.”
“How much is that one?”
“Hmmm….ah, a hundred bucks.”
The albumn was full of images of Hitler bandaging soldier’s wounds, kissing pretty peasant girls in wreaths and babies in their mother’s arms. Each card had a story on the back about Hitler, which was reproduced in the cigarette book so that you could still read it once you’d covered the back of the card with paste and stuck it in the album.
Luckily, some teenage kid showed up with an SS dagger he wanted to sell; the guy left to look at it and I pulled out the worst of the worst from the pile of Nazi photos and stacked them up, image-side down, with the price written in pencil facing up. The organizeers were kicking people out of the gun show, making last-minute PA announcements about the Legislature and where the show was heading next. The guy didn’t look too hard at what I was buying, and didn’t seem too concerned anyway. He seemed to think I was part of the brotherhood or something, like we had some kind of perverse understanding.
The first photo I pulled out of those albums I chose because I thought it was innocuous, because it didn’t look like I was trying to root evidence of Nazis at the gun show. The more I look at it, the more I think it was one of the most arresting photos in the stack. It’s a three-year old kid on a rocking horse, wearing a tiny WWII German uniform his parents made for him. The image is lit up with a kind of supernatural light. I think, actually, that it is very beautiful. This little boy has the same face that the kid in the Garanimals jacket had. His face isn’t angelic; he doesn’t even look particularly happy. But this look on his face is a look I have felt in my own gut.
Chrissy told me as we left the convention center that at the age of four, her boyfriend had gone up to his father, leaned his face on his knee, and asked, “Dad, why was I born to lose?”
We laughed our heads off about it, but this is what is in the rocking-horse kid’s face. And this is why we have the gun show.