In Louisiana, during the summer, in the afternoons,
when it is not raining in a heavy, steady rhythm,
it often seems as if it is about to rain,
even when the sun is shining brightly.
For hours, the air just hangs, stagnant and muggy.
I recall that it was on one such afternoon that Brother-in-law mentioned that his family traced its lineage back to the Crusades. Kirstein means in German "follower of the Christ."
When I asked him what "stein" meant, taken alone, Brother-in-law said it was translated as "cup."
In the Marines I had known a man named Steinknopf. I mentioned that and Brother-in-law said it meant "cup head."
In German beer-drinking fraternities, he told me, "they use the top of a human skull for a stein, and that's what that name means."
"Do you know what Germans call a battleground? A rose garden -- because of the red wounds of the soldiers."
Conversation lagged. This afternoon's discussion was not intense. I kept wishing Slim would say it was time to go. I asked Gary what branch of the service he was in.
"I was drafted into the Navy. During World War II they were drafting for both the Army and the Navy."
Slim mentioned previously that his brother-in-law, as well as most Midwestern Americans of Germanic background, had been shipped to the Pacific instead of Europe -- for fear their national loyalties would tempt them to spy for the Germans.
"My dad was in the Navy," I said. "He worked on a landing barge."
"I was in Naval Intelligence," Brother-in-law remarked.
"Where were you stationed?" That a pro-Nazi second generation German-American should be assigned to intelligence, anywhere, was not a peculiarity I thought to question.
"I was on Guam," he answered.
"My dad was stationed on Okinawa," I told him.
"Kerry," he said for the third or fourth time, "there are only three people in the world who understand Einstein's theory of relativity. Do you realize that?"
I wondered if he was trying to hint that he was one of them. In retrospect, I think he wanted to draw attention to the identity of those three individuals.
"Do you know that it is actually possible to trisect pi?"
"In high school geometry they said pi was indeterminate, and therefore could not be trisected."
"That's what they say, Kerry. They are wrong, though."
I shrugged. Mathematics had always bored me. I wished Brother-in-law would offer me another cup of coffee.
After one of the times he reminded me that he was "more like a mad scientist" than the person he seemed, he added, "and I think people like me -- people who are more intelligent than others -- are persecuted and enslaved because of our superior intellect. And I think it ought to be the other way around. I think people like me should be able to do whatever we want with people of lesser intelligence. Don't you agree, Kerry, that that is a rational attitude?"
I felt like a mouse engaged in a dialogue with a cat. That he was playing games with me for his own amusement seemed obvious. His motives, though, were terribly obscure -- assuming there were any, besides passing a dull afternoon telling lies to a gullible young man from the French Quarter.
I thought about what he said. "Yes," I replied hesitantly, "that does seem like a rational viewpoint." I would have preferred not to answer at all. Altruistic societies unfairly exploited genius and talent. That was one of Ayn Rand's central contentions. I had never thought about whether or not that gave exceptionally intelligent people the right to exploit the mediocre in return.
More to the point, it seemed at the time, was whether or not Brother-in-law really was a "mad scientist." As unlikely as it seemed, it was no more preposterous than his internally inconsistent Nazism.
"Kerry, even Ayn Rand says there are times when self-sacrifice is justified. For example, when the society you live in becomes intolerable, she says, it makes more sense to give your life than to suffer oppression. Do you agree with that? Wouldn't you rather give your life," he emphasized the words, "than live under an intolerable system?" At this point he was up and about, becoming animated again.
"Well," I said, "let's just say I would be willing to risk my life."
"Yes! Yes! To risk your life. That's what I'm talking about."
"When a society becomes totalitarian, though, I think it is the average man who is to blame, the second-rater, as Ayn Rand calls him -- like Peter Keating in The Fountainhead."
"I agree," he snapped, and Slim laughed.
What was Brother-in-law up to? He may have been devil's-advocating the opinion of a brilliant scientist connected with the intelligence community who saw me as precisely such an average, mediocre person. Or that may have been his own opinion of me. Either one would explain Slim's laughter.
Yet at other times Brother-in-law seemed to disagree with my contempt for ordinary individuals with no ambition to become great. "You know, Kerry, Carl Sandberg has written a poem celebrating the life of an average, undistinguished man. Don't you think there might be something to that idea after all?"