I Am Hitler’s Driver
Thanks to their proximity to important people everyone knows, unimportant people whose names we don’t remember, “regular” folks like me and you, often have a fleeting opportunity to change the course of World History. Henry the VIII’s chef; Napoleon’s personal physician; Hitler’s driver. With a little help and a lot of courage, each of them could have saved us all from murderous rampages and unfathomable cruelty. Had they known the monstrosities their employer would go on to commit, these anonymous assistants might have rewritten the narrative of humanity with a judiciously placed poison mushroom, an undetectable dose of arsenic, a wrong turn into an oncoming vehicle.
Have you ever imagined how such people must feel about themselves? If only I’d struck when I had a golden opportunity. . . If only I were braver, they’d be writing history books about me. . . If only I hadn’t been so loyal to my boss and his genocidal logic, I could have saved 6 million Jews . . .
I don’t have to imagine what it feels like to miss your chance. I know firsthand. And I must live with the knowledge every waking moment.
Not once, not twice. Three times I was very near a notoriously bankrupt casino operator with an elaborate comb-over, close enough to smell his cologne, a musky aroma named in his honor. Two times we met at one of his casinos, where I interviewed him for magazine stories that, if all went well, he hoped would contain numerous references to the man’s general greatness, despite his dismal track record.
The other time was on a golf course, one of his golf courses, the one in Florida, not far from Mar-a-Lago, where — yes, I must confess — I spent an evening in his company. (Fun Fact: Upon entering the castle-like house, the first thing you see is a 10-foot-high oil painting of him and Melania wearing tennis whites, as though the owner of the estate doesn’t understand The Simpsons’ Montgomery Burns is a satire of rich men with no taste.) The round of golf was during an LPGA pro-am day; Mr. Great and I were joined by two hall-of-famers, Jim Palmer, the baseball pitcher, and Annika Sorenstam, the golfer, who I was profiling for Delta Sky magazine.
You can learn a lot about a person by how she conducts herself on the golf course. I spent most of the five-or-so hours chatting with Annika, and here-and-there with Jim. I mostly avoided the other guy, who, based on my previous meetings, had already proven himself a megalomaniac blowhard of absurd proportions. It was painful to walk the fairways with him. He seemed incapable of talking about anything without somehow broadcasting his profound insecurity (masquerading as braggadocio). I used to bet a lot in the day, and I remember thinking he’d be an excellent opponent to play for money, because he was, by my gambler’s estimation, about a 12-14 handicap whose ego problems compelled him to present himself to the world as a 6. I fantasized about playing him for $45,000- a-hole, because that was the amount he said it cost per-hour to keep his Boeing 727 — which also had his name on it — aloft.
We shook hands on the 18th green and took some photos together — which I still have somewhere. I filed him away in an already crowded folder marked Emotionally Damaged Men Who Are Obscenely Wealthy and Freakishly Unaware of Their Own Ridiculousness. He didn’t seem intellectually capable of running for municipal dog catcher, let alone a higher office. I didn’t imagine — how could I? — that this not-very-bright, obviously disturbed guy, overcompensating to tragicomic effect, could be taken seriously as a candidate for President of the United States. It seemed as improbable as, well, Montgomery Burns getting elected Mayor of Springfield.
Had I known what would happen 20 years later, and if I’d been in the mood to martyr myself for the good of all living creatures, I could have easily ended the nightmare before it began. One well-aimed 6-iron to the back of the skull. (Or maybe a 5-iron, a little more club?)
So now I’m like the generation of German males who supposedly all drove ambulances during World War II and weren’t actually really when you think about it from a certain perspective, complicit in death camps. I didn’t know! How could I have known? I didn’t know!
I didn’t. I couldn’t. My capacity for envisioning the impossible was not yet fully developed.
Sorry, world. I didn’t know the joke would go too far. I didn’t know. And that’s what I keep reminding myself every time I look at my golf clubs and feel a wave of recriminating guilt.