Read the fascinating story of Jack Earle (real name, Jake Erlich), whose 8-foot-6-inch frame supported a uniquely courageous soul that proved to be giant in more ways than one.
In The Long Shadows (Multicultural Publications, 2012), author Andrew Erlich tells the inspiring story of his uncle Jake Erlich, better known by his stage name Jack Earle. Read the story of Jake’s exceptional life overcoming crippling shyness, depression, temporary blindness and the physical challenges of an 8-foot-6-inch frame. Follow his lifetime of 46 years, and uncover the story of how Jake earned widespread acclaim for his multi-faceted artistry as a silent film star, sideshow performer with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, dancer, musician, painter, poet, photographer and sculptor whose work is in a permanent collection in the Museum of Natural History in New York. The following excerpt on Jake's first encounter with a Eugenics rally is taken from Chapter 18, “Major General George Moseley, U.S. Army, Retired.”
I have always been somewhat of a worrier. That Sunday morning waiting for Val and Scotty to show up in the parking lot was no different. I worried about what might and what might not happen. I worried about my parents, about morals, about being alone again with Val, or never seeing her again. I even worried that I had gotten confused about the day and time she said she would pick me up. I had walked back and forth so many times I must have worn a path in the freight yard’s cracked asphalt.
But there were so many other things on my mind. Not the least of which was having asked Ingalls if I could skip the matinee that Sunday. Getting the time off was actually easier than I thought. You see, despite how demanding he was about me signing my contract, I think he really wanted and needed me back in the show for next season. So he let it pass as a sign of goodwill. After all that had happened, I still can’t believe I had the balls to ask him.
As I paced, I worried. What if that day I stole a kiss or what if Val slapped my face? What if we argued about art school? What if I told her I had decided to leave the sideshow, and in her anger she took back her offer and said she never wanted to see me again? I imagined one scenario after the other, wrestling with the unknown and trying to control it. None of my what-ifs brought me any peace. My head felt like it was ready to explode.
Honestly, I’d been fretting for hours. I was so uneasy that I got dressed and ready to go before dawn, hours before Val asked me to be ready. I was so nervous I changed my clothes three times until I decided on the denim pants, powder-blue linen shirt, and navy cardigan I wore. I’m sure you understand; I wanted to look my best for the occasion. At eight a.m., when Scotty finally pulled the shiny black Pierce-Arrow into the lot, I thought I would be relieved. But that scene created its own distress. As I approached the car, Harry, Daisy, and Lya strolled by, coming back from their morning constitutional.
“Pretty swanky, Mr. Erlich,” Harry said as he moved toward me. “I will have your bath drawn at quarter past three, my lord,” he added, mimicking a Boston Brahmin’s butler. His thin yet powerful voice, loud enough to be heard all the way to Westchester, drew attention from anybody in earshot and embarrassed the hell out of me.
Daisy and Lya just stared disdainfully. That was unpleasantness I hadn’t planned on and I didn’t need. The two little women’s silence spoke volumes. To tell the truth, it got to me more than Harry’s sarcasm. I couldn’t stop thinking about the mean comments they both had recently made about Val. So I didn’t even wait for Scotty to get out of the car and open my door. I opened it myself and climbed into the back of the limo so quickly that I banged my knee. I took a deep, exasperated breath and shot a glance at Val. That encounter with my friends was very awkward for me. I wanted to ignore the three of them, but I just couldn’t. So I rolled down my window.
“Harry, Daisy, Lya, this is my new friend, Val,” I forced myself to say. Val scooted across the seat so she could see them. Now she was looking down at the three little people through the open window and sitting very close to me. I don’t know what made me more uncomfortable; Daisy and Lya’s disapproval or the feel of Val’s thigh pressed up against mine.
“Hello,” Harry said politely as he tipped his hat. Daisy and Lya just stood there alongside the limo in stony silence.
“Charmed, I’m sure,” Val said, ignoring their rudeness. Val was fashionable as always, dressed for the season in pastel-purple pants, a matching blouse, a plum-colored beret, and light-gray leather gloves. Her gorgeous green eyes and the way she smelled were intoxicating. That really helped to distract me from Daisy and Lya’s evident displeasure and the throbbing from my bruised knee.
Scotty put the Pierce-Arrow in gear and began to pull away from the curb. Bang! It sounded like something had crashed into the rear of the limo. Bang! Bang! Twice that disturbing sound repeated, reverberating violently.
Scotty slammed on the brakes as if he had hit someone. His head jerked forward so violently that his chauffer’s cap flew onto the dashboard. I spun my head around so fast that I wrenched my neck. I saw Frank Buck slamming his fist into the rear fender of the car. Bang! Bang! Then he aggressively marched up to Val’s side of the limo. Her gloved hand timidly cranked open the window. Buck bent down and stared at me scornfully. He didn’t say a word but his hard, searching look made me feel guilty. I wasn’t sure why. After all, I hadn’t done anything wrong. Buck wasn’t even her husband. Then he stared at Val.
“What gives, Guinevere?” His cocky words and thin smile did a poor job of disguising his displeasure.
“We’re just out for a Sunday drive, Frank,” Val answered nonchalantly.
“And I wasn’t even invited. Boo-hoo.” He stood there glaring as if he were waiting for an invitation to join us or some kind of an apology. A long minute passed in very uncomfortable silence. Val looked troubled.
“We’ve got to go or we’ll get caught in traffic. Ta-ta. We’ll talk soon, I promise.” She spoke in a casual tone, but when she rolled up her window I saw that her hand was trembling. I turned around, gazed through the rear window, and saw Harry, Daisy, Lya, and Frank Buck frozen there like cigar store Indians watching us slowly drive away.
“What was that about?” I asked.
“Oh, it’s nothing. Frank’s just having one of his moods.”
A few nights earlier, when I’d seen them walk off together at Val’s dinner party onto the terrace, I had begun to wonder if anything was going on between them. Val’s answer didn’t do a thing to diminish my suspicion. It made me think there was more to their connection than just friendship. Even though I told you that I was still somewhat naive, I hadn’t just fallen off the turnip truck. It made me really uncomfortable to realize I most likely had a rival besides her husband.
The prospect of having to go up against Buck didn’t make me any too happy. He was a casual friend. In my time with Ringling Bros, I’d known him to dominate tigers and men. He was a man’s man, if you know what I mean. He knew how to use a whip, a chair, a gun, and his will to get his way. That’s just what I need, I thought, something else to worry about. I tried to calm myself. Val is unavailable anyway. After all, she’s married, I thought. But if she were in the market for a man, how would she ever pick someone from the sideshow like me over that dashing, great white hunter with nerves of steel who performed in the center ring?
The Sunday morning cross-town traffic was very light so we made excellent time driving out of the city. I did my best to put my worries about Harry, Daisy, Lya, and now Frank Buck out of my mind. Within an hour we were in the rolling, green hills of the majestic Hudson River Valley. Billowy storm clouds to the east reflected in the flowing river framed the spectacular scenery. As we drove past, I took in an explosion of scarlet and lavender tulips, gray granite stone bridges, and stately farmhouses with ancient, crimson barns.
Despite the gorgeous landscape, I had a hard time staying awake. You see, the night before I had tossed and turned until four in the morning, worried about the significance of the time I would spend with Val, wondering about Scotty’s admonition, and going over and over in my mind what I would, could, or should say to her on our drive.
“How is your head after that nasty wound you got on the subway?” Val inquired. “Let me see,” she ordered, moving closer to me. The touch of her warm fingers on my forehead stirred me more than coffee.
“It’s fine,” I said, yawning. “Thank you for asking.”
Val went on to speak about Diego’s showing, the circus, even the Yankees’ upcoming season. As she spoke I mostly listened. I fantasized about kissing her passionately and her kissing me back. I tried to push the thought of that forbidden pleasure out of my mind, but I couldn’t.
Then Val leaned over and pinched my arm. I was mortified. For an instant I believed she knew what I was thinking.
“Tell me it’s this restful scenery and not my boring conversation that is putting you to sleep,” Val said, chuckling. I wondered what she would have thought if she knew what was really distracting me.
“Oh, no. It’s not you; far from it. Please excuse me,” I said. “I just didn’t sleep very well last night.”
“How about a cup of joe and some breakfast?” she asked, squeezing my knee.
“That sounds like a plan.” I yawned again and tried to take a cat stretch but my arms inadvertently hit the limo’s ceiling.
“I think next time we’d best take a convertible,” Scotty chimed in, noticing my mishap in the rearview mirror.
“If you’re adventurous, I know a dive just ahead where they have wonderful blueberry pie,” Val added.
Blueberry pie for breakfast; that does sound adventurous. Just like something this daring woman would dream up, I thought.
A few minutes later we entered a small town and Scotty pulled the Pierce-Arrow over at a seedy-looking diner. We parked in front. When I got out of the car I noticed that it was getting overcast and that the temperature had dropped. I buttoned my sweater and hoped rain wouldn’t ruin our picnic.
As Val and I walked into the crowded restaurant, all eyes turned to us. I tried to avoid the attention by looking away. Val gazed right back at the staring patrons, challenging them with her eyes. I wasn’t used to having someone from outside of the circus look out for me like that. I liked how it felt. When I crumpled up my body to sit in that tiny booth, adults and children, some in their Sunday best who looked like they’d just come from church, and some in coveralls who looked like they were right off of the farm, kept on staring.
“Mornin’, folks,” the gray-haired waitress said with a casual but brisk manner. “What’ll it be?” She took hold of the pencil stashed above her right ear.
“Coffee and cream and a slice of that heavenly berry concoction for me,” Val said, removing the beret she’d been wearing. Then she shook her head and freed a treasure trove of beautiful auburn curls hidden underneath until they rested gingerly on her shoulders. I imagined touching that hair. That forbidden fantasy gave me chills of pleasure and guilt. Again, I worried I might lose control and do something I’d regret.
Then another delicious fantasy came to mind: I visualized Val posing in the nude for me as I painted her portrait. In my fantasy her auburn hair gently hung down over her chest, almost, but not quite, concealing her breasts. I wondered what she would look like unclothed. I bet her body’s voluptuous, I thought. “Jake, she’s a married woman!” I heard my father’s stern voice admonishing me. My conscience quickly threw black paint all over that dangerous image.
“And you, hon? Would you care for any breakfast?” the waitress asked.
“Me? I . . . I’ll have,” I stammered, flustered, as if she had also seen my illicit portrait of Val. My face felt warm. I hoped I wasn’t blushing “I . . . I’d like two eggs, sunny-side up; hash browns; toast; and black coffee,” I said, finally getting my wits back.
“You are a big one, mister. You sure that’s gonna be enough food?”
“That will be plenty for me,” I said as Val and I handed her our menus.
“Your mama must have slaved in her kitchen day and night just to feed you,” she laughed, shaking her head from side to side and walking away before I could respond.
“Jake, your parents brought you up right. You are always so polite,” Val said.
“Thank you,” I replied, semi-smiling.
“Does the attention ever get to you?” she inquired, lifting her chin to indicate she was referring to all those in the restaurant who were currently staring at us.
“Yes, sometimes it does, Val. Sometimes it really does get to me,” I said, more forcefully than I had intended. My straightforward answer and the unambiguous tone that delivered it surprised me. This was the first time I had ever honestly confided in a woman besides Mama, Daisy, and Lya. I mean, I had said pretty much the same thing to my brothers, my parents, and a friend or two back in El Paso, but never to a woman outside the family or the circus.
Then Val reached across the booth. Her hands looked tiny. She took hold of my massive right hand and squeezed. The little bit of pressure she exerted released a tsunami of pent-up longing. I wanted to grab her hands like she’d grabbed mine. I wanted to tell her more. It wasn’t only that strangers’ stares got to me. Truth be told, I hated them; the stares and sometimes the strangers, too. I wanted to run away and meet a wizard who could cast a spell and make me a normal-size man with normal dreams and fears; to fit in a normal-size suit; to wear normal-size shoes and sleep in a normal bed; to have a normal job. I longed to share all of this with Val but I didn’t say a word. I just gazed out the plate-glass window to my right at the sidewalk outside.
“That’s enough about me,” I said, changing the subject. “I don’t know much about you. You’re a fantasy to me.”
“I think fantasy is good. I like being mysterious, like Queen Norma. It’s romantic,” she said in a teasing voice. “Fantasy is color and hope; a circus.” Val laughed, took a sip of her coffee, and looked out of the window, mirroring what I had done a few seconds earlier.
“You speak like a poet,” I said.
She paused. Her mood changed as quickly as mountain weather. “I’m no poet. I know there’s no fantasy in the real world. It’s black, white, and gray, with too many bad dreams.”
Her voice was full of sadness. Suddenly she seemed older, much older. Val let go of my hand and sat back in the booth. There was a real melancholy about her and that was the first time I’d seen it. But it didn’t make her any less appealing.
Just then the waitress brought our breakfast. Val looked relieved. After a few bites of blueberry pie she smiled at me. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to rain on this beautiful Sunday.”
“That’s okay,” I said, looking into her eyes. “Sometimes I get sad, too.”
She brushed her hair out of her face and glanced away. When Val finally turned back, I noticed that she looked tired. She had dark circles and crow’s-feet around her eyes that bled them of their sparkle. I wondered about her sadness. I knew that I felt guilty about being with her, and I wondered if guilt was affecting her as well. I wondered if she was worried about Frank Buck.
A minute of silence passed. I started to ask her what was troubling her. Then I bit my tongue. It’s none of your business, Jake, I thought. Looking back on it now, I know the distress I sensed in Val and my need to rescue her must have been overwhelming for me; more overwhelming than my fear of any negative reaction she might have.
“Val, what’s wrong?” I couldn’t believe I had actually asked that question.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” she said dismissively.
“Why?” I insisted.
“It’s personal.” I felt her pushing me away. I didn’t know what to say. Then there was an awkward silence. I toyed with my napkin. Val fidgeted, shifted slightly, and looked at me. “Look, Jake, I don’t mean to be rude, but I’m a very private person and I don’t really know you.”
So it’s okay for me to tell her about myself. But she won’t open up to me. That’s a bum deal if I ever heard one, I thought.
Val looked up and to the right as if that was where she kept a cabinet in her mind stocked with things to talk about when she was confronted by her own demons. Then she gazed down at the table and methodically added two teaspoons of sugar to her coffee and began to carefully stir her cup. The ritual seemed to help her gather her thoughts, decide what to say, and dissolve whatever was bothering her.
“Jake, I had a call from the director of the museum. He asked if he could go ahead and send his recommendation letter for you to the art school. I told him I would see you today and get back to him on Monday,” Val said in an annoyed tone. “I need to know what you plan to do.”
“I know, but . . . .” I replied, looking down at my eggs, not even aware of how she had changed the subject. I would come to learn how masterful she was at getting off the hot seat.
“What are you afraid of?” she asked, almost angry at my hesitation.
“More coffee?” It was our waitress. After she topped off our cups, she walked away.
I wondered why Val sounded upset. “Listen, I appreciate what you’ve done for me. I really do. But why is this so important to you?”
“Listen, Jake, real talent doesn’t come along every day. I should know. I have been around enough phonies and wannabe artists.” She paused and looked across the restaurant before continuing. “So when we see somebody who—”
“What do you mean, we?” I blurted out. I felt myself getting hot. I felt half-exposed and vulnerable, and I didn’t like it.
“Frida, Diego, my husband, Gustav Peters, and I are all convinced that you have natural, artistic ability,” Val answered.
I imagined myself asking her a myriad of questions. What about your husband? How does he feel about me? Did he go along with this just because you wanted him to? What does he think about us spending time alone? Does he even know? I began to tense up with worry. In those days I was a slave to worries about what Val might think or do. I thought of a thousand things I could or should say, but I didn’t utter a word. I just sat there like a lox.
“Does your husband really think I’m talented?” I have no idea why when I finally spoke up I asked that stupid question. Whereas the sun and the moon set on Val’s impressions of me, I couldn’t have cared less what that old fart thought. I imagined that if Val were my wife I’d never let her go on a picnic alone with another man, and I’d certainly never let her anywhere near a swashbuckling lion tamer.
“He respects my opinions in these matters but he recognizes ability like yours when he sees it,” Val said. “Are you just going to waste a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity like this, Jake?”
Her challenge made me feel fidgety. Val wanted to talk about art school and I wanted to talk about us. But I couldn’t, so I just sat there listening to her, feeling like a coward.
“Do you know how many young men would kill to have a chance like this, especially with a depression going on?” She was resolute. My heart beat faster. “I need you to decide, or at least tell me why you won’t go.” I felt cornered. My ears started to ring. Then Val lifted her spoon out of her cup and threw it down hard on the table. Her ferocity startled me. “I just hate it when people do things that don’t make any sense,” she said irately.
Maybe she was trying to provoke me. Well, whatever her intent, I couldn’t stand how I was pussyfooting around. I don’t know what came over me. I just blurted it out.
“What am I to you, anyway? Some kind of an art experiment?” I was shocked by what had just come out of my mouth. My heart pounded so fiercely it felt like it would split in half.
“What do you mean, ‘an art experiment’?” Val sat forward. I sat back in the booth. She was paying attention to me in a way she never had before. There was something about the way she looked at me. It was deeper and more intense and made me feel as if we’d stepped into a different dimension. Val was more here-and-now present.
You have to believe me, there was absolutely nothing I wanted more in my life then her undivided attention. But I was terrified of what I was going to do with her when I actually had it. And I was truly frightened of what other unpredictable things I might say or secrets I might reveal. I struggled to put the brakes on my impulses, to gather my thoughts, and to explain logically what I had just asked. Then I clammed up again.
“Check, please,” I heard a man in the booth behind us say.
“Check,” I heard a woman at a table across the room call.
“Can we get our bill, sweetie?” someone else asked.
The sound of three people requesting their bills simultaneously in a small diner like that was distracting. I was thankful for the diversion from our intense conversation. I noticed that, in unison, a few customers had gotten up from their tables and booths. They moved in the excited fashion of people who have someplace to be and are late. I also noted a small line gathering at the cash register that had not been there a few minutes before. Someone opened the door, a cool rush of morning air flowed into the place, and some customers exited. I looked out of the plate glass window and observed that the half-dozen or so people who had just left the diner crossed the street and turned right, walking down the sidewalk in the same direction. In the distance, I saw them join a group of about twenty more men, women, children, and old people. Some in that crowd carried placards that I couldn’t quite make out.
“It looks like there is something going on out there,” I said to Val, pointing toward the window and the street beyond.
She turned to look at the hubbub outside. For some reason the animation and excitement in the hoard reminded me of the throngs of people I’d observed over the years scrambling to get a glimpse of a circus parade that was about to start.
“Nice try, Jake, but no cigar. I’m not that easily distracted. Were you even listening to me?” Val asked in an exasperated tone, looking back at me. “Am I having this conversation with myself?”
Ignoring Val’s question, I turned and saw our waitress laying a rotund man’s bill down on the counter. “You take care, Charlie,” I heard her say. “Give my regards to the missus.” I waved my hand to get her attention, motioning for her to come to our table.
“Is there a carnival in town? Is there going to be an election or something?” I asked, pointing outside to the people on the sidewalk. “That’s a lot of foot traffic for a Sunday.”
“Aw, it’s those goldarn crackpots. Every Sunday they have those damned rallies in front of the school and steal our customers. Just a second,” she said, stepping away.
“I’m sorry, Val. I was sidetracked by all the commotion.” It was a lame effort to apologize. Before I could say anything else, the waitress returned with a flyer that she set on our table.
It read: For the good of the race, only healthy seed must be sown:
Stamp out hereditary disease and unfitness!
Join our cause: Eugenics is the modern answer
Rally this Sunday: 10 a.m. in front of the Ulysses S. Grant Grammar School
Featured speakers: Major General George Moseley, U.S. Army, Retired
State Senator Elroy Mandeville
Professor Stockwell Gibbs, PhD, Ithaca University
We looked up at the waitress who was still standing there watching us. “Yeah, they’re like tent preachers in these parts; moaning and groaning about the future of mankind, science, and the betterment of the white race. If you ask me, it’s a load of horse puckey!” As she spoke, the hair on the back of my neck started to stand up and I felt an ominous dread in the pit of my stomach. I tried to stand up.
“I’ve heard about these guys. Have you, Jake?” Val asked. I sat back down.
“Come to think of it, last week I did see a piece about eugenics in the Times,” I said. This whole subject gave me the creeps. In my nervousness, I began to tap the table with my fingertips. I really didn’t want to be having that conversation.
“What did the article say?” Val asked, evidently not at all in tune with my anxiety. Looking back on it, I really felt uncomfortable and that I wanted to get out of that diner and that little town as soon as possible. Val was oblivious and I was too embarrassed to talk about my uneasiness.
“I remember reading that eugenicists were people committed to stamping out what they felt were racial impurities.” As I spoke, I nervously turned my head away from Val and the waitress to watch the crowd outside on the sidewalk. There was something foreboding in the air that made me feel even more concerned, but I wasn’t sure why. Large groups of people anywhere besides under the big top gave me the willies. My gut reaction to the eugenicists turned out to be right on the money. I would soon learn that my friends and I and other less fortunate souls were the impure and imperfect ones whose seed those sons of bitches didn’t want sown.
If I only knew then what I know now I would have understood that the words the eugenicists spouted were not harmless philosophical and scientific speculations. Sooner than I could have imagined possible, their harebrained ideas would be used to justify incarceration, forced sterilization, and murder, even of people I knew and loved.
“Eugenics seems like it’s really popular,” Val said, looking out at the crowd on the sidewalk.
“Around these parts, it sure is,” the waitress added. “It’s a genuine grassroots movement; a political phenom.”
“It’s something we should see firsthand.” As she spoke, Val’s voice sounded more and more energized. Then she whirled away from the window and gazed at me, an excited blush on her face. Just like a mare at a dead run back to the barn at feeding time, there would be no stopping her. “I have an idea. As long as we’re here, let’s go to the rally, Jake.” Val’s tone was that of spoiled child demanding to go to the circus.
“I don’t think so. This isn’t exactly a concert. I’m not interested.” Something inside warned me that going to that meeting was a very bad idea. “Can’t we just get back in the car and drive out of this burg?” I pleaded in a whisper.
“Oh don’t be a killjoy. My husband told me about these rallies and Moseley. He heard him speak and described Moseley as the William Jennings Bryan of this generation. I absolutely must see him,” she demanded, ignoring what I had just said. “I promise we won’t stay long. We’ll have plenty of time for our picnic.” She gave me a flirtatious smile. “Check, please.”
From where I stood under a huge elm tree across the street from the grammar school, I could see about a hundred people hovering together in front of a portable wooden platform decorated with red, white, and blue bunting. The left side of the stage was bordered by the Stars and Stripes and a sign that read “Save Our Race.” On the right side stood a large “Eugenics” placard and the blue, green, yellow, and red New York state flag. If they were magically granted the power to speak, I wondered what the mute goddesses of liberty and justice emblazoned on that standard would have said about the ordinary folks assembled there and the travesties they advocated.
By the time we arrived, Moseley had already begun to harangue the crowd. They were a mixed multitude, dressed like the folks we’d seen in the diner. I imagined the audience was comprised of good people—you know, salt of the earth types; a kind, God-fearing lot. The skilled speaker mesmerized the crowd with eloquence, emphasizing his words carefully, bobbing and swaying like Billy Sunday. His costume, the dress blues of an army officer, complete with brass buttons, medals, epaulets, and a gold sword, added to his authority and impact.
Val demanded that we cross the street and squeeze to the front of the crowd for a better look. With a premonition that comes from too many close calls and the need for self-preservation, that time I overrode my desire to please her and insisted, with the same fervor, on staying right where I was. As stragglers passed me they turned to stare, only drawn onward by another, more compelling show across the street.
“‘To arms, to arms,’ the patriot Paul Revere cried. Today the danger is just as great but more insidious.” As Moseley started to speak I got the chills, stirred by his words and aroused by his charisma. Then I listened more closely to what he was saying. That’s when I got truly frightened.
“It’s not the British we should fear, my friends and countrymen, but crossbreeding of the races and the homosexuals. I tell you today that the degenerates, the dope fiends, and the Jews, all financed by well-heeled foreigners, are threatening the home of the brave and the land of the free.”
The crowd broke into applause. At once I felt like he was talking about me. I took a step back and tried to camouflage myself behind the elm tree, as if someone of my proportions could ever hide in plain sight.
“For their own good and ours, the deviants, the feeble minded, the idiots, and the imbeciles, should be institutionalized. Let us use the wonders of modern surgery that the good Lord has blessed us with to stop the menace. If you don’t take a stand, those morons will grow up to be criminals and prostitutes. If you talk to any doctor—and believe me, I have studied with the most esteemed practitioners of the Hippocratic arts in the land—our nation is threatened by a plague of sexually transmitted infections. Lock up the unfit! Don’t wait until next week or next year. Do it today! Keep them away from our children!”
The more he stirred himself and the crowd into a crescendo of emotion, the more frightened I became.
“As my esteemed colleague, the good Professor Gibbs, who is to follow me on the dais will point out, there is no doubt of the correlation between dependency, delinquency, and mental defect.”
“Amen, brother!” an old woman yelled from the horde. I scanned the crowd nervously for Val. For an instant I thought I saw her head.
“The blacks and Jews, southern Europeans—in short, any group of deviants without the superior pedigree of us Nordic and Anglo Europeans threatens our children’s future.”
“Yes! Yes! Yes!” The audience chanted in one unified voice. They were like a starving fire and his words were the oxygen that made it blaze. It looked as if only a few in the crowd weren’t swept away.
I became more and more alarmed, like a trapped animal. Again I searched the throng and couldn’t see Val anywhere. It was as if the crowd had swallowed her up. I wanted to run away, but I couldn’t just abandon her. As I frantically searched the crowd, I noticed that some of the spectators standing at the rear had turned around and were staring at me. Some were even pointing. I felt like a Christian captive in the underbelly of the Coliseum, sure I would soon be devoured by wild beasts. I took another step back behind the tree. Then I took another. My breathing was rapid and shallow and my heart was beating hard as terror at what would happen next grew. I had heard stories of angry crowds turning their wrath on innocent bystanders.
Images of blacks and Jews who had been lynched, easy targets for the rage of the dispossessed, passed through my mind. The Depression was a dangerous time to be different. I almost panicked. I flashed back to how I’d felt all those years ago on the banks of the Rio Grande. I saw myself running away from Eisenbeis and his henchmen and the rocks they threw. But this time there was no river in which to swim away. There was no escaping the danger, at least, not until Val returned.
“We must ensure every child’s right to be well born by containing and stopping cold the contamination of the races. Join with me, brothers and sisters. Commit to the eugenics crusade. Give whatever you can, two bits or a dollar, and once and for all stop the degenerate practices going on in every city in this land that contaminate the young, debauch the innocent, and curse the state.”
The crowd broke into frenzied applause. I broke into a sweat. Here I was, a Jewish giant, an aberration of nature in the midst of an army bent on stamping out racial impurities.
I have to leave and leave now, I thought as I anxiously scanned the crowd two or three more times. Where the hell is Val? There was no trace of her. I wanted to run away. I really did. But like a cowboy holding back a mustang who stepped on a cottonmouth, despite my panic I pulled back on the reins and made myself stand there. I thought I was going to be sick.
At that instant, Val finally pushed her way through the crowd of eugenic lunatics and ran across the street to where I was hiding. Thank God! I thought she’d never get here, I said to myself.
As she approached, she looked furious. Gone was the countenance of a bratty child demanding to see the show. She was absolutely purple with rage and looked like she had been holding her breath.
“I want to get the hell out of this place,” I said before Val could utter a word.
“Can you believe these idiots?” she screamed in an exasperated tone, ignoring my demand. I wished she would quiet down. All Val needed to do was be overheard by one of the true believers who had already spotted me. After Moseley’s rant, if one of them heard her words it would be like lightening striking bone-dry kindling. “They want to put everybody who is not like them in jail and sterilize them.” She put both of her hands on her head as she spoke, for emphasis or to signal disbelief. I envied her courage. But truthbetold, at that instant, I felt more dread at what would happen if the crowd across the street got wind of what she was saying than envy.
That’s exactly what happened. A group of four large young men who looked like linemen on the local football team and a pregnant woman peeled off from the back of the pack and walked across the street toward us.
Now we’re in for it, I thought. I grabbed Val’s arm and started pulling her along the sidewalk, back to the limo.
“What about that hogwash about the Jews?” She wouldn’t let up. “Don’t you want to do anything about this?” Val demanded.
“Shhh!” I tried to quiet her. At that instant, in my mind, I heard an age-old Jewish admonition: Don’t make a shanda for the goyim; don’t make a scandal. Don’t draw attention from the gentiles by stirring things up.
The five people from the crowd, like sentries who had discovered infiltrators in their camp were now pointing at us.
“Val, it’s time to go. This is going to get ugly. This isn’t our fight.”
“This isn’t our fight?” She looked at me with a puzzled look. Then some primitive instinct made her turn to look at the four gorillas and the pregnant woman who were making a beeline toward us. I saw her clench her fists and take a step toward them.
“Come on, you idiots!” she yelled.
I started moving and hauled her along with me. “Please, Val. Think about it,” I pleaded.
She turned around and glared at me. “Jake, maybe you think too much,” she said, storming off toward the limo.
As I followed her, I kept looking back over my shoulder. The pregnant one had stopped her pursuit, but the four other hooligans were still tailing us. Val and I walked faster, hoping to lose them. Then I heard the kettledrum sound of rolling thunder. After another block or two it began to drizzle. I glanced over my shoulder again and saw that our pursuers had stopped and returned to the circus taking place in front of the grammar school. By the time we reached the car, it had begun to pour.
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from The Long Shadows: The Story of Jake Erlich by Andrew Erlich, published by Multicultural Publications, 2012.