The other morning I found myself in Pittsboro with time to kill. I had a coffee and pastry in the truly fabulous Pittsboro General store–a café-cum-health food store that occupies a former auto showroom. Two uncomplaining hours fell by the wayside as I devoured essential facts about Mena Suvari, Zadie Smith and Paul Thomas Anderson in an inch-thick issue of Vanity Fair.
Needing to blow another hour, I took a walk around the traffic rotary in the center of town–a well-oiled centrifuge that flings traffic particles in all directions: south to Sanford, west to Siler City, north to Chapel Hill, east to Raleigh. I passed an assortment of drab shops. Nostalgia for lost time appeared to be the predominant ware. Presently, I spotted the following flyer taped to the window of a barbershop:
First the Democrats came for the gun owners. I was not a gun owner, so I said nothing.
Then they came for the tobacco farmers.
I was not a tobacco farmer, so I said nothing.
Then they came for the hog farmers.
I was not a hog farmer, so I said nothing.
When they came for me, nobody said anything.
This epigram is cribbed from Pastor Martin Niemoller, a German Lutheran minister bemoaning his own passivity during the Third Reich–except that in the original version, Jews, Communists and trade unionists were the prey, and Nazis were the predators.
I was pondering how this classic lament of the bygone 20th century had come to be adopted by paranoid Southern men, when the shop door opened, and I found myself looking at the beaming face of the barber.
“Great sign, innit?”
“Well, yeah. I am fascinated by it.”
The barber tells me than an Army Corps engineer had put it up–so-and-so who lives in Montcure and hates them Democrats.
I drew the barber’s attention to the curious small print at the bottom: “In memory of the White Rose Student Resistance Movement against Hitler’s Socialism.” In this palimpsest, the word National had been whited out of a reference to the National Socialist Party, making Hitler simply a Socialist, and thus, more like a Democrat.
As for the White Rose movement, I briefly described to the barber how two students in Munich, brother and sister Hans and Sophie Scholl, had been the principal members of a group that had, for a few weeks in 1942 and 1943 stood on street corners handing out politely written anti-Nazi leaflets. In short order, the siblings had been arrested and guillotined.
The barber nodded and turned to a more interesting subject: my origins.
“You’re not from around here, are you?”
“Uh, no. I’m from–up north there,” meaning Orange County. My Freudian slip told the real truth. I was from Yankeeville.
Busted again. I’m nobody’s idea of a good ol’ boy, but I am a construction worker with a Ford pickup who worships Hank Williams. It doesn’t matter. My voice gives me away every time, my damnable Jewish nose of an accent. I’m forced to admit to the barber that, despite having lived most of my life in North Carolina, I am ethnically, or perhaps racially, a Yankee.
“See! I knew!” the barber exclaimed. “Yankees just don’t ever lose that accent.”
The friendly man edged back into his shop. I waved and moved along, thinking about Hans and Sophie Scholl, who had tried to put out a wildfire with white roses and thimblefuls of water. Though barely noticed by history, they linger on today, stripped of context and heroism, in Chatham County.