Denny Meyer

Sargent First Class Denny Meyer, 2012, Chelsea Rae Klein, Among Dreams





My mother, like any mother, read bedtime stories.  First, Grimm’s Fairy Tales in German… and I’ll tell you, this produces nightmares: children following ginger bread trails through the forest to be captured by an evil witch who throws them in the oven cackling…  You wake up in the middle of the night screaming, Aahhh!  The evil witch has got me.’

So finally my mother started making up her own stories. Just based on imagination.  You see- she was a secretary, in a toy factory.

Something really exciting happened at the toy factory today.  One of the stuffed giraffes broke loose and started running through the factory, and all the workers were chasing it, and all the stuffed monkeys on the shelves were laughing, and it was running and running towards the exit.

So that’s the story.  And I said, Well, how does it end? 

She said she couldn’t tell me; I had to decide- does the giraffe escape?

Okay, so there’s more to this story.  It took me over forty years to realize what the meaning of this was…

There’s also this other overlaid image from a movie I saw- The Story of Oliver Reid, the American socialist who went to Russia during the Russian Revolution, and there’s this scene in a foundry, an old steel factory, and the whole scene is in medieval darkness, except for this glowing metal being poured and all of these workers are in this horrible condition. Meanwhile, outside, the Russian revolution is taking place and there’s this wonderful, mythological, soviet kind of scene where the double doors of the factory open up to this bright sunlight to this scene of thousands of red flags and cheering people and the workers inside realize this is for me.  It’s like the worker’s revolution, this curtain rising.  They flow out of the factory to be welcomed as hero workers.

To me, the double doors of that factory where the giraffe is escaping is that scene where outside is some great freedom.  At the age of 5 when I was told this story I had not been told where my parents had come from, about the hell of the Holocaust and the concentration camps.  But forty or fifty years later when I was writing the memory of this story, I realized- that factory was a concentration camp, the workers chasing the giraffe were the Gestapo- the killers, and the monkeys on the shelves that were laughing were the other inmates who could do nothing.  She couldn’t tell me how it ended because I, the five year old, was the key to the future.  Did I thrive or did I not? Only I could answer the question of freedom.  Although she escaped, my mother wasn’t free, because the hell of Europe was in her head until the day she died.  So only I could say weather the giraffe escaped.

And I’m still trying to find that out.

This is not just a story, but also the source of many, many dreams.  As I got older and heard about the concentration camps, they got mixed into it too:

The giraffe would be running and there would be barking dogs and train tracks, machine guns, people shouting in German.  So it all got mixed together.

There’s this whole gestalt about the children of Holocaust survivors- this negative horror is transferred to the next generation.  It’s a memory of horror, a derived memory of horror, but it’s more than that- it’s never being allowed to be carefree, because there’s this duty to replace what’s lost; You can’t laugh because how can you laugh with what’s happened- be happy without guilt?  And there’s a need to be driven, to do some good, which comes out in dreams, because if you’re having a wonderful time, then there’s this thing lurking in the darkness- an angry sun.  We’re affected by the horror.

I come from this weird upbringing where there were these horrible dreams archetypically derived from hell [the Holocaust]

My mother, who actually escaped and lost her whole family- she didn’t know how to hug or anything.  She did a wonderful job raising me and taught me to be a survivor but I don’t think I was ever hugged.  So, when I was with my lover, for twenty years, we slept together every night wrapped around each other.  And that was the twenty years I didn’t have any bad dreams.  After he died of AIDS, it took two or three years before I could stop saying we and say I, and before I could learn how to sleep again.  But it was never the same.  I’ve met lots of people who are missing something up here [points to his head] who say this is why they would never have a lover, because they would fear the loss.  And I’m like What, are you crazy?!  If those twenty years had lasted one year it would have been worth it.  It was the whole reason for living.

I don’t know if there’s a polite way to say this, but a large part of love has to do with scent- a person’s aroma.  There’s nothing more intimate than sleeping with the person you love, whether you’re formally married or married in your minds.   You bathe in that person’s sweat and aroma, and that affects your dreams, and that’s one of the things I noticed when he was gone….I’d lost his scent.

There’s this reoccurring dream where I wake up and realize the digital clock is not working, there’s no power.  So I reach for the lamp, and try and turn that on and it doesn’t work. 

Oh, the power is out!

 So I look out the window to try and see how widespread it is.  No lights are on.  I try and turn on the light and then I wake up.

I went through the second Holocaust, the AIDS holocaust, where everyone I grew up with, and my lover, all died of AIDS.  And now I’m the last one left to turn out the lights.

We met in what was called a Rice Palace, which is a gay bar where white men and Asians want to meet each other- it’s a very rude term, Rice Palace.  It was a gigantic palace with a huge oval bar and you could walk around it.

I saw him and I was in love.  I was very shy and walked past him ten times and never would have said anything.  But he reached out and grabbed me.

You might as well say hello.

That’s how the next twenty years began.  This was in the middle of my service, which is why eventually I left and didn’t reenlist yet again after ten years, because I had a lot of respect and responsibility and high rank, and the higher you get, the more you’re looked at.  I got tired of hiding in the supermarket afraid of who would see us together- so I just left for freedom. I wasn’t caught; I was honorably discharged as a Sergeant First Class, which is not too shabby.  I was leading a double life as any gay person in the military was [in the late 70s] and it just felt dirty.

Back in those days if you were caught, your piers could kill you if you were overseas or on a ship- you could be murdered and they’d get away with it.  But if that didn’t happen, you would be dishonorably discharged, disgraced for life. 

There was another repetitive dream I had as a child that also came from the Holocaust- it was a medieval dream- later I found out it was from the black plague when thousands of people died.  It takes place at midnight and it’s raining.  The streets are cobblestone and all of the living have been ordered to appear by the religious authorities.  There’s people holding torches of course because there is no electricity and they have to march through the rain and the mist looking at the bodies as the priest intones ‘I the dead.  I the dead.  I the dead.’

That’s the dream.  And that came true somewhere in the mid 1980s when the first AIDS quilt was displayed at a convention center.  At that time there were only a few thousand.  Now there’s millions.  [The quilt swatches] were laid out in sections of tens or twenties with isles in between and the place was very quiet.  Most people who came had lost someone who had died of AIDS.  They were walking through the isles looking at these quilt panels in silence.  In the other room there was a microphone and people taking turns quietly reading names of the dead and all you could hear was that and people crying.

I the dead.  I the dead.  I the dead.


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