After walking through the parking lot of Hummers, SUVs and pick up trucks with gun racks and NRA insignia and confederate flag bumper stickers, my friend and I paid $8 each to get into the Gun Show at the Paso Robles Fairgrounds. The sign also assured interested parties that “Children Under 13 Get In Free.” Once inside, a middle aged woman in a cowboy hat stamped my hand robustly.
“A concentration camp number?” I asked my not so amused friend.
“Don’t take too good of a shower, heh heh, and y’all kin git back in tomorrow. Hey, bring your missus or your girlfriend.”
She reassured us that the seemingly indelible number imprinted on the backs of our hands would indeed wash away. I didn’t recognize her accent as belonging to any part of California. But it did sound like most of the people I heard inside the massive tomblike structure with display tables lined up and down the aisles: Deep and rural South. Most of the people looked serious and downright intense. One man wearing a confederate hat and sporting a three day growth carried a small boy presumably his son, who seemed to have more teeth than his father.
My friend, a lawyer who handles disability and workers’ compensation claims, and I split up. As he browsed the gun collections, I engaged with a woman selling dietary supplements and offering a free test to determine my level of anti-oxidants. The woman attaching my hand to some sci fi machine that emitted a purple light told me that she ordinarily marketed super vitamins at state fairs, but that the gun show crowd had proven exceptionally interested in her product.
She whispered that she had little interest in guns, but that the gun lovers seemed excited about living longer and staying healthy. As the machine supposedly offered a number that showed that my skin had an average number of anti-oxidants, but that by taking some supplement I would gain thousands more and obviously live forever, I noticed two kids under 13 picking up rifles and pretending to shoot me. I would have done the same at that age. But my father never thought to bring me to a gun show. He didn’t even own or think about owning a gun.
I eavesdropped on shoppers and browsers, who held intricate conversations with the sellers involving questions of precision about guns, cartridges, replacement parts, velocity of projectiles and other subjects about which I knew little or nothing.
Next to a toy model of an AK 47, at which the seller was advertising slings for holding such guns, since California outlawed the sale of such weapons, I noticed a long table displaying Nazi flags, SS insignia and a series of books by former SS officers. I read a few paragraphs about the highlights of their losing campaigns in Russia and their successful occupations of several other countries. One book dismissed allegations of the so-called Holocaust. The author, a Captain, claimed he spent his proud years in the service as a chauffer. The others, I supposed, had served as cooks and valets. The books, with elegantly laid out back and white photos, were printed in Spain, during the late Franco years.
In Reinhard Heydrich, The Biography Vol 1, the authors (names not printed) assembled “a unique collection of photographs that bring to life this biography of Hitler’s probable heir apparent.” In the book, the man who I had known as a child as the “Butcher of Prague” was called an “extraordinary man who rose to become second to Himmler within the SS, controlling the entire Security Service.”
I admired the ambiguity of the prose. “Labeled as the author of the ‘Final Solution’ to the Jewish question, Heydrich is branded by some as a 20th Century Machiavellian. Others in admiration of his intelligence, sporting and musical talents have bestowed upon him the icon of a Renaissance man. What a career he could have had if the Czech resistance hadn’t assassinated him! The book price, $49.95, was ten dollars less than the book next to it, Stories of Waffen-SS Combat Heroes.
On one table, I spotted a frayed T-shirt it had a dirt line around the inside of the neck — with a photo of Timothy McVeigh. “We won’t Forgot You.” I wanted to ask the vendor about the ambiguous message, but he seemed too engaged in making a sale for an expensive antique shotgun, so I moved on
Tables displayed 19th Century rifles and six shooters, twentieth Century Glocks, 45s and Lugers, some with laser-sights attached. Each weapon was chained so that the customer could pick it up, feel it and dry shoot it without being able to walk away with the deadly merchandise.
Some tables displayed dangerous knives and machetes, a few had bows and arrows. Combine all these with the guns and there was enough fire power inside the tent to kill lots of people and defenseless animals, of course.
My friend and I saw no blacks, Mexicans or other obvious urban type Jews in the crowd. As we left, gun free and knifeless, I told my friend that I had had had an alien experience, an hour of contact with one of the constituencies of George W. Bush.
“Don’t be silly,” he said. They’re my clients. They rely on guns, vitamins and God to protect them since the government doesn’t.”
As we passed the rows of vehicles in the parking lot we didn’t see an apparently new sticker, placed only on the front bumper of your Hummer that says “Run Hillary Run.”
Later that day we found Santa Margarita Lake, paid a fee to enter the state-run preserve and hiked up a small mountain overlooking the pristine body of water. Here we were located about 220 miles northwest of Los Angeles, watching hawks, eagles and vultures carve out their air turf. Below us, outboard motorboats with fishermen patrolled the water. Campers were parked along the lake shore. Some fisherman stood on piers and cast their lines.
After we descended, we met a fisherman wearing a “work sucks, I’m going fishing T shirt.” He told us that the lock had been stocked with crappie, largemouth, striped bass, and catfish.
We passed a sign that told fisherman not to swim in the lake or allow body parts to touch the water. “I think they use it for reservoir water he said,” even before I asked my question.
“Why is it alright to have outboard motors and not have people touch the water?”
“These days you don’t know what folks will bring on their bodies to a nice lake like this,” he said, without smiling. We watched him load cases of Coors beer onto his small boat, called “SS Beer Can.” I wished him luck with his fishing.
Back in Paso Robles, where vineyards and wine tasting rooms proliferate, along with the yuppie clientele that fills them, we discussed the cultural chasm that separated the liberal, urbane people who sipped wine and ate gourmet food and read the New York Review of Books from those whose lives seemed to revolve around fishing, hunting and thinking about protecting themselves with weapons from their fellow humans.
“The working class needs protection,” my friend says. They get screwed by big corporations who don’t want to pay workmen’s compensation or disability claims. The corporations skimp on health and safety and then hire big shot lawyers to screw the inured workers out of their just claims.”
A Mexican American woman appears with a coffee pot. She speaks unaccented English as she asks if we want refills. Are we ready to order? She shouts “dos huevos over easy con sausage” to the cook in the kitchen.
I left a large tip and dared ask: “Did you vote for Bush?”
She looked at me as if I was crazy. We smiled at each other.
How many different Americans can one ingest in the course of a short vacation in Paso Robles California? I suppose the job of winning the US presidency lies in the ability of Karl Rove to calculate how many of the diverse and distractedly zany cultures inside the country he has to convince by any mean necessary, of course.
SAUL LANDAU teaches at Cal Poly Pomona University, where he is the director of Digital Media Programs and International Outreach, and is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies. He is also the co-author of “Assassination on Embassy Row,” which is about the Letelier and Moffitt murders. His new book is The Business of America.