Recently, I found myself on the National Alliance Web site. Flashing in black at the top of the page was its dictum: "Toward a New Consciousness, a New Order, a New People." Instead of the customary hate-group swastika, the National Alliance chose for its symbol the life rune, signifying life, creation, birth, rebirth and renewal for all good Aryans, that is.
The National Alliance was once considered the most dangerous hate group in America. William Pierce, its founder, had been a physics professor at Oregon State University. In 1978 he wrote The Turner Diaries, considered by many to be the bible of the racist movement. Timothy McVeigh made a living selling copies of it at gun shows all over the country. I had recently left my job as a hate-group monitor, and I was surfing the site as much out of habit as duty. It didn't seem like much new was happening. Then, I spotted something I hadn't seen before: the phone number for National Alliance headquarters in my neighborhood. That was new.
I live in Valley Glen. If you've never heard of Valley Glen, you would be in the majority. Mapquest doesn't recognize it, and most of my neighbors don't use it as the return address on their envelopes. Community boosters, though, imagine Valley Glen as the upscale part of Van Nuys. In fact, it's a family neighborhood with a park, an elementary school, a high school and even a junior college.
Ethnically, it's a pretty mixed area, lots of Russian, Israeli and Armenian immigrants living side by side with East Indians, African-Americans and Latinos. One might even call it a "model of diversity." Don't get me wrong, this isn't some freaky love-in of a community. We have our share of gangs and crime, and there are nights when police helicopters circle overhead.
My move to the Valley coincided with my move out of the film business. Tired of writing about people who actually led exciting lives while I sat alone in a room, I went to work for a human-rights organization. Its focus was social justice. My area, my obsession, became hate groups and domestic terrorists. They were dangerous and somebody needed to monitor them. I spent my time combing every new hate site on the Internet, hanging out at Klan rallies, Aryan festivals, white-power concerts, even attending a birthday party in honor of the big daddy of all haters, Adolf Hitler.
One day a realization hit: These overlapping groups of racist, anti-Semitic, anti-government, Holocaust-denying conspiracy theorists were too busy infighting and showboating to pose any real threat to the general public. I realized the Third Reich was not going to rise again under the bumbling direction of this current crop of white supremacists. Plus, I had become desensitized to all of it. No litany of racial slurs, no monologue of racist jokes, no genocidal fantasies recited by skinheads could any longer get me to raise an eyebrow.
It was time to retire from the hate game.
Still, like a junkie, one will occasionally relapse. On that Friday afternoon, I was powerless to resist. I had to call the National Alliance's new headquarters, here in Van Nuys. Just to make sure. I got a message:
"Hello, I'm William Pierce, and I want to tell you about the National Alliance, which is America's foremost organization working for the long-term interests of men and women of European descent. We in the National Alliance are concerned about the out-of-control immigration situation. The government makes only a transparent pretext to protect America's borders. Millions of nonwhite illegal aliens are pouring into the country, rapidly changing the racial complexion of our population and the quality of the civilization that our ancestry built. We're concerned about the Jewish monopoly control of our mass media, of news and entertainment and the way in which this control is being used to shape public opinion and governmental policy in directions not in accord with the long-term interests of our people . . . "
It went on in predictable fashion, concluding with the following appeal: "If you'd like to be contacted by a local member of the National Alliance, leave your name and your mailing address at the tone."
In the past, I'd make contact, infiltrate, report. This time, I didn't leave a message. Instead, I took my dogs for a walk in the park. It was just before sunset, and two African-American guys sitting on a bench smiled and complimented my dogs. In the middle of the park, a group of East Indians played their weekly game of cricket in their crisp white outfits. As I strolled out of the park, an Orthodox Jewish family walked by on its way to synagogue. For just a moment I wondered why anyone would start a hate group in Van Nuys.
Then I wondered if it didn't make perfect sense.
There are people in this world who love hearses. And there are enough of them in Southern California to form their own club the Phantom Coaches Hearse Society dedicated, in the words of president, or "chairman of the morgue," Kerri Thorpe, to "the enjoyment of hearses, meeting new friends and just having fun."
The society meets monthly at appropriately creepy venues cemeteries, of course, and last month at a little shop of horrors on Burbank Boulevard called Dark Delicacies, which caters to the milder goth set. Amid Chuckie dolls, teen witch sets and plush bunnies with menacing saw teeth, nearly 60 Phantom Coachers munched on cupcakes and cookies, talked about upcoming events, and bought and sold funeral memorabilia, including fixtures from funeral homes and those little "funeral" flags that go on the front of hearses. But mostly they admired each other's coaches, some 20 of which lined the street outside the store like a parade of proud old ladies dressed to kill. Many are restored vintage cars dating from the '50s and '60s, the golden age of hearse building. One couple in the society owns a genuine Victorian coach carriage, complete with the traditional stately black plumes that the horses wore in a cortege.
"Hearses are amazing vehicles," Thorpe explained. "They have such style, and each one is unique. Up to about 1973 they were really attractive, but today, unfortunately, the style is gone. The new ones have very little personality."
Thorpe can tell you that the most famous coach builders were Superior, Eureka, S & S, Miller Meteor and Cotner Bevington, and that hearses come in two categories: "end loaders," where the casket slides in and out of the back, and "three- ways," where the casket can come out either side or the rear. A Landau bar is that snazzy chrome bar that goes across the side of the roof known as the Landau panel.
Thorpe has been car crazy since the age of 5 and has always loved the custom aspect of hearses. Inspired by Ruth Gordon's hearse in Harold and Maude, she took the plunge and bought her first hearse in 1990 a 1970 Cadillac Superior that still makes her glow with nostalgia. "It was a cemetery car originally owned by Forest Lawn. All white, no drapery."
Other members admit to a more ghoulish fascination with hearses. "I like the idea of these dead bodies being in the car," says "E.W.," a tall fellow with curly gray hair in a long ponytail. "I've had my share of ghost experiences; you've gotta expect that stuff with all the activity this vehicle has seen." Does he keep a casket in his 1960 Miller Meteor? "Nope," he grins. "I'm a drummer and I put my drums in the back."
Michael, a chatty interior designer, owns a cranberry-red hearse named "Cruella," in homage to 101 Dalmatians' Cruella de Vil. The interior is all dalmatian style, from the black-and-white spotted-fur steering-wheel cover to the upholstery, draperies and big dalmatian cushions in the back. "I'm not interested in the casket thing," he insists. "I took out the rollers and put in cranberry carpeting and the big pillows and some art deco sconces. It's like a bedroom!"
How do people react to a hearse driving down the street? "We usually get two kinds of responses," says Thorpe. "Those people who put their hands over their children's eyes when we drive by, and those who yell, 'Cool! I want it!'" A member named Mark says that he gets the most positive reactions from onlookers in October. "That's the month when I get the most thumbs up." E.W. says he's used to nasty notes on his windshield: "They're crude and they're always misspelled, which tells you who you're dealing with. They say things like, 'I hate you, and I hate your hearst!'" And Michael has found that a lot of people are actually afraid to get in Cruella.
"A lot of guys at the car wash won't do the interior, and I've had trouble with superstitious attendants who refuse to valet park her. But you know what I tell them? I tell them, 'Listen, honey, it's not the dead you have to be afraid of it's the living!'"
Mary Beth Crain
West Hollywood couldn't have picked a more beautiful day to hold a homeland-security and disaster-preparedness seminar than last Saturday. The city's San Vicente Park was filled with giggling toddlers running around the jungle gym, while across the street at the Pacific Design Center workers were installing a new plaza fountain in the warm March sun.
Unknown to the construction workers and toddlers, about 150 people, including L.A. County Sheriff's deputies, West Hollywood city officials and community volunteers from around the county, were inside the nearby city auditorium (which is the spitting image of a 1950s middle school gym-slash-cafeteria) for "Facing the Threat," a daylong series of lectures on the specter of terrorist attacks and approaches that local communities can take to better protect themselves.
By 8:30 a.m., the place was buzzing as green-jacketed deputies chatted with neighborhood-watch captains while standing in line for the surprisingly well-stocked breakfast buffet. A very reassuring Sting greatest-hits album played over the sound system as mostly gray-haired, soft-spoken folk in plaid shirts with genial smiles took their seats after grabbing a copy of John Ashcroft's United for a Stronger America: Citizens' Preparedness Guide.
After the obligatory opening speeches from Sheriff Lee Baca and County Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman, Sheriff's Deputy Wilson Lee launched right into the first piece of programming: Terrorism, America on Alert. Using a killer PowerPoint presentation, Lee methodically broke down the sociopolitical philosophies that drive terrorists and explained why people who hate America so much take to hijacking planes and making anthrax.
"There's a learning curve for all of us," he said, as a shot of the exploding twin towers filled a large screen at the front of the auditorium. Underneath ran a caption that may become the understatement of the new millennium: "So much for the 'It will never happen here' mentality." Lee's best PowerPoint slide, however, was the now-famous shot of George W.'s blank expression after he was first told of the World Trade Center attacks while at a Florida school. That caption read: "Embarrass our government."
Sergeant Heidi Clark gave the crowd an education in the mindset of suicide bombers. Clark, clearly the most animated and interactive of all the day's speakers, walked the audience through the strategies used by Israeli communities to thwart suicide bombers. "Raise your level of consciousness and awareness," Clark intoned, repeating a phrase that was joining the words vigilance and preparedness as the most overused words of the day. She noted that "suicide bomber" is rapidly becoming an outdated misnomer, and preferred the term "homicide bomber," since the goal of the young men and women blowing up buses in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv is to take as many innocent people as possible along with them. "These groups have people with Ph.D.'s studying the effects of the bomb, telling bombers to face a certain way, and that way you'll kill the most people," she warned.
So how do you pick out a homicide bomber? Clark said it's not easy, but instructed those in attendance to look out for people who sweat profusely, wear overly bulky jackets or coats, mutter nervously, pull at wires on their clothing, and are overly perfumed or recently shaved. "How many of you ever knew something was wrong but didn't know what it was?" she asked. "You are our first line of defense."
For some reason neither Lee nor Clark took questions from the audience, so I decided to ask Jane Riach, a white-haired Sheriff's volunteer from Carson, what she wanted from the seminar. Turned out Riach was looking for information she might need to help the nearly 200 people living in the mobile-home park she manages. Although she liked all she heard about "vigilance" and "preparedness" and being aware and homicide bombers, she had some specific concerns that went far beyond the plenty o' batteries and three-day-water-supply reminder from the Red Cross area director's spiel.
"I have a lot of older people and a lot of people who are disabled and all," she said of her mobile-home charges. "We're close to the refineries. I want to specifically find out about emergency evacuation plans. Medically, I have a lot of people on oxygen. If we lose power I need some kind of backup."
Unfortunately for folks like Riach, the daylong seminar stuck to the general, and more pointed audience questions weren't entertained, at least not until the last 15 minutes of the program, which were set aside for Q and A. Until she finds someone with an answer, Riach will just have to remain "vigilant" and "prepared."
We Have Our Issues
LOOKING BACK AT
25 YEARS OF L.A. WEEKLY
33 THINGS TO DO INSTEAD OF WATCHING THE WAR ON TV
1) Make love.
7) Buy a plane ticket to Europe and don't even think about canceling it.
14) Plant a tree.
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21) Cruise Mulholland Drive at night. Look down at the Valley lights glittering like diamonds on black velvet. Ponder what this thrilling view tells you about American energy policy.
26) Slug anyone who says it's great how the '60s are back; otherwise, remain non-violent.
32) Form a local chapter of War Addicts Anonymous.
John Powers, January 2, 1991