I discovered Hitler the summer I turned twelve. I found him in the centre of a map in a computer game called Beyond Castle Wolfenstein. I destroyed him with a bomb. Then I started the game over and blew him up again. That’s history for you.

My friend Marc had the game. July, 1987. He’d grown up a block away from me. When his parents split up, he and his mom moved to Skokie to be near family. For a while I kind of lost touch with him. But by the time classes ended for the summer, I was sick of my school friends. So I started hanging out with Marc again. I’d take the bus to Dempster and Marc would meet me, then we’d walk the couple miles to his house.

‘Damn, it’s hot,’ he said.

‘Yeah,’ I said.

‘My mom says the world’s getting hotter,’ Marc said. ‘She says every summer’ll get a little hotter and every winter’ll get a little warmer, until one day it’ll be summer all year round.’

‘Man I could use a fucking Slurpee,’ I said.

There was a 7-Eleven on the corner of his block. The neon of intense sugars blazed within the store. Expensive machines whirred, processing fructose, sunlight, and genuine alpine ice into twenty-ounce paper cups. Perfect size to support the energy needs of eighty-pound upright insects like ourselves. 1987. We lacked livers, could consume only liquid sugar.

‘Aaahh,’ said Marc.

‘Yessssss,’ I hissed.

The manager eyed us suspiciously over his history book.

‘You’re dripping on my floor. Take it outside.’

He looked down at the pictures in his history book, then up at us.

These things aren’t human, he thought.

‘Hey check it out,’ Marc said when we got outside.

He took two stolen Snickers bars out of his shorts pocket.

‘Awesome,’ I said.

It was so hot in the sun that the bars were a gooey mess by the time we got the packages open. We stood there with lumps of caramel in our hot throats and chocolate smears on our faces.

‘It’s like a hot brown Slurpee,’ I said.

We laughed.

‘You look like you been eating shit,’ Marc said.

We laughed.

‘Wanna steal some more?’ he asked.

‘Nah,’ I said. I stuck and unstuck my brown fingers. ‘I can’t eat any more candy. I’ll fucking puke.’

We stood sweltering on the sidewalk.

‘Hey I know,’ said Marc. ‘I got something cool back at the house.’

‘What?’

‘New game.’

‘Cool.’

We trooped down the street and into his basement. Actual air conditioning. We had two window units at home, one for my parents’ bedroom and one for the kitchen. At Marc’s house all the air was conditioned. Pulled through the frozen white heart of the compressor seven times per hour. Over his mother’s ashtrays. Over the seat of the toilet. Through the tight curls of the carpet, the loose curls of her head.

I passed the open door of the bathroom, looked at the mirror. Shit-eating face and sweat-plastered hair like a helmet. I touched my head self-consciously. Rubbed my fists across my cheeks to get the chocolate off.

‘Stop with the mirror, you’re like a girl,’ Marc said.

‘Why do you have your computer in the basement, anyway?’ I said, turning towards him. ‘It’s freezing down here.’

I rubbed my bare arms.

We both suddenly grinned.

‘You feel that sugar?’ he said.

‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘Hell yeah.’

We walked into the large open room where he kept the computer. It was an Apple. Light years ahead of my Commodore 64. The basement room was actually an appropriate setting for the futuristic machine. Gentle whirr of the a/c the only sound. The only colour came from two high windows. The windows processed summer into little orange tiles. They dropped into a small orange pile on the white carpet at the foot of the white wall.

Marc got a chair for me from the other room. We sat vibrating to the sugar frequency. Listening to the thud of his mom’s steps in the house above.

‘We’re going to play Carmen Sandiego for a bit, Mom,’ Marc yelled.

We both stared at the ceiling.

‘OK.’

The faintness of her voice located her precisely. Second floor, bedroom. We’d hear her coming down for almost a full minute.

‘That’s why the computer is in the basement,’ said Marc, turning it on. ‘Check this shit out.’

I never learned how he got it. I never saw it in a store. It was incredibly primitive even for 1987. Primitive maze, a green stick figure (you) with thin gun projecting, and yellow stick figures (them) with helmet-shaped heads to show they were Nazis.

‘It’s called Beyond Castle Wolfenstein,’ he said. ‘Hitler’s in it. You kill Hitler in it.’

W straight, A left, D right, space to fire. WAD [space] WAD [space] WAD [space]. I manoeuvered my avatar around the maze. Soon the corpses of Nazis littered the screen in piles of yellow lines. The material for an alphabet. Material for history books. I hit enter and entered the next level.

‘Check this out,’ Marc said.

He reached over and switched on the Apple’s tiny speakers.

Another maze flickered to life, helmeted Nazis swarming at me like Pac-Man ghosts. Suddenly staccato sounds rattled out of the speakers.

‘Kommen Sei!’

‘Kommen Sei!’

‘Kommen Sei!’

A yellow Nazi threw himself at my gun.

‘Kommen Sei!’

‘They’re talking!’ I gasped.

Marc nodded delightedly.

‘That’s real German.’

I’d never heard a computer talk. Castle Wolfenstein was the first computer game to feature voices. And what voices. Each word carved with an axe from a slab of static.

‘Kommen Sei!’

‘That’s what Nazis say?’

‘Yeah,’ Marc said. ‘That is pure Nazi language. Hitler language.’

‘Kommen Sei! Kommen Sei! Kommen Sei!’

We stared at each other, stared at the screen. The yellow Nazis moved across the flat maze, shouting genuine German words. The words were a thousand times more obscene than fuck, shit, cunt. Fuck shit cunt come from Saxon, the ancient Germanic root of English. The Nazi words contain the taboo Saxon syllables like the ocean contains fish. Fuck and cunt spin in the depths of Kommen. With the handle of fuck and cunt Marc and I could grasp the edges of Kommen. But only for a split second, then it slipped. Into Nazi abyss. Each computer syllable a matrix of obscenity.

The Nazi words came from inside the flat computer Nazis. There is no inside to a 2D computer image. The words came from the other side of the flat Nazis. From 1943. 1941. 1945.

‘Does your mom know about this,’ I asked Marc.

‘Hell no,’ he said. ‘Listen to this shit.’

‘Kommen Sei.’ ‘Kommen Sei.’

WAD [space] WAD [space] WAD [space].

Two hours later we manoeuvered our avatar into the room with Hitler. We carried the fatal briefcase with the bomb. The explosion shook out of the speakers like Kommen turned inside out. Nnnnemmmmmokkk! Hitler minus Hitler.

‘What now?’

‘We play it again.’

The flat Nazis shouted their words out at us from the depths of 1943. I wondered what we sounded like to them.

1943. Two Nazis carefully approach the castle wall. A green boy’s face shimmers on the stone.

‘Kommen Sei?’ they say carefully. ‘Kommen Sei?’

The flat boy ripples.

‘WAD [space],’ he says.

 

I’ve stumbled from a dark cold room into summer after killing Hitler so many times it’s hard to believe there was a first time. Marc and I raced up the stairs, fingers and legs numb from the basement air conditioning into ninety degrees of summer.

At the center of summer the world warps. At ninety degrees the trees houses sidewalks lie flat against the sky. Summer is the flattest season. Season of two dimensions, of shapes stuck on a wall of light.

‘My mom says every summer it gets hotter,’ said Marc.

‘Won’t matter how hot it gets if there’s a World War III,’ I said. ‘My mom says World War III’s coming.’

Marc snorted derisively.

‘Ain’t no World War III coming,’ he said. ‘Hitler already came.’

We walked aimlessly down the block.

‘What’s the deal with Hitler?’ I asked.

‘Whaddaya mean what’s the deal with Hitler?’ Marc said. ‘Hey check it out.’

A large black plastic squirt gun, molded to look like an M-16, lay on the lawn in front of us. Marc grabbed it.

‘Whose is it?’ I asked.

‘Who cares?’ he said.

‘Ack-ack-ack,’ he said, aiming the gun at me.

‘Hey I know!’ he yelled, dropping it to his side. ‘Let’s play Wolfenstein.’

‘Again?’ It was a great game, but after two straight hours, I needed a break.

‘No, man,’ said Marc. He wiggled the squirt gun at me. ‘Let’s play it for real. With this.’

‘You seriously want to play pretend war out here with that fucking squirtgun?’

I was almost twelve for Chrissakes.

Marc shrugged.

‘No one’s out here,’ he said.

I looked up and down the block. The heat had swept the street clean of human life. An overturned green metal tricycle radiated on the sidewalk.

‘Playing pretend war is kiddie shit. Gimme that goddamn gun.’

I grabbed it off him, intending to throw it into the bushes. But once I had it in my hands, I was surprised by its weight. This feels kind of like a real gun, I thought. Marc looked at me, smiling.

‘C’mon,’ he said. ‘There’s nothing else to do.’

He was right. When you’re almost twelve and you’ve played all the computer games you can play in a day, what can you do? You’re old enough to know about stealing, but too young to know about the things worth stealing. You either stay bored, or you regress a little.

‘It’ll be like Capture the Flag,’ said Marc.

I nodded slowly. Capture the Flag was semi-respectable. We’d played it at the daycamp I went to last summer.

‘Except it’ll be Kill the Hitler,’ he continued. ‘You get to be the Hitler. I get the gun.’ He grabbed it out of my loose, unprepared fingers.

‘Hey!’ I said.

‘I’ll close my eyes and count to sixty,’ Marc said. He closed his eyes. ‘One.’

‘Hey,’ I yelled. ‘I don’t know this neighbourhood! I don’t know where to hide!’

‘Two,’ he counted. ‘Three.’

I looked up and down the block. Nothing but small suburban houses with tiny exposed lawns.

‘Six,’ counted Marc. ‘Seven.’

I ran, heart pounding. Houses and lawns, exposed to the sun, as far as the eye could see. Fuck, I thought. Fuck. I stopped, clenching my fists. Chill the fuck out, I told myself. What would Hitler do?

I ran to the end of the block. Turning the corner I saw concrete steps at the side of a house, leading down into a sunken stairwell. The stairs to somebody’s basement. I ran over, jumped the iron railing, landed hard on my shoes on the concrete slab six feet below street level.

The stairwell smelled moldy. There was a dead bird in the corner. But I was out of sight, and I discovered that by crouching down against the wall, I had a clear view of the sidewalk. Not the sidewalk itself, exactly, but the space above it.

A head sailed into view, the white-haired head of an old man, grimacing in the heat. In a few seconds he was gone. I can see them, I thought, but they can’t see me. Not unless they walked to the edge of the stairs and looked down. If they did that, I’d be defenseless. A sitting duck.

Not quite defenseless. A four-foot length of iron railing had fallen into the stairwell. Now I picked it up, felt its satisfying weight. It was about the same length as a gun, I thought. I experimented with aiming it. But whatever way I turned it, the railing felt best (and most satisfying) when I gripped it like a baseball bat.

This is for clubbing people over the head with, I thought. Not for shooting with.

The stairwell was out of the sunlight, but it collected heat like an oven. Sweat dripped into my eyes. I imagined Marc sticking his head over the edge of the stairwell. I could use the railing as a pretend gun, and aim for the whites of his eyes. Or I could use it as a pretend club, and club his head to mush with it.

I realized that we hadn’t agreed on the rules of the game. Did he just have to pretend shoot me, and that was it? Couldn’t I defend myself? If I tagged him before he tagged me, would I win? And what did tagged mean in the context of this game? Shooting? Clubbing?

We were playing Wolfenstein. I thought about the rules of that game. The player tried to kill Hitler in any way possible and Hitler and his Nazis tried to kill the player. They used guns, knives, even their bare hands. Kommen sei!

Adrenalin shot through me. Sweat ran in rivers down my face. I stared up at the sidewalk. Marc could be playing by real Wolfenstein rules and come jumping over this railing down at me any second, I thought. Stomping down at me. I looked up at the air. And Marc isn’t the only one, I thought. My breath caught in my throat. Whose house is this, I thought. I don’t know anyone around here, I thought.

I remembered my parents arguing about a shooting that had been reported in the newspaper a few months ago. Dad kept saying, But it wasn’t on public property, he was on private property, Barb, the victim had left public property and entered private property when he got shot that’s what happened Barb.

I am no longer on public property, I realized with horror.

I crept up the stairs and crouched, peering at the public sidewalk through sweat and terror. It was at least ten feet away. Ten feet of private grass at least. And then this private railing, and all this private concrete. Anyone who found me in the stairwell would have a perfect right to do anything they liked with me. I dropped back down. I gripped the railing-club tighter.

Heads had been passing this whole time. They looked yellow in the sun. All the people out there in the sun, I thought. Their heads were yellow with it. Rotten with it. Their round, white-haired, black-haired, curly, bald heads rotted to the core by the sun.

Soon the heads starting coming faster. From where I crouched, looking up over the wall of the stairwell, over the railing, all I could see were the heads. Sometimes just the very tops of the heads. Little kids I assumed, or midgets maybe. Sometimes a tall one would come by, and I could see some of the neck. But mostly I just saw the heads. A procession of heads. Not whole heads even. All I could see were the profiles bobbing by. Flat profiles, like ugly presidents on hot coins.

I imagined one of the flat heads turning, thinning as it turned. I imagined the head turning completely on its flat side to reveal an ultra-thin knife’s edge, aimed at my eyeball. These heads got flat sides and thin edges, I thought giddily. They’re like switchblades, I thought. Switch-heads.

Then the sight of a particularly slow-moving head jolted me out of my reverie. Is that Marc?

I squinted, rubbed the sweat out of my eye. Crouched further down against the wall, peered up. My eyeballs stung. The head was gone. I couldn’t be sure. There. Now. Is that Marc? The head paused. It hung there for whole seconds. Trembling with turning potential. Then it moved on, vanished from my line of sight.

I’d gotten a better look this time. It was about the right height in the air to be Marc’s. Curly hair like Marc’s. At least I thought it was. Hard to tell. The sun just blurred and yellowed everything all to hell up there. And the head size. Same size head as Marc’s? Hard to tell.

How big was Marc’s head? Compared to what? I closed my eyes, imagined his head in the basement. Was it bigger or smaller than the computer monitor, for example? I mentally positioned Marc’s head in front of the monitor.

It seemed to me then that the monitor was bigger than Marc’s head. It seemed to me then that the monitor was much bigger than Marc’s head, that Marc’s head would fit comfortably in front of the computer monitor, leaving space around his skull where you could see the other Nazis coming and the maze.

Marc’s head could fit in or on the computer monitor, I thought.

I peered up at the heads floating by.

And so could any of them, I thought, gripping the length of railing hard. And so could all of them, I thought.

 

In the end I calmed down. After a while I even dropped the railing. Then I calmed all the way down to dead boredom and said fuck it and left the stairwell in disgust. I wandered back, looking for water. Marc was in the 7-Eleven drinking another Slurpee.

‘I guess I won,’ I said. ‘Shithead.’

‘Hitler never wins,’ said Marc. ‘I just stopped playing.’

‘No,’ I yelled hotly. ‘Oh no you don’t. You couldn’t find me! I won!’

‘Whatever,’ Marc said.

I got a bottle of water and a Slurpee. We walked outside and slumped in the shade of the wall.

‘Why’d you stop, anyway?’ I asked him.

He shrugged.

Castle Wolfenstein in real life,’ he said, ‘It just isn’t the same as the computer game.’

He shook his head.

‘I mean, there were all these other people out there. Not doing anything. Not wearing uniforms or anything. And I’m just wandering around looking at cars and houses and shit.’

He shook his head.

‘It wasn’t like Wolfenstein,’ he said. ‘It was like watching TV.’

When our Slurpees were done we got up and walked down the block in silence.

‘It’s like the worst TV show ever,’ I said finally.

‘What,’ said Marc. ‘What is?’

‘Being out here,’ I said. ‘You just said it was like TV, and I said well if it’s TV it must be the worst TV show ever.’

He gave me a funny look.

‘That was like three hours ago,’ he said.

‘No it wasn’t,’ I said. ‘You just said it!’

There were goosebumps on my arm. It was dark out, I realized. It was night.

 

Photograph by GeekSpin

Interview: Laurence Hamburger
Romesh Gunesekera | Interview