They were ordinary people.
Los Angeles writer Anna Hamilton Phelan was inwardly shocked by what she saw at the gathering of some 400 in a rural compound located in the great Northwest. "I expected to see lunatics," she said recently.
Instead they were regular folks--middle class, from small children and teen-agers to grandparents. They were nice people, likable people, friendly people, neighborly people, Norman Rockwell people--everyone chatting warmly and back-slapping, their kids so healthy, happy and all-American. They talked about baseball. They talked about football.
"It was so benign," Phelan recalled. "Everyone was so common, so average, so mannerly and nice: 'Our son, Rob, is doing so well in college,' and talk like that. There was a lot of physical holding of kids, a lot of good parenting. I didn't expect that. It was surreal."
And misleading, for these warm, family people were not as ordinary as they appeared. They were dedicated racists, white supremacists, members of a neo-Nazi organization gathered for its annual two-week retreat in the group's woodsy headquarters.
Their credo: Satanic Jews seek to create a "mongrel race" by breeding blacks, Arabs, Latinos, Asians and other minorities with American white women. Race war is inevitable.
A young mother gave Phelan a recipe for gingerbread on the back of a flyer that bore a swastika and called for "White Power!" and "Death to Race-Mixing!"
It was the summer of 1985, and Phelan was on the scene pretending to be a white supremacist while doing research for her fictional TV story "Into the Homeland," airing Dec. 26 on HBO.
"Into the Homeland" stars Powers Boothe as a seedy ex-cop who attempts to rescue his teen-age daughter from a neo-Nazi compound in Wyoming, much like the one Phelan visited.
Phelan won't publicly identify the actual group or its location, fearing a possible lawsuit and perhaps even physical harm, she said. But the setting for her story closely resembles the Hayden Lake, Ida., headquarters of Aryan Nations, whose leader, Richard Butler, has been indicted by the federal government for sedition.
Phelan has also written the screenplay for "Gorillas in the Mist," a theatrical movie about famed gorilla researcher Dian Fossey that is scheduled for release next year.
Her interest in neo-Nazi groups was triggered four years ago, however, when her own daughter brought home some neo-Nazi propaganda that had been slipped into her locker at high school.
"I was interested in why people were attracted to this," said Phelan, who is tall, blond and middle-aged. "I was interested in who gets involved."
She had wanted to write a story about a fallen male character who redeems himself, and decided to merge that element with white supremacy in "Into the Homeland."
"Into the Homeland" arrives at an especially relevant time, with reports of anti-Semitism on the rise and two neo-Nazi members of the Order having been recently convicted of civil rights violations in the slaying of Jewish radio personality Alan Berg in Denver.
Phelan, who hung out a bit with bikers before writing the script for that fine theatrical film "Mask," decided that personal research was also in order for "Into the Homeland."
She found out the name of the largest neo-Nazi group in the West and decided to attend its annual retreat. Making contact was surprisingly easy. She found the number through the long-distance information operator and made a call.
"Hi," she said in her best Appalachian accent. "I heard your leader speak and was so impressed. I would love to hear him again. I will be in your area in a couple of months and I wondered. . . . "
She was told to come on up.
Phelan made her plans (including having the local sheriff informed of what she was doing), had some phony identification prepared, packed a polyester dress and a pantsuit and flew north.
She checked into a motel, rented a car and drove the 15 miles to the compound. "I was a little nervous, but more than that, I was excited," Phelan said about approaching the compound and its frame guard shack bearing a sign: "Whites only."
The guard was in his early 20s and wore military fatigues. Phelan showed him her bogus driver's license (she won't say how she got it). He searched her car for weapons and a camera (but not thoroughly, because her camera went undiscovered) and asked if she were from the press. Passing this flimsy inspection, she was directed to a parking lot.
"Immediately, a couple in their 30s introduced themselves, made me feel welcome and walked me into an assembly hall," Phelan said. "She was pregnant--as most of the women there were--and he was an engineer. They were from Southern California and they had moved to the Northwest to get away from 'inferiors.' "
Phelan attended for eight days, spending two nights on the premises. "They want people," she said. "If you tell them you really like what they're doing and want to stay, they say, 'Fine.' "