The two men talk Sea Monkeys "every day, every night and every weekend," and Atamian has become a great receptacle of Von Braunhut lore, which he imparts at lightning speed. "As far as I'm concerned, he's an absolute legend. He's got 193 patents and he invented X-Ray Spex [another huge success, advertised in the back pages of comic books], which is a phenomenal thing. He's a master of marketing and a great word crafter and he's done all kinds of strange stuff. He used to race cars and motorcycles. And he used to manage a mentalist called the Great Dunninger, who he says put Uri Geller and all the other mentalists to shame."
But Atamian says it is Von Braunhut's scientific achievement that impresses him most of all. "Sea Monkeys, as you know, are hybrid brine shrimp eggs that are immersed in a medium that nobody's been able to knock off," he says. The Sea Monkey eggs remain in a sort of suspended animation until they are poured into water that's been mixed with this top-secret formula, whereupon they hatch. "There's something in the powder [Harold] formulates that does something to those eggs that nature can't do," Atamian says. Von Braunhut and his wife, Yolanda, are said to be the only two people who know the formula, with which Von Braunhut is constantly tinkering. "It used to be [that] only one Sea Monkey lived and that [same] one died. Now the formulation of the chemistry, the vigor of the Sea Monkeys themselves, is better than ever," rhapsodizes Atamian.
I ask Atamian for Von Braunhut's unlisted number. Atamian says he would prefer that I not speak to Harold. Each time I ask, Atamian puts me off with a series of excuses, ranging from Von Braunhut's reclusiveness to his poor health--a few years ago Harold fell off a balcony, then his "gallbladder exploded." Atamian also mentions that whenever Von Braunhut gives interviews, there's "fallout." Curious as to what this "fallout" could be, I do a database search on Harold von Braunhut.
AMONG VON BRAUNHUT'S MANY INVENTIONS, WHICH RANGE FROM bulletproof garb to an insect observation kit, is a pen-sized weapon called the Kiyoga Agent M5, which telescopes into a metal whip at a flick of the wrist. The M5 caused an uproar in 1988 after it was revealed, in a fund-raising letter for the Aryan Nations, that a portion of the sales proceeds was going to Richard Butler, founder and leader of the organization. (This is the same Richard Butler who, along with the Aryan Nations, was recently found negligent and ordered to pay $5.1 million after two security guards assaulted a mother and son outside the Nations compound in Idaho in 1998.) Butler was on trial for sedition and needed help with his legal bills. Shortly after the M5 story broke, the Washington Post ran a lengthy article about Von Braunhut, revealing his involvement with "some of the most extreme racist and anti-Semitic organizations in the country." The article quoted an official with the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith as saying: "He has a reputation of being a generous contributor." Von Braunhut has vehemently denied the accusations in various news reports. Yet in a 1988 interview with the Seattle Times, he referred to the "inscrutable, slanty Korean eyes" of Korean shop owners and was quoted as saying, "You know what side I'm on. I don't make any bones about it."
At my request, the ADL, which has tracked Von Braunhut for years, sends me a rather hefty package. In it is a picture of the inventor, who resembles Lenny Bruce, posing in a priest's collar in front of a Nazi flag. News clippings track his frequent attendance at the Aryan Nations Congresses held every July in Hayden Lake, Idaho, where he appeared as recently as 1995--sometimes as a featured speaker, sometimes as the lighter of the burning cross. And there are newsletters from an organization called the National Anti-Zionist Institute, headed by "Hendrik von Braun," whose return address, P.O. Box 809, Bryans Road, Md., is the same place one sends away for Sea Monkey paraphernalia such as baseball kits.
Floyd Cochran, spokesman for the Aryan Nations until 1992 and a reformed racist, recalls Von Braunhut as a slight, balding man with "a rather large nose for a person of the Aryan Nations." He says Von Braunhut was something of a misfit. "He'd give long speeches about numerology and he'd make references to the pyramids," Cochran says. "It just didn't play very well."