For nearly three decades, Tim Zaal thought he had killed a man during his rage-filled youth. The idea haunted him, but he buried it with the rest of his skinhead past.
"This used to be my stomping grounds," says Zaal, standing on a street in West Hollywood, Calif., where he used to hang out in the early '80s. "Mostly punk rockers would hang out around here after concerts and we would be involved with violence on a regular basis. Violence for me, back in those days, was like breathing."
Zaal has a wrestler's physique — a big brow, broad chest, and short legs. He's wearing a Henry Lloyd baseball cap over a shaved head, and a fleece pullover covers the tattoos on his arms. He is missing a front tooth. These days he's a computer programmer, and most of the time it is clear that he has found a way to distance himself from his past — almost as if it were someone else's history.
Digging Up The Past
But bring him to the streets of his past, and gradually, Zaal sweeps backward through rooms he has avoided for years.
"I used to put razor blades in my boots," Zaal says unabashedly. "That was so that when I kicked somebody they would get cut. It made me feel good, it made me feel wonderful inside. It was like a drug for me."
When Zaal and his friends were itching to make trouble, they would stand out in front of a hot dog joint called Oakie Dogs.
"Somebody might drive by and yell 'punk sucks' out their window and then they'd get stuck at a light," he says. "And it wouldn't be uncommon for us to run around the car, pull them out of the car and beat the living crap out of them."
Zaal recalls that particular night, when he thought he took another man's life. It began with listening to a band called Fear. During the show, a bouncer was stabbed and the police came. By the time he and his friends got to Oakie Dogs, they were juiced up on alcohol and testosterone and spoiling for a fight.
They found their victims across the street, a group of gay street kids. They were just hanging out when Zaal and his friends cornered one and started kicking and hitting him — 14 skinheads pummeling him all at once. But the small gay kid was still moving. For some reason, that enraged Zaal.
"I walked up and said, 'What is wrong with you guys, can't you do it right?' " Zaal recalls. The kid they were beating on looked up and made eye contact with Zaal. "I kicked him in the forehead with my boot and that was it," Zaal says, snapping his fingers. "He was out like a light."
Zaal says an uncomfortable silence descended on the group.
"I never talked about it because in the back of my mind I was thinking, we killed this person," he says. "So we jump in our cars and drove away."
The Man Who Didn't Die
Zaal thought that would be the end of it. He shoved the whole thing out of his mind, until 28 years later.
A few years ago, the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles asked him to speak about his experience leaving the skinhead movement. Before the talk, he found himself chatting with his fellow presenter, Matthew Boger, the manager of operations.
"I asked Tim how he got out of the skinhead movement and what that was like," Boger recalls.
The pair reminisced about West Hollywood back in the '80s.
"And there was this moment in which I said that I lived on the streets," Boger says, "in which I said I hung out on this hamburger stand, and [Zaal] said, 'You know, we used to hang out there, but we stopped hanging out there after this one night that was so violent, I think I killed a kid.' "
In a flash they both knew without saying that Boger was that kid.
"It was the very first meeting that we had realized who we were to each other 20-something years ago," Boger says.
Zaal recalls the moment the way anyone in his position would.
"Of course I was ashamed," he says. "I didn't know how to handle the situation. And obviously he didn't how to handle the situation and he left as quickly as possible. It was about two weeks before I saw him again."
Reflecting On Violence
Now, in his 40s, with a son of his own, Zaal has come to understand what motivated him to be so violent, so angry, back then. When he was a teenager, his brother was shot in their neighborhood by a black man. Zaal says he became a skinhead a short time later. He thought preying on people like Boger would somehow provide protection. Instead, it has haunted him.
"You know I went through some turmoil," he says. "But at the end of the day the right thing to do was apologize. What was I supposed to do? Ignore him? Pretend it didn't happen, pretend we didn't have the conversation?"
So Zaal apologized.
Now Zaal and Boger present their story — and their unlikely friendship — to high school and middle school students around Southern California. They also do a tag-team presentation one Sunday every month at the Museum of Tolerance. It begins with a DVD film of their story and ends with a question and answer session.
Zaal says Boger used to bait him, and test him, to see if maybe those white supremacist ideas he held as a youth were still there, buried, in the grown man. But as time passed, both say that forgiveness — and redemption — have happened.
It's clear they genuinely like each other and know each other well. Boger says every time they give their presentation together he knows when it's time for him to take a seat.
"When someone will ask, 'How did you get out of the movement?' " Boger says he yields the floor to Zaal. "Cause I know it's gonna take 10 minutes to answer the question."
But Zaal isn't always around, and sometimes Boger has to field the questions on his own.
This piques Zaal's curiosity. "How long does it take you to do it?"
Boger smiles and dryly delivers the punch line: "It takes me about 2 1/2 minutes."
The two erupt into genuine laughter.
Zaal and Boger have just finished writing a book together. They hope that telling their story will prevent more young people from resorting to hate. But that is easier said than done. Earlier this year, in nearby Oxnard, an angry middle school student gunned down a 14-year-old classmate. The reason — apparently he was gay.