May 29, 2004


by Ted Kooser

SATURDAY, 29 MAY, 2004
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Poem: "Father," by Ted Kooser, from Delights and Shadows. © Copper Canyon Press. Reprinted with permission.


May 19, 1999

Today you would be ninety-seven
if you had lived, and we would all be
miserable, you and your children,
driving from clinic to clinic,
an ancient, fearful hypochondriac
and his fretful son and daughter,
asking directions, trying to read
the complicated, fading map of cures.
But with your dignity intact
you have been gone for twenty years,
and I am glad for all of us, although
I miss you every day--the heartbeat
under your necktie, the hand cupped
on the back of my neck, Old Spice
in the air, your voice delighted with stories.
On this day each year you loved to relate
that at the moment of your birth
your mother glanced out the window
and saw lilacs in bloom. Well, today
lilacs are blooming in side yards
all over Iowa, still welcoming you.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the novelist who wrote under the name Max Brand, Frederick Faust, born in Seattle, Washington (1892). He was the most prolific fiction writer in American history. He published more than two hundred novels in his lifetime, and for decades after his death his unpublished novels continued to appear in paperback. He wrote thrillers, love stories, and melodramas, but he specialized in the Western, even though he knew almost nothing about frontier life. He's best known for his novel Destry Rides Again (1930).

During the Great Depression, he was one of the best-paid pulp fiction writers in America, earning five cents a word. He managed to make about 100,000 dollars a year at that rate, finishing a full-length novel every week. But what he really always wanted to be was a poet, and he was ashamed of the novels he published. In a letter to his wife, he said, "Daily I thank God in three languages that I write under a pen name." When his children asked him what he did with his typewriter all day, he told them he was making shoes.

It's the birthday of the novelist and essayist G(ilbert) K(eith) Chesterton, born in London, England (1874). He's remembered today for his detective novels about the bumbling, crime-solving priest Father Brown, but during his lifetime he was primarily known as an essayist. He wrote constantly, about politics, society, literature and religion. He would sometimes work on one article while dictating a second to a secretary. He was one of the first critics to argue that Charles Dickens was a great novelist after the decline of his reputation in the early twentieth century. He was one of the first people to argue that the influence of religion on public life would be replaced by the influence of advertisements. He said that what drove him as a writer was "the problem of how men could be made to realize the wonder and splendor of being alive."

It was on this day in 1932 that World War I veterans began arriving in Washington, D.C., demanding their military bonuses about fifteen years early. Congress had approved the bonuses as a retirement plan back in 1924, and those bonuses weren't supposed to be paid until 1945, when the soldiers had reached the age of retirement. But it was the Great Depression, and most of those veterans were out of work and living in poverty, and they were desperate for early bonuses to help them survive.

A Congressman named Wright Patman was trying to pass a bill in the spring of 1932 to give the veterans their bonuses early, but he couldn’t get a hearing for the bill in Congress. Veterans across the country were outraged. That year 32,000 businesses had failed. One out of every four families had no income. Veterans had started calling the promised 1945 bonuses "Tombstone Bonuses," because they believed that they would surely die by 1945 if they didn't get any economic assistance.

The Bonus March was the idea of an unemployed former Army sergeant named Walter Waters, who stood up at a veterans’ meeting in Portland, Oregon on March 15, 1932, and said that every man at the meeting should hop a train to Washington, D.C. and demand the money that was rightfully his. He got a group of 250 veterans together, and they marched to the Union Pacific freight yards. Many of the railroad men were veterans themselves, and they let the marchers board a train that had just been emptied of livestock.

Walter Waters and his men arrived in Washington, D.C. on this day in 1932. Over the next few months about 25,000 others joined them. They set up the largest shantytown in the history of the Great Depression. Walter Waters became their unofficial mayor, and he announced that there would be no drinking, no panhandling, and no "radical talk." The veterans published their own newspaper, set up a library, a school, and a vaudeville theater where they performed plays and sang songs like "My Bonus Lies Over the Ocean."

The Bonus Army had been congregating in D.C. for almost a month when the bonus bill finally came to the floor. It was passed by the House of Representatives, but it was defeated in the Senate two days later. Many of the Bonus Marchers went home, disappointed, but the original group of men stayed behind, vowing to remain until they received justice. Sanitary conditions in the shantytown grew worse as the summer heat intensified. Food ran short and disease spread. The young J. Edgar Hoover, head of an early form of the Bureau of Investigation, spread rumors that the marchers were communists planning to attack the capitol and overthrow the government.

Police tried to evict the marchers, but when they wouldn't leave, President Herbert Hoover ordered the Army to drive them out of town. Led by Douglas MacArthur, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and George S. Pattion, several army battalions of cavalry and tanks advanced on the veterans, tossing tear-gas grenades and setting the shantytown on fire.

Over the next week, newspapers and newsreels showed images of veterans fleeing the burning shantytown with their families, through clouds of tear gas and smoke, followed by tanks and mounted troops waving swords. It was a public relations disaster. When presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt read a newspaper article about the eviction, he said, "This will elect me," and he was right. When FDR came into office the following year, a few thousand Bonus Marchers returned to Washington. Eleanor Roosevelt went out to welcome them, and she made sure the conditions remained livable. One veteran later said, "Hoover sent the Army; Roosevelt sent his wife."

Roosevelt opposed giving the Bonus Marchers their bonuses early, just as Hoover had, because he thought all Americans suffering under the Depression should get the same relief. But the bonus bill was eventually passed over Roosevelt's veto in 1936. To avoid a similar controversy with World War II veterans, FDR passed a bill giving them benefits as soon as they returned home from the war—the G.I. Bill of Rights.

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