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by Robert Vaughan
Category: Alternate History/Mainstream
Description: The stock Market crash of 1929 abruptly thrusts the nation into chaos, as unemployed people grow more desperate for a livelihood. As nearly every sector of the economy collapses and dust storms rage in the West, only the most determined can make it. While desperation and despair wrack the nation, Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal continues to inspire hope in some but arouses cynicism in others. Wealthy and handsome John Canfield refuses to disallow his patriotism in the face of disaster. He embarks on an important and clandestine mission for the President himself, resolving to help his country while he still has the power to do something. Gutsy reporter Shaylin McKay is one of the few women in the news business. As she risks her life as a war correspondent in Civil War-torn Spain, she confronts the realities of battle and the possibilities of human endurance. Del Murtaugh is a man with no particular occupation or destination. Displaced and penniless, he is driven from the dustbowl of Oklahoma to the dissipated lifestyle of Hollywood's dreamers and schemers. This fourth volume of The American Chronicles painstakingly recreates the dramatic conflicts of the 1930's, evoking both the hard times and the joyful ones.
eBook Publisher: E-Reads, 1993
eBookwise Release Date: January 2002
15 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [542 KB]
Reading time: 347-486 min.
JULY 28, 1932, WASHINGTON, D.C.
The rain falling on Washington, D.C., that night wasn't a hard, cleansing rain. It was a soft, gentle spray, carrying trapped within its fine mist some of the ash from the burned buildings along Pennsylvania Avenue.
As John Canfield rode in a taxicab en route to the Willard Hotel, where the National Democratic Committee kept a suite of rooms for visiting members of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's presidential campaign staff, he stared out the window in disbelief. The older son of St. Louis industrialist Robert Canfield -- majority owner and CEO of Canfield-Puritex Corporation, one of the wealthiest and most power-fill corporations in America -- John was in Washington at Roosevelt's request so that he might render a firsthand report on the unrest being caused by the Bonus Marchers.
Twenty-five, handsome, with the same dark hair and blue eyes that his father had and the runner's body that his father once had, John Canfield was on everybody's most-eligible-bachelor list. He was bright, energetic, and ambitious, and he was also a young man of great personal convictions. A member of Canfield-Puritex's board of directors and an active officer in the company, John had asked his father for an extended leave of absence from the family business to do what he could to alleviate the suffering of those caught up in the Great Depression, as it was universally known.
Like many other wealthy and compassionate young men, John's earliest efforts had been well intended but ineffectual. He had toured the country, making large donations of food, clothing, and money to various relief agencies. He had provided food to sharecroppers in Arkansas and had provided money to renovate buildings for the homeless in Detroit. He had distributed clothes in Cleveland and helped stock soup kitchens in New York.
But he had seen all that as nothing more than patchwork. What he really wanted was to get involved in some movement, some "great crusade," as he put it, that would find the cause of the depression, eliminate it, and restore America to economic greatness. When he had stated those aspirations to Champ Dawson, the senior senator from John's home state of Missouri, Senator Dawson convinced him that the best way to accomplish his goal would be to get Franklin D. Roosevelt elected president. John had met the governor, listened to what he had to say, then undertook the task of getting Roosevelt elected with all the unbridled zeal a twenty-five-year-old could muster.
Now, shifting around in his seat, John leaned forward to talk to the taxi driver.
"Did you see any of the riot today?"
"Yeah, I seen it," the hackie replied.
"The veterans and the police fought it out."
John nodded. "Yes, that much I know. What I mean is, what caused the trouble? I thought their stay here had been peaceful."
"Used to be. Ain't no more. 'Course, them that's camped down on the Anacostia mud fiats still ain't causin' nobody no trouble. But there was bunches of 'em in those abandoned buildings down on Pennsylvania Avenue, and they was gettin' pretty bad. You know. Harassin' people. The police tried to move 'em out, make 'em get back across the river with the others, but they didn't want to go, so they started fightin'. The veterans used bottles and bricks, the cops used bullets and tear gas."
"How did the fires start?"
"Don't nobody really know. Some say the veterans did it, some say the police did it themselves. Could'a been from the tear gas and smoke grenades, too."
"Yes, I suppose so," John said grimly, deeply troubled that things had gone so far. "Tell me, what do you think of them?"
"You mean the veterans?"
"They got no business here."
"Don't get me wrong; I'm all for the veterans. I mean, my oldest brother was killed in France. But when you got this many people just hangin' around the city like this all the time... Well, most folks here ain't too happy about it. Why don't they just all go home?"
John shook his head. "Many of them don't have a home to go to."
"Well, they came from somewhere, didn't they?"
"I suppose they did."
"Then they should go back to where they came from. They should go back and go to work. You can't tell me there ain't jobs out there to be had. Maybe a fella can't get the kind of job he feels he should have, but there's work to be had. Hell, I know there is."
"If there are jobs out there, I can't find them," John said. "And I've been all over the country looking for them."
The cab driver gave John a piercing look in his rearview mirror. "You'll excuse me for sayin' so, mister, but it sure don't look to me like you're hurtin' none. That's a nice suit you're wearin', that's a good haircut you got, and you ain't hungry in your eyes. I've seen enough hungry people to know what it looks like to be hungry in the eyes."
"I'm sorry," John said. He smiled apologetically. "I didn't make myself clear. I mean, I've been looking for work for others."
"Oh. You're one of them do-gooders, are you?"
John chuckled. "You might say that."
"Yeah, well, I still say there's work out there. A well-dressed, well-fed man like you just don't know where to look, is all."
"Perhaps you're right," John said, not wanting to argue any longer. "Oh, let me out here, will you?"
"What do you want out here for? It's still four or five blocks to the hotel."
"I know, but I'd like to walk."
"Okay, it's your shoe leather," the hackie replied with a shrug, pulling over to the curb.
John paid the fare, then began to walk. Despite the rain some of the buildings continued to burn, and flames licked at the night sky, lighting the low-hanging clouds from below with a diffused, orange glow. From far off John could hear the echoing wail of sirens, the sporadic rattle of gunfire, and the occasional muffled thump of a tear-gas bomb. He cringed internally, thinking that America wasn't supposed to be like this.
The crimson light of the night glow disclosed a pile of charred, smoking timbers -- a building that had burned earlier in the day. As John walked by the rubble, the falling rain hissed and popped on the still-smoldering fire, making it sound like the sputtering fuse of a live grenade. Scattered pockets of tear gas hung in visible clouds, and here and there John saw people scurrying about with handkerchiefs clutched against their noses and mouths.
For several weeks the city of Washington had been under siege by an army of twenty thousand souls, and though the invading army wasn't foreign, tensions among the residents were as high as if it had been. When twenty thousand hungry men gathered together in one spot and for one common purpose, it tended to make those around the gathering place very nervous.
When Roosevelt had decided several days earlier to send John to observe the Bonus March, the young campaign staffer immediately did thorough background work. He was now well informed about the history of the Bonus Army; he was also in the Bonus Marchers' corner.
Along with many others in the country, the veterans had suffered severe deprivations as a result of the Great Depression that held the nation in its grip. Congress had voted a war bonus to be paid to everyone who fought in the Great War, but it had also voted that the bonus wasn't to be paid until 1945 -- which to the veterans was like giving someone a can of food without a can opener. Finally their frustration came to a head, and a small group of veterans from Portland, Oregon, decided to go to Washington to pressure Congress into paying them now. As that little group traveled across the country, news of what they were doing spread to other desperate veterans, and by freight train, car, truck, and on foot, new marchers found their way to the advancing column. The group began to grow exponentially, gathering a platoon-strength number of followers in Montana, swelling by a company in Nebraska, growing by a battalion in Missouri, adding a regiment in Ohio, picking up a division in Pennsylvania, until they reached Washington with the strength of an entire army.
They had stayed in Washington for several weeks, standing on street corners and milling around by the thousands on the Capitol grounds. They had lobbied for their cause with emaciated bodies, gaunt faces, and soul-scarred eyes. When the House finally passed the bill that authorized immediate payment of the bonus, the veterans had declared a victory and congratulated each other, talking about the tough campaign they had just come through as if it had been one of the battles they had fought in France. They had waved and cheered at passing motorists, some of them smiling for the first time in over a year.
Then word came that the Senate had voted the bill down. The veterans were stunned, watching victory snatched from their grasp. Their laughter turned to ashes in their mouths, and for several days they had milled about without direction, resorting to the old military axiom of waiting until someone told them what to do.
The leaders of the Bonus Army -- some self-appointed, others elected -- finally decided to hold a "death march," a slow, shuffling, elliptical march directly in front of the Capitol steps. Working in relays, the veterans had kept the march going twenty-four hours a day for several days, each marcher keeping his dead eyes fastened on the back of the neck of the man in front of him. It had made quite an unnerving sight to the legislators and federal employees as they arrived for work each morning and left each evening. Most of those who worked in the Capitol began going in through side doors so they wouldn't have to see the group of haggard, physically and emotionally exhausted men shuffling around in a slow, mind-numbing track.
Congress adjourned without bringing the bill up for reconsideration, the lawmakers sneaking out through underground tunnels to avoid seeing the veterans. The battle was lost. When the veterans learned what had happened, the peaceful lobbying turned ugly. Washington police ordered the veterans to disperse, and when the protesters hadn't moved quickly enough, the police began to move in on them.
It was like dipping sand out of a bucket. As soon as one group of veterans was moved, another group flowed in to take its place. The police accomplished nothing, and finally, that morning, rioting began in the streets. One veteran was killed, several were wounded, and hundreds of veterans and Washingtonians had to suffer through the effects of tear gas.
Fear and tension gripped the entire city, and those responsible for President Hoover's safety ordered the White House to be guarded at all times. Now, everywhere John looked he saw soldiers fully armed and staring out over the smoldering city. Great banks of spotlights lit up the Ellipse, painting it a stark scene of harsh white and featureless black.
Then John saw something that made his blood run cold: an army on the move. Not the ragtag army of World War veterans, but well-disciplined, uniformed, Regular Army soldiers. Some were riding in the backs of trucks; others, with drawn sabers, were mounted on horses; still others manned a dozen or more light tanks.
John spotted a taxi standing empty along the curb, and he hurried over to it.
"Follow them!" he told the driver, pointing to the soldiers on the move.
"Are you crazy, mister?" the man replied. "Those boys look like they're about ready to hand out some trouble, and I don't want to be any part of it."
"You can stay a safe distance behind them," John argued. "When they stop, you stop. I'll go the rest of the way on foot."
"That's not a very good idea," the driver protested.
"I'll pay double what's on the meter."
Smiling broadly, the driver reached back to open the door of his cab. "Get in, mister. You just hired yourself a hack."
John climbed into the taxi, watching anxiously out the window as they proceeded along behind the military force. When the trucks and horses and tanks abruptly came to a halt, the cab did likewise. John paid the driver double as he had agreed, then got out and quickly walked foward to see what was going on. Soldiers poured out of the trucks and deployed, along with the tanks, around the bridge that crossed the Anacostia River. Officers and noncommissioned officers barked orders, bayonets were fixed to the ends of rifles, and bolts were worked, slamming cartridges home with metallic clicks. Huge, truck-mounted spotlights were turned on, their beams sweeping back and forth over the ramshackle village that had grown up across the river on the mud fiats.
John knew of this "Hooverville," as all such shantytowns were called, but this was the first time he had seen this one. It was huge, consisting of thousands of shelters made from cardboard, tin, scrap lumber, and even bits of paper and cloth. Most were so meager that they looked as if they would come down with a good sneeze, but a few of the shanties had been reasonably well constructed and decorated. John even saw one that looked like a perfect, tiny bungalow. It was painted white and had green shutters and a neat picket fence.
There were nearly as many signs as there were shelters:
BONUS NOW! MOST OF US WILL BE DEAD BY 1945! WE WILL NOT STARVE TO DEATH IN THE LAND OF PLENTY! WE FOUGHT FOR THIS COUNTRY. DON'T DESERT US NOW! HOOVER, WHERE IS YOUR COMPASSION? GIVE US OUR BONUS! GIVE US WORK!
Even more dramatic than the signs and shanties were the people. They were frozen into immobility by the sweeping beams of light, like animals on the road sometimes freeze when caught in the headlights of a car. There were many, many women in the village and an even greater number of children. Those children small enough to be held were in their mothers' arms; the rest were clustered around their mothers' legs, hanging on to their skirts and peering around from behind.
What affected John most was the look on the villagers' faces. To a soul they were wan and drawn, their eyes dull. They didn't appear frightened, despite the fact that an army was assembling just across the river. They didn't show any defiance, either. They just looked on with an almost detached curiosity.
John recognized an imposing figure among the military men. General MacArthur, impeccably dressed in a beribboned, dark-brown blouse, khaki riding breeches, and highly polished boots, strolled around behind his soldiers, slapping a riding quirt against his leg as he watched his army move into position. Then, responding to a subtle signal of the quirt, the soldiers began to sweep forward.
A couple of hundred veterans were on the city side of the river, and they stood defiantly at the bridge as the army swept forward.
"You don't want to come after us, do you now, lads?" one of the veterans yelled. "We were soldiers, just like you!"
"We fought in the war!" another shouted.
But most of the uniformed soldiers were too young to have fought in the war and seemed impervious to the cries for pity from the old veterans. The young army moved inexorably forward, bowling over the old, hungry, emaciated veterans with the weight of their horses, slashing at them with their sabers, and knocking them down with wicked strokes from their rifle butts.
"My ear! My ear!" one veteran screamed, slapping his hand to the side of his head after a cavalryman slashed with his saber. Bright-red blood spilled through the veteran's fingers.
Several shots were fired into the air, and the veterans, realizing they were beaten, turned and ran back across the bridge to the safety of their makeshift village.
"That's it. The soldiers won't go any further," John heard someone say, and he turned toward the voice with some surprise. He had been so transfixed by the tragic spectacle in front of him, he hadn't noticed that other civilian bystanders were observing the scene with him. Most were newspaper and radio reporters, including newsreel cameramen grinding away as they recorded the terrible scene.
"What makes you think they won't go on?" one of the other newsmen asked.
"Because I heard it from the top. MacArthur has orders not to go across the bridge."
John felt his body relax slightly, unaware until that moment just how tense he had been. The thought that the army would cross the bridge and terrorize the women and children as they had the men had been almost too horrible a thought to contemplate. At least that worry was over.
Then, to John's outrage and the voiced outrage of the other observers, General MacArthur did order his men across the bridge. The horses galloped across first, their clattering hooves raising a thunder from the bridge planking. They were followed by the tanks, then by the infantrymen. The Bonus Marchers, clearly shocked that they had been chased all the way into their sanctuary, shouted out in fury and frustration. The women screamed in fear, the children began crying in terror. Here and there a veteran would try to defend his pitiful shelter, rushing forward with a rock or bottle or brick -- only to be beaten back with grim efficacy.
Fires began breaking out throughout the village, and John was puzzled as to their origin. Then he saw soldiers running from structure to structure, setting them alight. Fires licked at the night sky, and, silhouetted against the orange flames, soldiers could be seen shoving, herding, crushing the final, futile efforts of resistance.
Soon flames covered the entire mud flat, creating a huge glowing circle in the blackness. Just beyond the wavering flames the bloodied veterans and their terrified families gathered, weeping silently as they stood in the protective cloak of darkness.
John spotted an army officer hurrying toward his commander, and he walked closer to eavesdrop.
"General, the village is secure," the officer reported to MacArthur with a crisp salute.
"Good. We'll keep our people here overnight," MacArthur replied. "Tomorrow we'll bring in the bulldozers and knock down anything that might still be standing. I don't want two sticks left together."
"Yes, sir," the officer replied, again saluting crisply, then hurrying back in the direction he had come.
John Canfield hurried away, too, to report to his commander: Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt.
As soon as he had dismissed the bellhop and closed the door of his hotel room, John had flung his travel case onto the bed and placed a long-distance call to the governor's mansion in Albany, New York, impatiently waiting for the connection to be made.
It then took him some thirty minutes to describe what he had seen, his minutely detailed depiction interrupted frequently by the governor's questions.
"Yes," Roosevelt now said on the other end of the line, when John had concluded his eyewitness account, "we listened to a radio broadcast of the event, which said essentially what you have. Though, I must say, your having been there adds a great deal of insight and immediacy to it."
"It was awful, Governor," John said quietly. "I never thought I'd live to see the day when American soldiers turned against their own people."
"You know what this means, don't you, John?" Roosevelt asked, his voice a mixture of sadness and anticipation.
"What's that, sir?"
"Herbert Hoover has just handed me the election on a silver platter."
Simon Blumberg sat in the back of the taxi, holding his crutches across one leg and scratching absentmindedly at the stump of the other. His empty trouser leg was tucked in just above what used to be his left knee. For almost ten years after the World War's end he had worn an artificial leg to replace the one lost in battle. He had worn it simply as a matter of vanity and finally stopped wearing it when he realized he could get around better without it.
"The war?" the driver asked.
"I beg your pardon?" Simon asked, turning his dark-eyed gaze from the view out the window to meet the driver's own in the rearview mirror. A breeze from the open window ruffled his dark hair, and he smoothed it back into place.
"Your leg," the driver said. "Did you lose it in the war?"
"Then you are a veteran."
"You should wear your medals," the hackie said, his tone making it more a command than a suggestion. "You should wear them proudly to show that you fought for the fatherland."
"This is my medal," Simon said, indicating the empty trouser leg.
"Yes, yes, but you must display your pride in your homeland. Don't you understand? The Jews and the Communists and the rest of the world have tried to keep us down for too long, but we have suffered enough. Soon we will suffer no more."
"I'm glad you think the suffering will soon be over," Simon said dryly.
"It won't end by itself, of course," the driver continued, either ignorant of or ignoring the sarcasm in Simon's voice. "We must take control of our own destiny."
"Yes. That is an admirable thought." Simon said the words by rote and without conviction. Berlin, indeed all of Germany, seethed with political unrest. Everyone had a political agenda, and Simon avoided them all with an equal lack of enthusiasm. At thirty-seven, he was world-weary and cynical, making no bones about the fact that he didn't give a damn about anything -- least of all himself.
"That's why I am a Nazi," the hackie said resolutely. He held out his lapel, proudly displaying the swastika pin he was wearing.
"And you think Adolf Hitler has the answers?" Simon asked.
"Yes, of course. Do you know anyone who is better qualified to lead the new Germany?"
"Actually, I rather like the ideas of Fritz Nagel."
"Fritz Nagel. He believes all the troubles of the world could be eliminated if everyone would just go about naked and there were no capital letters in the alphabet."
"You are making jokes," the driver snorted angrily. "This is no time for jokes. This is a time for action. This is a time for all true sons of Germany to join the National Socialists and stand together."
"I am not a true son of Germany," Simon said. "I am Austrian."
"Yes, yes, but Austrians, Germans, we are the same, no? Even Adolf Hitler is from Austria."
Simon smirked. "Yes, I know."
"And when Hitler is elected president, Germany and Austria will be united. We will be the greatest country in Europe. The greatest in the world."
"And you really believe Corporal Hitler can do all this for you?"
"He is a corporal no longer," the hackie said. He stared hard at Simon's reflection in the mirror. "Why is it that you aren't for Hitler?"
"I'm afraid that would be a bit difficult, under the circumstances."
"But I don't understand. You are Austrian. You are a veteran of the war. There is no reason why you should not be for Adolf Hitler."
"I am a Jew."
The driver slammed on the brakes so hard that Simon had to put his hand up to keep from being thrown against the seat back in front of him.
The hackie turned to glare at Simon. "You should have told me you are a Jew!" he snapped
"But isn't that what I just said? I am a Jew."
"I would not have taken you in my cab."
"Why not? I'm paying for the ride."
"Jews shouldn't have the right to ride in taxis -- or on trolleys or buses."
"I see," Simon said. He stared at the cab driver. "That's what you believe, is it?"
"Yes," the hackle said defiantly. "That is what I believe."
"And just what value do you place on your political convictions?" Simon asked. "After all, these are difficult times, are they not? And money is hard to come by. By the way, did I mention that I will be paying in marks, not shekels?"
The driver briefly scowled at Simon, then turned back around, put the car in gear, and continued the journey.
Simon leaned back in his seat. "I'm glad to see that we understand one another," he said dryly.
When the cab driver reached Simon's destination a few moments later, he jerked the car to a stop, a clearly deliberate move that made Simon's head snap back. Hauling his slender body out of the car before paying the fare, Simon leaned on his crutches outside the driver's window. With very measured movements, he pulled out a roll of money so large that the cab driver's eyes bulged.
"How does a Jew come by such money?" the hackie demanded.
"Haven't you heard?" Simon replied. "We are all money changers. We are the ones your Christ threw out of the temple." He paid the exact fare, omitting the tip.
The driver looked at the money, then shoved it in his pocket. "Filthy Jew," he spat as he drove away.
Smirking, Simon crossed the sidewalk on Unter den Linden Strasse to his apartment building. As he was about to enter, the front door of the apartment building next door was suddenly thrown open and several Brownshirts came rushing outside, laughing and pushing before them a terrified man and an even more terrified woman. The man was wearing a placard around his neck with the words: I AM A JEW. I DEFILED AN ARYAN WOMAN. The placard hanging from the woman's neck read: I DISGRACED MY RACE. I SLEPT WITH A JEW.
"Wouldn't you like to sleep with this filthy slut, Hans?" one of the Brownshirts shouted to a fellow SA recruit, pointing to the woman.
"Are you crazy? She has been with a Jew. If you stuck your cock in her, it would probably fall off!"
"How about the Jew? Did his cock fall off?" a third SA man asked.
"I don't know. Let's see. Show us your cock, Jew! Take out your cock for all to see!"
"Please," the terrified man whimpered.
The Brownshirt named Hans slapped him so hard that his nose began to bleed.
"I said, take out your cock!"
With trembling hands, the man began to unbutton his trousers.
"Look at it, Hans. Doesn't it look like one of those fat white worms you turn up under a piece of decaying wood?"
"No," Hans answered. "It looks like a maggot. A disgusting, white maggot." He turned to the woman. "And you, you slut! You let this maggot cock inside of you!" He struck the woman as hard as he had struck the man a moment earlier, and almost instantly the woman's left eye began to swell shut.
"Come," another of the SA men suggested. "We'll take them down to the corner for all to see. She slept with a Jew!" he shouted, and he motioned for the others to shout with him. "She slept with a Jew!"
"She slept with a Jew!" "She slept with a Jew!" "She slept with a Jew!"
Simon stood back along with the other passersby who had been drawn to the scene, watching the Brownshirts push and pummel the couple all the way down to the corner of the block. He felt a myriad of emotions: anger, impotence, frustration, and shame.
He didn't feel fear, but it was hardly odd that he didn't. To feel fear one had to be concerned for his life -- and on that particular issue Simon had long ago crossed the Rubicon. The war had destroyed more than his left leg; it had destroyed his spirit. He no longer cared whether he lived or died.
Turning back to his apartment building, he awkwardly climbed the steps and went inside, shutting the door tightly and blotting out the taunts and cries that echoed from down the street.
Copyright © 1993 by Robert Vaughan