April 7, 2011

The First Famous Man I Met

The first famous man I ever met was John Nance Garner. He was Speaker of the House of Representatives, and then was Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Vice President during FDR's first two terms, 1933-41. Garner was part-Indian; I don't know which part or what tribe, but he was the second most-powerful part-Indian in the whole world for eight years, and rose higher in American politics than any other of Native ancestry. He tried again for the top job against FDR in 1941 (the year I was born,) and lost. He must have served nearly three decades in the House, and was Speaker from 1931 to 1933, when he joined Roosevelt's ticket, after losing to him in the Democratic Primary. A famous quote of his went, “What this country needs is a good 5-cent cigar.”

Another, less-quoted, was "The vice presidency isn't worth a bucket of spit."

For some reason, I knew some but not all of this, although, in 1960, I was only a 19-year old marine, overfull of testerone, totally oblivious to what lay ahead, and hitchhiking to California with transfer orders from Camp Lejeune, N.C., to Long Beach, CA, for re-assignment to Okinawa as an amtrack crewman (amphibian tractors.) I was hitching to save money. The Marine Corps didn’t care how you got there, but expected you to be on time. I'd been hitchhiking since about 14, and was averse to wasting money for buses.

Some guy let me out in the middle of Uvalde, TX, about three in the morning. It looked like a car-an-hour would be the deal, and the town was deader than a door nail, except for one place open; a large restaurant across old Highway 90. It had a cater-corner entrance. So I went there.

At first the restraunt looked empty. Tables with white tablecloths and ketchup and a bowl of sugar and salt and pepper and maybe 10 wooden booths with padded leather seats laid out the same, and a counter with about five stools. Then I saw a waitress, an older woman, and could hear a cook moving around in the kitchen. And, way in the back in the last booth, I saw an old man with a table full of papers lit by a green glass-shaded bronze lamp, the kind you see in courts, libraries, and Congress, reading.

I sat facing the counter and the kitchen at a table about 20 feet from where he sat to my far right. We looked at each other and I waved. He waved back. Strangers often did that in Louisiana and Texas then. He returned to his reading, and the waitress approached.

“Oh, do you know Mr. Garner?” she asked, setting down a menu.

“No ma'am,” I said. “Just being friendly.”

“That’s nice,” she said. “Well that is John Nance Garner. He was the vice president of the United States under President Roosevelt. He's our most famous citizen in Texas.”

“Oh yeah, I've heard of him,” I replied. I guess I'd seen something on television or read about him in a magazine.

“Do you know what you want?”

“I’ll have a hamburger with mustard and mayonnaise only; a cup of black coffee and a piece of apple pie heated up with vanilla ice cream on top, after I eat the hamburger.”

“My, that sounds wonderful. “

“I have to wash up. Where’s the bathroom, please?.” I’d been hitching for about 18 hours from Louisiana, my 30-day leave almost expired, and felt grimy.

“Over there,” she pointed to a door behind Mr. Garner.

She went to the kitchen and I walked toward the bathroom. Garner looked in my eyes, so I stopped and stuck out my hand. There was a dead cigar in a big brass ashtray.

“Good morning, Vice President Garner,” I said boldly. “I’m Private Mike Havenar.”

I was in uniform of course. It was easier catching rides that way, and I wouldn’t have imagined wearing anything else at the time. I'd earned that uniform on Parris Island two winters before.

“Well good morning," he said, shaking my hand with a hard firm grip. “What outfit are you with, marine?”

“Sir, I'm an amtrack crewman. Until a month ago, I was stationed at Courthouse Bay, Camp Lejeune. I’m being transferred to First Amtrack Battalion, 3rd Marine Division, on Okinawa. I’m on my way to California. I’m due there in three days.”

“You’ll make it all right. Where are you from?”

“Lake Charles, Louisiana, sir. I was just there visiting my grandmother.”

“And where is she from?”

“She’s originally from Jasper, but she’s lived most of her life in Westlake now, across the river from Lake Charles.”

He said he saw.

“Mr. Garner, can I ask you a question?”

“Go ahead and ask,” he said.

“Sir, what was it like, being vice president?”

He smiled and said, “Like sitting on a cactus for eight years and wishing you were some place else.”

We laughed together.

“Thank you sir. Nice meeting you.” We shook again.

“Nice meeting you too. Good luck, marine.”

I went to the bathroom, came back and ate my hamburger slowly, and then the coffee and pie, and glanced at him a few times. He was absorbed in his reading and writing. I guess that he liked to get away from the house to do it, and this would be the perfect place too; deserted but for we three at three in the morning. Good place to smoke a cigar. Quiet, but with ordinary people about.

The waitress brought yesterday’s paper. I read part of it slowly. The hamburger was perfect, none of this lean cuisine dry fatless and tasteless stuff you get now; the crust of the meat was soaked with tasty grease, and the bun was toasted. The apple pie and ice cream and second cup of coffee were delicious. I smoked a Lucky Strike. I was starved from going all day. I was making pretty good time. I stayed about an hour. Then I left about a 50-cent tip on the table, got up and paid, exchanged a pleasantry with the waitress, waved goodbye to the former vice president, and walked on up the road with my sea bag for about a quarter-mile, turned and faced east, and waited. Nothing was coming. Dawn was near.

I was hoping he’d come along and give me a ride. I don’t remember any of the rides to California, and I didn’t remember that I had met John Nance Garner for years. It just slipped my mind. When I started remembering, I remembered it all. I told my uncle about it when I was in my late fifties. I don’t think he believed me. But why would I make something like that up?

April 3, 2011

Mike's Dream

President Obama strode to the lectern and acknowledged several journalists from the major media as they seated themselves, then launched immediately into the subject at hand: the budget deadline.

"As of midnight tonight, in exactly two hours, the United States Government will be forced to suspend all but vital military and emergency aid services to the American people. Social Security employees will not be on the job; federal funding for colleges and universities will not be forthcoming, and government-subsidized transportation and communications facilities and so on will not be operational. All national parks and recreation areas will be closed. We have prepared a list of which employees in every department are to be laid off, and it is going out as I speak. I order all non-essential federal employees to go home at midnight and to not report until further notice.

"Additionally, because military expenditures and legal contracts cannot be paid on time without a working government, I am ordering all of our military units in every part of the world to suspend operations where safety allows it, since none of this either can be done without funds. We are temporarily closing most of our embassies, including those in Europe, the Far East, and Africa. State and other federal departments will run with a skeleton staff of only the top management officials, without secretarial or other help.

Someone laughed.

"In other words," the President continued, "I am ordering all federal employees other than those previously indicated to stay home tomorrow. Do not come to work, and do not work from your homes. We cannot pay you. I am cutting my own staff by approximately 50 percent."

"Constitutionally, I have no choice in the matter. Congress alone holds the strings to the purse, or in this case the keys to the Treasury. Our Founders wisely decided on this method, with the representatives of the people deciding how taxes will be spent, instead of a lone executive who might become a dictator if he had such power.

"There are emergency funds available to me as the Executive, and I will dispense them as fairly as I can. It is constitutionally up to Congress to find concord on how taxes will be spent. It is my job and constitutional duty to sign or not sign that legislation. In this case, there is no legislation for me to accept or veto. I reiterate that I will veto exactly what too many in Congress are now proposing, and that is why they have not decided whether to pass the bill in dispute. At midnight, by law, or rather for the lack of a law authorizing expenditures, it will be illegal and unconstitutional for the federal government to operate without a budget.

"I bow to the will of the Congress and presumably to the will of the American people, since they elected the members who did not come forth with a budget, and am shutting down the federal government. My hands are tied. It is up to the Congress and the Congress alone to resolve this delimma, and up to the American people as well, to let their will be known, and to make their will be done. That is how it is supposed to work in America. Thank you. Don't worry. God bless the United States of America."

"Mr. President!" shouted the 30 journalists.

"I'm sorry. No time for questions. Well, just one." He chose the guy from the New York Times.

"Mr. President, is there anything you would like to say to the Republicans and some Democrats in Congress whose refusal to pass a budget brought this on?"

Obama considered the question for about 10 seconds.

"It's your play."

And he walked away from a chorus of shouts.

Michele was waiting with a big smile when he returned to the private residence.