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?