Following the First Lady and Lorena is a bald man in a white jacket with a red cummerbund escorting a platinum blonde wearing a sleeveless silver gown and silver high heels. The blonde illuminates the room like the sun splitting through clouds, and from a distance she’s a ringer for Mrs. Priscilla Blum, the doc’s wife.
The patriotic tune stops, the band switches to a quiet waltz, and everyone sits down except the people at the back tables, who are now escorted to the buffet. Waiters serve the guests of honor and I study them as they eat.
Mrs. Roosevelt interests me the most and I can’t keep my eyes off her as she focuses her attention on each individual at her table, as if he or she were the only person present in the huge hall. Lorena stares at the crowd. No shyness there. She looks right at us and catches my eye.
What is she thinking? Does she mock us, we small-town folk? But then I remember, she’s the journalist and social worker from Wisconsin who encouraged Mrs. Roosevelt to champion the cause of the impoverished coal miners of Scotts Run. She’s the driving force for the completion of Arthurdale, a woman of commitment and compassion.
“Can I get you a glass of champagne while we wait for our food?” Captain Wolfe interrupts my thoughts. “There’s a bar in the back.”
“Oh, yes, thank you,” I murmur, turning from the celebrities.
“How’s the dinner line look?”
“About like the line at the chow house at White Rock.” He heads for the bar and I again make note of his rugged handsomeness. You hardly notice the limp, and even in his tux you can tell by his tanned skin that he’s an outdoorsman.
Twenty minutes later, when our turn to visit the buffet finally comes, I’m feeling just a little bit tipsy. Even before Prohibition I didn’t drink much. Maybe a glass of wine before dinner on special occasions, but since David died there haven’t been many occasions.
By the time we get back to our places, the governor is ringing a little bell, the chattering stops, and he introduces the First Lady. Mrs. Roosevelt puts her napkin on her chair and steps to the podium. Her voice is surprisingly high for a big woman, and she starts without preamble.
“We have come here tonight to celebrate the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps in the Mountain State and the beginning of Arthurdale, our miners’ community. Could everyone involved in the state CCC camps please rise?” About a third of the audience stands, and my face turns scarlet as we receive applause.
“I imagine a great many of you could give this talk far better than I, because you have firsthand knowledge of the things you’ve had to do to get these programs running, but I, perhaps, am more conscious of the importance of the Civilian Conservation Corps in the history of our country. . . .”
She goes on to talk about Arthurdale and her mission of providing alternative employment for the out-of-work miners, but it’s not the words I’m listening to. You cannot help but be inspired when the wife of the president of the United States says you are doing something important.
Mrs. Roosevelt ends her short talk with a bang: “President Roosevelt’s Tree Army is marching from Oregon to Maine, from California to Florida, from West Virginia to Wisconsin to save our country from despair and you are part of it! We are all marching together from sea to shining sea!”
Here the band comes in with “America the Beautiful,” as if it was planned, and we all stand up again. “America! America!” we sing. “God shed His grace on thee. And crown thy good with brotherhood. From sea to shining sea.”
Oh, how Patience would love this!
Drop into Darkness
Outside the glittering fairy castle, fog has turned to snow, big, wet flakes that drive down the brick streets and bore into our coats as we wait for the bellhop to bring around our car. The red canvas awning over the double oak doors rattles and Wolfe almost loses his hat.
Not six feet away from the canopy, a trio of bedraggled men in worn and patched clothes stands in the sleet wearing cardboard placards. Their thin faces are red from the cold and one man can’t stop coughing. The signs around their necks tell their stories and, trying not to make eye contact, I read them while we wait.
FAMILY MAN, AGE 44, 5 CHILDREN. NEEDS A DECENT JOB, NOT HANDOUTS. EMPLOYED IN WHEELING AT THE IRONWORKS 14 YEARS.
VETERAN, 47, ACCOUNTANT AND SHIPPING MANAGER. MUST FIND WORK.
SKILLED CARPENTER. AGE 50. WILL WORK ANYWHERE. HAVE TOOLS. SICK WIFE AT HOME.”
How humiliating for these proud men to stand here. How desperate they must be to do this in front of those they see as rich and advantaged.
Across the street I notice a canteen with a hand-painted sign over the window: FREE SOUP, COFFEE, AND DONUTS FOR THE UNEMPLOYED. OPEN 24 HOURS.
A line of about twenty stands outside in the snow. These three must have come from that food line when they heard of the fancy ball going on inside the hotel. Whether it’s a demonstration or a sincere effort to catch the eye of someone who can actually help, it’s hard to tell.
I steel my jaw and let out a breath. In a way I am angry. How dare they ruin our sparkling evening! On the other hand, I feel like crying. What terrible times we live in. . . . The newspapers tell us the economy is getting better, but these men show us it’s not improving nearly fast enough.
I only hope Mrs. Roosevelt doesn’t have to walk by the trio. She is so idealistic, with her “sea to shining sea” speech. The sight of the men would bruise her.
The bellhop appears with Captain Wolfe’s Ford. He gets out of the auto, bows low, and opens the door for me, but I have to brush by the unemployed men to get in. They smell of cigarettes and bodies that need washing.
“Sorry about that, Becky.” Norman breaks the long silence as we cross the iron bridge and head back toward Liberty. (We are on a first-name basis now.) “I hated for you to see that, a bad ending to a lovely evening.”
Yes, we are all sorry—the bellhop, Captain Wolfe, and I—but what can we do? It’s the failure of runaway capitalism.
My own thoughts shock me. I sound like Patience Murphy and I remember back in ’28, even before the Crash, how Dr. Blum carried on about what he called too easy credit. It’s ironic that the only thing he didn’t pay cash for was his house and we saw what happened there—he lost it.
The snow is heavier as we head up the mountains, and the dark closes around us. No other vehicles are on the road, but I’m strangely unworried. There’s something about Captain Wolfe that inspires confidence, as if his hands on the steering wheel translate to safety.
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