Authors: Sarita Mandanna
The Major slapped away the mosquitoes that had begun to whine around them. From somewhere within the camp, a band was playing; a chorus of voices, lifted in song.
‘Trying to get to one of the senators. We’ll see.’
‘Well, I surely hope he hears what you have to say. We need more of the Government listening. We ain’t asking for no handout, only what was promised.’
‘The men here . . .’ The Major cleared his throat, tapping his cane against the truck. ‘Anyone here from the French Legion?’
‘The Legion?’ Connor shouldered a final crate, lofting a sack on to his back. ‘There’s a few from the AEF divisions that fought under the French flag, if that’s what you mean. You’ll find them about the camp. Anyhow, I hope you’ll come by in the morning sometime,’ he called over his shoulder as he staggered away. ‘We try and have ourselves some fun around here. Boxing matches, drills . . . just like the old days.’
‘Like the old days,’ the Major echoed, a strange tone, one that Jim couldn’t quite identify, in his voice as he scanned the darkened camp.
14 July 1932
t was nearly ninety degrees in what little shade there was in the overhang of the Capitol. The air felt dense and sticky, a mugginess exacerbated by the rivers bordering the city. Jim thought longingly of the Connecticut back home. She too flowed sluggishly on days like this, but there were pockets of respite to be found along her length, cool green shoals and shadowed rocks, covered with moss. He mopped the back of his neck. The oaks that lined Pennsylvania Avenue stood wilting in the humidity. Even the grass around the buildings seemed to droop: the sprinklers had not been turned on last evening, in deference to the veterans who had camped en masse on the lawns of the Capitol that night. The cordon of policemen assigned to watch over them leaned about listlessly at the foot of the Hill in a damp rim of blue. There were no birds, none of the small insects of summer; nothing seemed to move in the torpid morning except for the stumbling procession of men circling Capitol Hill.
The veterans had been informed early that morning that they were no longer permitted to camp on the grounds of the Capitol. The police were sympathetic but firm as they delivered their orders – the men had to keep moving if they wanted to visit the Hill.
If that’s what it would take, the veterans replied, then move they would. They’d march without pause around the Capitol until the Senate took action on the Bonus Bill. The Death March, they called it as they began to file around the buildings, led by a disabled veteran in a steel brace that enveloped his back and neck like a cage. Jim watched as a veteran shook the American flag that he was carrying, trying to restore some snap to it. It rustled briefly before drooping on its staff once more.
How long could they keep it up, Jim wondered, as he mopped his neck again. They’d already been marching when the Major and he had arrived at the Hill early that morning. The young aide was polite as he invited them in. With only a few days to go before the Senate was adjourned for the summer, the Senator’s calendar was especially busy, he said, but he’d see what he could do. He gestured towards the chairs in his office, but Jim, uncomfortable amidst all that officious marble and dark wood panelling, had opted to wait outside.
They should do it in groups, he mused to himself. Keep one group marching while the others got some rest . . . The men had attempted to shave and clean up in the washrooms about the plaza, but nonetheless they looked worn, lack of sleep accentuating the hollows under their eyes. Their trousers hung wrinkled and grass-stained, sweat mushrooming in patches of pale yellow on their shirts as the day dragged on.
Slowly but surely, the Death March began to make its presence felt within the building. Jim noted with amusement and not a little satisfaction the faces that started to appear at the open windows as the senators looked out at the veterans on the lawns. Puffing agitatedly on their cigars, they asked one another what it all meant; Jim grinned at the consternation that carried clearly in their voices as they wondered if they were under siege.
Word of the march began to spread around the city. More vet erans arrived, from Anacostia and the other camps downtown. Local Washingtonians, drawn by the spectacle of these resolutely marching men, came to watch, despite the oppressive heat. Reporters followed in their wake, armed with notepads and cameras as they scouted for news.
‘Look here, over here, buddy!’
The Major was still holed away in the aide’s office as evening came around. It brought with it little relief. Heat pressed down on the city, the air heavy with a brewing storm. Jolted into alertness by the ever expanding crowd, the police had started to patrol, separating veterans from onlookers, ordering reporters to move along, and keeping a sharp watch for trouble.
The floodlights around the Capitol came on, just as the first strains of ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ carried over the buildings; the Marine Band was playing at a concert nearby.
‘Turn off all those damn floodlights for a week and use the money to pay us our bonus instead,’ a veteran called hoarsely, and a cheer went up through the crowd.
A couple of onlookers tried to kick over a floodlight and were promptly hauled away by the police. Still more people came, abandoning the concert to watch the drama unfolding here instead. Tempers were increasingly on edge. A woman shrilly accused a policeman of pushing her, nearly setting off a free for all. Newshounds came rushing over. Camera flashbulbs went off all around and a veteran fell writhing to the ground.
‘Shell shock, the poor bastard,’ Jim heard someone mutter.
When the Major finally emerged, still not having been able to meet with the Senator, he stood on the stairs, stunned by the carnival that had erupted over the grounds. People were shouting, jostling, jeering; the sharp blast of police whistles sounded all across the Plaza. There were so many people crowding on to the Hill that eventually the Capitol was ordered closed.
Jim wondered what to say as the Major and he headed back to the rooms they had rented. Jim hadn’t cared for the landlord, but the lodging was well priced and conveniently located, right above the latter’s grocery store in a neighbourhood that adjoined the Anacostia camp.
‘We can try again tomorrow,’ he said carefully.
The Major massaged his knee tiredly. ‘We will,’ he agreed simply.
The next day began in much the same way, except, Jim noticed with satisfaction, that the marchers now divided themselves into two groups. While one group kept the Death March going, the other caught a couple hours of sleep in a vacant lot that fell outside of congressional jurisdiction, and from where they couldn’t be evicted.
‘Jim!’ someone called cheerfully. Connor, from the registration tent at Anacostia, was striding smiling towards him, fanning himself with a rolled-up newspaper. He introduced his companion, a slight, stooped figure, puffing on a cigarette. ‘Joe Angelo, from Camden, New Jersey.’ Jim shook Angelo’s hand, taking in the Distinguished Service Cross pinned to the concave chest.
‘The Major in there?’
Jim nodded. ‘Waited all day yesterday too.’
‘Politicians!’ Connor shook his head. ‘Here, you seen this?’ he asked, shaking out the newspaper. ‘The
– we’ve even got our own paper.’
The cartoon on the front page was that of a long line of men and women. On the horizon, the figure of a veteran loomed, in full dress kit and with ‘BEF’ inscribed on his cap. He stood erect, a half-smile on his face, as with a raised arm, he pointed the way towards Washington.
‘You gotta read this.’ Connor chuckled as he jabbed at an article.
‘A Tough Old Bird’, Jim read. Rooster Curtis from the camp had apparently contracted such a severe case of indigestion the previous week that an operation had been necessary to save his life. In the rooster’s maw were found: four honourable discharges (not masticated), one set of false teeth, one unopened package of B.D. tobacco, a yard of barbed wire, and various other odds and ends too numerous to mention. The correspondent was happy to report that after a few days spent in recovery and repenting his sins, Curtis was now back to form, thriving on a daily diet of tent pegs, soap, cigarette butts and rival newspapers.
Jim grinned. ‘He seemed hungry enough to me the other night. “Tough Old Bird” alright.’
‘Well, he’s a member of the BEF now, isn’t he? He’s gotta be tough.’ Connor laughed. ‘Come grab a sandwich with us,’ he invited.
Jim hesitated, glancing towards the building.
‘They’re going to make him wait most of today too, y’know. Come on,’ Connor urged, ‘we won’t be long.’
As they walked, Connor said: ‘Joe here testified last year.’
Angelo nodded. ‘House Ways and Means Committee. Walked all the way from Camden, I did, in the middle of February. Got here with my shoes soaked through from the snow and my feet all swollen. Wanted to show them we
the bonus; we wouldn’t be asking for it if we didn’t need it bad.
‘The congressman asks what sort of work I do. “Nothing,” I answer, “I’m nothing but a bum now.”
‘“Mr Angelo,” he says, “with your marvellous record of heroism and service, how is it that you have been unable to find employment?”
‘“I’ve been looking for two years,” I tell him, “but there ain’t no point to my searching, not when there’s nobody hiring in Camden.” I tell him how I went to the Fire Department soon as I came home from France. You know what they said to me? That I was too light. Too light! I weighed a hundred and seven pounds when I went on the scales in Uncle Sam’s Army. Pound for pound, I given those Boche good as any man out there, and better than many. I seen shells, I seen bullets, I been through all kinds of hell and back, only to be called “too light” back home. Give me two years, I told them at the Fire Department, just two years and I’d weigh as heavy as any of them. Why? Because of all the sitting around on their asses they did.’
Angelo puffed on his cigarette, thin shoulders hunched. ‘I tell this story in the House, and they’re not sure what to make of it. Some nod, as if they understand. A few start to laugh, then cough, embarrassed.
‘“You have not been treated right,” a congressman says to me.
‘“No, I haven’t,” I agree. “I’ve not had a square deal.”
‘I can make money in New Jersey, I tell them. Bootlegging, other “businesses”, but that ain’t what I want to do, going against the laws of the United States. An honest job is all I’m asking for, and if that ain’t available, then at least give me my bonus.’
Taking a last puff of his cigarette, he flicked the stub away. ‘That hearing was more than a year ago. What have they done for us since then? Nothing. And now, when we march outside Congress, they get all shook up and tell us we ain’t got no business being here. I tell you, we got just as much right to be here as anybody else, more, after all we done for this country.’
‘They ain’t all bad,’ Connor protested. He jerked a thumb towards the buildings of the Capitol. ‘There’s many in there trying to help us. They ain’t
bad,’ he repeated, as if trying to convince himself. ‘It’s a smart thing we’ve done, coming here to Washington. Show them we’re no bums but the same doughboys they cheered on. They’ll do right by us. They will.’
He turned eagerly to Jim. ‘The camp at Anacostia? You know the name of the road that leads to it, coming up from Maryland?’ He grinned. ‘Good Hope Road. If that ain’t a lucky omen, I don’t know what is. Good. Hope. Road. You couldn’t make this stuff up if you tried.’
The Major shifted uncomfortably in his chair. His leg had started to spasm again. He stretched it, trying not to wince as the taut muscles reluctantly gave. The headache that he’d been ignoring had worsened and it hurt his throat to swallow. He shifted position once more, mind wandering to the farm. The fruit had been coming out nicely on the apple trees when they’d left. Ellie’s boy had promised to water them, and he knew Ellie would be breathing down that young man’s neck to see that it was a job well done. Still, a few of those trees were downright fussy . . . He touched a hand to his throat, trying to ease the soreness.
‘Coffee,’ Jim said, holding out a cup. He looked at his father with concern, noting the pallor of his cheeks.