Tuesday, March 3, 2009


Dear Reader:

You will recall that in my last post, I related that I was in the midst of writing a memoir: The Mostly True Adventures of JustPLainWill (Batteries Not Included). I wasn't kidding. Find below a brief excerpt of Chapter One: The World, the Devil and Adlai Stevenson. Please leave a comment and tell me what you think. JustPlainWill (better known to his mother, Mercy Winter, as "J.P." )

In the summer of 1956, Adlai Stevenson ran for the Presidency of the United States against the man who was already President, Dwight Eisenhower. It was in all the papers. You can ask most any old person who happened to be around at the time about it, assuming that they haven’t already bought the farm or otherwise lost their mind.

By rights, I shouldn’t remember a Presidential campaign or much of anything else that happened when I was seven years old. But I recall the 1956 election season because my mother seemed to take such great interest in the candidacy of Governor Stevenson and immersed herself in the day to day happenings of the campaign. There was hardly a moment when she could not be seen reading everything she could get her hands on about the upcoming election. At breakfast, you could find her reading news of the campaign in the Philadelphia Inquirer. In the evenings, she would pour through the campaign news of the day in the Bulletin. She read magazines and anything else that had the word “Stevenson” printed on it. She had high hopes for Adlai Stevenson and seemed to be quite taken with all of his ideas even though they were the same ideas that had gotten him soundly beaten by the same guy in 1952.

She even kept up on the places where Governor Stevenson was going to give an upcoming campaign speech. In her continuing attempts to make sure that I learned about ‘real life’, as she called all the stuff that you did when you weren’t in school, she even attempted to discuss Stevenson’s campaign strategy with me. It could have been said that she followed his campaign schedule with all of the devotion of a groupie -----or maybe, a stalker ------except that this was the 1950’s and I am not sure that the concept of stalking had even been invented yet. After observing her behavior for the several weeks after he had won the Democratic nomination, I could only conclude that she perhaps she was in love with Adlai Stevenson and perhaps wanted him to be my father. She had been a Korean War widow and I had been fatherless for five years by now. (I wasn’t sure of Adlai’s Stevenson’s marital status because in ‘Kid World’, in which I was firmly entrenched at the time, those kind of things do not matter.)

My mother’s insistence on discussing Adlai Stevenson’s campaign with me was more than a little annoying. First there the big words like “nuclear proliferation” and “military industrial complex” that I didn’t recognize and could hardly pronounce. This pronunciation problem became acute during 1956, since I had recently lost most of my baby teeth and was damn near toothless as a seven year old. Adults, particularly women, think that children who are missing teeth are cute. Believe me, this “toothless-ness” does absolutely nothing for a kid’s ability to pronounce almost any word with more than one syllable. Also, I was much more concerned with discussing more far reaching and important matters such as the adventures of Roy Rogers, Captain Midnight, Superman and especially Mickey Mantle---as opposed to some guy named Adlai.

Mickey Mantle had won the Baseball Triple Crown in 1956 and by the end of that season, I had already convinced myself, as well as my friend, classmate, and "spiritual advisor", Washburn T. Booker, that not only was the Yankee centerfielder, the greatest baseball player who had ever lived but that Mickey Mantle and Superman were very possibly the same person. (I did not have prima facie evidence of this but surely hitting 52 home runs, driving in 130 rbi’s, and batting .353 were surely super human feats even if no one had ever really spotted Mickey changing clothes in a phone booth.) Unfortunately, my mother had only a cursory knowledge of Mickey’s accomplishments and even less enthusiasm for engaging in any discussion about Mickey's vast skills. Of course, the woman was already prejudiced on such matters. As an example, on more than one occasion, my mother had emphatically insisted to me that Superman couldn’t really fly and that his “secret-secret” identity was not Mickey Mantle. She also seemed incredulous when I suggested to her that if she was, in fact, searching for me a new father that I would much prefer it to be Mickey Mantle as opposed to some guy named Adlai, who probably couldn’t hit a high curve ball if his life depended on it.

“You might as well go to bed. I don’t think that Adlai Stevenson is going to
win”, I quietly advised my mother just after the polls closed on the night of the Presidential election.
“I think that he has a good chance, J.P. Anyway, why do you say that? I thought you liked Adlai Stevenson.”, she said.
“Well, Sister Jean had us vote at school today and Eisenhower won”, I told her.
“He did?”
“How many votes did Adlai Stevenson get”, she asked, showing a mild look of concern.
“I think that Adlai got a few votes, but it was pretty much a slaughter. I think that maybe he got two votes.”
“Who else in your class do you think voted for him. Maybe just you and Washburn T. Booker, huh?”. ( For as long as I’ve known him, no one ---not even his mother ----had ever referred to him by just his first name---always by his whole name, “Washburn T. Booker”).
“I don’t know, Sister Jean said that our ballots were a secret all the way from Australia”.
“She meant that we use the Australian secret ballot in this country, honey. It means that in our country the voting ballot is a secret.”
“Well, Adlai Stevenson got slaughtered in secret then.”
“J.P., you did vote for Adlai Stevenson didn’t you?
“It’s a secret.”
“You can tell me….”
“But Sister Jean said that...”
“Well, I’m your mother, not Sister Jean, and there shouldn’t be any secrets between us”.
“Mom, Sister Jean said that President Eisenhower was at D-Day that he played football in college? And besides, he’s already the President”.
“So you voted for Eisenhower?”
“Mom, it’s a secret”, I said, holding my ground but not wanting to disappoint her.
“I think its time that you go to bed, young man”.
“What’s D-Day?”
She didn’t answer, and just looked at me like she was really disappointed in my upbringing and that maybe I'd be better off in bed even though it was still about 15 minutes before my normal bedtime. And so off to bed I went secure in the knowledge that I had done the right thing for America by voting for Eisenhower in my second grade class’ mock election. As I dashed upstairs to my bedroom, I could hear my Mom muttering quietly to herself and saying something like “that sister Jean so and so…and besides, what the hell do a bunch of second graders know about anything”.

The next morning I woke up to find my mother bleary eyed and in the same clothes that she had on before I’d gone to bed last night. Despite her high hopes and the fact that she’d stayed up all night praying for him to come from behind in the popular vote, Adlai Stevenson was soundly beaten by Dwight Eisenhower. Eisenhower had won 57% of the vote to Adlai Stevenson’s 42%. You have to give ol’ Adlai credit, though. He did much better amongst the American public than he did in Sister Jean’s second grade class at St. Agatha’s Catholic School.

In the end, most people voted for Eisenhower because they were pretty much satisfied with the way things were, or if they weren’t, they weren't complaining about it much. That’s the way things were in 1956. Unless you were a career woman or were a Negro (as we called ourselves in those days) or some other minority, most people seemed to be satisfied. Almost everybody who wanted a job had one, gasoline was $0.23 per gallon, you could get a pack of Chesterfields for about a dollar, and people were riotously enamored with I Love Lucy on TV----and even a second grader could see the appeal of Eisenhower. Ike represented the new "normalcy" (although I'm glad that no one asked me to pronounce "normalcy" in 1956. He was already President, was a soldier and looked a lot like the TV cowboy Hopalong Cassidy. And since he was the President, he probably knew both Mickey Mantle and Superman personally. At least that's what me and Washburn T. Booker figured. Many of our parents, or at least many of them, voted for Ike for all of those reasons -----and despite the fact that he also knew Richard Nixon.

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