3/30/2010

April 1, 1935: Vets' Work Camps Get Sympathetic Supervisor


This post is the third in a series marking the 75th anniversary of the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, which struck the Florida Keys on September 2, 1935.

On April 1, 1935, Fred Ghent took charge of the camps housing World War I veterans enrolled in a federally sponsored work program in Florida.

In many ways Ghent, an Alabama native, was the perfect man for the job of supervising a group of jobless, discouraged and troubled men. He'd been a safety supervisor for the Florida Emergency Relief Administration, which was the agency charged with carrying out President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal programs in the state. But more importantly, Ghent also was a World War I veteran who could identify with the problems plaguing the men who'd landed in the work program during the worst years of the Great Depression.

Ghent would be in charge of the six work camps that the Florida Emergency Relief Administration had set up in Florida. The three beachfront work camps in the Keys housed about 600 men from all across the United States. Camp 1, the northernmost camp, was on Windley Key where the vets quarried coral used in building a highway from Miami to Key West. Camp 3, the southernmost camp, was at the southern tip of Lower Matecumbe Key, where the men were building a bridge. Camp 5 was between the other two camps at the northern end of Lower Matecumbe Key, not far from the village of Islamorada.

A few weeks after taking the job, Ghent assembled the veterans in the Keys camps to explain his plans to them. He also told them that he wanted to help them untangle their disorderly lives. "I don't believe there's a man in the ranks who would be here if he wasn't a victim of the Depression and his financial condition, which was caused by something beyond his control," he told the men.

But it would take more than sympathetic understanding to keep the unruly veterans in line. The crude work camps in the isolated, sparsely populated Keys were beyond the reach of law enforcement. There was no entertainment or recreation for the vets. So their main form of amusement was drinking, and when their monthly payday came around, they turned into a drunken, uncontrollable and brawling mob.

Ghent started meeting individually with the vets to try to help them find solutions to their problems. But he couldn't control the drunken rowdiness that made the residents of the small settlements near the camps very uneasy.

"If they had 10 cents, they had to have a bottle of beer," Bernard Russell, a lifelong resident of Islamorada, recalled in a 1996 interview. "You know, the poor old guys, they'd been through enough, I guess. We knewwhat they had gone through, and we accepted them."

NOTE: The cartoon at the top of this post pokes fun at the heavy drinking of the World War I vets living in work camps in the Florida Keys in 1935. The cartoon appreared in the May 4, 1935 issue of the Key Veteran News, a weekly newspaper published by the vets in the camps. The cartoon is part of the collection of Jerry Wilkinson of Tavernier, Florida, who is president of the Historical Preservation Society of the Upper Keys.

3/25/2010

March 24-25, 1935: Washington Post Story Portrays Vets as Living in Island Paradise


NOTE: This post is the second in a series observing the 75th anniversary of the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, which struck the Florida Keys on September 2, 1935.

By late March 1935, the Roosevelt Administration had for months been quietly sending hundreds of jobless World War I veterans to oceanfront work camps in the remote Florida Keys to work on a New Deal construction project. The vets were building a highway from Miami to Key West.

The work program had been out of the national spotlight but that changed on March 24 and 25, when the Washington Post published a two-part series about the down-and-out vets' presence in the Keys. The Post headline for the story of March 24 said the vets were partying in their island paradise.

Post reporter Edward T. Folliard's stories had a decidedly sarcastic and patronizing tone. His story of March 24 said the vets were "encamped on a pretty little coral island as working guests of Uncle Sam." The men had recently gone on a "booze rampage," Folliard wrote.

The 600 or so men in the Keys camps were casualties of the Great Depression. Many of them also had been psychologically scarred by combat in World War I. Today, their condition is known as post-traumatic stress disorder. In 1935, it was called shellshock.

For many of the vets in the Keys camps, life had been a constant struggle since they'd been discharged from military service after World War I ended in 1918. Even during the booming economy of the 1920s, they were troubled. They'd been plagued by depression and a sense of alienation. They'd had trouble holding down jobs, staying married, and raising families. Many of them drank far too much.

The economic catastrophe of the Great Depression had made their troubled lives even more chaotic. In 1932, about 40,000 desperate veterans gathered in Washington, D.C. seeking help from the federal government. The vets had been promised a $1,000 bonus -- about $15,500 in 2009 dollars -- for their wartime service, but payment wasn't due until 1944. The veterans who came to Washington in 1932 wanted Congress to pay them half of the bonus immediately.

President Herbert Hoover opposed the early payment, and in July 1932 he ordered General Douglas MacArthur to evict the men from federal property. MacArthur exceeded Hoover's orders, however, and used troops to chase the men out of the District of Columbia and set fire to their ramshackle camps.

Photos of the eviction were published in newspapers across the country. The incident helped turn public opinion against President Hoover and contributed to Franklin Roosevelt's landslide victory in the November 1932 election.

Roosevelt had campaigned on a pledge to help the "forgotten man," and after his inauguration in March 1933, jobless vets again assembled in Washington to urge early payment of their bonus. The vets were the epitome of the men Roosevelt had promised to help. Like Hoover, FDR also opposed paying the bonus early, but recalling Hoover's public relations blunder, he sought a way to help the vets while simultaneously getting them out of the nation's capital.

When Key West -- once one of the nation's most prosperous cities -- declared bankruptcy in 1934, Roosevelt Administration officials saw a chance to showcase the New Deal, put the vets to work, and get them far away from Washington. They decided to remake Key West as a tourist town.

In August 1934, the Roosevelt Administration's efforts to restore Key West were showcased in a New York Times editorial written by Julius Stone, who was in charge of the federal government's emergency relief operations in Florida. The federal government would use Key West's natural beauty and the labor of its residents to return the city to prosperity and demonstrate the effectiveness of the Roosevelt Administration's policies to pull the nation out of the Depression.

But in 1934, getting to Key West by car wasn't easy. Motorists had to use a combination of secondary roads and ferries. The journey was slow, and the ferries didn't operate during rough weather.

The solution was to build a major highway down the islands so tourists could easily drive from Miami to Key West. And the jobless vets were the ideal labor force for the project.

When the Washington Post reporter arrived, about 600 men were living in the camps and more were arriving every day. Their meals were provided at no charge, and they were being paid $30 a month for their work -- about $465 in 2009 dollars.

But Folliard had little sympathy for the vets' plights. His March 24, 1935 story focused on the "debauchery" in the work camps and said almost nothing about the construction work the vets were doing. The story of March 25 -- 75 years ago today -- briefly mentioned a bridge construction project the vets were working on, but again focused on politics and described the primitive work camps in terms that made them seem comfortable.

Folliard did not mention, however, that only a few months earlier, conditions in the camps had been so bad that two vets died from meningitis.

The photo at the top of this post shows one of the work camps in the Florida Keys that housed World War I veterans working on a highway construction project in 1935. The camp was destroyed by a hurricane that struck the Keys on September 2, 1935.

3/17/2010

Happy Birthday, Beaucat

It's Beaucat's birthday, more or less. He's officially 17 years old.

Jane and I don't know the exact date that he and his sister Harrie were born. They didn't give us birth certificates when we got them in July 1993 at the St. Lucie County Animal Shelter in Fort Pierce, Florida. But we figured they were born sometime in March of that year. So Saint Patrick's Day is as good a day as any to designate as their birthday.

I've already talked about Beaucat's current condition in a recent post, so I won't go into a lot of detail again other than to say that he's an old guy who's hanging in there. He sleeps a lot, but he still reports for lap-cat duty on Thursday and Sunday evenings when we go to the front porch for sundowners.

So instead of focusing on his age, I thought I'd do a retrospective of his career. Here are some photos of him and his late sister, who died of cancer in 2005.

The first photo above was made around Christmas 1995, in Florida. The gray furry thing floating around his nose is a catnip mouse that was his Christmas present that year.

Here's Harrie with something she swiped from the Christmas tree in 1995. We borrowed the thing from "It's a Wonderful Life" about an angel being created every time a bell rings. We'd hang a bag of catnip next to a bell on the lowest branch of the tree so that any cat who swatted the bag would ring the bell. Harrie loved to swat the catnip.

This is Harrie soon after we moved to North Carolina in 1997. The table she's looking over was made by my grandfather sometime in the early 1920s.

Here's a photo I made in the winter of 1999. I couldn't believe that the cats sat this way long enough for me to grab the camera and get this shot. But it was a very cold day, and the wood stove was putting out a lot of heat, so I guess they had no reason to move.

Here's Harrie examining the final draft of Storm of the Century: The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935. I shot this in May 2002.

Finally, here's a shot of Beaucat made on the night of September 18, 2003 a few hours after Hurricane Isabel blew right over us. The lighting is from a flashlight. We didn't get power back for a couple of weeks. Isabel was a very bad storm, but Beaucat and Harrie, being South Florida natives, ignored it. They curled up and snoozed on the couch while Jane and I worried about whether the house was going to withstand winds that included a 120-mph gust when the eye reached us.

3/14/2010

Commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935

September 2, 2010 will be the 75th anniversary of the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, the most powerful hurricane to make landfall in the United States. The eye of the hurricane came ashore at Long Key, Florida on Labor Day Monday of 1935 with winds that probably exceeded 200 mph and a storm surge that may have reached 22 feet or more.

The official death toll of the storm was 408, but the actual toll could have been higher. Most of the victims were jobless World War I veterans who had been sent to the Florida Keys as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal program to provide jobs during the Great Depression. The veterans were living in three makeshift work camps on the low-lying islands and were unprotected from the powerful storm. They were building a highway from Miami across the islands to Key West.

Keeping tabs on the unruly vets was difficult, and they often came and went without camp administrators being aware of their movements. So it was impossible to account for all of the vets after the hurricane. Some of the missing veterans may have left camp just before the storm without notifying camp officials; others undoubtedly were literally blown away by the hurricane and their bodies were never found.

Had the vets not been in the Keys, the Labor Day Hurricane would have been little more than a meteorological oddity – an extremely powerful hurricane that made landfall on islands that were sparsely populated in 1935. But their presence transformed this hurricane into a national tragedy. The vets were from all over the country, and their deaths made headlines across the U.S. The political fallout caused some headaches for the Roosevelt Administration as FDR was about to launch his campaign for his second term in 1936.

In 2002, National Geographic published my book, Storm of the Century: The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935. A paperback edition was published in 2003. The book also was the basis for “Nature’s Fury: Storm of the Century,” a documentary that premiered on the History Channel in 2006.

I spent more than four years researching and writing the book, and in the process I compiled a detailed timeline of the events related to the storm. For the next six months, I’ll be using that timeline – as well as excerpts from my writing about the hurricane – to make regular postings about the events leading to the tragedy that occurred on Monday, September 2, 1935. Please check back from time to time as I commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935.

3/10/2010

Images of the Afterlife


I have no reason that I know of to doubt that I've got many more productive years ahead of me. But I'm old enough to know that those years won't seem as long as the years seemed to be when I was a kid, or even when I was a young man.

So I'm starting to ponder more seriously what, if anything, comes after this life when, as the 17th-century poet John Donne phrased it, "the bell tolls for thee" and you pass on, to use the gentle, euphemistic phrase that polite people here in the South use instead of that awful, finite and terrifying word die.

I have no realistic idea what happens when that moment comes. Maybe, as author Andrew Holleran suggested in his novel Dancer from the Dance, you're returned to the nitrogen cycle. Or perhaps Douglas Adams had it right in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy when he quipped that maybe you vanish in a puff of un-smoke.

I grew up attending a small United Methodist church in the rural South, and the earliest image of the afterlife that was implanted in my mind combined a child's concept of the Christian vision of heaven as a sort of Disneyland theme park with images from old Looney Tunes cartoons. You see a Ferris wheel and other celestial amusements rising from behind gleaming alabaster walls, all of it floating on a fluffy white cloud. Saint Peter -- a sort of cherubic, rosy-cheeked bouncer with wings and curly blond hair -- guards the Pearly Gates, admitting the Good and sending the Bad to that big red one-way escalator that descends to a very hot place.

My thinking has evolved since those days. But it's hard not to return to familiar images. And so one of my favorite drinking games with friends is to imagine what Saint Peter might say to us when we show up for our dates with Eternity.

Before I go any further, I need to describe my personal image of Saint Peter. He's not the angelic cherub I described above. I seem him more as Humphrey Bogart in a reprise of his role as Rick, the cynical but sentimental saloonkeeper in the classic movie "Casablanca." Bogey plays a sort of Saint Peter-like character in that move. People from all over Nazi-occupied Europe come to his saloon hoping to find some way to escape to Lisbon and from there to the freedom of America. Bogart occasionally helps a worthy freedom seeker to leave Casablanca.

I see the entrance to heaven not as tacky, gilt-colored gates but as the airport in the movie's final scene. And even though thousands of people are dying every moment and all of them are meeting Saint Bogey at the instant of their deaths, when your time comes it's just you and him and night and fog. He's wearing a trench coat and a fedora with the brim snapped down over his eyes, and an unfiltered cigarette (yes, smoking is OK in heaven, if you're dead you're not worried about cancer) dangles from his lips, and the smoke curls off the cigarette and merges with the fog.

So you're standing in front of him and he's looking you up and down, and he doesn't say anything but the expression on his face seems to say, "What the hell are you doing here, chump?"

Then he's holding a battered clipboard and shuffling through the dog-eared pages of your life, and he's skimming quickly over everything but stops at something and stares for a moment, and then he raises his eyebrows and mutters, "Jesus Christ, you actually did that?" And while he's doing this, the cigarette keeps burning but doesn't get shorter.

And then the moment comes when he's going to tell you to either enter the Pearly Gates or take that red escalator. He takes the cigarette out of his mouth, discards it with a flick of his finger, and gives you another once over. You wait for him to speak.

I have an old friend named Chaz Misenheimer, a guy I grew up with, who's told me what he hopes to hear at that moment. We're both very fond of "The Andy Griffith Show," which presents an idyllic image of life in small-town North Carolina. We also have a strong preference for the older black-and-white episodes that were made before Don Knotts left the show and took his character of Barney Fife with him. But we've seen all of these old B&W episodes many times.

So when Chaz stands before Saint Peter, he hopes to hear him say, "Come on in, we've got 20 black-and-white episodes of 'The Andy Griffith Show' that you've never seen."

As for me, my guess is that when Saint Bogey takes that cigarette out of his mouth, he won't say anything. He'll just stare at me coolly until I finally get the unspoken message and turn and trudge toward the red escalator. But just as I'm about to step on the descending stair, I hope I hear him say, "Come on back, I was only kidding. You can come in."

NOTE: The picture at the top is from "Satan's Waitin", a Looney Tunes that released in 1953. The cartoon was written by Warren Foster, drawn by Virgil Ross, Arthur Davis, Manuel Perez, Ken Champin and Hawley Pratt, and directed by Friz Freleng.