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ANACOSTIA FLATS

John Dos Passos

web | The Sun Is but a Morning Star

"Home, boys, it's home we want to be," we sang in all the demobilization camps. This was God's country. And we ran for the train with the flags waving and a new army outfit on and our discharge papers and the crisp bills of our last pay in our pockets. The world was safe for democracy and America was the land of opportunity.

They signed you up in the American Legion and jollied you into voting for Harding and the G. O. P. Beaucoup parades, beaucoup speeches, run the slackers and the pacifists and the knockers out of the country, lynch them Wobblies, tell the Reds to go back where they came from. The G. O. P. took care of the Civil War vets and the Spanish War vets, didn't it? Well, it'll take care of youse boys.

You went to work if you could get a job; some kinds of jobs you made big money on, on others the bosses gypped you, but anyway you could eat, you could save up a little, get married, start payments on a home; boom times ahead.

When things slackened and you began to look a little democratic around the gills, they handed you the bonus. The G. O. P. and the nation are behind youse boys. Well, we got some of it and we spent it and we didn't reckon on cyclic depression No. 8b. And now look at us.

A bunch of outofwork ex-service men in Portland, Oregon, figured they needed their bonus right now; 1945 would be too late, only buy wreaths for their tombstones. They figured out, too, that the bonus paid now would liven up business, particularly the retail business in small towns; might be just enough to tide them over until things picked up. Anyway, everybody else was getting a bonus: the moratorium was a bonus to European nations, the R. F. C. was handing out bonuses to railroads and banks, how about the men who'd made the world safe for democracy getting their bonus, too? God knows we're the guys who need it worst. Every other interest has got the lobbyists in Washington. It's up to us to go to Washington and be our own lobbyists. Park benches can't be any harder in Washington than they are back home.

So three hundred of them started east in old cars and trucks, hitchhiking, ride on freight trains. (Maybe the words "direct action" still hovered on the air of the Pacific slope, left over from the days of the Wobblies.) By the time they reached Council Bluffs they found that other groups all over the country were rebelling against their veterans' organizations and getting the same idea. It was an army. They organized it as such and nicknamed it the B. E. F.

Now they are camped on Anacostia Flats in the southeast corner of Washington. Nearly twenty thousand of them altogether. Everywhere you meet new ragged troops straggling in. A few have gone home discouraged, but very few. Anacostia Flats is the recruiting center; from there they are sent to new camps scattered around the outskirts of Washington. Anacostia Flats is the ghost of an array camp from the days of the big parade, with its bugle calls, its mess-lines, greasy K. P.'s, M. P.'s, headquarters, liaison officers, medical officer. Instead of the tents and the long tarpaper barracks of those days, the men are sleeping in little leantos built out of old newspapers, cardboard boxes, packing crates, bits of tin or tarpaper roofing, old shutters, every kind of cockeyed makeshift shelter from the rain scraped together out of the city dump.

The doughboys have changed, too, as well as their uniforms and their housing, in these fifteen years. There's the same goulash of faces and dialects, foreigners' pidgin English, lingoes from industrial towns and farming towns, East, Northeast, Middle West, Southwest, South; but we were all youngsters then; now we are getting on into middle life, sunken eyes, hollow cheeks off breadlines, palelooking knotted hands of men who've worked hard with them, and then for a long time have not worked. In these men's faces, as in Pharaoh's dream, the lean years have eaten up the fat years already.

General Glassford again has played the perfect host; his entertainment committee of motorcycle cops has furnished iodine and CC pills, helped lay out the camps, given advice on digging latrines (the men call them Hoover Villas), and recently set out some tents and bedding. One of the strangest sights Pennsylvania Avenue has ever seen was a long line of ex-service men, hunched under their bedticking full of straw, filling up a long stairway in the middle of a particularly demolished fourstory garage that the police department had turned over to them. The cops and ex-service men play baseball together in the afternoon; they are buddies together.

In the middle of the Anacostia camp is a big platform with a wooden object sticking up from one corner that looks like an oldfashioned gallows. Speaking goes on from this platform all morning and all afternoon. The day I saw it, there were a couple of members of the bonus army's congressional committee on the platform, a Negro in an overseas cap and a tall red Indian in buckskin and beads, wearing a tengallon hat. The audience, white men and Negroes, is packed in among the tents and shelters. A tall scrawny man with deeply sunken cheeks is talking. He's trying to talk about the bonus but he can't stick to it; before he knows it he's talking about the general economic condition of the country:

"Here's a plant that can turn out everything every man, woman, and child in this country needs, from potatoes to washing machines, and it's broken down because it can't give the fellow who does the work enough money to buy what he needs with. Give us the money and we'll buy their bread and their corn and beans and their electric iceboxes and their washing machines and their radios. We ain't holdin' out on 'em because we don't want those things. Can't get a job to make enough money to buy 'em, that's all."

When he was through speaking a congressman was hoisted up on the platform, a stout representative from Connecticut with that special politician's profile that's as definite in its way as the standardized face of a dick. He announced that the bonus bill had passed the House and that he was the only congressman from Connecticut that had voted for it. Everybody cheered. He added that he thought it would pass the Senate, but he doubted if the Lord Himself knew what the distinguished gentleman in the White House was going to do about it.

"Now I'm not a Red, God damn it," said somebody near me, "but..."

The arrival of the bonus army seems to be the first event to give the inhabitants of Washington any inkling that something is happening in the world outside of their drowsy sunparlor. Maybe it's the federal pay cuts that have made them take notice. In the Anacostia streetcar two mail carriers and the conductor started to talk about it. "Well, they say they'll stay here till they get the bonus if they have to stay here till 1945... I guess they ought to get it all right, but how'll that help all the others out of work? ... Terrible to think of men, women, and children starvin' and havin' to beg charity relief with all the stuff there is going to waste in this country. Why up home..." Then began the stock conversation of this year 1932 about farmers not shipping apples, cabbage, potatoes, because they couldn't get any price, about loads of fresh fish dumped overboard, trainloads of milk poured out, and babies crying for it. One of the mail carriers was from Texas and had just come back from a trip home. He'd seen them plowing under last year's unharvested cotton. "We got the food, we got the clothing, we got the man power, we got the brains," he said. "There must be some remedy."

1932

 

 

© John Dos Passos
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© E-publisher LiterNet, 25.10.2009
The Sun Is but a Morning Star. Anthology of American Literature. Edited by Albena Bakratcheva. Varna: LiterNet, 2008-2010