Thursday, February 17, 2005


The Seattle Times has a very good Sunday book section. It's the back three pages of the Arts & Entertainment section, and has usually two major lead articles, about a half-dozen smaller reviews, and usually a "collection" article of new works, SF, Mysteries, etc., and it covers authors visiting the Puget Sound region. What makes it good is that there is as often as not something in it that piques my interest,

In this case, my interest got me to drive to downtown Tacoma to meet Paul Dickson, one of the authors of The Bonus Army, which is a book on the veteran's march on Washington in 1932, and how the protests were a major turning point of the development of the American Dream. The Times had done a full-bore writeup of the book, mentioned he was appearing, and it sounded good.

Here's a quick summary for something that most people consider a footnote in US History: At the close of WWI, there was debate about what, if anything, was owed our Doughboy veterans who served overseas. Six years after the Armistance, it was ruled that the Vets should get a dollar for each day served, to be paid in 1945. In 1932, in the depths of the Depression, a Texas congressman pushed forward a bill to pay them off now. A vet from Portland decided to go to Washington DC to lobby, and gathered up his friends to go with him. News spread, and soon the "Bonus Army" was marching on Washington. It arrived, settled in, and when the bill did not pass, decide not to leave until it was passed. Finally the Army, led by Doug MacArthur and with the young officers Patton and Eisenhower, drove the Vets out of the city. They would be back, and would get their bonus, but their protest refocused american attention on how it treated its veterans, and paved the way for the GI Bill.

Oddly enough, I know about this from two sources; One was William Manchester's The Glory and the Dream, which was a history of the Swing Generation - Manchester uses the bonus army as the kick-off point for his history. But more importantly for me was Howard Waldrop's short story "Ike at the Mike". I will enthuse about Howard's writing some other time, but the story artfully creates an alternate universe where Eisenhower and Patton were bluesmen playing for the Bonus vets. It originally appeared in the now-extinct Omni magazine in the early 80's, was collected in the impossible-to-find Howard Who?, and later appeared in the merely difficult-to-locate Strange Things in Close-up. So I knew the framework of the tale. But I'm digressing.

Paul Dickson himself was an engaging older man who looked like the idea of a history writer, down to the silver hair and glasses perching on his forehead. More imporantly, he sounded like a writer who was excited about his work, to the point that he had to slow down to let his words catch up with his thought. I swear that if he had been given a chance, he would have told the entire tale of the book right there, but as it was, he held about a dozen people in the small bookstore in Tacoma mesmerized as he kept tying in historical figure after figure (Hemmingway, Sinclair, Truman, Eleanor Roosevelt, the owner of the Hope Diamond), into what is a key point of American History.

And he had reason to be excited, because his tour has brought him into contact with ancient Bonus marchers, and with their children and grandchildren. When he arrived at this signing, there was a phone message left with the bookstore from the grandson of the original vet who started the ball rolling. The grandson has a lot of his grandfather's papers, and would Dickson be interested in them? This infused Dickson with an palpable and contagious excitement that spread to his listeners, several of which were child and grandchildren of the WWI Vets themselves.

This is not a book review, because I have yet to read the book. But after listening to Paul Dickson speak, I catch that whiff of summer lightning in the air, of someone who has caught something that others have missed, and wants to share it. I'm looking forward to reading his work.

More later,