|Pendleton County, Kentucky
In the summer of 1934, Stanley Grimes was just past his 13th birthday. An energetic and slim young man with penetrating eyes, he had a sharp nose and thick dark hair that he wore slicked back which gave him the look of one of those Italian boys you heard about in the news those days making up the organized crime families just down the river in Newport, Kentucky. Stanley was the middle child to 8 siblings at the time and grew up on a farm in Pendleton County, Kentucky which his father Gilbert rented for $5 a month. In 1934, the country was still reeling from the worst economic crisis in its history: laborers were out of work, farmers had no place to sell their crops and if they could they were forced to sell them at prices less than it cost to plant and grow them. As a result, many farmers like Gilbert simply gave up and only grew what they needed to feed their families. Decent hard working people started to live like they were poor. Stanley’s parents were in a fight for their lives. In those years, Stanley and his family ate what they grew: corn, potatoes, carrots… whatever the soil of Kentucky would yield; he was still in the height of his boyhood and didn’t need much. He loved going with his mother down into Covington where the pace of life was quick and businessmen in their slick suits walked down the street clutching the Kentucky Post. Across the Ohio River he could see the progress in Cincinnati, distinguished by the imposing 49 story Carew Tower, just completed a few years before. One day, he thought, he’d work in a building like that. He’d send money back to his family or maybe even buy them a new Chevy Sedan. He hated that a man who worked as hard as his father could still be as poor as they were.
He and many young boys and girls his age, colored by this economic blight brought on by factors of no fault of their own, were the ones who made up what would become known as the Greatest Generation. A boy like Stanley of 13 may have gone down to the grocery store in Butler, Kentucky, asking for 25 cents a day to bag produce or to help in any way, only to be answered that no jobs were to be had. The grocer probably needed the help, he just didn’t have the money to pay. His older brother Dewey had been working as a farmhand at Ms. Beckett’s for 10 cents an hour, her parents aging and no sons in the house. Sometimes he’d let his brother work for him on the weekends and pay him half the 10 cents, a sum that Stanley would collect with excitement to save up for an ice cream in town. But what could a boy of 13 really contribute to the family?
On a hot Thursday in June of that year, there had been some excitement that the president was going to address the nation. Roosevelt was going to talk about what was being done by the government to make times better. Stanley remembered this man from the TVs in the windows of the stores down in town: his big smile and cigarette holder riding around in a fancy car claiming that ‘happy days were here again’… the song he heard on the radio was catchy and Stanley may have found himself humming it while walking down the road on the way to school in those early years of the 1930’s. Stanley’s dad was not a political man, but who could not have been swept away in the Roosevelt dream? The days of big banks and unbridled greed which threw the country into this terrible situation were over, and now this man of the people was going to make things right. All day and for the past few weeks, June was unbearably hot that year. Many days had pushed 110 degrees, driving people to sleep on their roofs, front porches and front yards to escape the heat in their houses. The most popular spot in town for young men like Stanley became the banks of the Licking River which provided a brief escape from the oppressive heat.
When Stanley got home that evening, his mother Laura had dinner cooking and the house was a commotion as one would expect a small farmhouse accommodating 8 children including the new baby Junior. The house smelled of cornbread and beans, a meal that Laura served up most nights to the Grimes family. After bread, eggs and milk for breakfast and cold cornbread for lunch, no one was surprised that cornbread followed for dinner. Stanley ran to the kitchen, grabbed a big spoon and stirred the beans. With 10 mouths to feed, it seemed something always had to be cooking in that tiny kitchen and Stanley got to know what it was like to feed a small army: fetching bags of cornmeal and 1lb cans of Heinz beans from the local grocery, ensuring all was stored after dinner, bringing the used cans back down the road to collect a penny for each 5. He did not know it now, but these skills would serve him down the road feeding the 140 men of Dog Battery in the years to come.
After dinner, Gilbert tuned to WLW on the radio and the family listened as the broadcast tuned over live to the White House and the nasally voice of that New Yorker cut into the airwaves:
“It’s been several months since I talked to you…” he said.
And he went on to talk about things which began to lose Stanley and his brothers: reciprocal trading agreements, gangster crime, the regulation of securities exchanges. But then he delved into the heart of his message: The three goals of the government, he said: Relief. Recovery. Reform. He began to talk of farmers. Of how many thousands of people like his dad would have lost their farms had it not been for the relief programs passed by the congress. He talked about how special interests and rich men in Washington were upset by what he was doing, but that the fight that he was fighting was for the worker and not for the men with money. Stanley, looking around the room at his family could not help but smile… he knew that the people that Roosevelt was talking about was them.
He began to speak of devotion to public service, of fair minimum wages, of the elimination of child labor. All this was well and good, but still foreign until he gave a real example: The White House, he said, was very old. It was built “when the Republic was young”, but this summer they were installing wiring and plumbing to keep the house cool even in the heat of the summer. On hearing this, Stanley wiped the sweat from his forehead and thought of how nice it must be to have a house that was capable of cooling itself down on a hot Kentucky night like this one. This, Roosevelt said, illustrated the progress needed not just in the White House, but what was needed to bring the country into a modern era and face the new challenges plaguing the country in the 1930’s. He then began to close by describing a trip he was ready to take:
“I plan to land at a port in our Pacific northwest, and then will come the best part of the whole trip, for I am hoping to inspect a number of our new great national projects on the Columbia, Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, to see some of our national parks and, incidentally, to learn much of actual conditions during the trip across the continent back to Washington.”
He paused a moment… and to close his adress in his staccato phrasing and New York accent:
“While I was in France during the War, our boys used to call the United States “God’s country”…. Let us make it and keep it “God’s country”.
A barking voice came on the radio:
“Thank you, Mr. President. On behalf of Powell Crosley and WLW radio, we hope you have enjoyed this Fireside Chat of President Franklin Del…”
Gilbert switched off the radio as Laura began to call all the children to bed.
That night in the bedroom with Bobby, Dewey and Henry, Stanley began to think of how with all of Roosevelt’s fancy new relief programs, maybe he could do something to help. The president was obviously on their side. He wanted to help families just like his. There must be something out there. Stanley closed his eyes. What could he do beyond being an extra hand in the kitchen or finding an odd job around town from time to time to help the family?
Across the ocean, a storm was brewing. Just as with Roosevelt, a young and charismatic leader by the name of Adolf Hitler who was also hailing himself a man of the people and the worker was on the rise. Young boys just like Stanley sat by their radios too in Frankfurt, Heidelberg and Berlin, listening to this man speak of how hard times were coming to an end and how their nation too was on the brink of a new modern era. They did not know that in just a few days this man was to order a massive purge and assassination of a 100 of his political detractors in what would become known as The Night of Long Knives; they did not know that the designs of this man went far beyond modernization and relief from the Depression, that because of this man their lives would become inescapably intertwined with other kids like Stanley.
The chirping crickets in the tall Kentucky grass outside sang Stanley to sleep from the open window as his mind began to wander… “God’s country…” he thought. His teacher at school told of how the Licking River joined the Ohio, which flowed into the Mississippi and then into the vast Gulf and Ocean at New Orleans. What a big world, he thought, as he closed his eyes and sailed down it in his dreams.