by Randy Ford
Headline gave Salas a scare. This news sounded bleak to this staunch Democrat. This news sounded bleak to this lifelong Democrat, bleak, very bleak, and Salas hadn’t told Helen how worried he was. He knew he wouldn’t get away with not telling her, with not telling his wife, but Salas hadn’t told his wife yet, hadn’t told her what he did
Every evening, the old man listened to news on his Phil co Console Radio. Since REA reached them, he hadn’t use wet cell batteries or his old wind charger. Wet cell batteries and his old wind charger gathered dust in their storm cellar. Since REA reached them, he left his radio plugged in in front of his easy chair. Throughout the 1948 presidential campaign, his hope for Truman ran high, and he went to Democratic rallies whenever he could. His loyalty to the Democratic party was unshakable.
Salas donated money to Truman’s campaign. Salas gave what he could to Truman’s campaign and spoke at Truman rallies. And prominently pinned to his overalls was a campaign button for a man, a plain-spoken man from Kansas, Independence Kansas, which Salas considered a neighbor … a plain-spoken man Salas considered a neighbor from a neighboring state. And as long as election results came in, Salas sat in front of his Phil co Console Radio, nervously listening to what appeared more and more like a disaster. As the evening progressed, news got worse, worse, worse, much worse, and by the time Salas went to bed it looked as if Truman lost the election. All evening Salas refused to move until he gave up and went to bed
His chair was off-limits to anyone else, which didn’t mean no one else in the house listened to news. Listening to the radio every evening became a family ritual. Along with news, they never missed an episode of “Life with Luigi.” “Your lovin-a son a, Luigi Basco, the il’l immigrant.” And on Saturday nights, “The Louisiana Hayride” came to them from Shreveport. (A 50, 000 watt-signal made it possible.) Salas dreaded the outcome of this election that Dewey was expected to win, but worse yet, if a Republican won, Salas stood to lose his shirt, his farm. Yes, his farm.
Salas believed in the Democratic Party. He believed in Roosevelt, who he thought stood for the working man and, as far as he was concerned, had rescued the country from the Depression. Now he believed Truman was doing a good job, doing a great job as president, made a great president and should be reelected. He admired Truman rather than liked him, and he even thought Truman was a crook and a liar. “Because you can’t get rich in politics unless you’re a crook,” Truman had to be crooked. Though Salas thought Truman was a crock and a liar, he thought Truman should be elected president. Salas thought the country would be better off under Truman than Dewey.
Thomas Dewey, governor of New York, and Southern Dixiecrats splintered Salas’ party; still as uncomfortable as Salas was with Truman, he not only voted for him but also bet on his election. He admired Truman and didn’t like him, but he still bet his farm on him retaining the presidency. This included the best river-bottom land in the county.
Whatever he thought, Salas now regretted it, and of Helen who was his wife, Salas hadn’t considered her and didn’t want to think about what her reaction would be when she found out. Helen was aware of Salas’ drinking, which would be what he blamed his stupidity on. And there was Uncle Ned, a staunch Republican, and Uncle Ned’s Republican buddies. And Salas knew them all. And by then everyone knew about Salas’ wager, everyone knew except Helen, and all over town people talked about it. “What? He did what? No! Yes. And Helen doesn’t know? And no one could tell her, so she was spared. Poor Helen! Sympathy intended for her but not for Salas. Fool! But what about Uncle Ned? Scoundrel! Scoundrel! Sentiment shared by everyone was expressed openly and had Helen gone to town she would have heard it. Then too, if she’d gone to town and voted maybe she could have stopped Salas. Helen should have voted
At midnight, Salas went to bed thinking he knew, like rest of the country, outcome of the election. (Salas usually went to bed much earlier.) At midnight, Salas went to bed thinking he knew Dewey won this election, thinking he knew Dewey would be the next president of the United States. Radio stations across the country had gone off the air. Newspaper presses across the country had begun to roll with tomorrow’s banner headline set in type: DEWEY WINS. So he forced himself out of his chair and went to bed knowing that he wouldn’t be able to sleep.
And would it help, if he told Helen? Should he, or shouldn’t he? Tell her, or … tell her what? Tell his wife about a wager he made, a wager he made with uncle Ned. Wagered their farm on the outcome of this election. He did what? Tell his wife he lost their farm? He bet Uncle Ned that Truman would win. Salas slipped into bed without waking Helen. He slipped into bed with his wife. He slipped into bed with Helen without waking her, without waking his wife and telling her he wagered their farm that Truman would win when he thought DEWEY WON. DEWEY WINS. Dewey wins. Dewey wins.
Salas, fool, had salvaged his farm during dust bowl days by planting poplar trees as windbreaks. Hard work, all that backbreaking work, for God’s sake, now for nothing. Jesus! Salas cursed when he thought about it. Just possibly, Uncle Ned would have mercy on them, but did he dare approach his uncle on his knees? Maybe.
Salas tossed and turned, and couldn’t sleep … couldn’t sleep through a long night … thought he knew what his uncle would say. There was a precedent for his uncle rejecting this idea (hadn’t he refused to hire Salas when he was desperate and needed a job?), but how could his uncle take his farm? What could Salas do to appease his uncle? And what a predicament it was to be in! “It’s my own damn fault,” Salas said to himself. “I shouldn’t have been drinking, when it’s against the law to drink on Election Day.” Blame it on raw-gut.
“With Uncle Ned, you could never be sure. After all, he’s family.” Salas cried, “Damn! How could I have done such a thing? How could I be so stupid. After Helen and I worked so hard to save the farm, it will kill her to have to move again. After all the backbreaking work … ”
Helen lay beside him. “We’ll make it, Helen, just as we made it through hard times before. We’ll just have to work harder, that’s all.”
“What are you talking about, Salas?”
“If Dewey wins, it won’t be the end of the world, Helen. DEWEY WON.” Helen stared at him.
“What was he talking about? DEWEY WON.”
Now that Salas thought Dewey won, his eyes were sad, and it alarmed Helen. It was strange to see Salas act so worried, and it worried her too.
Salas said: “Regardless what happens I love you, and I wouldn’t intentionally do anything to hurt you. We’ll have to see what happens. As far as we know, Truman hasn’t conceded yet. And he won’t … not just yet.”
Then she said: “Try to sleep.”
As early as three o’clock that morning, Salas was still brooding over election results. He saw Dewey winning and their farm going to Uncle Ned.
“This is for the books,” Truman said.
November 2, 1948 was a big day. That morning Salas planned to go to town first thing and knew he’ would vote for Truman. Salas always voted Democrat. Salas was a stanch Democrat. He was as Roosevelt man. Helen told him to stay away from the Republican crowd (which was hard to do. It was a Republican town). Salas shrugged. Helen would’ve gone with him if he hadn’t insisted on going to town early. Someone had to do chores. Salas usually helped with chores and had his things to do and would’ve helped her had she insisted.
“I’ll come back for you. I want to catch Uncle Ned.” Salas could be excused for how he felt about Uncle Ned: there had always been bad blood between them.
Helen knew she couldn’t change her husband’s mind. And about voting? She didn’t care for either candidate. She considered Truman a crook but voted for him. Helen would not vote for Dewey. Anyway, anyway, anyway DEWEY WON, won the White House. It was clear. Salas asked her a few days before the election who she planned to vote for, and she jokingly declared, “Why of course Dewey.” Why, of course Dewey, when she knew Salas counted on her voting for Truman; yet she teased him by saying that she was voting for Dewey.
Driving down Main Street, looking to see who was already in town, Salas saw three or four men already gathered in front of the billiard hall, men he knew. As he parked his car, he looked in the direction of the post office, where he wasn’t surprised to see another group of men. Republicans! Republicans! Damn Republicans. They were chatting, as they would be on any other day.
So far weather was cooperating. It was fascinating how people who were friends and had known each other all their lives were divided into camps, and actively opposed each other, and had gathered on opposite ends, opposite ends of Main Street. Salas looked to see if he could see Uncle Ned.
Yes, he talked to Uncle Ned before then. Yes, he talked to Uncle Ned about this election before then. No, no, they hadn’t bet on the election … hadn’t bet yet.
Election Day started out orderly. Except for how Salas drank, and maybe he didn’t drink as much as people thought, since the bar was close and there wasn’t any place in town that sold alcohol on Election Day. Beer couldn’t be sold on Election Day. Maybe, maybe. maybe he only had a beer or two. What are you saying? He found beer somewhere. There was much milling about, mingling before and after people voted. There was much chatter before and after people voted. Flapping bunting, bright patriotic shirts, distinctive Panama hats, and campaign buttons of both parties gave Election Day its festive feeling. Though there wasn’t suppose to be political trickery, electioneers and politicians still worked crowds now, with Salas in middle of it. As long as they stayed outside polling station boundaries, they could approach each other. Here Salas knew he would run into Uncle Ned. They could greet each other, here. What a party! Each party had a party. It was like New Years Eve, except stakes were higher.
And where was Helen? He knew Helen was rushing around, and after feeding chickens, milking cows, and separating cream from the milk, would she want to vote? Would she want to come to town? Salas didn’t want to pick his wife up, so they arranged for a neighbor to drive her to town.
Uncle Ned asked about her. “He’s wealthy, you know. He owns a big white house on the south edge of town!” Salas managed to remind everyone this. He was quite drunk already; however he didn’t act intoxicated. He seemed sober except for his face, which was redder than normal. His friends should have noticed, yet you can’t blame them: they couldn’t stop him anyway. Salas was his own worse enemy. His uncle knew Salas’ weaknesses, and hence could be blamed. This was what everyone thought when they heard about this wager. It was a ridiculous wager, and everyone blamed Uncle Ned.
One of Helen recurring nightmares had them losing the farm through Salas’ stupidity, yet this possibility thankfully didn’t seem possible to her, while his vulnerability was increased tenfold by his drinking.
Salas refused to believe Dewey would win. Instead of being somber and unsmiling, he held up his head and did all he could for his candidate. Poll Dewey to Get 30 States. Poll Dewey Given 27 States. Poll Electoral Votes Dewey 333, Truman 82, Wallace 0. Poll Dewey to carry Virginia. Poll All Over but shouting. Salas ignored polls. Salas didn’t believe polls and didn’t believe newspapers, or else he wouldn’t have approached Uncle Ned.
Salas wore his best overalls, washed and pressed for the occasion. He never wore a suit, so wearing one would’ve been out of character, and a necktie would’ve looked odd on him. He shined his shoes, something he always did before he went to town. So that was how he looked when he and Uncle Ned awkwardly stood together on the courthouse steps, in front of everyone, where people often conducted business, particularly when they wanted to solidify a deal. It was strange to see two of them standing together, when there was so much bad blood between them. Yet some people found confront in it because here was a staunch Democrat approaching an equally loyal Republican. But people’s mouths hung open as they watched the two men shake hands. While Helen missed all this (many people wondered where she was), there were those in the crowd who knew she would be suspicious. “Why, Helen, wouldn’t stand for it. Don’t you see he’s drunk?” Sarah never approved of Salas’ drinking. Uncle Ned saw that he was drunk. If Helen had seen how her husband was acting, she would’ve reined him in.
Salas was a known alcoholic. More than once drinking cost him a job. More than once drinking cost him a home. More than once Salas and his family moved because of drinking. It was Helen who held their family together. Unfortunately, this time she wasn’t around to intervene. Unfortunately, she didn’t go to town until it was too late. Unfortunately, no one told her. Unfortunately, no one intervene. Unfortunately, no one cared.
They were there to vote. They went to town to vote, and while they were in town to vote they used time to do other things. They checked mail, they shopped, shopped for hardware and supplies, and shopped for groceries when they were in town to vote. While in town, they did their errands and socialized. On election day, this town was divided into two camps. Still, if they didn’t speak to friends, they were considered snobs.
Most everyone didn’t pay attention to Salas. Most everyone didn’t pay attention to uncle Ned. Most everyone didn’t pay attention to Salas or uncle Ned and those that did soon forgot about it.
Wager. Wager, on outcome of an election. A stanch Democrat verses a stanch Republican. Dewey verses Truman. Imagine! Best river-bottom land in the county verses a farm sealed with a handshake! Salas bet Truman would win. Wager. Wager. A farm for best river-bottom land in county. A wager. They shook hands. Uncle Ned bet Dewey would win. Wager. A farm for best river-bottom land in county. People sighed and shook their heads. Sealed with a handshake.
Then too with town band playing “I Swung the Election,” Republicans may have felt overconfident. Democrats certainly worked harder. Truman was an underdog. But farmers who favored Dewey certainly outnumber those who favored Truman (which was unusual). It was possible that no one precisely knew how many people changed their minds once they got into a voting booth, even when political junkies thought they knew. Up until Election Day, Truman drew huge crowds. “Give ‘em hell, Harry!” There was a good turnout. If any prediction had been right and Dewey won, Salas would lose his farm. Already Dewey had taken the lead. More booze was used. More booze when bars were closed on Election Day. Children from families of all political persuasions played together. “Stay out of the street!” mothers warned. “Stay out of the street,” mother’s yelled. Salas voted as soon as polls opened. Uncle Ned had less to lose than Salas, so the rest of day was tenser for Salas.
For Salas, this day, Election Day, would pass at a snail’s pace, for after the wager he sobered up and had nothing to do but wait. All his energy was sapped from him. The crowd thinned out around noon. It was then one o’clock and then two o’clock. Even after the band stopped playing, and after the majority of the early risers started heading home, there was Salas sitting alone on the steps of a gazebo, waiting for God knows what. There was no sign of Uncle Ned, for there was no reason for him to hang around. (He would turn up when the outcome was clear.) Anyone who saw Salas sitting there would’ve seen him sweating it out. Had the farm slip through his fingers? He was probably wondering that, as he stared off into space. He continued to sit there until four in the afternoon.
There was Helen back at the farm, worrying because by then Salas should’ve been home. A dirt lane connected their place to a section road and rest of the world. With help of their garden, they eked out a living by selling butter, cream, and eggs. Just beyond their south pasture grew a grove of wild plum tress, from which Helen put up pints of jam every year, and she canned from their garden. When times got really hard and price of butter, cream, and eggs dropped so low that it hardly paid cost of feed, Helen would set up a roadside stand and sell her wild plum jam, cling peaches, and everything else she put up. Trees on the farm had been there forever, only that wasn’t true because they were planted during Dust Bowl Days as windbreaks. Between a house in front and chicken coop and barn out back there was a storm cellar where they stored peaches and jam and vegetables for each winter. So painstakingly they built what they had, fences and a number of structures (constructed from scrap lumber), excluding a house and a barn. They also assembled a mail-ordered windmill and dug wells and, when they had money enough, they bought hand pumps. After all this hard work, Helen definitely didn’t want to move again, and she thought Salas agreed. They agreed on most things, such as where and when to plant their garden.
So year after year they rose each morning before dawn, the old man each day dressed in same plaid shirt and overalls and his wife in same sack dress, with her hair wrapped in a tight bun. Living on a farm, they never considered themselves poor though they were poor. But they knew they wouldn’t starve. And looking around at other people, they knew that they had it pretty good, and theirs was a choice piece of property … their property sat on a choice piece of property on south bank of Wolf Creek … and Uncle Ned had his eye on it for a long time. So Uncle Ned was willing to risk a large section of his pasture for Salas’ creek-bottom land. And there was bad blood between them, old scores to settle, and Salas would never turn down a sure bet. He didn’t acknowledge at first that Truman was behind in polls. At first, Salas didn’t takes polls seriously. His eye instead was on Uncle Ned’s land … best river-bottom land in the county. Salas thought he knew his uncle, knew him well enough to outsmart him, so both men exchanged friendly greetings, inquired after their respective wives, and shook hands after they made their bets.
Without Helen there, Salas followed an impulse that he later regretted. And there were friends who warned him too. But he didn’t hesitate.
Salas didn’t think of Helen or work they put into their farm … projects that went on at the same time. Over the years, children they raised, fences they built, wells they dug, a windmill they assembled and a front porch Helen insisted he screen. True accomplishments, and Salas was willing to throw it away. “What do you mean he wagered his farm? He was drunk. Surely he was drunk. Poor Helen.” And throughout September he hadn’t touched a drop. Whenever an urge to drink became strong and intolerable…whenever thirst after a long hot workday made him think of capitulating, Helen did something special for him. Added pork to a pot of beans or baked peach cobbler or stopped iceman to make ice cream. Loving, kind, loving kindness. Felt as if she were conquering a demon, yet knew it would be a long struggle. Whenever Salas came in from a long, hard day, perhaps discouraged over something, she smiled and invited him to sit down to something special. Something she baked or cooked. Loving kindness. Something she did special for him. Loving kindness. Helen knew what pleased him. Salas wasn’t a man without a woman who loved him. And whenever his sense of failure and inadequacy overwhelmed him, he had someone to lean on. He depended on Helen and found comfort from their collie. Then how could he betray her? Think people didn’t know it? Didn’t know it, and hadn’t heard of his drinking problem?
Color in his face drained. Helen knew something was wrong. She tried to confront him. She tried to confront him. She tried to confront him, but he pushed her away. He wouldn’t talk to her. He wouldn’t talk to her when he came home. He didn’t talk to her because he knew he made a mistake. A man of his word, a proud man of his word, he knew he made a mistake. All evening Salas refused to talk to Helen and refused to tell her what was wrong. Helen knew, knew something was wrong, but Salas refused to tell her what it was.
While he spent this night tossing and turning, this night tossing and turning in a bed next to Helen, he never told her what he did. Sweating in November. Shaking, no, not from the booze. He had to go to the bathroom almost on the hour, and he tripped on something because he didn’t use a flashlight. And he didn’t use a flashlight because he didn’t want to wake Helen. Furious at himself, he said, “What if Truman loses?
He told himself, “I don’t let “what ifs” ruin my day. Now go to sleep. Fool! Fool! Fool.”
Salas then held still and stared at the ceiling wondering … in the dark he stared at the ceiling wondering, wondering if he could live through another round of ridicule.
“I need your help, Lord,” he prayed.
Always when Salas got a chance, he embellished past exploits. His life did not always go smoothly. But he was always able to talk his way out of trouble. Sometimes Helen was afraid to ask him what was going on. Sometimes she didn’t ask him what was going on. Sometimes he didn’t her tell what was going on, and she didn’t ask him about it. She learned to be patient and let him tell her what he needed to tell her when he could tell her … when he eventually told her. If there was something that he needed to tell her, he eventually told her, eventually, eventually got around to telling her, or she thought he eventually would tell her. And she knew that she wouldn’t get anywhere, if she asked him directly.
They both knew first hand about hard times. They started from scratch before.
Thinking: “Where once we had a farm; now we don’t have one.” Thinking: “I hate Uncle Ned. To hell with Uncle Ned.”
Where he used to feel confident and enthusiastic and could shrug off hardships, now he wanted to disappear. Now he wanted to crawl into a hole. Instead of facing Helen, he could die. He used to smile when he talked about toughing it, talked about the Depression, talked about living on rabbits and cooking what he killed over an open fire and sharing a huge pot with other boys who rode rails too. He never forgot those experiences. He never forgot where he came from. Born poor, raised poor, he never forgot where he came from. Because the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe train track ran right along the creek that ran along his northern property line, Salas was never far away from sounds of trains and memory of those days. Seeing him look at trains, one would think, he still rode rails.
Sometimes Salas sat on a fence, where he snagged his pants, and watched trains go by. As long as he got his work done, there was no problem with it, but when it came to Helen … she … well, he knew she would never go with him again. Still it appealed to him, didn’t it? Tempting? Tempting but Salas knew that he couldn’t run away from problems.
Those years were hardest of his life, yet most memorable. Riding rails, luckless with luckless boys, Depression years. Hopping a train required skill, required skill because one had to wait until a train was moving. Salas remembered, recalling near mishaps … recalled getting injured … recalled nearly losing a leg. But of course, he was lucky; how could he not have been lucky? And how he’d always been lucky. Well, not always but over time more often than not.
Salas tried to make peace with a part of himself that yearned for the road. And Helen was a stabilizing force. She was solid, practical, down to earth, and generally optimistic. Often Salas told people that he owed her everything. He told people he owed Helen everything and in a real sense SAVED him, but now he probable lost everything they worked so hard for … lost a farm they worked so hard for. And worrying about it kept him awake, kept him awake all night. “This is how I repay Helen, my beautiful Helen. Oh, God!”
Salas would soon know, know for sure whether they would have to move or not. Talk about his failure, his stupidity. He couldn’t tell Helen. He couldn’t face her. He couldn’t face her, though his mind was working how he would break it to her, and this kept him awake all night. He decided to wait until morning, wait, wait, and wait until he knew for sure.
Helen was a forgiving person, amazingly forgiving, over the years she forgave Salas many times. He complimented her whenever he could and was sincere about it. “Maybe I should go see an attorney,” he thought. Town only had one attorney, and he happened to be a Democrat. And he was Salas’ friend. So much admired, but unfortunately he represented Uncle Ned. But maybe a solution to the problem lay in Uncle Ned and not in an attorney. After all Salas and he were related. But a bet was a bet. And Salas knew he that couldn’t back out of a bet. Then there wasn’t an option for him.
Both of them were glued to the radio. They had broken a rule by having the radio on during dinner. DEWEY WON!
“God help us. We need your help now.” DEWEY WON!
A family Bible lay on the mantel. It was passed down from generation to generation. It was something they both cherished, but they generally didn’t open it except to record a move, a birth or a death. Now to Helen a move and a death amounted to almost the same thing. DEWEY WON!
After hearing Dewey had a substantial lead, Helen removed their Bible from the mantel and read from Lamentations: “Remember my affliction and my bitterness …” That was as far as she got before she slammed this big book shut. DEWEY WON! Goddamn!
The couple lay under a colorful quilt while a prospect of losing the farm hung over Salas’ head. Memories of the Depression were still fresh and real enough to cause people to worry; especially since a Republican (Hoover) was blamed for it. To Democrats Dewey victory meant loss of jobs, more soup lines, and explosion of foreclosures. And Helen and Salas would be first to feel the effects.
Next morning Helen stuck to her routine. Look she didn’t know. Why even if she did she wouldn’t have changed her routine. Knowing trouble Salas had sleeping during the night, she decided to let him sleep while he could. Then she took her time. Never turned on radio. Milked cows. Separated milk. Churned butter. The chickens were so busy. The roosters guarded hens, as they scratched for worms. There was smell of chicken feed, which Helen scattered for chickens. Particles of it got up her nose and stuck to her hands. Sun was just coming up. Helen seemed happy and forgot her troubles. Then she caught sight of Salas at a water pump on their back porch and waved to him.
She had excessive energy that she needed to burn, more than she needed for her chores, so she took a short walk. She wasn’t hungry. Salas would have to wait for breakfast or cook it himself! What an invigorating morning! How she loved mornings. It was her favorite time of day, and how everything seemed right.
Inside their house, Salas turned on the radio. He didn’t wait as he generally did until after he took care of personal business. He didn’t wait for Helen either. He couldn’t wait … breakfast, everything could wait. News soon would be on. Would it be bad? Bad news? News he didn’t want to hear?
It was too early for mail, but Helen took off in that direction anyway. Helen who was normally optimistic now was discouraged, or could easily get that way. What a shame, Truman lost, she thought. Everyone thought Truman lost. Salas thought Truman lost. Uncle Ned would be happy; she knew he would be.
She recalled the first time she and Salas saw their farm, first time they saw their farm and decided to buy it, decided to buy it, and started planning to build a bigger house. It was pretty run down then. She unsuccessfully tried to focus on positive,things, on how they fixed their farm up. DEWEY WON! It wasn’t end of the world.
Slowly Helen headed back to the house. It was easy to see why she was down in the dumps. Salas had been watching for her. He now knew surprising results of the election and felt like running to her with this news. TRUMAN WON!