Maturing from an Alf Landon button to ‘The Grapes of Wrath’

October 4, 2012 

Wherein young James learned to figure out the world of politics:

My father was a veteran of the First World War. He was in London awaiting deployment to the French front when the armistice was signed, ending the carnage of that most unnecessary of all wars. Dad was proud of his service, and he often remarked that his personal hero was Woodrow Wilson. In 1920, Dad cast his first presidential vote for the mediocre Warren Harding, who stood against all that Wilson was for.

I never quite figured that out.

Skip ahead a few years. It was 1936. America was in the midst of its Great Depression and Franklin Roosevelt was at the peak of his popularity. To oppose him in that year’s election, the Republicans chose a bland politician from the middle of the nation, Gov. Alf Landon of Kansas.

Of course, Landon never had a chance. But the Republicans did latch onto one great idea. They designed a campaign button to top all campaign buttons. A cocoa brown button with the candidate’s name in corn yellow was further enhanced by a border of imitation felt petals. The buttons could be obtained in different sizes, and I insisted that I wanted a big one, so for many days I marched off to school with my tiny chest emblazoned with my political enthusiasm.

Let me next introduce Miss Edna Ens. Miss Ens was an upper-grade social studies teacher. She was an imposing figure in front of her class. She was my favorite teacher.

But then one day it happened. I looked up at her, and there it was – FDR’s portrait on Miss Edna Ens’s jacket lapel. At first I was surprised; then I felt betrayed. It was never quite the same after that.

My favorite teacher and my father disagreeing on something as important as the choice of a president.

This is not the final chapter to my story, though. Miss Edna Ens was a seventh-grade teacher, but it wasn’t long before I discovered the joys of adult reading. I read “The Jungle,” “Giants in the Earth,” “An American Tragedy,” and delighted in the sharp satire of Sinclair Lewis.

But one novel and one incident really stand out. I was seated in the library of Rogers High School, and propped before me was my current reading choice. The book jacket showed a sylvan scene of agricultural beauty.

Before too long the librarian wandered into my vicinity, glanced at the book and said “That looks interesting.” I handed the book to her, she looked at it, and said, in total scorn, “Oh, that.” She handed the book back, with an emphatic, “Hmpf” and went on about her business.

Now, I know that John Steinbeck’s novel “The Grapes of Wrath” was and is controversial. It won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and it was made into a truly classic motion picture. Some readers, though, were angered by the political statements implied by the overall theme of the novel.

I tend to side with those who could buy into the book’s fame, and I am grateful to Steinbeck for making me aware of the strength of family and the unfairness of an economic system that leaves too many behind.

If he were still alive, I imagine my dad would still be voting Republican.

But I don’t think he ever read “The Grapes of Wrath.’”

James Carlson, a member of The Olympian’s Board of Contributors, has been ill for about four months. His wife, Carol, reports that he had worked on this column in the nursing home and at home, after his release. “I was amazed he had the determination, in his weakened condition, to get this article written,” she wrote. Carlson’s daughter Cathy, a first grade teacher at Griffin, helped in sending the finished product in.

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