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"An American Requiem" (April 1996)
God, my father, and the war that came between us. By James Carroll
The Atlantic Monthly | November 1966
he first time I ever saw my father weep, I was sixteen years old and he was forty-five. It was something I never forgot, not just because it moved me deeply, though it surely did, but because what followed was so typical of my father's approach to life.
"Before the fact is the dream," a small-town South Dakota druggist used to remind his two sons and two daughters. One of the sons went on to become mayor of Minneapolis, senator from Minnesota, and Vice President of the United States. Hubert H. Humphrey's memoir of his father tells much about both men, and about a vanishing kind of America
by Hubert H. Humphrey
I was coming home from high school in Doland, South Dakota, the town we had resided in since I was four years old. It was our town, heart and soul; and the wonderful house we lived in was the kind of home every lucky child has in his life—a warm nest for all the excitement and love of the formative years.
It wasn't a building that would be a showplace in a big city, but it was a pretty good house, as good as any in Doland. It was a large squarish place with white siding and a porch, beautiful shade trees on the front lawn, and a plum and apple orchard in the back. Mother loved that house—it had hardwood floors, a big basement, and two bathrooms. Dad loved it. And for the children—my older brother, Ralph, my two younger sisters, Frances and Fern, and me—it was as taken for granted and as beautiful as the sky or trees.
When I came home that day back in 1927, there was Mother standing under a big cottonwood on the front lawn, and she was crying. She was standing next to Dad and a stranger. Both men looked very solemn, and it was obvious that something was wrong. Mother said, "Dad has to sell the house." There were bills that had to be paid. My father and the man talked for a short time. Then Dad signed a paper. The man went away, and afterward Dad wept.
Seeing my father's tears shook me. He was a broad-shouldered man almost six feet tall, with big strong hands, a jutting chin, and that high forehead which his children inherited from him. His rimless glasses sometimes gave him a professorial look, but he was so jolly and vigorous that the most noticeable thing about him was seemingly inexhaustible zest. He just couldn't be passive about anything.
This event was probably the most profound experience of my early years. It was the moment I ceased being a child, when I began to have an adult's awareness of the pain and tragedy in life. It was sharpened because about the same time other people in town began suffering similar losses of home and happiness. One neighbor committed suicide over the same kind of trouble.
But through the years, I carried with me from that scene not just the picture of this masterful man in tears, but the fact that after this terrible loss he carried not an ounce of bitterness, of apology or defeatism. He continued to do what he had always done—to plunge into life without protecting himself with suspicion, reserve, or emotional caution. People like that enjoy the sunshine of life to the full. But many of them are unprepared for the storms, and when they are shocked or hurt, they withdraw and cover up. Not Dad. The same sensitivity to things he cared for that made him weep carried him beyond this wound into the future. Right up to the time he died, in November of 1949, he had an undiminished appetite for life, the bitter and the sweet, with nothing held back.
Dad was a man in love his whole life. It just never occurred to him to hold back his feelings, to question honest emotion, or to hesitate about the things he valued. What he felt, he felt wholeheartedly. But he was no simple pleasure-seeker. He loved a good time, but for him a good time was something that touched the spirit and had a good purpose. He was a born teacher, a missionary with a sense of humor.
He ran a small-town drugstore, and our lives revolved around the store and the house. I was born in a room over the drugstore—in Wallace, South Dakota—and grew up in the drugstore. But it was typical of my father that his stores were never cold or impersonal places. This didn't mean he was careless. He was a meticulous businessman. He never let us forget the importance of keeping precise books and a sharp eye on inventory. He was one of the most ingenious promoters I have ever met, and he started merchandising items by open displays in his little store long before this became standard doctrine in modern selling. He was probably the most enterprising businessman in town. In his store there was talk about politics, town affairs, and religion, just as there was around our dinner table. They used to say about Dad, "He never sells you a pill without selling you an idea."
Even though he was the town rebel, people liked and respected my father. This was South Dakota in the 1920s. People were religious, and they were Republican, and it was pretty hard to tell where the religion stopped and the Republicanism began. Of the 660 people in Doland, only 5 were Democrats.
Swimming against the tide never bothered my father. He and his brothers were very close, especially in their earlier years in Minnesota. Harry left a teaching career at Stanford to become chief plant pathologist in the Department of Agriculture, and he used to write long letters to Dad from Washington on public policy. He was interested in politics, though not so much in hard party politics.
Uncle John was a strong Republican. When Dad decided he would be a Democrat ("I heard William Jennings Bryan and became a Democrat" was how he explained it), it almost broke up the relationship between him and his brother John.
In Doland Dad was a Democrat among friends and neighbors who took their Republicanism very seriously. And while he was a kind and understanding man, when he got into political debate he gave it everything he had, and that could be pretty vigorous. When Al Smith ran for President in 1928 (and it was a heated issue, both political and religious, in Spink County), Dad was the Democratic county chairman. Smith got five votes in Doland, and everyone knew Dad's was one of them.
My father once ran for state chairman. He was one of the state's leading Democrats, and he shared in the long, hard fight to make South Dakota a truly two-party state. He was elected to the state legislature, and he had higher political ambitions. I know that in a sense he sacrificed his own for me. My desire to return to the University of Minnesota in 1937 posed a problem. I would no longer be available to help run the store, and my father would not be free to pursue his political career as fully as he wanted. Although my leaving for the University would greatly restrict his political activity, he never hesitated for a moment.
ad had begun my political training long before. For example, back in Doland when most of the town wanted to sell the municipally owned power plant to a private utility, Dad was against it. He was a city councilman then, and he fought the idea tooth and nail. I was only twelve years old, but he would take me to the evening meetings of the council, put me in a chair by a corner window, and then he'd do battle, hour after hour. Toward the latter part of the evening I'd doze off, but I'd wake up when Dad hit another climax. He lost that fight, but his independence, his outspokenness, his spirit never interfered with the mutual respect he and the town had for each other. He was a Democrat and a rebel in a politically orthodox town, but they elected him mayor.
I guess that today the psychiatrists would call my father an integrated man. For him life was not a series of insulated cubicles, each hermetically sealed from the others, one for personal emotion, one for business, one for politics, one for family, one for education, and one for social life. For him private feelings, business, politics, family, education, and social life were all parts of a single life process with no clear line that separated one from the other. He used to say, "My best friends are my children, and then my books," but it was perfectly obvious that he was a vital part of everything that touched his life.
This was surely true of his political principles. He would no sooner think of abandoning principle than he would his children or his business. Where they clashed, as they sometimes did, he found a way to maintain decent human relations without compromising his ideals.
My mother, for example, came from a strict Lutheran family, and a Republican one at that. She was a sensitive woman who wrote poetry, and was more conventional than my father. I still remember the household controversy over the fact that she voted for Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge. Yet she and my father were devoted to each other in a way that left no doubt. Over and over he would say to us, "Now, children. You treat your mother with respect. Don't you argue with her, and don't ever speak harshly to her, because she's my sweetheart. Don't ever forget that. If you ever treat her badly, you can just leave."
He was dead serious. But I remember once he said to Ralph and me, "Boys, your mother is a lovely woman, a fine, faithful wife, and you treat her with respect every day of your life. But there's only one thing I want you boys to remember: sometimes she's politically unreliable."
My mother used to get a little uneasy because I had some friends she thought were too unusual, but my father encouraged us to know and understand all kinds of people. Shantytown in Doland was where poor kids lived, and I had friends there, though my mother frowned on some of them. One day I took one of them into the drugstore and told my father, "Dad, Jonathan here doesn't have any shoes, and his feet are so cold they're blue." My father took one look, pushed the "No Sale" key on the cash register, took out some money, and walked Jonathan down the street to buy him woolen socks and a pair of sturdy boots.
Once there was a big road-construction job on the edge of town; a lot of the workmen were Negroes. I used to sell newspapers to the townspeople and also to the Negro workmen, and pretty soon they let me ride the mule teams with them and sit beside them on the steam shovel. When they'd come into town, people would stare at them since most of the folks didn't know them. But the men would call me by name as they went by, and I'd get up on the wagon seat with them. This horrified my mother, but my father was pleased.
My mother and father disagreed a long time on churches. She was a very strict churchgoer. But my father was influenced in his youth by Robert Ingersoll, the "Great Agnostic." One of my best friends in town was Julian Hartt, the local minister's son. At the age of forty, Dad consented to be baptized by Julian's father into the Methodist Church on the same day that Ralph and I were baptized. But he refused to have it done in church in front of everybody. Instead, he got Reverend Hartt to do it in Doc Sherwood's office over the drugstore.
It was just like my father that once he joined the church, he savored it to the fullest. He taught Sunday school and had the biggest and most enthusiastic class in the county. He'd sometimes bring ten people home from church for Sunday dinner.
s the 1920s wore on, life began to get hard for the farmers. In 1920 a bushel of wheat sold for $2.76, but the price slid to less than $1.40, and in the Depression it reached 25 cents a bushel. By then a dozen eggs sold for a nickel. Half the banks in South Dakota closed their doors, the two in Doland failing within a few months of each other. After that, my father kept his money either in government bonds or in goods for his store.
As economic conditions got worse, so did business at the drugstore. But no matter how hard things were for us, my father never turned down a man who needed medicine for his family or for his farm animals. At one point, he simply closed the books on almost $13,000 that his customers owed him. All he said was, "They just don't have it, and if they owe us and can't pay, they will stop coming into our store."
We moved to a smaller house. Eventually we moved to another town and had to start all over again. But Dad had an unshakable faith in his own strength, in people, and in this country. He had a sense of wonder about the United States that rubbed off on all of us in the family, a kind of love and obligation that was true of a lot of immigrants. My mother was born in Norway and my father in Oregon, but it was my father who used to speak about this country with the awe and reverence of the immigrant.
"Just think of it, boys," he said once; "here we are in the middle of this great continent, here in South Dakota, with the land stretching out for hundreds of miles, with people who can vote and govern their own lives, with riches enough for all if we will take care to do justice." Repeating these words now gives them the sound of a Fourth of July speech, but I think many Americans will understand that my father meant them, heart and soul.
He was a druggist in a tiny town in the middle of the continent, but American history and world affairs were as real to him as they were in Washington, D.C., 1342 miles away (I know the mileage because a sign in Doland says so). Time after time he would say, "You should know this, Hubert. It might affect your life someday," and he would read a long story in the newspapers about some political development in Washington or London or Berlin.
At least twice a year after dinner he would pull out Bryan's "Cross of Gold" speech and read it aloud to the family. Once he put my sister Frances and me on his lap and read us Wilson's Fourteen Points. His greatest political hero was Woodrow Wilson, and he often read us passages from Joseph P. Tumulty's Woodrow Wilson As I Know Him. Another book we read to each other was Wilson's The New Freedom. Some of the most used books in the house were The Life of Thomas Paine by Moncure D. Conway, The Life and Public Services of Abraham Lincoln by Henry J. Raymond, and the Bible.
There was nothing casual about my father's interests. Sometimes if he found something that fascinated him, he would wake us up out of a sound sleep and read it to us. He told me once, "Never go to bed. Stay out of bed as long as you can. Ninety percent of all people die in bed."
When Dad discovered a field of art or learning, he plunged into it as though he were the original discoverer. During the 1920s, for example, he became interested in serious music. He'd drive 200 miles in his car to Minneapolis to hear a symphony orchestra. Suddenly the drugstore was full of wind-up victrolas, the Edison Phonograph, the "Phonograph With a Soul," and piles of Victor Red Seal records. He brought home a beautiful console, and then would come into the living room with dozens of records from the store. He'd pretend that he had no choice because they hadn't sold, but we knew that he just happened to like those particular records. If he heard of an orchestra or a singer or a concert performer within 500 miles, he would try to arrange an appearance in our town. Once he brought a famous singer to what we called the opera house. The concert began with one of his phonographs playing a record this singer had made, and then the performer himself appeared and sang the same number.
In the 1930s he discovered opera, and it was the same thing all over again. He got out of bed once in the middle of the night so that he could drive to New York and arrive at the proper time to attend a performance at the Metropolitan.
After we moved to Huron, he discovered poetry. He was innocent and unashamed in these discoveries. He was not concerned with what was "proper" or sophisticated, nor did he feel any sense of inferiority because he had never gone beyond the twelfth grade. He liked the verses of Edgar Guest, but at the same time he had the biggest and best private library in Doland. In Huron, he decided that radio was a great advertising medium (along with a vast variety of other things, he sold radios in his drugstore, and I learned how to walk on ridgepoles in my sneakers when I installed roof aerials for people who bought a radio from my father). So Dad bought time every week on the leading radio station. But he never advertised goods; he used the time to read poetry over the air.
e grew up learning to act natural because he taught us to look at people for what they really were, not for what others said they would be. He reminded us over and over that each human being has his own special mixture of tastes and characteristics and that this is part of the beauty of life.
Years later when a journalist wrote my father asking about our family background, Dad answered:
In our home, high-hatting anyone was strictly taboo; if anything, the children were taught to go out of their way in treating less fortunately situated children in the community with kindness and respect. In our town, as in a great many other towns, there was a district where the so-called poor and uncultured lived. When Hubert had parties, some of these children were always invited, and they were made to feel that they were the equal of any of the other children who were invited.
Undoubtedly, he was a romantic, and when friends would josh him about his talk about world politics, the good society, and learning, he would say, "Before the fact is the dream."
He believed this and lived it: that man is inspired by his dreams and he is on earth in order to work to make his dreams come true. There was never any question that the work and the dreams went together. His store always opened at 7 A.M., and never closed before midnight; we kept that kind of schedule, and I do to this day.
When Dad decided to sell vaccines and serums for farm animals, he drove into the countryside and took me with him. Much later during a campaign in rural Minnesota my opponent hinted that I didn't know anything about farm policy. I said from the platform that I bet I had vaccinated more hogs than anyone in the audience. This was almost true, but only almost: the leading veterinarian in the county happened to be sitting in the front row.
Here again, the working and the dreaming were intertwined. I vaccinated hundreds of hogs, and I made thousands of sodas, and was being educated every day of my life. Our drugstore had a wonderful old-fashioned ice cream parlor with French windows and a polished oak-front fountain. When I was about eight, my father decided it was time for me to wash dishes and make sodas. I was too short to reach the counter and pull the spigots, so he built a ramp behind the fountain, and I worked and listened.
In that ice cream parlor I heard things that shaped my life and my attitude toward people and ideas. At night Dad would sit down with a local lawyer named Zarnackie, a Mr. Wuskie, Doc Sherwood, Reverend Hartt, the two bankers in town, Paul Brown and Fred Gross, and Al Payne, the postmaster. I've attended two or three good universities, and I've heard some of the great parliamentary debates of our time, but I don't think I have ever heard better discussions of basic issues than I did as a boy standing on a wooden platform behind my father's soda fountain. This was the true art of conversation—to have something to say but to draw out what others think; to be passionately concerned with issues, but to be respectful of those who feel differently.
At the same time, Dad was hardheaded about his bookkeeping and his inventory. Many a New Year's Eve party was missed because we were still taking inventory of Lydia Pinkham's Compound, Tamalac, Peruna, and "Humphrey's Chest Oil," and calculating the value on hand for each item. He used to remind me that if you don't have an item when the customer wants it, your stock does you no good, and if you don't have an accurate inventory, you can't tell whether you're losing or gaining. He was a businessman who knew where he stood all the time, but he never let his precision in bookkeeping and his care in inventory make him petty in his generosity. When he gave credit, when he lent a man money, he wasn't doing it out of any fuzzy-mindedness or vagueness about profit and loss. He believed a businessman ought to keep good records and know where he stood, but he never thought that that was the chief goal of his life.
He applied this kind of clear-eyed idealism to everything. When I first ran for mayor of Minneapolis it was a rough and dirty fight. There were racketeers roosting in the city, and the campaign saw a good deal of mudslinging. In the middle of the campaign, I got a letter from my father.
Dad said that it was the duty of a political leader "to fight for principle, for a better world, for better living conditions. . . . Let them call you a radical, Communist, socialist or anything they wish to, don't be afraid, go with your message to the common people. . . . I wish I could be by your side during these last weeks of your campaign."
I intended to send you the $15 that the boys gave me but I forgot in the rush of business Saturday night, so I am enclosing it now.
Since receiving your letter I have been thinking of how I might help you. I know what a Herculean task you have on your hands, how it calls for organization right down to the last precinct, and how cooperation among your supporters is so necessary. I hope that you can keep your little university group around you, because they are your friends and they are devoted to your ideals. You need some one with you that can give you advice that is not based on some selfish motive of their own. [I have these same friends to this day.]
You should take a day out once in a while to rest up. If you get too tired you become irritated at things that wouldn't disturb you otherwise. Try to keep your poise. Don't let your opponents and what they say about you get under your skin. If they should find out that they can distract you away from your poise and power, they will practice their grapevine method more and more.
Have your workers defend you in each precinct. You spend your time working on your speeches and addressing gatherings around the city. Many politicians are dirty. Keep yourself aloof from that kind of business, and in defense of yourself simply say that when an opponent is hard pressed for an answer to just criticism, he always attacks the character of his opponent.
Criticise [the incumbent mayor] Kline's Administration, but not his character, tell the folks you are not attacking the man but the conduct of the office which he fills.
My father was a passionate believer in this country, in democracy, and in social justice, a man who was not ashamed to feel emotions deeply and openly, who was interested in ideas but related them to his love for human beings, a man to whom hard work was a way of life not for its own sake but because it was part of the action and passion of his time.
In our town parents and children knew each other constantly and well. There were no divided worlds of home and work, of children and adults, each forced to exist separately from the other. It was natural for children to learn the lessons of life in their most useful form—by observation and participation. In our great cities today it often takes a special effort to get the whole family together. Parents at their work and in their social lives are often strangers to their children, and the children strangers to them.
I was at my father's elbow constantly, watching him, listening to him, debating with him. It was the luckiest legacy he could have left me. My life since he died has been fortunate, personally and politically. My happinesses have been more than any man should expect. I have sat in the councils of the great and been a part of the drama of our age. But all these things have had meaning and purpose because I had the priceless good fortune of spending almost every day of my childhood, and many nights, working at the side of a wise and sensitive man for whom idealism was not a cold creed but a way of life.
Copyright © 1966 by Hubert Humphrey and The Humphrey Forum. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; November 1966; My Father; Volume 218, No. 5; page 81-89.