While in Washington D.C. for the Bonus Army protests, Flynn is hired by a wealthy, politically connected man to find his missing eighteen year-old daughter. During his search, Flynn uncovers a plot to destabilize the U.S. economy.
THE OTHALA RUNE
My name is Flynn.
I have been shot, stabbed, bull-gored and snake-bit and have the scars to prove it. Worn the uniform of the American Expeditionary Forces and helped Pershing kick the Hun’s ass at Belleau Wood.
Name a job, I've probably earned a buck doing it: stevedore, molasses smuggler, lobsterman, gunrunner and broncobuster. I’ve searched for a Pharaoh’s treasure and found fool’s gold. I've been down on my luck and on the top of the world. I give good as I get in any ruckus and if you want to know the difference between an American and Shanghai jail, I'm your man.
After adventures in Europe and the Orient, I returned home to Pittsburgh to care for Nellie, my dear, twice-widowed ma, a decision that kept me far away from Senior Constable Chin of the Hong Kong police department, among others with an axe to grind.
I'm in the private investigation game now and people pay me to help them or their loved ones get out or keep out of trouble. I do a good deal of work for suspicious husbands or wives, because, Depression or no, wandering eyes abound. Now and then I handle a missing person case and also do surveillance for insurance companies worried about fake back injuries.
I do what I do because I hate the humdrum of routine. Every assignment is a new puzzle to be solved. Besides, I’m a curious guy. I keep busy, make a buck and keep my nose clean. The cops know me and don’t much like me, though I don’t lose any sleep over that. I don’t suffer fools gladly.
Occasionally, I take on a case for no pay because I think it’s the right thing to do. Six months ago, my desire to find out who butchered an innocent teenager named Mary Jane Chambers led to the heart of a child prostitution ring led by Reynaud Havilland, a miscreant with friends and customers in high places.
Havilland ended up with his throat sliced ear to ear in the William Penn hotel. I know who did the deed and never told the police, because it’s not often some folks get what they deserve. The way I figured it, the world was better off without Havilland in it.
I live in an apartment a few blocks from Forbes Field and take in an occasional Pirates game. My office is downtown in the Triangle Building. If I'm pushed, I push back. I don't dance, prefer pie over cake, chess over checkers, opera over jazz and Nellie's mulligan stew over a sirloin.
As for dames, well, they come and they go.
In July, 1932, Nellie was up to her elbows as a precinct worker in the 'FDR for President' campaign effort, which replaced her captivation with the Lindberg kidnapping, when she attended mass every morning, lit a candle and prayed for the safe return of young Charlie. Another prayer unanswered.
At any rate, business was steady and I hadn't been roughed up in months.
In other words, I wasn’t looking for trouble, yet somehow it found me through a simple request from an old Army buddy.
"A man named John Robinson called and said you two served together in the war. Pretty sure he is a colored man," Tess Truhardt, my Gal Friday said. "He wants to talk to you in person."
John Robinson and I had served in the war, though it was only happenstance that I knew him, since the AEF was segregated. Even so, I was more than willing to help.
"Have him come by at his convenience."
Tess nodded tightly and didn't move.
"Something on your mind?"
"Four months to the day, you said you would consider giving me a street assignment. You haven't said a word about it since."
Tess is cute as a bug, smart as a whip and organized to a 'T' and I’m lucky to have her. She’s all of twenty-three, a bundle of energy and ambition.
"If I put your feet on the ground, where will I find another Gal Friday?"
She leaned forward, hands on the desk. "All I want is a chance to show I can do this work. Give me a case to handle by myself. If I blow it, I will never, ever bring the matter up again."
"Let me think about it."
"It's because I'm a woman, right?"
"More or less."
"How very male of you," she fumed, spun on her heels and walked out, giving the office door an extra hard close.
Tess had also been swept along by the Lindberg kidnapping. She bent my ear with her theories about who could have possibly been involved, though she didn't have any actual names to offer, only descriptive terms such as the 'nursemaid', the 'Mob,' or 'a handyman.'
Five minutes later, the door opened and Tess returned. "Mr. Robinson will be here at three." She took a deep breath. "I apologize for acting like a petulant child."
She sat. "Here's the skinny, boss. My father wants me to come work at his law firm and learn civil procedure." I often wondered when her father would pluck her away. "He doesn't like the idea of me working for you. Nothing personal, because he respects what you did down in Alabama, but he finds the private investigation game tawdry."
"Someone has to do it."
"You have treated me very well. "
"Sounds like a great opportunity."
"It is, I suppose, if you like the idea of being a clerk." She eyed my direct. "If I thought there was any chance I could learn the ins and outs of the private investigation game—"
She let the idea hang in the air; a soft-soap ultimatum.
"I will think about your request. Promise."
She smiled. "Great. Good talk. By the way, I wasn't going to leave, because I hate the idea that I would be hired because I am the partner's daughter. Besides, he and I disagree on politics."
“A bit of advice.”
“Don’t play poker.”
John Robinson stood, hat in hand, inside my office door.
"John," I said, rising and walking to him.
We shook. He had enormous, calloused hands. Honest, working man’s hands. He was dark, strapping and handsome, though his clothes were threadbare and his shoulders slumped as though they carried the weight of the world.
"Have a seat."
He walked with a limp, his left leg damaged by shrapnel.
"Tess offer you water or coffee?"
"I'm good." He removed his hat and fingered the brim. "You hear about what's going down in Washington?"
"Besides a lot of hot air?"
He laughed softly. "Asides that. Veterans protesting about the bonus. Got them a shanty town."
“My ma says that Congress voted to pay the bonus.”
"They gonna pay it in 1945, Flynn."
"Twenty-some years after the war ended?"
Who the hell comes up with an idea like that?
"We needs the money now."
"How much is this bonus?"
"A buck a day for serving, buck twenty-five cents for time in combat. I ain’t much with figuring, but I’m due four-hundred easy best I can tell."
I quickly calculated my bonus and decided it wasn't going to change my life. I hadn't had a permanent address after I mustered out and never received any official word of the bonus payment. I also knew that Robinson, like so many, had fallen on hard times.
"How can I help? Not much for writing letters to my congressman, whoever he is." My interest in politics was somewhere south of my desire to learn the cha-cha.
"I wants you to drive me to Washington. I can't sit by while my brothers are there."
He could have taken a bus, train or hitched his way. A ride in my Nash roadster made more sense, I supposed. Robinson was a good man, solid as the day is long.
They say that serving in the military forms a bond that can never be broken. War smells like shit and rotten meat. Robinson and I had breathed the same air. I decided to drive him to Washington and see what I could see.
"When do you want to leave?"
"Sooner than later."
"I need some time to figure this out."
"I'd appreciate it greatly."
I followed him out and turned to Tess. "Try to get Tracy Kincaid on the phone for me. She's with the Washington Post, remember?"
“How can I forget?”
Tess and I have a strictly business relationship, though that doesn’t stop her from making judgments about the women in my life.
I poured myself a cup of water from the dispenser, drank it, crumpled the cup and tossed it in the wastebasket.
"What's up?" Tess asked.
"The veteran's demonstration in Washington."
"My father says it's not veterans at all, but communists and radicals."
"How does he know that?"
"His Republican friends at the Duquesne Club."
Back in my office, I figured Tracy Kincaid would know more about the march than anyone else. I met her when she ran a one-person news operation down in Sharpsburg. She distributed mimeographed sheets of her investigative reporting on local politics under the banner ‘The Truth Shall Make You Free.’
I appreciated her gumption and dedication from the moment we met. Her articles on the Renaud affair and sex trafficking launched her from Pittsburgh all the way to the Post, where she worked the society beat.
Her frequent letters were short and chatty. She signed off each letter with her home phone number. I never wrote back because I don't need a pen pal. I wrote down her number though.
Tess buzzed me. "I had to leave a message at the Post. Do you have her home phone?"
"Yeah. I'll make that phone call tonight."
"Flynn, darling," Tracy gushed when I reached her on my second attempt. "And I thought you didn't care."
"Good to hear your voice."
"To what do I owe the honor?"
"This march in Washington. What really going on?"
"The Bonus Expeditionary Force? The veterans don't want to wait until 1945 to get paid, not that I blame them. The House passed a bill to pay now, Senate declined. Hoover said he would veto the bill anyway, something about not paying for loyalty, as though putting life and limb at risk isn't proof enough."
She hadn't changed a bit, rattling off words with the speed of a Browning automatic rifle.
"What about these communist sympathizers I hear mentioned?”
"I'd say there's fifteen thousand vets here camped out in four locations. They've built shanties they call 'Hooverville.' As for Commies, I know the weasels are here.”
“The WESL. Small group, though. Between you and me and the fencepost, I think the PR office at the White House wants to delegitimize the protest so Hoover has cover. There are entire families in those camps."
"How does it end?"
"I have no idea. After the Senate turned down the bill, some percentage of veterans headed home. Still a sizeable number in town."
I had no idea what I would do once I arrived, though I figured events would guide my actions.
"I'm coming down."
"Word is that Hoover is going to call in the troops. If you're coming, then go to Anacostia Flats. It's public land. I don't think the Army will show up there. As much as I'd like to see you again, my advice is not to come."
"It's the principle of the matter. Where are these Anacostia Flats?"
"Across the 11th Street Bridge. When are you leaving?"
“You have my phone number and address if you need anything at all. Anything.”
I called Tess at home. "I'll be leaving tomorrow for Washington, D.C."
"Not surprised. What are my marching orders?"
"Keep the home fires burning. I've given some thought to your request. When I return, I want you to ride along with me. I can't send you out into the field without training."
"It means long nights with me and a thermos of bad coffee."
"I'll make sure the coffee is excellent. Be careful."
What the hell, I told myself. She wanted to do more, even though she only had a vague idea what more actually entailed.
"My dad moved us from Mississippi to Pittsburgh back in oh-three, when I was four, " Robinson said. "He learned the brick laying trade. Only black folk would hire him, but he made a good enough living to keep us fed and clothed."
"He still alive?"
"Died when I was overseas. Thing is, he bought himself a sliver land in the Hill district and built a house from surplus bricks and lumber. Took him four years. My wife, mom and I still live there. We own the house, lock, stock and barrel and so's we always have a roof over our head."
"How’s the brick laying business these days?”
"Work been hard to come by and this bum leg don't make it any easier. Thanks for the job at your mama’s house."
“She thought you did a very good job.”
We crossed over the Maryland line as Robinson studied the road map. "I'd say we got another hour."
"Your guess is as good as mine."
"By the way, did you ever meet Delilah Devereaux?"
Delilah, a beautiful black woman passing for white, who I helped rescue her kidnapped sister in Alabama, was another story entirely.
"Yes. A very nice woman."
"I never met her, though I heard talk she ain't around no more."
"I haven't seen her." Truth be told, I knew she was in Alabama with her family. I kept waiting for her to walk back through my door.
He glanced over at me. "You seem to get along with folks like me."
He laughed. "You know what I'm talking about. We were in the same Army but were kept separate, like oil and water."
"The color of a man's skin doesn't matter to me. I’ve got a list an arm long of white men I wouldn’t give the time of day.”
"Amen. Much money in the detective game?"
"Keeps me fed and on my toes." Fact was, I had come back from my continental adventures with a stash of cash and could have hung out on easy street for a year or two. I wasn’t built that way, though.
Robinson pointed at a road sign. "Map says we take this road."
An hour later, we entered the District. I pulled into a park along the Potomac River.
"Hand me the map, John."
He did, along with a slab of cornbread his wife had prepared for our trip. I studied the map, having never been to our nation's capital.
"Looking for the Eleventh Street Bridge," I explained. "That's where a friend told me the main encampment is located."
"You got a friend in Washington?"
"A woman I knew from the 'Burg. She writes for the Washington Post now."
I handed the map back and finished the cornbread.
Twenty minutes later, we found the bridge and crossed over.
"My land, look at this," Robinson said.
On the other side of the bridge, a massive collection of ramshackle shanties spread along the riverbank. Smoke curled into the air from cooking fires and American flags fluttered in the breeze. A bandstand rose above the sea of heads listening to a speech by a veteran.
I found a place to park in a shady grove about a mile from the encampment. Robinson and I grabbed our duffels that held a change of clothes and blankets and headed into the encampment, built on swampy ground.
It was the height of summer and the humidity made the air heavy and wet, rich with the scents of sweat, smoke and urine. The presence of children and women caught me off-guard, as did the shelters constructed out of whatever scrap could be scrounged.
“Looks worse than I expected,” Robinson noted.
We stopped and watched a group of veterans march in formation, probably to maintain a sense of discipline. I figured the encampment was ripe for the pickings by thieves and other scum, thought I doubted the residents of the camps had anything worth stealing.
A man wearing a faded Army uniform stopped us. “Discharge papers?”
“Can’t be here without one of these.” He pointed to a card pinned to his pocket. “Chief of Washington Police organized a military police force among the vets.”
“I got my papers,” John said and pulled the paper out of his pocket. He looked at me. “Sorry, I forgot to tell you to bring them.”
The MP examined the papers, dug into his knapsack and handed Robinson over a small card. “Welcome. You’re now an official member of the Bonus Expeditionary Force.”
The MP looked at me.
“I don’t have my discharge papers.”
“Then you have to go over to the Veterans Administration.”
I had no desire to stand around while a bored office worker sorted through mounds of records. A heavy hand came down on my shoulder, followed by a deep voice. “Lazarus Flynn, in the flesh.”
I turned to face Luke Walker, still the sturdy Iowa farm boy after all these years.
He exchanged a handshake and a bear hug. Walker tugged at my duffel. “New arrival?”
“I don’t have my discharge papers, so I won’t be hanging around.”
Walker spoke to the MP. “I’ll vouch for him. Laid in the mud for weeks with him in the Argonne.”
The MP thought it over and handed me badge, then moseyed off.
“Thanks. This is John Robinson.”
Walker extended his hand and Robinson took it. “Nice to meet you. Listen, you hungry? I got a space with room for you, Flynn. Canned meat, coffee, bread and apples.”
“Sounds good. What about John?”
Walker hemmed and hawed. John looked at me, sensing my anger.
“I’m gonna look around for some of my brothers,” John said.
“There’s a whole bunch of your kind down yonder,” Walker replied, pointing.
Robinson wandered off. Walker led me to a large ridge tent. Inside, two empty wood cartons served as chairs.
“Take a load off,” Walker said as he rummaged through burlap bags. He tossed me an apple and set to opening a can of meat. He handed the can to me along with a fork and slice of black bread. A coffee pot sat atop a primus heater.
“I could make fresh coffee.”
“What the hell have you been up to all these years?” he asked and sat across from me.
“Traveled here and there. Living in Pittsburgh now and doing private investigation. How about you? You ever marry that girl you talked about? Susan, right?"
“I did. She died six years ago. The cancer got her.”
"Sorry to hear. How’s the farm?”
He lit a cigarette. “Gone. Can’t grow shit in the soil from the drought. Dust storms are like some Biblical plague. Worked for a while in zinc smelting plant till that shut down. I figure on heading to California soon. Me, this tent and an old Ford truck.”
“Heading the wrong direction, aren’t you?”
He had a loud, chesty laugh. “I got all the time in the world. I figure Congress has to man up and do the right thing. I mean, they got steady pay, don’t they? Living off tax dollars. What the hell did we fight for?”
I lit a cigarette and watched the smoke curl toward the ceiling. “Life, liberty and the American way.”
"One part of the government voted to give us the bonus and the other part said no. Lots of folk lit out after that."
"Why are you still here?"
"Dunno. Least here I got fellows that I share something in common with. Figure I'll head west soon enough."
I took off my hat and fanned my face.
"I had no idea Washington was hot as Hell." Walker swigged from a canteen and handed it to me. "You can spread out your kit. At night the temperature eases a bit."
Walker seemed to be hale and hearty and had a nice supply of food and supplies. I wondered about that, considering his tale of woe.
“The government hasn’t been all that bad about this, you know,” he said, slicing an apple. “They provided tents, first aid and a chow line. The Washington Police Department chief came down here and organized those MP’s. Walter W. Waters is sort of the organizer of it all, but he’s here and there. You need the card to get in the food line. If you’re lucky, you might hear the Army band. They show up now and again to raise the spirits.”
“What about Commies?”
“The Weasels? Assholes, like all pinkos.”
We talked about sports and moving pictures until the sun fell. The air cooled a bit and we found a campfire where a trio with two guitars and an accordion were holding forth.
When they played a slow, mournful version of ‘No One Loves You When You’re Down and Out’ I stared at the nodding heads illuminated by the flickering flames. Their hollow cheeks and empty eyes told me all I needed to know about the condition of my fellow vets.
The power and might of the United States seemed like an illusion.
We spent a couple of hours listening to the music and shooting the shit. Walker was the only one I knew personally, though conversation came easy.
One of the more curious exchanges came from a wiry guy with a cheekful of chew named Willy Smith, who hailed from Oklahoma.
"Is it any wonder Pretty Boy Floyd is considered a hero back home?" he said.
"I don't follow," I replied.
Smith spit. "When Floyd robs a bank, he destroys all the mortgage records."
"Robbing a bank is a crime," Walker added.
Smith grew agitated. "Bankers commit crimes every day! Jesus chased the moneychangers from the temple, didn't he? Folks are being tossed out of their homes because they can't pay their mortgage. Bankers are flush with cash. They're all money-grubbing kikes, to boot."
I had some behavior in my past I wasn't proud of, things I did to get by, though I never robbed a bank or killed a cop, as had Pretty Boy.
"There's others out there, too," Walker said, "like Bonnie and Clyde.”
"All I'm saying," Smith continued, "is that this country is nothing but a vat of sour milk. Working stiffs can't get a fair break, while the rich live their lives like nothing happened. They up here," he said, raising his hand, "and we down here." He patted the ground. "Hell, I might grab myself a gun and rob myself a bank or two. Maybe I’ll join up with Bonnie and Clyde. They are the real American heroes.”
It is a strange world indeed when some thought that two-bit bank robbers were heroes. The Depression had warped some minds.
He wandered off. Walker nudged me. "I'm gonna hit the hay."
I figured that was a good idea and followed him back to his tent.
“You know would make the night complete?” Walker asked. “Ice cold beer. Maybe if Roosevelt wins, he’ll get rid of Prohibition. Man has a right to drink."
“You voting for FDR?’
“I’m a Dem all the way. Republicans got us into this mess and they ain't gonna get us out. You?"
"FDR. My ma wouldn't have it any other way."
“Some folks think communism might be the way to go. Twenty thousand commies at a rally in Madison Square Garden."
“Never gave that a second thought.”
“I suppose it has some good aspects, if it works right. Ever think about that?”
I shrugged. He dropped the subject. Sure, things were tough right now. Nonetheless, I hardly thought turning us all into peasants was a better situation. I never took Walker as one who thought as much about politics when I knew him.
Walker soon fell asleep. I lay awake, listening to the snatches of conversation in the darkness outside. In retrospect, I was happy I made the trip. My presence changed nothing, yet seeing Walker and being among former members of the AEF reminded me I was once part of something greater than myself.
When I woke, Walker was gone, along with his food and supplies. Lucky for me, he left the tent behind. I wandered through the camp and passed filthy-faced children being fed by wan women with no hope in their eyes. The food line was long. Vets stirred what looked like enormous pots of oatmeal.
I kept walking and reached a cluster of shanties where colored vets were gathered. Robinson saw me and waved me over.
“Brothers, I want you to meet my friend, Lazarus Flynn.”
The brothers nodded at me, some warily, others with broad smiles. Two pots were cooking on a grate.
“You want some ham hocks and black-eyed peas?” he asked.
“He don’t take to down-home fixings,” one of the cooks said, smiling. “He favors potatoes, like every mick.”
“I will take a piece of that cornbread, though.”
“Thought you would.” John reached into a paper bag and handed me a slab.
“Listen, Flynn, me and the brothers are heading across the bridge, up to Pennsylvania Avenue.”
“’Cause those men in Congress gots to see our faces. Big demonstration setting up.”
“Count me in.”
It took an hour of getting organized and I joined the line of colored vets as we trudged across the bridge. A man Robinson introduced as Abraham sidled up to me. “What company was you in?”
“Shit. You took Belleau Woods?”
“Not personally. I had help.”
Abraham’s laughed. “I hear you, brother.”
“Where are you from?”
“New York City.”
“What do you do up there?”
“I’m lucky. Collect scrap metal. I don’t need the bonus as much as most. Way I’m thinking, it ain’t fair what the Congress and Hoover decided. Simple as that.”
Robinson caught up with us. “You two getting along?”
“Like brothers from a different mother,” Abraham replied.
“Hey Abe, you know that Flynn here is a private investigator?”
“He takes care of peoples troubles.”
“How you get job like that?”
“Put up a sign that says, ‘Private Investigator.”
Abraham laughed again.
The Washington Monument passed on our left.
“You know, old George owned slaves, too,” Abraham said.
“I didn’t know that.”
“Oh yeah. Lots of those white men who signed the Declaration of Independence did. They was rich landowners dressed in lace and fancy coats. You think they gonna get dirty and sweaty to work their fields?”
I nodded, having no idea if Abraham was correct about George Washington.
We soon reached passed a large circular green space.
“Hey, Flynn,” Abraham said. “That is called the Ellipse. Used to be a baseball field, after the Civil War. The Washington Mutuals, a colored team, played games here.”
I glanced at my watch. It was nearly noon. In the distance, the White House was visible.
“I wonder if Hoover is watching?”
“He’s probably hiding in a closet,” Abraham joked.
We turned right onto Constitution Avenue and followed it to Pennsylvania Avenue, where the crowd that included both colored and white vets felt like a like a slow-moving, human river flowing toward the Capitol Building.
I sensed the futility of it all. The decision-makers were safe inside the Capitol building and as far as I reckoned, didn’t have to face the protestors. They had ignored the vets since the end of the war and could keep ignoring them.
We drew close to the Capitol building and I was surprised to see men in white shirts and ties standing on the sidewalk. To me, they looked like government employees who left their office to watch the demonstration.
Many in the crowd held signs with various anti-government slogans. I wondered what would happen if the crowd suddenly turned violent, though the protest appeared peaceful.
A flurry of activity was evident ahead of us. Boos and shouts echoed.
“Sounds like trouble,” Robinson said.
The heat had already risen and I began to worry about vets who were not in good health or disabled being caught in the closely packed crowd.
Suddenly, the crowd surged backward and I caught a glimpse ahead, where baton wielding police officers had formed a cordon, stopping progress.
“We better head back,” Robinson said. “Ain’t feeling like taking on the cops.”
Most of the crowd appeared to share his sentiment and the crowd began to disperse, moving back toward the Constitution Avenue and then back toward the Flats.
When I reached the Flats, the crowd gathered in small groups. Some took time to eat, while others milled about, suddenly aimless.
I hadn’t seen Luke Walker since last night, so I walked back to his tent, only to find it gone. In its place, my duffel bag rested. It was open and the contents rummaged, though nothing was missing.
I grabbed the duffel and headed back to see Robinson and his friends. They had already warmed up some food.
“Hey,” Abraham said, “you feeling like chow now?”
I nodded and he scooped beans and ham hocks into a tin plate. We shared stories about our experiences in the AEF. I liked Abraham and he told a good tale.
Around an hour later, two men came across the bridge and shouted for a crowd to gather, which it did.
“We’re from the 6th Regiment of the Bonus Force. We were evicted from a damn vacant building by the cops. Some heads got split!”
“They want us out of Washington! Don’t want to face us, the damn cowards.”
“Someone said there is an order to disband the Bonus Force! That ain’t up to no one but us!”
A cheer rose and the crowd, though galvanized by the news, began to swell.
“I say we go back and show them we ain’t leaving!” someone shouted. Cheers arose and the crowd began the trek back toward the Capitol.
Robinson edged next to me. “You goin’?”
“What do you think?”
“We come this far.”
While not interested in doing battle with the police, I thought a show in numbers might convince the police to allow the protest to continue.
When we moved down Pennsylvania Avenue, police standing behind a rope barrier confronted us. Suddenly, two gunshots split the hot humid air.
“They shooting at us like we’re some sort of criminals!”
“We fought for this country!”
The anger was palpable. Something was happening far down the street and best I could see, vets were scuffling with the police. A few bricks or rocks sailed through the air.
I had seen enough. Clearly, the powers in Washington wanted the protest to end and the vets to leave. The crowd continued to increase and grew more raucous. My initial thoughts about violence descending seemed a real possibility.
The crowd began to churn, jostling and shouldering to get closer to the action. I fought my way through the crowd and it felt like swimming through a strong current. I angled toward the sidewalk and managed to break free.
I looked around for Robinson and didn’t see him. I assumed he had made the same decision I did.
My clothing was drenched with sweat and the air was thick as cotton. I noticed the spectators were shouting invectives at the police.
My fear that the police would eventually respond proved true as they moved across the rope line and began forcing the crowd backward, billy clubs swinging. It had turned ugly. The crowd once again dispersed, running into nearby areas and gathering again.
I made my way to the National Mall and walked between the beautiful buildings now guarded by clusters of cops. I shuddered to think what might happen if my fellow vets turned their attention from the Capitol to these buildings. I was certain with every fiber of my being such a thing would never happen.
I followed the winding paths around the Washington Monument to the Reflecting Pool and then to the shade afforded by the trees. I glanced toward the Ellipse and saw cavalry and infantry forces gathering, a rather shocking sight to my thinking. It looked to me like an entire brigade was massed on the green lawn.
Even more frightening was the sight of six light tanks moving toward the White House along with a squadron of infantry. Someone in power obviously believed Hoover himself might well be in danger.
I recognized a tall officer strutting around and barking out orders. His profile was unmistakable. Douglas MacArthur. I guessed he was now a General in charge of some part of the Army.
I fought the impulse to head back to my car. Seeing the infantry, cavalry and tanks made me think twice. Robinson was in that swirling, hostile crowd back on Pennsylvania Avenue. I headed back to find him.
The crowd had not quieted and the police had retreated. I thought it improbable that MacArthur would unleash the power of the military against its citizens, yet there had to be a reason that the force had been gathered.
The protesters were shoulder-to-shoulder, packed tightly, trapped between the spectators on the sidewalk and some sort of barricade ahead. I waded into the crowd, searching for Robinson. I sighted him and, as I called out his name, a roar escaped the crowd and heads turned toward the Ellipse.
Tear gas canisters flew through the air and the wind caught the noxious white smoke and pushed it toward the protestors. Infantry wearing gas masks marched forward, bayonets fixed. Behind them came the cavalry, sabers drawn.
“Get across the bridge,” a man shouted. “Back to the Flats!”
The crowd dispersed pell-mell, either up side streets or across the Mall. Men stumbled as they retreated. Horsemen slapped at protestors with the flat side of their saber blade.
Bitter anger rose in my throat. The chaos intensified. Tear gas clogged nostrils and temporarily blinded anyone in its path. I covered my mouth and nose with one hand and blinked furiously as the noxious sting of the tear gas floated through the air.
The crowd surged back toward the Flats, an area that, according to Tracy, was not government land. The tear gas and approaching cavalry made it impossible to continue my search for Robinson. I helped numerous fallen vets to their feet.
I finally crossed the bridge leading to the Flats and sucked wind for a moment before heading back to the colored section. Neither Abraham nor Robinson was there.
The crowd stumbled into the camp. Expletives filled the air as vets vented their anger.
My duffel remained where I left it near the Negroes cooking pots. I grabbed it and double-timed back to my car, where I placed the duffel in the trunk.
I was in pretty good physical shape, yet the heat and struggle through the crowd had sapped my energy. I leaned against the car fender and realized I couldn’t in good conscience leave until I knew if Robinson was safe.
After a long while, my energy restored, I headed back to the colored section and found Abraham. “Where’s John?”
He looked at me, his eyes red from tear gas.
“Don’t know. Lost sight of him. What we do to them?’ he lamented. “Fought in a war and come back to this?”
I offered him my pack of cigarettes. He took one and lit it. “Guess nothing to do now but head on home.”
I stared at the chaos of battered and bleeding men wandering about in stunned amazement at what had transpired. Women clutching young children searched frantically for their husbands.
It looked no different than the moments after a battle ended in Europe, only the enemy wasn’t the Krauts. It was our own government.
“We need to do some good, Abraham.”
He and I found cloth to bind wounds, comforted wives and lugged buckets of clean water to help bathe eyes still stinging from tear gas.
During a battle back in the AEF, I learned that time lost all meaning. A minute in the heat of battle could feel like an hour and an hour waiting for the next charge a minute.
All I know was that before I knew it, darkness had crept over the scene. Calm seemed to have returned. Apparently, the Flats were indeed off-limits to the Army, as Tracy explained.
I saw a man exhorting a group of vets to follow him back across the bridge, to carry the battle back to the Army.
I couldn’t hold my tongue and stepped into the middle of the crowd.
“To attack the Army is a suicide mission. They’re armed and we’ve got nothing. The best thing to do is to care for our fellow brothers-in-arms and then head home.”
“This is the thanks we get?” one man shouted.
“I’d rather die getting in my licks than be herded like a bunch of cattle,” another voice sounded.
The arguments continued, though I could tell the group’s determination was slowly wasting away. The men were too tired and battered and clearer heads prevailed.
I was disappointed and angry. Regardless of the anger of the crowd, I had witnessed no destruction or damage to public property. I had heard two gunshots, it was true, though they appeared to be isolated and no more gunfire followed. Someone once told me that it was illegal for the Army to be used against American civilians. Apparently, that wasn’t true.
“We done what we could,” Abraham said.
The rumble of a tank’s engine caught my attention. I ran to the bridge and saw three Renault light tanks move into position on the other side of the bridge.
Abraham joined me. “Don’t worry, brother. This ain’t government land. They scaring us, is all. Want us all to leave.”
I hoped that was true.
On one side of the bridge, the vets gathered. On the other side, gathering infantry and cavalry joined the tanks. It felt like what they like to call a Mexican standoff, each side waiting for the next move.
My own sense was that the show of force was designed to keep the vets from surging back toward the Capital. That made sense, I supposed, though the spirit among those remaining seemed completely sapped.
Time passed until the tanks pulled back and I felt a sense of relief. Floodlights, hidden in the darkness, burst to life. The cavalry thundered across the bridge, followed by infantry. All were wearing gas masks.
“Run for the hills, Abraham.”
I dashed away from the colored camp as tear gas canisters flew through the air once more. There had been no warning, no attempt to instruct the residents of the camps what was expected or how to depart. Yeah, maybe there were reasons for that, but I didn’t buy them.
I watched infantry enter the shanties, searching for members of the Bonus Force or threatening others outside the shanties. The cavalry thundered through the camp in a terrifying display of force.
I caught a hard dose of drifting tear gas hidden within the smoke drifting toward me over me. I stumbled about, coughing and rubbing my eyes. Two cavalry officers raced toward me out of the gloom, sabers drawn. I barely escaped being trampled and the force of a horse’s flank against my shoulder knocked me off balance. I stumbled away and landed awkwardly on the remains of a shanty. A piece of sharp tin sliced deep into my forearm.
The flames, smoke and confusion created a hellish scene. Bleeding profusely from the deep, long gash in my arm and with no desire to risk being arrested or suffer further injury, I made my way through the swampy terrain to the banks of the Anacostia River.
I rinsed my eyes with the river’s water and set out to find a hospital, hoping that my car would be there when I returned.