Max Allan Collins

Blood and Thunder


All the attractions at the Oklahoma State Fair on this sunny Labor Day afternoon paled next to this one. Kewpie dolls and lemonade had nothing on the speaker who prowled the flag-draped platform; a prize-winning hog, a local beauty queen in tiara and gown, a championship tosser of horseshoes could provide no real competition. Not the two-headed calf or the living mermaid or even the girl who turned into a gorilla.

None of these wonders could compare to the surprisingly lean, five-ten package of enthusiasm who was flailing the air with windmilling arms, raving, ranting, swearing, sputtering. The farmers-in their best straw hats, suspenders over sweat-circled white shirts-and their wives-in Sunday-go-to-meeting bonnets and frocks and heels-were wide-eyed, gaga with wonder, if not always admiration. Even the kids, nibbling their cotton candy and hot dogs, were spellbound. Man, woman and child, they all had heard about this phenomenon, in the newspapers, possibly even heard him speak on the radio, maybe seen him in the newsreels.

But in the flesh, the afternoon’s guest speaker was a real sight to see. And, so, the hicks gathered ’round.

Duded up in a natty gray suit with a huge white gladiola in one enormous lapel, his necktie fire-engine red, his shoes spiffy black-and-white numbers, he would stalk the stage as if seeking a victim, dragging the microphone on its stand with him, removing his straw hat from time to time to mop his brow. Finally he just tossed the hat away, a casual gesture that further won over the crowd. After all, it was noon, and the sun was high and hot.

To a sophisticated literate like me, he seemed a figure out of “Li’l Abner”: a caricature of a politician, his wavy reddish hair (coincidentally, the same color as mine) falling in a natural spit curl, his ruddy complexion freckled, his nose impudent and upturned, his bulldog jaw deeply cleft. From this distance, he seemed jowly, but I’d seen him up close. Those weren’t jowls: that was just the slightly odd, deceiving shape of his face.

In fact, he was lean and hard and fit. But his oval mug, his quick grin-he was always ready to punctuate a tirade with a rustic joke and a fleeting infectious smile-gave a false impression of softness, just as the down-home inflections and his slangy speech gave a false impression of the speaker being a “common man.”

“Hoover and Roosevelt,” the speaker said, making hostages in the same sentence of the previous president and the current one, “put me in mind of the patent-medicine drummer that used to come ’round Winn Parish.”

A parish was a county in Louisiana. I wasn’t from around these parts, but I picked up quick.

“He had two bottles of medicine,” the speaker said, in a nimbly baritone that managed to be both casual and grand. “He’d play a banjo, and he’d sell two bottles of medicine. One of those bottles he called High Popalorum; and the other one of those bottles he called Low Popahirum.”

That quick grin told the crowd they could laugh at this, and they did.

“Fin’lly, somebody ’round there said, ‘Is they any difference in these medicines?’ An’ the drummer said, ‘Why, considerable-these is both good, but they’s diff’rnt.’”

He was rocking, almost bobbing, like a child’s top, and it gave a rhythm to his speech, and held the eye.

“He said, ‘High Popalorum we make by takin’ the bark off the tree from the top down. And Low Popahirum, we make by takin’ the bark off the tree from the root up.’”

He raised his eyebrows by way of devilish punctuation, spurring a gentle wave of laughter.

His voice rose in timbre. “And these days the only diff’rence ’tween the two parties in Congress is the Republicans are skinnin’ ya from the ankle up, and the Democrats are skinnin’ ya from the ear down!”

The crowd roared with laughter.

Now the speaker ended the anecdote with a blast of fury; there was no humor in his thundering voice as he said, “Skin ’em up, or skin ’em down, but skin ’em!”

As the laughter turned to applause, several voices called out over the din: “You tell ’em, Huey!” “Give ’em hell, big boy!” “Pour it on, Kingfish!”

And this indeed was Huey P. Long, the self-anointed “Kingfish” (after the blackface radio rascal of “Amos ’n’ Andy” fame), former governor of Louisiana, currently United States senator and, for all intents and purposes, dictator of the Pelican State, which he ruled through a yes-man figurehead whose name, appropriately enough, was O.K. Allen. Allen was so used to rubber-stamping Huey’s edicts, it was said that when a leaf blew in the window onto O.K.’s desk, he just signed the fool thing.

This was the populist mastermind seducing the South with his “Share the Wealth” plan, promising each and every American family a yearly income of no less than five thousand dollars, old-age pensions of thirty bucks a month, a homestead, a car, a refrigerator and a radio. This would be accomplished by confiscating from the wealthy anything they possessed in excess of three million dollars. The details shifted, according to the crowd and his own mood, but the Kingfish’s gospel was seductive, in these hard times, and it was spreading.

In this rural crowd, there was at least one damn Yankee: me, Nathan Heller, president (and everything else) of the A-1 Detective Agency of Chicago, Illinois. At the moment I was working as one of a team of three bodyguards traveling with the Kingfish, who was making his way back to Louisiana, by train and car, fresh from his latest Senate-floor filibuster in Washington, D.C.

This visit to the fairgrounds in Oklahoma City was just one of several unofficial campaign stops planned along the way. Just about everybody in the country, even an apolitical nincompoop like yours truly, knew that Huey was gearing up for a presidential bid in 1936. That was why so much of his energetic speechifying this afternoon was devoted to bashing FDR.

I didn’t fit in here, exactly, but nobody seemed to notice, or anyway, care. I was sipping an orangeade in keeping with my wardrobe-a lightweight white suit and wide-brimmed Panama hat I’d brought back from a job in Florida a couple years ago. My complexion was a city gray compared to these Indian-dark, leathery-faced farmers, and at six foot, one hundred-eighty-five pounds, I made a less than inconspicuous presence.

But that didn’t bother Huey. He liked having his bodyguards noticed. He was, after all, the sort of individual who brought the whole subject of paranoia into question. His behavior was classic paranoid, but you know what? A hell of a lot of people were out to get him.

While most of this crowd either loved the Kingfish or were, at least, entertained by his showmanship, other elements clearly resented his attacks on the President of the United States on a platform decorated with the stars and stripes.

“You’re a two-bit Hitler!” somebody was yelling, interrupting another anecdote.

Huey paid the heckler no mind, and continued with an attack on his fellow congressmen.

“Let me tell ya, folks, about this moss-back, pie-eatin’, trough-feedin’ brigade…back in Loozyana, at revival meetin’s…we called ’em camp meetin’s, back then…the preachin’ lasted all day. And it was hot, of course, hotter than even today. To keep the preacher from bein’ disturbed, it was customary for the mothers to mix up a little dry biscuit, butter and sugar. Well, they put that in a rag and tied it with a string, and called it a sugar tit.”

This impudent turn of phrase created a ripple of titters (well, it did) but the moment was spoiled a tad when that heckler-whose red face suggested both rage and alcohol-called out again: “Go back to the swamp, Crawfish!”

The guy was on the perimeter of the crowd, off to my left. Through the crowd, something-someone-was moving, causing a wave in the sea of straw hats and Sears amp; Roebuck chapeaus, with the single-mindedness of a shark.

This, I knew, was trouble. I started moving through the crowd myself, even as Huey continued.

“Ladies an’ ge’men, I’m here to tell you that Prince Franklin Roosevelt, Knight of the Nourmahal, enjoyin’ himself on that million-dollar yacht with the Astors and royalty, lettin’ the farmers starve…why Prince Franklin, he was born with the sugar tit in his mouth. Been sucklin’ ever since. He’s worn out a dozen of ’em…now he’s grabbin’ for more.”

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