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Thursday, May 26, 2016

All The Way with LBJ - Reflections of a Former Teen Democrat

The photo above shows Marcia McGinley, Ben King, and me awaiting the arrival of President Lyndon B. Johnson at a political speech in Denver in 1964. I was the president of the Jefferson County Teen Democrats. Our group attended a speech the President made at the old auditorium arena sometime during the race for the White House. Later that day the President signed the poster I was holding.
I still have the poster with LBJ's autograph as well as autographs of Senators and Congressmen who accompanied him. It's been kept in dorm rooms, basements, and closets for years. There are little tears and water marks, but the color and character of that time are still in tact.  CLICK HERE to see the signatures of those who accompanied LBJ as well as Colorado's former Republican Governor John A. Love.
Lady Bird Johnson stopped briefly at Stapleton Airport in Denver en route Washington D.C after vacationing at Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Our teen dems presented her with a small pine tree which we suggested she plant on the White House grounds. She said she would see to it that it would get planted on the Texas ranch.  How naive our gesture seems now. It made the news back then. Lady Bird signed the home made campaign poster with our Teen Dem mascot on it. Years later as her autograph started to fade, I used a magic marker to retrace her signature. For that forgery, I now atone.
Earlier this week I watched the HBO movie ALL THE WAY which depicted LBJ's first year as President and the events which led up to his election as President in his own right in 1964. Since I already knew how that election ended, it was fascinating to watch how Johnson responded to events and political turmoil that raged throughout much of  my youth. The driving force of his election bid was the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It ended racial segregation of public schools, the workplace, and in facilities that serve the public known as "public accommodations". I urge readers to watch this flick. Bryan Cranston did a superb job as LBJ and made history relevant to our current body politic.

I grew up in a lily white suburb of Denver. We had no black students at any of my schools and probably none in Jefferson County located west of Denver and extending into the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. We lived a very comfortable post World War II life in an economy that was booming. I had no reference to poverty or racism because I didn't see it. But I knew it existed because I watched the nightly news and saw stories on TV about how blacks were treated in other parts of America - especially the south. Those of us in our sixties and older probably remember those grainy black and white nightly news clips which showed sit-ins, marches, bombings, lynchings, murders, riots, and speeches by civil rights leaders reacting to the turmoil of that era. The Civil War ended slavery, but it had not given black people equal rights to whites. Blacks could not vote in many parts of the south. They could not use restrooms in bus stations or eat a meal at a lunch counter. They could not go to college in many places. Segregation was a method by which the white majority kept the black minority in its place. It was a way of life. In Denver blacks lived in one part of town. A federal judge created forced busing to desegregate Denver's public schools.  A lot of white folks fled to the suburbs in response.

In June 1965 I got a summer job at a guest lodge located in Upper Bear Creek Canyon just outside of Evergreen, Colorado. Historically the lodge had been the summer home of one of Colorado's richest families. In 1965 the owners were a middle aged couple who ran the place with the aid of their adult daughter and her husband plus the summer crew of four or five college students.  I was one of them. I had never had a job in the hospitality business before that job. One day I had to replenish the glasses in the bar. I carefully stacked each cocktail glass in a neat row on glass shelves with a mirror behind. I put one glass too many on the glass shelf. The entire wall of glasses came crashing down. I was mortified. I found an online photo of that room as it exists today. Instead of stocking glasses, I laid kindling and logs for future fires throughout this mountain castle and other odd jobs that did not include anything in the bar area.
The other college kids were like me: squeaky clean white kids. The cook was a young black guy named Willie. We had worked together as a group for a couple of weeks. We all got along great. One afternoon after our work was done and when all the guest rooms were vacant, we all jumped in the pool and had a good time. We spent the entire day preparing for the next day arrival of a group of executives from Duracell or some other battery manufacturing company. The lady owner, whose first name was Sadie, was not pleased that Willie got in the pool. She told him he could not swim in the pool in future under any circumstance. Whereupon he quit before she had a chance to fire him. This all seemed odd and wrong to me. You see Sadie routinely boasted that she and Lady Bird Johnson were cousins. I would have thought she would have treated a black person with respect since she was an important member of the President's family so to speak. She could have said that none of the staff could use the pool and that would have been understood by all. But that is not what happened. In the HBO movie ALL THE WAY LBJ told a story about the time before he was President, when his cook drove the Johnson's car from Washington down to the LBJ ranch in Texas. This was a time before the Civil Rights Act was passed - when blacks were not allowed to use white restrooms in many parts of the south.  Johnson bemoaned the fact his cook had to squat in roadside fields.

Willie got his revenge on Sadie without doing or saying anything. When the guests arrived the next day there was no cook. The owners' daughter and I drove into Evergreen to find already prepared food to feed the guests. There wasn't such a thing in 1965 Evergreen. So we ended up at the Safeway store where we bought Swanson TV chicken dinners. We took them back to the lodge. I remember thinking how loony it was that we were taking TV dinners up a private gated half mile road to this luxurious mountain top retreat to serve to people who were expecting a wonderful meal. We heated the TV dinners and plated them along with a sprig of parsley. We made salads and served some form of desert as well.

The next morning the college kids cooked breakfast. I remember one guest asked me for some jelly or preserves. I knew Sadie had two different kinds of preserves. One was a cheap jar which was to be served to guests and an expensive jar which was reserved for family use. I reasoned that since the guests had to eat a TV dinner instead of a real meal prepared by a real chef they should be treated to the more expensive preserves. Sadie noticed I had done and walked through the elegant dining room with windows looking out to the wooded grounds and removed the bowl from the table. She told me to replace the bowl the cheap preserves. I did as I was instructed.

The owners hired a new cook who started work later that day. We served bottle after bottle of champagne to the battery people that night. We kept the bubbly flowing and flowing. After all the guests paid for it. Sadie's husband who was referred to by all as The Colonel grilled the steaks. The new cook prepared the remainder of the meal. The guests had a really good night in this  remarkable setting.

The next day was Sunday morning. I walked into the office and told Sadie I quit. I told the other kids. They all quit as well. I couldn't work for a crazy woman (or man). Until I started to write today's blog I forgot how wacko Sadie behaved over a jar of preserves and cruel she was to Willie. What a petty person she was. And what a miserable human being she was to treat a really nice man so meanly.

The President got landmark civil rights legislation enacted which has changed the course of American life for the past 52 years. But there are still people who are petty and carry on grudges over the way things used to be. They continue to use the States Rights argument to deny all people fair and equal treatment in these United States of America.Watch ALL THE WAY as it recalls the way we used to be and that the way some of still are. The echoes of that era are a part of our current political debate.


Joseph Graham said...

Great story, Gary. I always enjoy your "off-topic" entries and stories. Keep them coming

Gary Thomas said...

Thank you Joseph! I am fortunate enough to remember 52 years ago. Sometimes I can't remember yesterday.


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I first read about Key West in a magazine called "After Dark" sometime in the mid 1970's. But it wasn't until March 1984 that I made my first visit to the island that would become my home. I had two weeks for a vacation and reserved a room at Colours Guesthouse (now Marrero's Guest House) for one week. I thought that if I didn't like Key West, I could always go back to Miami or Ft. Lauderdale for the rest of my trip. But after a couple of days in Key West, that was no longer a consideration. But when I wanted to extend my stay for the extra week I found there was no room at the inn. The guesthouse owner did find me a room at LaTeDa, the infamous guesthouse/restaurant. That's a story I'll write another day. But those two weeks in Key West gave me the realization that I had found Paradise. Key West has been my home since 1993 and my only regret is that it took me so long to get here. I am a full time Realtor at Preferred Properties CRI. Let me help you find your new home or business in Paradise. Living in Paradise is not a slogan, it's a way of life.