In a 2008 Huffington Post piece on the politics of the late Studs Terkel, I related a story from Terkel’s memoir, Talking to Myself. On this Labor Day, on the heels of the death of Terkel contemporary Stetson Kennedy, it seems appropriate to share the story here, in hopes you can use its pungent images, in any way you see fit. —DM
Louis Terkel was 11 in the summer of 1923. His mother had sent him to a resort in South Haven, Michigan in the belief that the clean air would be good for his asthma. The lonely young man spent much of his time watching the married couple who owned the resort. They are quiet anarchists, young Terkel has gathered.
“They put in a good twenty-seven-hour day in a vain effort to please their suddenly sybaritic guests: small merchants, salesmen forever scuffling, marginal entrepreneurs, assorted wives, children, and flatulent grandchildren. The country air has a magical effect on these petit-bourgeois. They have become khedives, caliphs, sultanas, princesses. Regally impatient and demanding. Rarely has anyone suffered such bullyragging as the unlucky couple.”
An early August morning, 1923. The guests have had a much too hearty breakfast. There is a lounging around and a satiety that is beyond the merely vulgar. An occasional belch. A discreet fart. Somebody makes a joke. Somebody laughs.
“Have you no respect? The President is dead.”
Sudden silence. It is not so much the tragic news of Warren Harding’s death. We knew that yesterday, moments after it happened. It is the judge who has spoken and when he speaks you’d better listen. He is Mount Pleasant’s most prestigious guest. His pockmarked face in no way diminishes the awe with which he is regarded by the others. He is a municipal court judge and a good friend of [Chicago] Mayor William Hale Thompson. He is very patriotic.
How come there is no American flag being flown from the porch? he demands to know. There certainly should be one at half-mast this morning. There was none on the Fourth of July, you say? … Some people don’t know how lucky they are to live in a great country like this. You know who I mean. Heads nod. They turn toward the couple on the grass, some distance away. The judge has been staring in that direction. Balefully.
The couple that runs the resort is resting. The grass is as good a place as any. I saw them but a moment ago flop down into it. They chat softly to one another. …
The judge announces that at eleven o’clock everybody is to stand at attention and face east. One minute of silence in tribute to our late President, Warren G. Harding. The Judge appears angry about something. I think it has to do with the couple on the grass. The Judge takes out his gold watch. He is counting off the seconds. Eleven o’clock, he announces. The guests are standing up. …
It is an impressive minute. Except for one thing. The couple on the grass. They are seated. Not so much seated as stretched out. They appear not to notice what’s happening. The man lies, belly down; his chin is cupped in his hand, his eyes are closed. The woman, reclining, her open arms pressed downward on the grass, her head tossed back, is gazing up at the sky. They are out of some French impressionist painting. Impression: a bone-weary man and woman, delighting in this precious time out. Rest.
The Judge nods. The minute is up. We plop back into our seats and hammocks and swings, having paid our respect to a departed statesman; more to the point, having abided by the Judge’s wish. He is nobody to cross.
“Those Goddamn Bolsheviks.”
The Judge is glaring in the couple’s direction. …