Living in Austin, Texas, you still, this many years on, are living in the shadow of LBJ. His footprints are all over this place, if you know what to look for. I doubt that’s the case for most other presidential stomping grounds, certainly isn’t from what I’ve seen of other presidents’ home towns. Austin, current trendy poster child for creative urban post-industrial America was a pretty damned hick and small place in LBJ’s day, and LBJ’s larger than life personality, and his immense force of will, put one hell of a mark here on these parts here. A whole lot of Austin’s graduating into a real city, a place that aint hick no more is due to LBJ and his efforts. Without LBJ Austin would now be about where Jackson, Mississippi, is–smaller, dumpy, more distinctly southern, slower, poorer. LBJ came along and shook things up in a big way in this town. And tossed a whole lot of federal money in this direction, too.
LBJ is fortunate to have gotten as good a biographer as Robert Caro. Caro is the best biographer in the English language in our lifetimes, and his biographies of Robert Moses (The Powerbroker) and his three doorstop volumes of LBJ biography, read attentively, will give you more of an understanding of how the American political system actually works than an undergraduate (or graduate, for that matter) degree from a state university ever will. Certainly true from my experience in UT’s government department, at any rate.
Caro’s excellence comes from his background in journalism, and his skill and thoroughness in interviewing people. Too much of academia looks down on such journalistic investigation, thinking that the only facts worth mentioning are to be found in archives, with maybe a little interviewing of the subject’s friends. Someone like LBJ or Moses, who in their life crossed paths with thousands of people from all walks of life, left behind in their wake stories from these encounters. These stories, the best of them, provide the most insight and illumination into the lives of the biographer’s subject. They are really the nuts and bolts of real history, as opposed to official sources say historical hagiography. Austin, Texas is full of people with their LBJ stories, and over the years I’ve done my bit to get the best of them to Robert Caro, like the one below, and it is a great source of satisfaction that I have thereby faithfully served my fair mistress Clio. I am certain that none of the academic LBJ biographers, like Robert Dallek, would have given me and my Jim Bethke story, which made both Volume 3 and The New Yorker, any attention, and that such a good, if shocking and revolting story, would be left by the wayside by them shows how weak their works really are.
You would think that with all the fame–which in these parts started out as notoriety, as Caro’s Volume 1 angered the surviving Johnson crew badly–there would be more people like me writing Caro with their LBJ stories. Particularly in a college town like Austin, full of UT graduates, full of academics. Doesn’t seem to have happened much of any, judging from what I read of the footnotes in all three volumes. I can maybe understand that coming from most ordinary Americans, who just never had much use for or understanding of history. I’d have thunk for sure that there would be more LBJ stories coming from the UT crowd, but they haven’t produced. Professional jealousy or selfishness, or smallness, or that they never turned up any? Don’t know there, but it doesn’t say much for them. Doesn’t say much for how well the notion of the diffusion of knowledge, and the responsibility we the educated have towards it, got passed on from them to all their students over the decades, that so few of their students, if any other than me, bothered to contact Caro and lend him, and Clio, a hand.
Story below I heard twenty years ago now, and I’ve changed the name of the protagonist. When she told me the story, I told her that I was going to contact Robert Caro with it, because to the best of my knowledge* this was the only story of LBJ meeting the Vietnam War wounded, and maybe the only incident in 20th century history when a serving president visited with the war wounded. Julie, as I’ll now call her, was most upset by the notion of my doing that, and didn’t want me to. Sheyitt she’s a UT grad, graduate degree too, with some literary aspirations no less, and she ought to know how important a story is to history this one is, and dammit she ought to realize how well her mother comes across in it. Clio’s been after me for a long while to get this story out, and I now am, with some modest anonymizing changes.
So back to Austin, Texas, in the shadow of LBJ. It isn’t just that LBJ left his footprints all over the place here; he left them all over a lot of people here too. LBJ and his gang ran over a lot of people deliberately, some hard and permanently, and if I’d been living here as an adult hell I might well have been one of them. Even if I’d have been a kid, no guarantees that the dark side of the LBJ phenomena wouldn’t have sideswiped me hard one day, like it did to this gal I know, Julie.
Julie is my age give or take a year and LBJ was her and my president both when we were in grade school. Me I was in various USAF dependent schools across the US and the world, while Julie, lifelong Austinite, was here, with her parents, lifetime Texans and longterm Austin residents. Julie’s folks were originally from Johnson City, LBJ’s hometown, and they owned a chunk of the old family homestead that they, like anyone else, kept ownership of via regular cash infusions from their city jobs. All the land in those parts of rural Texas had been beat up by white settlement enough by the 30’s that there was no making a living off of it anymore, wouldn’t ever be again really either.** LBJ, as he got rich in the Senate, reclaimed ownership of his dad’s old homestead that the old man had lost in the 20’s, and then some a bunch more, to where Julie’s family wound up with LBJ as neighbor, of sorts.
LBJ of course didn’t live out on the ranch, not till he left DC and politics for good in ’69, but he’d regularly visit with Ladybird and the kids and their friends sometimes on weekends and play rancher and boss the help around and poach a deer if he felt like it. Julie and her family would also visit their homestead on weekends from time to time, and sometimes their visits would overlap with the LBJ entourage visiting their place. Julie recollects the LBJ visits as mostly a nuisance, as the LBJ kids generally misbehaved in the usual rich kid ways spoiled rich kids do, and sometimes then some more. Low helicopter flights full of yahoo LBJ kids and their asshole rich kid friends over their ranch were right annoying, to where her older brother got irritated enough one day and grabbed his wrist rocket (high powered slingshot) and a bolt and shot it through the plexiglas bubble canopy of the offending helicopter, which then honked up spectacularly and hightailed it away. Julie’s mom had some serious prevaricating to do to the Secret Service agents knocking on her door there about twenty minutes later. She successfully deflected them further down the road, saying it had to be some redneck kid and not hers.
Julie’s folks weren’t just native Texans, they were politically liberal and enlightened and educated, which wasn’t at all common then, particularly from a rural background. Like most of their kith, they were conflicted by LBJ–they could look past his revolting and generally shitheel personality and acknowledge his unmatched political ability and his genuine efforts in civil rights, something no other southern politician, and not enough northern politicians, were doing. But as the ’60’s wore on, the war in Vietnam took front and center stage to everything else, and Julie’s folks had the sense and guts and decency to be against it hard, early on. They didn’t have much company in this town, not at first, and I’m sure their opposition to the war cost them friends and opportunities.
Most everyone knows that the war was a draftee war, but most people nowadays aren’t old enough to remember the TV show of the draft that ran once a year back then. General Hershey of the draft would get on TV with a bunch of other brass and a big perforated steel drum full of what looked like giant plastic pill capsules each containing a piece of paper with a date written on it. There were 365, or 366 depending, of these capsules in the barrel, one for every date of the year of course, and General Hershey would spin the container, and then stop it, open the hatch to it, pull out a capsule, read out a date, and the date would flash across the whole screen. All the while an endless stream of dates, each with the number they were pulled from the barrel, scrolled nonstop across the bottom border of the screen. The order the capsules were pulled was the order of the draft calls for that year, for every male eligible for the draft that year. During the Vietnam War, the first hundred plus numbers, the first hundred-some unlucky birthdays, were guaranteed to get drafted, with a damned high chance of going into the Army or Marines and being shipped off to the war. It was very boring TV to watch, particularly for a little kid like Julie forced by her mother to watch it, but that show did have a large and very attentive audience across the whole country every time it ran.
I don’t have any kids, so I don’t know what I’d tell my kids about a shitassed evil war I was opposed to to explain it to them enough to where they’d have some sort of understanding of why Mommie and Daddy have to go to a demonstration instead of the PTA talent show, and why their friends’ parents say bad things about me, and all the other things that happened to Julie and her siblings in the ’60’s and early ’70’s. If I did have kids, Julie’s age or thereabouts, I’d certainly have that question to answer nowadays, what with our evil shitassed pointless lost multiple wars going on all over the world. All of us ought to be wrestling with that question, and I’d sure as hell like to hear what’s being said by parents to kids on the war issue nowadays in American households. Insofar, of course, as there is any anti-war movement going on nowadays for people to get involved in. Hell there isn’t even any real discussion, or any conscious understanding, or interest in wanting to understand of our multiple shitassed evil ongoing wars for most people, particularly amongst our political, intellectual, or religious leaders and spokespeople. You have to say that Julie’s parents’ engagement with the issue of the Vietnam War, and their forthright opposition to it, made them better people than most all of us nowadays. And that our society’s sweeping the wars under the rug the way we have, our cowardly avoiding engagement with the issues war always raises, makes American society nowadays inferior to ours’ then, too. All our liberal progress against the racism and sexism endemic in those days really doesn’t matter much if our society has accepted permanent wars abroad against peoples who have done us no injury as an acceptable state of affairs, as we now seem to have.
So one early summer Saturday early evening in the middle of the Vietnam War, 1967 maybe, Julie and her family drove out from Austin towards their place. This time they weren’t planning a weekend out at their ranch, but were instead going to attend the local rural fair, the Stonewall Peach Jamboree. Some of the locals, and a fair percentage of the immigrant arrivals, reasonably financially set early retirees most of them, have made parts of the LBJ country peach orchards. They’ve got it tough, as Central Texas is really at the edge of peach growing territory–too many late freezes that kill the blossoms, too many drought years with killing rainless summers, often too-warm winters without enough chill hours to set the fruit. Means that you can figure on a good crop about two years out of five, which aint no way to get rich. Part of the Peach Jamboree is the usual county fair/biggest local event of the year, and part of it is local boosterism for a crop that generally breaks your heart often. Breaks your bank account, too.
Julie and her folks pulled up and parked, and the kids were let loose to scramble around the Jamboree while the parents went off for a beer. As it turned out, there were two visiting participants that evening at the Peach Jamboree. LBJ and a portion of the usual entourage were out there for an evening out from the ranch. You could tell they were out there from all the Secret Service suits wandering around, they’re easy enough to spot even when they aren’t the only suits in a crowd of country folks like was there. LBJ’s personality, and the aura of the Presidency of the United States of America Himself being in the crowd had the crowd worked up and buzzing. Other visitors, a couple of dozen of them, were off to one side, and they weren’t making any kind of buzz like LBJ was. They were mostly being ignored, and were having the exact opposite effect on the crowd, in fact, even though they were all GI’s in uniform, visiting a part of rural America that most all entirely supported them instinctively in peacetime and viscerally in wartimes like the times present. You see, these were some GI’s out for an evening from the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, then the US military’s largest and preeminent medical facility, still one of the largest and most prominent nowadays. They were wounded GI’s out for a evening out from the hospital, an evening break from the lengthy hospitalizations and series of surgeries they were all undergoing there at BAMC. And not just the ordinary wounded, insofar as there is such a thing. These were the worst of the VSI’s, the most terribly and seriously injured, from the farthest wards in all of BAMC.
Julie and her brother wandered over to the corner of the festival where the wounded were gathered together with their BAMC medical staff attendants. There were three things that Julie saw right away from looking at them. First was how badly wounded they were. These were obviously, even to her, the worst of the wounded from BAMC, the multiple amputees, the paralytics, the blinded, the inhuman looking grossly burned missing their facial features, nothing but mouth and nostril holes and eyeballs and pink scar tissues for a face anymore, the gross head wounds with their zipper-scarred and dented heads and that heartbreaking pithed look of theirs from their vacant unfocused staring eyes. Most all of them were in wheelchairs, some were pinned into weird orthopedic contraptions, and there were some that were so tore up missing so much of themselves that they were still in gurneys, there at the jamboree. Still in gurneys, after the world’s best surgeons had done their best for them–they likely weren’t ever going to get out of beds and gurneys for the rest of their lives. BAMC, with the world’s best casualty surgeons, in one of the world’s best set of hospitals, had done their best, and modern medicine at its best had kept them from dying from their sickening and frightening injuries, but nothing less than a touch from the hand of Almighty God was ever going to give any of them a life again, not one worth living by our usual American standards.
Julie also noticed the reactions of the Jamboree festival-goers towards them, the ones who didn’t immediately veer away towards the main bustle of the festival as soon as they saw them. Wives in particular did that. Probably most of the festival goers avoided their way away from that corner and crew. The ones that didn’t, who nerved up to go over and talk to these kids–how stiff and wooden and lame and pained they were in dealing with these kids, kids of theirs, because they were kids. Most none of them were old enough to be shaving much if any, and Julie had this horrible sad realization watching them, and watching the adult festival goers around them, that really all these mangled 18 and 19 year old GI’s were closer in age to her, closer in life and life experiences and life sentiments to her and her grade school aged brother than they were to all the wrinkling and graying and stiff adults around them.
Then the third and final thing Julie noticed was LBJ coming over to them, with entourage in tow of course. LBJ was in full running for office mode, talking a mile a minute, loudly, with a more pronounced than usual Texas accent, giving all the wounded GI’s the close-up full Johnson treatment, shaking their hands, pounding them on their back if they didn’t have any hands to shake, telling them how proud he and everyone was of them and their sacrifice, and here’s a jar of Stonewall Peach Jam for you, just from me, to show how much we all appreciate all you all did. Hangers-on in the entourage were taking notes afterwards from those GI’s who wanted to say more to LBJ, those of them who could talk, of course. Julie and her brother were frozen there in shock, watching this spectacle. Twenty years on, Julie said that she still has never seen a more sickening and revolting sight than LBJ giving the Johnson treatment to those stricken kids there at the Stonewall Peach Jamboree.
Julie’s mother had wandered over to that part of the festival, and had seen what was going on there with LBJ and the GI’s, and she was pretty thoroughly revolted herself by what she was seeing. She saw her kids over in the front, and she bolted up through the crowd and got behind her kids and grabbed them hard and pulled them away from there and marched them over to the family car. Shoved them in the back seat, and she and her husband drove straight away from there in the dark back to home in Austin. Nobody much said anything during the hour long drive back to Austin, nobody wanted to talk any much. But sitting there in the back seat of her parents’ car, Julie realized all of a sudden why her mother made her watch that boring TV show, and what that show and the fancy uniforms and all those numbers that endlessly scrolled across the bottom of the screen really meant. Julie had, through no fault of hers, been sideswiped by the LBJ Force of Nature, knew that even at that young age. Thinking about those GI’s there at the Jamboree, she realized that it could have been a lot worse, like those poor bastard GI kids there that were sideswiped too, badly, one hell of a lot, by forces beyond them. All of a sudden, she understood, at too young an age, in a way she could never ever forget, about hard adult things she’d have been a lot happier not to.
*I have heard that Bush II has had several visits at Walter Reed with Iraq wounded. No lazy assed and cowardly US reporter has ever challenged a media freezeout policy of his administration on these visits.
**Caro’s first 50 or so pages of Volume 1 are the best account of white settlement in these parts, and one of the best accounts of white settlement in the west, ever written. They are extraordinarily fine pages of natural history, well worth anyone’s time reading.