Guest Column: The lunch box politics of 1936
By Herb Floyd
It was October 1936 and FDR was running for his second term against Al Landon, a dull Kansan Republican. I was a farm boy living in Madison County, about 20 miles west of Columbus.
Like any 9-year-old, I had thoroughly adopted the political views of my father, an outspoken supporter of FDR and his various economic measures, particularly those supporting farmers.
Every day I took the Deercreek Township school bus. I often managed to find the seat behind Becky, a quiet, studious girl a couple of years junior to me. Like her parents she was a congenital Republican. Becky had her hair in long braids, which hung nearly down to her waist, offering an easy target for young boys. She rebuffed my attempts at conversation with icy looks from her brown eyes set in the forehead of a vertical face. Years later, she married a physics instructor from a university in Columbus.
Childless, they lived in a small cabin on the family farm. Both were slender and severe of appearance. They were the local reincarnation of Grant Wood’s famous painting of a farm couple in New England entitled “American Gothic.”
They even had the same type of barn. All that was missing was the pitchfork.
I cannot remember any of the issues of the campaign except that Landon was opposed to all the government programs set up by FDR, like the Works Progress Administration, the mandatory program to eliminate tuberculosis from the national cattle herd (called test and slaughter), acreage allotments for corn and wheat, and killing piglets, all designed to reduce enormous surpluses of hogs and grain.
As my mother would not have approved of my pulling Becky’s braids, I found another way to annoy her. I would lean forward and tease her with remarks about what a stupid, hopeless candidate Landon was. My father, in the course of our evening dinner, provided me with plenty of pithy remarks to use as ammunition in my juvenile anti-Landon patter.
Being older, I naturally assumed I knew more about everything than Becky did. So I mercilessly let loose my whole repertoire of barbs and insults against the soon-to-be hapless Republican candidate. She made few replies to my barrage. I failed to see the red rising in her cheeks and did not sense that an emotional storm was brewing inside the head from which descended those two long, neat braids.
This was in the days well before school lunches. Thus, every school-kid carried a lunch bucket. These were usually black with a rounded top which, when opened, held a thermos bottle inside the lid. On the lid was a black strap handle. The whole thing was about 10 inches long and weighed perhaps a pound when empty. Becky’s hand gripped the black strap as I continued my verbal attack.
Suddenly, with the speed of a Midwest summer lightning bolt, she wheeled in her seat and swung her right arm in a semi-circle haymaker over her left shoulder. My unsuspecting left forehead was directly in line with the path of the oncoming corner of the steel lunchbox. POW!! I fell backward into my seat, and put up my hand as a sort of political poultice to this physical outburst of Young Republicanism. Very young…very strong…very coordinated. Ohio farm girls can defend their positions with agility and resolve. To paraphrase Robert Service, “She performed this feat in a way so neat as to set at complete defiance, all the golden rules of the classical schools which govern political science.”
The blow ended what I had imagined an inspired political dialogue, albeit highly one-sided.
Sheepishly, I got off the bus before her, keeping one eye on that lunch box. After finishing nearly two hours of chores, I came in to dinner. My mother asked about the bruise on my forehead. (Seventy six years later, I still carry a small scar over my left eye. Becky made a lasting impression on my head as well as my mind.)
Hugely embarrassed, I attempted to explain. I recounted the incident, carefully shading the story to reveal me in the best light. It was, I explained, an unprovoked response to a simple disagreement over presidential candidates.
At the dinner table that night, my father had a huge laugh at hearing of my political misfortune at the hands of the daughter of a respected Guernsey dairy farmer and neighbor. That ended the monologue I had had with Becky. I had been trounced.
When FDR defeated Landon in a stunning landslide, I wisely did not gloat. From that day on, I kept a watchful eye on her lunch box.
However, that did not end Becky’s political activity. In the election of 2004, there was a London school bond issue on the ballot. The issue would permit increasing support to local schools. It involved a tax increase. Becky was a Norquist Republican even before he was born. You only had to look at her tightly puckered lips to get the message: NO NEW TAXES!
Becky and her husband, Wilbur, both voted by mail.
Then a friend in the local election office asked Becky if she had voted. Naturally distrustful of all government agencies, including the postal service, Becky and Wilbur went to the polls and voted again. The school bond issue resulted in a cliffhanger, the measure carrying by only a few votes.
Election officials reviewed the situation and discovered that Becky and Wilbur had voted twice. So they called them in and separately asked them which way they had voted. If you knew Becky and Wilbur, you knew that it was impossible for either of them to tell a lie. Becky admitted she had voted against the measure while the more liberal Wilbur said he had voted for it. Both…twice!
Since they cancelled each other out, their votes made no difference and the measure squeaked through.
A day or two later, my sister called me from Toledo. She excitedly reported that Becky was on TV! The story from Ohio was picked up by the media and went nationwide. So Becky got her 30 seconds of national fame, even without a lunch box.
In Ohio, farm ladies take their politics seriously. Better vote twice…just in case.
Herb Floyd is a Madison County native, now living in Colorado.