Upon his return, passed over for promotion to Brigadier General, Day retired. But years later, with his children grown and a lifetime of service to his country behind him, he would engage in another battle, this one against an opponent he never had expected: his own country. On his side would be the hundreds of thousands of veterans who had fought for America only to be betrayed. And what would happen next would make Bud Day an even greater legend.
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By Robert Coram
Little, Brown and CompanyCopyright © 2007 Robert Coram
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Out in the clean and sweetly rolling plains of the Midwest, out where Iowa and Nebraska and South Dakota come together, is a region called Siouxland - a place far removed from the swirling trends that wash over the dynamic cities of the East and West Coasts. This is the heartland, the stable and rock-solid core of America, and here the virtues long thought of as uniquely American are as real and ever-present as the wind across the prairie. Sophisticated people say the Midwest is "flyover country," a dull and boring place where exciting things rarely happen. But the people of Siouxland know that the very things America finds amusing about them are, in fact, their greatest strengths.
Sioux City, Iowa, is the best-known town in Siouxland. Only a few generations earlier, Sioux City had been the edge of civilization, the place where people stocked up on provisions before jumping into the wild Dakota Territories. Sioux City was as far up the Missouri as steamboats could travel. The railroad ended here. The first burial of a soldier west of the Mississippi River was that of Sergeant Charles Floyd, a member of Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery who sickened and died here on August 20, 1804. The largest monument honoring a member of the Corps of Discovery is the one-hundred-foot-tall sandstone obelisk known as the Floyd Monument in Sioux City. Afterward, Sioux City became a trail-end sort of town where cowboys brought cows and hogs to local meatpacking houses. Brothels and gambling and useless violence were big in Sioux City.
Two prominent geographic features help define Sioux City: the Missouri River and the Loess Hills. The mighty Missouri is one of America's most fabled and historic rivers while the Loess Hills are sharp-crested sand dunes formed centuries ago from windblown silt. Comparable hills are found in China, but the Loess Hills that run along the western border of Iowa and up through Sioux City are the longest in the world. On the edge of Sioux City, the Missouri is joined by the Big Sioux River. On the alluvial plain along the Big Sioux is a jam-packed suburb of small frame houses. This is Riverside, separated from Sioux City by the Loess Hills.
Riverside is a big part of the reason that Iowa and the rest of the Midwest looked down on Sioux City for much of the twentieth century. Riverside was the bad side of town - the home of roughnecks, the uneducated, and those on the windy side of the law. Here, grifters, hustlers, and bootleggers lived alongside railroad workers and those who worked in meatpacking houses. During the 1920s, tunnels under many Riverside homes served as hideouts for bank robbers who terrorized the Midwest; there were even stories that Al Capone visited when things got hot in Chicago. Dozens of illegal rat-hole bars were here, open seven days a week and known far and wide for their bloody fights. People in Riverside were so poor that in the winter they went over to the South Bottoms and waded into the Floyd River, where they scooped up buckets of fat, formed by congealed runoff from the stockyards, to use for cooking or for making soap.
Most people in Riverside accepted their lot in life. They were too busy eking out an existence to do otherwise. Only a few had the desire to get out and get up - to seek a better life. And of those few with the desire, even fewer made it.
George Day was one of those who did.
George Everette Day was born February 24, 1925, the second child and only son of John Edward and Christine Day. He was named George for his father's brother and Everette for one of his mother's brothers. From the beginning he was known only as "Bud."
John Edward Day, called "Ed," was fifty-four when Bud was born, an old man at a time when many men died in their sixties. He was five foot seven and slender, a taciturn fellow with a hard face. When he spoke, more often than not he was crabby. Some thought him mean.
Both Ed and Christine had been married previously. Ed divorced his first wife when he discovered there were other men in her life. He never spoke of his previous family except in dismissive and critical terms, and Bud grew up knowing little about them. Ed's sour disposition could have been caused in part by his first marriage or it could have been caused by what he called his "nervous stomach," for which he frequently took medicine. But more than likely his disposition was born in his poverty and in the knowledge that because he had only a sixth-grade education, his life would never be any better.
For a big part of Bud's childhood, Ed was unemployed, doing little but tending to a vegetable garden planted in the rich soil on the banks of the Big Sioux. The Day family had no car and no telephone. Ed sometimes could not afford to pay his rent, and several times the family was evicted. Bud's childhood was spent in a series of frame houses, none larger than about nine hundred square feet. In one of those houses, Bud's mother and sister slept in the single bedroom while he and his father slept on the porch. The houses were not insulated and the woodstoves strove mightily during the fierce prairie winters. Summers were blazing and there was no air-conditioning. A well provided water. An outhouse was about ten feet from the well.
It was a daily fight for existence, but Bud's father never complained. Like most Midwesterners, Ed was a man of fortitude who assumed he could and would handle whatever life threw at him. He was a stubborn man who simply did not know how to give up. The example he set in dealing with adversity was his greatest gift to his son.
Few parts of America were hit as hard by the Great Depression as was the Midwest. Siouxland became a dust bowl. Prairie grass died, the wells dried up, and the relentless wind blew away the dreams of a generation. For days, sometimes weeks, Bud never saw the sun.
Until the Depression, Siouxland was Republican country. But economics reversed the polarity of local politics. Like many of his neighbors, Ed Day went from being a ho-hum Republican to an evangelical Democrat who conferred almost godlike status upon President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Most afternoons Ed turned on the radio to listen to Fulton Lewis Jr., a Republican commentator, so that every few minutes he could shout, "Lying son of a bitch!" Ed blamed the Republicans for every bad thing in his life. Years later Bud would remember, "If we had a year when there were not many pheasants and hunting was bad, he blamed it on the Republicans."
Ed's passion for politics was another gift he passed to his son. To Ed Day, a man who did not vote was beneath contempt, right down there with men who borrowed money, drank liquor, or ran around on their wives. "If you don't vote, you can't complain," he said. "A no-vote is a vote for the status quo. Change will not come until a man exercises his right to vote."
But the Day household was not a democracy. When Ed told Bud to do something, it was always with a loud voice, and he never issued orders but once. If Bud moved slowly, his father slapped him into compliance. And no detail of Christine's appearance or demeanor escaped Ed's carping. She and her family were Danish immigrants, and Ed was particularly fond of ridiculing her accent and her family. He grumbled that her family did not speak English and said they were "stupid" to teach their children Danish. "If they are going to be real Americans, they've got to speak English," he said. Sioux City had a large Scandinavian population, and Ed referred to them derisively as "Eric" or "Eric the Red." He also had favorite slurs for other ethnic groups.
It is human nature that a man of pride, a man with no education and no job, must have someone to belittle. Perhaps Christine realized this; in any case, she never responded to the criticism. Her first husband had died and left her with four children. Ed put those children to work on Iowa farms in a form of indentured servitude, and they all moved to Chicago as soon as they could get away. Fatalistic about life, Christine did whatever Ed told her to do. She was a drudge, ruling nothing except her kitchen. She baked bread, cooked, and cleaned, and would not dream of taking a job outside the house; only a woman of doubtful virtue worked outside the home.
She was in her late forties when Bud was born. No one knew her age, as she told no one the date of her birth.
Every morning Christine cooked the same meal for her husband: one egg, fried very hard, along with a piece of fat pork and a couple of buckwheat pancakes.
Bud remembers also eating pancakes, as well as oatmeal and Cream of Wheat with raisins and milk and sugar, though during his childhood he never had a salad or a steak. As for his mother's diet, he can't remember; he recalls only that she was always running between the table and the stove and rarely sat down.
Bud's sister, Joyce, was six years older than he. She was so intelligent that twice she was moved ahead a year in school and would have been moved a third time if her mother hadn't forbidden it, saying she should not be in a class with girls who were three years older. Independent and headstrong, Joyce, had she been born a few decades later, could have been a militant feminist.
Ed was as verbally abusive to his daughter as he was to his wife. But Joyce was not intimidated. She and her father had tremendous fights. Bud particularly remembers one disagreement concerning Gypsy Rose Lee, the famous "hoochie koochie" dancer of the time whom Ed thought was a "strumpet." Joyce liked Gypsy Rose Lee and told her father, "Times are changing. A woman can do anything she wants as long as she does not break the law. If she was breaking the law, she would be arrested." And Joyce was so angry about Ed's constant criticism of Christine that many times she said to her mother, "Divorce him. You don't have to take his abuse. You don't have to live like this."
Bud was nine years old when Joyce - at fifteen - graduated from high school and moved to Chicago to live with a half sister. When she announced she was entering college in Oklahoma City, Ed sputtered and spouted and issued edicts, but all to no avail. This was not an issue in which he had a vote.
Joyce blazed through college as quickly as she did high school and, by nineteen, had graduated and was working in southeast Iowa. Then one day, while carrying a load of laundry downstairs, she tripped, tumbled down the stairs, and broke her neck. She died instantly.
Older people in Riverside still shake their heads when they talk of Joyce's death. She was a pretty girl, and they believe there was something mysterious about her death. Agile nineteen-year-olds don't fall down stairs. But there was no investigation, only bitter acceptance.
After the funeral, Ed found he was the beneficiary of Joyce's $500 life-insurance policy. He used the money to invest in a house at 2222 Riverside Boulevard. It was the only house Ed ever owned. The property had no bathroom, only a toilet. Ed wired the house, dug a basement with pick and shovel, braced it up, bricked it, and installed a furnace and a coal chute, then added an enclosed back porch and a toolshed. Ed was not the introspective sort who would have found irony in the fact that the only house he ever owned came through the death of an estranged daughter.
One of the few things Bud did with his father on a regular basis was to get on the streetcar in the early fall and ride down to lower 4th Street to the pawnshop owned by "Little Joe." There his father bought him a pair of shoes and a coat for the coming winter. By then Bud's shoes from the previous year were falling apart. (Time after time his mother took a cereal box and cut out a piece of cardboard in the shape of Bud's feet to fit inside his shoes. The mothers of Bud's friends did the same. It was a matter of pride among Riverside mothers that there were no holes in the socks of their children.)
Ed was convinced that Little Joe gave him great deals. So one day when the pawnbroker offered him an old single-barrel .410-gauge shotgun, Ed bought it and gave it to Bud, figuring that a Riverside boy ought to be able to shoot, to put meat on the table, even if he was only ten years old.
The .410-gauge shotgun was a small, low-powered shotgun with a very tight spread of shot. Hunters consider it something of a toy. But Bud became an excellent wing shot. Every year thousands of ducks covered the surface of sloughs along the Big Sioux, and Bud shot many of them for his mother's table. He also shot pheasants and pigeons. During the winter when he brought home game birds, his mother hung them on a wire in the yard, where they froze, not thawing out until maybe late March. When the family wanted one for the table, Bud's mother pulled it from the line and dressed and cooked it, supplementing domestic chickens and turkeys with pheasant, rabbit, pigeons, ducks, and geese.
Providing for the family meant more than finding food. Bud was expected to work. Though a boy had to be twelve to become a caddy at what then was called the Elmwood Golf Course, Bud somehow got one of the jobs when he was ten. As is sometimes the case with poor children, Bud was particularly observant. One of the first things he noticed at Elmwood, beyond the obvious fact that golfers had the money to indulge in an expensive sport and the leisure time to enjoy it, was that golfers wore expensive clothes and had manners far smoother than those of Riverside men. Their conversation was more worldly. And every man who played golf had been to college.
For a Riverside boy growing up in the Depression, there were no professions higher than being a doctor or lawyer. Bud Day decided he would be a doctor. But he told no one. The idea of a boy from Riverside going to college was outrageous. Only one boy in the neighborhood had ever gone to college: the preacher's son. For a Riverside boy to go to college and then to medical school ... well, to talk of such dreams would evoke only scorn and ridicule.
Bud discovered reading about the same time he discovered golf. Down the street was a police officer who was the father of a classmate. The officer had taken an early retirement because of an injury and spent his days on a recliner or in bed. His friends brought him books and magazines, so many that they stacked up in his small house. One day he invited Bud to look through the piles and take whatever he wanted. It was a revelation for the youngster.
As sometimes happens with children who are not happy with their lives, Bud found a better world between the covers of a book. Subsequently, he began checking books out of the city library. The limit was two volumes, but Bud went through books so fast and returned them so promptly that the librarian - as is the way of good librarians everywhere - increased his limit to four. During the summer he read from seven to nine books each week, many of them while lying on the roof of his house in the shade of an oak tree.
Ed, for all his rigidity in other matters, was lenient in the extreme about Bud's reading, probably because he thought reading would help Bud graduate from high school. A high school diploma was considered as far as a Riverside boy could go. College was not even a dream. Again and again Ed used his most emphatic tone to tell Bud, "You will be a high school graduate."
Bud read with the undisciplined enthusiasm of a boy who has discovered a secret. He quickly burned through books in the children's section, books about Daniel Boone, and books by Nathaniel Hawthorne and James Fenimore Cooper, and moved on to books about Nathan Hale and Thomas Paine and Daniel Webster and Thomas Jefferson. His boyhood hero became Charles Lindbergh. Bud considered Lindbergh almost a local; after all, he flew out of St. Louis, which was not that far away. Bud bought a leather pilot helmet and goggles and daydreamed of duplicating Lindbergh's exploits, of mounting up with wings as eagles. But of course it was only daydreaming. Boys from Riverside did not become officers and pilots; they became enlisted men and infantry soldiers.
By the time Bud was ten, he had several friends with whom he would remain close all his life.
Excerpted from American Patriot by Robert Coram Copyright © 2007 by Robert Coram . Excerpted by permission.
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