bonus army


Summer Games: a novel

Jon Woodson

6. Bonus Army

     The Far North East of Washington, D.C. was so humble that in practical terms it did not exist. Pointer and Heyward had to drive a surprising number of miles within the city limits until they were on any section of the city covered by the "'Standard Guide' Ready Reference Map of Washington for 1932." Where they had just come from was overlaid by the Ready Reference Index, which listed wharves, telegraph offices, statues, cemeteries, institutions, and hotels. Out in the Far North East, schoolchildren in the advanced classes took Latin, so they knew that the portion of the District of Columbia that had been ceded to the Federal Government by Virginia had been returned to the state whose motto was Sic semper tyrannis –"We've always been such tyrants." But it was not common knowledge that the wedge of the city that was east of the Anacostia River had been ceded to the incumbency of aphasia, paresis, and truancy. So no wonder it was tucked underneath an Index. It was not a place you went to; it was just a place you were from if you were a nobody. Out there in the forgotten zone were warranted the electric power plant and the nine fossas of the city dump, the Alpha and the Omega – creation and destruction, coming and going, being and non-being. Heyward and Pointer drove out Benning Road until at last they came into a region of significant topographical overtone. Benning Road was named after a slaveholder. All the old street names in the Far North East were taken from slaveholders, Sheriff, Lowrie, Dean, Lee, and Naylor. Like the Buddhistic universe supported by infinite turtles, the Far Northeast was plantations all the way down -- Nonesuch, Beall's Adventure, Virgin Garden, and Fortune. Everything in the Far North East had been owned by slaveholders. So much for history. Somebody would eventually have to come along and clean up all the names, rewrite the history and get rid of the slaveholders and the plantations -- but not today. Not with that Index up there in the sky, with all the type showing in reverse….

     They crossed the wide barren floodplain of the Anacostia River. There were dead-ended channels of brown seepage, and dry streambeds. A desolate boat was anchored in one of the scoops, suspended on lustrous dead water the color of mercury. In the widest channel of the river, the slow turbid water roiled indistinctly, muddy and dun, hardly seeming to move. The banks of the main channel were thickly tangled with wild, dark vegetation that leaned over the opaque, unreflective current. A long, low causeway crossed the sallow water. There was wasteland for a good distance on both sides of the river, a broad plain of mud and reddish low weeds. Eventually, they came to the end of the causeway and into a new neighborhood of residential cross streets crowded with small houses, streets that took them down to a wide, unadorned bridge, where they crossed back over the river. As they came again across the still expanse of the river on the bridge, they could look over and see the sprawling, heartbreaking, ruinous, torrid, calamitous camp of the Bonus Army, indistinct under a squalid haze of drifting smoke and dust.

     Heyward turned onto a dirt road that led into the camp. On closer inspection the helter-skelter assemblage of tents, lean-tos, and jalopies showed that it was rectangularly organized like a military post. At the entrance there was even a guardhouse and a boom gate that barred the road. A fellow in the worn unfocused uniform of some organized adversity even saluted. "State your business," he directed.

     "We're here to see Theed Stheno."

     The guard smartened up considerably at this. He leaned and looked into the car with renewed interest. "You know Colonel Theed?"

     "Shouldn't that be Colonel Stheno? Yeah, we are here to pick him up. Where do we find him?"

     The fellow turned and shouted toward the guard house. "Where is Colonel Theed billeted?" A minute later the Delphic oracle boomed out of the guard shack.

     "He's down on Armistice Street."

     "Go on down to Armistice Street," the guard repeated. Another filthy veteran gave the end of the pole a shove, and it swung up and out of the way, with the dry clattering of its stanchion. The guard snapped another salute. Heyward returned the gesture grudgingly and gunned the car past the entrance. As they drove down the dusty street they could see the whole camp was filled with the feverish activity of desperate people trying to keep themselves alive without the necessities being in good supply. There was the semblance of civilization with various disasters proclaiming themselves to be libraries, hospitals, kitchens. But they were mockeries of those institutions. They had to ask directions when they had driven down to Armistice Street. Their inquiry was responded to enthusiastically, and the new car garnered some notice. A few people with nothing better to do followed along after them to see what Colonel Theed's visitors were up to.

     When they got to the shack where Theed was housed they pulled up and got out of the car. They found him standing at a makeshift table with a group of muddy men gathered around it. He was using a stick to illustrate what he was saying about a huge plan that was thumb-tacked to the table's top. They were just in time to hear him saying, "Above all remember that your army may travel on its stomach but it camps where it shits." He went on to make a number of points about the latrines of the War to End All Wars. The Americans spent the whole trench campaign emptying buckets of waste into ineptly conceived ditches placed without any conception of hygiene. The Negro troops fought alongside the French, and whatever else the French were or were not, they were masters of the latrine. Latrine being a French word. The French used the long drop. Your French latrine was placed to the rear of the trenches out of range of snipers and hastily inadvertent footfalls. In the frontline trenches your American troops used buckets that had to be emptied. This was so they could be watched and timed while answering the call of nature. Because the Americans were dedicated to time and motion studies of the toilet in trench warfare, the troops were unfalteringly covered in feces and urine from spills, explosions, and upsets to the buckets. When the Americans abandoned a trench, they invariably left full buckets for the next occupants to belly up to.

     With his wild shock of hair, aquiline nose, and pouty lips, Theed looked like the classical sculptured head in Giorgio de Chirico's metaphysical painting Le chant d'amour. This was a fitting countenance for a person with a metaphysical appreciation of latrines. He was to be conducting a latrine symposium, some sort of feverish excremental collegium, all the more emphatic and dancing, driven as it was by the second or third or fourth fundamental human need. He had formed up a squadron of shock workers (udarniki) and was providing French long drop latrines for Camp Marks of the Bonus Army. At one point in his lecture, he looked up, took in that he had newly-arrived visitors and gave them an exaggerated wink. "In conclusion, I want it understood that this is the one thing in the lost economy that we flounder in that does not cost a dime. We are all scrambling around trying to feed ourselves. We can't keep ourselves clean worth a darn in this no soap camp. So, we'll dig down into the clay of these unhallowed shores. We'll cover over with solid lumber. We'll have the finest long drop latrines anyone ever had. And peace of mind." He appointed a foreman. He passed out the brand-new long-handled shovels that had been donated by local hardware stores. He saluted and sent them off to their tasks. Only then did he undividedly turn to direct his immensity at Pointer and Heyward.

7. The Tail

     Now when someone has been put on a tail there is an inescapable conflict between wanting to report in and staying on the trail. Cupcake Collins didn't mind admitting that he didn't know what he was doing. As long as he was only admitting it to himself. He didn't mind shadowing Mr. Lawton Cosway's high gear wife, when all it meant was keeping a lazy eye half-cocked on her. She was easy enough to keep track of blistering around in a blatant cherry roadster to get her hair done and such. It had been up-to-now a matter of his sitting around, smoking cigarettes, and daydreaming about dark horses, tricky pool shots, and practicing his poker face in the rear view mirror. But now Lawton's flamingo was attracting jokers who were dividing his attention and running back and forth across the metropolis like sightseeing tourists from Oklahoma. When they went back across the river after just getting across it, he took exception. When they drove into the deep dust of the veteran's camp he got downright disgusted. These scamps had no consideration. He had just washed and waxed his car. When they got up to the gate, he took that as a personal insult. He watched them drive into the trash heap of a camp, and then he turned around and ditched the car. He loitered unobtrusively for a while at the outskirts of the military travesty, and when a group of veterans came by loudly arguing among themselves, he threw in with them. They didn't pay him any mind at all since they were wrapped up in high governmental affairs, not to mention high finance, but he gave the lot of them a careful once-over. While he walked, he scuffed some dust over his shoes, took his hat off and massaged it out of kilter, punching the crown up into a dome, and put it back on his head — and when he got through with his alterations he did look like as much of a rustic dolt as his new sidekicks. He took his coat off and draped it over his shoulder, though he also had to try not to swagger and look like he was doing that to strike a pose. He sagged and slouched and stumblebummed as much as he could, though it went against his nurture, and he tried to take on the beaten-down tone of the veterans. This was not to his liking, since Cupcake Collins was an approximation of a dandy. This was his first time ever intentionally trying to fit in with no-accounts and the unfit for duty. Even though he had dressed down for his chore as a sleuth, he wasn't close to the bedragglement of his new comrades-in-ruin. He didn't know you could get that disreputable. Well, he had heard about it, but he hadn't previously had to rub up against it. When they sang "Buddy can you spare a dime," it was Cupcake Collins they were addressing as "Buddy." But he didn't even know the words to that song….

     When the squad of no-accounts got up to the camp's rickety guard house and the striped boom gate, the veterans all had to show some kind of paper to say they belonged in there. They foisted all manner of shabby shreds of cards and unfolded creased and tattered documents that were barely holding together. Cupcake Collins waited until they were all passed through by the guard. Then he sidled up to the broad-shouldered contaminated unsmiling soldier.

     "Say, General, who was in that fancy Chevy that came through a while ago?"

     "Oh, you must mean the ones that were looking for Colonel Theed?"

     "Oh, is that right? Theed. What's his game?"

     "Colonel Theed is in charge of the latrines."

     "I see. A big man around here, is he?"

     "As big as they get in this Hooverville. Are you coming inside? Let's see your paper."

     "No, I'll pass on that. I'm not in this camp. I was just out for my scenic constitutional. Wanted to see what was transpiring on this side of the river. Latrines is it? Have a stick of Feenamint on me." He proffered the gum toward the guard who took it and pocketed it without a word. Mockingly, Cupcake Collins executed an inexact salute and a mincing two-faced about-face. He affected the infirm pace that was the mode of ambulation around him and made his way back to the dusty car. He rolled all of the windows down and waited for the heat to boil out before sitting on the simmering seat. He lighted a cigarette and had a good look around. He couldn't get the camp into focus. It was just a jumble. As though somebody had moved a dump to the riverside and populated it with grubby people and set it on fire. It was hard to look at it and think. What was the plan? He could wait for those schoolboys to come out. But then he would be stuck following them. It was pretty clear that if they were hobnobbing with a latrine expert, they were going from one unsanitary place to another. And he didn't want to ride along. He decided that if he reported what he knew, it would be enough like he was balling the jack. Split the difference. That way it would not be up to him what the next move would be. He'd find a phone booth and relay the bad news headline to Lawton Cosway. With any luck he'd be ordered to sharp shoot them, and things would be as smooth as bonded hooch. As smooth as a Duke Ellington intro. He floored the car and crooned the little solo Cootie Williams does in "Lazy Rhapsody." Duh de dee dat.

8. The Mummy

     Theed grinned gorgeously and pointed a long, uneconomical index finger at the car. He had the fingers of a switchboard operator. He had the eyes of a cryptographer. He had the ears of a pornographer. He had the feet of a tight-rope walker, a night owl, a cattle thief. He had the common sense of an alchemist. He had the education of a prestidigitator. He had the bank account of a mountebank. He had the sense of entitlement of a firewalker. He had the social conscience of rag picker. He was as intravenous as a confidence trickster. Either he had been to Hannibal, Missouri or was a cannibal. "Let's mount up," he said as he marched briskly toward the lustrous machine, gleaming diffusely under the light coating of powder, soot, and grit that it had picked up on the drive through the earthen lanes of the encampment. He brushed away some of the grime from his outfit and stepped up on the running board. He surveyed Camp March as it sprawled incrementally alongside the trough of the river like a fuming, smoldering chessboard. "It's a dispiriting hive, isn't it? All of these idle workers with no security. You can feel them tilting in the direction of comic opera and hysterical rhetoric. A breeding ground for catastrophe." He jettisoned the squalid panorama with a heartbroken sweep. "We need to restore the imagination. Let's take in a show."

     Heyward got back behind the wheel and ran his eyes wonderingly over the dials and knobs of the control panel, and Pointer got in beside him. Theed got into the back. They drove around one of the disheveled blocks of the camp streets until they were headed in the direction of the gate. Heyward and Pointer were dumbstruck by the thousands of people who were crowded into the makeshift garrison. Some hurrying around in the blazing light and enervating heat as though they knew what they were about. But as many were sprawled on the ground asleep in any accommodating shadow. All of the desolate privacies of the world were on exhibit. And the minor squabbles of color, age, and sex had been set aside, so that no matter what you were, you were a part of the collective, ulterior misery. The car was deferentially waved through the gate, and then given an incurious, hostile skim by the city police as it passed through their checkpoint. Pointer headed the car into the city through the milling throngs of displaced men. Theed sat back and closed his eyes.

     After a few minutes, Theed began another of his incessant monologues. He had commandeered Heyward's car with the intention of setting out to view "The Mummy" starring Boris Karloff. This he revealed in a roundabout way. He began by celebrating the horror film as a form of the most profound revelation of truth. As always, the gist of these valedictories was to establish that his evaluation of a thing was superior to that which was held by most people who held the opinions of hayseeds or squatters, take your pick. In this case, "The Mummy" was initially to be appreciated for its inclusion of the Negro actor Noble Johnson in the cast. Having dispensed with the preliminaries, Theed began to set forth his ideas on reincarnation. He pointed out that the movie could not be expected to set forth the correct doctrines on such an arcane teaching. It was up to the discerning intellect to penetrate the heresies and absurdities of the film. The film was at best an anfractuous consideration of the topic — in a sense an initiation, a test. By examining the presentation of metaphysical ideas in a popular form, one learned to discriminate between metaphysics and fantasy. Between truth and delirium. Pointer knew better than to interrupt the progress of one of these lectures. He made a sign to Heyward to keep quiet, and Heyward smiled conspiratorially back at him. They rode along listening to Theed, like a radio tuned to a quiz show that involved trick questions about the Egyptian and Tibetan books of the dead. Answer correctly about the blue wolf-headed wind goddess, waving a pennant in the hand and you could win a dollar. Theed distinguished between transmigration of the soul, eternal recurrence, becoming again, incarnation, and rebirth. "What we are, then, is entirely dependent on what we think. Therefore, the nobility of man's character is dependent on his "good" thoughts, actions, and words. At the same time, if he embraces degrading thoughts, those thoughts invariably influence him into negative words and actions." Heyward looked over at Pointer. He could see that Pointer was listening and that Theed's words were having a profound effect on him. He looked away. Just then Pointer, who was stopped at a crossing, looked over at Heyward and was amazed to see that Heyward had a rapt expression on his face. Both of them were awed by Theed's fundamental position not to set much store by the uses, aims and meaning of present-day civilization that he had pawned from Jung's introduction to The Bardo Thodöl.

     Though their ultimate destination was the Lincoln Theater, they had to stop by the house in the Shaw neighborhood, where they were to pick up their friends Buster Nason and Bunny James. Buster's real name was Fortescue, and it was to his house that they were driving. Bunny James also lived in the Shaw section, so they had arranged to centralize and make only one stop required on the way to the movie house. Bunny may have had a real name but he had lost it and was now only know that way. When the Chevrolet pulled up in front of the imposing gables, gingerbread, and planters of the Nason home, Buster and Bunny were waiting on the porch. As the car swung to the curb and halted, the two athletic, smartly-tailored men stood and began to applaud. It was their first view of the luxurious machine that would take them across the continent to the 10th Olympiad. And as they ran down the porch stairs and across the verge, they were at once awed by the appearance of the powerful car and by the fact that suddenly it was apparent that their foolhardy and unwise undertaking would soon begin. They looked into the car to see that their two friends were slouched on the seat as though they were heedless of the approaching moment of setting-out, but Bunny and Buster were not for a moment taken in by their sham insouciance. Bunny and Buster also observed that there was someone in the back seat who was authentically incurious and preoccupied. This must be the baffling cousin that Pointer had mentioned.

     The three riders stepped out of the car. Pointer, Heyward, Buster, and Bunny immediately began to circle the car exclaiming over its several beauties, advances, refinements, and tracing its lines with admiring hands. Theed stood apart appraising them with his hand shading his eyes. Bunny wanted to be an actor but he was too light skinned to be a Negro actor. Buster wanted to be a doctor but he thought that he was too dynamic an individual for a general practice. Miracles and panaceas were more to his taste. He looked up to Dr. Frankenstein. Heyward wanted to be a polyglot but he didn't want to learn any unimportant languages, and the important languages belonged to objectionable, imperialistic cultures, so he was a linguistic rabbit stuck to the Tar Baby. Pointer wanted to build cities in the backwards part of the world but he wasn't sure they deserved the utopian spires, cloverleaves, towers, halls, reservoirs, and domes that he wanted to impose on them. He was ready but he wanted everyone else to be ready before he went to all that trouble. The four young men continued to explore the sculpted metal, reverently assimilating its abacus of speed, jeopardy, evasion. As their noisy admiration of the car lowered to a whispered appreciative simmer, Theed spoke up with a laugh in his voice. "Given the zealous state of the lynching epidemic in this nation, you fellows would do better to drive the Carro Veloce CV-33 to Los Angeles. You might make it out there in one of those?"

     "What lynching epidemic?" inquired a stricken Buster.

     "What's a CV-33?" wondered Bunny aloud at the same instant.

     Pointer and Heyward were glad that they hadn't been the ones to interrogate Theed about lynching epidemics — or anything else. As for epidemics, Pointer never caught colds and as for lynching Heyward was not much of a dancer. They all walked over to where Theed was now positioned out of the sun, under the shade of a wide canopy of gently waving leaves.

     "For a gang of colored rapists such as you to set off on a coast-to-coast joyride in a flashy stolen car is a daring undertaking. The official count for Negroes who got lynched last year stood at about forty — give or take a few unfortunates. One assumes that the actual number of those who got lynched is far higher than the official count. It is not empirical that you are going to be strung up, but the data is cautionary. And the CV-33 is a light tank armed with a canon and a machine gun. So, a speedy vehicle sporting guns and armor seems a more practical choice for the flagrantly pigmented traveler than that Baby Cadillac you are so admiring of."

     "How is it you know the figures on lynching and the latest armaments?" inquired Heyward.

     "'It's my business to know things,' as Nayland Smith so aptly says in The Mask of Fu Manchu. It is indeed my business to know things. And I see that not only do you not know much, you are not taking any precautions. It looks like I had better step in to see that you can get to Los Angeles and back. Or were your roasted hearts set on being the principle guests at the infamous picnic of no return?"

9. Imaginary Solutions

     The lights in the theater gradually came up. Slowly the illusions of the film loosened their grip on the hypnotized audience. Bunny thought about the mistakes in the film. All that muddle about people being in the wrong bodies. And the villain having to go around in a carapace that was an arthritic millennial husk. And a metaphysics so inadequate that a beautiful girl had to be murdered so that she could be revived as a mummy. It all bypassed the real ideas of life, death, and reincarnation. He knew about these things because he belonged to a group of savants. He had absorbed the fourth dimensional doctrines about the phases of life. He had been hypnotized and he had hypnotized others. He knew that there were many secret arts to be mastered. He was on his way to mastering many of them. He knew that the greatest man alive was Jonas Tardy. Jonas Tardy had lived for weeks in a state of advanced consciousness. Jonas Tardy was the harbinger of the language and thought of the future. Bunny wanted to produce a poem that was written in that emancipated and speculative language. From his association with Jonas Tardy's school, Bunny could analyze what was happening at this very moment in the evolution of mankind's consciousness. Tardy had spoken of the "hypnophor"— the mechanism of moving sleep that directed the affairs of the world. The Moon enslaved mankind, and the life-forces of humanity streamed to the Moon but also weakened men.

     It was as if there were two opposed forces — construction and destruction — one that was like a Death Ray device that made wreckage an easy thing, the other that built up cities and nations. They were so close to one another that it was at times unclear as to whether an activity was engaging in annihilation or creation, devolution or progression. This had to be wrong, this paradox. How could such a fallacy be tolerated? If you reached out your hand it had to be that you were aware of what you were doing, were knocking down the alphabet blocks or were going to set one atop another until there were walls, and atop them parapets and spires. The Death Ray was a "hypnophor"— a concept that had been turned loose by the sleepwalking scientists and that would run its course through the world of men. It began as a wish, and impulse, and irrational formula that says that to know X is to know everything, to do anything is to do everything. In the end the Death Ray would be manifested in concrete form. The day would come when of millions of fervently believing sleepers would rush against swirling tides of raw energy and be annihilated. And the Moon would glide soundlessly across the flat black sky never betraying its vampire role in man's ecology.

Jon Woodson is a creative writer and independent scholar living in Providence, RI. He published Summer Games: a novel in 2016. In 2016 he also published The Esoteric Mission of Zora Neale Hurston: Essays on Literary Collaborations with Rawlings and Faulkner, Spurious Anthropology, "HistoricalDrama," and the Novel as Spiritual Alchemy.

Professor Woodson has also contributed "Anti-Lynching Poems in the 1930s" to FlashPøint#17, as well as FlashPøint#14's Melvin B. Tolson issue, namely: "Reading Melvin B. Tolson's Harlem Gallery: Alchemy, Codes, and the Key to the Secret of Life" and "Melvin B. Tolson and Oragean Modernism: a few notes on The Problem of Esoteric Writers in American Literature."