Friday, October 07, 2011

A short story about one government-issue, middle-class, Middle-American family from Denver

My government-issue parents in Denver, circa 1950. Thanks to my sister Mary for the photo.
I was born in Denver at the tail end of 1950.

My father was a World War II veteran who used the G.I. Bill of Rights to graduate from Regis College (now Regis University) in three years. It was a private Catholic college, one he never could have afforded without the government program, promulgated by Pres. Roosevelt and sponsored by Democrats and Republicans, that provided college degrees for millions of American men. The U.S. Navy paid for my mother's nurse's training at Mercy Hospital in Denver. The war was over before she finished so she didn't have to join the fight. But she did use her government-supported training to help support her nine children from 1946 until she died forty years later. My father spent most of his working life building Defense Department-funded ICBM missile silos around the West and then with the space program in Florida. His salary, directly and indirectly, was paid by Uncle Sam.

My father's father made a pretty good living in Denver selling insurance with Mutual of New York. But before he joined private industry, he served with the Iowa National Guard on the U.S. Mexico border and then in France with the AEF. After repeated gas attacks, the Army shipped him to Fitzsimons Army Medical Hospital outside Denver. During his recuperation, he struck up a friendship with an Army nurse, Florence Green from Baltimore, who had traded the life of a debutante to tend to shattered soldiers on the front. The U.S. Army trained her in the healing arts. Grandpa Shay was forever grateful. Both Grandma and Grandpa received the lion's share of their medical care from Veteran's Administration hospitals in Denver and Cheyenne. They both were buried in Denver's government-administered military cemetery, Fort Logan. You can go visit them. Notice what a fine job the V.A. does in maintaining this national landmark. Go ahead, notice.

My mother' mother was the first postmistress in a little town outside Cincinnati. She liked her government paycheck. But one summer she joined her sister and two friends for a road trip via flivver to the Rocky Mountains. The roads were rough. Fortunately, Brevet Lt. Col. Dwight D. Eisenhower had led the U.S. Army's Motor Transport Company from D.C. to California in 1919 and made the road navigable. A year later, she was following the same government-blazed trail and, a year after that, she and her sister were living in Denver and visiting the mountains regularly.

Ike was from Kansas but he liked Denver. He got married in Denver to Mamie Doud and later fished the U.S. Forest Service mountain streams during his breaks from the Oval Office. During one Mile High trip, he suffered a heart attack and recuperated at Fitzsimons Army Hospital. I was four -- almost five -- at the time. Our family lived just off of Colfax Avenue in Aurora and my father took me down to the corner, pointed at the well-lit building across the street, and said: "Our president is right over there." The president was a Republican. My father was a Democrat -- then. But he said "our" president. Gen. Eisenhower had been his supreme commander in the ETO. And now he was his -- our -- president. We then walked back to our $8,000 house, purchased without a down payment and paid for with a low-interest loan. At the end of his life, my father was astonished that he paid twice as much for a new car as he paid for his first house. He was a Florida Republican by then, a by-product of Nixon's southern strategy. He seemed astonished by many things, particularly the Liberal politics of his eldest son. Even though he passed away almost a decade ago, Dad may be astonished still.
Spawn of our government-sponsored parents (see above), taken in her backyard in Daytona Beach, Fla.,
where we used to watch government-sponsored rockets blast off into space (from the Mary Shay Powell archives).
My mother's father came from Ireland in 1917. He worked with his brother on the Chicago El until he got sick and had his infected lung removed at the city's charity hospital. The doctor advised him to take his one remaining lung and go to the healthy climes of the West. Grandpa made it as far as Denver, liked it, and decided to stay. He worked at the post office for many years, and then the railroad. He also was a handyman and a helpful neighbor. He only had a sixth-grade education, but I learned more from my Grandpa Hett than I did from almost anyone else. He was a strong believer in the healing power of ice cream. This also is my belief.

These are my forebears. An imperfect lot, to be sure, and I carry on that tradition. It is possible that we all would be perfectly fine without the programs and opportunities offered by our citizen-funded government. It is possible, yet unlikely.

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