Cold Water in Warm Springs
My friend Hugh Gallagher has been invited to Georgia Warm Springs Foundation to give a brief speech and introduce his book on Roosevelt. It is the 40th anniversary of FDR's death. I am offered the chance to tag along, and I do.
Our first night, we stay up late - - - too late for us old geezers - - - geezing about on the colonnade. About us are the hundred or so acres that FDR bought sixty years ago. It is here that he had constructed the most magnificent of rehabilitation facilities in the United States.
Where we sit, we can see the shadows of a dozen long-leaf pine, hear the night sounds and a thousand thousand crickets singing masterfully off-key. The five cluster lights bathe the campus, and us, in a creamy light. Shadows of people long gone, friends long gone, appear and reappear in the darkness. We are haunted with gentle memories of this gentle place.
There is a peace here unlike anywhere else on the continent. No - - - that's not true. One time, many years ago, I was camping in Canada, on an island north of the Straits of Juan de Fuca. But that was a harsh peace: the stars so bright that they lit the sky, penetrating the black with a painful needling. The peace here is more gentle. The campus is exactly as Roosevelt designed it. They've ruined almost everything else about the Foundation, but they've not wrecked the peace, and the architectural dream that Roosevelt established here.
Hugh and I were here in 1952. Significant: we never go back to our various college campuses for reunions, but religiously, once a year - - - usually in the spring - - - we make our way to Warm Springs, to sit about, to remember the old days, complain about the new. We talk about the two or three dozen friends who, like us, had escaped from dark little hospitals around the country - - - who were allowed to come here to revel in the expert medical care, and delicious food, and sense of vision that Warm Springs had, a vision that none of those other places had the imagination to incorporate into their tiny, medically oriented world. We can never forget that Georgia Warm Springs Foundation was set up by a politician and a member of the landed gentry; it was certainly not created by pale, thick-eyed, arrogant physicians. Doc Roosevelt: the master builder and visionary.
Those of us who have spent time here think of him in terms of The Foundation, rehabilitation, the joy of this place. We don't think of him in terms of New Deal. What's that? Roosevelt's twelve years in office were nothing compared to the twenty years he lavished on Warm Springs. And now, in the hands of his heirs and assigns - - - we are beginning to think neither country nor Foundation are faring all that well.
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In some ways, Warm Springs never changes. But you have to do some work to find the right memories. For instance, all the buildings here were designed to be cool in summer. They didn't have air-conditioning back then; all were designed (courtyards, fountains, expansive doors and windows, extensive beds of trees) so that one could be comfortable in the fresh summer air of the Georgia hills, coming across and through the long, narrow buildings.
Well, somewhere along the line, a dozen or so years ago, some functionary thought "This will never do. Every one in Georgia needs air conditioning." So at the usual great trouble, time, and expense, they installed noisy pumping droning machines everywhere. Which means that if you want to enjoy the breezes and the healthy airs from outside, you have to turn off the air conditioner in your room and wrestle with a variety of locks and switches and knobs to get the window open. If you are a true North Georgia Night Sound fanatic, it's worth it - - - except that you have to listen to the drone of everyone else's air- conditioner all night long.
You lie perfectly still in the night, bathed in the soft air of North Georgia, listening to the freight train rumbling and whistling its way through the town of Warm Springs, rattling the windows half-a-mile east of here, then rumbling off (sound mixing with the sounds of crickets) to the south, taking our hearts and our memories with it. And when the morning comes (and the morning light has an especial peach color seen no where else), the jays come to wake you: the eastern jays being so especially raucous. "Kaaah, kaaah" they screech, racing from pine-top to pine- top.
Sometimes the wind from the east leans in, coming in from the coast two hundred miles to the east, and the trees roll and sigh, reminding you of the old men over there in the Village, sitting on the benches, in front of the stores, sighing, as the waitress from the local café strolls by, her thighs so big and strong they threaten to snap through the purple of her tight pants, and the old duffers like the trees roll and sigh, remembering when they were young, they were so full of vinegar they'd go after her in a minute, fight each other over her if they had half a mind. And now she's gone, and their joints hurt too much, and what's left are the old trees swaying and sighing with the winds come upland two hundred miles up from the Atlantic, from the swamp and loblolly pine country out there near Savannah, the swamp country of the Okefenokee two hundred miles to the east of here.
This is our home, our college. This is where we grew up, Hugh and I and the friends we still keep contact with, friends who were here in the last days of polio, before they found The Cure. It was here we learned to sit up and talk and feed ourselves and move about on our own. It was here that we graduated from being in terminal bed-rest; it was here we graduated into being human, independent, alive again. That's why - - - that must be why - - - we come back here again and again: this was our real graduation. Those documents they gave us at the end of our college studies were to commemorate what they had stuck in our heads. Here - - - no diploma; yet we come back once each year to celebrate what they taught us to do with our bodies; the grace and beauty and style of it all.
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The Little White House was FDR's retreat from Washington, his wife, his mother, politics. He came here to be with his own - - - the patients for whom this, too, was their second home. Here he did not have to be ashamed of his wheelchair. Here there was no "upstairs" nor "downstairs" to harass him, as they had been harassing him and the rest of us for these many years.
His place is a simple house, living-room with fireplace, kitchen with four-legged stove; garage with his 1930 Ford with special hand controls. There's a porch out front, overlooking Pine Mountain. There are two bedrooms, one for FDR, the other for Missy LeHand who some say was mistress, who others say was just a devoted friend. It was here - - - at this White House, the other White House - - - that FDR was truly at home. It was here that he lived in his body without shame; it was here he died.
Today, Forty Year ceremonies are to be given in front of the Little White House. There are folding chairs out on the lawn, with, perhaps, a hundred visitors, and a scattering of us old polios, there for the festivities. The podium is heavy with microphones: the television stations and networks are here. There are to be invocations, speeches, and military salutes.
The air is strictly Georgia, the skies and trees and grounds are filled with wildlife. The U. S. Marine Corps (West Georgia Branch) presents arms and colors, and "The Star Spangled Banner" is played wonderfully off-key.
We hear the invocation, and then Hugh gives his speech. He is in his wheelchair, and since all the TV microphones are way up there on the podium, and since he's too far away to be heard, his short message - - - so pithy, so right, is totally ignored by the television reporters.
"Roosevelt's achievement was great," says Gallagher, "all the greater because it was achieved from a wheelchair. The simple truth is that, in all the recorded history of mankind, Franklin Roosevelt is the only man ever chosen to lead his nation who could neither walk nor stand alone.
"Today, Roosevelt is an American hero, he is a world hero - - - but he is also a paraplegic hero. He is one of us. We do not want the nation or the world to ever forget this fact: The greatest world hero of the 20th century is a paraplegic in a wheelchair . . . "The newsmen are talking among themselves. This is not their meat, not their story. The mikes are all wrong, and so is the subject: they prefer other stuff, more . . . acceptable stuff. James Roosevelt III for instance. He's here, looking rumpled as a good Democrat should. He'll speak shortly. We'll record him. That's nice and safe. He'll stand up there before the microphones and speak. Our audiences will love it.
"Yes," Gallagher says, "at Warm Springs Roosevelt could be himself, and in his wheelchair or his little hand-controlled Ford he could go where he wished, when he wished.
"There was no pretense at Warm Springs; he was home. Here he was admired and loved and no one gave a damn whether or not he could walk."
Are they listening to that? The news director from CNN is smoking a cigarette, squatting, chatting with the cameraman. The producer from Channel 4 is looking at the ground.
"Elsewhere, in his public life Roosevelt was forced to perform a complex deception - - - emotional as well as physical - - - in order to deflect the public fears and hostility which all handicapped people must face.
"This performance was difficult and demanding; it greatly increased the burdens of the Presidency; and it certainly hastened his untimely death.
"Surely, today, forty years after his death, it is time to stop the pretense, drop the Charade which society still expects of the handicapped . . . "
The speech is over. There is polite applause (over- shadowed by someone sitting here over here under the large old oak, clapping a bit too loud and long, perhaps). Then cameras start to grind again. Roosevelt III gives his speech, and everyone is agog over whether he will be running for Tip O'Neill's seat, whether he'll make the announcement here in Georgia. After all - - - forty years ago, important news used to be made here, important political news. Maybe we'll have something important happen here again, today. An announcement of candidacy - - - something hot like that.Dr. Waights G. Henry - - - Chancellor of LaGrange (Georgia) College - - - gives the keynote address. In his speech, Dr. Waights manages to get into everything (except the 1930 Ford Convertible resting nearby, safely behind glass): Herbert Hoover, the TVA, the NRA, the REA, the CCC, the ICU. The Supreme Court, the Wagner Act, the Four Freedoms, Yalta, Benito Mussolini ("upside down, strung up like a pig")[!]
"When I was graduating from Yale," says Dr. Waights G. Henry. "When I was in New Haven, graduating from Yale University," says Dr. Waights. "I saw Roosevelt only once, when I was graduating from Yale University. In New Haven, Connecticut. I was graduating from Yale, and Franklin Roosevelt was there, with his wife. He was there, to receive an honorary degree from Yale, at the same time of my graduation. From Yale University. In New Haven. When I was . . . "
Fortunately, the TV cameras were able to get the entire waight of his speech, as I watched a red bird over to the left, under a dogwood tree. Let me tell you. The Georgia cardinal wears a red that's so red it outdoes red. And the dogwood - - - so lovely in bloom, scarcely any leaves, the white flowers shower out by the hundreds, the tender white petals showering down by the thousands. The cardinal (red!) and the dogwood (white!) and I (me!) pay Dr. Waights no mind. We have other things to do. We have to pay attention to the sound, the special sound of the wind, coming so far from the east, coming to sing through the ten thousand pine needles overhead. We - - - bird, bush and I - - - listen to the way the branches catch the wind. We observe - - - the three of us - - - the movement of the long-leaf pine. We appreciate that, and I don't believe we have time enough to pay much mind to Dr. Waights, and the way they stuck it to our good friend Hugh, in the way Roosevelt had been insulted hundreds of times. And - - - like FDR - - - never to say anything about it.
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Speaking of insults, there was a final, special gift they laid - - - a black wreath - - - on our visit. Hugh and I and Paul (Paul is Hugh's able helpmeet) decided that we wanted to swim in the Warm Springs. 1200 gallons of eighty-six-degree water, pouring out of the ground. The very foundation of Warm Springs Foundation. That's why Roosevelt came here: he took the waters. He found that he could move in the warm waters, that they would help his aching muscles, his aching joints, the constant pain of a body that was forced to work overtime. Warm, laving, waters - - - the solid foundation of this institution here at Georgia Warm Springs Foundation.
Now we have to build buildings, raise money, put a public face in these buildings and grounds, hire some more guards. . . . guards to guard the waters against all comers. When we asked the Director of the Foundation, one E. Moran, to set it up so we could go swimming: That's how you do it now. You don't just go into the warm waters for a bracing, healthful swim. You go to the director, he fills out a requisition form, in triplicate, and that gets handed around, to the various other officials, and to the guard (they have guards now - - - just like in banks and prisons) and he, the guard, sets it up so you can take a swim.
The request gets lost somewhere. Me in my bathing trunks at eleven in the morning. "I don't see nothing here, Mr. Mylun," says the guard, guarding the waters. And I think: "They are spending $900,000 to refurbish the dining room. They have a staff of hundreds paid for by our generous taxes. They are embarking on a $62,000,000 fund-raising campaign so they can build some crazy sports rehab gymnasium complex over on the west campus. And I can't get a simple goddamn swim in the warm springs of Warm Springs." The wondrous magnetic waters bubbling out of the ground, there for the asking, except for my asking. They won't let me in the indoor pool, they close down the outdoor pool, fire the $2.35/hour lifeguard, board it up. They can't afford it, you know, what with the salaries and all . . .
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"Roosevelt loved it because he could be himself here," said Gallagher in his speech. Me too. I loved it here because at one time, I could be myself here - - - swimming in the warm waters in the warm sunshine. But we have more pressing needs now.
The old days . . . rehabilitation, gentleness, warmth, laughter, ease . . . openness to the visitors, the southern hospitality. That's all gone now, isn't it? Has to be. We have no room for it any more. We have so much fund-raising and building to do. You understand, don't you? There's just too much for us to do now.