MY FATHER'S BONUS MARCH by Adam Langer
my father passed away in 2005 at the age of 80, he didnít leave a great
many unfinished projects. Heíd led a successful, seemingly complete
life: Born on Chicagoís Jewish West Side to immigrant, Yiddish-speaking
parents, he grew up to be a physician, a husband, and a father. But
there was a book he always talked about writing but never did, and after
he died, I began to wonder about that bookówhy he didnít write it; what
it might have meant to him; what it might have symbolized about our
relationship, one that was cordial enough but never particularly close.
My dadís book was to be a comprehensive history of the Bonus March of
1932, which he called the most overlooked incident in 20th Century
American history, and I only knew the little my father told me about it.
During the incident in the depths of the Great Depression, 20,000
veterans descended upon the Washington, DC, residing in tents and huts
while futilely awaiting passage of a bill that would pay them
compensation they felt the government owed them. There was a violent
skirmish that resulted in the deaths of two veterans and one police
officer. Led by Army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur who claimed that
the March was a Communist plot, the U.S. military went into action. Tent
cities were set ablaze; tear gas was thrown; weary, malnourished
veterans were pursued with bayonets and sabers by members of the very
military they had served during the war.
Save for the occasional letter dictated to my mother and addressed to
the editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, my father
was not a writer. He was a radiologist and, in what little spare time he
allowed himself, a sketch artist and avid reader of military history.
Nor was my father, despite his penchant for crew-cuts, police cruisers
and handguns, a military man; though his father supposedly served as a
muleskinner in World War I and his younger brother was stationed in
Japan in WWII, my dad did not serve in World War II. Still, he always
vowed to write his Bonus March history. He planned trips to the Hoover
Library, penned Authorís Queries to the New York Times Book Review, took
notes and wrote outlines for the book he once said he would write after
he had retired from medicine.
Since my father died, I have been criss-crossing the country in search
of my fatherís story and that of the Bonus Marchers. My journeys have
taken me to Washington, DC, Boston, Los Angeles, Iowa, Indianapolis, New
York, and Chicago where both my father and myself were born. I have
visited the sites of my fatherís youth, talked to his contemporaries and
classmates, spoken with historians and documentary filmmakers and
members of my family in a search for the connections between my dad and
the history he wanted to write. Along my way, I have met with or been
aided by such disparate individuals as Senator John Kerry, filmmaker
Ross McElwee, author and scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., editor Norman
Podhoretz, NBC critic Gene Shalit, and countless others. The result is
My Fatherís Bonus March, a memoir about my generation and those of my
father and his father.
I have set my first three novels (Crossing California, The Washington
Story, and Ellington Boulevard) during the Iranian hostage crisis, the
mayoralty of Harold Washington, and the real estate boom of the early
21st Century to bring into focus both individual lives and the
historical events that played out behind them. In this book, I am doing
something similarly micro- and macrocosmic, intertwining American and
personal history. My Fatherís Bonus March will illuminate the sometimes
equally mysterious histories of my father and my country, to allow
readers to glimpse an individual life and gain a greater knowledge of
the times in which that individual lived. Both are stories of memory and
forgetting, about Americaís need to forget an event and my fatherís need
to remember it even as he was losing his own memory.
The last time I saw my dad, I introduced him to my then four-month-old
daughter Nora. He didnít say much during that visit, but when he saw me
taking pictures of Nora, he wheeled toward her. ďMake sure Iím in some
of the pictures,Ē he said. Few days go by when I donít think about those
words. Just as he wanted to immortalize the veterans of the Bonus March,
at the end, he too felt a profound need to be remembered. I have written
this book both as tribute to both my fatherís generation and also that
of his father, to whom my dad wanted to honor by writing his book.
memorialize by writing this book about him and the book he never wrote.