The headline would give Salas a scare. Early on the news sounded bleak to the staunch Democrat, though he hadn’t let Helen know how worried he was. Every evening, the old man listened to the news on his Philco Console radio. Since REA had reached them, he hadn’t use wet cell batteries and his old wind charger and had simply left the radio plugged in. Throughout the 1948 presidential campaign his hope for Truman ran high, and he’d several times gone to Democratic rallies. His loyalty to the party was unshakable, and he’d donated money to his candidate. And prominently pinned to his overalls was a campaign button for the man from Independence, which to Salas was a keeper. As the evening progress, however, he became more and more nervous; and as long as the results came in, he refused to get out of his chair. (The chair was off-limits to anyone else, which didn’t mean no one else in the house listened to the news. Listening to the radio every evening had become a family ritual. Along with the news, they never missed an episode of “The Shadow. “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!” And on Saturday nights The Louisiana Hayride came to them from Shreveport. A 50, 000 watt-signal made it possible.) He was dreading the outcome of the election, which Dewey was expected to win, but worse yet, if the Republican won, Salas stood to lose everything.
Salas believed in the Democratic Party. He believed in Roosevelt, who he thought stood for the working man and, as far as he was concerned, had rescued the country from the Depression. Now he believed Truman was doing a good job as president and should be reelected. He admired Truman rather than liked him, and he even thought the president was a crook and liar. “Because you can’t get rich in politics unless you’re a crook,” so he had to be crooked.
Thomas Dewey, governor of New York, and the Southern Dixiecrats had splintered Salas’ party; still as uncomfortable as Salas was with Truman, he not only voted for him but also bet on his election. He admired Truman, and didn’t much like him, but he still bet his farm on him retaining the presidency. This included the best river-bottom land in the county.
Whatever he was thinking, he now regretted it, and of Helen who was his wife, Salas hadn’t considered her and didn’t want to think about what her reaction would be when she found out. Of course, she was aware of his drinking, which would be what he’d blame his stupidity on. And there was Uncle Ned, a staunch Republican. And his Republican buddies. Salas knew them all. And by then everyone knew except Helen, and all over town people were talking about it…What? He did what? No! Yes. And Helen doesn’t know? And no one had the heart to tell her, so she was spared. Poor Helen! Sympathy intended for her but not for Salas. The fool! But what about Uncle Ned? The scoundrel! Sentiment shared by almost everyone was expressed openly and had Helen gone to town that day she would’ve heard it. Then too, if she’d gone to town and voted maybe she could’ve stopped Salas.
At midnight, Salas went to bed thinking he knew, like the rest of the country, the outcome of the election. Newspaper presses across the country had begun to roll with tomorrow’s banner headline set in type: DEWEY WINS. So he forced himself out of his chair and went to bed knowing that he wouldn’t be able to sleep.
And would it help, if he told Helen? Should he, or shouldn’t he? Tell her, or…? Wagered the farm on the outcome of the election. He did what? He bet Uncle Ned that Truman would win.
Salas, the fool, had salvaged the farm after the dust bowl days by planting poplar trees as windbreaks. All that hard work, for God’s sake, was now for nothing. Just possibly, Uncle Ned would have mercy on him, but did he dare approach his uncle on his knees? Maybe.
Salas tossed and turned, he thought he knew what his uncle would say. There was a precedent for his uncle rejecting the idea (hadn’t he refused to hire him when he was desperate and needed a job?), but how could he take his farm? What could Salas do to appease him? And what a predicament it was to be in! “It’s my own damn fault,” Salas said to himself. “I shouldn’t have been drinking, when it’s against the law to drink on Election Day.”
“With Uncle Ned, you could never be sure. After all, he’s a member of our family. Salas cried, “Damn! How could I have done such a thing? After Helen and I worked so hard to save the farm, it will kill her to have to move again.”
Helen lay beside him. “We’ll make it, Salas, just as we made it through hard times before. We’ll just have to work harder, that’s all.”
“What are you talking about, Helen?
“If Dewey wins, it won’t be the end of the world,” Helen insisted. Salas stared at her. Now that he thought Dewey was winning, his eyes were extremely sad, and it alarmed her. It was strange to see Salas act so worried, and it made her worry too.
Salas said: “Regardless what happens I love you, and I wouldn’t intentionally do anything to hurt you. We’ll just have to see what happens. As far as we know, Truman hasn’t conceded yet. And he won’t…not just yet.”
Then she said: “Try to get some sleep.”
As early as three o’clock in the morning, Salas was still brooding over the election results. He could see Dewey winning and the farm going to Uncle Ned.
“This is for the books,” Truman said.
November 2, 1948 was the big day. Salas planned to go to town first thing in the morning and of course knew he’d vote for Truman. Helen told him to stay away from the Republican crowd. Salas just shrugged. She would’ve gone with him if he hadn’t insisted on going to town so early. He usually helped her with the chores and had his own things to do and would’ve helped her had she insisted on it.
“I’ll come back for you. I want to catch Uncle Ned.” Salas could be excused for how he felt about Uncle Ned: there had always been bad blood between them.
Helen knew she couldn’t change her husband’s mind. And about voting? She didn’t care for either candidate, and she might’ve been nervous to vote for Truman. Anyway Dewey was set to win the White House. Salas had asked her a few days before the election who she was planning to vote for and she jokingly declared, “Why of course Dewey”…when she knew Salas was counting on her voting for Truman, yet she teased him by saying that she was voting for his opponent.
Driving down Main Street, looking to see who was already in town, Salas saw three or four men already gathered in front of the billiard hall, men he of course knew. As he parked his car, he looked in the direction of the post office, where he wasn’t surprised to see another group of men. Republicans! They were chatting, as they would be on any other day.
So far the weather was cooperating. It was fascinating how people who were friends and had known each other all of their lives were divided into camps, and actively opposed each other, and had gathered on opposite ends of Main Street. Salas looked to see if he could see Uncle Ned.
Yes, he’d been talking to Uncle Ned before then. No, no, they hadn’t bet on the election yet.
Election Day started out orderly. Except for how Salas drank, and maybe he didn’t drink as much as people thought, since the bar was close and there wasn’t any place in town that sold alcohol on Election Day. Maybe he only had a beer or two. What are you saying? He found some beer somewhere. There was much milling about before and after people voted. Flapping bunting, bright patriotic shirts, distinctive Panama hats, and campaign buttons of both parties gave Election Day its festive feeling. Though there wasn’t suppose to be any political tricks, electioneers and politicians still worked the crowd now, with Salas in the middle of it. As long as they stayed outside the polling station boundary, they could approach each other. Here he knew he’d run into Uncle Ned. They could greet each other, here. What a party! It was like New Years Eve, except the stakes were higher.
And where was Helen? He knew she’d still be rushing around, and after feeding the chickens, milking the cows, and separating the cream from the milk, would she want to vote? Uncle Ned asked about her. “He’s wealthy, you know. He owns the big white house on the south edge of town!” Salas managed to remind everyone of this. He was quite drunk already; however he didn’t act intoxicated. He would’ve seemed sober except for his face, which was redder than normal. His friends should’ve noticed, yet you can’t blame them: they couldn’t have stopped him anyway. He was his own worse enemy. His uncle, of course, knew Salas’ weaknesses, and hence could be blamed. This was what almost everyone thought when they heard about the wager.
One of Helen recurring nightmares had them losing the farm through Salas’ stupidity, yet this possibility thankfully didn’t seem possible to her…while his vulnerability was increased tenfold by his drinking.
Salas refused to believe Dewey would win. Instead of being somber and unsmiling, he held up his head and did all he could for his candidate. Poll Dewey to Get 30 States. Poll Dewey Given 27 States. Poll Electoral Votes Dewey 333, Truman 82, Wallace 0. Poll Dewey to Carry Virginia. Poll All Over but the Shouting. Salas must have ignored the polls, or didn’t believe the newspapers, or else he wouldn’t have approached Uncle Ned.
Salas wore his best overalls, washed and pressed for the occasion. He never wore a suit, so wearing one would’ve been out of character, and a necktie would’ve looked odd on him. Of course, he shined his shoes, something he always did before he went to town. So that was how he looked when he and Uncle Ned awkwardly stood together on the courthouse steps, in front of everyone, where people often conducted business, particularly when they wanted to solidify a deal. It was strange to see the two of them standing together, when there was so much bad blood between them. Yet some people found confront in it because here was a staunch Democrat approaching an equally loyal Republican. But people’s mouths hung open as they watched the two men shake hands. While Helen missed all this (many people wondered where she was), there were those in the crowd who knew she would be suspicious. “Why, Helen, wouldn’t stand for it. Don’t you see he’s drunk?” Sarah never approved of Salas’ drinking. Uncle Ned must’ve seen that he was drunk. If Helen had seen how her husband was acting, she would’ve reined him in.
Salas was a known alcoholic. More than once drinking had cost him a job. Helen was the one who held the family together. Unfortunately, she wasn’t there to intervene. Most of the crowd, however, didn’t care one way or another. They were there to vote, and while they were there would take advantage of the trip to town and do their errands. Socializing was also a part of it, and if they didn’t speak to their friends, they would’ve been considered snobs. Some were in a hurry; others were not. Most weren’t paying attention to Salas and Uncle Ned; and those that were soon forgot about it until they heard about the wager. “Imagine! The best river-bottom land in the county!” People sighed and shook their heads. Then too with the town band playing “I Swung the Election,” the Republicans may have felt overconfident. The Democrats certainly worked harder. But the farmers who favored Dewey certainly outnumber those who favored Truman. It was possible that no one precisely knew how many people changed their minds once they got into the voting booth, even when political junkies thought they knew. Up until Election Day, Truman drew huge crowds. “Give ‘em hell, Harry!” There was a good turnout. If any of the predictions had been right, and Dewey had won, Salas would’ve lost his farm. Already Dewey had taken the lead. More booze was used. Children from families of all political persuasions played together. “Stay out of the street!” their mothers warned. Salas voted as soon as the polls opened. Uncle Ned had less to lose than Salas, so the rest of day was tense for him.
For Salas, this day, Election Day, would pass at a snail’s pace, for after the wager he sobered up and had nothing to do but wait. All of his energy was sapped from him. The crowd thinned out around noon. It was then one o’clock and then two o’clock. Even after the band stopped playing, and after the majority of the early risers started heading home, there was Salas sitting alone on the steps of the gazebo, waiting for God knows what. There was no sign of Uncle Ned, for there was no reason for him to hang around. (He would turn up when the outcome was clear.) Anyone who saw Salas sitting there would’ve seen him sweating it out. Had the farm slip through his fingers? He was probably wondering that, as he stared off into space. He continued to sit there until four in the afternoon.
There was Helen back at the farm, worrying because Salas should’ve been home by then. A dirt lane connected the place to a section road and the rest of the world. With the help of their garden, they eked out a living by selling butter, cream, and eggs. Just beyond the south pasture grew a grove of wild plum, from which Helen put up pints of jam every year, and she canned from the garden. When times got really hard and the price of butter, cream, and eggs dropped so low that it hardly paid for the cost of feed, Helen would set up a roadside stand and sell her wild plum jam, cling peaches, and everything else she put up. The trees on the place had been there forever, only that wasn’t true because they were planted after the Dust Bowl Days. Between the house in front and the chicken coop and the barn out back there was a storm cellar where they stored the peaches and the jam and the vegetables for the winter. So painstakingly they had built what they had, all of the fences and a number of structures (constructed from scrap lumber), excluding the house and the barn. They had also assembled a mail-ordered windmill and dug the wells. After all this hard work, Helen definitely didn’t want to move again, and she thought Salas would agree. They agreed on most things, like when to plant their garden.
So year after year they rose each morning before dawn, the old man each day dressed in the same plaid shirt and overalls and his wife in the same sack dress, with her hair wrapped in a tight bun. Living on a farm, they never considered themselves poor though they were poor. But they knew they wouldn’t starve. And looking around at other people, they knew that they had it pretty good, and theirs was a choice piece of property, and Uncle Ned had his eye on it for a very long time. So Uncle Ned was willing to risk a large section of his pasture for Salas’ river-bottom. And there was the bad blood between them, old scores to settle, and the fact that Salas would never turn down a sure bet. He didn’t acknowledge at first then that Truman was behind in the polls. His eye instead was on Uncle Ned’s land. He thought he knew his uncle, knew him well enough to outsmart him, so the two men exchanged a friendly greeting, inquired after their respective wives, and shook hands after they made their bets.
Without Helen there, Salas followed an impulse that he later regretted. And there were friends who warned him, too. But he didn’t hesitate.
Salas didn’t think of Helen and all the work they’d put into the farm. All the projects that went on at the same time. Over the years. The fences they built. The wells they dug. The front porch Helen insisted he screen. Truly an accomplishment and he was willing to throw it all away. “What do you mean he wagered his farm? He must’ve been drunk.” And throughout September he hadn’t touched a drop. Whenever the urge to drink became strong and intolerable…whenever the thirst after a long hot workday made him think of capitulating, Helen did something special for him. Added pork to a pot of beans or baked peach cobbler or stopped the iceman to make ice cream. Loving, kind. Felt as if she were conquering a demon, yet knew it would be a very long struggle. Whenever he came in from a long, hard day, perhaps discouraged over something, she smiled and invited him to sit down to something special. Something she baked or cooked. Like she knew what would please him. He wasn’t a man without a woman who loved him. And whenever his sense of failure and inadequacy almost overwhelmed him, he had someone to lean on. He depended on Helen and found comfort from their collie. Then how could he betray her? Think people didn’t know? Or hadn’t heard of his drinking problem?
The color in his face drained. Helen knew something was wrong. She then tried to confront him, but he pushed her away. He wouldn’t talk to her when he came home, knowing that he’d made a mistake. While he spent most of the night tossing and turning, in a bed next to Helen. Sweating in November. Shaking, no, not from the booze. He had to go to the bathroom almost on the hour, and he tripped on something because he didn’t turn the light on. Helen in her cotton nightgown, Helen kept awake. Furious at himself, he said, “What if Truman loses?
“I don’t let “what ifs” ruin my day. Now go to sleep.”
And from that point on, Salas tried to hold perfectly still and stared at the ceiling wondering if he could live through another round of ridicule.
“I need your help, Lord,” he prayed.
Always when Salas had a chance, he embellished past exploits. His life had not always gone smoothly. But he was always able to talk his way out of trouble. Sometimes Helen was afraid to ask him what was going on. She had learned to be patient and let him tell her what he needed to tell her when he could. If there was something that he needed to tell her, he eventually got around to telling her it, or she thought he would, or he always had in the past. She knew that she wouldn’t get anywhere, if she asked him directly.
They both knew first hand about hard times. They had to start from scratch before.
“Where once we had a farm; now we don’t have one.”
Thinking, “I hate Uncle Ned. To hell with him.”
Where he used to feel confident and enthusiastic and could shrug off hardships, now he wanted to crawl into a hole. He used to smile when he talked about toughing it, the part about living on rabbits and cooking what he killed over an open fire and sharing a huge pot with the boys who like him rode the rails. He never forgot those experiences. Because the track of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe ran right along the creek that ran along his northern property line, Salas was never far away from the sounds of trains and the memory of those days. You’d have thought, he still rode the rails.
Sometimes Salas sat on a fence, where he’d snag his pants and watched the trains go by. As long as he got his work done there was no problem with it, but when it came to Helen…she…well, he knew she’d never go with him. Still the idea appealed to him didn’t it, tempting, but Salas knew that he couldn’t run away from his problems.
Those years had been the hardest of his life, yet the most memorable. Riding the rails with the luckless boys of the depression. Hopping on a train required skill because you had to wait until the train was moving. Salas remembered, recalling near mishaps. But of course, he was lucky; how could he not have been lucky? And how he’d always been lucky. Well, not always, but over time more often than not he had been. Salas had tried to make peace with that part of him that yearned for the road. And Helen was a stabilizing force of course. Solid, practical, down to earth, and generally optimistic. Often Salas told people that he owed her everything, and she in a real sense SAVED him, and now he’d probable lost everything they’d worked so hard for. Worrying about it kept him awake. He’d been lucky all of his life, but he had really messed up now. “This is how I repay Helen, my beautiful Helen. Oh, God!”
He’d soon know for sure whether they’d have to move or not. Talk about a rotten deal and his failure and his stupidity. He couldn’t tell Helen or face it yet. Though his mind was working out how he was going to brake it to her. He’d wait until morning. Until he knew for sure.
Helen was a forgiving person, amazingly forgiving…over the years she’d forgiven Salas many times. He complimented her whenever he could and was sincere about it. “Maybe I should go see an attorney,” he thought. The town only had one, and he happened to be a Democrat and Salas’ friend. So much admired, but unfortunately he represented Uncle Ned. But maybe the solution to the problem lay in Uncle Ned and not in an attorney. After all Salas and he were related, but there was still bad blood between them. And a bet was a bet. And Salas knew he that couldn’t back out of a bet. So Salas thought, if Dewey won, as he probably would, he’d have to shoot himself. No! That wasn’t an option for him.
He didn’t deserve Helen, and he knew it. What would she do or say when he told her? “What!” She tended not to say much. He could hear her saying, “I don’t understand.” Isn’t that what she would say? But there always was the danger that she wouldn’t say anything.
And it would hurt him. God, would it hurt. It was no wonder he couldn’t sleep.
“God help me. What are we going to do?”
Helen was still there, lying beside him. She’d kill him. And then what?
He felt nausea and couldn’t sleep and had to get up and go the bathroom and Helen would kill him. Why didn’t morning hurry up, so that he could go to his death? .
But morning didn’t hurry up, and his stomach kept him awake. He was getting what he deserved. Terrible! He was paying for his sins. He deserved a hangover. He shouldn’t have drunk anything at all. One beer wouldn’t hurt, he thought. He should’ve known better. If Helen had been there, she would’ve stopped him.
“God help me. She’s going to kill me.” What a mess he had made!
Helen had to have known something was wrong. From the way he acted, and as soon as he came in the door, she must’ve known. “You fool! You fool.” As soon as he came home… and dinner had been an ordeal, during which he had the radio on. Both of them were glued to the radio. They had broken a rule by having the radio on during dinner.
“God help us. We need your help now.”
The family Bible was lying on the mantel. It had been passed down from generation to generation. It was something they both cherished, but they generally didn’t open it except to record a move, a birth or a death. Now to Helen a move and a death amounted to almost the same thing. More difficult would be a combination of the two. For Salas, however, the opposite was true. He thrived on change. Except this time he foresaw a disaster. After hearing Dewey had a substantial lead, Helen removed the Bible from the mantel and read from Lamentations: “Remember my affliction and my bitterness…” That was as far as she got before she slammed the big book shut.
The couple finally fell asleep under a colorful quilt but the prospect of losing the farm still hung over Salas’ head. As it had been since he made the bet the loss of the farm was intertwined with Truman’s certain defeat. If Dewey won, the country would face ruin! Oh, if Dewey won! Though Salas didn’t tell Helen, she had a premonition that something bad was about to happen. And there was nothing Salas could do about it. He was skunked, or so he thought. If a Republican won, the country would surely pay for it. Memories of the Depression were still fresh and real enough to cause people to worry; especially since a Republican (Hoover) was blamed for it. To Democrats a Dewey victory meant the loss of jobs, more soup lines, and an explosion of foreclosures. And Helen and Salas would be among the first to feel the effects and among the first to shout “I told you so.”
The next morning Helen stuck to her routine. Look she didn’t know. Why even if she did she wouldn’t have changed her routine. Knowing the trouble Salas had sleeping during the night, she decided to let him sleep while he could. Then she took her time. Never turned on the radio. Milked the cows. Separated the milk. Churned the butter. The chickens were so busy. The roosters guarded the hens, as they scratched for worms. There was the smell of chicken feed, which Helen scattered for the chickens. Particles of it got up her nose and stuck to her hands. The sun was just coming up. Helen seemed happy with what she was doing and in the process forgot her troubles. Then she caught sight of Salas at the water pump on their back porch and waved to him.
She had excessive energy that she needed to burn, so she took a short walk. She wasn’t hungry. Salas would have to wait for his breakfast or cook it himself! What an invigorating morning! How she loved mornings. It was her favorite time of the day. The way the air was, and how everything seemed right.
Inside the house, Salas turned on the radio. He didn’t wait as he generally did until after he took care of personal business. He didn’t wait for Helen either. He couldn’t wait of course… breakfast, everything could wait. The news would be on. Would it be bad?
It was too early for the mail of course, but she took off in that direction anyway. Helen who was normally optimistic now was discouraged, or could’ve easily gotten that way. What a shame, Truman lost. Uncle Ned would be happy; she knew he would be. She’d been worrying half the night like Salas, only she didn’t know all that was at stake. (Yes, she would’ve killed him if she had known.) And so as the eastern sky promised a cloudless day, she had been spared the grief her husband had caused.
But nobody would ever defeat her…nobody! They had been through hard times before.
“Salas”- what am I going to do with him? I know you were drinking.”
She recalled the first time she and Salas saw the farm and thought about how they were planning to build a bigger house. It was pretty run down then. She unsuccessfully tried to focus on the positive, on how they fixed the place up. Who would vote for Dewey? Why apparently a lot of people would. This was not something she wanted to dwell on. She didn’t think her happiness depended on it. This wouldn’t be the end of the world.
“Darn you, Salas! Darn you!”
Later she would be able to forgive him. She would then know Dewey didn’t win. And by then she would’ve processed how close they came to losing the farm. But if they had lost it. If they had, her stupid husband…
Slowly Helen headed back to the house. It was easy to see why she was down in the dumps. Salas had been watching for her. He now knew the surprising results of the election and felt like running to her with the news. So Dewey didn’t win, but Salas would still have to tell Helen how close they came to losing the farm because she’d hear about it anyway. And also how else could he explain how they won a choice piece of property. Crazy! Yes.
Fortunately they hadn’t lost the farm. Could’ve but didn’t. That look in Salas’ eyes, that tone in his voce told the story.
“Are you alright?
“I bet you are.”
“And what about you?”
“I’m a little tired. But that shouldn’t be a surprise.”