The Once Pungent and Odoriferous Ramp Was One Time the Smelliest Thing That Smelt But That Was Back in the Good Old Days Before Humphrey and Roosevelt!
May 4, 1960
The Once Pungent and Odoriferous Ramp Was One Time the Smelliest Thing That Smelt But That Was Back in the Good Old Days Before Humphrey and Roosevelt!
Among the thousands of people who came to Richwood Saturday to fish were two gentlemen from abroad by the name of Hubert Humphrey and Franklin Roosevelt, Jr.
While most of the people came with flies and hooks baited with Wisconsin cheese to lure the trout, these town gentlemen came in search of a wriggly little fish called cotes, which spawns at this time of the year and reacts to a bait made up pretty generally of government hand-outs, sweet promises of security, and a lifetime credit card.
Saturday, therefore, was a big day in the life of Richwood, and for a part of it Bronson and I will take the bouquets or the brickbats because it was we who invited Messrs. Humphrey and Roosevelt to town.
Briefly, we wanted to introduce non-Richwooders to ramps and we had a ramp feed, which will go down in history as pretty much a fizzle, but might also go down as the first such festival in Richwood to entice a few tourist dollars in the days to come. It was purely our promotion and we take full responsibility. But the fun was the town’s.
At the very start everything was off schedule. Two townsmen, Duke Lawson and ex-mayor Jim Barber, both good Democrats agreed to take Humphrey in tow and see that he saw the town, talked with the people, got up to the Lake to fish and back to the Richwood Grade School to eat ramps. Joe Berzito, another good Democrat and a good Kennedy man, was to take Mr. Roosevelt in hands and give him the same courtesies.
Neither party arrived on schedule, although a Kennedy sound car came early and loudly, heralding the appearance at 9:30 of Mr. Roosevelt. The announcement was couched in didacticism reminiscent no doubt of that employed by John the Baptist, who years ago prepared the path for one greater than he, and the announcement even, if but briefly, imbued the Richwood people with the awesome feeling that they were listening to the Second Coming, which if not exactly of our Lord, was certainly that of Franklin Delano Roosevelt the father, not the son, an event which most certainly would be a panacea for the many woes of West Virginia. The announcement was the magnet that drew the crowd and soon a carnival spirit pervaded the town, and the citizenry was ready when the huge bus pulled into town proclaiming not the arrival of Mr. Roosevelt, but Mr. Humphrey who was startled that such a crowd should be waiting and he not even proclaimed.
The bus parked near the News Leader and the occupants came out on the double. I tried to see if I could recognize any faces of people whom I knew and who knew me. There were two, Tommy Myles’ pretty wife and Dick Boyd of the AP. I had met Senator Humphrey but once before and of course he didn’t remember me. But Dick Boyd took care of that matter. He also introduced the visiting newsmen, whose names I promptly forgot, and who made a bee-line to the shop’s phone and typewriters.
Senator Humphrey, looking as neat and pressed as a Frankenberger clerk, started up one side of Main Street, with his wife and his girls from the Charleston model school following on the other side. The first man the senator met was the last man he could possibly have hoped to meet. It was white-maned Bill Thomas, the hardware man, the town’s Scattergood Baines, who has almost single-handedly held the ramparts of the nation against inflation, government expenditure and “New Dealers who want to give everything we’ve got to foreign countries.”
Senator Humphrey stopped Mr. Thomas and the crowd pulled to either sides, either knowing that the two Titans were in separate camps, or intuitively sensing that fur was to fly, and awaited the combat.
“I am Senator Humphrey, I am running for President of the United Sates and I would like for you to vote for me…”
Already the gentleman from Minnesota seems to sense that he has made a mistake and he seemed to falter, maybe to wonder if that job was really worth all this, and he asked if he could pin his badge and made ready to, but Mr. Thomas said no.
Then Mr. Thomas made use of that oldest, and possibly only remaining form of freedom, that of expressing one’s opinion of a public servant’s conduct. He told the senator that his actions spoke much louder than his words. “You have come to West Virginia, and you have talked poverty, and unemployment, yet you just the other day rushed back to Washington to vote in favor of a bill (Editor: Federal Safety Bill) which will bankrupt hundreds of small coal operators and will put thousands of men out of work...”
Mr. Humphrey tucked and got out of there, but immediately the man’s smile was back, his soft spoken entreaties took over and everybody you met in his wake wore a Humphrey badge. On the other side of the street, three girls dressed in black, and with pleasing architecture, pinned on badges and gave out leaflets and smiles like beserk Gideons.
While all this Humphrey honey is being dispensed, Joe Berziot, hobbling on cane from a foot injury waits for his man Roosevelt, whose sound car is still proclaiming the man’s arrival. But the great man is late and the field is Humphrey’s. The senator makes a speech and I retreat to the shop where the newspapermen are phoning or typing reports. When I come in they descend on me. They say they have heard about mine and Bronson’s reputation for conduct unbecoming journalists. They want to know about ramps and about our putting the ramp smell in the ink. They had heard about the Kinsey report and the auto-appendectomy and about “Pa Reads the Saturday Evening Post” and Dayton (Ohio) News, UPI and CBS started taking notes. CBS wondered if I would mind if he took it all down on a recorder, which I didn’t at all. He said his boss wouldn’t believe it. Time Magazine kept on pecking away on the typewriter and I could hear a reporter on the phone telling some far-away rewrite man what Humphrey had been doing up to that minute.
Dayton News asked me if I could go to Summit Lake with the Humphrey party, and I obliged.
Senator Humphrey paid more attention to the article I wrote about “Pa Ain’t Sellin’ His Vote to No Catholic” in Hillbilly, and the report of his proposed trip to Richwood in "The News Leader” than he was in the geography between Richwood and the lake. He suddenly looked up from his paper and I heard him say to Mrs. Humphrey:
“Mrs. H. I see here that Brother Comstock refers to these girl helpers as Humphrey’s Harum.”
Mrs. Humphrey said, “Well I certainly am glad that I am along and can be taken at least as one of the harum.”
All at once the Senator put down his paper and raced toward the front of the bus, which had turned the hump of the hill and brought into view hundreds of parked automobiles at the lake impoundment. I suppose that nowhere on his sashay in the hills of West Virginia had he seen that many cars at one time and place. And there were hundreds of voters moving about among the cards and the senator, a perfect picture of Moses looking into the Promised Land, was the first out, grabbing his first lapel before the bus was fully stopped.
From then on the White House was just a swallow away and the man from the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes moved in and out, firing salvos of rapid-fire innuendos and staccato imprecations and promises of what the government should do and I make hold enough to suggest that he might want to talk the language of these people, who don’t want doles and handouts, but equitable treatment.
I asked why didn’t he proclaim the fact that the government spends $500 per person in California for government installations and defense work while in West Virginia the per capita expenditure is $14. I had got that from a World News and U.S. Report or vice versa and it was one way of getting my own propaganda in behalf of the real West Virginia in on the agenda. I added: “If California got $14 per person and West Virginia got $500 per person for government plants, factories and installations, then California would be pouring into the fabulously rich West Virginia and deserting that state.”
(Note: I see by the AP reports on Humphrey’s Richwood speech that he did use the $500 vs. $14 gimmick.)
I borrowed a Humphrey car and returned to Richwood and the ramp feed when I saw that the candidate wasn’t going to be pulled away from that crowd of fishermen. As I left I heard him trying to buy a fishing license. The UPI man wanted him to pose fishing (Jay was official photographer for the day) but the senator wouldn’t sit for that. I heard him say to one of his men “why if the game warden arrested me for illegal fishing, that could have some pretty terrible repercussions on this campaign. I won’t take any chances like that, I’ll pay for the license.”
I told him that the fine would probably be cheaper. But he wouldn’t listen. Nor was there anybody there who could sell him that particular piece of paper.
At the grade schools a number of people were eating ramps. There were some Hillbilly readers, and Bronson, who had stayed to greet them, introduced me around and I met some very wonderful people.
Then things happened so fast and so tragically that I am still trying to figure out the order of things. I know that most of the ramp eaters had left, and only a handful remained which I looked out and saw Roosevelt’s party arriving. They de-carred and I noticed Joe Berzito and Jim Manchin and a fellow I didn’t know, and Mr. Roosevelt. As I shook hands with him I saw the Humphrey bus pull up and I said to Mr. Roosevelt:
“Well, the lion and the lamb might be breaking bread together. Do you mind?”
Mr. Roosevelt replied that he didn’t mind, but wondered who was the lion and which the lamb and I told him we would judge that by the amount of ramps consumed by the two protagonists. The Roosevelt party entered the building and I turned to re-greet the Humphrey party and to exhibit my innate gallantry to the ladies of the party by freeing them of any imposed obligation they might feel toward eating ramps.
Senator Humphrey went in and no sooner had he done so than out come the Roosevelt party. As host to both these houses of discord I felt I had to do something and I grabbed the last of the party Jim Manchin, and asked him what was wrong. He merely shrugged his shoulders and then said, “You now I have been thinking of getting out of school teaching and into politics, but now I am not so sure, I think I’ll stick to teaching.”
Before I could learn anything more, the party was gone. I went inside to ask my daughter Mrs. Fred Ferguson, and my galley slave and secretary, Barbara Logan, what had happened and they were about as nonplussed as I. they told me that Mr. Roosevelt stopped at their ticket desk, introduced himself spoke to Senator Humphrey, who came in right after him, looked at the paucity of the crowd in the dining room, took one sniff of the cooking ramps and left with the alacrity, and even the demeanor of those fleeing Elliot Ness.
I asked Senator Humphrey if he knew what was wrong, but he said he didn’t know what was eating on the man, and went over and shook hands with the cooks, pinned Humphrey badges on them, loaded his tray with enough of Mrs. Mabel Mollohan’s ramps and ham and potatoes and baked beans and just plain brown beans and corn pone to feed a horse and sat down at the table beside me and talked to the newsmen and was fitting company.
The New York Times had one of those “small world” stories. At Beckley that morning he had dropped in to a Hertz car renting place, and while he waited he talked with a lady by the name of McGregor who told him in the course of the conversation that she had come from Scotland. He wanted to know where and by cracky she had come from the same town his dad did and wasn’t that something? Dayton News wanted to know if I could get him a package of the ramps to take home to his wife and CBS said he didn’t smell anything terrible about ramps and I told him he wouldn’t if he had eaten them because they up their own immunity.
In came Dr. and Mrs. Jarrett and their son from Oak Hill and they load up and sat down at a nearby table. I talked with them, knowing them to be avid and loyal readers. Senator Humphrey got up and came over and Mrs. Jarrett asked him if he wasn’t Norwegian. He didn’t say he was, he just spoke back to her in a strange tongue and she answered him and the two carried on a bit of a conversation. I turned out that Mrs. Jarrett had been born Astri Erica in the town of Risor, Norway, a village which is situated a short distance from Krstiansand, the town where the senator’s mother was born.
“Talk of small worlds,” shouted Senator Humphrey to New York Times. “Listen to this…” and he and Mrs. Jarrett went over it again. Then the senator was interrupted. The fellow who had come along to operate the sound car and to sing those rather awful hillbilly songs, however in superb voice, had a report to make.
Briefly, he was parked on Main Street, singing as usual when the Roosevelt car parked right across the street, and started its noise too.
“I got him told off,” said the Humphrey troubadour. “I told him that he should have the common decency to let Senator Humphrey be heard as Roosevelt had been to Richwood before and spoke his piece.”
The Senator didn’t seem to be worried. He looked at the newsmen and said, “Well the Humphrey campaign is never dull, is it boys.”
They didn’t answer. In fact they weren’t listening. They grouped around the hillbilly singer for his story. New York Times thanked Humphrey for providing “the papers with something exciting over Sunday.”
(Note: Bronson said the street affair was a little more than reported to the senator, and it was all the fault of the Humphrey car. Just call it the battle of the mikes,” Bronson said. The drivers of the sound cars failed to turn off their speakers and the town and a ringside seat to the bickering that went on. Bronson, feeling that he and I were responsible for Messrs. R and H being here in the first place, felt that the whole thing was getting out of hand and he got in touch with the mayor, who sent Policeman Bernard Dawson to pacify them. He did so by moving one car. The entire thing was rather unfortunate for both persons as the townspeople, in the cold analysis following their pleasure at being in on an occasion that could have minor strains of the locally historic, were pretty much disgusted that the representatives of men of such supposedly lofty stature, should stoop to a common street brawl. That matter, of course, was the key to Mr. Roosevelt’s strange conduct at the ramp feed. Later Roosevelt got into a minor squabble with Policeman Bernard Dawson, the fellow who made headlines for stopping him the week before when he tried to buck a funeral procession with the remark that he didn’t care if Abraham Lincoln was there. Mr. R told Dawson that he and “Comstock sure could cook up a bunch of lies” or words to that effect. I don’t know why Bernard had to have the Annaias appellation but I didn’t mind since I was guilty of putting Dawson’s story on the AP wire. But I think he took my “Pa Ain’t Sellin’ His Vote to No Catholic” in Hillbilly as a slam to his candidate instead of an appeal for religious tolerance, which, I suppose is just another one of my crazy satires gone sour.)
I rode back to the shop with the Humphrey party. He got out at the railroad crossing and ordered the “harum” to take the other side. A pretty Richwooder with a movie camera caught him and asked him to pose. He did so with a smile.
Back at the shop Time Magazine had just finished writing and wiring his copy. UPI got on the phone and Dayton News seized a typewriter. CBS plugged in his recording machine and asked if I would talk into it for five minutes on the life and hard times of a Mountain editor.
Soon the bus was ready to go. The senator told me what he no doubt tells the citizens of all towns. “I’ll never forget Richwood. What wonderful, friendly, happy people are here”.
And then I said what I say to all presidential candidates. “How about establishing the Summer White House up about Summit Lake.”
“Oh, no, not that. Up there”, he pointed to the hills in the direction of either the sky, where I suppose there’s pie, or at the Mannings Knob Hills.
I asked one of the newsmen what David Brinkley, the NBC newsman would find wrong with the beauty of this place. Dayton News spoke up. “I would like to tell you one thing about Brinkley. He is one of the tenderest, most gracious men I ever met. The suffering of people tears his heart out, and he simply was killed at seeing what he saw in the southern part of your state. He didn’t intend to hurt anybody by his remarks. He wanted to get the country at large aware of the need for economic help in this state. I would too”.
And then they were gone. Bronson and I sat down to figure the loss on our first Hillbilly promotion. Joe McQuade came in to console us. The fire alarm sounded. The phone rang. “Mr. McQuade there?” Joe picked up the receiver then dropped it. “It’s the office. Donegan office is on fire”. He and Bronson rushed out into the street, hailed the on-coming fire truck and were off and I was reminded how adequately life goes on.
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