• U.S.

FOOD: Butch Goes West

4 minute read

The sun poured down on the wheat fields of Red River Valley and on the crowd gathered around a dusty truck. A sunburned farmer squinted appraisingly at a little man standing and shouting on the truck’s tailpiece. “He wouldn’t be no account on a thrashin’ gang,” the farmer said. “But I reckon he’s smart. And he talks plain.”

The plain-shoutin’ little man was Fiorello LaGuardia, ex-mayor of New York, now head of UNRRA, who had swooped into North Dakota, wearing a pearl-grey sombrero. Secretary of Agriculture Clint Anderson, wearing a tie painted with pink and yellow apples, was with him—at LaGuardia’s urgent request. For two days they had scurried across Red River Valley, looking for wheat for UNRRA.

Eat Your Cake. In Fargo’s Gardner Hotel they faced pressmen, autograph hunters, bobby-soxers. Clint Anderson took the floor to explain that U.S. wheat farmers could now combine the 30¢ bonus with the previously announced “certificate plan”—thus assuring them the best possible price for their wheat any time between now and March 1947, no matter when they sell it.

Then Butch took over again, with his own explanation: “The mothers of the nation have spent years telling their children that you can’t have your cake and eat it too. Now the kiddies can say, ‘But Momma, Secretary Anderson says you can deliver your wheat and have it too.’ . . . You -can eat your cake and have it too.”

All Inspiring. At noon he and Clint Anderson sat down with Production Marketing Administration agents and Farmers’ Union bosses for a well-advertised starvation lunch: a cup of potato soup, one piece of bread (no butter), one cup of coffee (no cream or sugar). Butch lighted a cigar and looked slyly at the hungry diners from the northwest plains. Then waiters trooped in with salmon steak, potatoes, string beans, plenty of bread & butter.

The well-fed farmers and agents told Butch not to worry: the northwest would furnish wheat to feed 15,000,000 people. “This is all inspiring,” yelled Butch. “For the past few weeks I’ve been looking at charts and diagrams and figures. If I could solidify all the stuff I’ve seen lately from these statisticians I’d have enough fertilizer to take care of the fields of the nation for the next ten years.”

He bounced into a meeting of the Parent Teachers Association and told them a family secret: he was conceived in their home state. “When you hear people say that the mayor of New York was a wild man,” he cried, “remember that he was started in the Dakotas and brought up in Arizona.”*

An elderly teacher confided: “I always thought that man was a freak. Now I think he’s wonderful.”

The Real Thing. Across 70 miles of Red River Valley flatlands, past fields of new-seeded wheat, he and Anderson drove to Climax, Minn. (pop. 253). Some 3,000 farmers, wives & children turned out to see them. They watched wheat being loaded into a Northern Pacific train. “This is as near the real thing as I’ve seen,” Butch exulted, and with a mouth full of tacks started hammering signs on the wheat cars: MORE FOOD FOR UNRRA.

He scampered up a ladder to stare into a car. He climbed up on the tailgate of Melvin Soundreal’s truck. He ran his hands through Soundreal’s golden wheat but refused to stand in it for photographers, saying with authority: “That’s bad farm practice.” Experts agreed that Butch was no authority, but no one minded that. He watched a parade of trucks poop-poop through Climax loaded with 20,000 bushels of wheat. He made a speech, waving a few pieces of macaroni: “This is a day’s ration in many places.”

Then he and Anderson headed east. Behind them the trucks continued to roll towards the railroads. In Clint Anderson’s notebook were written UNRRA’s hopes—delivery in the next three weeks of 110,000,000 bushels of wheat from the plateaus and prairies of Minnesota, the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Montana, Washington, Oregon. At last, the wheat was rolling.

*Whipple Barracks, Army post where his father was bandmaster. Butch omitted the fact that he was born in Manhattan.

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