My father’s job with the Quality Footwear Co. required that he crisscross the Midwest — “my territory,” he called it — maintaining discount shoe displays in grocery stores like Piggly Wiggly, Red Owl and Harley’s Foods ’n’ Stuff.
In the summer of 1964, he took me with him. I wasn’t sure why, and he offered no reason. I was still too young to drive, and since we barely spoke at home, we wouldn’t be much company for each other. Nevertheless, off we drove to Wahoo, Kearney, Ottumwa and dozens more towns in between and beyond, leaving behind my skeptical mother, whom we wouldn’t see again until the night of the Great Speech.
Dad put me to work from the get-go. First, I’d tear open the shipment of “fall styles” with my bare hands. I wasn’t allowed to use his box-cutter. He said I had to earn that privilege — his version of a promotion incentive.
But I was somewhat placated when he assigned me the responsibility of repacking and labeling the boxes of “summer styles” for shipment back to the Minneapolis warehouse. After inspecting my work, he’d slap each box once and say, “Done” — his stingy compliment in place of “Good job.” Still, what mattered more was earning his trust to use the coveted box-cutter. He knew that.
Next, he taught me how to display the shoes properly on Quality Footwear’s imitation wooden tables. (“Ladies’ shoes in front, then children’s, then men’s … . Smallest sizes in front … . Mix your colors and styles … . No! Not that way … . Tuck the lace inside … . Watch me … . Now you try.”) In my dad’s way of thinking, even a Harley’s Foods ’n’ Stuff deserved a professionally prepared display of discount shoes.
After we serviced the last store for the day, we ate quickly, then took to the road. At first, I dreaded the long hours ahead before TV and sleep. But soon, driving into the night on deserted highways and back roads became an exhilarating trek into the unknown.
This, of course, was from the perspective of a kid who rarely left his sheltered neighborhood, hadn’t risked much of anything yet and whose worldview was pretty much limited to a geography book. Out here, the faint light of a lonesome farmhouse and the creepy shadow of a railroad crossing was the New World to me.
“Manning the radio,” as my dad called it, was my job in the car. I swiveled the knobs and pushed the buttons with the focus of a co-pilot to find an audible station that we — well, he — liked. Those were the quirky twangs of the tiny-town Christian and farm report DJs and the local “news anchors” who at first sounded like they came from another planet. But somewhere in Nebraska or Kansas, those alien voices became more companionable than listening to “I Want to Hold Your Hand” or “Surfin’ Bird” for the umpteen millionth time in the middle of somewhere.
For nearly three weeks, I piloted the radio with pride and peonage and had earned station-choosing executive power. But on our last night on the road, when Dad heard the Democratic National Convention on the air, he told me to “lock it in.”
“But I’ve been in charge of …”
“Let’s listen to what he says.”
“He” was Hubert Humphrey. The “what” was his acceptance speech to run for the office of vice president.
Even us unstudied, goofball kids knew of Hubert Humphrey. He was almost everyone’s Minnesota Nice guy. My dad liked him, too, but had remarked more than once that he thought Hubert was sometimes “too much of a softy.”
But on this night he became our Minnesota Tough guy. The man was out for blood as he took aim at Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, the Republicans’ severe-looking, nasty-sounding nominee for president.
If you’re old enough, you might have listened to or watched Humphrey’s Great Speech. His adamant refrain, “But not Senator Goldwater!” each time he called the GOP candidate out for voting “no” on Senate bills, may have sealed the deal for President Lyndon Johnson in many Americans’ hearts and minds. (As in: “Most Democrats and Republicans in the Senate … voted for the Civil Rights Act — but not Senator Goldwater!”)
Nine times Humphrey blasted him with a “But not Senator Goldwater!”
At first, we listened to the delegates applaud appreciatively. But they caught on: Applause turned to cheers, then into a jubilant frenzy and, finally, at the anticipated moment, they accompanied Humphrey in a near-hysterical “But not Senator Goldwater!”
I had witnessed my dad’s response to hysterics just once, two years earlier, when the Twins’ Jack Kralick took his no-hitter into the ninth inning and finished it. Dad dutifully stood with wildly cheering fans surrounding us. But, of course, he just applauded demurely.
But this time, at Humphrey’s ninth refrain, he smacked the steering wheel and shouted — I mean really shouted — along with the convention delegates, “But not Senator Goldwater!”
I’m not sure which of us was more startled.
The following night, after my dad had gone to bed, I told Mom about Humphrey’s speech and what my dad did.
Then I explained everything Dad had taught me about the discount shoe business and showed her the box-cutter he bought for me in Grand Island, Nebraska.
Richard Schwartz, of Minneapolis, is a retired teacher.