Monday, April 13, 2009

EASTER AT WARM SPRINGS


For an FDR fan, a visit to Warm Springs and the site of former President Roosevelt’s Little White House rates as an “experience.” During the Easter holiday, we drove to Warm Springs, GA to see the place where Roosevelt received his inspiration to overcome a serious disability resulting from polio and where he developed ideas to foster the recovery of an ailing nation. On arrival in Warm Springs, we went immediately to the Little White House, a small cottage set among pines that rustled loudly from the force of strong winds which eventually spawned a tornado thirty miles up the road from us at Newnan, GA.

At the Little White House complex, I enjoyed a glut of memorabilia about FDR and was able to view a 1930’s Ford convertible and Willys vehicle specially-made for Roosevelt, both of which I coveted since I’m a classic car enthusiast. Many of Roosevelt’s talks were recorded and played in the museum section of the Little White House complex, and I tuned in on his fireside chats, reproduced with amazing clarity, including his “nothing to fear except fear itself” talk. Inside his home, I envisioned him sitting at his desk, writing, reading, his leonine head always thrust back, smoking a cigarette in a long holder clamped in his teeth and smiling as he dealt daily with the personal tragedy of almost-lifeless legs…and eventually facing the worst problems in our country’s history – the collapse of the American economy, banks locking their doors, farmers losing their land, 14 million Americans out of work…

More importantly, Roosevelt was a model to anyone suffering from a severe physical handicap. During his visits at Warm Springs, he swam daily in the mineral springs’ naturally heated water, struggling to develop upper body strength and restore some life in his legs. Although he didn’t restore normal walking capacity, he improved his condition tremendously through disciplined exercise and a strong positive attitude about leading a good life despite pain and handicap. He was enchanted with the area around Warm Springs and bought the old Meriwether Hotel which became the Warm Springs Foundation and is now known worldwide as the Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation. In order to do this, he had to spend 2/3’s of his personal fortune that had been set up in a Trust when his father died. He also built the Little White House, the simple cottage that he returned to many times to plan for the development of the various programs he established – the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Work Progress Agency, the Civilian Conservation Corps, Social Security, the REA, Farm Credit Administration, Soil Conservation Service, Federal Emergency Relief Agency, Civil Aeronautics Administration and numerous other “New Deal” programs that restored America. He accomplished all of this with cheer and optimism and while he suffered agonizing attempts to walk.

I could imagine Roosevelt in the cottage or picnicking on Pine Mt., swimming in the pool of mineral waters, breathing in the pine-scented air and feeling relief from the crowds and speeches, national and international issues that beset him, maintaining always that smiling confidence which inspired a nation during 12 years of his leadership as president.

My visit to the FDR State Park at the end of a scenic drive through the Pine Mt. ridge was another highlight of the trip. At this site, 70 CCC boys came by train to build the log cabin structures, many of which are rented out to visitors today, and to dig Lakes Delano and Franklin by hand with picks, shovels, wheelbarrows, and muscle power. The CCC’s brought back memories of my father who would have starved during the early 1930’s if Roosevelt hadn’t instituted the CCC program. The CCC’s also benefited the entire nation in that the boys developed many of the State Parks scattered across the U.S. The CCCs were also referred to as the “Tree Army,” and were succeeded by the WPA, another program to which my father belonged. He was among a corps of young men, ages 18 to 25 years old, who could work for six months or two years in this program and were provided food, clothing, education, health care, earning $30 a month, $25 of which was sent home to the boys’ parents and $5 of which was kept by them. This program lasted until early 1942 when the U.S. entered WWII, and many of the CCC boys joined the service. State parks, replanted national forests, bridges, dams, lakes are the outgrowth of this almost-forgotten project.

I think that my father’s work ethic can be traced to his time with the CCC and the WPA (he was 17 when he joined the CCC, following early graduation from high school), and I certainly know that his love of mixing and pouring concrete derived from the work done with this organization. When I was a teen-ager, my older brother and I were taught how to mix mortar by hand and to create stone benches in our backyard for a picnic area…and each time I visit a park constructed by CCC labor, I look at work that even I experienced, second-hand! Many of the boys became stone masons, but my father became a Civil Engineer and, throughout his lifetime, related stories about the program that inspired him to learn his trade and to pass on a formidable work ethic.

At present, I’m reading a massive biography of FDR, a volume containing over 1,000 pages that requires tremendous arm power to hold up when I read in bed, and a Young Adult novel about a CCC boy entitled “Hitch.” The coincidences of related material are everywhere – yesterday I turned on the TV book channel, and an author was lecturing about Frances Perkins, “The Woman Behind the New Deal,” FDR’s Secretary of Labor, who is reputed to have presented to FDR the ideas for all the New Deal projects. I believe that the New Deal was a matter of joint inspiration, and in either case, I respect the efforts of these two visionaries who helped restore our country when it suffered from most of the same problems confronting us today.

In the photo above, I’m standing beside a statue of a CCC boy in the FDR State Park.
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