The National Highway Defense Fund

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My father had left Kansas City after he finished high school. He’d joined the Navy in ’44, learned to operate destroyer guns, and then shipped quietly off to watch the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay. He’d been on leave, visiting a shipmate in Asheville, North Carolina, when he met my mother, who at the time was seventeen but said that she was twenty-two and a graduate of Sarah Lawrence University. They were introduced on the back terrace of a piney country club, tucked into the shadow of the Blue Hills, because my father was claiming he’d gone to Boston U. They lied contiguously. “I’d seen him tee off that afternoon,” my mother said metaphorically, “and here was this blond man—twice the size of all the men he was playing with—who hit this enormous drive. And it went perfectly straight up, as high as you could imagine, with a cute little draw at the end.” There was no ceremony. My mother (her name was Alabaster Mann) was due in senior year social studies at Carl Sandburg high school in Hendersonville that fall. She was five foot even, wore her hair cut short and parted to the side, and when she quit Asheville with my father, she left behind her cheerleading skirt, her bathing cap, and that spring’s yearbook. Her father, a traffic engineer in Hendersonville, retrieved these things in grief.

“I know I’m going to be something,” her new husband had told her, driving, his fingers gripping the wheel. “I know I got it in me to do something great, make a mark someplace. All I ask is you be patient with me till I find out what it is.”

By the summer of 1954, my father’s greatness still remained a phantom, believed in by no one but my mother and me. We were back in Kansas City then, where my father was hunting for work and spending his evenings on our apartment’s white-columned porch, thumbing through biographies. “Look at this,” he said, reading simultaneously from The Story of a Fortune and The Last Billionaire. “Jay Gould, at age twenty-four, was working for a leather tanner in Delaware—huh? Huh? That’s not so great, and twenty-four isn’t that much younger than me.” I was seven. I sat in a canvas butterfly chair wearing a revolver and a Lone Ranger hat, but my father addressed me as if I were a professor from the university he’d never attended. “You know when Henry Ford’s name first appeared in a paper?” he asked. “He was twenty, and a whirlwind blew him off a hayrick in Dearborn, Michigan. Hell, he was thirty-two before he even saw his first car—listen to this, Nugget (his nickname for me): ‘I didn’t often know if we’d have the rent,’ Ford said of his early days. But, in the same breath, as if the incongruity had just hit him, he added, ‘I just paid seventy-nine million dollars in taxes.’ Imagine that!”

I was counting. “Twenty-six, twenty-seven, twenty-eight—”

My father chuckled, snapping his book closed. “You’re gonna have a tough time getting to seventy-nine million that way.”

“If he was twenty and you’re thirty,” I said, “then the difference is….” I held all my fingers up in the air.

“No, no, no, that’s not the point here.” My father’s hand closed over mine like a baseball glove over a couple of peas. “The point is that Henry wasn’t anything at twenty. He didn’t really get started until thirty-two, which puts me two years ahead.” He showed me this number on his fingers. I flashed my ten back and he whipped his robe tail around the great hairy columns of his legs, looking wounded and betrayed.


It would have helped if my father had even been slightly aware of the efforts I was making to protect our family’s reputation. In the fifth grade, I spent the entire semester explaining to my teacher, Mr. Franz, that my father traveled every weekend, to New Orleans, Salem, Asheville, Omaha, and thus would be unavailable, under any circumstances, to address our class about his profession, as everybody else’s father did. However, Mr. Franz must have decided to go behind my back and call my father directly, because on the last Friday of the year, he stood up before the class and announced, “Today, children, we are going to hear from Jack’s father, Mr. Alton Acheson, who has offered to lecture on the history of American business today.”

My father burst out: “It’s going to be the biggest land grab since Tom Durant stole half of Iowa for the Union Pacific, and I’d like to run it for you, please.”

My father’s first rhetorical gesture had been to crack the cover of his favorite book, A Railroad to the Sea, and display the frontispiece photograph of Tom Durant, slouched in a coat with a mink collar thick as a tire tread and his hair grown long and curly past his ears. “Anybody in here recognize this guy?” he asked.

Preston Petersen had his hand up immediately and, with a sly look at the rest of the class, said, “Well, sir, he looks a lot like you.” My father gave a Bronx cheer. “I wish,” he said. “Try again.”

Others guessed the names of European kings or characters in Shakespeare—these being the only other men they’d ever heard of with long hair.

“Franz, you want a crack?” my father said, turning the photo to my teacher.

Mr. Franz must have guessed that this question was going to be coming around sooner or later and he tried to play along with it engagingly, polishing his glasses, putting them back on again to squint. “Sorry, Mr. Acheson—stumped me.”

“Nugget,” my father said, turning to me. “Tell them who it is.”

He had to wait for an answer until the class stopped breaking up at this introduction of my nickname. When they finally seemed to settle down, Preston shouted out, “Go on, answer him, Nugget!” breaking everybody up again.

“Never mind these morons,” my father advised me from Mr. Franz’s lectern. “They haven’t been taught right. Just tell Franzy what you know.”

Thanks to my father, I knew plenty about Tom Durant. I knew that he’d grown up in western Massachusetts. I knew he’d been a doctor. And I knew that around the time my father began studying Durant, he’d also stopped cutting his hair.

Instead, I made a face, widening my eyes and pulling my lips back in a grimace, begging my father to lecture about something else.

Please, Nugget,” someone said behind me.

“He was the president of the Union Pacific Railroad,” I said resignedly. “He drove the golden spike, connecting the first train tracks across the country.”

Once I got started it wasn’t so bad. With my father’s help (and hoping at the same time to distract attention from several cigarette burns I’d noticed in his lapel), I went over what he’d taught me of Durant’s history: How he’d gotten hold of the Union Pacific in the first place by buying up all the stock under a false name, then electing himself treasurer. How Durant, needing a way to siphon off the money that Congress gave him, formed his own company to supply the railroad and then paid double or triple the actual cost to himself for the materials he might need, making sure that enough senators and congressmen had shares in the supply company. How Durant, knowing that he was getting paid per mile of laid track, had laid the tracks in a wiggle across Iowa to increase his pay. “This is the great tradition of American commerce, boys!” my father exclaimed in encouragement. “The question is, What do we do with it?”—statements that caused me to sink lower and lower in my seat. But not my father; he had points he wished to make. If this was the American way, then shouldn’t it be taught practically? Why even mention the Transcontinental Railroad if students never learned Tom Durant’s name? Or studied the brilliant methods he’d used to build his empire?

“I am sure, class,” Mr. Franz said, hoarsely, “that Mr. Acheson is by no means trying to suggest that all American businesses are run this way.”

“Only the ones that work,” my father said. “The rest are just a dream.”

After class, my father handed me a bulging manila folder of newsprint, its cover scribbled with the words “National Highway Defense Project.” As usual, he was immune to the embarrassment of this. “So what do you think?” he asked, then added, “Before you answer, remember that Durant made his money by purchasing farmland out ahead of his railroad, then building tracks right through it, so the value went through the roof.” We were walking then down the school’s front drive, my classmates filing into their parents’ Cadillacs and Packards on either side.

“Dad, I really don’t think most of those guys were listening,” I said.

“No, what do you think about my plan,” my father said. He flipped through the newsprint in the folder, framed by shoe ads and women in slips, to one that proclaimed:

EISENHOWER ADOPTS FUNDING FOR INTERSTATE ROAD
Sends Bill to Congress

“See this, Nugget?” he said. “That’s my railroad.” But what I saw was the window of a Pierce-Arrow, filled with Preston Petersen’s cross-eyed face.

One year later, my father put on his best pair of brushed oxfords and a panama hat and rode the streetcar to the Bowen Company offices on the Campanile. Prudential Bowen had turned seventy-five that year. His picture hung in every shop, Khrushchev-style, and banners fluttered with the legend 1882–1957, Thanks for 75 years of excellence, Mr. B! Did my father see any danger in these things? If he did, he didn’t show it as he marched straight past the secretary and down the long hall to the old man’s office, where he tossed President Eisenhower’s highway plan on his desk. “Sir,” he said, “this road Ike’s proposing is for real. National highway, coast to coast, Canada to Mexico. The ensuing demographic shift”—he stumbled, opening to a page not necessarily related to his comment—“is . . . well, it’s a little bit ha-ha-hard to find. What troubles me, sir, is that no one at your company has so much as broken wind on how an interstate highway might affect real estate, which I happen to think is an important thing to know.”

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In the silence my father mouthed a cigarette with trembling fingers. Many a disgruntled store owner, or competing developer, had sat here and cried, cajoled, and cursed the Bowen family, only to be met with the snowy crown of Prudential’s head as he scratched away at his correspondence. But when my father burst out, “It’s going to be the biggest land grab since Tom Durant stole half of Iowa for the Union Pacific, and I’d like to run it for you, please,” the old man looked up, curiously.

“Do I know you?” he asked.

“I’m the messenger of destiny,” my father said. He lit the cigarette.

The old man made a snorting noise, like a dolphin clearing its hole. He was also famous for having a live electric wire woven into the cushion of his visitor’s chair that could be operated by a button under his desk, which was why my father put his briefcase down before he sat. “Why are you sitting on your briefcase, Acheson?” Prudential asked.

“Rumors, sir,” my father said.

“Doesn’t seem like much,” the old man said. “Acting stupid on account of a rumor.” As if by radio signal, his secretary slipped through the office door. “Get Livingston to check on this,” Prudential told her, shoving the highway report her way, and then he returned to writing. For a time, my father just sat listening to the wet ruffle of the old man’s breathing. There were complications here, ancient and dangerous reasons for mistrust—but my father shook them off. He stuck his hand out. “Give my best to Henry,” he said. (This was the old man’s son, whose office was two doors farther down the hall.) “And remember, it won’t be a rumor when Ike sends the bull-dozers in.”

The next day my father made a lunch reservation at the Grotto Restaurant, downtown. I always liked going downtown better than going to the Campanile because when you crested Gillham Hill and first saw City Hall and the courthouse and the Warburton Building with their fire escapes etched against their sides, it felt like something was coming up. The trees dropped away and sunlight glared off the glass fronts of Western Auto, Chapin Hardware, Sewall Wallpaper, and the newspaper building through whose barred windows the presses ran. And then finally, after waiting, you crossed Fourteenth Street and the sky darkened as the buildings closed in overhead, and the streetcar wires made a black net above the street, and the pigeons fluttered up from them. When I was a kid, the driver had let me hold the switch, the brass cool and wet beneath my fingers, but now I just watched, sitting beside my father, as the signs peeled out from the building fronts like flags for Gribble’s and Kresge’s and Emery, Byrd, Thayer’s, for Baker’s Qualicraft Shoes, and Rothschild’s, founded in 1855.

The Grotto was at Twelfth and Baltimore. It had rows of red-checked tablecloths and brass-riveted booths under white trellises woven with plastic vines and a waitress came and led us to our seats. Usually the owner, Joey Ramola, escorted people in, and I could tell that my father didn’t like being ignored by the way he lit his cigarette and blew his smoke toward the front of the restaurant, where Joey stood. We were also having lunch with my grandfather, Big Alton, a situation that frequently led to a blowup. I knew from experience that my father’s blowups couldn’t be prevented or hidden and so when I felt one coming on, I tried to concentrate on things I could control. I folded my napkin. I rearranged my silverware, my father’s silverware, and my grandfather’s silverware so that all the pieces were as close together as they could be without touching. As I bent down to sweep up a semicircle of crushed peanut shells from the floor, my father grabbed my arm. His touch was light, but his blue pupils looked fried. “Nugget,” he said in a low voice, “I want to apologize to you ahead of time. The only way I could get your granddad to meet me was to bring you, too.”

“All we’re doing is having lunch, right?” I asked, hopefully.

“No,” my father said. “No, I’m afraid it might be more important than that.” Briefly, I saw his attention shift to the doorway, then back to me.

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“Are we going to ask him for money?”

My father did, at least, grin at this. The one good thing about his blowups was that they were never directed at me. “Not this time,” he said, adjusting my tie. “This time all we have to do is pretend that someone’s giving us money.”

“I don’t see why that should be a problem.”

“I hope it won’t be,” my father said. “But this is a very important deal for us, so right now, when your grandfather comes, I need you to promise me one thing.”

“Don’t worry about me, Dad,” I said. “I know how to act.” I’d stuffed the peanut shells in my pocket and was now dusting the pieces off my hands, but my father hooked his finger under my chin, so that I was forced to look up at him.

“Whatever happens,” my father said, “just don’t say anything.”

My grandfather arrived in surprisingly good spirits. He had a bad knee, sometimes a war wound (he’d fought in 1918), others a riding injury. Unlike my father, he wore a gray English suit, shoulders square, and as he hobbled toward us across the restaurant, Joey Ramola scurried after him, shouting about the ponies—“Charolais, what a beauty!”—in his ear. When he sat down, he brushed off his coat sleeve where Ramola had touched him. “All I can tell you, Jack,” he said, scooting in next to me, “is that I hope you never reach a point where it matters what a man like that has to say. The idea of a city councilman selling his independence for spaghetti on a plate . . .”

Fortunately, it wasn’t necessary to say much around my grandfather. He reeled off the names of politicians at the surrounding tables and then showed me the conditions under which an “elected official” could eat for a dollar—order placed between 1:30 and 1:45 on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and after 12:00 on Monday and Wednesdays, except bank holidays, choices only from the front side of the menu, no chipped beef, soup an extra $1.50 except when on special, no specials. This, my grandfather claimed, confirmed the corrupt nature of the place. I tried my best just to listen, though it didn’t help to know that whatever blowup my father had planned would be witnessed by half the politicians in the city. My father did the same, avoiding the subjects that he and my grandfather normally argued about—except when the waiter came to take our order and my father, nodding at Big Alton, said, “He’ll have the dollar spaghetti, I think.” Toward the end of lunch, I saw my father check his watch, his gaze roving among the tables, and then he leaped up and collared a bandy-legged man in tortoiseshell glasses, wearing a suit the color of sand. “Colonel,” he said brightly, pushing the man into our booth, “my father and I have agreed that you would be the perfect man to share our surprise.”

“A surprise?” the colonel said. His mustache tips were the yellow of used cigarette filters and his eyes rolled soapily. “Alton, what’s he talking about?”

“Whatever it is,” my grandfather said, “I’m not involved.”

My father, at that moment, lifted his leg and drove his heel so hard into Big Alton’s knee that the breadbasket jumped. Or rather, this is what I believe must have happened. I saw only the sudden surge of blood to my father’s cheeks, his tongue pressing the corner of his mustache, followed by a thump under the table and a gasp from my grandfather, who bent over beside me, his cheek white as his bread plate.

“I’ve instructed Pops not to comment,” my father said.

That seems irregular,” the colonel said, trying to get up. “I think I’ll—”

My father grabbed a half bottle of Chianti and three water glasses from an abandoned table, shoving the colonel fondly back in his seat.

“A toast,” he said. “At least stay for that.”

The colonel fingered his glass as if it were sticky.

“I’d still like to know what we’re talking about,” he said.

It’s his birthday,” my father whispered, and then stuck his thumb in his mouth, making a drinking motion. To my surprise, the colonel’s face assumed a hooded look, and he chucked Big Alton’s shoulder. “Alton, old man, congrats,” he said.

I later learned that the whole conversation was a pretense, designed only for Tyler Livingston, whom Prudential Bowen had assigned to read the highway plan. His starched white shirt and maroon-and-blue Bowen Company tie swept past us in the middle of our toast, ten minutes late for his usual table, but just in time to see what my father intended him to see: namely, himself and Colonel C.J. Pickering, a retired banker and possible investor, raising a glass of wine with conspiratorial smiles.

After this my father stood, reached across the table, and lifted me by my armpits over Big Alton’s bent neck and onto the floor. “Gentlemen,” he said, “there’s nothing I’d rather do than stay around and talk shop, but I’ve got a streetcar to catch.” And giving his father’s shoulder a squeeze, he whispered, “Tell Joey to put it on my tab,” and led me straight out of that place and back to the melting tar of Twelfth Street.

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WHAT YOU MAY SEE ON SOME FINE DAY IN THE FUTURE

 

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