Ron Briley: A Tale of Two Texans: I Ain’t No Fortunate Son

Roundup: Historians' Take

Ron Briley, history teacher at the Sandia Prepatory School:

Beginning with the Republican National Convention, President George W. Bush has attempted to recapture the label of compassionate conservative so missing from four years of tax breaks for America’s wealthiest citizens and record deficits to fight an unnecessary war in Iraq which largely provides corporate welfare for such companies as Halliburton. But does this fortunate son really understand the meaning of compassion and the policies needed to aid those Americans suffering from manufacturing jobs leaving the country.

I was born in Texas four years after the President, but we never moved in the same circles. We had no Prescott’s or Herbert Walker’s in my family. In fact, my father only had the initials F. C. He worked as hard as he could to take care of his family, but he wasn’t able to provide me with entrance into Yale, an appointment to the Texas Air National Guard, an oil company to run into the ground, a baseball team of my own for a tax break, or an entourage of his political cronies.

Instead, my father dropped out of school around the third grade during the Great Depression to help support his brothers and sisters. And he never stopped doing strenuous manual labor until he was disabled by a massive coronary in his early 40s. For all his hard work and military service in Europe during the Second World War, he accumulated few economic assets but acquired a loving family. He never quite understood how the system worked, and reading was always difficult for him. But he certainly enjoyed the Western comic books I read to him.

So how did we survive? My memories of summer and fall in the 1960s include chopping and picking cotton in the fields with my father, brother, mother, and grandparents. The pay for chopping cotton in the hot Texas Panhandle sun was 75 cents an hour. Despite all his efforts to make ends meet selling cars and working for the railroad, my father was not going to be able to get me out of the cotton fields. It was the intervention of compassionate government programs that paved my way out of the cotton fields.

My first job beyond agricultural labor came digging graves at the local cemetery. The employment was part of President Lyndon Johnson’s Neighborhood Youth Administration. Lyndon Johnson was another Texan with many faults. But lack of real compassion was not one of them. In an address at Howard University, Johnson stated that the measure of a society is how those at the bottom are treated and not the fortunate sons. Johnson’s Great Society offered the promise of education and job training which was sacrificed on the alter of Vietnam as the President could not let go of his fears that he would be called soft on communism.

Johnson’s war in Vietnam convinced me that college and a deferment might be in my self-interest as all the spots in the Air National Guard seemed taken. College opened ideas and opportunities to me which I had never envisioned, but the educational experience would have been impossible without student loans and work study programs. In addition, the food stamp program helped place food on the table. Compassionate programs, not standardized testing, helped educate and feed me during some difficult times.

This sense of community and compassion in action, rather than the rhetoric of caring, is part of the American mainstream and should be the birthright of all its citizens, not just its fortunate sons.

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