Saturday, May 20, 2006

Into the Raging Waters

On Sunday evening, May 20, 1928, a small group of men and women had gathered near a band stand in Drake Park, Bend, Oregon, to listen to a boyish, 39-year old carpenter – a fellow who was just passing through Bend on his way home to Portland, and who had a few things on his mind that he wanted to share with the assembled crowd. The carpenter, one Frank T. Johns, was just warming to his subject when the cries of children across the river interrupted him.

At that moment, a 10-year old boy named Jack Rhodes was fishing with his young pals Johnnie Sullivan and Rex and Morris Bevens on the banks of the Deschutes River in Bend, Oregon. He had his sights set on a particularly large trout that he knew had been hiding in a deep pool near a footbridge.

It was getting late, closing in on 8 o'clock, but Jack was determined to catch that giant trout. In his haste to drop his hook one more time, Jack accidentally got his line stuck on the footbridge. The other boys concentrated on their own lines while Jack labored to free his hook from the bridge. Without a moment's warning, however, Jack lost his balance and tumbled into the Deschutes below the footbridge. While Jack clung to the footbridge, the boys reached down with a jointed fishing pole and tried to pull him out. Jack grabbed onto the pole, but then the jointed pole unexpectedly extended, sending Jack back into the cold water. The swift current quickly carried him downstream.

From where Frank T. Johns stood across the river, he instantly sized up what had happened. Without hesitating, Johns jumped from the band stand platform and threw off his jacket. Running to the river's edge, Johns dove in.

The waters of the Deschutes were an overpowering force. Johns struggled as he swam against the current toward the boy, shouting back over his shoulder once or twice for someone to bring out a boat. As Jack continued to try to swim to safety, Johns called ahead, telling the boy not to fight against the current and that help was on the way. The roar of the river was loud, though, and Jack couldn't hear him.

Johns reached the boy in good time, considering how strong the current was; but battling against the mighty Deschutes had taken quite a bit out of the carpenter, so that by the time he had reached Jack Rhodes, Johns was out of breath and cramping. As Johns caught hold of Jack, Jack went under, and Johns went under to secure him. Then Johns knew he didn't have enough strength to keep them both afloat. With all the muscle he could muster, Johns shoved Jack toward the opposite shore.

Jack vanished shortly thereafter. Johns went under after the mighty push, and struggled four or five times to keep his head above the rapids before disappearing. Neither of them made it. Jack's body was found scarcely two hours later by some men who had arrived with a canoe to help with the search; Frank T. Johns' body was found the next morning, near the spot where the rescuers had found Jack.

The incident was commonplace in many ways – there are thousands of them to read about if you spend enough time cranking through old newspapers. What made this small tragedy slightly unusual, however, was that the carpenter, Frank T. Johns, had just been nominated by his party to run for president of the United States.

His daughter Mildred was 86 years old when I spoke with her. “I think I probably blot out certain things,” she said, apologizing for the haziness of her memories. She did, however, remember her father practicing speeches in the front room of their little brown shingle house on E. 40th Street in Portland. “He was a dear, dear man,” she recalled warmly.

There's more to the story here:

• about the Socialist Labor Party (SLP), the nation's first Socialist political party, which had in 1892 nominated an innovative tintype portrait photographer as its first presidential candidate;

• about how, by 1928, the SLP was considered to be the fringe of the fringe, a motley collection of dogmatic eggheads operating within an atmosphere in which Socialism in general, even the relatively popular brand of Socialism espoused by Eugene Debs and his successors, was on the decline in the U.S. -- assaulted from the Right by Hoover's FBI, diverted by the work of moderate labor union leaders, and outflanked by the Far Left's growing fascination with the Soviet Union;

• about how the bright-eyed, articulate carpenter, Frank Johns, found himself involved in the quixotic cause of the SLP and eventually served as its presidential nominee in 1924 -- jumping into the raging waters of electoral politics against President Calvin Coolidge, who famously declared that "the business of America was business," while the Democrats would emerge from a smoke-filled room with a compromise candidate, Wall Street corporate lawyer John W. Davis, and the moderate Left broke for Senator "Fighting Bob" LaFollette running as the standard bearer of the Progressive Party;

• about how Johns accepted the 1928 presidential nomination of the SLP, facing Republican Herbert Hoover and Democrat Al Smith at the peak of the Roaring Twenties, on the verge of the stock market crash and the Depression;

• about how Portland's laborers mourned him, and how Frank Johns posthumously won the Carnegie Hero medal, providing a small honorarium for his wife and surviving daughters;

• and about how the level-headed citizens of Bend, Oregon continued to remember the "Red" who plunged into the raging waters of the Deschutes River to save a child -- a gesture and a sacrifice that both transcended the unforgiving American political climate of the time, and encapsulated Frank Johns' personal commitment to humanity in peril.

More, at some point, in some forum . . .

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