Excerpt: Father's Alcohol Problem

Part II Of "While Innocents Slept"

Ethel quit her nine-to-five government job. She was determined to spend the rest of her life as Eldred's wife and a mother of many children.

The newlyweds shared a love of bowling. Both became involved in recreational leagues, showing up at the local lanes until their health faltered. They also liked to play cards. There were no other joint activities.

Separately, Ethel attended meetings of the Eastern Star, the female branch of the Masonic Fraternity. Eldred's sport was baseball. As a teen, he had sold peanuts at Griffith Stadium, then the home of the American League's under-achieving Washington Senators. During the long summers, so hot and humid that a foggy mist rose from the city's two rivers as morning dawned, he contented himself by listening to each Senators' game on WTOP, the home team's play-by-play radio voice.

The two women were so emotionally close to one another, it seemed natural that the first homes the Wilsons and Farleys purchased were less than two blocks apart. In the early 1950s, home ownership was a tangible sign of affluence. Their small starter homes were fifteen minutes from the Capitol, across the Anacostia River, up a hill from Bolling Air Force Base, and about a mile from the Maryland state line. The Farley's house on First Street Southwest wasn't that much different from the Wilson's home on Second Street.

"They had a brick house with some stonework in front and a concrete retaining wall," John Farley, the eldest of Carl and Iris Farley's three children, recalled. John, born in January of 1956, would be followed by Stephen and then Linda, all in the space of five years.

Ethel and Eldred finally had a son of their own on June fourteenth, but having children had not been easy. In the first five years of marriage the Wilsons had seen three chances at parenthood go bad. The first baby was stillborn, and the other two infants died from undiagnosed illnesses during the first three months of life.

Ethel was determined to succeed. After Eldred impregnated her a fourth time, she decided to give birth alone. As soon as her labor began, she marched three blocks to a bus stop at the corner of South Capita Street in blistering summer heat, took the transit vehicle to Doctor's Hospital, and checked herself in while Eldred continued to do the work of the nation at the U.S. Capitol. She told nobody about the impending delivery.

"My mother was thirty-five at the time. She already had the first signs of glaucoma. She had gone through two heart attacks, and early arthritis was making her fingers curl like a hawk's claws. The doctors told her it would be risky to give her a lot of drugs, so I was born by cesarean. I don't think there was any anesthesia. Mom was partly propped up so she could see herself giving birth," her son explained to an interviewer.

Determined to pass on her ancestor's name, and knowing this might be her last chance to do so, Ethel named the boy Garrett Eldred. The tobacco family lineage was safely perpetuated for one more generation.

But Garrett and Ethel were close, perhaps too close. "Why, my God, she breast-fed him until he was four," confided an amazed Jackie Sandoe, who married Eldred's nephew.

Ethel teased him about it when he got older. She said she was trying to beat the record of one of Eldred's relatives who had nursed her baby until the boy was five. Her tasteless remarks in front of family friends embarrassed him as he grew older.

"You did chin-ups on my boobs forever," she would say.

After their baby was brought home from the hospital, his father purchased a female boxer dog and named it Kris. The animal was trained to protect the child from harm. It sat at the top of the stairs near the entrance of their son's nursery. When anyone other than the parents approached his crib, the canine would bark loudly.

The Wilsons and the Farleys expected Garrett and John to be friends, and they were, becoming inseparable. The green woods in front of the Wilson house was their after-school playground.

Access to power has always been the road to success in Washington. Eldred became firmly ensconced in the Sergeant at Arms office and soon began to associate with the power congressmen of the era. Framed pictures with Sam Rayburn, Carl Albert, and Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill were displayed in his office. Ethel was equally proud of a photo of her waltzing at the White House with Harry Truman. Promotion followed promotion. This allowed Eldred and Ethel to buy a much larger house in 1967. Their new home was east of the Capitol in an unincorporated suburban Maryland town. The signs said Friendly, but the name was meaningless. There was no government, no city center, no sense of belonging to a community. And if you told someone a few miles away you were from Friendly, you would be asked this question: Where is that?

Prince George's County, which surrounded Friendly, was (and still is) Washington's only bordering suburb that can be called determinedly working class. In the 1960s, the county's population was 400,000. (It is nerly double that today.) Eldred wore a suit and tie to Capitol Hill, but in truth, he was resolutely blue collar and knew it. Eldred rubbed shoulders with the leaders of the nation each day, but he knew the pecking order and where he stood, which was closer to the bottom than to the top. Any resentment he had was pacified by daily doses of hard liquor, a habit that grew into an incurable dependency.

Part III: An Only Child



Courtesy of St. Martin's Press
  • David Kohn

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