By Jerald Lee Watts, M.D., House 1950
At the end of my Page service in September, 1950, I reflected on the heady experience that had been mine, witnessing Democracy at work. Yet for all the noble acts I saw, I also remembered the times when I was forced to confront the facts that Democracy isn’t necessarily transparent and that those we have elected to govern us can occasionally display incredible political arrogance.
In February 1950 a military “Korean Aid Bill” had been presented on the House Floor. It was not known at the time that Gen. Douglas McArthur, our military commander in the Far East, had been begging the Pentagon and Congress for more military men and equipment to protect South Korea against the Communist threats from North Korea.
During the Floor debate a husky, scruffy-looking Texas Congressman saddled up to the back of the Chamber, right in front of the Democratic Page bench. He and another Member, a pal from the Lone Star State, stood with their dusty worn Texas boots up on the ledge as they leaned on the brass rail surrounding the Chamber. His friend asked, “How are you going to vote on the Korean Aid Bill?”
The older Texan turned to him. I heard him say in a dismissive voice, “Hell, there ain’t any Koreans in my district.” He voted No.
Just four months later the North Koreans invaded South Korea. I often wondered how many young men from the Texan’s district were soon to be sent to Korea.
During the summer of 1950, I discovered that our government was not reporting the true facts of a war to the nation. One of my Page duties was to prepare the newspapers and update the (intelligence) telegraph print-outs on racks in the Congressional reading room, directly behind the House Chamber. It was obvious that the intelligence print-outs did not correspond with the local or national
newspaper reports. Even The New York Times and The Washington Post erred in their coverage of the situation in Korea. I was advised that the “telex print-outs” were “classified” and for “Congressional eyes only.” I was not to discuss publicly anything that I read in the reports.
I mused about this but said nothing to anyone. I assumed it was for National Security that this information was filtered. Once I got home, I would read my local papers, The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, and know that what I read was not necessarily the way things really were.
A Night-time Story
Teenagers are known to make choices that are not always the best. My New Jersey Avenue boarding housemates and I were no exception. One night after studying three of us decided to go up to “B” Street for something to eat. Not bothering to change, we threw raincoats over our pajamas. We had been told not to go out alone at night in D.C., so we ventured into the back door of the nearby Cannon Office Building. We passed the security guard with no trouble (a law student asleep on the job), yet when we returned a work shift had occurred and two cops, one in plain clothes, stopped us and interrogated us. They turned us over to their Sergeant who said, “Obviously you boys are disturbed, wearing pajamas out on the streets at night, so we’ll have to take you over to Saint Elizabeth’s for a psychiatric exam.”
Panicked, we thought, what will we tell our Congressmen? They’ll probably send us home.
With a dire warning, the cops let us go. After we turned the hall towards the exit we heard laughter.
A Magical Dream
In the Spring of 1950, the House considered an early version of the Fair Employment Practice Acts. For the House it was an unusual night session, pitting Cong. Adam Clayton Powell, a liberal Democrat from New York against my sponsor, “Judge” James C. Davis, a conservative Democrat from Georgia, in debate. Excitement filled the Chamber as the rancor continued into the wee hours of the morning.
As the hours grew later, we Pages were allowed short breaks to leave the Chamber. I was so tired. I knew I must lie down for a little while. The only place to rest was on one of the leather-covered benches in the Capitol Rotunda. I sprawled out on a bench to doze and in my half-sleep felt the seducing glow of the dimmed lights high in the dome.
In the haze of the Rotunda, the statues seemed to come alive. There was Mr. Washington, Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Jefferson, all of the Founding Fathers and the sustaining Fathers surrounding me. I didn’t speak to them. But they smiled at me and I heard Mr. Jefferson speak, saying, “Young man, you are in the presence of the spirits that watch over your country. You are safe.” I knew I was in the embrace of a mystical family. And I did feel safe.
Shaking me awake, another sleepy Page sent me and the memory of a magical dream back to the wide-awake reality of the House Chamber. It was not until 40 years later, when I visited my son’s college and walked across the green “Lawn” at Charlottesville, Virginia, that I again encountered the presence of Mr. Jefferson.
Jerry graduated from Atlanta High School in 1952, attended Tulane University in New Orleans and graduated from Atlanta’s Emory University School of Medicine in 1959. He completed a surgical internship and residency at Grady Memorial Hospital before military duty. In the early 1960s he served in the U.S. Air Force as a general surgeon and flight surgeon. After military service he completed an orthopaedic surgery residency at Grady, Emory University Hospital, Atlanta #48 Veterans Hospital and Egleston Children’s Hospital. He practiced orthopaedic surgery for more than 32 years, and earned a law degree from Woodrow Wilson College of Law – Atlanta in 1987. Now retired, he lives in Peachtree City, Ga. With his companion, author Ellen Hunter Ulken and his English Setter, Scout.