By Barbara Riddle
In 1956, the most coveted political campaign pin was a bit of sterling silver shaped like the sole of a shoe. In the center was an etched whorl—a hole worn in the sole. It was a kind of large private joke: A news photographer had captured a picture of Adlai Stevenson working on a speech, his legs crossed and his worn-out shoe leather exposed for all the world to see. A marketing genius saw the opportunity and seized it.
My father and many of his friends proudly sported this silver symbol. Their candidate for president was the “egghead” Adlai, who spoke like a professor, lived like a poet, and carried himself like an English aristocrat. Wearing his pin made you a member of an elite society of fringe dwellers who dreamed of hopping the train into an America that would take Eisenhower’s legacy and craft it into something new.
I didn’t have a pin. But in July of 1960, I walked into the volunteer office at Stevenson headquarters. I was 16 years old. The Democratic Convention was headquartered in Los Angeles, where I was spending the summer with my father before heading off into my own hopeful future at Reed College.
It was Stevenson’s third attempt to run for president. Everywhere you looked, hordes of pretty young women, mercenaries in straw boater hats with red, white, and blue hatbands, worked the crowds for John F. Kennedy—a young Senator with big white teeth and a darkly handsome wife.
On the second morning of my voluntary servitude, I met a good-looking soon-to-be Yale freshman named Peter Wallace (son of the gruff TV journalist Mike Wallace). Within hours, between energetic bouts of passing out campaign literature, Peter and I were necking in every private nook and cranny of the convention hall. The rest of the week was a whirlwind. And then … the terrible day of the convention, when Kennedy was declared the party’s nominee and his straw-hatted bimbos erupted into an orgy of paid-for screams and gyrations. It was as if dollar bills had taken human form and were dancing on Adlai’s grave.
The fairytale interlude was over. Peter and I despondently scattered to our summer jobs and our sterling academic futures, promising to stay in touch. Peter was very much the gentleman, and I was still very much a virgin. I’m guessing that he was, also.
For two years, Peter sent me letters. Somehow our vacation times never overlapped, or perhaps we preferred to keep our brief, mysterious connection unexplored. Submerged in a heavy course load and barely keeping my nostrils above academic water, I stopped paying attention to politics. If Adlai wasn’t the president, I wasn’t interested.
The summer after my sophomore year, while I was on a brief vacation at his Pasadena apartment, my father approached me tentatively: “I’ve just heard something very sad. Your friend Peter Wallace was killed on a mountain-climbing trip.” It didn’t make sense. I left the room, feeling confused and incredibly guilty. Had I even thanked Peter for his last offering?
The previous Christmas, what seemed like a lifetime ago, Peter had sent me an inscribed copy of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam–one of those ornate editions. The cover was block-printed like wallpaper with rows of delicate green leaves and red flowers. Flowers such as you might see in the crevice of a rocky mountainside … if you had time to look, while falling.
In this year of unpredictable campaigns and unlikely heroes, I wonder what Adlai would say to Bernie Sanders. I bet he would press a silver pin into Bernie’s hand and thank him for his courage. And Peter. What I wouldn’t give to be meeting Peter Wallace this summer at the 2016 Democratic National Convention and celebrating the nomination of a man who has dramatically altered the business-as-usual direction of American politics.
I would give Peter such a hug.
Barbara Riddle is a regular contributor to WestView News. Segments of her memoir, Tales From A Greenwich Village Girlhood are located at www.talesfromagreenwichvillagegirlhood.blogspot.com/. Links to purchase her autobiographical novel, The Girl Pretending to Read Rilke, are located at www.girlpretending.com. Feel free to write to Barbara at firstname.lastname@example.org.