THOSE WERE EXHILARATING TIMES in Washington
during the early 1930s. President Roosevelt surrounded himself with several brilliant men
and women of good intentions, as well as a few eccentrics who made life interesting.
During this same period, the voters out in the states were electing congressmen several
notches above the old-line politicians who had let the country slide into economic
stagnation and despair.
Most of these lively newcomers to the federal government made themselves
available in frequent meetings large and small, so that everyone ir, Washington had a
sense of participation in the various New Deal programs that we seriously believed were
keeping the nation from collapsing.
One enterprise that especially appealed to me was the Federal Writers'
Project. If I had not been fortunate enough to receive promotions and transfers into
better jobs within the Department of Agriculture library system, I would have made an
earnest effort to join the Writers' Project, which eventually created a considerable body
of badly needed American source materials, including those wonderful Work Projects
Administration guide-books to the states. After more than half a century, these books are
so esteemed that most of them are kept continuously in print.
Several friends worked in the Writers' Project, so that I was often
invited to their Sunday gatherings and occasional weekend jaunts and hikes into the Blue
Ridge Mountains. Best remembered are Ben Botkin, the folklorist; Jack Conroy, the
proletarian author and editor; Jerry Mangione, who eventually wrote the project's history;
John Cheever, before he became famous; and Vardis Fisher, who occasionally came in from
I admired these people, and it was largely through knowing them that I
began submitting manuscripts to the numerous 'little magazines' that were springing up to
set the world to rights. A short story I wrote that was based upon experiences at a
drive-in barbeque was published in one of them and noticed by a literary agent, Mavis
Macintosh. An inquiry from her as to whether I might have a novel in progress inspired me
to start one immediately.
I decided to try a satire on the burgeoning bureaucracy of New Deal
Washington. Compared with our present governmental bureaucracy -- which is so pervasive
that it would be impossible to satirize -- the New Deal's was a fairly lighthearted state
of confusion rather than total bedlam. The phenomenon of bumbledom was new to almost
everybody, and I thought it had its amusing aspects. And so in a novel I pummeled the
government in a broad way. During the months that followed, my novel and World War 11
moved simultaneously into unforeseen climaxes.
JUST AS I WAS beginning to devise a plot and develop the characters, I
received a promotion and was transferred to the Beltsville Research Center. My assignment
was to build a library from scratch to serve several different research stations and
laboratories spread across a wide expanse of Maryland countryside. This new
responsibility, of course, slowed down my literary endeavors.
The four years that I worked in the Beltsville library were the most
interesting of the various periods I spent in federal agencies' Scientists in the biology,
chemical and medicinal fields were on the verge of discoveries that would bring immense
changes not only to American agriculture but in many other areas of American life. A sense
of exciting discovery was evident among many of the people I worked with, and this acted
as a spur for us to furnish them with the best informational service that we could.
Because they expected to be kept up to date in their various endeavors, we
circulated a large number of current scientific journals and newly published books. To
keep these publications moving about the research center, we first tried a motorcycle. In
order to keep in touch with the scientists that I was serving, I frequently joined our
motorcycle driver in his reckless deliveries to the scattered laboratory buildings.
Hunkered down in the sidecar with heaps of books and journals piled around and on me, I
more than once thought as we sped along, What a hell of a way to run a library. But I met
several fascinating researchers, some of whom were making their marks in the world of
There were also frequent visitors from everywhere around the world, as
well as magazine writers and photographers in search of stories. The most famous columnist
who came occasionally was Eleanor Roosevelt, looking for interesting things at Beltsville
to put into her syndicated column, "My Day. Mrs.Roosevelt did not always get
the correct spin on the research that was revealed to her, and the Beltsville
administrators, who were always eager for good publicity that might bring additional
appropriations from Congress, were sometimes uneasy about her comments.
For a year or so, one research project was kept off limits to Mrs.
Roosevelt and to almost everyone else. I would probably have known very little about the
Sheep Dog Project had I not taken a sidecar journey over there one day and won the
confidence of Dr. Morton, the chief, and his animal psychologist, Dr. Katz.
A few weeks later, I learned about the Turkish sheep dogs that came very
near creating an international incident in the critical days just before our entry into
World War II.
MY FIRST awareness of these Turkish dogs came one morning when Dr. Morton
swept suddenly into my office in the Beltsville library. Morton's specialty had been sheep
breeding, but he had been drafted into the Dog Project by the secretary of agriculture,
Henry A. Wallace. Secretary Wallace was an extraordinary man, as were most of the New
Dealers. He had a large role in the development of hybrid corn, a triumph of genetics, and
after he became Roosevelt's secretary of agriculture he kept up his interest in the
transmission of genetic traits.
Wallace liked dogs. believed them to be unusually intelligent animals, and
decided to establish a project at Beltsville in which their intelligence traits could be
studied through many succeeding generations. He knew that Congress would never appropriate
money for so pure a scientific project as this; therefore he disguised it as research to
determine what breed of dog was the most efficient sheep dog. In those days man-made
fibers were in their infancy, and almost every state in the Union had numerous sheep
raisers who were hard at work producing honest wool. They were all interested in good
sheep dogs. Wallace named this research program the Sheep Dog Project, and as further
camouflage he placed the chief sheep husbandman, Dr. Morton, in charge of it.
The morning that Morton entered the Beltsville library, his face was
flushed, he was short of breath, and obviously in desperate need of some specific Piece of
information. When People appear in a library in such condition, librarians usually wince
inwardly. Overeager seekers of information tend to follow one about, peering over one's
shoulder as the search goes on. Librarians have precious few trade secrets, and some of
them may inadvertently be revealed to a client who is desperate and in a hurry.
I'm looking for a parasitic worm, Morton explained,
Cestode, probably, I must identify it right away. The problem seemed simple
until he added: Not known in this country. Probably Middle Eastern, Turkey. He
was still breathing hard. Very dangerous, they say. When transmitted to
By one of those strokes of luck that keep reference librarians from losing
their jobs, I found what Morton was looking for in a thick old volume that had been
published early in the century. He peered at a drawing of a cobra-shaped worm and read the
legend beneath it. I was afraid of that, he said, shaking his head. The
Turks won't like it if we have to destroy one of their dogs.
I knew about the Scottish border collies and the Hungarian pulis over at
the Dog Project, but Turkish dogs were something new. Whose dogs? Turks, you
said?" I asked, but Morton was already in motion, his fingers thrust into the book to
hold the proper page, as he disappeared through the entranceway.
It was a fine sunny day, and as soon as the noon break came, I collected
my sack lunch and bottle of milk from the biological chemist's refrigerator down the hall
and set out for the Dog Project on the adjacent rise, In those days Beltsville was rolling
meadows and trees, and if we didn't play an inning of softball during the lunch hour we
usually walked somewhere to see what was happening in other areas of the search center.
With appropriations received from Congress, Secretary Wallace had already
built two rows of kennels, with exercise yards adjoining. and the Scottish border collies
and Hungarian pulis were well into their second and third generations. As I walked past I
could see that all pens were occupied, and I wondered where space could be found for
another breed of dogs, At one end of the kennels was a small office building. The first
door bore it sign: JUNIOR DOG KENNELMAN AND UNDER DOG KENNELMAN, (These are actual job
nomenclature titles and can be found in the Civil Service Commission's list of government
options for the 1930s, but would be considered sexist today.)
The office of the junior dog kennelman and under dog kennelman was empty.
The kennelmen were probably over in the sheep pasture testing some of the dogs. The next
door was labeled DR. KATZ, He was in and was just opening up his lunch. On the wall behind
him was a large handmade poster with dozens of names of dogs laid out in genealogical
At that time Dr. Katz had not yet changed his name, but a few months later
he did. The Dog Project had a daily round of visitors from all over the country, some of
them being accornpanied by Secretary Wallace. Several times each day whoever might be
conducting the visitors would gleefully say to them: This is Dr. Katz, the dogs'
psychologists. After suffering the inevitable repeated joke about Katz and dogs
until he could no longer endure their monotony, Katz had his name legally changed.
He was an energetic, enthusiastic, very jolly young man who knew every one
of the dogs in his care as thoroughly as a mother knows the individualities of her
children. He was especially fond of the Hungarian pulis, and could tell very amusing
stories about their cleverness. They are too intelligent, really, he would
say. Like most sensitive personalities they have days of moodiness. At such times
they tend to neglect their duties and permit the sheep to stray. Hungarian pulis just
don't make good bureaucrats. They get bored watching dumb sheep sleep all day. I think
they would like to do something creative if we would only let them. I'm working on
I told him about Dr. Morton and the parasitic worm. What's all this
about Turkish dogs? I asked.
You haven't heard about the Turkish sheep dogs? he asked.
No, I suppose not. We just learned about them yesterday. Secretary Wallace handled
the details himself, and he's been too busy to keep us informed.
Katz proceeded to fill in the background, referring occasionally to a heap
of letters and cablegrams that had been sent out from Washington. As he did not seem to
mind, I scanned a few of them while he talked. Some weeks before, Wallace had attended a
formal White House dinner where he was seated next to the Turkish ambassador. During the
dinner he happened to mention the Dog Project, explaining that one of its objectives was
to determine what breed made the best sheep dog.
But that has already been determined,' declared the Turk. The
best sheep dog is our Turkish sheep dog.
Wallace confessed his ignorance. I was not aware of the Turkish
breed, he said.
Perhaps that is because we consider them to be so valuable that we
do not export them from Turkey, the ambassador replied. However, in the
interest of science which is international, perhaps I can arrange for a male and a female
to be obtained for your project.
That would be splendid, said Wallace politely, and then soon
afterward forgot all about the conversation. During the next few weeks he was away from
Washington much of the time, making speeches in the agricultural states in support of
Roosevelt's embattled farm programs. He was not available, therefore, the day a mysterious
cablegram was received in one of the offices of the State Department:
HOLDING TWO TURKISH SHEEP DOGS ISTANBUL REQUIRE CUSTODIAN BEFORE SHIPMENT
CAN BE AUTHORIZED UNITED STATES
The message was signed by a Turkish port official, but the State
Department people evidently believed it to be some kind of code. They bucked it around,
hoping it would reach an official who might understand it, until at last somebody decided
to telephone the Turkish Embassy for a clarification.
After some delay, the ambassador himself explained the situation. He had
personally arranged for the gift of a male and a bitch to be sent from Turkey to the
Department of Agriculture's Sheep Dog Project. Animals as rare and valuable as Turkish
sheep dogs, he insisted, would require a full-time attendant for so long a sea voyage.
Perhaps an American naval vessel might be cruising somewhere in the vicinity of Istanbul?
No, he was informed politely, none of the U.S. Navy's ships was available
at the time, and even if one had been, the State Department could scarcely order an
admiral to take a pair of dogs under his command.
The problem was one for the Turkish government and the Department of
Agriculture's Sheep Dog Project to resolve between them. At this juncture the State
Department washed its hands of the affair by sending the cablegram over to Secretary
Wallace's office for action. Wallace was not there, of course, and as none of his
assistants knew anything at all about the dogs, the message was put in a suspense file to
await his return. About a week later another cablegram arrived in Washington from
TURKISH SHEEP DOGS DEPARTED THIS DATE IN CUSTODY TWO SAILORS ABOARD SS
OCHRIDA. BOTH IN GOOD HEALTH.
When Wallace read this one during a short stopover in Washington between
speeches, he apparently made no comment to anyone in his office, nor did he find time to
notify the Sheep Dog Project about the forthcoming arrivals. He may have called the
Turkish ambassador to thank him and perhaps comment on the health of the dogs and/or
sailors, but there was no record of it. During succeeding weeks, cables arrived at
Wallace's office from Italy, North Africa and Spain-wherever the steamship Ochrida
happened to put into port-each one giving brief descriptions of the sheep dogs'
dispositions, their appetites, weight and coat conditions. Then finally a telegram came
from New York, announcing their arrival on American soil, their passage through customs,
and the approximate time they would reach the Beltsville Research Center. A few hours
later the Dog Project heard for the first time of the Turkish sheep dogs. Dr. Morton
immediately notified the official station veterinarian, and the two men met the express
train that brought the Turkish dogs into the quiet Maryland railroad stop.
Tests on the male showed that he was in perfect health, as the cables had
claimed, but the bitch was afflicted with that rare and dangerous cestode which Morton
later identified in the library. This was as much as Dr. Katz could tell me, and he was
not surprised by my informing him that Dr. Morton had left the library in a distraught
condition, clutching the book on parasites in his hand.
Next day I happened to meet Morton in the parking lot. "How is the
Turkish bitch doing? I asked.
Not good, not good, he replied.
Can't the veterinarian rid her of that parasite?
He shook his head. "Not positively without risking her life. But
we're calling in a research man from a private laboratory--he's supposed to have something
new. You know, we simply must admit that bitch to our Sheep Dog Project or we're going to
cause international trouble. The Turkish ambassador is pressing us for news photographs
and a big publicity release about the universality of science and the part Turkey has
played in advancing knowledge by presenting us with these dogs. The Turks have gone to a
lot of trouble and expense to get the dogs to us, and if we destroy the bitch they'll
think we're not decent people." He sighed and shook his head again sadly. "With
that war heating up again in Europe,' he added, 'everybody knows we're bound to get
involved, and we'll need all the friends we can find around the world. We can't afford to
anger the Turks.
"What does Secretary Wallace think about the problem?
He doesn't know about it. He's out in the Nebraska farm country
mending political fences. I talked with his wife last night, and she says I'd better not
let the veterinarian destroy that dog before Henry comes back to Washington.
I could see that Morton was becoming distraught again. He looked as if he
hadn't slept for two days.
Perhaps you can keep the bitch in quarantine indefinitely, I
suggested. 'That would be complicated, he replied solemnly. "She's
Fortunately, the Dog Project's last hope, the research scientist from out
of town, saved the situation. He had a new and secret chemical formula for completely
eliminating internal parasites, and after a three-way telephone conversation with
Secretary Wallace on the line from Nebraska, it was decided to risk the formula on the
Turkish bitch. After a few days, results were pronounced satisfactory, and the
veterinarian admitted both animals to the Sheep Dog Project. It was a gala occasion, with
newspaper photographers and the Turkish ambassador present for the formalities.
ONE MORNING not long afterward I went over to the kennels to have my first
look at the Turkish sheep dogs. I had to wait several minutes in a line of curious people
outside the exercise yard. The Turks were housed in the largest of the kennels. A length
of heavyweight wire fencing had been hastily fastened over the original thin wire. But
even this added safeguard did not forestall a sudden jab of awe that seemed to affect each
spectator when he or she first saw the dogs. They were gigantic, about the size of young
colts. Their coats were dull gray and they had large bushy tails; their heads were
wolflike and their feet were great heavy pads as large as dinner plates.
After several days, the commotion over the arrival of the Turkish sheep
dogs gradually died down , but it was revived when the bitch gave
birth to 12 puppies. It was not so much the number of the litter but rather the size of
offspring that aroused comment. I found Dr. Katz staring moodily at the puppies in their
sunny yard, an area that had been more than adequate for the collies and pulis but was far
too small for these 12 young giants, padding about on feet already as large as saucers.
Theyre bigger than most full-grown dogs, I said.
And no discipline, Katz commented. Absolutely no
discipline. The young Turks, were squirming about like monstrous worms, mouths open
until they touched a neighboring ear or flesh, whereupon the jaws would clamp shut
savagely. This litter is very late establishing a chain of dominance -- pecking
order, you know. Until a chain is established, their anarchistic tendencies will keep the
veterinarian busy patching up wounds."
The dogs paused momentarily as if they had overheard, staring at us in an
unusually hostile manner. Katz shouted a jolly profanity at them, but there was a troubled
look in his eyes.
What did you do with the young pulis you had in here? I asked.
That's another problem, Katz said. We had to move them
over to the sheep barn. These Turks are crowding us out.
One might have thought that Katz and Morton, like proper government
bureaucrats, would have been happy to have their project grow so rapidly. Instead, each
time I saw them, they had bitter complaints to make about the Turks. The overcrowding was
making all the dogs and the men who worked with them very nervous and irritable.
Some weeks after the birth of the Turkish pups, Katz showed up in the
library in search of all the data we could find on nutrient requirements for dogs. For an
hour or more he scribbled into a notebook; then he came into my inner office to light up
his pipe. 'We're in real trouble," he said. The Turks' food consumption is
rising exponentially. The 12 pups are eating more than all the other dogs combined. By the
end of this month we'll be completely out of rations."
Can't Secretary Wallace set up an emergency fund for you? I
No. There's a temporary freeze on because of the military crisis.
Dr. Morton persuaded the director of the center to shift some sheep funds to carry us
another month, and then he sent a memo to the secretary's office suggesting that the Turks
be sold as government surplus in order to save the rest of the Dog Project. But the
administrative people are afraid that would offend the Turkish government. He shook
his head gloomily.
'What're you going to do now?" I asked.
He shrugged. "I'd hoped we might be able to borrow foodstuffs from
other Beltsville projects, but it won't work out. All we can do is fend off starvation.
Dr. Morton scrounged some scraps from the Meats Division. but that just whetted the Turks'
appetites." He knocked out his pipe and squinted through my office door at the book
stacks. 'I envy you librarians. You don't have to feed your damned books, and they stay
put when you want them to." He got up and walked away, his shoulders hunched forward,
hands clasped behind his back.
NOT LONG AFTERWARD I chanced to meet one of the kennelmen, who told me
that an epidemic of dysentery had broken out in the border collie kennels. Poor
nutrition and too much crowding, he explained glumly. Dr. Katz is working 18
hours a day trying to keep his record of experiments from being washed out. The dysentery
wouldn't have been so bad if it had hit the Turk pups. They seem to thrive on dysentery
The Turks not only survived but grew larger day by day, demanding more and
more food. In the midst of this crisis, we suddenly entered World War II. Secretary
Wallace was immediately drawn into the emergency food programs vital to the war effort,
and neither he nor anyone else in Washington had time to consider the plight of the Sheep
Dog Project. A brief note from the secretary's office informed Dr. Morton that operation
of the Sheep Dog Project would thenceforth be the joint responsibility of the Beltsville
Research Center's director and himself.
Morton waited no time in arranging a meeting with the director. Out of
stark necessity they quickly decided to declare the Turkish sheep dogs government surplus
and hold a discreet public sale. Surely in the wake of Pearl Harbor, they hoped, neither
the press nor the Turkish Embassy would take notice of their action.
A few mimeographed announcements of the sale were run off and mailed out
to a select list of sheepmen in nearby Maryland and Virginia. All of us who knew about
this waited hopefully the morning of the advertised sale and were quite relieved when the
first sheepmen began arriving on the main parking lot. Morton and Katz escorted them in
small groups to the kennels. Out of curiosity I joined one of the groups -- five men from
western Maryland -- and went along to see how the bidding was going. When we reached the
'Turks' kennel, the sheepmen stared with dismay at the monsters behind the heavy wire. It
was obvious from their comments that the last thing they were willing to do was to allow
one of those Turkish dogs within 10 miles of their herds. No one offered to bid, and from
Dr. Katz I learned that none of the other sheepmen had made an offer.
Late that afternoon I was in the director's office. I had received my
draft notice from Selective Service, and he wanted my recommendations for a possible
replacement for me from among the librarians in the Department of Agriculture. While we
were going over the names, Dr. Morton barged in, angry and dejected. 'Not a single bid on
the Turks,' he said. 'Nobody wants them.'
The director was equally disappointed.
Why don't you make up a press release? I suggested.
You know we can't do that! Morton shouted. The Turkish
government would surely see it and take offense. He glared at me. You're
getting out of it the easy way by going into the Army. Here we are stuck with 14 dogs
eating up our last rations, and you're running off to the Army.
I couldn't see the logic of this, but I said soothingly: Well,
anyway, you've kept Turkey neutral in the war. I won't have to fight Turkish
The next week I went into the Army, and it was some months later before I
returned to Washington on a brief furlough. Occasionally, through the rigors of basic
training, I'd given thought to the dilemma of the Turkish sheep dogs, and one of the first
telephone calls I made after I returned home was to the Dog Project.
An unfamiliar voice answered. K-9 Corps. Sergeant Breen here.
I asked to speak with either Katz or Morton.
They 'are no longer here, the sergeant said. Sir, this
is a military dog operation now. K-9 Corps.
The sergeant did volunteer the information that one of the kennelmen had
been held over from the civilian project. I asked to speak with him.
When I heard the familiar voice of the underdog kennelman, I identified
myself and asked how everything was going.
Nothing like the old days, he answered. Strictly GI now.
All German police dogs. We're training them for combat and guard duties."
I've been wondering, I said, whatever happened to the
Turkish sheep dogs.
Oh, them. Not long after you left, we received an unexpected bid
from a man who lives in the Virgin Islands. He showed up one day and carried off all 14 of
the Turks in a big truck.
What did he want with them? I asked."All 14?'
There was a momentary pause. Hell, I guess nobody thought to ask
him, we were so damned glad to be rid of them.
After I hung up the phone, I sat down and thought about 14 full-sized
Turkish sheep dogs roaming over the verdant beauty of the Virgin Islands. And even now,
all these years afterward, when I hear of or read about the Virgin Islands, I don't
visualize green hills or clean sandy beaches lapped by rolling waves under azure skies.
Instead I think of 14 mammoth Turkish sheep dogs and all their hungry offspring
overpopulating that tropical paradise.
RUNNING PARALLEL with my continual surveillance of the Sheep Dog Project
were my writing efforts-particularly the satirical novel about Washington. By working late
at night I managed to bring it to completion, and to my surprise the literary agent, Mavis
McIntosh, placed the manuscript rather quickly with a small publisher in
Philadelphia-Macrae-Smith. My editor-to-be was Edward Shenton, who was also an artist and
had done illustrations for some of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings's books about Florida. Shenton
evidently liked my novel. He suggested only a few changes, and had it copyedited for the
printer late in November 1941.
On December 8, the day after Pearl Harbor, I received a telephone call
from Shenton, a hurried and brief statement that he was coming down to Washington the next
day on government business and would like to meet me in the bar of the old Willard Hotel.
At the agreed hour I met him, and after a few preliminary remarks about the shock of war
that had come with such suddenness upon us, he told me that his company could not publish
my book. In wartime, he explained, especially when the nation appeared to be so unprepared
and disorganized, any criticism of the government, no matter how mild, would be considered
You must have some plan for a second novel. he added.
Perhaps something patriotic.
I had nothing in particular in mind, but I told him that I did. Stung by
the loss of my ill-starred contemporary novel, I resolved to retreat into the 19th
century, where I have remained ever since.
The Washington Post footer:
This article is excerpted from When the Century Was Young: A Writer's
Notebook, to be published in September by August House, Little Rock, Ark