Read an Excerpt
Still, chance could help even the steadiest toiler. I remember the time a minibile--one of the small, trackless locomotives--broke down not a quarter of a mile from Father's smithy. This was a golden, unparalleled, unbelievable opportunity. Minibiles, like any other luxury, were rare in the United States, though they were common enough in prosperous countries such as the German Union or the Confederacy. We had to rely for our transportation on the never-failing horse or on the railroads, worn out and broken down as they were. For decades the great issue in Congress was the never-completed Pacific transcontinental line, though British America had one and the Confederate States seven. (Sailing balloons, economical and fairly common, were still looked upon with some suspicion.) Only a rare millionaire, with connections in Frankfurt, Washington-Baltimore, or Leesburg, could afford to indulge in a costly and complicated minibile requiring a trained driver to bounce it over the rutted and chuckholed roads. Only an extraordinarily adventurous spirit would leave the tar-surfaced streets of New York or its sister city of Brooklyn, where the minibiles' solid rubber tires could at worst find traction on the horse or cablecar rails, for the morasses or washboard roads which were the only highways north of the Harlem River.
When one did, the jolting, jouncing, and shaking inevitably broke or disconnected one of the delicate parts in its complex mechanism. Then the only recourse--apart from telegraphing back to the city if the traveler broke down near an instrument--was the closest blacksmith. Smiths rarely knew much of the principles of the minibiles, but with the broken part before themthey could fabricate a passable duplicate and, unless the machine had suffered severe damage, put it back in place. It was customary for such a craftsman to compensate himself for the time taken away from horseshoeing or spring-fitting--or just absently chewing on an oat straw--by demanding exorbitant remuneration, amounting to perhaps twenty-five or thirty cents an hour, thus avenging his rural poverty and self-sufficiency upon the effete wealth and helplessness of the urban excursionist.
Such a golden opportunity befell my father, as I said, during the fall of 1933, when I was twelve. The driver had made his way to the smithy, leaving the owner of the minibile marooned and fuming in the enclosed passenger seat. A hasty visit convinced Father, who could repair a clock or broken rake with equal dexterity, that his only course was to bring the machine to the forge where he could heat and straighten a part not easy to disassemble. (The driver, the owner, and Father all repeated the name of the part often enough, but so inept have I been with "practical" things all my life that I couldn't recall it ten minutes, much less thirty years later.)
"Hodge, run and get the mare and ride over to Jones's. Don't try to saddle her--go bareback. Ask Mr. Jones to kindly lend me his team."
"I'll give the boy a quarter dollar for himself if he's back with the team in twenty minutes," added the owner of the minibile, sticking his head out of the window.
I won't say I was off like the wind, for my life's work has given me a distaste for exaggeration or hyperbole, but I moved faster than I ever had before. A quarter, a whole shining silver quarter, a day's full wage for the boy who could find odd jobs, half the day's pay of a grown man who wasn't indented or worked extra hours--all for myself, to spend as I wished!
I ran all the way back to the barn, led Bessie out by her halter, and jumped on her broad back, my enthralling daydream growing and deepening each moment. With my quarter safely got I could perhaps persuade my father to take me along on his next trip to Poughkeepsie; in the shops there I could find some yards of figured cotton for Mother, or a box of cigars to which Father was partial but rarely bought for himself, or an unimagined something for Mary McCutcheon, some three years older than I, with whom it had so recently become disturbing as well as imperative to wrestle, in secret of course so as not to show oneself unmanly in sporting with a weak girl instead of another boy.
It never even occurred to me, as it would have to most, to invest in an eighth of a lottery ticket. Not only were my parents sternly against this popular gamble, but I myself felt a strangely puritanical aversion to meddling with my fortune.
Or I could take the entire quarter into Newman's Book and Clock Store. Here I could not afford one of the latest English or Confederate books--even the novels I disdained cost fifty cents in their original and thirty in the pirated United States' edition--but what treasures there were in the twelve-and-a-half-cent reprints and the dime classics!
With Bessie's legs moving steadily beneath me I pored over in my imagination Mr. Newman's entire stock, which I knew by heart from examinations lulled by the steady ticking of his other, and no doubt more salable, merchandise. My quarter would buy two reprints, but I would read them in as many evenings and be no better off than before until their memory faded and I could read them again. Better to invest in paperback adventure stories giving sharp, breathless pictures of life in the West or rekindling the glories of the war. True, they were written almost entirely by Confederate authors, and I was, perhaps thanks to Granpa Hodgins and my mother, a devout partisan of the lost cause of Sheridan and Sherman and Thomas. But patriotism couldn't steel me against the excitement of the Confederate paperbacks; literature simply ignored the boundary stretching to the Pacific.
I had finally determined to invest all my twenty-five cents, not in five paperbound volumes but in ten of the same in secondhand or shopworn condition, when I suddenly realized that I had been riding Bessie for some considerable time. I looked around, rather dazed by the abrupt translation from the dark and slightly musty interior of Newman's store to the bright countryside, to find with dismay that Bessie hadn't taken me to the Jones farm after all but on some private tour of her own in the opposite direction.
I'm afraid this little anecdote is pointless--it was momentarily pointed enough for me that evening, for in addition to the loss of the promised quarter I received a thorough whacking with a willow switch from my mother after my father had, as usual, dolefully refused his parental duty--except perhaps that it shows how in pursuing the dream I could lose the reality.
My feeling that books were a part of life, and the most important part, was no passing phase. Other boys in their early teens dreamed of going to the wilds of Dakotah, Montana, or Wyoming, indenting to a company run by a young and beautiful woman--this was also a favorite paperback theme--discovering the loot hidden by a gang, or emigrating to Australia or the South African Republic. Or else they faced the reality of indenture, carrying on the family farm, or petty trade. I only wanted to be allowed to read.
I knew this ambition, if that is the proper word, to be outrageous and unheard of. It was also practically impossible. The school at Wappinger Falls, a survival from the days of compulsory attendance and an object of doubt in the eyes of the taxpayers, taught as little as possible as quickly as possible. Parents needed the help of their children to survive or to build up a small reserve in the illusory hope of buying free of indenture. Both my mother and my teachers looked askance at my longing to persist past an age when my contemporaries were making themselves economically useful.
Nor, even supposing I had the fees, could the shabby, fusty Academy at Poughkeepsie--originally designed for the education of the well-to-do--provide what I wanted. Not that I was clear at all as to just what this was; I only knew that commercial arithmetic, surveying, or any of the other subjects taught there, were not the answer to my desires.
There was certainly no money for any college. Our position had grown slowly worse; my father talked of selling the smithy and indenting. My dreams of Harvard or Yale were as idle as Father's of making a good crop and getting out of debt. Nor did I know then, as I was to find out later, that the colleges were increasingly provincialized and decayed, contrasting painfully with the flourishing universities of the Confederacy and Europe. The average man asked what the United States needed colleges for anyway; those who attended them only learned discontent and to question time-honored institutions. Constant scrutiny of the faculties, summary firing of all instructors suspected of abnormal ideas, did not seem to improve the situation or raise the standards of teaching.
My mother, now that I was getting beyond the switching age, lectured me firmly and at length on idleness and self-indulgence. "It's a hard world, Hodge, and no one's going to give you anything you don't earn. Your father's an easygoing man; too easygoing for his own good, but he always knows where his duty lies."
"Yes, ma'am," I responded politely, not quite seeing what she was driving at.
"Hard, honest work--that's the only thing. Not hoping or wishing or thinking miracles will happen to you. Work hard and keep yourself free. Don't depend on circumstances or other people, and don't blame them for your own shortcomings. Be your own man. That's the only way you'll ever be where you want to."
She spoke of responsibility and duty as though they were measurable quantities, but the gentler parts of such equations, the factors of affection and pity, were never mentioned. I don't want to give the impression that ours was a particularly puritanical family; I know our neighbors had of necessity much the same grim outlook. But I felt guiltily vulnerable, not merely on the score of wanting more schooling, but because of something else which would have shocked my mother beyond forgiveness.
My early tussles with Mary McCutcheon had the natural consequences, but she had found me a too-youthful partner and had taken her interests elsewhere. For my part I now turned to Agnes Jones, a suddenly alluring young woman grown from the skinny kid I'd always brushed away. Agnes sympathized with my aspirations and encouraged me most pleasantly. However, her spe-cific plans for my future were limited to marrying her and helping her father on his farm, which seemed no great advance over what I could look forward to at home.
And there I was certainly no asset; I ate three hearty meals a day and occupied a bed. I was conscious of the looks and smiles which followed me. A great lout of seventeen, too lazy to do a stroke of work, always wandering around with his head in the clouds or lying with his nose stuck in a book. Too bad; and the Backmakers such industrious folk, too. I could feel what the shock of my behavior with Agnes added to my idleness would be to my mother.
Yet I was neither depraved nor very different from the other youths of Wappinger Falls, who not only took their pleasures where they found them, but often more forcibly than persuasively. I did not analyze it fully or clearly, but I was at least to some extent aware of the essentially loveless atmosphere around me. The rigid convention of late marriages bred an exaggerated respect for chastity which had two sides: sisters' and daughters' honor was sternly avenged with no protest from society, and undiscovered seduction produced that much more gratification. But both retribution and venery were somewhat mechanical; they were the expected rather than the inescapable passions. Revivalists--and we country people had a vast fondness for those itinerants who came periodically to castigate us for our sins--denounced our laxity and pointed to the virtues of our grandparents and great-grandparents. We accepted their advice with such modifications as suited us, which was not at all what they intended.
And this was how I took my mother's admonition to be my own man. What debts I owed her and my father seemed best discharged by relieving them of the burden of my keep, since I was clearly not fitting myself to reverse the balance. The notion that there was an emotional obligation on either side hardly occurred to me; I doubt if it did to them. Toward Agnes Jones I felt no debt at all.
A few months after my seventeenth birthday I packed my three most cherished books in my good white cotton shirt and, having bade a most romantic good-bye to Agnes, one which would certainly have consummated her hopes had her father come upon us, I left Wappinger Falls and set out for New York.