- Historic Sites
Last Of Four Installments A Michigan Boyhood
A FAMOUS HISTORIAN RECALLS THE COUNTRY WHERE HE GREW UP
August 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 5
North of the business district, if that is the name for it, were the academy grounds, and on all sides there were little roads and lanes lined with residences. Residential lots tended to be large, most of them had their own vegetable gardens, and in a good many cases there was a small barn behind the house; not a barn as a farmer would understand the term, but a sort of shed big enough to shelter a horse or a cow, with room for a buggy, a tiny loft for hay, and a storeroom for harness, gardening tools, and odds and ends of equipment that were just a little too good to throw away. The gardens were important. We always had one, even when we lived in one of the academy buildings, and in summer our evening meal usually consisted of sweet corn and ripe tomatoes, with perhaps some applesauce and cake for dessert. I don’t think I have ever tasted anything better in my life. Corn and tomatoes taken from the garden less than an hour before they appeared on the table had a flavor that today’s city dweller cannot even imagine.
For several years we kept a cow, quartering it in somebody’s back-yard barn in the village and taking it out to pasture in a lot on the edge of town. To Robert, and then to me, fell the task of caring for this beast, and it was a task I did not enjoy. I did not so much mind the actual milking, but leading the cow ofT to pasture in the morning, collecting it in the evening, and going through the ritual of cleaning the stable, getting hay in the manger, spreading straw for bedding, and hoisting buckets of water for the cow to drink did not appeal to me in the least. I do recall one morning when I was taking this creature down a remote lane to its pasture. I had seen, somewhere, an improbable picture of a rosy-cheeked Dutch girl tending a cow, and she had posed prettily with one arm around the cow’s neck; it had looked most picturesque, and so—nobody being anywhere about —I thought I would try it myself. The result was not good. My coat was covered with fine hairs, I smelled of cow all day long, and the beast stepped on my foot. We were on a lane that was ankle-deep in soft sand, or I would have had some broken bones. I never again tried to pose with a cow, and to this day I approve of cows only at a distance. It occurs to me that some of my worst moments have come when I was trying to strike an attitude.
One of the pleasantest holidays of the year was Memorial Day, universally known then as Decoration Day because it was the day when you went out to the cemetery and decorated graves. This day of course belonged to the Civil War veterans, although as years passed it more and more became a day to put flowers on the grave of any loved one who had died, and when it came just about everyone in town went to the cemetery with a basket of lilacs. Lilacs grow like weeds in our part of the country, and most farmers planted a long row of lilacs as windbreaks around their houses; in town almost every house had lilacs in the yard, and in late May the scent of them lay on the breeze. To this day I never see lilac blossoms without remembering those Decoration Day observances of long ago.
The Civil War veterans were men set apart. On formal occasions they wore blue uniforms with brass buttons and black campaign hats, by the time I knew them most of them had long gray beards, and whatever they may have been as young men they had an unassuming natural dignity in old age. They were pillars, not so much of the church (although most of them were devout communicants) as of the community; the keepers of its patriotic traditions, the living embodiment, so to speak, of what it most deeply believed about the nation’s greatness and high destiny.
They gave an especial flavor to the life of the village. Years ago they had marched thousands of miles to legendary battlefields, and although they had lived half a century since then in our quiet backwater all anyone ever thought of was that they had once gone to the ends of the earth and seen beyond the farthest horizon. There was something faintly pathetic about these lonely old men who lived so completely in the past that they had come to see the war of their youth as a kind of lost golden age, but as small boys we never saw the pathos. We looked at these men in blue, existing in pensioned security, honored and respected by all, moving past the mounded graves with their little flags and their heaps of lilacs, and we were in awe of them. Those terrible names out of the history books—Gettysburg, Shiloh, Stone’s River, Cold Harbor—came alive through these men. They had been there … and now they stood by the little G.A.R. monument in the cemetery and listened to the orations and the prayers and the patriotic songs, and to watch them was to be deeply moved.