- Historic Sites
A Michigan Boyhood
SECOND OF FOUR INSTALLMENTS A FAMOUS HISTORIAN RECALLS THE COUNTRY WHERE HE GREW UP
April 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 3
In 1909 our family moved into Mills Cottage, which the academy had built after East Hall burned down; it was the girls’ dormitory and the central dining hall, and it provided living quarters for the principal of the academy, who was my father. When I went out of the back door of this building, I was less than one hundred yards away from what I could easily imagine to be the deep woods—second-growth timber, half a century old or more, its beeches and maples tall and robust enough to give any small boy the feeling that he had gone far into the untracked wilderness. The equipment needed for a venture of this kind was of the simplest. Take an old broomstick, and to one end nail a slim triangle of wood, suitably whittled; you then have a Kentucky rifle, as good as anything Daniel Boone had; and if you can get a fragment of an abandoned cigar box and cut out something vaguely resembling a trigger and hammer, and fasten it loosely to the breech of this weapon with a brad, so much the better. All you have to do is crook your finger and say “Bang! ” loudly, and you have killed a moose, or a grizzly bear, or a redskin.
If you preferred to be an Indian, the same shooting iron would serve. There were enough dead sticks lying around in the wood lot to build a wigwam, and if the wigwam was not weatherproof and was so small that you had to huddle in a cramping squat when you got inside of it, that did not matter; when it rained you went back in the house anyway, and besides the wigwam was just part of the stage setting. As an Indian, of course, you were never shot by Daniel Boone; instead, you shot him, and with a wooden knife whittled out of any stray piece of a packing box you could dash in and lift his scalp. You could not have a real campfire. The woods floor was carpeted with dead leaves, drv and ready to burn, and nobody who grew up in the lumber country needed to be warned about the danger of starting a forest fire. But a campfire was not really necessary.
A pal sometimes joined me in this game, and we found that it was best if we were both on the same side—that is, each of us was an Indian, or each was a frontiersman, and our foes were wholly imaginary. Splitting up and hunting each other usually led to arguments about who had really shot whom, and the game was likely to break up in a row. Also, it was easier to scalp a victim who did not really exist than it was to scalp a living, active small boy. He was apt to complain that you pulled his hair too hard, and there was always the danger of sticking a wooden scalping knife in his eye. On the whole, it was better to be Indians than to be frontiersmen; we had an excuse to yell, giving the bloodcurdling war whoop, and off in the woods there were no adults to lean out of windows and tell us we were making too much noise. We had the world to ourselves.
Now and then we fought the Civil War. The voods were not so good for this, unless we elected to do the battle of The Wilderness, but there was a twelve-acre park, officially the academy’s West Campus, and it was open enough for any battle. It was not possible to do the Civil War properly with just two actors; at least half a dozen were needed, and it was not always possible to find half a dozen boys who all felt like playing the Civil War game at the same time. We got along without officers, because nobody was willing to take orders, and the enemy of course was always imaginary. We were invariably the Union Army, and we never lost. Johnny Reb died by the platoon and the battalion before our unerring musketry. One of the town’s authentic Civil War veterans told us that our village cemetery, off on rising ground to the southeast, was quite a bit like the famous cemetery at Gettysburg; it looked out over the rolling countryside just as the Gettysburg cemetery does, and the main road that came up from the south went past the base of the hill much like the Emmitsburg road that Fickett’s men had to cross. But we never went to the cemetery to fight our battles. Our parents would not have approved of boyish fun and games around the burying ground, and we probably would not have tried it in any case. It was a pleasant, friendly sort of cemetery —if you have to be buried I can’t think of a better place for it —but it was not a site any of us wanted to use as a playground.
The game that got most of our attention was baseball, which we played with great enthusiasm and a considerable lack of skill. We were under a special handicap here. Because our town was so small, it was never possible to create two full teams of small boys. When we “chose up sides” we did well to get half a dozen players on each team, and to play with three infielders and one outfielder was not uncommon. Only the fact that none of us could hit the ball very hard kept us from rolling up tremendous scores. For the most part we did not try to field two teams. We just played scrub. Scrub was played by one team; and if there were as many as six or seven boys present, you could have a game in which it was each player against the universe. Everybody got a turn at bat, and in the end—which was when we got tired of the game—the boy with the most runs was the winner.