A Michigan Boyhood
THIRD OF FOUR INSTALLMENTS A FAMOUS HISTORIAN RECALLS THE COUNTRY WHERE HE GREW UP
June 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 4
My father became principal of Benzonia Academy in 1906, and he fitted in perfectly. At a time when the state as a whole was waging war on the visible surrounding wilderness, this little school saw itself as waging war on the wilderness of ignorance, whose tangled undergrowth was also visible out in the clearings the lumbermen were creating. The sense of mission was powerful. The forests were being destroyed for a purpose: so that men and women could have better lives after the forests had been removed. That the physical obstacles to achievement were being taken away was interesting but not particularly important. What mattered was to teach men and women that the obstacles to their mental and spiritual development could be destroyed. Man had control of his future, but that control did not in the least depend on improved machinery or mechanical progress. According to Holy Writ, the kingdom of Heaven lay within; a man who hoped to enter the kingdom had to blaze a trail through his own heart, and to do that was the whole point of human existence.
It sounds quaint and faraway, now. To suppose that man’s real antagonist is himself rather than his environment is to turn workaday standards upside down. We know how to conquer the environment—or at least we would if it would just stay conquered, once beaten—but how do you defeat that inner antagonist? With education, transmitted by an uneducated man through a school that had not a tenth of the resources it needed? At this distance that seems an odd way to build the road to the future. Yet the desperate and dangerous chaos of today is the future toward which men seventy years ago were moving. Perhaps the road actually chosen was a trifle odd, too.
Looking back, I sometimes wonder that I never learned more about my father’s early years; the full story would be interesting, if I had it, but I never asked him about it. He was a warm-hearted man, but somehow he was out of my reach; our relationship was slightly Biblical, and I was very much in awe of him. I once mentioned this to one of my uncles, and he expressed surprise; my father, he said, was one of the friendliest, most approachable men he had ever known, and I remember that Mother once remarked that Father was an extremely easy man to live with. Certainly I remember our home as a place without tension, where there was a good deal of laughter. But there it was; there was some kind of cutoff.
Long after his death, when I asked men who had known him to tell me what sort of man he was, almost all of them began by saying that he had a quiet but highly alert sense of humor. One man told how he and Father once walked down a street in Grand Rapids and came up behind two women, one of whom was saying that she had never in her life seen a really bald man. At this moment Father and his friend swung out to walk past this pair. Father said not a word and looked neither right nor left, but as they got in front of the two he removed his derby hat and held it over his breast in the manner of a good patriot saluting the flag, thereby exposing one of the shiniest bald heads in Christendom, all agleam in the afternoon sunlight. There were gasps and muffled sounds of laughter from the ladies, but Father paid no attention. He never talked about it afterward, but he had to listen a good many times while his friend told the story, and each time Father would chuckle quietly.
He played for chuckles rather than guffaws, and I think he usually meant to amuse himself rather than others. He savored small jokes, and he liked men who made him laugh when they did not mean to—like the acquaintance who sold a thriving small-town restaurant and retired to a lonely farm on the far side of Crystal Lake. Father asked him why he had done this when the restaurant was doing so well, and the man replied: “Mr. Catton, I just got tired of eternally cantering to the public.” When Father travelled about our county his life was brightened by the roadside signs that had been painted to advertise a store in the neighboring town of Honor. The store was owned by a man named Case—brother to our local speedboat man—and he had hired a man to go about daubing the words “Try A. B. Case” in all suitable spots. Unfortunately the man was a Pennsylvania Dutchman who spelled words the way he pronounced them, and for years the fence rails and wayside boulders for miles around bore the legend: “Dry A. B. Case.”
Father was easily amused. Now and then at the dinner table, after he had asked the Lord’s blessing and had taken up carving knife and fork to serve, he would discover that someone had forgotten to put on any dinner plates. He would look at Mother, very serious, and say: “My dear, since I’ve been sick I find that I can’t serve without plates.” Once in a while when we set the table one of my brothers or I would intentionally leave the plates in the pantry just to evoke this remark. It never failed. I suppose it was pretty feeble, but it helped to lubricate things. Our village barber, John Whiteman, was divorced and remarried, and a young woman who taught at the academy told Father not long after her arrival that at some church social she had met two women each of whom was presented as Mrs. Whiteman: were they, she asked, related? Father took it in his stride. “Only by marriage,” he replied.