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A Michigan Boyhood
THIRD OF FOUR INSTALLMENTS A FAMOUS HISTORIAN RECALLS THE COUNTRY WHERE HE GREW UP
June 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 4
The early teens are a hard time to live through, but not for the reason that is usually cited. The arrival of adolescence, with its physical changes and its abrupt disclosure that life has an unexpected dimension, is not really so bad. It is unsettling, of course, to realize that half of the world belongs to an entirely different sex, and some of the entrancing possibilities that derive from this can dance and shimmer along the skyline in a rather disturbing way, but the adjustment is usually made without too much difficulty and the mystified expectancy that results is on the whole quite pleasant. The real trouble is that for a few years one is lost between boyhood and manhood. The present hardly exists, and there is no past; nothing but the future matters, and although it is so close that it dominates the mind it seems very far away. Until it actually arrives one is marking time, and it is possible to get bored doing it.
You never know where the road is going to fork. That summer of 1912 Father read to us certain magazine articles by a political expert, Samuel G. Blythe, dealing with the Republican National Convention in Chicago, at which Theodore Roosevelt felt boxed-in and moved out to run for the Presidency as nominee of his own Bull Moose Party. Father was a consecrated Roosevelt man, and he read Blythe’s analyses of the situation with a deep interest that rubbed off on me. Finishing one of these articles, Father remarked that these reporters certainly did get around, see interesting things, and dig up interesting facts, and apparently the remark took root in my mind. A year or two later I spent several hours a day, during the summer vacation, working for a retired minister who had a little chicken farm on the edge of town, and during a pause in the work the old gentleman turned to me and asked: “What are you going to make of yourself when you grow up, Bruce?” As far as I can remember I had not consciously made any choice, but now that the question was asked I replied unhesitatingly: “I am going tobe a journalist.” I finally did, too—although I must say that that was the only time in my life that I ever applied the word journalist to myself. I have never known a newspaperman who uses it. Anyway, I had made up my mind. Whether I would ever have gone in that direction if Father had not read those Samuel G. Blythe stories and made the comment he did make, I have no idea. Maybe the moral is that fathers ought to be very careful what they say to growing sons.
If I had made up my mind at such an early age I did not know it for quite a time. Indeed, there was a period—during which I must have been a great trial to my elders—in which I imagined that I was going to be a violinist.
It was not as if I had any especial talent. I liked music, I had a sensitive ear, and the sounds that can be drawn from a violin stirred me deeply, so when I was asked if I would like to take violin lessons I said I would like it very much; but of the deep, instinctive, all-consuming response a born musician makes at such a time I had not a trace. I wanted to play the violin, but it was never something that I wanted more than I wanted anything else. The music world lost nothing of any consequence when in the course of time I let the dream die and went off in another direction.
Still, some sort of desire was present. Underneath everything else, I suppose, was the notion that a violinist was a romantic figure. I wanted to be a violinist in much the same way that I wanted to be a locomotive engineer, a cavalry officer, or a star pitcher for the Detroit Tigers. I needed to see myself performing to the admiration of everyone, including myself, in some very public place. These other roles were clearly beyond my reach, but apparently the violinist bit was attainable—and after all a concert hall was just as fine a stage as a locomotive cab, a battlefield, or a big-league ball park. So for a number of years I nursed the idea that I was destined to be a musician. I never really took the dream very seriously, but it was a nice thing to play with. It gave me a fine role to enact in the theatre of the imagination. I noticed also that some of the loveliest academy girls used to listen, all entranced, with a faraway look, when they heard the right kind of music.
The facilities for developing a virtuoso in Benzonia were limited. There was an estimable lady in town, a Mrs. Planner, who gave violin and piano lessons, and I was entrusted to her care. She did her best with me, but I had not progressed much beyond the sawing-andscraping stage when she moved away and my training lapsed. Then, just as my parents were saying that it was a shame I could not go on with my music, Mr. Bucholz came to town.