August 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 5
A FAMOUS HISTORIAN RECALLS THE COUNTRY WHERE HE GREW UP
We lived in Indian summer and mistook it for spring. Winter lay ahead just when we thought June was on the way. The school, the town, and the people connected with both were coming to an end that seemed to be a beginning. They had been created by an era that was closing, and nothing like them would ever exist again because what had brought them forth was gone; yet twilight at the end of the day looks much as it does at the dawn unless you watch the shadows move, and for a little while time stood still. The shadows were not coming down the slope. They would dissolve when the sun rose, and the future—when it appeared: there was no hurryabout it—would wear a familiar image. What we were going to be was determined by what had gone before. We accepted the unbreakable continuity of the society that had produced us.
That continuity, although we did not realize it, was already breaking apart. We knew of course that changes were taking place. The forests were gone, and all around us the little towns were falling into a long decline. The farms that had appeared so hopefully on the hills and in the wide flat valleys were going the same way. One by one—indeed, ten by ten, if anyone had bothered to count—they were going back to brambles and sumac. The section that had found it worthwhile to support us was becoming less and less able to carry the load. School and town had been built to provide a light in the wilderness, but now the wilderness was gone. We understood that there would have to be some readjustments.
But we hardly doubted that the readjustments would be made. Much had been invested, worth nothing at a sheriff’s sale, worth everything to the investors: hard work, sacrifice, courage, and the wavering dreams that make a barren life tolerable because they reach out to something better beyond the high ground ahead. It was not possible that all of these could be wasted. Somehow, someway, all that had been done would justify itself. The light that had been lit on our hilltop could not be allowed to go out just because the surrounding darkness was gone. It would still be needed to light a path for the feet of men not yet taught to lift their eyes to the sky. We never bothered to formulate this faith. We just had it.
It was easy to feel this way because Benzonia’s concerns were small—small enough to fit into the deepest recesses of the human heart—and its history was uneventful. The individual might have his own pack of grief, suffering, and shattered hopes to carry as he clambered up the long stairway, but the community as a whole knew contentment. A less worried place probably did not exist anywhere. We were isolated from the rest of the world, and the isolation was pleasant. The happenings that tug at the memory today were small happenings.
The town was essentially a crossroads settlement, with a cluster of wooden business buildings rising where the north-south road intersected the main road from west to east. There were three general stores, a meat market, a bank, a barbershop, a post office, a drugstore, and a blacksmith shop, and for a time there was a run-down hotel that hardly ever had any guests.
The blacksmith shop was interesting, although the blacksmith did not like to have small boys hanging around. He was important to us, however, because if we found any bits of old iron he would buy them from us, and so he was an occasional source of pennies; we had no pocket money whatever, and to get two or three cents was to become rich. Money thus obtained was almost always spent on candy at Simon McDonald’s general store. We felt that Mr. McDonald gave more for a penny than the other stores did, and he sold an odd confection of peanut butter coated with chocolate that came three for a penny and was highly enjoyed. This store, by the way, was like the country store of tradition. Toward the rear there was an open space in front of the counter, with a wood-burning stove surrounded by chairs where men sat and smoked corncob pipes and discussed matters of state; I believe there was even a cracker barrel in connection.
Mr. McDonald, a remarkably genial, easygoing man, enjoyed the distinction of being just about the only Democrat in town. Ours was a devoutly Republican community, and when the village went for Theodore Roosevelt in the 1912 election it felt mildly guilty about it. During the 1912 campaign all of us boys wore party campaign buttons pinned to our shirts, and the only Woodrow Wilson buttons I remember seeing were those worn by Mr. McDonald’s two sons, Douglas and Dwight. They lived just across the road from us, and we were very good friends, and I used to tease them about those buttons: why wear the emblems of a sure loser? They got even, with accrued interest, when the election returns came in; and sometime next spring Mr. McDonald was duly appointed Benzonia’s postmaster. Everybody agreed that this was no more than right; Mr. McDonald was universally liked, and the political spoils system was accepted without question.
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.
In their final years the G.A.R. men quietly faded away. Their story had been told and retold, affectionate tolerance was beginning to take the place of respectful awe, and in Europe there was a new war that by its sheer incomprehensible magnitude seemed to dwarf that earlier war we knew so well. One by one the old men went up to that sun-swept hilltop to sleep beneath the lilacs, and as they departed we began to lose more than we knew we were losing. For these old soldiers, simply by existing, had unfailingly expressed the faith we lived by; not merely a faith learned in church, but something that shaped us as we grew up. We could hardly have put it into words, and it would not have occurred to us to try, but we oriented our lives to it and if disorientation lay ahead of us it would come very hard. It was a faith in the continuity of human experience, in the progress of the nation toward an ideal, in the ability of men to come triumphantly through any challenge. That faith lived, and we lived by it.
The school year began late in September, and it always seemed to me that then the town came to life. The youngsters returned from the distant outside world, and our own world was complete again. There were old friends to be greeted, and new faces to be learned; there were not very many in either group, because the school after all was extremely small, but a pattern that seemed as timeless as the march of the seasons was resumed. The clanging of the academy bell, morning and evening, marked the familiar rhythm. It had always been like this—a decade and a half can be “always,” to a teen-ager—and it would go on like this forever.
Yet there was an odd quality to that fall of 1915, when I began my final year in the academy. It was as if I stood aside, now and then, and watched the scene of which I was a part. The scene itself was permanent (as I supposed) but I myself was a transient, and suddenly I began to realize it. Boyhood was gone and youth itself would soon be over, and full manhood lay not far ahead. I was both impatient and reluctant. The eggshell was about to break, and although I wanted this to happen I was not sure that I was quite ready for it. It seemed important to get the last bit of flavor out of each moment, if only for the reason that nothing like this was ever going to happen again.
We had an acute sense of the impermanence of the present, and a haunting understanding that we were living for a time in a strange borderland between the real and the unreal, without enough knowledge of the country to tell one from the other. The daily routine, in study hall and classroom, was real enough, certainly; but so was the great flood of moonlight that sometimes lay on the countryside at night, turning the plain gravel road south into a white highway that wound through enchanted meadows across hills that might not be there at all when daylight returned. The reality of daily routine was going to vanish in a little while, and then it would be no more tangible than the neverland that bordered the moonlit roadway. Would memory be any more reliable than imagination? When both are forever out of reach, does what you once were count for more than what you once thought you might be? We live in dreams, and while we can we might as well make them pleasant ones.
Mostly they were. Yet there was something about our north country (or maybe it was something about me) that issued disquieting warnings now and then. There was the great emptiness off to the north, thousands of miles of it, with the cold tang of the ice age in the air; to the south was the land of the Mound Builders, whose best efforts produced nothing more than unobtrusive little scars on the earth; and all about us were the bleak acres of stumps, the dying towns, and the desolate farms that were being given up, discards in a game where most of the players had lost. Now and again these things demanded thought.
There was for instance one January morning that winter when Lewis Stoneman and I went sailing on skates. I do not know whether anyone does that nowadays, but it was quite a thing at the time and we had read about it in some magazine. You took thin strips of wood and made an oblong frame, about four feet long by three feet wide, added a couple of cross braces for stiffening and for handholds, and covered the frame with a piece of discarded bed sheet cut to size. Then you went to the ice, put on your skates, held the frame in front of you, and let the wind take charge. I talked about this with Lewis, who was a student at the academy and was for some reason known as Yutch, and it sounded like fun. We built the frames in the basement of Father’s house, talked Mother into giving us a frayed old sheet, tacked pieces of it to the wood, got our skates, and one Saturday went down to Crystal Lake to see about it.
We were in luck. The lake had frozen late, that winter, and although the countryside was covered with snow there was little or none on the ice, which was smooth and clear as plate glass. Skating conditions were perfect, the sun was bright, the bare ice was like polished steel, and there was a brisk wind from the east—which was fine, because we were at the eastern end of the lake and the open ice stretched away to the west for more than eight miles. We put on our skating shoes, knotted the laces of our regular shoes together and hung them about our necks, got out on the frozen lake, held the sails in front of us, and took off.
The wind really was rather strong, blowing steadily and without gusts, and it filled our sails and took us down the lake at what seemed a fabulous speed. We had never moved so fast on skates before—had not imagined that it was possible to move so fast—and it was all completely effortless. All we had to do was stand erect, hold on to our sails, and glide away; it was like being a hawk, soaring effortlessly above the length of a ridge on an updraft of air, and it felt more like flying than anything that ever happened to me, later on in life, in an airplane.
Neither one of us knew anything at all about sailing. To tack, or even to go on a broad reach, was entirely beyond us; we had to go where the wind blew us, and that was that, and now and then I was uneasily aware that skating back against the wind, by sheer leg power, was going to be hard. However, there would be time enough to worry about that later. For the moment it was enough to soar along like thistledown, carried by the wind. The whole world had been made for our enjoyment. The sky was unstained blue, with little white clouds dropping shadows now and then to race along with us, the hills that rimmed the lake were white with snow, gray and blue with bare tree trunks, clear gold in places where the wind had blown the snow away from sandy bluffs, the sun was a friendly weight on our shoulders, the wind was blowing harder and we were going faster than ever, and there was hardly a sound anywhere. I do not believe I have ever felt more completely in tune with the universe than I felt that morning on Crystal Lake. It was friendly. All of its secrets were good.
Then, quite suddenly, came awakening. We had ridden the wind for six miles or more, and we were within about two miles of the western end of the lake; and we realized that not far ahead of us there was a broad stretch of sparkling, dazzling blue running from shore to shore, flecked with picturesque whitecaps—open water. It was beautiful, but it carried the threat of sudden death. The lake had not been entirely frozen, after all. Its west end was clear, and at the rate we were going we would reach the end of ice in a very short time. The lake was a good hundred feet deep there, the water was about one degree warmer than the ice itself, and the nearest land—wholly uninhabited in the dead of winter—was a mile away. Two boys dropped into that would never get out alive.
There was also a change in the ice beneath us. It was transparent, and the water below was black as a starless midnight; the ice had become thin, it was flexible, sagging a little under our weight, giving out ominous creakings and crackling sounds, and only the fact that we kept moving saved us from breaking through. It was high time, in short, for us to get off that lake.
Yutch saw it at the same moment I did. We both pointed, and yelled, and then we made a ninety-degree turn to the left and headed for the southern shore. If we had known how to use our sails properly the wind would have taken us there, but we knew nothing about that. All we could think of was to skate for the shore with all speed, and those sails were just in the way. We dropped them incontinently, and we never saw them again, and we made a grotesque race of it for safety, half skating and half running. We came at last to the packed floe ice over the shallows, galloped clumsily across it, reached the snow-covered beach, and collapsed on a log to catch our breath and to talk in awed tones about our escape.
We got home, eventually, somewhere along toward dusk. We at first thought we would skate back, but the wind was dead against us and skating into it seemed likely to be harder than walking along the shore; and besides we had had all of the lake we wanted for that day. We put on our other shoes and plodded cross-country through the snow, three miles to Frankfort, at which place, the afternoon train having left, we got a liverystable rig to take us to Benzonia. (I am not sure Father altogether appreciated having to pay the liveryman the required two dollars; he earned his dollars the hard way, and he never had very many of them. However, he paid up without a whimper.) We got home in time for supper—we ate that evening at Mother’s table, and not in the academy dining hall—and when we were warm and full and rested we found that we had a great tale to tell, and told it, leaving my parents no doubt wondering just how much youthful exaggeration the tale contained. Actually, we had not so much as got our feet wet, and our escape had not been quite as narrow as we believed, but we had had an authentic glimpse over the rim and we did not like what we had seen; although, now that it was all over, it was fun to talk about it.
Yet the whole business cut a hard groove in my mind. I found after a while that I did not really want to talk about it. I did not even want to think about it, but I could not help myself. What I had seen through the transparent bending ice seemed to be nothing less than the heart of darkness. It was not just my own death that had been down there; it was the ultimate horror, lying below all life, kept away by something so fragile that it could break at any moment. Everything we did or dreamed or hoped for had this just beneath it. …
It all happened a great many years ago, and distance puts a deceptive haze on things remembered. As I look back on my final year in the academy I seem to recall the brief spring of 1916 as a time when life was extremely pleasant and singularly uneventful. The cataract might lie just ahead, but at the moment the river was lazy, without eddies or ripples. Europe was a long way off, and the echoes from its war reached us faintly, unreal and haunting, like the cries Canada geese make when they circle over Crystal Lake in the autumn, lining up the order of flight for their southbound squadrons. It was undeniable, of course, that we would very soon leave our little campus and go to whatever was waiting for us in the outside world, but that knowledge simply added a vibrant expectancy to life. Everything imaginable was going to happen very soon, but right at the moment nothing whatever was happening; if the time of waiting was almost over, its final moments had an uncommon flavor. Although we knew that we ought to think long and hard about what we were going to do, once the spring ripened into Commencement Week and then sent us off into unguided summer, most of the time we were quite undisturbed. The present moment was like a sixmeasure rest that had been mysteriously inserted into the score just as the composition was supposed to be coming to its climax.
Naturally, when I try to recall that time I remember hardly anything specific. I remember the spring sunlight lying on the campus, and the little academy buildings taking on dignity and looking as if they were going to be there forever—which, alas, they were not; I remember the band practice, and the orchestra practice, and the long, aimless walks we took on Sundays, tramping off the last vestiges of childhood, seeing things for the last time without realizing that it was the last time, unaware that once you leave youth behind, you see everything with different eyes and thereby make the world itself different. We would go across country to the power dam on the Betsie River, or along the shore of Crystal Lake to the outlet; and sometimes we went down the long hill to Beulah and then crossed the low ground to go up Eden Hill, a big shoulder of land that defined the horizon to the east … Eden Hill and Beulah Land, named by godly settlers for the Paradise where the human race got into the world and the Paradise it will enter when it goes out of it; or so people believed, although we lived then in the present moment and asked for no Paradise beyond what we had then and there.
From the summit of Eden Hill you could look far to the north and west, across the Platte Lakes to the limitless blue plain of Lake Michigan, with Sleeping Bear crouched, watchful, in the distance and the Manitou Islands on the skyline. Beyond the green wooded country to the east, hidden by the rolling easy ridges, was the little lumber town of Honor, and if we felt like making a really long walk out of it we could go on over to Honor, walk around the mill and its piled logs—they were still carving up some last allotment of first-growth wood there, although most of the county’s mills were stilled—and then we could tramp the long miles home by way of Champion’s Hill. This was a plateau which had been named half a century earlier by some Civil War veterans who made farms there; they had served in Sherman’s corps in the Vicksburg campaign and something about the shape of this land reminded them of a great battlefield in that campaign and so they had put this Mississippi name in the heart of northern Michigan as a reminder of what they had seen and done. And we youngsters walked across it, all unthinking, on our way home to Sunday night supper.
Spring is a short haul in our part of Michigan, and we were kept fairly busy once the snow was gone making preparation for the exercises that would attend our graduation, which would be a great moment. For all that it was so small, Benzonia Academy crowded Commencement Week as full of events as the State University itself; and the graduating class was so small—just eleven of us, when fully mustered—that everybody had something to do. Which reminds me that by ancient custom, running back fully five years, the graduating class was supposed to present a play as the final event of its academic life. Our class elected to do something called “Peg o’ My Heart,” and of course nobody in the class had a vestige of acting ability, but somehow we got through the thing alive.
I remember practically nothing about the performance except that I was the leading man and, as such, was called upon by the script to kiss the leading woman, who was a most attractive classmate, just as the final curtain came down. Miss Ellis, who was directing the performance, made it clear that it would not be necessary or even permissible actually to kiss the girl; I could lay my hands gently upon her shoulders and incline my head slowly, and the curtain then would descend rapidly and action could be broken off with no casualties. I do recall that when the great night came and this portentous moment arrived we discarded Miss Ellis’ instructions completely. I walked the girl home afterward so bedazzled by all that had happened that I was unable to muster the nerve to try to kiss her again. I think this puzzled her slightly, although I do not believe that she felt that she had missed anything much. Now that I think of it, she was the only member of the class I ever did kiss, it took what amounted to a convulsion of nature to bring that about, and there was no repeat performance. I suppose I was born for other things.
Fittingly enough, the class play was presented after all of the actors and actresses had ceased to be students at the academy. We were graduates, possessed of diplomas, the formal commencement exercises having taken place that morning, and technically we were out in the world on our own. I suppose I never would have kissed the leading lady if I had not realized that as a graduate I was no longer bound by Miss Ellis’ instructions forbidding bodily contact. The commencement exercises had been painfully dignified, and whatever they may have meant to the audience I myself felt that they had been highly edifying. When I finally left the church, holding my rolled-up diploma like a field marshal’s baton, I was full of high resolves and conscious rectitude, and I looked upon life from a loftier plane than I have ever occupied since.
This was all most impressive, and I recall the mood that possessed me as an odd blend of exaltation and humility; I knew so much, and I knew so little, and the world which I was about to enter did seem to be exceedingly complicated and unknowable. But above everything else it looked exciting. My time at the railway junction was ending, the morning limited was coming in and I was about to get aboard, and although I had no idea where it was finally going to take me I at least knew that everything was going to be very different from this time forward. The big adventure was beginning, even though I started it, I must admit, by walking down the hill to Beulah and going to work as a waiter-on-tables in the summer hotel there.
If I was marching forth to high adventure then, I had to begin by marking time. I was going to go to college; that had been determined long ago, and by virtue of a little money saved, more money borrowed, and arrangements to work for board and room once college was reached, everything was all set. But I could not go to college until the middle of September and this was only the middle of June, to spend the summer in idleness was inadmissible, and inasmuch as the job at the hotel would permit me to sleep at home while the hotel provided me with three meals every day, I could save almost every penny the waiter’s job would bring in. So—down the hill, into the kitchen, on with the white coat and apron, and this is how you carry a loaded tray through a crowded dining room without dropping things on people’s heads.
It all was most anticlimactic, no doubt, but it did not exactly seem so at the time. I was beginning to be independent, and although the independence was more apparent than real I was at least out of the house from dawn until dusk. If you have never been in control of any fragment of your life, to gain control even over a small part of it can be a heady experience; and to start off on the mile walk at daybreak, swinging down the hill before the town was awake, admiring Crystal Lake and the hills around it as the early light touched them, breathing the air that, essentially, had come drifting all the way down from northern Canada without once touching anything that would defile it, and to reflect while you were doing this that your boyhood at last was over and that every stride was carrying you nearer to man’s estate—well, this was a moving and rewarding experience, even if it was totally undramatic. Life does not always need to be spectacular in order to be exciting.
We worked fairly hard. We were supposed to check in at six in the morning, and although there was a slack hour or two in midmorning and two or three hours that could be taken off in the afternoon we were not through for the day until eight at night, and when the dining room was full—as it usually was, in the middle of the summer—the work was fairly hard. However, it could have been much worse. There was a sort of dormitory, back of the hotel, for such waiters as did not live at home, and in the afternoon we could all go in there, change to bathing suits, and then walk down the lawn to Crystal Lake and take a swim, which was enough to make up for any sort of drudgery. Now and then, on the beach, we would encounter young women who were guests at the hotel, and we could lounge and chat with them, and accompany them into the water, just as if we were not waiters at all.
As a matter of fact girls did not claim much of our attention that summer. We had no time for them, except for those afternoon recess periods, and we usually spent that time swimming, followed by a quick visit to Terpening’s pavilion for ice cream, without bothering to see who was available on the beach. Actually we worked rather hard, seven days a week, and the pay scale began and ended with a weekly wage of five dollars. We were allowed to keep all tips, which helped, but our guests were not lavish in that respect and many of them left no tips at all, so we did not make very much money.
However, we did not really expect to. If we could lay by a few dollars during the summer we were just that much ahead of the game; and besides, at that time and place the going wage for adult labor, unskilled or semiskilled, was fifteen cents an hour. Prices of course were a great deal lower than they are now, but they were never low enough to make that kind of pay scale anything but bad. The men who worked for such wages were getting angry and their anger was becoming visible, even to me. I learned that summer, to my bewilderment, that even our own Benzie county—a bucolic section of the unstained Michigan countryside if ever there was one—had developed quite a number of outright Socialists, and although I occasionally read about Socialists I had not expected actually to see any, especially not this close to home. (They were much in the minority, of course, but their numbers were fairly impressive when the county’s limited population was taken into account.) Men could be seen reading Eugene Debs’s “Appeal to Reason” quite openly; men who lounged on their doorsteps in sweaty undershirts, gnawing at the stems of corncob pipes, not at all the sort of men who went to our church on Sunday to listen to Mr. Mills. It was disturbing to have avowed Socialists right in our midst, and nobody seemed to know what to make of it.
Father would assuredly have had a word for me if I had told him about my state of mind. He was no Socialist, but he knew what these men were angry about and he thought they were right to be angry; in point of fact he was angry too, not because he himself had to work for a genteel-poverty income, but because he believed that greed, oppression, and injustice (visible now and then even in the idyllic forests of Michigan) were threatening to destroy everything that America stood for. Whether he realized it or not, he was looking for a broader field than the principal’s office at Benzonia Academy offered him. He had abundant energy, he could write and speak with genuine eloquence, and he had an eye that could see, and he wanted to use these qualities for something a little more significant than providing artificial respiration for a little school that almost certainly would not survive him. I did not at the time realize that he was going through anything like this.
Father was a dedicated Theodore Roosevelt man, a card-carrying member of the Bull Moose Party. He had campaigned for Roosevelt, on the village and county level, in 1912, and in 1916 he had been elected a delegate to the national convention of the Progressive Party, and down to Chicago he went, to see the great leader in person and get inspiration for the approaching Presidential election.
What he got, of course, was profound disillusionment. Like hundreds of other delegates, he had keyed himself up (in Roosevelt’s own words) to stand at Armageddon and to battle for the Lord, and these were words he could rise to because he was both a devout Roosevelt man and a good Biblical scholar. But the emotional build-up led to nothing but a letdown. Roosevelt was not going to run for President after all, the Progressive Party had served its purpose and would be dismantled; instead of standing at Armageddon, rallying to a great banner held high in a clanging wind, they were to go home quietly, vote for Charles Evans Hughes, and resume their places in the Republican Party which they had spent four years learning to distrust. They had been let down, and it was too much. Father never said much about it, but I am convinced that in the fall of 1916, for the only time in his life, he voted the Democratic ticket. Woodrow Wilson—precise, professorial, full of hard passions but apparently having no zest for living—might seem an unlikely heir for the Bull Moose legacy but he got a lot of Bull Moose votes that fall.
Father brought back from Chicago deep emotions that should have been discharged there and were not, and I think this helped to pull him out of the job he had trained himself for. From the classroom and the pulpit he had fought against ignorance, and against that combination of self-indulgence, ill will, and stupidity that people of his generation called sin, and now it was time to do something else. He had not gone into the Progressive Party just because Roosevelt’s mighty personality had overwhelmed him; he had been headed in that direction for a long time. I suppose he could be called a Populist, although I do not think he would have applied that term to himself, and anyway by this time it has become too vague to mean very much; it is applied nowadays to practically anyone who nourished after 1885, lived west of the Alleghenies, and stood somewhat to the left of Grover Cleveland. An idea of the direction his thoughts had been taking is provided by a Fourth of July speech which he made in some small town in Michigan either in 1906 or 1907.
The speech began conventionally enough by paying tribute to the heroes of 1776 and making proper mention of Lexington, Concord, Saratoga, and Yorktown, but it did not go on to let the eagle scream in the traditional Fourth of July manner. It remarked that we look back on the past in order to find courage and inspiration to face the immediate future and that the Revolutionary War was fought to defend a declaration of principles which became “the rallying cry for the oppressed of every land.” The battles of that war were the battles of all mankind, and the spirit that led men in ’76 would yet be “the vital, potent force that shall astonish and overthrow domestic greed as completely as it once did a foreign tyrant.”
He did not leave “greed” as a vague generality that could mean as much or as little as anyone chose. To the best of his ability he spelled it out; in the manner, to be sure, of the early 1900’s rather than the 1970’s. He was talking about monopoly, about the “spirit of selfish individualism” which inspired monopoly, about the unreachable corporations which practiced “a great system of extortion,” drove prices up under cover of a fraudulent protective tariff, kept wages down by importing whole shiploads of Europe’s “pauper labor” against whose handiwork the tariff was supposed to be an essential bulwark, and used the vast powers of finance to exert an increasing control over the law, the press, and the school in such a way as to make reform almost impossible.
“Whenever a man is found wise enough and brave enough to denounce these archconspirators against the people’s liberties,” he continued, “they accuse him of assailing the sacred rights of property and of being in league with anarchy.” This outcry rallied the “honest respectable element” in every community—the frugal farmer, worker, merchant, and professional man who had worked hard to save a competence for a rainy day—and ironically led them to defend “the very vultures that are gorging upon their vitals.”
This of course was the jargon of old-line Populism, a shotgun charge aimed at the forces whom Roosevelt himself could only denounce as malefactors of great wealth, but there are two things to be said about it. First of all, this was not the spread-eagle Fourth of July bombast with which glib speakers ofthat era prodded at receptive rural patriotism; and beyond that it was an odd way for a small-town schoolmaster to be talking. The man who put that speech together, and then stood in the bandstand of a village park and delivered it before a sunbaked audience that was there half out of curiosity and half out of a sense of duty, was a man with something on his mind and with a determination to have his say about it. Obviously, he believed that he saw something taking America by the throat and threatening to choke out, if not its very life, at least its life-giving spirit.
Feeling so, he believed that to break this grip would be of service to all mankind. He had his full share of that profound conviction which lies so close to the headwaters of the American spirit: the conviction that if in the end the world is saved from disaster the saving will be done in America and by Americans. As a people whose ideas about the cosmos have at least in part an Old Testament base, we have a deep suspicion that we are the chosen people. We may not actually be the ones specifically mentioned in Scripture, but we feel that we are fairly close; maybe Providence made a supplementary choice somewhere along the way. (After all, no less a man than Abraham Lincoln, trying to nerve his countrymen for the shock of civil war, spoke of them as the almost chosen people.) This feeling is in fact one of the most powerful forces in American life, and now and then it leads to interesting happenings. It frequently makes us hard to live with, and it bewilders a great many people—including, often enough, ourselves. For every so often it impels us to take drastic action, and a subconscious belief in mission is not always accompanied by the good sense to make a sound choice of the sort of action that is required. Sometimes we act with wisdom and at other times we do not. The same impulse that led us to destroy Hitler’s obscenely contrived Nibelungen Reich, composed in equal parts of the fantasies of Teutonic chivalry and grisly shapes from the heart of darkness, led us a few years later into Southeast Asia, where we have made obscene contrivances of our own.
But whether we act wisely or foolishly, we always feel that what we do is important to the whole wide world and not just to ourselves, and the responsibility runs all the way down to the conscience of the individual. We are mindful of the text which, telling the chosen ones that they were the salt of the earth, asked what the world would do if the salt ceased to be salty. A man who feels so will make no small decisions. Thus it happens that the elderly principal of an unimportant school in one of the remote parts of the earth, reflecting that time was short and anxious to make good use of the thin years that remained to him, might conclude that he owed to mankind a larger debt than he had yet tried to pay. What he did might mean nothing to anybody in particular, but by what he was and what he believed he would do it as if the fate of the world depended on it. By the end of the summer of 1916, I am sure, Father had made up his mind to leave the academy.
Of all of this I at that time knew nothing. I was thinking about myself, and about the great things that lay ahead of me; the place that had been all the world was about to become nothing more than a receding milestone, growing ever smaller with increasing distance but not really changing. The institution that had shaped me (and in a sense it was simply an extension of my own home) would remain just as it always had been: always, that is, for the last ten or twelve years. Changes that took place would happen to me, not to what I left behind. My background was immutable, and when I finally went off to Oberlin I felt no need to take a fond backward glance.
A college freshman was as far from maturity then as he is today, but it did seem to me that I was just about grown up. Boyhood certainly was ended. Youth indeed remained, to be squandered as blithely as if it came from an inexhaustible fountain, but the mere fact that I could be prodigal of it if I wished made a difference. I felt that by getting to college, exchanging a small campus for a large one, I was being set free.
That was something of an exaggeration, considering the Oberlin of 1916; there were innumerable laws against all known forms of misconduct, and they were enforced with ferocious rigor. Fraternities, for instance, were outlawed; and in that same fall of 1916, just before the college year opened, it was learned that practically the entire football squad had formed, and gave allegiance to, a secret fraternity. The entire football squad, accordingly, was thrown out of college without further ado, and a pickup team that was hastily organized with untaught volunteers, who went nobly forth to slaughter for the honor of the school, took a fearful beating every Saturday of the season; I believe Ohio State, which was just then emerging to big-league status, beat Oberlin by 128 to nothing.
The college authorities, in other words, meant what they said, and they could be grim. And yet (to repeat) I was at least away from home, and I felt that I had freedom. One autumn evening, greatly daring, I went with another boy to the nearby city of Elyria, walked uncertainly into a saloon, and drank a glass of beer, after which we slunk out, boarded an interurban, full of the consciousness of guilt and high adventure, and went hastily back to Oberlin. Never have I committed a sin that was as pleasurable and as exciting.
All of this, to be sure, is beside the point. Benzonia Academy was my fixed point of reference, and everything that happened to me was to be compared with what had happened in Benzonia. This put an unusual gloss on commonplace adventures, now and then, so that the innocent little trip to Elyria seemed like a weekend lost around Sodom and Gomorrah; but it did no harm, and I had a deep affection for the place which, in a way, had seemed so repressive. The academy would always be there, and some day I would return, probably as a famous foreign correspondent on furlough, and tell the impressionable young people graphic tales about gathering the news in places like Paris and London.
The one thing I did not dream of at that time was that the academy was not going to wait for me. My own class of 1916 was second from the last class ever to be graduated there. At the end of the 1917 school year Father resigned his post, and one year later, in the summer of 1918, the academy closed its doors forever. Barber Hall was torn down a few years later; it was a fire hazard, a place subject to being broken into by rowdies, and a building of no conceivable use. The boys’ dormitory, which had been a rambling collection of gable ends stuck together almost at haphazard, was cut to pieces and the pieces were taken away to make dwelling places. And the girls’ dormitory, on the first floor of which our family had lived for several years, was turned into a village community house. It survives to this day, a most serviceable old building, looking rather hollow-eyed because its upper floors are boarded up and present blank, uncurtained windows to the public gaze. It has been in existence for well over half a century, and less than a decade of its life was devoted to the function for which its builders intended it. Nothing less dramatic than this building’s story, and nothing less important than the death of the academy which had built it, could easily be imagined. But in an almost unnoticeable way the affair marked the closing of an era.
A graduate of the academy, meeting Father in the fall of 1918, asked him why the academy had disintegrated. Father replied that any small, undernourished institution ofthat sort was simply the reflection of one man’s activity: when the man ceased to be active the institution ceased to exist. Whether he was consciously adapting Emerson’s remark that an institution is the lengthened shadow of one man or worked the thought out for himself I do not know, but he had the right explanation. Benzonia Academy, founded by dedicated men to light an educational lamp in a wilderness which, left to itself, would remain in darkness, had outlived the condition that called it into being. The wilderness had been destroyed, and without exactly meaning to, the men who destroyed it had let in the light. The academy had become an anachronism. Once it existed because a state needed it and a community willed it; in the end, no longer really essential, it existed because one man willed it. When America went to war in the spring of 1917 he focused his will on another objective. It took the academy just a year to die.
A new era was beginning, and if the academy had not quite prepared us to understand it, the same can be said of every other school on earth. No one was prepared, anywhere, and the deeper we get into this new era the more baffling it becomes. All that seems clear is that the mind of man now is obliged to adjust itself (without loss of time, and under penalty of death) to the greatest revolution in human history; a revolution, not in the relations of class with class and society with society, but in the nature of man’s idea of the universe and of his place in it. We have won a fight that we ought to have lost; which is to say that we control the world we live in, and its levers are in our hands even though we have no idea what to do with them. We can go anywhere and do anything, and because the fabulous machine we have created can neither be reversed, put in neutral, or turned aside we have to go and do to the utmost limit, which is as likely as not to be our own destruction. Not since he came down out of trees and lost his tail has man been compelled to make such an adjustment in his ways of thinking. The breaking of horizons that took place in the Renaissance was a false dawn in comparison. He is headed now, infallibly, for the infinite … in either direction.
The academy in fact had done as well as it could, and if it left with some of its students the idea that what they do here should be done with an eye on its eternal consequences—well, a man going out into the twentieth century could be given worse advice.
When America went to war Father saw the war through Woodrow Wilson’s eyes and heard the summons in Wilson’s voice; if Roosevelt, in the showdown, had failed to call him to Armageddon, Wilson sounded the call and Father responded. He left the academy to support the great cause as a free lance, believing that his eloquence and his knowledge of world history ought to be of service. His knowledge of world history was limited and may have led him at times to unsound judgments; but men in a position to know far more than he knew did no better with what they knew, and all in all he did a good, serviceable job. He wrote analytical articles for various Michigan newspapers, and he set up a series of lectures explaining the causes and the meaning of the war and travelled up and down the state delivering them to a considerable variety of audiences. These talks seem to have gone over well in the high schools—an enthusiastic educator in Saginaw wrote that they “should be presented in every high school in the United States”—and a former academy student, finding himself early in 1918 wearing khaki with other trainees at Camp Custer, was marched with his battalion into the mess hall one day to listen while Mr. Catton explained the true significance of the war. He had one lecture on “spiritual conscription” designed for church groups, explaining how Christians could sustain the young men who were being taken into the army; and in a notebook wherein he jotted down points to be made in his talks he scribbled this sentence: “The one inevitably oncoming thing, in politics, industry, commerce, education and religion, is Democracy .”
All of this, of course, was a venture that had no tomorrow. He had cut loose from his job and had in fact destroyed the base on which the job had rested, and once the war was over nobody was going to want articles or speeches about why we fought and why we had to win. Furthermore, he was 62 years old, and his prospects in a postwar job market were not good. Presumably he was well aware of this, and privately, where no one could hear him, he did a little whistling for his courage’s sake. In his notebook there is a yellowed newspaper clipping, worn by much handling: a little poem entitled “At Sixty-Two,” which apparently he had read a great many times. One stanza gives the tone of it:
Excellent words, but it did not lack as many hours of sunset as might have been thought. For a long time Father had suffered an abdominal pain, with certain distressing symptoms, which he did his best to ignore. But some time early in 1919 the matter reached a point where it could be ignored no longer, nor could it be concealed. He confided, at last, in a doctor, and learned (as I suppose he had expected to learn) that he had cancer, and that although an operation would presently be performed it was not likely to do much good. His number, in other words, was up, and now there was nothing to do but get his affairs in order, compose his mind, and wait for the end.
… Old age, as I said before, is like youth in this one respect: it finds one waiting at the railroad junction for a train that is never going to come back; and whether the arrival and possible destination of this train is awaited with the high hopes that youth entertains when it waits for its own train depends, no doubt, on the individual. I think Father had hopes.
But you know how it can be, waiting at the junction for the night train. You have seen all of the sights, and it is a little too dark to see any more even if you did miss some, and the waiting room is uncomfortable and the time of waiting is dreary, long-drawn, with a wind from the cold north whipping curls of fog past the green lamps on the switch stands. Finally, far away yet not so far really, the train can be heard; the doctor (or station agent) hears it first, but finally you hear it yourself and you go to the platform to get on. And there is the headlight, shining far down the track, glinting off the steel rails that, like all parallel lines, will meet in infinity, which is after all where this train is going. And there by the steps of the sleeping car is the Pullman conductor, checking off his list. He has your reservation, and he tells you that your berth is all ready for you. And then, if he is like all other Pullman conductors, he adds the final assurance as you go down the aisle to the curtained bed: “I’ll call you in plenty of time in the morning.”
… in the morning.