Childhood’s Joys and Sorrows

Such mental and physical development as my early years brought me, such real education, in other words, as I received, was got in my plays, and not in school.

We had in this country in my boyhood no tennis, a serious misfortune, for I regard tennis as an invaluable game for mental, moral, physical and social education. It is in nearly all particulars superior to baseball, and it has the important advantage of being open to girls.

Boxing should be taught all boys by a thoroughly competent instructor from an early age and continued late. In that also my education was wholly neglected, for we had no instructor, and in any case my parents would not have permitted it. Boxing is invaluable for training the eye, the muscles, and the mind behind them.

During my boyhood and early manhood, I was very fond of rifle shooting. My partiality for that sport dates from the early Centre Lisle period. Everybody about there had one or more rifles, some of them very fine ones, brass mounted, with peep and globe, or even telescope sights. These rifles dated from the earlier period of deer hunting. My interest was awakened by the annual turkey shoot held at Deacon Briggs’, next door, on the day before Thanksgiving. All the men of the neighborhood who could shoot well and had rifles came together and shot turkeys at measured distance for so much per shot, a hit securing the turkey. Some of these men were very expert shots. I have been glad to encourage my boys from childhood up in marksmanship. Percival was on the Chicago University Rifle Team, was a sharpshooter at Plattsburg Training Camp, and became distinguished in airplane marksmanship, in which he declined an offered instructorship. Russell excelled in machine gun accuracy. For years I used, when a pastor in Minneapolis, to relieve my studies by target shooting in our back yard, under special police license, and so became somewhat practiced. The root of all this, I suppose, runs back to those admirations of my early childhood.

The children in Centre Lisle had the very beautiful custom, which I have never seen carried so far elsewhere, of slyly hanging on each other’s doors “May baskets” and “June boxes” late in the evening. It was a delightful neighborhood pastime, in its rudiments only, familiar to my children; but with our fewer amusements when I was a child, it was more carefully studied, and practiced as a fine art. Often the parents joined in it, and not a few of the May baskets were beautiful and elaborate creations.

One of our summer pleasures was to hunt hens’ nests in the Briggses’ farmyard and barn. We became skilled at it, especially as we could crawl under a building or into almost any place that would admit a hen, and few were the hens able to hide their nests from our sharp eyes. Sometimes, however, they would get a nest full before we could find it, and to find a nest of rotten eggs was the summit of joy. Full of gas, they would burst with an explosion delightful to the small boy, if thrown at a safe distance against a barn, scattering their odoriferous contents over a wide territory. Once Dan Briggs and I found a nest of sixteen well-ripened eggs. Too rich a treasure to be recklessly squandered, we consulted as to how to make the most of them undisturbed and came to the wise conclusion to carry them carefully to the rear of the meeting house sheds and throw them by turns against the boards, from a point where we could not be seen. This we did until we began to want more novelty. It occurred to us that it would add to our joy to throw them straight up into the air as high as possible, but not to follow them with the eye, and to stand perfectly still and see how close they would fall. This gave the needed element of danger, and proved to be great fun, until Dan, in throwing one up extra straight, dropped off his hat. The ripe egg came back with a loud explosion exactly on the top of Dan s head. I tried to persuade him to go to his house and wash up, but he knew better. He was afraid of his sisters, and nothing could induce him to approach the house; so we took a beeline on the dead run for the distant creek, where we soaked his head.

We had a complicated rigmarole for choosing who would be “It” in a game where one must “Stand.” We all stood in a row and one would repeat the following words, pointing to each in turn: “Ikery, Ukery, Ickery, Ann, Philosy, Pholosy, Nicholas, John, Queever, Quaver, Irish, Naver, Inktum, Anktum, Carlo, Buck, one, two, three, out goes he.” The boy or girl on whom the last word “he” fell dropped out of line. This process was repeated over and over again, one dropping out each time with “he,” until one only was left, and this unfortunate was “It.” How easy it came to learn this jargon, when we needed it in our play, how it clings even yet to the memory—after seventy years—and how great the contrast between this ease of memorization of meaningless words, when used as tools of play, and our later difficulty with Latin and Greek declension and conjugation endings, having no relation to our daily life.

The joys and the trials of childhood; how intense and how lasting are their impressions! If in older life we would but recall how real, how deep, how vivid are a child’s feelings, we would be far more considerate of children. I am impressed anew with this thought as I review some of my chagrins, disappointments and griefs as a small boy.

In gathering sap in the spring in Deacon Briggs’ “sugar bush” I was doing my part with a two-quart pail, when I stubbed my toe and spilled the sap. I was deeply mortified, and what I needed was some word of comfort, but instead I was greeted with an angry roar from the hired man. The next day he had doubtless forgotten it, but I have remembered it for seventy years. It spoiled Deacon Briggs’ sugar bush for me, and I never gathered sap there again. It is a great mistake to imagine that children need to be harshly addressed or rebuked. If they are to be gentlemen and gentlewomen, their parents, teachers, and adult associates must be gentle-bred and must treat them in childhood with courtesy.

As Mother sat in the choir in the high gallery opposite the pulpit, and the pastor’s pew was the second from the front, Frank and I sat alone and directly under Father’s eye as he preached. One Sunday we forgot where we were and began throwing flowers at each other from the opposite ends of the pew. This annoyed Father, and in the midst of the sermon he paused and requested “those little boys” to stop playing and sit quietly. No two guilty, disgraced criminals being marched to the lock-up through lines of scowling populace could have been more humiliated than we, thus to be singled out for public rebuke in church. Father must have noticed how utterly crushed we were during the rest of the service, for he never mentioned it afterwards. I think he purposely avoided it, and it was some comfort to be able to reply next day to the other boys who undertook to guy us about the “licking” when we got home, that Father and Mother never said a word about it. But we never again gave occasion for rebuke. Possibly it was best for Father to rebuke us as he did, but how wise it was not cruelly to follow it up with a whipping or a scolding.

My first investment was unfortunate. It was when the early pinhook and string for the mud puddles were giving place to a real hook and line for the brook. With three cents of capital I purchased a hook. My piscatorial ambitions chose one three inches long at least, and almost as big around as my little finger. It was such a hook as afterwards I used to see baited with chunks of meat on the Missouri River, for catfish weighing from a hundred to two hundred and fifty pounds. I have seen two men carrying one of these monster fish by means of a thick pole through its gills, with the ends on their shoulders and the tail of the fish touching the ground. Why such a hook for such fish could be purchased in that little hamlet, distant from any large stream, is a mystery, but such was my first investment. Proudly I took my purchase home. At sight of it Father and Mother and my brother laughed until the tears rolled down their cheeks. What was I going to do with it? It was an “alligator hook” used in Florida for catching those horrible grinning alligators, etc. I kept as brave a face as I could, but disappeared as soon as possible, and when I thought myself unobserved I threw the odious alligator hook just as far as I could into the unknown. But I was mistaken, for I had been watched by my malevolent brother. I was defenseless. He told all the boys and girls, and in fact the story of the alligator hook followed me all my life. All my impractical schemes, all the financial excursions of my youthful imagination, so long as I lived at home, were met and crushed by a hint of the alligator hook. So long as they lived, neither my brother nor my father or mother would let that story die, and they told it so often that at last I began to enjoy it myself. Wall Street is a prolific factory of alligator hooks, with a large annual output, never greater than now. When I went into Mr. Rockefeller’s office and began the study of investment which his trusted friends had generously shared with him, I found quite a large assortment of alligator hooks. Notwithstanding this early experience, I have sometimes found myself since in possession of an alligator hook. But older and more hardened, I have never since experienced the chagrin with which I hurled the first hated foolish investment from me, though my later alligator hooks have cost me a good deal more than the first one.

I had few punishments. My offenses consisted chiefly in injuries to my clothing, and my punishment in being sent to bed while Mother did the mending. This seemed natural, and being entirely unavoidable in our poverty, it was not resented by me. I had one whipping only. We lived on a side street a few hundred feet from the main street, and the limits of our liberty were this side street. We were not permitted to leave it for the main street without special permission. Once, however, I broke the limit and it was for this that I was whipped. We boys learned that in the hotel barn, Gideon Landers, the proprietor, was to “break” a three-year-old colt. For this purpose, a bundle of hickory whips had been provided, as the first thing was then thought to be to implant in the colt a life-long terror of man. The method of it was to whip the poor beast with brutal cruelty. The temptation to see the colt “broke” was too much, and I stole away with Dan. I saw the poor animal flogged until it bled and great welts were raised on its body. But what was my horror on looking at the opposite door to see my father searching for me. I fled homeward, but he had seen me, and invited me to the stable. I never resented the whipping I got. I did not brazen it out. I was repentant and cried hard, but not harder than my father. We mingled our tears, and of the two it was he, not I, that got the worse punishment. He tried to tell me at the time, between his sobs, how much he hated to do it, and I pitied him more than myself for I felt that I had deserved it. But Father never punished me again with a rod, nor so far as I now recall in any way. I was wisely brought up from that hour not with the rod, but on instruction, lovingly addressed to my conscience and my intelligence. I understood my father’s love for me, and he understood that he could rear me without resort to corporal punishment. It is the experience of the wise gentleness of my father and mother that has doubtless led me to imitate it in the training of my own children. If I have ever been suddenly betrayed into a harsh word, I now acknowledge the error and regret it. We banished the rod from the first. The parent can force an apparent but wholly deceptive victory by fear, for no victory is complete that does not carry the child’s reason, and conscience, the victory of intelligent voluntary repentance.

This incident taught me another lesson. It was a wholesome thing for me to have seen that cruel horsewhipping at that impressionable age, for from that hour I could never bear to see a horse struck with a whip.

When we were old enough to manage a really good sled, Father got the local wagon and sleigh maker to construct for us one with heavy oak runners, with strong “knee” and solid joints, and big enough for four, or for one to ride “bellywhopper.” It was shod, too, with steel shoes, three-quarters of an inch in thickness. It was the best sled in that town, or in any town we afterwards lived in. From that hour we were aristocrats and could hold up our heads with the best. We could pass, on even terms, any sled in town, and we always held the distance record. Nothing since of like nature, except some successes of my children in athletics, has ever given me more pleasure than that victorious old sled. But it was heavy, and at first, while we were small, not without its dangers. One day there was a solid crust and we took it to the top of the steep hill behind the meeting house for a coast. The speed and weight were too great. We could not stop the thing and ran right through the board fence at the bottom of the hill, smashing through the two or three lower boards. I wonder we were not killed, but we got off with nothing worse than bloody faces. We were never even punished for smashing Deacon Briggs’ fence as, I suppose, everyone was too glad there were no funerals. But we learned the lesson and considered afterwards, before choosing our coast, what terminal facilities we had at command and where we were to fetch up. That good old sled awakened in us the desire to excel. We learned, in part, from it the excitement of competition and the joy of victory, an important lesson, in some way, to be learned by every child who is to amount to anything in this world.

Good old Deacon Woodworth, the village cabinet and coffin maker, an inoffensive old gentleman, was better trained in woodworking than in delicacy of feeling, a fact which my mother learned to her horror and indignation. There came upon our town one winter a serious epidemic of diphtheria. It was before the antitoxin had been discovered and there were many fatalities among my playmates. Of course, Mother and Father were extremely alarmed about us. Among the deaths was a neighbor boy, a playmate of my age and size, and his coffin was being made by Deacon Woodworth. At the right moment I happened to drop in on Deacon Woodworth, for I always enjoyed seeing him work. The good deacon was not quite sure of his measurements and, anxious for a good fit, he suggested that I get into the coffin. If it fitted me, he thought it would be about right for the corpse. So, I laid myself out in the coffin. It was an excellent fit. Of course, I told Mother of my experience, and though she was never superstitious, she was terrified at the image that Deacon Woodworth’s stupid insensibility had thrust before her imagination.

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Part One: The Early Years, Early Religious Training