Wednesday, October 07, 2015


Walt McDougall's This is the Life: Chapter One, Part Two

This is the Life!


Walt McDougall

Chapter One -- The First Dozen Years are the Worst (Part 2)

Those were crude, unpolished times when pressed clothing would have aroused hostility, when a man who had been to Europe or parted his hair in the middle was a celebrity, and Roger's Statuary and Prang's chromos were considered High Art; when Birch, Backus and Wambold's Nigger Minstrels furnished amusement highly enjoyable but, as many persons thought, somewhat indelicate, and the Black Crook was mentioned with bated breath.

The atmosphere of godliness pervading middle-class circles which called a local authoress, Marion Harland, the wife of our pastor, to account for her "Ruby's Husband," as namby-pamby a story as was ever written, but it was a "novel," was, of course, nothing as compared with the strictness of ante-war days when a ballet performance would have been instantly raided, but I used to wonder when everybody seemed to be reprobating the Black Crook in unmeasured terms how the theater ever paid expenses.

Along with all this genteel goodness the ethics of business permitted the most flagrant swindles, politics was as rotten and corrupt as is conceivable, and political meetings, and especially party parades, were scenes of carnage and often of manslaughter and mayhem that aroused no particular comment. I have witnessed combats on our streets that were as sanguinary as Bull Run and seen local political bosses lead armed gangs to combat like any medieval barons; one of these, a famous character, Boss Stainsby, was for me a synonym for the much discussed Bill Tweed. Smallpox was epidemic somewhere in town about half the time, bedbugs, ants, fleas and cockroaches were seemingly inevitable pests, and as everybody of any consequence possessed a stable back of his residence, house flies were a third part of the godly atmosphere.

Fighting was a necessary part of schooling. Our Academy uniform, closely resembling that of the West Point cadets, was a pregnant source of extreme irritation to every bad, tough boy in every ward, and one was daily compelled to defend its honor and its neatness as well, but I do not recall being worried much on that sartorial account. I seem to have done far more fighting in the school grounds. A family of six boys may be depended upon to produce one or two effective scrappers, and I began early to learn that I must be my own defender, but it was only after I had enjoyed the singular satisfaction of defeating three assailants at once with no other weapon than a bundle of schoolbooks strapped together that I came to look upon pugilism as a pleasurable entertainment as well as a duty.

Across the wide Market Street lived a boy named Jake Haussling who afterward achieved the distinction, several times repeated, of being Mayor of Newark, and whose father kept a prosperous saloon. Jake was bigger than I, but I was considered more respectable, of course. One day he insolently grabbed a fine lignum-vitae top which I was spinning on the pavement, and started homeward with the prize. I think this was my first real fight. Before it was finished—or interrupted, as it likely was:—a pleasant time was had by all of the large and enthusiastic crowd which assembled. Jake was taken home by his mother, and I had the top, but I was afraid to go home, as fighting was one of the outdoor sports to which my parents decidedly objected. I knew that I was in for a notable licking and deferred my homecoming until darkness fell. My sad condition, however, was immediately apparent, but I had concocted a beautiful alibi to the effect that the burly, brutal Jake with a band of ten toughs had attacked me and taken my precious top, subjecting me to terribly rough usage when I defended it. Mother seized my hand and, wordless, hauled me across the street to the Haussling home.
"See what your brutal son has done to my littleWalter!" she protested, pointing dramatically to my palpable facial disfigurement. "He has beaten him black and blue all over, too!"

"Come! See once what your leetle boy has done to my leetle Jakey alretty!" replied the placid Mrs. Haussling, and she led us into another room wherein big Jake, with both eyes tightly closed and beautifully black, purple and green, sat in a bathtub filled with hot water. Mother took one swift look and departed. I got my licking within ten minutes, but I never felt it, so consoled was I by the heavenly spectacle I had just witnessed. Poor Jake was a good fellow, deservedly popular and a competent executive, yet, possessed by a species of melancholic mania, he committed suicide several years ago.

In those days of long ago the founder of one of Newark's wealthiest families used to do odd jobs about the old house, but by industry and acumen he acquired a large fortune through the sale of fertilizers. His wife became a town celebrity for her amusing misnomers. She remarked to mother one day that her daughter had "become so high-toned that she had to have her fingernails manured every week," and on another occasion, when asked what she had found most enjoyable during a recent trip to Europe, she affirmed complacently: "I think I was most impressed in France by the sight of all the pheasants coming down the mountainside singing the Mayonnaise." All this is now tradition. Her husband was succeeded in his work by a genuine Indian named John Teazman, one of the last relics of a vanished tribe once dwelling in the Pompton region. I was just old enough to get the benefit of the friendship of this accomplished aborigine who could do everything from beating a rug or skinning a rabbit to repairing a grand-father's clock in a satisfactory manner.

John was slim, long-haired, dark and taciturn, a genuine Fenimore Cooper Indian, and he loved the toil of pulling weeds, whitewashing fences, cutting grass or shoveling snow exactly as fondly as I did. I wish I now had at my disposal the hours we two spent in exploring, from my eighth to my thirteenth year, the wilds of the Orange Mountains or the wide cloud-mottled meadows, and on the river where smelt, perch, shad and even sturgeon were to be caught or speared.

He taught me to shoot with the bow, to ride, to swim,to cook, to build a bed of boughs, to trap and skin animals, and a dozen other arts, and in return I told him about fossils, which were early my passion, and of pirates and fairies, tales with which he was never satiated. We used to go away for days at a time on what the boy of today would call a "hike," for mother had every confidence in him, and during this time we ate nothing but what we shot with the bow or caught with hook and line, barring, of course, a neighborly lifting of green corn or the like when we encountered a farm. To those sunlit days and the tricks this red man taught me I have owed my preservation more than once, and also, no doubt, a vigorous frame and muscular development somewhat above the average.

I have heard him say: "Wash no good! Make man weak—like squaw! See big fat pig! Plenty dirt, plenty fat!" I believed him but found it practically almost impossible to live up to this theory with a whole family opposed to it. However, one blissful week that I spent camping out with him in the Orange Mountains, several miles from any human habitation, demonstrated the scientific value of his belief, for I did not wash face or hands for seven days and I gained four pounds in weight, as I triumphantly proved at the grocer's on my return.

We have killed the woodcock in swamps now covered with tall structures, rabbits in fields now blocks of buildings, caught pickerel in brooks buried deep underground today, and shot ducks where miles of factories blacken the sky with smoke. From him I learned to use the filthy weed, but by his wise counsel avoided liquor until I became a newspaperman and in constant contact with corruption and vice.

I have never fully believed that John was purely Indian, as he never revealed the least bloodthirstiness or savagery whatever. Repeatedly during our travels through dark Essex County we found opportunities for gory homicide, even for torture at the stake, but although warmly, even fervently urged, he manifested a singular reluctance to commit murder that was discouraging to an ardent devourer of Beadle's Dime Novels, which dime, by the way, was a recent innovation, shin-plasters having driven all silver coins into desuetude. Once in a deep valley we found an old peddler lost in the huckleberry growth and instead of killing, scalping and despoiling the God-given prize the Indian conducted him to the turnpike to my intense disgust, afterward severely reprimanding me because I criticized his lack of aboriginal ferocity and craft.

Although John had the mentality of a mud turtle, being quite unable to understand such simple matters as the rotundity of the earth, its orbit around the sun, the changes of the moon, its effect upon the tides or the nature of an eclipse, which are taught to school children and which every white man fully comprehends, of course, he became, under my father's tuition, a competent taxidermist and in that capacity went to Mexico or some-where and so I lost my redskin comrade.

I had long been at the Academy when he departed, and missed him only when my soul revolted from the monotony of drill and uninteresting lessons. Nobody knows how I learned to read; very likely it was the effect of absorption, perhaps from alphabet blocks, but at the age of six I was an omnivorous and untiring borer into books. I remember suffering at times from severe headaches, which, it seems, attracted no particular attention, for at that time little was known about eyestrain and its effect upon the other organs of the human body, and that I was shortsighted neither my parents nor teachers ever suspected, although at school I had to approach within ten feet of the blackboard in order to read what was written thereon. It was left for Teddy Roosevelt to inform me, when about twelve years of age, of my deficiency.

Four or five years at the Academy followed our removal from the old Market Street home to a modern brick and brownstone residence on aristocratic High Street, where life began to assume a more serious aspect. Before the Civil War our family life had been somewhat peripatetic, father painting portraits in Charleston, S.C., during the winters and in Saratoga in summer, but now he added a large photograph gallery to his painting studio and settled down to the humdrum life of a country town. His experiences comprised a prairie-schooner trip across Indian-infested plains to far-off Minneapolis and a voyage down the Mississippi to New Orleans, and he was regarded as something of a Ulysses. His gallery lost him much money, for he was in no sense a businessman, despising the petty details of moneymaking, although in his painting no man was ever more finical.

The Military Academy, an institution dating from pre-Colonial times, provided preparation for college unsurpassed in America, beside supplying military instruction under an army officer, a Major Hopkins. The students under military teaching numbered several hundred boys, its combination of mental and physical activity attracted me and before I was fifteen I had been elected captain of a company, an honor due less to my ability or size, I am assured, than to my capacity for making friends.
I hated arithmetic and music, alas; history fascinated me, geography was merely a diversion, but composition was play. I supplied compositions to four or five boys, who in return attended to my arithmetical and Latin labors, but drill, gymnastics and boxing must have taken most of my time. Greek I was never even introduced to, I imagine.

One day, feeling more than usually loath to endure a Latin lesson, on a sudden impulse I forged an excuse, copying my mother's writing, jerky and uneven from rheumatism, and handed it to our Latin instructor, Professor Davis, a typical ancient Roman with side-whiskers. With the criminal's usual lack of forethought I continued to hand in similar excuses until old Davis's personal vanity was wounded and he came to mother to ask why she did not seem to wish me to learn Latin, bringing with him all the forged excuses, and at the sight of these my mother's brain reeled. That they were actually in her own handwriting she had no doubt, but she had no recollection of having written one of them. She did manage to retain enough self-possession to acknowledge their authorship, probably from the maternal instinct of protection, and he subjected her to a long tirade on the value of the dead languages before departing.

A little later I came home and was confronted with the bale of forged excuses which Davis had forgotten, a portentous and disconcerting mass of evidence. I saw the game was up and promptly confessed. Between her consternation at the enormity of my crime, the terrifying prospect of others to come, with my ultimate end on the gallows and the amazingly perfect imitation of her cramped chirography, my poor mother was completely overcome and flabbergasted. I was too big to be punished in the ancient customary manner, and in her horror and weakness she fell on her knees and laid the whole matter before the Almighty.

I have never, even when solemnly reproved by the Supreme Court of the United States for caricaturing its eight tobacco-chewing justices in session (which is a story in itself), had so saddening, mortifying and so utterly reforming an experience as this. In her presentation of the awful charge and the incidental mention of other little peccadillos, inconsiderable trifles such as stealing doughnuts and beating up my little brother, who always deserved all he got, alternated with heart-rending appeals for my forgiveness and ultimate salvation through the blood of the Lamb, she was so transcendentally impressive that I sweated and shivered by turns in the apprehension that the Almighty would attend to m ycase right then and there. However, nothing happened except that I was saved as by an unseen miracle. I have never forged a signature since that day, having a sort of uneasy feeling, when tempted to do so, that I was on probation, and the nearest I have ever come to it was the imitation of the style of other and, so to speak, greater artists like Gibson and Kirby, which, after all, is a compliment and not a crime.

My brother Harry, afterward a clever writer under the nom de plume of "Harrimac" and one of the proprietors of the Newark Sunday Call, about this period of my early adolescence perpetrated a trick which filled the sleepy old town for some weeks with intense excitement. Across our street was the Breintnal estate with an extensive lawn, a fine mansion approached by two rows of stately elms, the very presentment of refined austere opulence. Off to the left, back of a row of shops, stood a ruinous structure which had once been Newark's water reservoir, a circular amphitheater about twenty-five feet in diameter and twelve high, its concrete wall lessening within by a series of steps toward its top. To the boys of my decade the interior of this ancient ruin was as unknown as Tibet, but Harry's gang knew it well. Mounting the tank by a ladder that was drawn up after them, they lowered a cardboard effigy of a ghostlike figure, one side of which was white and the other dead black, suspended by a fishpole. This they moved slowly along the turf to simulate a floating specter.

It was not long before a horrified yell from the distant street announced that the "High Street Ghost" had been discovered. A crowd assembled and some venturesome individuals were observed by the operators of the hoax within the dark circle of the wall to be stealthily approaching. A string enabled the manager to reverse the figure, when it instantly became invisible and could be hoisted quickly over the parapet.

Enormous assemblages of men and women used to gather nightly on our quiet street to witness the spectacle, but it was quite impossible for the perpetrators of the trick to give nightly performances for the reason that such curiosity had been excited that at times they could not even approach the tank from the rear without detection. The structure itself was never under suspicion nor examined during the whole period of this spectral puppet show. I saw the apparition three or four times and can testify to its startlingly supernatural appearance. Its action was precisely what is expected traditionally from a disembodied spirit; in the faint and flickering light of a few distant street lamps it seemed to drift gracefully and fitfully across the blank gray wall and fade into the gloom in an instant. Revolver shots frequently rang out and the concrete of the wall became scarred with bullet marks that summer. Among the crowds assembling nightly it was rarely that there appeared individuals courageous enough to venture far within the gloom of the elms, and even policemen some-times refused to approach the specter.

The New York newspapers contained columns concerning the "High Street Ghost" and yards of spiritualistic discussion were printed, but the secret was not disclosed. I was forty years old before I learned the names of the perpetrators of the hoax, three of whom were then highly respected lawyers and one was a priest!

While not strongly moved by religious belief, both of our parents were strict in opposing certain tendencies just then coming into view. Card-playing was taboo but kissing games quite unobjectionable; dime novels extremely pernicious while Petronius and Smollett's works seem to have contained no moral dynamite at all. Father's conscience was most tender on the matter, a vital one, of staying out late of nights. A man who remained out after ten at night, he maintained, was out for no good or proper object. Harry, when an embryo reporter, was the most frequent offender in this respect; protests and reprimands seemed unavailing.

In the stairway leading to the top floor where Henry slept in the rear and my brother Frank and myself in the front room, was a board which, when stepped on, creaked stridently, betraying the careless late arrival like a village fire-alarm. The very sound indicated a jovial carelessness that was suspicious, for it was well known that we usually avoided the telltale plank at such times.

About dawn one summer morn the alarm awakened me and I saw Harry slip across the hall to his door. Soon a second poignant squeak indicated the stealthy approach of father. His gray head, which resembled that of William Cullen Bryant, appeared white against the gloom of the stairway, and as he peered into Harry's room I saw a start of surprise agitate him and then another complaining sound from the step announced his retreat. I awakened Frank and gleefully informed him that things were about to become interesting in our domicile. The faint daylight strengthened and our patience was being sadly strained, when, without warning, father appeared in the hall armed with a bed slat. Then he tiptoed into Harry's room slowly. We slid out of bed instantly and saw the cause of his strange actions. There on Harry's disheveled couch, half covered by the bedraggled sheets, sprawled a burly form in seeming stupor, fully clothed even to hat and shoes, a disgraceful and revolting spectacle. Our stern and suspicious parent had more than once accused Harry of drinking lager beer, but here was ocular evidence of gross intoxication, and in my youthful righteousness I felt not the least pity for the delinquent.

The bed slat was raised aloft, poised and then descended upon the central rotundity of the besotted wretch with a dull sickening thud. Up flew the boots to the ceiling, the hat flipped wildly over the headboard, and a motley mass of old clothes, towels and other rubbish curled and writhed about the bed slat for an instant and then flopped upon a bed devoid of human occupant. Father took one swift look at the scattered pile which Harry had so skillfully shaped to resemble his own form, and then we, the least of his progeny, thought it was time to leave the vicinity. From our darker room we saw him steal silently to the stairway and vanish. A moment later Harry emerged quivering with elation and peered down the stairs, then he hopped into bed.

No mention was ever made of this occurrence, but father never again opened his mouth about staying out late of nights. He was a man who was able to develop even the tiniest hint into a practicable and efficient working model; besides, he had a keen sense of humor and the point of Harry's joke must have been at once perceptible to him.

I have always cherished the thought that I was a trifle nearer to my father inasmuch as I was the only one of the boys who painted for years in his studio, played chess with him, and was as inordinate and insatiate a reader of every kind of literature. Unlike the modern artist, he despised all forms of studio decoration, preferring an almost bare apartment, ridiculed the collection mania which after the Centennial Exposition began to adorn studios and homes with old armor, weapons, furniture and ceramics. He abhorred everything that was ancient except the ruins of castles and old trees. He claimed that all these antiques collected dust, the painter's greatest foe, as well as diverted his mind from his work, and it seems that most of the painters of his time held the same opinion.

In our immediate neighborhood lived Henry R. Poore,a boy of gentle manners and lively disposition, who became a distinguished painter; beyond his home dwelt Walter Rankin, a lad of my own age, afterward head of the Green School of biology at Princeton; another boy, further away, was Wood Adams, who developed into an artist of much merit, and on the next block lived Marion Harland, mother of my first love, Christine Terhune, afterward Mrs. Herrick, as well as of Albert Payson Terhune, who was for many years a confrere of mine on the World.

Paul Du Chaillu, on his return from his extensive travels in Africa, lived with the Rankins for a period, bringing with him a young gorilla, the first ever seen, I believe, in the United States. The simian escaped and, it was supposed, perished in the woods west of town, although I remember it being often jocularly suggested that the animal would turn up in the possession of Barnum's Menagerie. Du Chaillu was very fond of children and delighted in telling them of his adventures, but I was most impressed by his account of a period of prolonged hunger and thirst which he endured somewhere. This was tragedy which I could visualize and it touched my sympathetic heart. In those early days hunger seemed to me the climax of all miseries, and the very thought of it was painful, but I came to think that cold is a far greater evil.

Around the corner lived Wambold of the famous minstrels, and to sit at the bottom of the stairs of his high stoop and listen to the droll sayings and quaint anecdotes of the members of the company on a Sunday night and feel the subtle difference between these antic unrestrained and jocund souls and the demure long-faced austerity of those who regarded them as pariahs was what first led me to analyzing my own impulses and emotions. I felt that I was somehow akin to them despite their frequent oaths and obscene stories which compelled me to laughter by their wit, akin to them in their unrestrained individuality and lack of pretense and desire to amuse, despite the fact that my religious training assured me that all were traveling along the path leading to destruction. This was long before I was permitted to view them on their stage in blackface, and when I repeated at home one of their somewhat equivocal jokes I always created dismay and consternation, but I never revealed the source of my material. I have no doubt that I gained a certain facility in the remembering and telling of good stories that was of value to me in life, from my contact with these hard-working, sharp-witted and painstaking performers.

About the time of the Chicago fire and the great comet which hung in the west day after day to the vast discomfort of the superstitious, there came to the house two doors from us, occupied by Colonel Edmund Joy, a still greater wonder. This was "Buffalo Bill," the altogether superhuman hero of a series of thrilling tales in the New York Ledger by "Ned Buntline," who came almost daily to confer with the famous scout about characters, scenes and such in the lurid soul-gripping plots he concocted. Every boy in the land was reading these stories, but very few ever recognized in the tall, long-haired and slim man of perhaps thirty, with rather pensive eyes, the death-dealing, hated and feared foe of the red man. I used to snuggle in beside the two in silence and listen to their discussions, at first with awe and admiration, but gradually I came to detect the motion and the sound of the machinery of fiction, and my keen sense of the verities was shocked more than once at the casual addition of eight or ten redskin victims of the hero's unfailing revolver, as if Indians were mere vermin, or the insertion of more startling details in an already too heart-rending episode, events plainly invented at the moment for the sole purpose of injecting more ginger into the narrative.

Cody's manner was so tame and subdued, almost shy, that I began to harbor a clammy suspicion that Buffalo Bill's sanguinary reputation was founded entirely on the clever author's invention and that it was quite possible that there was no human blood upon his hands at all. He certainly did not appear a fifth as homicidal as did the man who delivered charcoal at our house, who killed his wife and was hanged for the crime; there was nothing of the relentless, panther-like killer about this serene, amiable, quiet person; why, even Thomas Bailey Aldrich,who had written what was called a lifelike and snappy book about a bad boy, had a far more truculent air when once, with Du Chaillu, he had endeavored to probe two or three of us about our acts and thoughts. I concluded that Bill was largely a fake, and Buntline's stories gave me a pain in the neck.

Texas Jack, on the other hand, had all the elemental qualifications of the bad man, being as hard-boiled and low-browed as any of our Seventh Ward Democrats or Morris Canallers. I was willing to believe that he had a bad heart without any proof whatever, but I was keenly disappointed in Bill. He could not look at one with the dark and murderous glance that chilled the blood, as did Texas Jack, nor did he exhale that pungent aroma as of a brewery and a distillery on the same block on a summer night.
These feelings were somewhat modified when one day Buffalo Bill and his gifted author came riding up to Joy's on spirited steeds from the livery stable and Bill made his animal do stunts that he didn't know were in him, by sheer skill in horsemanship. Then I got a glimpse of the real rider and scout, but it was not until I had seen him in his magnificent, almost imperially proud entrance at the Wild West Show years later, that I grasped the full splendor of his being.
I was to meet him, travel with him, and make his newspaper pictures for twenty years, but of that in its place.



Comments: Post a Comment

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Subscribe to
Posts [Atom]