Remnants of an Autobiography by Charles Hoy Fort
Someone discovered that our eyesight was poor. It was explained that we had injured our eyes with too much reading. This was not true, but then it seems more creditable to injure eyes or lose a leg in an accident than to be born with defects. So They sent us to have our eyes examined. An arrangement like automobile goggles on our eyes; we looking at large letters and small letters astonishingly black and clear. We were a spectacle-wearing boy and despised ourself, for the boys that we knew that wore spectacles seemed generally weak and not the kind that our general strength made us of. We told ourself that we should wear the spectacles only when watched. But when out in the street, we knew that the spectacles had come to stay. For we had lived in a fog and had not known it. We were in a different world; trees were not the blurs we had thought them; every leaf was outlined sharp and distinct; objects at a distance were smaller, because blurring had distorted, but again was clear, clean outline; everything was as different as is a photograph from a rough sketch.
But about collecting. We bought birds' wings from a boy living out in the country but coming to school every day. Finding an old store where, for very little, we could buy dried star-fish, sea urchins, shells, and sea beans, little red sea-beans with a black speck, big, gray ones and brown ones. Stories of wideness and remoteness; stories of storms, or palms on coral beaches, ocean depths and strange lands; all told in the rumbling of shells and the odor of brine by these things from the sea. Then we'd look at our geography, picturing ourself some day crossing the ocean to see the wonders of Europe; whispering galleries, old castles, and leaning towers. Turning the pages, until we'd get as far away as the South Sea Islands. Marking a dot on a South Sea Island; the dot would be far-away, adventurous we; other dots out in the ocean would be savages approaching in canoes. Remarkable adventures; remarkable heroism. And then traveling on the point of the pencil to Madagascar, searching along the shore for a dodo to add to our collection.
Spending a good deal of time in reading, going around in the afternoon
to see our relatives, because we liked to read, and because they had books.
Our grandfather was a man of little education, but he had, somewhere in
him, apart from all that made him a "good, business man" an interest
in books. Next to the dining room, he had his library, with books such
as the works of Carlyle and Ruskin. These books were bright and new-looking.
In the store, he had two private offices; one, where he attended to his
own affairs, for he owned many houses, and loaned money, usuriously, we
learned when we were older; and his really private office upstairs, where,
with his friends, he invented and drank strange drinks in vast quantities.
Here were the books that he did read; biographies and histories, but books
of travel in the greatest number; at least half a dozen dealing with Arctic
exploration; dictionaries, paintings of value on the walls, demijohns all
around. We were sent up to get him one afternoon; he was reading a heavy
book, a pink drink on one side of him, a yellow drink on the other side.
Asking us what we knew about the aurora borealis. And we were eager to
tell, but he had to go
[Pages 31 to 33 are missing.]
All ready! Other kid snickering. We'd think of a boy we hated or of our troubles in school; then we'd look grave. But the little kid shaking all over. Photographer trying again; all three shaking all over, each blaming the others for making him laugh in this nervous way that had nothing of merriment.
"Now, steady, and you'll see the little bird." Then he'd have two of us looking serious, but upon the little kid a smile was always flickering.
We'd look over our geography, and we'd wish we could have a stone or leaf or anything else from the strange countries, until we found that collecting stamps was what we wanted. Sending to New York for a thousand, assorted stamps. A bulky package came; the faces of kings tumbled to the floor in a shower of color. We were in France with the French stamps; Napoleon, the Bastille, the Revolution in the air about us. We were amid castles and battle scenes in Germany and England. Here was a stamp that had really been in vast, tropical, barbaric India. Then a stamp that expressed the marvels of long travelling in the mystery and romance of Australia. Life was meaning more and more.
In the top floor, we had many amusements, playing stories most of the time. We were three brothers, early settlers, and killed more Indians than were ever heard of by Carson or Boone. And we had a "good, business man" game; with groat bargaining and traveling for the firm. In this game, the other kid dominated; we could not bargain with him; we'd have to sell at his price, and buy when he wanted to sell. And sometimes we three got along very well, and sometimes we hated one another. Always telling on one another. Telling every little thing, pleased to see another punished, so virtuous would it make us feel. Why, we'd do detective work to catch the other kid stealing cake so that we could tell, and the others, seeing us in wrongdoing, would cry together, "I'm going to tell!" And blackmailing one another. Saying, "If you don't give me your candy, I'll tell what you did the other day." Having notebooks with charges written in them. Sometimes each would have a long list of offenses; then the offenses would cancel off; for if the other kid would tell that we had played with Biff Allen, we should tell that he had uprooted plants in the yard.
"I'm going to tell," the other kid would say; and we'd look at our note book to see whether he could afford to tell.
And fighting often. Once we went to Poughkeepsie, very glad to get away, we did hate those others so. Visiting a family with a boy named Artie in it. Artie urging us to buy candy; we clinging to our spending money. Suggesting soda water; we holding back as long as we could. But nickels and dimes slipped away, and we desponded. You see, we wanted to take back something for the little kids. Artie telling of a merry-go-round. Then we just went right into a store and bought two boats for a quarter apiece, beautiful gifts; all blue with yellow stripes around, and pretty white sails.
Artie wanting us to sail the boats. We refusing; Artie sulking. So we sailed the boats in the bath tub that there should be no sulking. Then Artie wanted a storm. We protesting. A terrific storm; boats tossing wildly. Blue paint coming off; yellow paint on the sails. We almost tearful but making feeble, little waves that could do no harm, just to have everything pleasant. Artie sending a tidal wave; a bowsprit knocked off.
In the cars, we unwrapped the boats to see whether they were so awful-looking; paint all patchy; no longer pretty, white sails. Nothing but old, second-hand toys for the little kids. Trying to persuade ourself that something could be done. Perhaps with a little mending or some rubbing of the paint. Nothing could be done. Just throwing the spoiled, old boats from the car window. Oh, big, grown-up persons, don't tell us any more of the happy time that childhood is!
Unhappiness a good deal of the time. The unpleasant things they made us take. We had to eat oat meal in the morning before having anything else. We detesting oat meal, making a fearful time over it, but Mrs. Lawson firm. One time it was spoiled a little, and we were in a frenzy, thinking it the most awful tyranny that could be thought of that we should have to eat spoiled oat meal, Mrs. Lawson declaring that it was good, we crying and wailing in revolt. Then we'd play little games to make the eating easier; irregularities would be mountains, milk, the sea, and sugar glaciers and ice fields, taking a spoonful, the sea rushing in, inhabitants engulfed. Emptying a whole dishful into our pocket now and then. In fact, so strong was our dislike, that we have detested "breakfast foods" ever since. And besides the goose grease, the sulphur and molasses, these things that we had to have were the things that we could not have. But some day we'd be a man; looking forward to that far-distant, twenty first birthday. Then we could have all the Chili sauce that we should want. We had some sort of an idea of a Chili sauce spree. Celebrating with our friends; opening bottle after bottle. Awful debauchery; more bottles. On our twenty first birthday, there would be little heard but the popping of Chili sauce bottles.
Paper soldiers had marched into our lives. We and the other kid would drive away the little kid, and he'd walk around the yard while we would drill our soldiers. And then have battles. Each would want the blue-coated soldiers, for they were the Americans. The red-coats were the British. We'd be violent; but then we'd have to give in to the other kid or there'd be no battle. Reasoning that, though we were the British, we were, in some way not clear but satisfying, not the British.
Slinging book covers at each other's army, taking as prisoners all we'd knock down. Feeling a desire of individuality among our soldiers, remembering and following the careers of certain ones, promoting and exalting then whenever they deserved to be honored. We wanted them to seem real; so we wrote names on their backs to make them characters in the great, military story they were living. Giving them marks, which were medals, whenever they'd do remarkable things such as landing on their feet when knocked across the room. But the other kid was sterner with his heroes than we were with ours; whenever his would fail to live up to their records, he'd degrade them, have hangings, burn them at the stake. We could not bear to see our heroes made of common paper like the rest; when they'd disgrace themselves, we'd pretend not to see, though displeased with ourself for favorites.
There was General Burgoyne, who was British, yet was not British. The General was getting old, and we always saw pathos and an appealing in anything old. The General had someone else's head, no spine, and a bad case of wrinkles in the chest. We'd brace him up with cardboard, pasting on a standard a foot long, which was not fair, causing the other kid to protest and defer to our international law. Then he captured the General. Had a court-martial, courteously inviting us, each holding a white handkerchief of truce. But the court-martial was a farce; it was plain that the General was a doomed man, we looking on, offering all kinds of ransoms that we could offer, though having little, for marbles, tops, everything that was ours was the other kid's and everything that was his was ours, except the soldiers in times of war. Other kid firm, pointing out that we were present only as a matter of courtesy and had no voice. Sending the old General to the rack to make him confess, having respect for neither his honors nor his years. Other kid uttering outrageous confessions for the prisoners. We, despairing and excited, crying, "It isn't true!"
General Burgoyne saying, vicariously, "I admit there is not one medal on me that I deserve." Indignation bursting from us.
"I'm a low, common favorite, and I admit I've made my way by sneaky work. Spare me! I'm afraid to die! I'm a coward, and I admit it!" We so indignant that we would have rescued the general by force, only we could not, for there was the white handkerchief in our hand.
Last awful scene. Gallant, old hero dying like a man, we telling him that we knew very well the cries and groans and appeals for mercy were not from him. And we mourning, unable to understand how the other kid could be so mean. Then declaring personal war, beating him up and down the top floor room until he remembered that we had "sassed" a neighbor the day before.
And parades. All three of us lying on the floor in front of the soldiers to have them denser to our view. Enjoying the martial vista, helmets and horses' head sticking up, thick and jagged from a mass of color. More than a thousand, covering most of the long floor; for ours was a spirit to make as important as we could anything that interested us. Pleased with uniforms but more pleased with uniformity. Our eye traveling along a line of helmet tops, along a line of epaulets, along belts or boots. Just as ten men abreast are not attractive, but let each wear a blue badge or a white hat, something for the eye to travel along, and the effect is pleasing.
And when we were asleep, would see them, regiment after regiment go by, our own soldiers and others in fantastic uniform not in our army at all. We interested and then wearied. An interminable army marching by, we so tired that we'd want to see never another soldier. Trying not to look but having to look. We'd say, "Oh, if someone would only wake me up!" But we'd sleep on, having to review the parade, grown monotonous and tormenting. Wishing we could arouse ourself, nut unable to, repeating, "Oh, if someone would only wake me up!"
Nevertheless, all three would run up to see the parade in the morning. Mrs. Lawson pouncing in, angry that we should not have waited to put on our clothes. Dashing through cavalry, swishing through infantry. kicking over bands and drum corps. We pretending great distress that she should be satisfied and should not take our soldiers away. Really, we'd be pleased, for she would be a hobgoblin attacking the allied forces. And we'd go back to look for survivors. Finding one standing under the see-saw. Delight. Another kicked to the window sill, and standing. Crying our admiration, giving them medals.
But there was wildness in us, so that Mrs. Lawson could not restrict us to the top floor or to playing in front of the house. When we played in the yard, we wondered what lay beyond the high fence two yards away, and whether an explorer could get around the church to the strange land on the other side. We and the other kid became explorers. The little kid following over our fence; we chasing him back. Starting off again; little kid, too, starting. We scrambling over fences to leave him far behind; little kid far behind, legs to short, but still coming. Then we'd wait and box his ears, sending him back, leaving him crying. Going on to explore; little kid still coming. The only way we could get him back was to go back with him, lift him over the fence, and then run, he not knowing in what direction.
In one yard, we'd find a heavy growth of weeds; that would be a jungle,
and every beetle or spider would be a tiger or some other creature of the
jungle. A high shed would be a mountain, Mt. Everest. We'd climb Mt. Everest
and get into a yard with trees. That would be the Black Forest. A dragon
or two lurking around. We'd get twenty yards away; that would be real remoteness,
we making maps in our mind of the strange lands we had passed through,
we on the steppes of Siberia, looking at all the world around. A little
head just appearing over Mt. Everest; little kid still coming. Then we'd
be good to him, and all three would steal grapes in Egypt.
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