Remnants of an Autobiography by Charles Hoy Fort
Chapters Thirteen and Fourteen
They would not leave us behind this Summer. We and the other kid were pretty poor property, something like waste property that, if cultivated, might after a while pay its own taxes. They arranged to take our new mother and their really valuable property, the commanding appearance, to a fashionable resort, and then arranged for us. They arranged generously enough, having us join the Y.M.C.A. to send us for a month to the Y.M.C.A. camp on Lake Champlain. And we were so pleased that we were friends with them again, both of us going around to get fishing tackle and everything else that would be needed. No more sullenness, we going down to their room where we had not been in a long time, to play chess, just as we had long before, talking about fishing and hunting, very good friends, everything forgotten and forgiven at last.
A score of us in the train; train seeming to make up its mind never to start, then starting in fits and jolts. Passing many familiar scenes on the way to Saratoga, we pleased now and then to see something that we remembered having seen in former years. Getting to the tail-end of Lake Champlain, narrow and marshy with its log-choked stream leading to Lake George. Gradually widening, broken rocks scattered on the steep banks, as if waiting for a chain gang to come along to get to work. Small towns with circus posters all over walls and fences. Black and white desolation, where forest fires had raged. Farm houses, brooks, ponds, just the places where we'd like to get off, but the train rushing on. The rattle and blinking of windows when other trains passed, rails clicking, telegraph poles looming and passing in all the majesty of tallness speeding silently by. The whole morning gone, and still whirling Northward. Past Port Henry. Westport! All off!
Piling into carts, seven miles along a road, and all off on a beach with a flock of sheep around, we marvelling that anything white and soft could be made from fleece of creatures so dusty and unkempt. And there was the little island. High and wooded against wideness and blueness. Older boys, who had gone ahead to build and prepare, waiting in boats. We admiring them, for they were pioneers, wondering whether we could get so brown and disreputable-looking, resolving to wear no hat. And there was Harry Hickey, our old enemy, who had continued his enmity in school. But this was not in school; this was out in wideness and blueness with greenness all around, where we'd have grub together and bunk together and be all of one "crowd".
Harry put out his hand. He said, "How are you?" We shook hands, and we, too, said, "How are you?" He taking our baggage, carrying it to a boat. Once we had hit him in the eye, but he was carrying our baggage, and everything was all right. Little waves tapping on big rocks there away up North made us feel that it was very pleasant to be friends
Wonderful things for us to write about in our diary, we breathing picturesqueness as well as air, trying to impart some of the picturesqueness, but lamely recording only bare facts.
Going on a tramp through wilderness and over mountains to Old White Face. Twenty of us, with blankets in army rolls, under one arm and over the shoulder on the other side, as good as uniforms, feeling that the blankets were interesting because they were "army rolls" and not just common rolls. A real guide in front. Getting all played out; the other kid looking tired, but keeping up bravely, paying not much attention to each other at first, but drawing together when tiredness came. Then running in advance to wait, doing a good deal of work for only a little rest. Stopping to cook dinner in a real camp-fire, finding the joy in remoteness that we had longed for when tin cans or piles of ashes had been always near.
Wading in a stream, finding that in a few minutes our feet were as good as ever. Falling in smartly, and off again. Passing through small villages, bracing up to make a fine appearance, wishing we had a fife and drum corps in front, but pleased with our own banner carried by one of the big boys. We were soldiers or explorers; we were whatever it pleased us to be; mountain peaks, sunshine, brooks, and trees telling us in chorus but each with the charms of its own voice that in all life there is nothing like this nearness to life.
Leaving the road, which had dwindled to ruts with grass between. We were in the North Woods! Where the Deerslayer had followed trails, where the French and the Indians had fought the Colonists. Struggling through underbrush, and then on sunny slopes snatching at wild, little strawberries as we tramped on. Among tall trees, softness underfoot. Into an upright fringe of the blotchy whiteness of birch. Peeling off white bark, pink inside, looking like a page from our diary, with dashes along in lines. A brown forest in front and behind a forest green on its weather side. The startling of things hidden and then suddenly seen. Far enough away to satisfy anyone.
But then picking up an old envelope. Someone had been there before. Annoyed with the envelope, but keeping it to send to the man it was addressed to; he'd be pleased to have something of his that had lain in the North Woods; he'd marvel that it should be sent back to him after the experiences of all that time.
Kicking the leaves that had been green, were brown, and would be soggy black mass underneath, hoping to stumble across Indian relics. Wishing some Indian had been so thoughtful as to leave lying around a few old relics that he did not want. But we'd be thoughtful; stealing away during a rest, to bury whatever we could find in our pockets, even pennies, for someone to find maybe a thousand years later and be pleased with.
In density, in tallness, and then coming out into openings, all openings looking much alike; rolling ground, clumps of bushes, and bare spots of rock poking through. Straight over, as if directed by sign posts, into the forest again, Old Dug, the guide, going on in an unhesitating line, following a trail that we could not see but were pleased with, because it was not a path but a trail. Old Dug knocking over a woodchuck. A real guide shooting with a real Winchester. Giving us the woodchuck. Woodchuck becoming heavier and heavier, we clinging to it, feeling that we should throw away our blanket first, only the blanket was an "army roll", and our interesting appearance would be marred without it. Skinning the woodchuck while going along, other kid holding the fore feet, we stumbling and jabbing dangerously.
Mistiness of coming evening; clumps of spectral pines and the unknown all around; whisperings and sighings. Loneliness that could not be loneliness with twenty in the band. The horrors of a night in a forest diluted into pleasure, as some thing repulsive may be a perfume when refined.
Leaving the woods at New Russia, right on schedule time, we marvelling that there should be anything of schedules and regularity where all was wilderness to us. We in the Keene Valley, the wonders of everything we had read of valleys crowding around. Sleeping in a barn; just like tramps; jumping into hay, expecting to sleep right away, astonished to learn that one may be too tired to sleep right away.
Off next morning; up the mountain, coming to a little lake, stowed away in a pocket in lofty rock. Finding an old scow, and paddling out, perch swarming so that with several hooks on a line we could catch two at a time. Nothing but a drop of depth and clearness with bushes in a fringe around, caught there on the mountain side. We poking through the tangle, thinking it a likely place for curiosities. Fallen trees, depths of old leaves, the wonderfulness of everything as everything had always been. And then a pile of fish scales! Someone had been there before. The old scow had seemed as if belonging to the scene. But fish scales! Always someone there before.
We on a mountain summit, looking down into the valley, and away off at another mountain; patchwork of different-colored farms, clouds casting fantastic shadows here and there. We feeling high and god-like; the man in the dark-green farm was in sunshine, not knowing that the man in the light-green farm could see nothing but clouds. But we knew. Farms struggling up just so far, and then again everything just as it had always been; trees seeming uniform in bushy greenness, and not some tall, some stunted, some fallen, as on our mountain.
Climbing on a boulder to get to the very summit and feel exalted. Initials cut in the rock. Someone there before. And no place on top for our name. We were half playing and half in earnest; we wedged in a stick with a bit of writing floating out in space above all initials. We would have our name highest of all!
Camping out in a tent; everything we had longed for. Stiff and chattering in the early morning fog; just as we had often wanted to be. Off again. Tramping back, singing songs that made the tramping easy. "John Brown's Body" alone was good for almost a mile. His body a-mouldering in the grave; we and his soul marching on.
Evening on the island. All of us around the fire. Urging Old Dug to tell us stories. Old Dug with long legs in long boots, long body and long face, seeming mostly longness and the rest Adam's apple. Telling his experiences in New York. Yes, that was interesting, but had he ever shot a bear? Tell us a story. Oh, yes, he knocked over a bear now and then or caught one in a trap. We wanted a story? Well, there were his troubles with furniture on the installment plan. But had he ever seen a panther? Do tell us a story! Oh panthers were common enough in his early days. A story? Well, his wife had a tea party now and then, but after all there was never very much going on where he lived.
Why, he never said "b'ars" for bears. It seemed wrong. A panther was only a "cat" and not a "painter." That seemed very wrong. Old Dug would have been much more interesting, if he had read of fishing and hunting instead of having fished and hunted all his life.
Around a real camp fire, shooting sparks making the pine needles crackle overhead, the older boys with banjos and guitars, singing songs we had never heard before. They were songs that breathed something new into our life, or breathed upon and aroused something that had always been. Singing, "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean," and "Goodnight Ladies." We wanted someone in a white dress and a blue ribbon to sing "Goodnight Ladies," to, and then go away "o'er the deep, blue seas."
We'd think of the little girl in the next block; that next block so many miles away. Wishing she could see us with our broad, cowboy-kind of a hat. Wishing she could hear us sing, though we could not sing as the older boys sang. They had a strange, wonderful way that moved us, made us feel gentle and want to be good, filling our mind with pictures of our comradeship out there among pines with water all around, then thrilling us with ambition to be famous and do wonderful things some day. It was singing that was new to us; not singing straight alone, all the same way, but one going down and another going up. We learned that this was bass and tenor; couldn't understand how it was done, but wished that little girl in that far away block could hear us, not knowing but what we were singing that way. If she could only see us, we were sure she would be quite stupified with admiration, for we had walked where Indians had walked, we were on familiar terms with a real guide, and we had seen bear marks on a tree. We trying to sing tenor. Bill, a big boy we admired very much telling us to shut up and stop screeching. Then we were unhappy. Bill hitting us a fearful blow in the ribs. Then we were happy. Because he meant he was sorry he had spoken sharply.
And these young fellows made us feel like just a little kid, we with capabilities for admiring quite as strong as our desire for admiration. Bringing out sort of a feminine attitude in us. We becoming drowsy, leaning against big Bill's shoulder. Bill saying, "Go to sleep, kid." Gentle pleasure upon us that he should call us "kid." Listening to his voice rolling away down deep. Some day our voice would be deep; some day everyone would be proud of us; some day-- Oh, some day!
Knowing not much about ideals those days, but feeling a dozen around
us. How we wanted to be like Bill and Harry and Jimmie
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Statue of Liberty, her torch drooping, knowing not what to do. For what can even Statues of Liberty do when boys are bold?
We wishing that we, too, had the courage to talk and laugh around the fire; there was a girl of about our own age with whom we should very much have liked to talk and laugh with. We were afraid. All we could do was to sit on a log and look noble, and then, feeling too young and an outsider, went down to look after the boats.
Then everyone was ready to leave, promising to call again, at which the Statue of Liberty's torch flared. Rowing away. Singing, "Good Night, Ladies!" And we thrilled with something new in our life. It was romance. Feeling it in the voices on the water, feeling a possession of meaning in our being in darkness with the light on shore left slowly behind.
These are the things that made us go away somewhere to write in our diary. Urged to write of darkness and light left behind. Unable to; writing instead, of filling a fish with a pound of shot and betting it would weigh more than a larger fish. Having an impression of the way singing made us feel; writing of pouring molasses into Crayley's shoes.
Rowing, we with little liking for the labor of rowing. Playing baseball as well as the others but excelling in swimming. In fact, they called us "Froggy." Which we did not resent, though all other nicknames had enraged us, for "Froggy," seemed an honorable title. Diving with our hands behind us, going down like a pointed stick; someone throwing in clam shells, fluttering in all directions, we getting everyone on our way up. Liking to swim under water in the creek, drifting with the current, seeing weeds and pebbles on the bottom go by. Lying lazily in the water, three hundred feet deep, our arms folded, our legs idle, going almost to sleep, a small surf playing on our island of a face. Rising and falling in the rollers of a steamer, waiting for the second set of rollers long afterward.
Now and then we would leave the camp fire, and row away alone. To be horrified. Water by night would make us shrink and shudder, though not in physical shrinking and shuddering. Not open water, we paddling along, liking to trail our hand in the warmth of cold water under still colder air. But when we were alone on water dark in the shadow of rocks or trees. Feeling treachery and awfulness; ripples glittering in an evil gleaming at us. Or in a patch of weeds. Floating foulness; all the mystery and fearfulness of the Sargasso Sea condensed there for us; squirming tentacles, alive and writhing to clutch and drag us down. The superstitious part of us would be frightened; the intelligent part of us would be pleased with the unrealness of awfulness only imagined. Rowing away alone at night deliberately to be horrified.
Just loafing around on the sands, trying to be tanned as much as the pioneers; sharp lines on our arms, where sleeves ended. Burying oneself in the sand, all dry on top, and all moist an inch or two down. Stretching out a set line at night. Mr. Roberts telling us that this was against the law. That was interesting; so in the evening we would stretch out a line to a float, having many pendant hooks. Going in the morning to see what we had caught; really expecting to pull up uncouth, fantastic creatures, if not monsters, just because they were caught in the night.
Wandering around in a meadow, trying to follow a bee; turning over stones to see the beetles and the pale grass in dampness underneath; lying along the branch of a tree overhanging the creek, reading novels or dreaming of the extraordinary things we should do some day.
Westport station again. "All aboard!"
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others with his sense of wonderfulness and difference. We wanted to walk home with her, but, hearing another boy tell her about his toboggan and invite her to go tobogganing with him, we lost courage. We had no toboggan; we had nothing. Feeling that it was disgraceful to let him cut us out. We let him; we had nothing.
What we wanted was a good suit of clothes to go to school in. Many of the boys had suits of black cheviot, which distinguished them as being of what seemed to us the black cheviot caste. That was the caste we wanted to be of. We knew that They were prosperous, and it seemed natural that we should have wants in proportion; but one of the "boys" in the store had a son dressed better than we and the other kid.
And then our first whole suit with long pants in it. It was dark brown with faint, yellow stripes. The menagerie that was we then included a zebra. Suit so tight that there we were with big, fat legs again, and the brown came off on our hands; still, at last we were homogeneous. It was not altogether pleasing to be a zebra, but then that was better than having the hybrid's lonely, unclassified feeling. A few weeks later, and there we had gone through the brown and yellow-striped seat of our trousers. No one mending us; we walking down a class room, with our back to the black board. One does feel so conspicuous when without a seat in one's trousers.
Up in our room, looking at thread and needle, but feeling it beneath
us to do any sewing. Progressive euchre down stairs; costly prizes; everything
always done on a scale that was costly. We upstairs trying to sew rags
together. And succeeding very well, we thought. Sitting down. Swish! Worn
out cheapness could not keep those big, fat legs in. So we pounded a chair,
just as, when a little boy, we pounded chairs
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it was our own work. Dreading to get into trouble; still, we would not.
And this flattering seemed to gather impressions from away back to our very-little-boy days. When books in their own shelves, apart from the pleasing of their stories, had mystic charm so that we would sit and gaze upon shelves of volumes. When names of authors had meaning that no other names had in our seeing. We had always placed writing as the highest of gifts, thinking that only an author could be a genius, rating the inventor and the painter and the orator far below. Impressions gathering into idealizing and marvelling. Strengthened by our study of English literature. We looked upon suicide as wickedness; but the suicide of Chatterton was pathos, causing vividness of picturing that could never be forgotten. The misguided ways of doctors, lawyers, or business men were not to be tolerated, but the improvidence of Goldsmith was picturesqueness. We'd picture the days of Grub Street, admiring every character except Boswell. Boswell was a "supe"; "supes" we hated. But above poets, historians, lexicographers, we rated writers of fiction. Others were plodders; writers of fiction were magicians in our seeing.
A teacher would ask some simple question in geometry; there were we silenced as if with a mind darkened. Asking about some perplexing kind of an accusative; we without a sign of intelligence. Teacher asking some question with the answer not in our school book, such as, "What great author once submitted drawings to Dickens, who rejected them?" Turning instinctively to us, for our hand would be sure to be up, we all eagerness, no lack of intelligence and no mind darkened. Obscure and trivial questions; we with the facts in our storehouse; our hand waving excitedly.
Going over to the "club" in the afternoon. Up in the wrecked, top floor; no carpet left, nothing but barrenness, but new chairs and something new on the mantle piece to make wreck and ruin less uninviting. Having a little football or a little wrestling, but turning to other amusements. Matching pennies; losing all ours, and going to our aunt for more, she seeing nothing wrong in any kind of gambling. Then Mookey taught us poker. Mookey, who had spent a cent once, having no lack of money for poker. Not teaching us the finer points, but the other kid instinctively figuring out stratagems, teaching us. Then we knew as much as Mookey. Then Mookey came around with a faro board. Soon we learned too much of the law of average. Mookey bringing a roulette wheel of card board.
But something was slipping from our life; it distressed us. A football knocked over some of our choicest livers; we were uninterested. Minerals and sea curiosities were covered with dust; we meant to spend a whole Saturday in house-cleaning. But didn't. And then spasms of renewed interest. We'd try to bring back all this that was slipping away. Forcing ourself to go shooting. Hearing a hidden bird whistle; no longer any thrilling. A glimpse of brilliant plumage; no exciting. We'd force ourself to the dreary work of making out a new catalogue; we'd have new labels printed, not liking to pay for them. Minerals and eggs had lost their special interest, which had made them seem far more than only minerals and eggs.
We turned, in a way quite desperate to a new collection to bring back
the wonders of the old collections. Our aunt had many valuable autographs,
some of which had once been in a famous collection; letters from Franklin,
Byron, Scott. We, too, collected autographs, sending to Amiens, France,
asking Jules Verne for his. Jules Verne sent us a little letter in a hand
so minute that we could get no one to translate it. And we sent to Oliver
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