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Chapter 10


The boys began to celebrate it with guns and pistols

The greatest day of all in the Boy's Town was Christmas. In that part of the West the boys had never even heard of Thanksgiving, and their elders knew of it only as a festival of far-off New England. Christmas was the day that was kept in all churches and families, whether they were Methodists or Episcopalians, Baptists or Universalists, Catholics or Protestants; and among boys of whatever persuasion it was kept in a fashion that I suppose may have survived from the early pioneer times, when the means of expressing joy were few and primitive. On Christmas eve, before the church-bells began to ring in the day, the boys began to celebrate it with guns and pistols, with shooting-crackers and torpedoes; and they never stopped as long as their ammunition lasted. A fellow hardly ever had more than a bit to spend, and after he had paid ten cents for a pack of crackers, he had only two cents and a half for powder; and if he wanted his pleasure to last, he had to be careful. Of course he wanted his pleasure to last, but he would rather have had no pleasure at all than be careful, and most of the boys woke Christmas morning empty-handed, unless they had burst their pistols the night before; then they had a little powder left, and could go pretty well into the forenoon if they could find some other boy who had shot off his powder but had a whole pistol left. Lots of fellows' pistols got out of order without bursting, and that saved powder; but generally a fellow kept putting in bigger and bigger loads till his pistol blew to pieces. There were all sorts of pistols; but the commonest was one that the boys called a Christmas-crack; it was of brass, and when it burst the barrel curled up like a dandelion stem when you split it and put it in water. A Christmas-crack in that shape was a trophy; but of course the little boys did not have pistols; they had to put up with shooting-crackers, or maybe just torpedoes. Even then the big boys would get to fire them off on one pretext or another. Some fellows would hold a cracker in their hands till it exploded; nearly everybody had burned thumbs, and some of the boys had their faces blackened with powder. Now and then a fellow who was nearly grown up would set off a whole pack of crackers in a barrel; it seemed almost incredible to the little boys.

It was glorious, and I do not think any of the boys felt that there was anything out of keeping in their way of celebrating the day, for I do not think they knew why they were celebrating it, or, if they knew, they never thought. It was simply a holiday, and was to be treated like a holiday. After all, perhaps there are just as strange things done by grown people in honor of the loving and lowly Saviour of Men; but we will not enter upon that question. When they had burst their pistols or fired off their crackers, the boys sometimes huddled into the back part of the Catholic church and watched the service, awed by the dim altar lights, the rising smoke of incense, and the grimness of the sacristan, an old German, who stood near to keep order among them. They knew the fellows who were helping the priest; one of them was the boy who stood on his head till he had to have it shaved; they would have liked to mock him then and there for wearing a petticoat, and most of them had the bitterest scorn and hate for Catholics in their hearts; but they were afraid of the sacristan, and they behaved very well as long as they were in the church; but as soon as they got out they whooped and yelled, and stoned the sacristan when he ran after them.

My boy would have liked to do all that too, just to be with the crowd, but at home he had been taught to believe that Catholics were as good as anybody, and that you must respect everybody's religion. His father and the priest were friendly acquaintances, and in a dim way he knew that his father had sometimes taken the Catholics' part in his paper when the prejudice against foreigners ran high. He liked to go to the Catholic church, though he was afraid of the painted figure that hung full length on the wooden crucifix, with the blood-drops under the thorns on its forehead, and the red wound in its side. He was afraid of it as something both dead and alive; he could not keep his eyes away from the awful, beautiful, suffering face, and the body that seemed to twist in agony, and the hands and feet so cruelly nailed to the cross.

But he never connected the thought of that anguish with Christmas. His head was too full of St. Nicholas, who came down the chimney, and filled your stockings; the day belonged to St. Nicholas. The first thing when you woke you tried to catch everybody, and you caught a person if you said "Christmas Gift!" before he or she did; and then the person you caught had to give you a present. Nobody ever said "Merry Christmas!" as people do now; and I do not know where the custom of saying "Christmas Gift" came from. It seems more sordid and greedy than it really was; the pleasure was to see who could say it first; and the boys did not care for what they got if they beat, any more than they cared for what they won in fighting eggs at Easter.

At New-Year's the great thing was to sit up and watch the old year out; but the little boys could not have kept awake even if their mothers had let them. In some families, perhaps of Dutch origin, the day was kept instead of Christmas, but for most of the fellows it was a dull time. You had spent all your money at Christmas, and very likely burst your pistol, anyway. It was some consolation to be out of school, which did not keep on New-Year's; and if it was cold you could have fires on the ice; or, anyway, you could have fires on the river-bank, or down by the shore, where there was always plenty of drift-wood.

But New-Year's could not begin to compare with Easter. All the boys' mothers colored eggs for them at Easter; I do not believe there was a mother in the Boy's Town mean enough not to. By Easter Day, in that Southern region, the new grass was well started, and grass gave a beautiful yellow color to the eggs boiled with it. Onions colored them a soft, pale green, and logwood, black; but the most esteemed egg of all was a calico-egg. You got a piece of new calico from your mother, or maybe some of your aunts, and you got somebody (most likely your grandmother, if she was on a visit at the time) to sew an egg up in it; and when the egg was boiled it came out all over the pattern of the calico. My boy's brother once had a calico-egg that seemed to my boy a more beautiful piece of color than any Titian he has seen since; it was kept in a bureau-drawer till nobody could stand the smell. But most Easter eggs never outlasted Easter Day. As soon as the fellows were done breakfast they ran out of the house and began to fight eggs with the other fellows. They struck the little ends of the eggs together, and if your egg broke another fellow's egg, then you had a right to it. Sometimes an egg was so hard that it would break every other egg in the street; and generally when a little fellow lost his egg, he began to cry and went into the house. This did not prove him a cry-baby; it was allowable, like crying when you stumped your toe. I think this custom of fighting eggs came from the Pennsylvania Germans, to whom the Boy's Town probably owed its Protestant observance of Easter. There was nothing religious in the way the boys kept it, any more than there was in their way of keeping Christmas.

I do not think they distinguished between it and All-Fool's Day in character or dignity. About the best thing you could do then was to write April Fool on a piece of paper and pin it to a fellow's back, or maybe a girl's, if she was a big girl, and stuck-up, or anything. I do not suppose there is a boy now living who is silly enough to play this trick on anybody, or mean enough to fill an old hat with rocks and brickbats, and dare a fellow to kick it; but in the Boy's Town there were some boys who did this; and then the fellow had to kick the hat, or else come under the shame of having taken a dare. Most of the April-foolings were harmless enough, like saying, "Oh, see that flock of wild-geese flying over!" and "What have you got on the back of your coat!" and holloing "April Fool!" as soon as the person did it. Sometimes a crowd of boys got a bit with a hole in it, and tied a string in it, and laid it on the sidewalk, and then hid in a cellar, and when anybody stooped to pick it up, they pulled it in. That was the greatest fun, especially if the person was stingy; but the difficulty was to get the bit, whether it had a hole in it or not.

From the first of April till the first of May was a long stretch of days, and you never heard any one talk about a May Party till April Fool was over. Then there always began to be talk of a May Party, and who was going to be invited. It was the big girls that always intended to have it, and it was understood at once who was going to be the Queen. At least the boys had no question, for there was one girl in every school whom all the boys felt to be the most beautiful; but probably there was a good deal of rivalry and heart-burning among the girls themselves. Very likely it was this that kept a May Party from hardly ever coming to anything but the talk. Besides the Queen, there were certain little girls who were to be Lambs; I think there were Maids of Honor, too; but I am not sure. The Lambs had to keep very close to the Queen's person, and to wait upon her; and there were boys who had to hold the tassels of the banners which the big boys carried. These boys had to wear white pantaloons, and shoes and stockings, and very likely gloves, and to suffer the jeers of the other fellows who were not in the procession. The May Party was a girl's affair altogether, though the boys were expected to help; and so there were distinctions made that the boys never dreamed of in their rude republic, where one fellow was as good as another, and the lowest-down boy in town could make himself master if he was bold and strong enough. The boys did not understand those distinctions, and nothing of them remained in their minds after the moment; but the girls understood them, and probably they were taught at home to feel the difference between themselves and other girls, and to believe themselves of finer clay. At any rate, the May Party was apt to be poisoned at its source by questions of class; and I think it might have been in the talk about precedence, and who should be what, that my boy first heard that such and such a girl's father was a mechanic, and that it was somehow dishonorable to be a mechanic. He did not know why, and he has never since known why, but the girls then knew why, and the women seem to know now. He was asked to be one of the boys who held the banner-tassels, and he felt this a great compliment somehow, though he was so young that he had afterwards only the vaguest remembrance of marching in the procession, and going to a raw and chilly grove somewhere, and having untimely lemonade and cake. Yet these might have been the associations of some wholly different occasion.

No aristocratic reserves marred the glory of Fourth of July. My boy was quite a well-grown boy before he noticed that there were ever any clouds in the sky except when it was going to rain. At all other times, especially in summer, it seemed to him that the sky was perfectly blue, from horizon to horizon; and it certainly was so on the Fourth of July. He usually got up pretty early, and began firing off torpedoes and shooting-crackers, just as at Christmas. Everybody in town had been wakened by the salutes fired from the six-pounder on the river-bank, and by the noise of guns and pistols; and right after breakfast you heard that the Butler Guards were out, and you ran up to the court-house yard with the other fellows to see if it was true. It was not true, just yet, perhaps, but it came true during the forenoon, and in the meantime the court-house yard was a scene of festive preparation. There was going to be an oration and a public dinner, and they were already setting the tables under the locust-trees. There may have been some charge for this dinner, but the boys never knew of that, or had any question of the bounty that seemed free as the air of the summer day.

High Street was thronged with people, mostly country-jakes who had come to town with their wagons and buggies for the celebration. The young fellows and their girls were walking along hand in hand, eating gingerbread, and here and there a farmer had already begun his spree, and was whooping up and down the sidewalk unmolested by authority. The boys did not think it at all out of the way for him to be in that state; they took it as they took the preparations for the public dinner, and no sense of the shame and sorrow it meant penetrated their tough ignorance of life. He interested them because, after the regular town drunkards, he was a novelty; but, otherwise, he did not move them. By and by they would see him taken charge of by his friends and more or less brought under control; though if you had the time to follow him up you could see him wanting to fight his friends and trying to get away from them. Whiskey was freely made and sold and drunk in that time and that region; but it must not be imagined that there was no struggle against intemperance. The boys did not know it, but there was a very strenuous fight in the community against the drunkenness that was so frequent; and there were perhaps more people who were wholly abstinent then than there are now. The forces of good and evil were more openly arrayed against each other among people whose passions were strong and still somewhat primitive; and those who touched not, tasted not, handled not, far outnumbered those who looked upon the wine when it was red. The pity for the boys was that they saw the drunkards every day, and the temperance men only now and then; and out of the group of boys who were my boy's friends, many kindly fellows came to know how strong drink could rage, how it could bite like the serpent, and sting like an adder.

But the temperance men made a show on the Fourth of July as well as the drunkards, and the Sons of Temperance walked in the procession with the Masons and the Odd-Fellows. Sometimes they got hold of a whole Fourth, and then there was nothing but a temperance picnic in the Sycamore Grove, which the boys took part in as Sunday-school scholars. It was not gay; there was no good reason why it should leave the boys with the feeling of having been cheated out of their holiday, but it did. A boy's Fourth of July seemed to end about four o'clock, anyhow. After that, he began to feel gloomy, no matter what sort of a time he had. That was the way he felt after almost any holiday.

Market-day was a highday in the Boy's Town, and it would be hard to say whether it was more so in summer than in winter. In summer, the market opened about four or five o'clock in the morning, and by this hour my boy's father was off twice a week with his market-basket on his arm. All the people did their marketing in the same way; but it was a surprise for my boy, when he became old enough to go once with his father, to find the other boys' fathers at market too. He held on by his father's hand, and ran by his side past the lines of wagons that stretched sometimes from the bridge to the court-house, in the dim morning light. The market-house, where the German butchers in their white aprons were standing behind their meat-blocks, was lit up with candles in sconces, that shone upon festoons of sausage and cuts of steak dangling from the hooks behind them; but without, all was in a vague obscurity, broken only by the lanterns in the farmers' wagons. There was a market-master, who rang a bell to open the market, and if anybody bought or sold anything before the tap of that bell, he would be fined. People would walk along the line of wagons, where the butter and eggs, apples and peaches and melons, were piled up inside near the tail-boards, and stop where they saw something they wanted, and stand near so as to lay hands on it the moment the bell rang. My boy remembered stopping that morning by the wagon of some nice old Quaker ladies, who used to come to his house, and whom his father stood chatting with till the bell rang. They probably had an understanding with him about the rolls of fragrant butter which he instantly lifted into his basket. But if you came long after the bell rang, you had to take what you could get.

There was a smell of cantaloupes in the air, along the line of wagons, that morning, and so it must have been towards the end of the summer. After the nights began to lengthen and to be too cold for the farmers to sleep in their wagons, as they did in summer on the market eves, the market time was changed to midday. Then it was fun to count the wagons on both sides of the street clear to where they frayed off into wood-wagons, and to see the great heaps of apples and cabbages, and potatoes and turnips, and all the other fruits and vegetables which abounded in that fertile country. There was a great variety of poultry for sale, and from time to time the air would be startled with the clamor of fowls transferred from the coops where they had been softly crr-crring in soliloquy to the hand of a purchaser who walked off with them and patiently waited for their well-grounded alarm to die away. All the time the market-master was making his rounds; and if he saw a pound roll of butter that he thought was under weight, he would weigh it with his steelyards, and if it was too light he would seize it. My boy once saw a confiscation of this sort with such terror as he would now, perhaps, witness an execution.

William Dean Howells

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