My First Disillusionment

— Among the trials of a sensitive and imaginative childhood, not the least is the hollow misery which comes with repeated disillusionment. However it may have appeared since, it was no jesting matter when the discovery was made that there was no Santa Claus other than the multiple loving-kindness of one’s elders, that we might have saved the tears we shed for the Babes in the Wood for some better authenticated tragedy, and that no birds were ever caught by saline artifice.

I well remember the first great disenchantment which fell to my lot. One sad day I went to Boston, where I was placed by my father in charge of a maiden lady of years and oracularity. After a sojourn of some weeks, I returned to my home in Staten Island, the poorer by a revelation, — a revelation that laid low all my dreams of martial prowess, all the pomp and circumstance of glorious war. It had been explained to me at Cambridge, under the shadow of Harvard University, that a soldier was nothing but a man ; that is, a man dressed up to look like a soldier. This was the beginning of my disillusionment, and no round-eyed, child ever mourned the unhappy scissors-gash which let the sawdust out of a pet doll as I mourned this descent from romance to reality. A soldier was nothing but a man ! I speedily imparted to the junior members of my family the melancholy tidings, and was listened to with incredulity. “ Yes, yes,” said my youngest brother, aged four, brandishing a toy gun, “ but how could you make your face look like a soldier ? ” Here logic was at fault, physiology had no answer, and I stood humbly convicted of that greatest of rhetorical crimes, — the attempt to prove too much.

At this critical juncture of my moral evolution a recent war had imparted unusual interest to the soldier ; militia regiments were ostentatiously displaying their hardihood on all possible occasions; and it was to those stragglers who drifted in our direction, in full uniform, that we owed such glimpses of military life as were then vouchsafed us. But it was not long permitted us to revel in our innocent hero-worship. The martial myth and demigod suffered a steady disintegration, even in the faith of the most confident among our little band of believers, until at last we were all united in the unwelcome rationalism of my unfortunate Bostonian ingraftment : we were sorrowfully agreed that a soldier, after all, was but a man, dress he never so nicely.

Something of a metaphorical value subtly attached itself to this little experience of disillusionment. In days long after, when the gray mists of doubt had rolled over my benumbed senses, when the vast array of unanswered questions, of unsolved problems, of insoluble mysteries, had accumulated, until life seemed but a maze of uncertainties, how often would I have been glad to go back to that era when our superiors in martial regimentals were something more than mere men, now that all appeal whatsoever had to be brought, in some guise or other, to another man,—to one who, were he statesman, poet, philosopher, theologian, metaphysician, scientist, was “ nothing but a man dressed up ” !