When I Was a Boy
The Contributors’ Club.
“ FOBS AN et hæc olim meminisse juvahit, I began. " Construe, interrupted the master dryly. Now it was the custom in Cohannet Academy for a pupil to pronounce his allotment of Vergil’s immortal lines, and then to do them into English, with as little wear and tear of the master’s nerves as possible. So when Mr. Trand said, “Construe,” his proceeding took on the nature of a flank movement. To be sure, had not a guilty conscience weighed me down, I might have made a bold try at the line. To one who had been forced to memorize a whole page of Latin grammar on the subject of defective verbs, “ meminisse ” was not so formidable as its look; and “ juvabit,” in one or another of its “ pleasing ” forms, was a well-known friend. But if the master’s manner meant anything, it meant that I was weighed in the balances and found wanting , so I faltered, until “ Sit down ” came, in the same sarcastic tone.
A wonderful man was Mr. Trand. How did he know that, totally unprepared with my translation, I was afraid to say so, and hoped to soften his displeasure by scanning the lines in my most scholarly manner ? I had failed to keep my appointment with Publius Vergilius Maro the evening before, on account of a previous and more important engagement. It was the First of May, the date sacred to the hanging of May baskets. Thirty years ago,'in the country, “ hanging May baskets ” meant high carnival in prankdom. With some boys it lasted the month through. But my father, who had never formulated the doctrine that “ one man’s rights end where another’s begin,” nevertheless held to its substance, and allowed me one night only for the mad romp. My small daughters demand an appreciable sum of money for their Maying ; but we of the farming districts, in those old days, found our pockets none the lighter for our fun. We hung dried herrings, — alewives being plentiful in the Great River, — and potato lay figures, and even “poetry.” We ran for miles, we paid old scores, we incurred risks of canine attacks. So, “ Sit down,” said Mr. Trand, and I sat down, — ashamed, but not sorrowful. I must pay the piper, but had I not danced ?
That was before intermission. “ After school ” I sat glowering at my book, my heart hot with scorn ; not because I must prepare my translation before I went home, but because I must translate such absurd and pernicious sentiments. “ Pleasing to remember these things hereafter”! Well, so I thought the night before, or even that morning, despite Mr. Trand’s intimation that boys who didn’t intend to get their lessons would do well to stay away from school altogether. But the entire aspect of “ these things ” had changed since morning. At intermission I had umpired a baseball game. Through what strange attribute of human nature is it always possible to find an umpire for a boys’ game of ball ? He knows beforehand that he will leave the field with as many temporary enemies as there are players on the losing side. He knows his physical, mental, and moral reputation will be in rags. And woe to his vulnerable spot! Let him not think to cover it from the sharp eyes of enraged boyhood. I had many times been called “ farmer ” and “ hayseed.” I did not much care. Farmers had their compensations, and hayseed was good in its place. I had myself acquired considerable proficiency in inventing names with little sharp points to them. But that day’s taunt struck deeper, and, so to speak, drew blood. Although not sharing in the physical heat of the contest, I had removed my coat and “ vest,” and as I stood contending that Melvin Thomas was on the base when the ball touched him, and consequently was not “out,” some one of my opponents cried : “ Oh, he’s got on a woman’s shirt! Look at the woman’s shirt! ” The phrase struck the crowd as a most ingenious instrument of torture, and presently even Melvin Thomas, whose cause I had espoused so hotly, joined in the cry, “ Oh, see the woman’s shirt! ” These were things “ pleasing to remember,” indeed! When I got home I would tear off that shirt! Yes, tear it off!
My tormentors meant only that my shirt gave evidence of being made by my mother’s unskillful fingers. Not that she was unskillful, to speak exactly, but just unmindful of fashion’s dictates, and satisfied with the models of her own youth. Indeed, every garment I wore was subject to the same reproach, a fact well known to my acute schoolfellows. But they could hardly have shouted — in those days — “woman’s trousers” or “ woman’s vest,” and perhaps neither would have made so effective a war cry.
I walked the four miles home, that night, with my mind made up. I would go out into the world and make a place for myself, and it would be a place where all clothes were irreproachably “ readymade.” And so it came about. Only, such is the mutability of human opinion that “ ready-made ” clothing no longer seems to be the guarantee of high social standing ! But my real life seems to begin with that day, — with the happiness of the May evening, and the parsing of Vergil, and the scorn of my companions, and the hot resolve in my boyish heart; and I find now that Vergil is right, and that somehow it is “pleasing to remember.”