What a Small Boy Knows

SOMETIMES, when I am out reading on the porch, Edgar and Frank and Walter come over to chat with me. Edgar and Frank are brothers who admit to the ages of eleven and nine respectively. Walter is apparently somewhere around there. All three of them live near by. When they see me, Walter says: ‘Hi, Parke.’ Then Edgar says it, then Frank. I am pretty well used to it by now, but I should still prefer to have them say it simultaneously, because each of them expects a return acknowledgment on my part. I’d prefer to lump them into one good ‘Hi.’

Lately I have taken to questioning them the moment I see them. The reason for this, of course, is that if I don’t, they question me. Generally speaking, I’m fonder of asking questions than of answering them. Here is what I have been able to discover to date: —

They have heard of Mussolini and Hitler, and can identify neither. All three of them are dead certain that Franklin D. Roosevelt is the President of the United States. Edgar knew that the answer to ‘ What makes more noise than a pig under a fence?’ is ‘Two pigs,’ but the other two did n’t.

They know that Babe Ruth is a ball player who hits home runs, but are not certain whether he plays for Harvard or Yale. They have not heard of Lou Gehrig, Carl Hubbell, Jimmie Foxx, Ty Cobb, or any other ball player past or present, so far as I can determine. They know that Washington is the capital of the United States, but when I asked for the capital of Germany, Walter was the only one who vouchsafed an answer. He said, ‘France.’ Walter has been in school longer, I think.

They cannot identify Bill Tilden or Bobby Jones or any other tennis player or golfer, but they know who Jack Dempsey, Max Schmeling, and Primo Camera are. They also know that Camera had no clothes on in his last fight — he fought Baer. Edgar and Walter know that nine nines are eighty-one, but not what 50 per cent of ten comes to. They know that in 1492 Columbus discovered America.

When I asked them what Abraham Lincoln was famous for, Edgar, after some hesitation, said: ‘One day he walked three miles because he had given someone the wrong change.’ They correctly identified Dillinger, and went so far as to qualify him as ‘the worst bad man there ever was.’ Jesse James meant nothing to them, however. Frank was of the impression that Robinson Crusoe was a bad man who liked to help the poor people. He admitted that he meant Robin Hood.

Movie and radio stars seemed pitifully easy for all three contestants, who identified such actual and fictitious personages as Mae West, Paul Whiteman, Wallace Beery, Amos ’n’ Andy, Greta Garbo, Ed Wynn, Rudy Vallee, Mickey Mouse, Floyd Gibbons, Charlie Chaplin, Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford, Jimmy Durante, and Tarzan. They knew that Johnny Weismuller has played the rôle of Tarzan, and that he was a swimmer before he went into the movies.

However, there was an unmistakable tendency to attribute screen and radio careers to a number of celebrities in other fields. Joan of Arc, thought Walter, is a movie actress, and Shakespeare is on the radio. He identified Henry Wadsworth Longfellow as a poet, but I failed to discover any other author who means anything to him. Edgar Rice Burroughs, Eddie Guest, and Charles Dickens, for instance, don’t. Gandhi, according to Frank, is in the movies.

Lindbergh, of course, was apple pie, and so were Henry Ford and Thomas Edison. Sherlock Holmes and Captain Kidd drew blanks, the only guess being that the Captain and the Kids are a comic strip. Mutt and Jeff, Joe Palooka, and the few other comic-strip characters I was able to think of caused none of them any trouble. I am at a loss to explain, however, why Edgar thinks that the Prince of Wales ‘lives in the sea,’ or why Walter puts the Pope down as a flower.

General Pershing, J. P. Morgan, Red Grange, A1 Smith, and Paavo Nurmi have apparently done nothing to cause any stir, but Washington, Coolidge, and Hoover have all been Presidents, and Albie Booth was a football player — the only one they have heard of.

John D. Rockefeller is by all odds the most versatile world figure today. According to Edgar he is a ball player, and according to Frank he has a church on Riverside Drive. Walter maintains that he is a famous bad man.