Mr. Bolton's Birthday: A True Story

by JAMES NORMAN HALL

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ON THE morning of July 4 of last year, I went to pay my respects to my friend, Mr. Washington Bolton, on his eighty-fifth birthday. As I biked along the road in the direction of his house, the old saying, “He has lived well who finishes well,” was running through my head, and I thought how exactly it applied to Mr. Bolton, but I shouldn’t dare tell him so. He would stoutly deny that he has reached the finishing period of life. If one may say that his Indian summer began at seventy, he has already enjoyed fifteen years of it, and I see no reason why he should not have fifteen to come. A more vigorous, keen-minded, blithespirited octogenarian it has never been my privilege to know.

Mr. Bolton is not a man to talk about himself, but during the past decade and a half which he has spent on the island of Tahiti I have gathered some of the facts of his life. He is an Englishman whose father honored the memory of the founders of the American Republic; hence the Christian name given the son, whose actual birthday is July 3, but he prefers to consider the fourth as his proper anniversary. He is a loyal Cambridge man who entered Caius College in 1877. He graduated B.A. in 1880 and took his Master’s degree three years later. At Cambridge, his interests were equally divided between scholarship and sports. In 1879, he won the British amateur championship for the half mile, and at the same period set a passing record for the thousand-yard race. He was also a boxer, a footballer (both Rugby and soccer), a long-distance swimmer, and an ardent tennis player when that now universal sport was in its infancy. He is proud of being a Cambridge Blue, and is still a member of the Achilles Club of London, which is made up of both Cambridge and Oxford Blues. He is the oldest Cambridge member, the only surviving one of his day, but Oxford has two members senior to him: Lord Desborough, President of the Club, and Mr. F. C. Coxhead.

On this, his eighty-fifth birthday, I had hoped to prod Mr. Bolton into telling me something more of his early life, but upon arriving at his house I found him absent. He had left a penciled note on the table: —

“Gone for a walk. Back this evening.”

His small house, although built in the native style, of palm-frond thatch, is somehow as English as eggs and bacon, and it is unmistakably stamped with his personality, like the clothes he wears. It is a charming house, always in perfect order, and contains nothing superfluous to his needs. His halfacre garden is as “Boltonian” as the house: the smooth green turf, the flowers and shrubs and flowering trees, the pineapples, bananas, and papayas, all planted and cared for by himself, give this quiet, sunny retreat, with its glimpses through the foliage of distant mountains, an ideal aspect, like that of a place dreamed of in some old book of fairy tales. And dreamed of it was, of course. Mr. Bolton is the kind of man who makes his dreams come true.

I think he must have had the dream in the background of consciousness all through the first seventy years of his life spent in schoolmastering on islands and continents of both hemispheres, but chiefly in the Western Hemisphere, from the far north to lonely islands of t he tropical Pacific. At Cambridge he prepared for the career of a Church of England parson, but it was inevitable that he should have entered the teaching profession. He was born for it.

What I have learned of his life has come in by-theway fashion, by bringing up the subject of teaching. That sets him off. How often I have heard him say: “Hall, it’s the finest, the most rewarding of all careers. When that fact is recognized universally and the men and women enter it who should go into it, the rising generations will build the kind of world we’ve been fumbling toward for so many centuries.”

Knowing Mr. Bolton, I am certain that, wherever he has gone, over the earth, he has left behind him hundreds of grateful youngsters whose interests have been stirred, broadened, and directed, whose minds and spirits have been quickened and developed to their highest capacities through contact with his own.

The size of the teaching opportunity means little to him, for he is one of those true teachers whose ambition is not for themselves but for the youngsters under their care. He was one of the founders, in 1908, of the University School, of Victoria, British Columbia. Years later, when he was at the southern end of the Pacific, he chanced to read in an Auckland paper that a teacher was wanted for Niue, a lonely little island dependency of New Zealand, 600 miles west of Rarotonga and 350 miles southeast of Samoa. Mr. Bolton was then sixty-seven, and really thinking about retiring, but when he learned that the Niue post was not wanted by others because of its remoteness, he immediately offered his services, gratefully accepted by the Minister of Education. He spent nearly three years teaching the children of Niue, a crumb of land 100 miles square, with a population of 3500 Polynesians. Then, in 1928, in his seventieth year, he set out for Tahiti, to rest for the remainder of his days.

He had rested for, perhaps, a week when he became interested in Polynesian history as it concerns Tahiti. He discovered that a great deal of field work yet needed to be done; so he started tramping the island over, exploring the sites of ancient buildings and the scenes of ancient happenings, reading neglected manuscripts, making researches that no one before him had had the energy or the interest or the patience to make. The results, so far, are contained in two thick manuscript volumes, written out in his beautiful Spencerian hand. These he has placed in the custody of the British consulate for the use of anyone who may wish to consult them. They are well worth consulting, as those who have read them can testify.

I seem to have st rayed from the morning of July 4, but I am still on Mr. Bolton’s veranda, regarding the penciled note: “Gone for a walk. Back this evening.” I supposed that he was spending the anniversary on one of his customary excursions, verifying some item of local lore for a projected Volume III of the History of Tahiti. I mused, a little sadly, over the changes increasing years inevitably bring, even to so sturdy an octogenarian as himself. In his younger days, while teaching in Canada, he had spent two consecutive summers walking, with a seventy-pound packsack, the full length of Vancouver Island. He followed a direct central line from Cape Commerell to Victoria: the first man, perhaps the only one, who has done this.

In his spare time he had roamed all over the far north, living with Indians and Eskimos. With one companion, he had voyaged the full length of the Yukon, in a fiat-bottomed boat, from its lake beginnings to the Bering Sea, shooting the Whitehorse and Fivefingers rapids en route. I remembered his telling me that he had celebrated his twenty-fifth birthday, in England, by a sixty-mile walk accomplished in twenty-four hours — twenty, actual walking time.

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As I biked on from his house to Papeete, our little port town, I was thinking: “Well, that kind of activity is over, even for Mr. Bolton. Whatever he may be doing this morning, perhaps he too is thinking, somewhat wistfully, of that sixty-mile walk of sixty years ago.”

I did some errands around town and then went to the Restaurant du Coin for my lunch. Tahiti, one of the first colonies of France to join the Free French movement under General de Gaulle’s leadership, was observing our American Independence Day, and most of the people had gone to the country; but at the restaurant I met another of the island’s distinguished octogenarians, Mr. Arthur Brander, whose home is ten miles out from Papeete, on the western side of the island.

He greeted me with: “Hall, where do you suppose Bolton is today?”

“I don’t know,” I replied. “I called at his house on my way into town and found a note on his table saying he had gone for a walk.”

“A walk!” exclaimed Mr. Brander. “I should think he has gone for a walk! He routed me out of bed at six o’clock this morning. Said he wanted to have coffee with me. He’s on his way to the cave in Paéa and expects to return this evening!”

“ What! ” I said. “ Why, that’s forty miles, to the cave and back!”

“ I know — exactly forty miles,” said Mr. Brander, “and he means to measure the lot of them with a pair of eighty-five-year-old legs! He was going strong at my place, but I’m worried. He’ll never make the whole distance.”

But he did. He reached the cave with its cool underground lake at 10.00 A.M., and having rested and refreshed himself for an hour, started homeward, Tahiti is not famous as an island whose inhabitants, whether white or native, are given to any great amount of physical exertion, and Mr. Bolton’s walk created something of a stir. Throughout the afternoon, news of his progress kept coming in from people who had passed him in carriages, motorcars, and on bicycles. Mr. de Lambert, our American consul, taking an Independence Day bike ride, had passed him twice, going and coming. So, too, had Monsieur Brault, former mayor of Papeete, the second time when Mr. Bolton had twelve miles of the homeward journey behind him. Stirred by such an example of octogenarian pluck and stamina, Mr. Brault stopped his car, leaped out, and, to Mr. Bolton’s astonishment, embraced him, French fashion, shouting “Vive Bolton!” to the other members of his party, who responded with enthusiasm. Then, in honor of the day, he added: “Vive l’Angleterre! Vive l’Amérique! Vive La France! Vive la Russie! Vive the United Nations!” Mr. Bolton was a worthy representative of all of them on that occasion.

The latest news of his progress was brought by Mr. Bolton himself, walking at his steady, deliberate pace through Papeete, on to the district of Pirae, where he lives, down the lane leading to his house, and up the steps to his veranda at exactly 8.00 P.M. — fifteen hours actual walking time for the forty miles.

Sixty miles in twenty hours, although a stiffish walk, would not, I think, be considered an extraordinary achievement for a youth of twenty-live. What does seem to me remarkable is that the same enthusiastic pedestrian, sixty years later, could leg off forty miles between the hours of 3.00 A.M. and 8.00 P.M. of a single day, under a tropical sun, and be none the worse for it. That must be close to a record for a man of eighty-five. I shouldn’t wonder if it is a record.

When I saw him he’d had a warm bath and was briskly rubbing down his legs with coconut oil.

“Well, Mr. Bolton, how did it go?” I asked.

He looked up with a faint smile.

“Hall, you know I go to bed with the birds and get up with them. I’m a bit late this evening.”

“I know,” I replied, apologetically. “I just wanted to be sure that you’re all right.”

“All right? Of course I’m all right!” Then he added, with a grin: “But I couldn’t have done sixty miles today to save me. Forty was enough.”

“Any blisters?”

“Not one. My feet are in excellent condition,” and I could see that for myself.

Mr. Bolton told me later that now, at eightyfive, he weighs exactly what he weighed as a Cambridge undergraduate — one hundred and sixtyeight pounds. I asked his advice as to the best way of preparing for a long and happy old age.

“First, choose carefully your parents and grandparents,” he said. “Be sure they are men and women of rugged health. That’s luck, of course. It was my luck. Then, for long-distance, healthy living, ‘Go slow and go far’ is a good motto. It’s about the same as to say: ‘Moderation in all things. ‘ ”

“Yes,” I replied. “A forty-mile walk on your eighty-fifth birthday is an excellent example of moderation!”

“I knew perfectly well I could do it,” he said; “otherwise I should never have made the attempt.”

“ But happiness is more than the blessing of good physical machinery,” I said. “What, in your opinion, makes for the kind of happiness that never fails a man?”

He replied, instantly: “Schoolteaching. It’s the finest of all professions,” and he was off again on the joys of that career.

Presently I suggested that he should write the Secretary of the Achilles Club, telling how he had celebrated his eighty-fifth birthday. He considered this for a moment, then smiled and shook his head.

“It wouldn’t do,” he said. “You see, Lord Dcsborough and F. C. Coxhead, my only contemporaries in the Club, may be still living. They’d want to go me one better. They couldn’t, of course, being Oxford men. But they would, unquestionably, kill themselves trying to.”