Hunting for the Plot—Chapter 8: The Runaway

When Herb was 14, he quarreled with his drunken step-father for the last time. The quarrel was about high school. Herb wanted to go. His step-father didn’t want him to. “An educated damn fool is all you’ll be.” The next morning Herb said goodbye to his mother and“lit out”—left home never to return. He had a folding knife and seventy-five cents in his pockets.

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Chapter 8—The Runaway

Joplin was a lively town during the first decade of the twentieth century. It was at the center of a lead and zinc boom. Thomas Hart Benton, at the ripe old age of 17, had a job there for awhile as a cartoonist for the Joplin American. He wrote that “The saloon doors—and there were plenty of them—swung constantly. Money was being made and all the devices of our rough and ready civilization were set up to see that it was spent. Everything was there—drugstores, slot machines, real estate slickers, soliciting preachers, and off the main street, a row of houses devoted to insinuatingly decorated girls.”

Herb’s stepfather taught him to measure yard goods and put him to work in the store on weekends and after school. His new school was Irving Elementary, where the principal, Mr. Harold Spade, also taught eighth grade. First thing every morning, Spade led all the students in the Pledge of Allegiance and then they all sang “My Country ’Tis of Thee.” Herb thought Mr. Spade was “a real man who believed in us and in America.”

But Herb didn’t believe in himself. To bolster his status with his new classmates, he began treating them to candy and soda pop that he bought with nickels from the cash drawer at his stepfather’s store. When Ellsworth discovered this, Herb got a spanking to remember.

They were not off to a good start.

Herb’s new stepfather had assured Edna that he’d stopped drinking, but he kept a bottle hidden at the store. When Herb caught him “refreshing himself,” his stepfather explained that this was “a man secret.” But Herb went straight to his mother with the news.

One day as he was playing marbles on the sidewalk in front of the store, he got into an argument with his opponent—a bigger boy. Herb challenged him to a fight. This would have ended with shoves, sneers, and taunts if the boys had been left alone. Neither of them had any doubt about who would win a real fight. But Herb’s stepfather came out of the store with two pairs of boxing gloves and suggested that Herb and his friend settle their differences “properly.” The fight took place behind the store. Herb understood at once that his stepfather was setting him up, but he was too proud to back down. He didn’t last through the first round.

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