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.
There was a Holiness church down the street from the store, and the neighborhood was full of “Holy Rollers.” A couple of them ran up big bills at the store. When Herb’s stepfather cut off their credit, they stopped shopping there—and so did their coreligionists. Soon Herb’s family was living on inventory.
To help out, Herb pulled his little red wagon through the alleys of Joplin, sorting through people’s trash, looking for rags, paper, bottles, scrap iron, and bones—anything he could sell. At one point, the backyard of the house on Joplin Street was piled high with animal bones he had collected but not yet sold.
When he found an empty Fatima cigarette package, he always checked to see if the gypsy card was still inside. With enough of those cards a boy could send in for all kinds of prizes. But if he spotted Bonnie O’Rourke while he was on his rounds, he dodged between houses so she wouldn’t see him. She was his girlfriend, and he didn’t want her to know how poor he was.
Besides selling what he found in the trash, he made some money by looking after a neighbor’s cow. Mornings and evenings, he walked her to and from her pasture about two miles from town. One evening when he went to fetch her, she was gone. Weeping, he reported this to his employer, expecting to lose his job. But the man didn’t respond the way Herb’s experience with his stepfather had led him to expect adults to respond: “Don’t worry, son. We’ll find her.”
They walked back to the pasture together but there was no cow to be found. That night, however, she came home on her own. So Herb did not lose his job.
Herb’s stepfather finally sold his failing store and used the money to buy a horse and a prospector’s outfit. Then he rode off to look for a fortune in the ground. Edna, now on her own, made do with Harry’s life-insurance money. He’d taken out a policy with his lodge—probably the Masons (Edna’s brother was a Mason). But it wasn’t long before that was gone, and then “the house and everything went too.” I assume this means she could no longer pay the rent. In any case, she put her children and her remaining possessions in a wagon and set off for Royal Heights, near Webb City, Missouri, where her husband was working in a mine.
That summer Herb found a job with a grocer in East Joplin. He was eleven years old. He rode his bike (which he’d bought as an investment, not for pleasure) from Royal Heights to East Joplin, stopping along the way at the houses of customers to take orders. Then, at the store, he boxed up the orders and delivered them in a horse-drawn wagon, leaving his bike at the store.
Saturday was always a big day. He would still be making deliveries after dark, and that worried him. By the end of the day, he had collected a lot of cash and was afraid he might be robbed. One night at the intersection of Sixth and Main, an automobile—a contraption rarely seen in southern Missouri in those days—came hurtling out of a side street going at least fifteen or twenty miles an hour. Herb jumped up and pulled the horse to a quick stop but the wagon rolled forward a few feet, which slid the harness shafts past the horse’s chest. The car clipped one of them as it went by, cracking it and causing the old horse to dance. For a minute, Herb was sure the wagon was going to tip.
The car didn’t stop.
His employer listened to his story, then said, “Son, you are getting careless. You will have to pay the damages.” Herb didn’t protest. He needed the job, but as he rode his bicycle home in the dark, he felt like he’d been robbed.
The next summer, he worked for the same grocer but “was raised” to five dollars a week. One evening as he was closing the store, he found a can of money hidden beneath the “money till.” Had it been put there and forgotten? Or was he being tested? If it was a test, he passed because he left it alone.
The mine in Royal Heights “played out.” The miners were “let go.” And Lee Ellsworth moved his family back to Joplin where he rented a concrete-block house on the edge of town. Edna began making extra money by giving dances. Since you need music to dance, she must have played a piano. And since she charged fifty cents a couple, a considerable sum in 1912, maybe there was more to the show than just Edna—a fiddler, maybe, and a caller. Maybe Herb’s stepfather supplied “refreshments.” I have a feeling those dances were pretty wild affairs.
That fall, Herb got sick. No one was sure what was wrong with him, but it was serious. He was out of school for a year. However, he was determined to graduate with his class, so when he felt better, he asked Mr. Spade for “the go ahead” to make up the work on his own. Spade agreed, and Herb, by “working overtime,” managed to graduate with his friends.
He wanted to go on to high school with them, but his stepfather was outraged by that idea: “You’ve had enough schoolin’,” he shouted.
One afternoon, Herb was out back chopping wood. Swinging the ax over his head, he hit a clothesline. The ax bounced forward, hitting him in the head. He staggered to the house, intending to call to his mother. But remembering she was pregnant, he decided to take care of his wound himself. Grabbing a pitcher of water, he poured the washbowl half full, and dunked his head. When he raised up and saw the bloody water, he fainted.
Though he was an independent boy who would never ask for help, Herb often benefited from the kindness of strangers. An old trapper who lived nearby had seen what happened and had followed Herb into the house. When he “came to,” his wound had been cleaned, doused with the trapper’s favorite remedy—skunk oil—and bound with a rag. The wound left a scar but healed without infection. And the next time the old trapper took his dogs coon hunting, he invited young Herb to come along.
Herb took up trapping again. But he never stopped pestering his mother for permission to go to high school. His stepfather was furious.
“An educated damn fool is all you’ll be!”
Ellsworth had bought “a diggins” and needed Herb’s help to operate it. “A diggins” was a zinc mine consisting of a shaft in the ground, an upright boiler, a steam hoist, and a tub. At first Herb’s job was just to sleep beside the boiler and get up several times a night to feed the fire in order to keep the steam up. But before long he was the one who was going down in the tub instead of his stepfather. Being small for his age, he had always been the one who was lowered into cisterns to scoop out the mice, squirrels, and possums that got in there and drowned. His size seemed to suit him for mining, too.
So at the age of thirteen, he was crawling through drifts (horizontal passageways), pushing a carbide lamp ahead of him and dragging a pick, a shovel, a drill, a sledgehammer, and some dynamite behind him. The lamp almost always went out, and he would have to crawl the rest of the way in the dark. At the end of the drift, he’d sink a hole, fill it with dynamite, cut a fuse, put on a cap, and tamp it down. Then he’d run the fuse twenty feet or more, depending on how far away he was “from protection.” Most of the time that was the length of the drift.
When he got back to the shaft, he pulled the shaft cord. It rang a bell topside signaling his stepfather to hoist him up. Then he lit the fuse. If he’d timed things right, the dynamite went off just after he got to the surface. Once it went off when he was only halfway up. The tub bucked. Dust and smoke shot up all around him. All he could do was shut his eyes and hang on.
When the smoke cleared from the shaft, he would go back down and fill the tub with dirt and rocks—mostly dirt. His stepfather would haul up the tub and empty it. They repeated this procedure until the rubble was gone. Then Herb set another charge.
In June of 1914, while Herb was crawling through the dark and setting off dynamite charges, a Serbian terrorist assassinated the archduke of Austria and his wife. Austria’s sense of its national dignity required it to go to war with Serbia, but it was afraid of Russia, which was allied with the Serbs. So Austria made an agreement with Germany to help it fight Russia if Russia went to the aid of the Serbs. When Russia began to mobilize its armies, Germany declared war on Russia.
France, bound by an existing treaty with Russia, declared war on Germany, and Britain, bound by an existing treaty with France, also declared war on Germany. This the Germans hadn’t expected. They believed Britain’s treaty of alliance with France was so loosely worded that Britain would not feel compelled to enter the war. But Britain also had a treaty with Belgium, and when the German army crossed Belgium in order to invade France, Britain acted, and Japan, honoring an existing treaty with Britain, also declared war on Germany and Austria, and those two nations responded by declaring war on Japan.
All this meant nothing to Herb. He had other problems.
Before long the new wore off of mining, and Herb began, once again, to pester his mother for permission to go to high school. When his stepfather got wind of this, he roared, “You’re needed around here!” which was true. The family was always more or less broke, and its numbers were increasing. Herb and Marguerite already had a half-sister and a half-brother. And Edna was “showing” again.
However, this time, Edna asserted herself, and in September of 1914, Herb enrolled for his freshman year at Joplin High.
At the end of that year, his stepfather relocated his family to Carl Junction. Herb tried to persuade his mother to let him spend that summer with his grandparents, out of reach of his stepfather, but his mother would only agree to a two-week stay. He rode his bike from Carl Junction to the Hicks’ farm, a distance of some 20 miles. During the two weeks he was there, Grandpa Hicks let him drive his new cultivator. So when Herb returned to Carl Junction, he was able, on the basis of that experience, to get other jobs driving cultivators. He worked at different farms all summer long and earned a dollar a day when he was working. That kept him out of his stepfather’s way.
As the horses dragged the cultivator across a field and the sun burned the back of his neck red, Herb pondered his future. Sometimes he fell asleep and when the team reached the end of the field they just stood there, switching their tails to keep the flies away. He would wake with a jerk and start turning the team around. That summer he decided he had to turn his life around, too. But he couldn’t think how.
Herb was supposed to give his parents all the money he earned, but at the beginning of August 1914, he began holding back a few quarters to pay for school supplies. When his father found out, he blew up. “You got no call for more education!”
Herb bowed his head and studied his shoes. He’d never claimed to have “a calling.”
“You already gone longer’n most.”
That, too, was true.
“You can’t be no use to nobody while you’re at that school of yours.”
Herb figured that without an education, he wasn’t going to be of much use to anybody—including himself—but he looked at his feet and said nothing. He didn’t want to get the man excited.
In September 1915, Herb enrolled as a sophomore at Carl Junction High. To his delight, he was placed in the advanced math class. He loved algebra. He liked to show off by covering the whole blackboard with numbers and letters. He also liked Miss Dozier’s popular German class. He’d enrolled in it because he believed he and Grandma Souder were of German descent.
America had not yet joined the war against Germany, but German submarines were attacking American merchant ships, and America’s educated, sophisticated “opinion leaders” were fervently pro-English. They condemned German books, German music, people with German names, and the German language. The “Germans” became “the Huns”—the barbarians. Librarians removed books by German authors from their library shelves. Cities renamed streets with German names. Orchestras stopped playing music by Bach, Mozart, Strauss, Beethoven, and Wagner. The anti-German sentiment got so bad that Carl Junction High closed Miss Dozier’s German class before it was half over.
Carl Junction had a pool hall, but pool was a game for adults. All the schoolboys could do was watch the men play. Sometimes they got in the way, and one day the owner chased them all outside. Not a good move three days before Halloween.
In those days, Halloween wasn’t the tame, commercial extravaganza it is today. It was the one night of the year when it was permissible for boys to play pranks, some of them verging on criminal mischief. They tipped over outhouses, unhinged gates, soaped windows, and egged buildings. Herb remembers some older boys leading a cow into a church one Halloween night and leaving her there. But everybody knew a boy could go too far. There was a wavering undefined line between what passed for a prank and what was more serious.
After Herb and his friends were kicked out of the pool hall, they held a conference. They knew the owner of the pool hall always barred the back door on the inside and left by the front door, locking it behind him. The roof of the pool hall extended over the sidewalk and was supported by two posts on the curb. The boys—eight of them—found an old, rusty steam boiler at an abandoned “diggins” outside of town. On Halloween night, they rolled it into town, upended it and tipped it down between the posts and the pool hall’s front door. The boiler was five feet wide and ten feet long. It fit the space between the posts and the door perfectly, making it impossible for anyone to open it.
The next morning the owner and the sheriff showed up at Carl Junction High and began questioning boys. Somebody blabbed. The guilty boys were rounded up and marched without ado to the city jail where their names were formally written down in a big book and they were all locked in cells. Nobody explained anything. Nobody paid any attention to them. Interfering with commercial activity was evidently a little more serious than just a prank, but not much more. The authorities were playing a prank, too. The sheriff let the boys fret and stew for an hour or two. Then he marched them back to school, where the principal gave them “a talking to” and sent notes home to their parents. “After that,” said my father, “we became good little boys. We were afraid we’d be expelled and sent to jail.”
Herb’s relationship with his stepfather was getting worse, and that spring, he began to think about running away. One night in bed, he “closed on the deal.” The next morning at breakfast he told his mother he was leaving—and that she shouldn’t expect him back as long as his stepfather was alive. She wept but didn’t try to talk him out of it. They embraced. “Try to be good,” she said.
In front of him was a ten-mile walk to the nearest water stop, but at the back of his mind was the conviction that he was destined for better things because his grandfather had been a colonel in the Union army. He was 15 years old, and small for his age, but the early morning sky was a cloudless blue, the air was cool and fresh, the fields on either side of him were alive with small birds whistling and chirping, and he had a folding knife and seventy-five cents in his pockets.