The Years Were Good: The Autobiography of Louis B. Seltzer
My father wrote and published well over forty books. Another two hundreds of his stories were printed in magazines. Many of them were made into Hollywood movies, featuring some of the great stars of the old silent films --Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., William S. Hart, Anna Q. Nilsson, Bert Lytell, Harry Carey, Tom Mix, and others.
But when I was seven years old, not a line of his writing had ever been bought by anyone.
It was not because he didn't try. I have never seen anyone who tried as hard as my father, or anyone who was set back so often, only to come back fighting, the way he did. To write he went without food, without sleep, without everything.
Manuscript after manuscript would go out, each
neatly wrapped by my mother. In each package there would be enough postage to return it to our address, and the stamps represented the cost of a meal for our family.
And time after time they came back. Enough rejection slips arrived at our house to paper the little parlor, and always they said the same thing:
"We have read your very interesting manuscript but find it unsuitable for our purpose."
It got so that by simply sighting the postman a half block away we all knew what he'd hand us.
Then one day there was a change in the familiar routine. I will never forget that day.
It started out just like any other. Mother got up early - very early - as she always did on washdays, especially in midsummer. My father called to her in protest.
"Ella, can't you rest a while longer? It isn't even five yet."
"Charlie, be quiet," she whispered. "You'll wake up the children. I'll be all right. I don't want to wait until the heat gets unbearable."
Their voices came through the thin walls of our little, three-room frame house and awakened me. I came to the door.
"Can I please get up, Mother, too, so's I can finish my kite?"
At first I thought she'd send me back to bed, but she reconsidered, saying, "Yes, I suppose so. But you stay out from under my feet, and don't get this kitchen all messed up with your paste and stuff."
Kite-making was my obsession, and she knew it. One
night not long before Father had grabbed me by my nightshirt as I was climbing over the transom in my sleep to go out and fly a double-decker red-white-and-blue Uncle Sam kite I had just made.
"Before you get started with that kite you can do something for me," Mother said, as I stood in the kitchen hitching up my overalls, and rubbing sleep from my eyes. "Get me a couple of pails of water from outside."
There wasn't much room in the kitchen. In one corner was a potbellied stove which kept the house fairly warm in winter. In the other was a coal range, where my mother heated up all the water for washing and cooked our food. Already she had a big pan of water getting hot on the range.
Her washday equipment was kept outside the kitchen door on a big stoop just big enough for a sack of coal, kindling wood, and a tub. The big wooden tub, bound by iron bands, served two family purposes. It was Mother's washtub. It was also the family bathtub. I stumbled over it as I brought the water in.
"One more thing you can do, Louis," Mother said. "You can cut the soap for me."
This I liked to do. She handed me a huge chunk of mottled homemade soap and a pan. I took her big, nicked butcher knife and sliced off a whole pan full of soap, which she sprinkled liberally over the clothes steaming on the stove. Perspiration was already running in tiny streams over her face, under the small towel wrapped around her head.
Father came into the kitchen, hitching up his galluses.
"Ella, can I do anything to help?"
"Yes," Mother said. "You can keep watch for the postman this morning. That'll be your job. Somehow I have a premonition something is going to happen."
Father started to protest.
"Now, get out, get out," she pretended to scold him, sweeping him aside with the broom she was vigorously applying to the kitchen floor. "I have to get breakfast for your hungry ones."
My kite was finished. Daylight had come, and my younger brothers and sisters were getting up. The sun started to climb above a cloudless horizon, and the heat of a midwestern summer day was settling down upon us. I ran after the tall, black-haired figure walking toward the old well in the center of our small yard. "Daddy," I begged, "would you help me get my kite up?"
Obligingly, Father held the kite in the street. I ran a half block away. At my signal, he let go and I sprinted. The kite slowly went into the air, caught the current, and spiraled swiftly up until all my string had been let out. This time I had made a red-and-green one with white fringe running all around it and it looked beautiful against the deep blue sky. For a couple of hours I gave no thought to anything else. I sat on the curb, completely lost in contemplation of my triumph, idly wondering, if I had all the string in the world, whether the kite could go to the moon.
I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was the postman, Mr. Saunders.
"Louis, I have something here for your father," he said. "Would you want to take it in?"
Suddenly awakened from my lazy dream, I literally backed away from him. I recalled my mother's feeling that something was going to happen, and a sense of uneasiness began to creep over me.
"You better take it, Mr. Saunders," I said. "I'll have to get my kite down. Mother wants it - she wants it right away, I think."
My excitement grew, and I started to pull in my kite, but it was too slow. I tied the string around a fence picket, and ran as fast as I could to our house the half block down the street. I got there just as Mr. Saunders walked up the stone flagging to our front door.
Mother was waiting for him. She took one look at the envelope he handed her and let out a shriek that could be heard all over the neighborhood.
"Charlie, Charlie - children, children, children, come here, quick - come here quick everybody!" she shouted.
Everybody came tumbling into the small parlor where Mother stood, her eyes wide in excitement, her hands shaking so hard she almost dropped the envelope.
Father came running into the house.
"Charlie, look - look at this!"
My father looked at the envelope. He looked at Mother. He looked at us. I wondered for an instant if he was going to cry.
"Open it, Charlie, for goodness sake, open it - the suspense is terrible," Mother said, half crying, half laughing.
"What does it say?" we all cried, crowding around as Father's nervous fingers tore at the envelope.
"Here, Ella," he said finally. "You open it. I can't my hand is too shaky."
Mother took the envelope, and with one strong rip tore it open. A slip of paper fell out.
"A check, Charlie - a check," Mother shouted. She pushed the letter back into Father's hands, but didn't wait for him to read it. The tension built during years of sacrifice, based on her faith and confidence in her husband's writing, suddenly gave way. She let out a mighty Indian war whoop and started circling around the table, waving the check over her head. We fell into line behind her and followed, one by one -- all of us shouting, dancing, waving our arms, almost bringing the house down with our noise and stomping.
At first Father stood watching us, looking stunned and bewildered. Then a broad smile lit up his face, and, bending over low like an Indian chief joining the war dance, he let out a tremendous whoop, and the shouting, dancing, noise, and stomping against the floor boards got louder than ever.
Mother and Father embraced each other, the tears openly streaming down their faces, while we made a circle around them, still shouting and dancing. It took a long time for the excitement to subside.
When it did at last, Father read aloud the short letter that Mr. Saunders had left at our house. I can still remember it word for word:
The letter was from Short Story magazine. We were absolutely quiet while he read, and when he finished, only Mother's subdued sobbing could be heard. Father put his arm around her, and said, "Ella, this is the beginning. Now I feel that I can do it."
Mother looked at him smiling through her tears. "Charlie, we will never cash that check," she said. "I am going to get Mr. Leroux to frame it, and we'll keep it - keep it always."
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