The Years Were Good: The Autobiography of Louis B. Seltzer
Grandpa Lucien Bonaparte Seltzer and Uncle Ray came to live at our house that winter soon after Father's serious illness. We were already overcrowded with a family of five small children, but Mother, suddenly faced with the urgent need to bring in income from some source in the house, was confident it could be managed. She saw no reason for Grandpa Lucien Bonaparte - whose initials I have carried through life - and Uncle Ray to pay board and shelter to someone else, and she prevailed upon them to live under our roof.
Living under our roof, literally, is what it turned out they did.
"You two might just as well live here, anyway," Mother told them, in outlining her proposal. "You are here, underfoot, most of the time as it is."
Uncle Ray was quite young at the time, although, because of his powerful physique and remarkable voice, he appeared to us much older than he really was. He was unmarried, and up to this time he had lived with Grandpa Lucien in a single room above a store a couple of miles away from us. Their loneliness was best illustrated by the frequency of their visits to our home.
Ray, like Father, was a carpenter by trade. He had a rich baritone voice, and when on summer evenings we would all sit around the well at the side of our house, Uncle Ray, Father, and Grandpa Lucien Bonaparte lifted their voices in song - and we would sit listening, enthralled.
"I wish you men would stop singing that stuff to these children," Mother would sternly complain to the three men, whose choice of music was not always elegant and whose harmony was somewhat stimulated by periodic trips across Fulton Road to Bill Noss' saloon, for white-capped pails of beer.
"Rushing the growler" was a pleasant part of such summer evenings for us children. As each pail of the amber fluid was exhausted, Grandpa Lucien Bonaparte, the principal mischief-maker of our household, would squint an eye at one of us, and in a confidentially lowered voice - quite obviously so Mother would not hear - would pick out the next courier.
"Louis, it's your turn now. Tell Mr. Noss to fill it up just enough to give it a white froth over the top. And don't spill any of that precious liquid on the way back," he would add in mock severity.
Each time we went through the swinging doors into Noss' saloon we stopped at the big wicker basket of pretzels at the near end of the bar, and stuffed our pockets. The barkeeper seemed to have eyes in the back of his head, for, without appearing to look our way, he would say, "All right, Louis, that's just about enough, Son. We'll have to leave some for the customers now, won't we?" And then he would ask, "What'll it be for those tomcat wailers across the street - more of the same."
On some evenings the circle by the well was expanded by some of my grandfather's cronies, and the singing would be suspended in favor of tall tales of the West and the Civil War and Indian fighting. The taller the tale the greater the laughter and applause, and we children, discreetly lying in the shadows outside of the adult circle, were transported body, spirit, and soul to the primitive ranges of Texas and New Mexico and Montana, to Appomattox and Gettysburg, to South Africa and Asia. As I look back on these tales, I realize the facts might often have been challenged, but they had all the color and excitement that these suds-stimulated spellbinders could contrive from their competitive imaginations.
When more serious matters were discussed, the adult circle tended to widen in almost the proportion that the juvenile section of it shrank. When the names of McKinley and Bryan came up, and silver ratios and kindred matters were mentioned, we promptly lost all interest and sought refuge under the street lamp and on the curb.
But when one adult in particular appeared to take part in these backyard deliberations, stimulated in more than one sense of the word by Mr. Noss' special wares, we battled one another for position in the circle nearest him. This was old Nick Roth, an Indian fighter, a frontiersman, a pal of Buffalo Bill's, a romantic and exciting personality in the neighborhood, and my father's special friend.
He wore a goatee and a sombrero, and on his visits to our house he often brought souvenirs of his adventuresome days in the Old West. His language was as picturesque as his appearance, and we listened to him by the hour as he spun his tales of folks we read about in the paperback novels and magazines current in the early nineteen hundreds. Old Nick brought them vividly, sometimes chillingly, into our lives. We could almost see and hear the war whoops, the rattle of muskets, the shrieks and cries of battle and gun fights in the streets of frontier towns or over the wild and wooly western hills and plains. Mother always seemed to arrive at the most inopportune moment to send us double-quick to bed, but Old Nick was ready with his promise to "continue it the next time."
"How these children ever manage to sleep peacefully after some of the stories you tell them, Nick, I will never know," Mother would complain to the tall, lean, white-haired ex-plainsman.
So it was really not much of a change for Grandpa Lucien and Uncle Ray to move over to our house, and they lost no time in accepting Mother's invitation. She
led them into the small kitchen and pointed to a trap door in the ceiling, something that in all the time we had lived in our small house we had never used, or even explored. We had frequently been tempted to find out where that door led, but were always dissuaded by Mother's firm admonition: "Under no circumstances do I want you children - ever - to try to fuss around with that door in the ceiling."
We speculated about it, but never did anything about it, until Grandpa Lucien and Uncle Ray took up lodging at our place.
"Now you two," Mother said to them, "can get busy, since you pretend to be good carpenters, fixing up a place for yourselves up in that attic. I don't know what you'll find up there, but its' my guess you'll find plenty of room if you can work out how to make use of it."
Grandpa Lucien put a ladder under the trap door and climbed up to it, but there was no way to open it.
"Consarn it," he exclaimed, "what a way to do things! The critter who did that ought to have his noodle examined. Such a business. I guess there's only one thing to do, and that's to break right through it, and then fix up a trap door later that really works."
With a hammer and saw Grandpa finally exposed a large hole in the ceiling through which one after the other of us crawled - all except Father, who was still immobilized by the doctor's orders - to survey the one strange and alien place in our house.
Grandpa was first. He bellowed in indignation.
"Why those careless, good-for-nothing, lazy critters," he shouted out, his voice echoing and magnifying in
The rest of us climbed up. By the light of a small window at the front of the attic, whose purpose until this moment had been exclusively ornamental because it was never opened, we saw heaps of rubbish, discarded shingles, lumber refuse, plaster, tin, and an incredibly large and varied assortment of materials carelessly left behind by the builders.
"Well," Mother said philosophically, "it will give you men folks something to do while you are figuring out how best to fix up your living quarters here."
It took two days to carry out the accumulated refuse from the attic; most of it, to save Mother's kitchen, was pushed out the attic window onto the small porch roof below - and then dumped onto the ground.
"Now be careful, Ray," warned Grandpa, a frugal man in some respects though prodigal in others - especially when it came to regular and sustained investment in Mr. Noss' establishment across the street. "We can use some of this timber, here. It'll come in handy for a partition or two."
Grandpa and Uncle Ray went faithfully at the job of converting the attic, very small at best, and with the roof sloping abruptly on both sides, into two "bedrooms." The larger of the two they fixed up for themselves. We were curious about the other until it was almost finished, and Mother explained.
"Louis, you are to have a room upstairs with the men
One night we three, Grandpa Lucien, Uncle Ray, and myself, climbed up through the trap door to the attic, using a stepladder built especially for the purpose, and took up our uneasy and not altogether comfortable residence therein. There was no heat except what the chimney gave from the kitchen stove. The ladder was left up all night, and Mother warned, "It's up to you folks to light your own way because I can't have a candle or an oil lamp a- burning in this kitchen all night. Now git, all of you, and you, Grandpa, see to it that this young man gets to sleep at a reasonable time. You know how he is - he'll stay up all night reading. Especially," she added, looking significantly at me, "if he knows I can't see the light from my room."
We might just as well have been sleeping outside that first night. It must have been down around zero, and heavy snow was falling. I bundled myself up with all the bedclothing Mother supplied until only my eyes and nose were free. On the floor beside the little cot they had put in my room - a "room" just big enough for the cot and a kitchen chair beside it for my clothes - I had my kerosene lamp. I had made sure before coming up that it was well filled with kerosene and that the wick was neatly tapered. I had my own ideas of how much reading I would do up in my new room.
"Louis," Grandpa said, about midnight, "your
mother told me to have you put that lamp out. I'm going to be generous with you, young man, but when I tell you to put it out - out it goes, because I'm not going to have you go to sleep on us and burn the whole house down with everybody in it."
Grandpa never had cause to feel that I violated his magnanimous understanding of my feverish devotion to reading. I always obeyed him, and since he, too, liked to stay awake at night reading, the matter was rendered simple all around.
That attic stands out in my memory still, for it was there that I got the best part of my education. One late afternoon, when I came in from delivering my Press route, I overhead Father talking from his bed to my grandfather, and thus I learned quite by accident that he was contriving to guide my reading habits. "I want that boy to read good books," Father was saying, "just like I read. There's a library card around here somewhere, and I want you to go up there and get Louis the books on this list. When he's finished with them I'll jot down the titles of some more."
Shrewdly he chose the most exciting of the books written by the great writers of America and the Old World. It was evident that his devotion to Rudyard Kipling and Charles Dickens was unbounded, because virtually everything they ever wrote appeared on the list he supplied Grandpa Lucien for library borrowing. The first books that appeared on the chair in my room were Mark Twain's, which I thought most natural, in view of Father's great admiration for him.
Somehow the fact that I had overheard Father's plot, instead of arousing my resentment, deepened my interest in the things he wanted me to read.
"How did you find this one?" Grandpa would ask me, with an innocent smile on his face, feigning his part in the plot rather well.
"It's wonderful, Grandpa," I would say. "Have you ever read it?"
"Well, no, can't say as I have," he would reply. "But I know somebody who has." I knew without his telling me who that "somebody" was. It was Father.
"Better ask him," Grandpa said. "He'll tell you how he liked it, and maybe he'll tell you something about it you didn't notice. Why don't you try him?"
That was the second step in Father's plot, and I saw through it only because I had discovered the first. Thus he introduced me to the wonderful host of books which he had read during his life, together with others that now, in his enforced quiet, he was able to read; and he also taught me how to read them, how to get the most out of them.
"Books, Son," he said, "are the most wonderful things in the world. They are the wisdom of all the ages. From them you can get everything you need, provided you read them intelligently and carefully.
"Read the books, Son, with two things in mind - how they are written, and why they are written. Each person who writes a book has something in mind. Some purpose is behind it.
"There are good books and bad books. There are so many good books it's a shame to waste any time
reading the bad ones. After you read enough books you can pick one from the other by yourself."
I looked up at him, as he said these last words, for without intending to he had given himself away to me. Realizing it, he looked quickly at me, and saw the knowledge in my eyes.
"Well, Son, what do you think? Have I been a poor chooser?"
"No, they've been wonderful," I told him quickly, and eagerly. "You know which one I am reading now?"
"No," Father said, "but I think I can guess."
"I'll give you three guesses," I said, thinking I might trip him up.
"Well, I'll tell you, Louis," he said, "you are giving it away by giving me three guesses - I'd guess all three of them the same way, The Three Musketeers."
Father said a lot of things that day that I remember - about his own way of educating himself, and about the discipline of constant and wise reading. My childish admiration for him increased, even though I could not at the time completely take in the tremendous accomplishment of this almost totally uneducated man over the beauty of thoughts and words.
One day when I climbed up to my attic room after school there were three very large books on the chair. I opened one of them, a large Bible filled with full-page illustrations. Pinned to the first page was a note from Father.
This was the first writing he had done, so far as I knew, since he became sick - and it was on his own writing paper, the brown paper Mother brought home from the butcher's and cut especially for him.
Mother's formal schooling was even less than Father's, but, like Father, she had read the Bible over and over. She knew it so well that she could quote exact passages from it, and give the chapter and verse without fail. "Without God in our hearts," she often said, "we are nothing." From the time we were able to talk, she taught us to kneel beside our beds and send up our prayers.
Father was more philosophical about us than she was. When we had been punished, and remorse seized him
for using the hard palm of his hand on a tender spot - and sometimes his razor strop, if the offense seemed serious enough to warrant that aggravated treatment - his standard remark was: "If they just manage to keep out of jail, I'll be satisfied."
This was always said with a twinkle in his eyes and a knowing smile on his lips, but Mother could never take it as a joke.
"Charlie, how can you stand there and even think such a thing, let alone say it?" she would say, her eyes blazing with indignation.
The effect was only to bring a wider smile and a merrier twinkle into Father's mischievous eyes. We knew exactly what he meant - and instinctively caught the sober message he conveyed in his presumably light-hearted words.
Perhaps I didn't read the Bible quite as often as my parents did, but that winter and spring I read it often, and later in life I managed to read it through at least three times. I found it to be everything Father said it was, the best book ever written.
Sooner than either he or I ever dreamed, my school days were to end, and my ability thereafter was to depend altogether on how much and what I read - and most important, how wisely I read.
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