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The Years Were Good: The Autobiography of Louis B. Seltzer

Chapter 4

WHEN I WAS just going on thirteen, and in the seventh grade at Denison School, I reached a decision. I made up my mind to leave school and get a job.

I sat eating my breakfast, watching the worried expression on Mother's face as she moved about the kitchen. Even the breakfast this morning was a reason for me to go to work. It consisted of corn meal mush and hard bread. I knew about the unpaid bill at Friedl's Grocery around the corner on Mapledale. It was hanging on a hook by the kitchen sink, and it was a big bill. It hadn't been paid for several months.

I knew Mother and Father weren't going to like it, but everything I saw around the house, and everything I had heard for weeks previously, convinced me I had to do it.

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Things were somewhat better for our family now. We had moved from the small frame house on Seymour Avenue, across from Noss' Saloon and near Belz's Butcher Shop, into a larger house on West Thirty-ninth Street, off of Archwood Avenue. In this new place we had electricity; no longer did we have to put up, as Mother explained to the neighbors, with foul-smelling oil lamps. We had a much bigger yard, and lots of trees.

Father had sold enough stories to justify this move, but he still was not earning enough to avoid the sharp ups and downs of the irregular arrival of checks from magazines. We were still in a tight place.

At first Father refused flatly to listen to my proposal.

"It would help a whole lot," I urged and, when he smiled, I added, "I could earn five dollars a week. Dogs Marquette told me about a boy who got a job at Lamson's and he is getting five dollars."

"He wants so much to help," I heard Mother tell Father, as they sat one night in the front room.

"I know," Father said, "but it's not right. I wish I had stayed in school. Things would be better for all of us if I had."

I slipped out of the house and went to talk it over with Dogs Marquette, who lived only a short distance from us.

Whenever I had a problem I could count on Herb Marquette. He was fifteen, two years older than I, and big and wise for his age. His nickname came from his three big dogs, one a St. Bernard, a gift from an uncle. Herb was like his St. Bernard, big and gentle, and slow.

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Everybody liked him. When he gave his word he kept it. No one could keep a secret better than Dogs.

He was the best friend I had, outside our home. Together we had tramped through Brookside Park. We hopped freight trains in the valley and jumped off at the Eleven Mile Lock on the Ohio Canal during our summer vacations. The only trouble was that once in a while we younger fellows tried to emulate Dogs, not always for our own good -- like the time Dogs had a plug of Red Man chewing tobacco.

Just before we swung aboard a B & O boxcar on the way to the Ohio Canal, we all took a bite of his Red Man. Somehow I swallowed mine as I grabbed the iron bar to lift myself up on the train. I got sick, but I didn't want to say so, thinking it would brand me a coward, and I stuck it out.

When we went in swimming off the bridge at the Eleven Mile Lock, I was really sick. Things were blurred, my head ached, my stomach seemed to turn around inside me. I jumped in anyway.

The next thing I knew I was lying flat on my back on the bank by the Canal. Dogs Marquette was standing over me, and the other fellows were around me in a circle.

I opened my eyes.

"What happened?" I asked.

"You got cramps and yelled out," Whitey Richards told me. "Then you went down, and Dogs grabbed you and pulled you out of the water. He really saved you," Whitey said, and we all looked again at Dogs with even greater admiration.

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So I went over to Dogs' house that night to talk about leaving school. We sat out on the curb in front of his house. It was May, and warm. The bugs were like a cloud around the street light. They got all over us and we kept brushing them off.

"What do you think, Dogs?" I asked my friend.

"I think you should do it," he said. "You know your Dad needs your help. You can work for a while and then go back to school some time. Right now it's important. I'd do it."

That's all we said. For a long time we just sat on the curb watching the bugs, and occasionally looking up at the stars, until it got late.

"I guess I better go home," I told him.

Mother was waiting for me when I came in, but for once she didn't say anything.

The next morning Father said to me before I left for school, "Son, let's talk about that school question tonight after dinner. Let's get it settled."

That night I waited for Father in his little study to "get it settled." His study was simply a little front room which Mother had ingeniously fixed up, so that Father could have a place of his own in which to write and do his reading and thinking. It was not much, but it was an improvement over the other house where he had sat at the small table in the kitchen. Father had by this time set his back forever on his trade as a carpenter.

It was very quiet in this room. I admired Mother's judgment in choosing it for Father. In the unerring way she always had in such matters, she made the little room literally breathe my father's personality. If at

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first sight it seemed cluttered with many miscellaneous and unrelated articles, closer examination would show that every solitary one of them had special significance to Father; each object, however minute or trivial, was regarded by him as indispensable to his literary life.

An old oak roll-top desk in the south corner of the room was the focal point. On it stood his pipe rack, with his favorite smoke-cured meerschaum, the big can of his own tobacco mix; over it was his favorite Frederic Remington landscape of the Old West. A little essay by Mark Twain and one by Emerson were generally lying about somewhere. His old red-plaid carpet slippers -- the toe to one worn through -- were always, as now, by his swivel chair, ready to be slipped into the first thing when he came in to work. The whole room was Father. It seemed to be a spiritual mirror of him.

Mother had found somewhere a used Woodstock typewriter. It was old and battered, but she had it fixed up and it worked. Another improvement for Father nowadays was writing paper. It still wasn't manuscript paper; it was the kind we bought for school in tablet form, but it was better than Mr. Belz's brown butcher paper. Father seemed to write faster and easier now.

While I waited for him I looked in the box at the beginning of his newest story. It was called "The Law Came to Pecos." He had written eleven pages, and I was on the last page when Father came in.

"What do you think of it, Louis?" he asked.

"Fine," I said. "It's good, Dad."

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He was pleased. "I think this is the best I've ever written, Son, and I hope they take it," he said.

He sat down in the swivel chair.

"Well, Son, let's get at this school business. You're pretty young, you know." He seemed more serious than I had seen him for some time. "Remember, Son, what we decide tonight will have a very important bearing on your whole life."

I nodded. "I understand, Dad."

Running his hand through his great shock of black hair, he said, "I wonder if you really do, Son -- that's the trouble. You do seem older than most boys your age -- and you understand most things better than they do. But we have to be sure we're doing the right thing."

When he was finally convinced that I had made up my mind, Father got up and put his arm around me, saying, "All right, Son -- but let's understand this. We'll go along this way for a while, and if things go good for us, you'll go back to school again one of these days."

We told Mother what we had decided. She looked from one to the other of us and began to cry. Without saying a word, she put the end of her apron to her eyes, and went out. Father watched her go, then sat as if gathering his thoughts.

"Son, sit down. We've made an important decision tonight. Now I want to talk with you. I want you to listen carefully to what I say and remember it for the rest of your life."

He paused for a moment. The room was quiet as a church. Then Father started talking, leaning back in his swivel chair, puffing at his meerschaum pipe.

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"Son, this is a world of people.

"You must always remember that. Life is not simple for people. It is hard. There are very few people in this world whose lot is secure and peaceful and untroubled with cares and worries. It seems that for the privilege of living on this earth most of us must bear some kind of cross.

"No two people are alike. That is at once the strength and the weakness of the human race. There are all kinds of people; and they are doing all kinds of things -- barbers, lawyers, coal miners, writers (like your Father), ditch-diggers, doctors, thieves, motormen, clerks, policemen -- just all kinds of people doing all kinds of things.

A good part of the time people are doing what they want to do; and some of the time, unfortunately, they are doing what the circumstances of life compel them, whether they like it or not, to do.

Whatever you do in life when you grow up, always remember that. If you are doing something in life that you like to do -- remember that somebody else may be doing something he doesn't want to do. You may be happy at what you are doing. He may be unhappy doing what he's doing.

Outward appearances are not an infallible measure of people's character. The well-dressed man or woman may be successful by social or economic standards, whereas lacking in qualities of character; and by the same token some man or woman, apparently broken on the wheel of life, may have qualities of character much more desirable and admirable.

The more important thing to look for among people is character. You are apt to find it in the most unexpected places and people.

There is something else to remember. As you grow up there will be many changes in the circumstances of life in this country. Nothing stands still. Right now, as we talk, times are bad. They will be good again. Then they will be bad again; and many people will be out of jobs, and the country will be in a turmoil.

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There will be wars and panics, and troubles of one kind or another.

There always have been. There always will be. In everything that you do, in everything you think, always, remember that people are more important than any other considerant in the world. People make the world. The world does not make people.

Remember, also, that because a man is not, by the measure of this world, recognized as a success it does not follow that he is a failure. Too many times it will be found that men of comparable abilities in like fields of work will turn out differently, because circumstances favor one and not the other.

Each man, however, should make the utmost of what nature has given him. There is no excuse for failure there.

Everything I have said to you tonight means this: People are, after all, the most precious, fascinating, important, useful, vexatious, and yet indispensable beings in the world.

You will have one life. It will be lived, every minute of it, with other people. They will be restless, irritable, kindly, serene, helpful, inconsiderate, mean, good, as people always have been, and, perhaps, as they always will be. But they are really good deep down inside -- and that's where you should look to find them.

Father stood up. He had talked a long time. I had never listened so closely to anything before. Somehow I knew this was important -- very important to me.

"We better get to bed now, Son, it's getting late," he said. "And some day, when I get a chance, I'll write out for you what we've been talking about tonight." He kept his promise, and I have written it here as he wrote it then.

I was almost asleep that night when Father came in,

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shook me gently and said, "Son, I forgot to give you something."

The object Father handed me shone brightly in a shaft of light from the hall. It was Grandpa Lucien's watch, the one he was given by his own father when he went away to the Civil War. It was the one thing I longed most to have, and Father knew it.

"I just thought that a young man who is making a very important decision for himself and his parents ought to have something important to remember it by," he said. He patted my head, and walked out of the bedroom.

It was a long time before I finally went to sleep, with Grandpa Lucien's watch in my hand.