Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son/Letter 7

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No. 7
From John Graham, at the Omaha Branch of Graham & Co., to Pierrepont Graham, at the Union Stock Yards, Chicago. Mr. Pierrepont hasn't found the methods of the worthy Milligan altogether to his liking, and he has commented rather freely on them.


Omaha, September 1, 189—

Dear Pierrepont: Yours of the 30th ultimo strikes me all wrong. I don't like to hear you say that you can't work under Milligan or any other man, for it shows a fundamental weakness. And then, too, the house isn't interested in knowing how you like your boss, but in how he likes you.

I understand all about Milligan. He's a cross, cranky old Irishman with a temper tied up in bow-knots, who prods his men with the bull-stick six days a week and schemes to get them salary raises on the seventh, when he ought to be listening to the sermon; who puts the black-snake on a clerk's hide when he sends a letter to Oshkosh that ought to go to Kalamazoo, and begs him off when the old man wants to have him fired for it. Altogether he's a hard, crabbed, generous, soft-hearted, loyal, bully old boy, who's been with the house since we took down the shutters for the first time, and who's going to stay with it till we put them up for the last time.

But all that apart, you want to get it firmly fixed in your mind that you're going to have a Milligan over you all your life, and if it isn't a Milligan it will be a Jones or a Smith, and the chances are that you'll find them both harder to get along with than this old fellow. And if it isn't Milligan or Jones or Smith, and you ain't a butcher, but a parson or a doctor, or even the President of the United States, it'll be a way-back deacon, or the undertaker, or the machine. There isn't any such thing as being your own boss in this world unless you're a tramp, and then there's the constable.

Like the old man if you can, but give him no cause to dislike you. Keep your self-respect at any cost, and your upper lip stiff at the same figure. Criticism can properly come only from above, and whenever you discover that your boss is no good you may rest easy that the man who pays his salary shares your secret. Learn to give back a bit from the base-burner, to let the village fathers get their feet on the fender and the sawdust box in range, and you'll find them making a little room for you in turn. Old men have tender feet, and apologies are poor salve for aching corns. Remember that when you're in the right you can afford to keep your temper, and that when you're in the wrong you can't afford to lose it.

When you've got an uncertain cow it's all O. K. to tie a figure eight in her tail, if you ain't thirsty, and it's excitement you're after; but if you want peace and her nine quarts, you will naturally approach her from the side, and say, So-boss, in about the same tone that you would use if you were asking your best girl to let you hold her hand.

Of course, you want to be sure of your natural history facts and learn to distinguish between a cow that's a kicker, but whose intentions are good if she's approached with proper respect, and a hooker, who is vicious on general principles, and any way you come at her. There's never any use fooling with an animal of that sort, brute or human. The only safe place is the other side of the fence or the top of the nearest tree.

When I was clerking in Missouri, a fellow named Jeff Hankins moved down from Wisconsin and bought a little clearing just outside the town. Jeff was a good talker, but a bad listener, and so we learned a heap about how things were done in Wisconsin, but he didn't pick up much information about the habits of our Missouri fauna, When it came to cows, he had had a liberal education and he made out all right, but by and by it got on to ploughing time and Jeff naturally bought a mule—a little moth-eaten cuss, with sad, dreamy eyes and droopy, wiggly-woggly ears that swung in a circle as easy

Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son 119.jpg
"Bill Budlong was always the last man to come up to the mourners' bench."

as if they ran on ball-bearings. Her owner didn't give her a very good character, but Jeff was too busy telling how much he knew about horses to pay much attention to what anybody was saying about mules. So finally the seller turned her loose in Jeff's lot, told him he wouldn't have any trouble catching her if he approached her right, and hurried off out of range.

Next morning at sunup Jeff picked out a bridle and started off whistling Buffalo Gals—he was a powerful pretty whistler and could do the Mocking Bird with variations—to catch the mule and begin his plowing. The animal was feeding as peaceful as a water-color picture, and she didn't budge; but when Jeff began to get nearer, her ears dropped back along her neck as if they had lead in them. He knew that symptom and so he closed up kind of cautious, aiming for her at right angles and gurgling, "Muley, muley, here muley; that's a good muley," sort of soothing and caressing-like. Still she didn't stir and Jeff got right up to her and put one arm over her back and began to reach forward with the bridle, when something happened. He never could explain just what it was, but we judged from the marks on his person that the mule had reached forward and kicked the seat of his trousers with one of her prehensile hind feet; and had reached back and caught him on the last button of his waistcoat with one of her limber fore feet; and had twisted around her elastic neck and bit off a mouthful of his hair. When Jeff regained consciousness, he reckoned that the only really safe way to approach a mule was to drop on it from a balloon.

I simply mention this little incident as an example of the fact that there are certain animals with which the Lord didn't intend white men to fool. And you will find that, as a rule, the human varieties of them are not the fellows who go for you rough-shod, like Milligan, when you're wrong. It's when you come across one of those gentlemen who have more oil in their composition than any two-legged animal has a right to have, that you should be on the lookout for concealed deadly weapons.

I don't mean that you should distrust a man who is affable and approachable, but you want to learn to distinguish between him and one who is too affable and too approachable. The adverb makes the difference between a good and a bad fellow. The bunco men aren't all at the county fair, and they don't all operate with the little shells and the elusive pea. When a packer has learned all that there is to learn about quadrupeds, he knows only one-eighth of his business; the other seven-eighths, and the important seven-eighths, has to do with the study of bipeds.

I dwell on this because I am a little disappointed that you should have made such a mistake in sizing up Milligan. He isn't the brightest man in the office, but he is loyal to me and to the house, and when you have been in business as long as I have you will be inclined to put a pretty high value on loyalty. It is the one commodity that hasn't any market value, and it's the one that you can't pay too much for. You can trust any number of men with your money, but mighty few with your reputation. Half the men who are with the house on pay day are against it the other six.

A good many young fellows come to me looking for jobs, and start in by telling me what a mean house they have been working for; what a cuss to get along with the senior partner was; and how little show a bright, progressive clerk had with him. I never get very far with a critter of that class, because I know that he wouldn't like me or the house if he came to work for us.

I don't know anything that a young business man ought to keep more entirely to himself than his dislikes, unless it is his likes. It's generally expensive to have either, but it's bankruptcy to tell about them. It's all right to say nothing about the dead but good, but it's better to apply the rule to the living, and especially to the house which is paying your salary.

Just one word before I close, as old Doc Hoover used to say, when he was coming into the stretch, but still a good ways off from the benediction. I have noticed that you are inclined to be a little chesty and starchy around the office. Of course, it's good business, when a fellow hasn't much behind his forehead, to throw out his chest and attract attention to his shirt-front. But as you begin to meet the men who have done something that makes them worth meeting you will find that there are no "keep off the grass" or "beware of the dog" signs around their premises, and that they don't motion to the orchestra to play slow music while they talk.

Superiority makes every man feel its equal. It is courtesy without condescension; affability without familiarity; self-sufficiency without selfishness; simplicity without snide. It weighs sixteen ounces to the pound without the package, and it doesn't need a four-colored label to make it go.

We are coming home from here. I am a little disappointed in the showing that this house has been making. Pound for pound it is not getting nearly so much out of its hogs as we are in Chicago. I don't know just where the leak is, but if they don't do better next month I am coming back here with a shotgun, and there's going to be a pretty heavy mortality among our head men.

Your affectionate father,

John Graham.