Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son/Letter 8

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No. 8
From John Graham, at Hot Springs, Arkansas, to his son, Pierrepont, at the Union Stock Yards in Chicago. Mr. Pierrepont has just been promoted from the mailing to the billing desk and, in consequence, his father is feeling rather "mellow" toward him.


Hot Springs, January 15, 189—

Dear Pierrepont: They've run me through the scalding vats here till they've pretty nearly taken all the hair off my hide, but that or something else has loosened up my joints so that they don't squeak any more when I walk. The doctor says he'll have my rheumatism cured in thirty days, so I guess you can expect me home in about a fortnight. For he's the breed of doctor that is always two weeks ahead of his patients' condition when they're poor, and two weeks behind it when they're rich. He calls himself a specialist, which means that it costs me ten dollars every time he has a look in at my tongue, against two that I would pay the family doctor for gratifying his curiosity. But I guess this specialist business is about the only outlet for marketing the surplus of young doctors.

Reminds me of the time when we were piling up canned corned beef in stock faster than people would eat it, and a big drought happened along in Texas and began driving the canners in to the packing-house quicker than we could tuck them away in tin. Jim Durham tried to "stimulate the consumption," as he put it, by getting out a nice little booklet called, "A Hundred Dainty Dishes from a Can," and telling how to work off corned beef on the family in various disguises; but, after he had schemed out ten different combinations, the other ninety turned out to be corned-beef hash. So that was no use.

But one day we got together and had a nice, fancy, appetizing label printed, and we didn't economize on the gilt—a picture of a steer so fat that he looked as if he'd break his legs if they weren't shored up pretty quick with props, and with blue ribbons tied to his horns. We labeled it "Blue Ribbon Beef—For Fancy Family Trade," and charged an extra ten cents a dozen for the cans on which that special label was pasted. Of course, people just naturally wanted it.

There's nothing helps convince some men that a thing has merit like a little gold on the label. And it's pretty safe to bet that if a fellow needs a six or seven-syllabled word to describe his profession, he's a corn doctor when you come to look him up in the dictionary. And then you'll generally find him in the back part of the book where they tuck away the doubtful words.

But that isn't what I started out to say. I want to tell you that I was very, very glad to learn from your letter that you had been promoted to the billing desk. I have felt all along that when you got a little of the nonsense tried out of you there would be a residue of common-sense, and I am glad to have your boss back up my judgment. There's two things you just naturally don't expect from human nature—that the widow's tombstone estimate of the departed, on which she is trying to convince the neighbors against their better judgment that he went to Heaven, and the father's estimate of the son, on which he is trying to pass him along into a good salary, will be conservative.

I had that driven into my mind and spiked down when I hired the widow's son a few years ago. His name was Clarence—Clarence St. Clair Hicks—and his father used to keep books for me when he wasn't picking the winners at Washington Park or figuring out the batting averages of the Chicagos. He was one of those quick men who always have their books posted up half an hour before closing time for three weeks of the month, and spend the evenings of the fourth hunting up the eight cents that they are out on the trial balance. When he died his wife found that his life insurance had lapsed the month before, and so she brought Clarence down to the office and asked me to give him a job.

Clarence wasn't exactly a pretty boy; in fact, he looked to me like another of his father's bad breaks; but his mother seemed to think a heap of him. I learned that he would have held the belt in his Sunday-school for long-distance verse-reciting if the mother of one of the other boys hadn't fixed the superintendent, and that it had taken a general conspiracy of the teachers in his day-school to keep him from walking off with the good-conduct medal.

I couldn't just reconcile those statements with Clarence's face, but I accepted him at par and had him passed along to the head errand boy. His mother cried a little when she saw him marched off, and asked me to see that he was treated kindly and wasn't bullied by the bigger boys, because he had been "raised a pet."

A number of unusual things happened in the offices that morning, and the head office boy thought Clarence might be able to explain some of them, but he had an alibi ready every time—even when a bookkeeper found the vault filled with cigarette smoke and Clarence in it hunting for something he couldn't describe. But as he was a new boy, no one was disposed to bear down on him very hard, so his cigarettes were taken away from him and he was sent back to his bench with a warning that he had used up all his explanations.

Along toward noon, a big Boston customer came in with his little boy—a nice, plump, stall-fed youngster, with black velvet pants and hair that was just a little longer than was safe in the stock-yards district. And while we were talking business, the kid wandered off to the coat-room, where the errand boys were eating lunch, which was a pretty desperate place for a boy with velvet pants on to go.

As far as we could learn from Willie when he came out of his convulsions, the boys had been very polite to him and had insisted on his joining in a new game which

Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son 135.jpg
"Clarence looked to me like another of his father's bad breaks."

Clarence had just invented, called playing pig-sticker. And, because he was company, Clarence told him that he could be_the pig. Willie didn't know just what being the pig meant, but, as he told his father, it didn't sound very nice and he was afraid he wouldn't like it. So he tried to pass along the honor to some one else, but Clarence insisted that it was "hot stuff to be the pig," and before Willie could rightly judge what was happening to him, one end of a rope had been tied around his left ankle and the other end had been passed over a transom bar, and he was dangling headforemost in the air, while Clarence threatened his jugular with a lath sword. That was when he let out the yell which brought his father and me on the jump and scattered the boys all over the stock yards.

Willie's father canceled his bologna contract and marched off muttering something about "degrading surroundings brutalizing the young;" and Clarence's mother wrote me that I was a bad old man who had held her husband down all his life and now wouldn't give her son a show. For, naturally, after that little incident, I had told the boy who had been raised a pet that he had better go back to the menagerie.

I simply mention Clarence in passing as an instance of why I am a little slow to trust my judgment on my own. I have always found that, whenever I thought a heap of anything I owned, there was nothing like getting the other fellow's views expressed in figures; and the other fellow is usually a pessimist when he's buying. The lady on the dollar is the only woman who hasn't any sentiment in her make-up. And if you really want a look at the solid facts of a thing you must strain off the sentiment first.

I put you under Milligan to get a view of you through his eyes. If he says that you are good enough to be a billing clerk, and to draw twelve dollars a week, I guess there's no doubt about it. For he's one of those men that never show any real enthusiasm except when they're cussing.

Naturally, it's a great satisfaction to see a streak or two of business ability beginning to show under the knife, because when it comes closing time for me it will make it a heap easier to know that some one who bears the name will take down the shutters in the morning.

Boys are a good deal like the pups that fellows sell on street corners—they don't always turn out as represented. You buy a likely setter pup and raise a spotted coach dog from it, and the promising son of an honest butcher is just as like as not to turn out a poet or a professor. I want to say in passing that I have no real prejudice against poets, but I believe that, if you're going to be a Milton, there's nothing like being a mute, inglorious one, as some fellow who was a little sore on the poetry business once put it. Of course, a packer who understands something about the versatility of cottonseed oil need never turn down orders for lard because the run of hogs is light, and a father who understands human nature can turn out an imitation parson from a boy whom the Lord intended to go on the Board of Trade. But on general principles it's best to give your cottonseed oil a Latin name and to market it on its merits, and to let your boy follow his bent, even if it leads him into the wheat pit. If a fellow has got poetry in him it's bound to come out sooner or later in the papers or the street cars; and the longer you keep it bottled up the harder it comes, and the longer it takes the patient to recover. There's no easier way to cure foolishness than to give a man leave to be foolish. And the only way to show a fellow that he's chosen the wrong business is to let him try it. If it really is the wrong thing you won't have to argue with him to quit, and if it isn't you haven't any right to.

Speaking of bull-pups that turned out to be terriers naturally calls to mind the case of my old friend Jeremiah Simpkins' son. There isn't a solider man in the Boston leather trade than Jeremiah, nor a bigger scamp that the law can't touch than his son Ezra. There isn't an ounce of real meanness in Ezra's whole body, but he's just naturally and unintentionally a maverick. When he came out of college his father thought that a few years' experience in the hide department of Graham & Co. would be a good thing for him before he tackled the leather business. So I wrote to send him on and I would give him a job, supposing, of course, that I was getting a yearling of the steady, old, reliable Simpkins strain.

I was a little uneasy when Ezra reported, because he didn't just look as if he had had a call to leather. He was a tall, spare New Englander, with one of those knobby foreheads which has been pushed out by the overcrowding of the brain, or bulged by the thickening of the skull, according as you like or dislike the man. His manners were easy or familiar by the same standard. He told me right at the start that, while he didn't know just what he wanted to do, he was dead sure that it wasn't the leather business. It seemed that he had said the same thing to his father and that the old man had answered, "Tut, tut," and told him to forget it and to learn hides.

Simpkins learned all that he wanted to know about the packing industry in thirty days, and I learned all that I wanted to know about Ezra in the same time. Pork-packing seemed to be the only thing that he wasn't interested in. I got his resignation one day just five minutes before the one which I was having written out for him was ready; for I will do Simpkins the justice to say that there was nothing slow about him. He and his father split up, temporarily, over it, and, of course, it cost me the old man's trade and friendship. I want to say right here that the easiest way in the world to make enemies is to hire friends.

I lost sight of Simpkins for a while, and then he turned up at the office one morning as friendly and familiar as ever. Said he was a reporter and wanted to interview me on the December wheat deal. Of course, I wouldn't talk on that, but I gave him a little fatherly advice—told him he would sleep in a hall bedroom all his life if he didn't quit his foolishness and go back to his father, though I didn't really believe it. He thanked me and went off and wrote a column about what I might have said about December wheat, and somehow gave the impression that I had said it.

The next I heard of Simpkins he was dead. The Associated Press dispatches announced it, the Cuban Junta confirmed it, and last of all, a long dispatch from Simpkins himself detailed the circumstances leading up to the "atrocity," as the headlines in his paper called it.

I got a long wire from Ezra's father asking me to see the managing editor and get at the facts for him. It seemed that the paper had thought a heap of Simpkins, and that he had been sent out to Cuba as a correspondent, and stationed with the Insurgent army. Simpkins in Cuba had evidently lived up to the reputation of Simpkins in Chicago. When there was any news he sent it, and when there wasn't he just made news and sent that along.

The first word of his death had come in his own letter, brought across on a filibustering steamer and wired on from Jacksonville. It told, with close attention to detail—something he had learned since he left me—how he had strayed away from the little band of insurgents with which he had been out scouting and had blundered into the Spanish lines. He had been promptly made a prisoner, and, despite his papers proving his American citizenship, and the nature of his job, and the red cross on his sleeve, he had been tried by drumhead court martial and sentenced to be shot at dawn. All this he had written out, and then, that his account might be complete, he had gone on and imagined his own execution. This was written in a sort of pigeon, or perhaps you would call it black Spanish, English, and let on to be the work of the eyewitness to whom Simpkins had confided his letter. He had been the sentry over the prisoner, and for a small bribe in hand and the promise of a larger one from the paper, he had turned his back on Simpkins while he wrote out the story, and afterward had deserted and carried it to the Cuban lines.

The account ended: "Then, as the order to fire was given by the lieutenant, Señor Simpkins raised his eyes toward Heaven and cried: 'I protest in the name of my American citizenship!'" At the end of the letter, and not intended for publication, was scrawled: "This is a bully scoop for you, boys, but it's pretty tough on me. Good-by. Simpkins."

The managing editor dashed a tear from his eye when he read this to me, and gulped a little as he said: "I can't help it; he was such a d——d thoughtful boy. Why, he even remembered to inclose descriptions for the pictures!"

Simpkins' last story covered the whole of the front page and three columns of the second, and it just naturally sold cords of papers. His editor demanded that the State Department take it up, though the Spaniards denied the execution or any previous knowledge of any such person as this Señor Simpkins. That made another page in the paper, of course, and then they got up a memorial service, which was good for three columns. One of those fellows that you can find in every office, who goes around and makes the boys give up their lunch money to buy flowers for the deceased aunt of the cellar boss' wife, managed to collect twenty dollars among our clerks, and they sent a floral notebook, with "Gone to Press," done in blue immortelles on the cover, as their "tribute."

I put on a plug hat and attended the service out of respect for his father. But I had hardly got back to the office before I received a wire from Jamaica, reading: "Cable your correspondent here let me have hundred. Notify father all hunk. Keep it dark from others. Simpkins."

I kept it dark and Ezra came back to life by easy stages and in such a way as not to attract any special attention to himself. He managed to get the impression around that he'd been snatched from the jaws of death by a rescue party at the last moment. The last I heard of him he was in New York and drawing ten thousand a year, which was more than he could have worked up to in the leather business in a century.

Fifty or a hundred years ago, when there was good money in poetry, a man with have been a bard, as I believe they used to call the top-notchers; and, once he was turned loose to root for himself, he instinctively smelled out the business where he could use a little poetic license and made a hit in it.

When a pup has been born to point partridges there's no use trying to run a fox with him. I was a little uncertain about you at first, but I guess the Lord intended you to hunt with the pack. Get the scent in your nostrils and keep your nose to the ground, and don't worry too much about the end of the chase. The fun of the thing's in the run and not in the finish.

Your affectionate father,

John Graham.