The dollar has value because we believe in it. The Yap Islanders once used rocks beneath the sea for money; they believed in them and traded goods for shares of the rocks. Cigarettes once came wrapped in a silverish foil that contained metal, and the Babe was among the boys who sought to found their fortunes on disused packets from the gutters and refuse heaps; they stripped the foil off, rolled it in a ball, and traded it, hearing that ultimately a junk dealer would buy it up.
The Babe's favorite metal as such was lead, because it had a low melting point. He melted it in a pan on the stove. The technique opened a door of military technology, for he could purchase the simply designed and inexpensive molds and by pouring molten lead into them could create recognizable soldiers. Since he operated militarily in the fashion of World War I rather than the War of the Roses, he needed battalions to face machine-guns and tanks more than he needed knights on horseback, as pretty as these might be. For instance, a tank made from an erstwhile wooden thread spool with notches or threads carved into its two wheels, half a large match stick at one opening, to anchor a rubberband, the other half of the match used to wind up the rubberband at the opposite end of the spool -- this contraption, so potentiated, could be released against a squad of soldiers and mow them down. The Mother aided the War Effort by donating unthreaded spools and averting her gaze when he stripped naked a spool of its scant remaining thread.
His tool-kit generally was that of a modest householder. He had ready access to hammer and assorted nails, pliers, sandpaper, screwdriver and screws, strings, threads and their spools, a large saw, hatchet, scraper, scissors, brushes, wire, paste, black friction tape, a little paint, paper and cloth. In a pantry drawer there was kept a kind of Hope Chest of pieces of lamp, electric sockets, hooks, blades, chains, bits of leather, rubbers, wax, etc. whose hope of marriage with some contrivance in the future was grossly overestimated, and there was a lot of junk that was moved to the coal shed on its way off the premises, such as cracked bats, torn baseball gloves, buggy wheels, rusted skates, old picture frames, and collapsed sleds.
Watching and then making foods sizzle and fry in the pan on the hot stove; boiling other foods; watching the chemical cleansers and dyes being put into laundry tubs and vats; playing with grams of gunpowder from fireworks -- these were his chemical experiences. He should have been told that the whole world is chemically combined and led to find the chemistry of everything. Instead, because he appeared to sidle into the so-called academic curriculum, he was excused from most natural science.
He did not get hold of a chemistry set, although he knew boys who had them. He examined carefully descriptions of them in the mail-order catalogues. Their boxes were more attractive than the contents. He could not have one, it was said, because he would have proceeded directly to fabricate an explosive or poison gas. (He looked at the canary sometimes as a cat would, reflectively, for he was well aware of the use of such birds to warn of poison gas in World War I. -- they died, of course.) How can you trust governments with armaments when you remember yourself as a child, and know that you are still such?
He could have done much better than he did with the tools and materials at hand if he were not so un-instructed and the society of Chicago were not so impelled to large machines and so gross in its ambitions. He was never once led up to an internal combustion engine and told what was going on inside of it.
Every year of his life, despite his personal industry, the economy of the household was increasingly dependent upon a ceaseless flow to and fro of produce and articles. He could not, of course, build an autarchy for himself under the best of circumstances, and it has been shown that even the most ancient and primitive of humans had a kit of tools and techniques that required specialization of functions and exchange, going far beyond the basic division of labor between the sexes, even going beyond the confines of the settlement. But the "instinct of workmanship," as Thorstein Veblen called it, which was characteristic of stone-age man and pre-industrial man and the industrious child, was being crushed in America and Europe -- particularly in the Chicago of the Babe, Veblen would add, for he had worked and lived at The University of Chicago.
Personal workmanship, craftmanship, was deplored and depleted as if it were some illness suffered on the way to the healthful machine age. In this setting, where the crafts were regarded as quaint, it is no wonder that the Babe was blocked in the larger reaches of school and society as he attempted to move into adulthood with his "childish" occupations, and had to look upon these as "childish" instead of as the up-stream beginnings of a mighty river.
Anthropologists were beginning to "rediscover" the savage, while contemporaneously the psychologists were rediscovering the child, but their voices were still faint amid the hubbub of anticipation of a machine world. As a child seeking a human technology for his environment, the Babe benefitted very little from the new viewpoint.
Yet one could say of him what Otis Mason wrote in his early book of the Origins of Invention, "The modern savage and his ancient representatives revealed in the study of archaeologists were good lithologists. They knew in each region what stone was best for their purposes in every emergency. They found out where this material abounded under the best conditions to be worked... The qualities of substances were known to him, both as to working and as to using."
He knew the whereabouts and texture of all the rock, bricks and concrete in the neighborhood. He was much impressed when taken to see Starved Rock, Southwest of Chicago, the naked towering cliff where some besieged Indians leapt into the river long ago. Another time he got a present of little marble building blocks. Stone was not easy to come by: Chicago sat on sand. Its innovative skyscrapers were raised on platforms driven deep into the sand. But if he wasn't able to be much of a lithologist, he could be something of a metallurgist.
He was of the Age of the Tin Can. He knew celluloid, but hardly the prospects of and the present enormous realm of other plastics. The quick-frozen food cornucopeia had yet to be produced. People then talked about Tin-pan Alley, the source of popular dance music in Manhattan, and of the Tin Lizzie, the Model-T Ford car running around in the millions. More pertinently, the nation stored, cooked and ate out of cans, of "tins," the English said. Most of the food that was not fresh, and paints and volatile liquids, came in cans. In this setting the Babe and his colleagues evolved a culture of tins that could parallel the rich culture of the Neolithic.
We can imagine that an interview with the Babe would have provided rare ethnological information on the subject, supposing that we went back to the summer of 1928 and located him sitting on the broad stone stoop of his building. He would be dressed in long pants and had already lost the memory of the long struggle to change from short pants. He wore fairly new Keds without socks. His hair, now brown, was parted on the "wrong" side, as people in the family told him, but it stayed put only that way; he had worn it that way ever since his signal victory over the Buster Brown bob.
The interview reconstructed here has the spontaneity of a monologue, for he had no difficulty with didactic expression:
Now here's how you use a tin can.
First, of course, you want to do something with it. Usually, you sit around like this thinking of something to do like playing a game. Or you're at home and your Mother says "Why don't you go out and play, if you have nothing better to do?" She's busy with the new baby. She says to hang around though, and don't go far and wait for your Father and then come back.
Now see these sticks? If I had a big can I could use the can for drumming. These bounce pretty well.
(He began to pry a loose pebble from the sidewalk with one of the sticks.)
Still you need a big can for that, paint cans, or garbage cans or big soup cans. But there are lots of other ways of using cans. The best thing is "Kick the Can." You take an ordinary can like a can that had pork and beans, a small one, and you stomp on it until it gets halfway flat, and then you have two teams lined up and two goal lines and you see which team can kick the can across the goal line. Or course sometime you just kick the can around by yourself if there is no one to play with. I kicked a can all the way from school one time.
You can also go ice-skating on cans. You push the can down but keep the sides up and then you find some splotch of ice on the streets and you can skate on it. If there's lots of slick places you can race with somebody else. Or course the cans have a way of falling off by the end of the race. So you lose.
But then you can use the cans to shovel dirt to build dams, especially after it rains, when the rainwater goes down the gutter and you work against the rain to see how big you can build it to prevent the water getting through, until the water gets to the middle of the street and then flows on the other side.
You can even fish with a can. You take a piece of string and punch a couple of holes in the can and lower it down in the sewer and if you lost a ball you can get it back or maybe even find a ball by surprise. When there's been a thunderstorm, the sewers are full and new things float up, a lot of it is putrid.
You can also make a war helmet with a can if it's big enough. You just hammer it and pull down the edges that way until it fits. The American helmets are easier to make because they are flatter than the German kind, but you need big cans, grease cans will be OK. Like the kind at the gas station or for cooking-fat.
You can make a telescope out of a can by cutting away the other end, and looking through, you can see far away. Things look different. A telephone -- you get a wire and slip it through the can so it'll hold and my brother or somebody stands around the corner and he does the same thing with his can and you can hear him. 'Course it usually doesn't work. You can tie a can to wagon. You run up behind and fix the can on so that when the horse starts to trot it makes a nice noise. Then the driver gets down to unfasten the can, and is he mad! I've seen a can tied to a dog's tail, I've never done it, it's not very nice for the dog.
Then you can take a can and fill it with dirt, tie it to a rope and swing it faster and faster around your head and let go finally and see how far you can hurl it. Or you can see how much weight you can lift with a big can. You keep filling it until you can't lift it anymore. You can fill it with rocks and put it over a board and lift it by pulling on a rope from the other side until it gets high and then let it drop and it sort of explodes. On the Fourth of July, we stick firecrackers under a can and blow them sky-high. Nothing else works like that. It has to be a can. A little can for a small firecracker, a big can for a big firecracker.
You can make a shield out of a can so that you can't get stabbed and you can't get hit when you're fighting a battle with stones or clay. And though you're not supposed to do it, the best can for this is the lid of a big garbage can; then sticks and stones will never hurt you.
Garbage cans are good to hide in when they are clean or new. You also use them to climb up on when there is something you need to reach. I forgot to tell you -- well, you can use a can for sifting sand and gravel: you punch a lot of holes in and you can sift it and get fine dirt out, or you can use the can to make a shower on a hot day.
I always keep my marbles in a can, or a jar; you can see them in the jar, but the glass can break when somebody pushes you over.
You can keep your collections in cans, like insects, maybe a fish, or pennies but it is best for keeping worms. You shake the can and they come up out of the dirt and crawl back below and you do it again until you find one that is just right for your hook. You need good dirt for finding worms, maybe in somebody's backyard. You get a lot of worms, big and small ones, sometimes six inches long, sometimes you can hardly see them.
If you have a good can with a lid you can keep your money in it, or other stuff. You can make a coin bank by sticking a knife in the can and making a gash and then put your pennies, nickels and dimes in it.
How do you cut a can?
Well, if you don't have a can-opener, you have to use a knife. A sharp rock could do it or a nail with a hammer. You have to be careful with cans because you can get cut and you can get blood poisoning. You can pound them with a hammer or stone and smoothen the edges. It's a problem though.. what?
Are you allowed to use cans?
My folks don't care for us to play with cans, they're afraid we'll get cut, and they're messy, and we might get tetanus, that's what they say.
Why not use the pots from your Mother's kitchen?
(He gave me a kind of underground glance, a bootlegger look.)
They don't know; they don't want us to play with cans and if you try to get a pot they say the pot is for cooking, Besides you mustn't change a pot's shape so what's the use?
Suppose you want to skip a can. They sail fine but you have to crush it, so you stomp it with shoes ar smash it with a stone or hammer, or you even put it on the rails in front of a street car, then you have to straighten it out, or a truck going by too. A steamroller would be great; just think of a garbage lid under it!
You can use a can to cut other things, like in concrete -- see my initials over there? -- or the bark of trees, or on red brick to make white scratches, or you dig holes with a can for playing marbles. You can paint a can different colors to make it look better.
You can't say what kind of can is best until you know what you want it for, but I save any good one for a while until my Mother throws it out or there are too many of them. I like tea cans, especially for money or jewels. (He refers to pennies, stamps and coupons on the one hand and to discarded beads and "prizes," trinkets from dime Cracker Jack boxes.) Paint cans are good because they have handles.
Where do you get the cans?
There are cans everywhere. You know, you throw them out all the time, wintertime especially. You find some in other garbage cans or by a hardware store or back in the alley.
How do you get rid of them? I don't see any around?
You don't? Why, there's one right over there. (He pointed to a sidewalk a hundred yards away where you could barely see a glint of tin.)
Whenever my Father sees one he picks it up and gets rid of it, and my Mother says, get rid of all those cans. The garbage truck carts them away. The street sweeper picks up some. I keep mine in the basement where no one lives.
Don't you keep flowers in cans?
(Again the underground look but I could see him glance up to a window where a geranium sat in a pot.)
That's girl stuff. I guess it's O.K. though. My Father grows basilico and mint in old pots, without their handles, with a hole punched in the bottoms. But real flower pots are better. Once I got some seeds and planted them in a can but nothing happened.
What would you do if something grew?
I guess we'd eat it. Course eating from cans is something you can do. Sometimes we cook on the street in cans. Be careful the cans are clean but they make good pots. You have to fix a handle on them with wire so you won't burn yourself. Each guy brings something, the best thing being a bum's stew. For that you need to bring some stew from home. You boil it right out there and sit around and eat it. You can use a can to carry hot stuff like fiery coals around, or when you are sneaking pieces of ice from the back of the ice wagon. Bottles are not so good as cans. They break and you can't make anything out of them. They`re good for insects, for fish, for polliwogs, for toads, or a baby bird. Anyway, do you know that you can get real money for bottles? Just take them back to the store. But my Mother holds on to her Mason Jars. She uses them over again next year. And the milk bottles have to be put out for the milkman.
So much for the underground industry of the tin can. You can understand now, perhaps, why it should somehow have found its way into some general catalogue of toys and utensils. Millions of people - - it is agreed that boys are people -- employed and enjoyed the artifacts and yet history ignores them, their processing techniques, and their products. Not to mention carrying them in the accounts of any reconstructed Gross National Product for those days when the industry flourished. The toy industry and the utensil makers have proliferated and multiplied their wares. Realistic toys have overwhelmed the imagination of children. Snobbery, sanitation, have triumphed. Not only that: the increased commingling of boys and girls has neatened the boys' world, rid society of its middle-class guttersnipes. Unmalleable plastic and sealed cardboard containers have displaced the tin can for most functions. The GNP has lost this small item, which it would not have captured in the first place, and anyhow the GNP had not yet been invented in 1928. As the history of the child's tin can industry shows, when the non-monetary economy disappears, and economic transactions come to be measured in dollars, what is called "growing prosperity" may be an illusion.
The differences among child culture, tribal adult culture, and industrially advanced adult culture are less significant than either science or myth would assert. Like a tribal culture, the child culture is suppressed by a foreign ideology, with or without the supposed assistance of the gods, in the name of rational organization of behavior. This means no more, however, than accepted ways of working on materials in a human setting such that known kinds of "progress" in technique occur. That is, the adult advanced culture believes itself to be rational, because certain conditions, for example, certain kinds of production, are under control and change for the better when certain procedures are followed.
It believes and teaches, too, that the child culture, even though the children are imitating them, must be coerced into imitating them more exactly, must understand the proper "reasons" (myth) for doing so exactly, and further that the child culture will go astray, both incompetently and wickedly, if it is not constrained.
In many ways the child is a potential enemy, to be punished, to suffer "for his own good," so as to make him "a useful member of society." There is, of course, no such thing as a "natural child," every child submitting to acculturation from birth, maybe even in the womb. What exists in most children is a "culturally dangerous person," meaning by that a prodigious creator and inventor that no known society is organized to accommodate.
Therefore the society gives the child only limited resources and raw materials to "play with" and only toys and games that are representative of the technology and dominating moral consensus of the society. And are the most profitable in dollars! Then the society imprisons the child in schools and "play groups" to get him out of the way and punishes the child partly to discredit him in his own eyes, partly to discipline him to the restraints and conditions, partly to teach him how to suffer when as an adult he will suffer, partly out of fear and dislike of childhood, and partly to dump upon the child the frustrations and pains felt by the adult.
If what I am saying here bears some truth, the Babe would not have known about it; he was used to it like he got used to the atmosphere; he was simply intent upon pushing his way through the world as he had pushed his way out of the womb. And if I wish to follow his way, I had better get back to his experience with the raw materials around him.
He encountered a new phase of the City's history: asphalting. Asphalt was replacing bricks and paving blocks on the streets; tarring trucks were often cooking and smoking in the area. It was said that tar could be chewed like gum, so he chewed tar, but luckily he didn't like the taste and desisted.
The best malleable material was clay, some samples of which came in pretty boxes as presents, but the Mother Lode came to light when the dirt alley next to the building was paved. The dirt was scraped to a certain depth and turned into clay of high quality which was scraped into mounds. He dug up many pounds of it, for modelling, for ceramics baked in the sun, and for battles, which was best of all because the clay could be fashioned into bullets quickly, thrown well, and wouldn't hurt when its pellets struck you.
He knew the difference between hard coal and soft coal; he made "chalk" from broken ceramic vessels from time to time and enjoyed drawing graffiti on sidewalks and alley walls, besides which he was well supplied with crafted chalk and crayons for use on blackboards, slates, cardboard, and paper. He hoarded bits of candle, melted them down, made new candles, and employed these for re-exploring dank basement recesses and holding meetings of his impromptu and short- lived clubs by candlelight. The building had originally been equipped for gaslight but the gas had been shut off for electricity before his time; the gas fixtures were elegant and ornamental. They were not "in the way" so no one thought to extirpate them.
Wood, wood, there was never enough of it in the right form. Uncle Bill's perquisites included sending over in the autumn a truckload of used wood engravings, their days of impressing posters ended, soft and dry wood. And the Dad whistled for the boys, put on his work gloves, and sharpened his hatchet. Down in the passageway by the coal shed, a kindling wood industry emerged for a few days, while he split the boards and Bro Bus and the Babe stacked it neatly and presented him with the next board to despatch.
These boards were not bad for sliding on ice, Eddie and Vic sitting on them, the big boys pushing. They would have been ideal for street fires but were prohibited for this purpose, so to build a fire for warmth (100 steps from home), and to cook food there, they had to extract wood from rubbish piles or gather fallen branches. Matches were used, Diamond kitchen matches, more flaring, and why waste a penny on a box of pocket matches? The Babe's Scout training came along when the fire-building phase had graduated into festive bonfires alone, but in any event he would not have struck sparks from flint and stone or with a fire-bow, these being uplifting skills but tiresome and exotic. (It should be remarked how very many of the Babe's divertissements were not exotic or even aesthetic but pragmatic, and given the constraints of his material, state of the art.) Moreover, by then he had taught himself the tough-guy trick of striking a kitchen match with his thumbnail and was practicing on using his behind to the same end: "Crack!" Like that.
The same lithographic boards might be requisitioned for constructions. An engraved board could be nailed to a long plank as the chassis of a racing car. On this a wooden box would be fixed, with the front end cut down to make room for a steering wheel and hand brakes of sticks, the handle being the part above the big nail, the brake part being the lower part that rode a couple of inches from the ground. When you pulled back on the handle, the stick would scrape the ground and sometimes bring the car to a halt.
The best wheels came from abandoned baby buggies and junked tricycles. (These latter could be broken up for wheels by precipitation down a flight of stairs or being ridden by oversized bodies, both exceeding manufacturers' specifications.) The axles and wheels were fastened, kept in line, and allowed to rotate by large bent nails or implanted iron hooks. Maneuverability was accomplished by allowing more play in the looped nail or hook so that the car was directed to one or the other side by a turn of the front axle which was controlled by the steering wheel. Cars of this type were propelled by gravity down a slope or by a pusher or by both. Their speed was often excessive and collisions were not uncommon. Also they frequently collapsed and had to be rebuilt by the manufacturer.
Cord for manual propulsion uphill was obtained from old clothesline or snipped cautiously from the ball of twine in the pantry drawer. Rope and string sometimes came with a shipping crate or carton; it was not unusual for the packaging to capture a larger interest than its contents. A delivery truck, or wagon, whether the blue of the U.S. Postal Service or of a private concern was an attractive sight worth getting a closer look at. Anything might be arriving -- the world is full of wonders -- anything but fireworks. These had to be obtained from bootleggers. "Little Italy" and "Chinatown" were preeminent in the trade, and in themselves well worth visiting on the occasion of holidays or fiestas. The fireworks themselves bore exciting labels, purporting their origin to be China or some unheard-of rural section of the U.S.A.
The Babe began to celebrate the Fourth of July around the 25th of June, and, if his supplies lasted, continued to celebrate until July 6. Patriotism was synonymous with firecrackers: nothing made him feel freer than exploding something. The extraction of a carefully chosen firecracker from his hoard, the smoothening and straightening of its fuse, the laying of it upon the curb, the wary and warning glance in every direction, the pressure of his soles against the ground shifting slightly in the direction of anticipated flight, the striking of the big match, the bent over hushed thrill of lighting the fuse, then the sputter, the flight, and the deafening bang. The appraisal afterwards: was it real loud? Better than the other kind? Or as the military now say, "more bang for the buck?" Finally the examination of the scene of the explosion, the powder smudge on the curbstone, the retrieval of the frayed remnants and sniffing them satisfyingly, the finest perfume of all.
It took up a week, even more, counting the period of investigation of sources and the acquisition, embracing many decisions, as many as there were explosions, tough decisions based upon exhaustive consumer research and keeping an eye upon market conditions, the allocation of extremely limited funds among more types of explosives than could be afforded -- how many half-inchers for sputter-string explosions, two-inchers, five-inchers, punks, sparklers, scrapers, torpedoes, skyrockets, roman candles (rarely affordable, these last), then, the decision to commit to some and not others and to limit the day's consumption, allowing most for Independence Day proper, conditioning the scale of one's operations upon the plans of others, so far as intelligence sources revealed them.
The men who watched anxiously and excitedly their first atom bomb explode at Alamogordo, New Mexico, in 1945, were merely the Babe when, after several days of testing how far a tin can of a certain size could be blown into the air by what size and make of firecracker, he chose at the peak time of the critical day to explode, say, his best five-incher beneath a middle-sized Campbell's soup can, with the dwarf neighboring gentry in attendance. Aside from differences in scale, the Big Babes of Alamogordo were visualizing the bomb as it would destroy cities and their people. Not so the Chicago Babe. Somehow his early war play had become disassociated from his interest in explosives. Still, his unconscious had been well-prepared for Alamogordo, and worse.
A boy or girl can handle and manage most materials and tools before reaching puberty, we may conclude. He can work with wood, metals, stone, plastic natural substances, dirt and ceramics, plants, animals and cords. He can operate with many kinds of power and energy: water, fire, candlepower, levers, pulleys, gas, electricity, explosives, guns, the friction of sandpaper, piercing and cutting knives, and mechanical springs. He can effectively employ hammer and nails, screwdrivers, pliers and wrenches, knives, pickaxes, shovels, scrapers, manual saws, and hand drills. He can raise and train most animals and plant a garden.
He might do much more; the Babe learned at fifteen to drive, but could have learned at twelve. At twelve he took courses in printing and manual training; he was awkward in carpentry, adept at printing. He was also two years ahead of his peers in these achievements. He also had practical experience in music. There was no reason then or now why normal children cannot achieve these levels of experience and competence. The child must, however, demand it of himself and herself. Only the exceptional child is allowed to do so, and a low norm is set for the student population as a whole; moreover, this low norm is under depressive pressure to remain with the retarded. There is, too, with children, as with adults, an exasperating resistance, an un-cooperativeness with the social structure as a whole.
But should a child use all of these materials and practice all of these techniques, presumably more and better than the Babe, who was something of an autodidact? In the first place, if, as I believe, it were possible, then it would become the norm and would not constitute personal eccentricity. Second, if such were possible, social institutions would gear up to the job, so that it would not only be normal but presumably much easier.
However, are we not stumbling into the classical paradox of education? Intellectual achievement, creativity and inventions, are, whatever the statistics of patents and publications, the work largely of evaders and haters, and rebels of institutions. The most benign of institutions, be it a university's pure research or a research institute or an industrial or governmental research laboratory, fails generally in these regards, producing exactly and ineluctably what institutions by definition are intended to produce: the routinizing of discovery, even if they are founded to avoid repetitive behavior. Nothing about science, including the science of education and the science of science, is more ludicrous than the presumption that the method of discovering new truths is a matter of building the pile of old truths higher and higher.
Aghast at our thoughts, so early in the examination of the life of the Babe, so premature, I return hastily to him, now to ask what he experienced of the non-human bio-mass of the world, the animal and plant kingdoms of Chicago. These included the animals and plants that had to be sought out, for they existed in the zoos and the botanical gardens; those that annoyed him and were to be exterminated; and those that were to be lived with, enjoyed, eaten is some cases (the height of enjoyment, the anthropophagiologists will tell us). The Babe was not advanced in these regards, or so it seems, for we cannot know what the average child of Chicago of those days, or even today, knew and knows of plants and animals. Altogether too little, I am sure.
Had he been asked what animals belonged together, he would answer the sparrow and the horse, because the sparrows were watchful of the horses and spent much time pecking seed from the horse manure that was dropped on the streets regularly, which sight could be witnessed practically any day of his life from the window and during every season too. The sparrow was carefully appraised: it could not sing, but its chirps were much better than no sound at all. It chirped at the right time, too, as the day broke and at twilight. It nested, now here, now there -- these nests were of interest; sometimes a baby bird would fall from one and die, ugly blob of red skin and beak, yet regrettable, because it would have become Something Better. Fledglings would come to hand also, and might even be kept at home and fed the canary's feed until ready to fly; nor was there ever sympathy for the patient cat stalking the young bird that could hardly hop up onto a branch and there clutch, wobbling, trembling, afraid. The Babe admired the sparrows for staying behind when the other birds fled the winds and sleet, and sympathized with the huddled little puff-balls on the icy wires (Why were they not electrocuted?) beaten by the fierce elements, surviving the worst of it somehow.
His education suffered because the Dad would not have cats and dogs in the house, although dogs were approved in principle, cats too if they were micers. The Blencoes had none either; in fact, strange to say, few relatives or friends kept them. The age of canaries was in; the age of cats and dogs was to come. Except for Grandpa Lupo: he kept a little white poodle, a measure of his strength of character, possibly, since the weak Babe preferred very large dogs -- if not the St. Bernard, prince of fable, then a savage Alsatian, a "police dog" they called it, and spent time discussing wishfully with his associates which type of dog was the most ferocious, strong, loyal, and smart. He had read a lot of dog and wolf stories, such as The Call of the Wild.
The turning point came in the move to a larger apartment; then "for the sake of the little boys," argued hypocritically the older boys (who, you can bet, had drilled and thrown them into the agitation), a black puppy whose name was "Soot," as proposed by the Babe, was acquired free of charge (the idea of paying for a dog appearing both impossible and smacking of the slave trade) and grew shortly into a large active mongrel of chow and police dog antecedents, whose long white teeth could not distinguish well enough between fancy and reality, and who was sadly resigned to the authorities for gassing after he had bitten a sizeable chunk out of Victor's ankle. The Mom felt "terribly bad" about Soot, once Victor had recovered. Some of the sorrow turned into reproach of the victim for letting himself be bitten. The sense of loss diminished upon the acquisition of a new pup, also black, who looked like a racoon and was called "Cooney."
Most animals that the Babe contacted directly were deemed good, that is, helpful, amusing, harmless, or productive. Such were the aforesaid cats and dogs; pigs so muddily-fat-boyish for pickled pigs feet and pork roasts; sheep because of paintings and wool and cheese and leg of lamb; fish whether pets (he had a goldfish now and then) or bought for food at the market as lake perch, cod, tuna, salmon, halibut and swordfish (the best), and lake trout, or caught for sport and eaten, as pike or perch or bass (none of his doing except bony sunfish and bullheads), to which must be added shrimp.
He liked chameleons that came to be sold at circuses and were cutely primeval; chickens for amusement and the miracle of eggs eaten many ways, and for chicks that were perky one moment and dead the next; turkeys for their colorful absurdity and for eating; canaries for being yellow and singing ("He must be sick; he's stopped singing!" -- next morning the still ball of feathers, feet sticking up, removal, cardboard coffin, burial under a tree across the street); worms for digging up and feeding robins and for fishing; robins for red breast and song; gold-finch and golden song; sea-gulls for soaring white activators of the grey winter sky over the frozen lake; squirrels so furry, busy, thrifty, agile; rabbits for cuddling and munching and Easter and stews, though known to devour gardens; cows for milk and bulls for cows (the bad lesson of the sexism of mammals); horses for history, for wagons, for plows, and for patting on the nose and neck, and in anticipation of riding them in the West one day; lady bugs gentle and spreading pollen; grasshoppers for chirping in the eerie silence of night and hopping and letting themselves be snatched; frogs for hopping too and for croaking and comedy; turtles, quaint, keepable but fish-egg-eaters; and snails freed to crawl in the bathtub and deposit their waste and be poked on the antennas and then regrettably to be dumped in boiling water and later plucked from deep buttery burial in their shells with a pin.
There were a few bad animals: rats, which rarely could be seen in the alley or the outside passageway of the basement, and mice, despite the advent of Mickey Mouse and many wishful reviews of the practices of the cute mice; gophers crop-eaters not so pretty as squirrels; toads victims of rumors of propagation of warts and because ugly; mosquitos and bedbugs utterly without redeeming quality whereas flies at least were of interest when bottled alive and watched; crows hoarse-voiced and arrogant and destructive of crops; caterpillars for eating leaves; shuddery snakes, not the garter snake and bull snake, but the unseen water moccasin and copperhead, and the Garden of Eden snake of evil whatever it was. He could not place the goat, a little cheese, a reputedly rich milk, a roast but there was hardly any of this to eat, and there was the goat he encountered on his way back from school one day that stuck its head through a fence and signalled him and then incredibly accepted and nonchalantly ate all the white, pink, and blue paper that the Babe proffered from his tablets; paperless at home, the loss was forgiven in the astonishment at the story.
All of this tallied with what the Babe read about animals in Aesop's Fables, the fairy tales of good and bad dragons, the Wild West that knew "killer horses," the faithful old horse in the Italian story who pulled the church-bell rope in an attempt to eat it and brought enraged public opinion to bear against the calloused master who had abandoned him, the apes and lions of Tarzan's jungle, the horse Black Beauty, the patient ox and mean bull, the funny donkey and the Cow that Jumped over the Moon.
It concurred also with the animals of the zoo, who offered themselves by the hundreds for the exercise of moral judgement and the expression of preferences for species, behavior, and habitat. The movies and the dreams arising therefrom gave the gorilla a bad name, and the Babe labored for some time under the misapprehension that gorillas commonly lusted for the love of beautiful maidens. Still he could thrill to the films of thundering herds of horses, buffalo and wildebeest, the flights of geese, the antics of monkeys, the swift leaping panther: Pathe News never lived up to its promise, but nothing that entered the Babe's mind was all good. It is continually surprising that the mind does not disintegrate from what goes into it, less surprising if you regard it as an insensate electro-chemical processor.
His godlike view of the miniature world of toy soldiers and battles had a parallel in his crawling, crouching, squatting days and years when he would encounter the insect world moving among the barely visible plant life of the sidewalk cracks and flower pots. To the beetle, the grey, and the black types with the occasional red stripe, the crevice of the concrete step where sat the Babe was a superhighway, a grand ditch into which Napoleon's cavalry might have plunged in the heat of its charge at Waterloo; this the child thought as he peered closely; and as the beetle would brush it aside, the child could revolutionize his theory of agriculture in detecting that the tiny plants were growing out of nothing, almost from nowhere, but there was a wisp of dirt in the crack, less than his small fingernail held; there had to be dirt somewhere, he proved, and water must come from somewhere, of the role of the ether he knew nothing yet, and actually he would remain ignorant of the carbon cycle, but there was always water to be had in this wet kind of City, coming in all types of containers from the vaults of heaven to the bent tarnished spoon. He would amiably pluck the plants out of their cracks but let the beetles move on after turning them over once or twice; he sensed a difference between the two forms of life and would not stomp and smash the insects, almost never. He once collected tiny beetles in a small match box until it was nearly full but let the whole lot perform a mass escape when he tired of their dull grey company.
His experience of botany was smallest of all. Plants were not active enough for his tastes. But it was favorable, except for poison ivy, to which he was unusually susceptible (as with scratchy wool), unlike, say, the Dad, who once was twirling a sprig of it between his teeth like a toothpick until alerted by a friend; it had no effect upon him. The Dad was at one with nature, in the best possible mood when coursing through meadow and woods, steak knife and paper bag at the ready, hunting the mushroom, the cardoon, the pig's weed (porcellana), and the tender young dandelion. Back home with the catch, he would patiently clean it under the running tap.
The Babe did not share his tastes entirely, but lived in his own fantasies deep in the Northeast forests of James Fenimore Cooper's Indians and Scouts, or the Westward trail of Daniel Boone, amid the giant sequoia of California, the Rocky Mountain pines, the Southwestern mesquite and canyon oaks of the cowboy films; he turned the wilder way in every wood he ever entered; he lived in the hope of being the first to adventure in some wilderness of the world.
His fevered emotions contained nothing of the botanical and scientific; he ate only venison of his hunt. He held in him little of the farmer whose lonely place to him was only a stopover on the way to the Great Wilderness. He knew not this world of plants but loved its general form and meaning. Even the large warm moist sperm smelling, throbbing greenhouse interiors of the Park simply transferred him to raw jungle adventure instead of into Linnean classifications and Mendelian genetics. Almost nothing was heard, hence thought, about overpopulation, pollution, exhaustion of resources, or extinction of species (only a few warning whispers unattended), which should have been anathema for scientist and adventurer alike. The babe of his fantasy was actually, however, extincted before he was born; the Babe of reality was next on the road to extinction.
The mild elms and maples outside his windows stirred him with the changing seasons. Their thick dark green foliage of hot summer correlated with violent thunderstorms and motionless over-drawn- out-time-passing and book reading, their color-turning and brittle- becoming leaves, their shrieking protest against the tearing wind of autumn, mandated a soul stretching melancholy. Their starkness and winter-whipping toughened his spirit and made him coldly rational and workaday pragmatic. But when the trees intervened between sky and earth to catch and carry the pure white snow he was redeemed and his heart softened, his mind emptied; he was an innocently marvelling child as the dawn illuminated the scene, a happy bundled traveller by day, a soft-eyed contented burgher by evening.
Then the Spring's sapping breezes swelling the same gaunt trees blew an agonizing hole through his gut affecting every organ with insatiable appetitive paroxysms, wafting about odors of drunken earth and moldy brick, of the very garbage, of a great defrosted City bursting out of its long containment. Hopeless to try to restrain his frantic coatless, hatless, bootless escape into the streets: "Don't you dare go out without your cap; you'll catch your death of cold." The heavy juicy buds fell thickly to the ground, he scooped them up and pressed them against his nose, he squeezed them fiercely until their juice dripped out. They became fewer, dried up, blew away, melted into the streams of rain water. He could tell that the Spring was ending. Schooldays were moving excitedly to a close, but the Great Breakaway had passed up its critical chance of this year.