The Babe


The Babe did not get to the Golden West but he was continually in training for it. He was trained at a rustic resort of Glen Park, Illinois, at Camp Olivet on Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, at Camp Oronoko, near Berrien Springs, Michigan, at citified cottages by Crystal Lake, in outing on the Desplaines River; and on the streets and beaches and in parks of Chicago. He researched the subject at the Seward Park Library, also via mail order catalogues and occasional newspaper accounts. The Boy Scouts gave him help, too.

The iceman passed daily with his horse and wagon on Hill Street in the summertime and looked up for the sign calling for ice. The sign said ICE, and depending upon which side you turned up, would bring you anywhere from 25 to 100 pounds. The boys were pleased to see the iceman arrive because he would have to shave off slivers to fit the ice into the box, especially when too much was ordered, and it was not unheard of for the Babe to give an exaggerated account of conditions within the box to alter the reading and produce more ice. The extra pieces could be sucked or stuck down the neckline of his brothers or Lorraine.

On a given summer day, never the same two years running, the Mom would take the sign down, saying "We don't need any ice. We're going to Glen Park." Despite directives and preparations, these words unhinged the world about. This was It. The Babe's heart thumped, his eyes widened, and he craned his neck all about as if he were emerging from the hatch of a surfacing submarine.

Once more he would check his equipment and remind his brother, who needed no reminder, to do the same. Had they, in their incessant and interminable packing for the trip, forgotten anything, neglected something, bought the missing necessities? It was not so important that they have underwear, socks, shirts, trousers, sweaters and towels, as it was that they had knives for the wolves, hooks and line for the fish, a compass for not getting lost, books and magazines on roughing it in camp and on the trail.

They had in mind what today's frightened generation would call a survival kit. A campaign hat like Teddy Roosevelt wore and a new pair of gym shoes were most desirable, however. They did finally achieve such a hat, but the wearing of it caused trouble, and we have a photograph of a little boy beaming from under its brim while two larger boys stand at either side of him looking surly at the camera. They stand on wild grass, amidst unkempt trees, before an old unpainted wooden cottage, typical of Glen Park.

He had a kit of songs, too, carried in his head and Bro Bus shared them. Several had been rescued from oblivion by John Avery Lomax not so long before, who searched them out from the bunkhouses and saloons of the West. So the boys were singing with instant nostalgia, "Home on the Range," and "Git along Little Doggie, git along, git along."

Going downtown to the Station in a heavily loaded cab was the first phase, proceeding to the climactic departure and then the arrival two hours later at Glen Park. Leaving was a wild buzzing of sensations at La Salle Station: heavy chugging sounds, steam arising from iron horses all around, a bustling of people and baggage, go here, go there, climb up, sit down, look here, look there. Eventually the pure rhythm of the rails, the solo chug, the recessional of houses, utility-posts, and farms captured him so that he could absorb impressions in a single stream, not to end until the amazing deceleration upon crossing the iron and stone bridge to halt at the magic semaphore in a patch of open ground.

He could never fully encompass the train, and longed to meet it again and again, whenever someone was to arrive from Chicago. He wanted to see it come thundering up and go puffing away before his eyes, a fine black gigantic animal dragging a coal car and a couple of passenger cars, a rampant beast freed into the countryside to breathe like us the pure and still air that the Dad never ceased to praise. The train was power under control and restraint, moving as you might expect, not threatening a boy by random twists and turns. Tethered by its glistening steel ribbons it exhaled thick puffs of smoke into the heavens and snorted for all the world around to hear, ever bigger, ever louder, ever more alive as it approached, then stood, trembling impatiently, sweating and steaming, while whoever was coming from the City, usually the Dad, descended, it now being late morning with the sun high and the grass roasting to the nostrils; or else returning in the evening from its adventures farther West, lands even more grandiose and lonely before receiving the visit of the solitary beast; here it could be stopped again if the semaphore were raised, nor was it beyond small arms, given a word of consent, to work the lever that brought the great iron arm stiffly to attention.

Time between trains was taken up by swinging, eating, reading, walking to the farms around, one walk forever especially memorable where he had to wade a stream, and by boating on the River. He crawled upon the old rowboats, their bottoms soaking in water, fostering restful and tender feelings, mothers smelling of sun and vegetation, rocking gently as he moved leaning over the side to peer through the slatted ripples at the minnows and murky bottom.

They would hear about trains and boats back home, alright, Howie, Jackie and Joey, Mrs. Villiers and Frank and Uncle, Mr. and Mrs. Erikson, all would get the blurts and exclamations. The experience was excellent for the term paper of the First Grade and into Junior High, "How did you spend your summer?"

The Babe did not write much out of school: scrappy notes for delivery men, delegated by the Mom, homework of course, a Constitution or two -- really Bills of Rights and Obligations for Citizens for his earliest clubs. On or about June 26, 1931, at Camp Olivet, he tore a sheet of paper from a tablet and wrote his first letter:

Hello Dad,

It is great over here. I arrived here about 4:30 and we played around for a while. When the dinner bell rang we all ran and got in line for dinner. It was very good we had beans and cold slaw, cake, dessert, milk, bread, and butter. We had a nice trip coming here. After dinner we were assigned to our cabins and I am writing this letter from my bunk. How is Eddy? Bussy is outside playing. We know a lot of boys here and are having a good time.

Your loving son


His school chum Donald Sproat had told him of the Bible Institute's camp for boys and Bro Bus and the Babe had gone over to the grim building that they had hitherto hardly noticed when walking around, there to sign up and pay over $10 for ten days at camp.

Kate then got Her first report:

Dear Mom,

I have just eaten supper and boy was it good. We had some meat, applesauce, potatoes and gravy, and pudding. I haven't got the address yet but will send it to you on the next mail. Is it hot! I'm swetting so much it looks like I just came from swimming with my clothes on the wet suit.

Bussy will write tomorrow and tell you the address.

Your loving son,


P.S. When you show Dad this letter hold your ears. It has

rotton punctuation.

Next comes a full report carrying as the proper right-hand heading, Olivet Camp, Williams Bay, Lake Geneva, Wis.

Dear Mom,

We're having a good time out here and the eats are good.

Yesterday I passed my swimming test and got a beginner's button. It is 30 yards. Now I can swim in water above my head. Pretty soon I will dive off the diving board because I dive off the pier over my head now. The weather is pretty cold and it rained last night.

We have the best cabin in the lot with only 4 beds and all boys I know. Our tent-leader's name is Lyle Cieloha. I have been waiting for the dinner bell and it just rang out but I will conclude my letter after our swim.

I had a lot of fun in swimming by swimming underwater to the ground.

I wish you would hurry and write to us. I want the answer to these questions in your letter in case you are not coming. DO NOT SEND ME A POSTCARD.

1. How is Edward and Victor?

2. How is the weather there?

3. And how is everyone in our family, Aunt Lily, Grandpa, Uncle Joe and everyone.

I got a postcard today from Donald's sister Dorothy from Michigan where she is.

Bussy wants you to mail him some thread. Blue for his swimming suit.

Believe it or not but I've only got 75 cents left but I am tightening up now and haven't spent anything today.

Here is what we do every day:

7:00 We take a dip in the Lake

7:30 breakfast

8:30 tent inspection

9:30 Chapel period

10:00 beginners swim

10:30 swimmers swim

12:00 dinner

1:00 free period

3:00 swim

5:00 free period

6:00 supper

9:30 everyone in tent

10:00 lights out

Every night we are so tired from hiking swimming and everything else that we drop in bed at 9:00 instead of 9:30.

As I said before the food is good. For dinner we had stew milk and bread and butter. It doesn't seem good but with all the exercise it is swell. Now I will say good-bye with love for everyone and remember to write no matter what happens.



Shortly after he began the fall term at Franklin High School he joined the Boy Scouts of America, and received the sturdy bright card of a tenderfoot. This was not long for him, for he became a First Class Scout soon, then a Star Scout, and then resigned before he could become a Life Scout and Eagle Scout because, as usual, he tasted, he gulped, he digested, he comprehended, he considered that this ought not to make up more than eighteen months of his short existence. It was a good experience, however, in his perspective as well as ours.

Red McHugh had said, come down to St. Chrysostom's Church and join our Scout troop, it's fun. You don't have to really join it if you don't want to. The Babe went down to visit, feeling a little silly. (He was not inclined to join a child's group when at any moment the Golden West might beckon to him.) Troop 42 did turn out to be serious, though, and he could see that the boys there were as old or older (you had to be twelve), and were not sissies, though rather tame, and seemed to be doing things of which he was hitherto unaware.

Furthermore they were an institution; this impressed him. They had facilities; they had resources! They even had a Summer Camp, a magnificent camp in the Michigan wilderness according to their gossip. They marched up and down the Church basement, while above in the Church impressive citizens came and went. (These would have been from the better rooming houses and from the Gold Coast; there was a variegated dependent clientele as well, who were served by the wealthy Episcopalian parish.)

The troop divided into squads and special learning units for knot- tying, sailing, first aid, and so on. There were enough vignettes to keep one attentive and anticipating; skills were displayed that one certainly lacked -- like pulling out the tongues of prostrate kids and pumping their backs so that, if they had been shocked or water- logged, they might revive; tying knots that were warranted to constrain wild horses; means of lighting fires of damp leaves without matches when he would have abandoned all hope; the interpretation of maps that carried fascinating symbols of woods, gullies, dells, brooks, and reading them in the dark by flashlight in prospect of being lost at night in the wilds.

The Scouts were the first and only group that he had encountered who preached morals outright and regularly, and he did his best to get into the spirit of positively good conduct. Late of a morning shortly after joining them, he was idling by his stoop when he espied a lady carrying her bundles of groceries along Sedgwick street. It reminded him to enact the Scout exhortation to "Do a Good Turn Daily," to go beyond the many household obligations that he relied upon to supply this ingredient of the Scout's diet. Therefore he unlimbered himself and intercepted her as she reached the curb after crossing Hill Street. "Can I help you?" he asked the woman. Startled, she clutched the bags to her body, saying "Oh, no, I can carry them." "No, let me help you." Reluctantly, perhaps worried that he might run away with them, she released the bags and they walked along together. It was an easy trip of a mere hundred yards; he must have seen her before, he thought, not very old but almost old enough to count double, for the scouts were to be attentive to the old. Arriving at the foot of her steps, she said thank you, I'll take them now, and she extended a shiny dime to him, considering perhaps that the scam was to earn money, but he said, oh, no, I'm a Boy Scout and this is my Good Turn. "What?" she said, oh, thank you, and off he walked half hoping that someone had witnessed his conduct but embarrassed by the very same thought.

From her the tale of "oh, such a nice boy helped me" spread concerning the Scouts and himself, until the Mom addressed him about it slightly puzzled at the compliment. Then she added crankily, "I don't see you coming to meet Me when I'm loaded down with bags."

"That's not true: I help you whenever I see you; how can I see you around corners."

"I have to call you," she said.

"No you don't."

"If I don't, you'll never stop whatever you're doing and come."

"I wasn't doing anything."

"Well, next time I'll take you with me shopping, and you can help me carry things home."

"Oh no, I won't!"

"I see: you'll help a stranger but not your own Mother."

"Aw, you're always spoiling things."

Camp Oronoko loomed large as summer approached. It appeared expensive, however, and the Depression was pushing the Dad to the wall. Still, there were "scholarships" for the poorer Scouts, the Babe among them, and off they went and back came their letters. On June 26, 1932, he is writing:

Dear Mother,

I received my bathing suit and two letters, one from Dad and one from you. Did Howard tell you that I wrote to you? Believe it or not, there are some fish in the St. Joe River although they are very small. All you have to do is bend a pin, put it on a piece of string and attach that to a branch and you can catch a lot of fish. We are only allowed to spend 5 cents a day which I don't mind so much, but lost my toothbrush. The nights out here are pretty cold and I wear a sweater..."

He did not exaggerate the number of fish, their size, or their mode and ease of capture. They were inedible sunfish for the most part. The United States was already largely fished out, although no one was informing him of the fact. He was under the impression that he need only travel a little farther West and North, and get better equipment, to have the battle of his life with ferocious muskelunge and pike, whose teeth were enough to scare you away. He had heard of the stocking of fish in ponds, lakes and rivers, of even the magnificent salmon and trout, and was shocked at the unnatural practice. He considered the capture of a planted fish as unsporting. He could not get it into his hard head that the Wild Nature of the Indian's America was going, going, gone.

His folks came out to visit him at Camp Oronoko on the Fourth of July. Under his guidance, they wander around for a couple of hours and leave. He writes, "As soon as you left yesterday I went and picked two quarts of blackberries and were they good..." He regrets not having taken them for a boat ride. "I just learned a couple more birds and hope to get a book of trees for knowing them." He did, and received a merit badge for identifying trees. He tells of a boy, Gaston, who left because "he has been abused too much by the boys here." He speaks in other letters of sending and receiving laundry from Chicago, and of getting a haircut in town. He sends the Mom an American Red Cross button that he earned and a bead ring that he made. He promises to make rings for his young brothers.

He is now (July 19) sleeping in the First Aid Cabin because a sore ankle has become infected. He says, "Tell Bussy that yesterday two boys and myself caught 21 turtles and 56 fish although they are not very large inside of 1 hour and a half..." He addresses a note to his brother:

"Dear Bussy, Hello you big lummox. How are the Rising Romans [baseball team]? As soon as I get back I will have you a swimming race and anyone else in the neighborhood. I learned out [how] to jump in the water without holding my nose and how to surface dive ten feet. I am going out for life saving and by the time I get back I will be one and you know how hard that is to get. Well so long and don't choke before I have a chance to beat you in a race.


His ribbons and diamonds (second and third class) are crowding the mails. An Oronoko Pennant seems quite remote, however; it is given to only a few boys, one a week, in a ceremony following the major dinner of the week; it is an award for sports and general camp leadership. It is presented by Mr. Spalding, possibly the Director of the Camp, at any rate a modestly proportioned old gentleman whose civil dress and dignified mien and charismatic effect mark him as several stages above and beyond anyone met with in the course of events.

The Babe may be the hottest twelve-year old athletic property in Camp, still this would not suffice for the Pennant. Older boys are hotter and as Scout citizens nobler. The Babe has begun to do something unusual, however. He has been let to handle a bugle. There is no bugler. The bugle is like a trumpet. Its calls are as nothing to him; he picks them up by ear. And remember his big round tone; it sounds like a tenor tuba. It is suggested that he sound some calls for real. He blows the mess call, then taps; other calls are planned: Assembly, Reveille, even Retreat, no problem with its complexities, and there is sure enough the Flag that has to be lowered every evening.

As this was occurring, the Dad and Mom paid their visit to the Camp. The Dad gives him a surprising and magnificent gift of $25.00, more than he has possessed in his whole life. He is rich. Still, as may happen to the rich, his conscience begins to bother him. He hasn't paid his way at the Camp. How can he keep this money and accept charity? He ponders the question off and on for two days and nights. On the third morning he betakes himself to Mr. Spalding and tells him, my Father left me some money and I want to give it to the Camp. Mr. Spalding considers the matter; he is pleased, but he wishes to be quite clear: you are giving it, it is not to hold for you? Yes, says the Babe, and Mr. Spalding suggests that he keep something for his personal needs, at least several dollars. The Babe agrees and pulls the money out of his pants pocket to give over to him.

Not at the next Pennant dinner but at another thereafter, Mr. Spalding starts off by describing a younger boy who has won this and that award and has been helpful, and gradually words like "sacrifice," "give generously of what one has," "self-reliance," "beyond the call of duty," and pretty soon the Babe catches on that there can be only One Person in the Camp that fits this evolving description until, through a reddening dizzy haze and a global mosaic of faces, his name is struggling on its way to him. Mr. Spalding was looking around among the long tables. So he had to push his chair back and stand up. The rafter (there were rafters) shook with applause, or were the vibrations his own? He accepted the purple Pennant, gigantic it was, he had never held so large a flag in his hands, it was like the big fish he could never catch.

He went home, lasted out the winter with the Boy Scouts, but as the Spring opened he absented himself from one meeting and another. It was understood that he would have a place in the Camp in return for being the Camp Bugler. It was an ideal formula, an offer that he couldn't refuse. Still, his enthusiasm waned. What was happening to him? Did he not appreciate the Camp regimen: the assemblies, the constant pushing and shoving of a crowd of boys, the Camp's impersonality (even for the "big shots" as he would be)? And how did it happen that moral preachings grow like weeds, the more impersonal a setting; was sexuality quietly and privately flooding through his blood, incongruous with the bustling campaign against privacy in the Camp; were the discussions at home about moving farther North preoccupying him, he being the self-selected leader of the "Move-Now" movement, implying also that he would be facing demands to explore and acclimatize in a new environment, with a new High School?

Granted these factors were operative, the source of the disenchantment occurred, I think, from the summer past when the regimentation was oppressing him, getting under his skin even while he was playing the game with success. A brief hasty letter to his Mother, scrawled late in the Camp season, in fact following his triumph, is ominous; I detect in it no less than eleven slips and signs possibly related.

Hello Mom,

I getting pretty homesick out here and I wish I was back at home. There is nothing to kick about except that there is not enough eats. How is Eddy and Victor I'm sorry I have to close the letter now but I have to do something.

Your son,


As a twelfth sign, note that food in his family was symbolic of content and discontent (it always is to some degree, of course), a simple understandable sign for the Mother of matters going well or not, an unconscious signal to both. He had earlier praised the food - - ugh!

When school let out, he told them he would let them know soon; this would be first of all burly Bob, the Scoutmaster ("I may look fat and sloppy but I can handle myself pretty well," he truculently warned the high-spirited elements of the assembled Camp in whom he detected sedition against his person.) But the Babe did not call, nor go to meetings, and felt undecided and uncomfortable, until one day, as the summer began to stretch out and he and his companions were dealing out cards on the shiny stoop of his building, the tall skinny unsmiling owlish Assistant Scoutmaster Burleson alighted there. The Babe stood up to greet him. He thinks that the Scoutmaster is thinking, "So this is how our busy stellar Scout spends his time!" In reality Mr. Burleson is saying, "I came to find out whether you are coming to Camp, we didn't hear from you." The Babe was non-plussed. He put it onto the Mom. "You see, my Mother has been wondering whether I ought to go, there being things I should do here." "Where is she, maybe I should speak to her?" Mr. Burleson was saying. "She's upstairs." And they started up the stairs, the Assistant Scoutmaster saying he believed that he didn't really want to go to Camp and now the Babe was agreeing, saying, well, he did, it was true, have some things he wanted to do here (damn the Card-Game!).

Mr. Burleson halted on the stairway: "Then there is no use talking with her." "I guess not," agreed the Babe. They turned and descended. They said good-bye, I shouldn't salute, thought the Babe, we're not in uniform and it would look silly; it was, though, the end of his generally satisfying career in the Scouts. As he watched the lanky figure of the Assistant Scoutmaster disappear into his car parked a ways down -- how come he hadn't noticed him coming, he must have been shuffling the deck, it took all his attention, he was awkward at it, he should practice a smooth mechanical shuffle -- the Babe felt sorry for him. Why should he come all the way here to be turned down by some little guy he thought he was doing a favor for? He looked down at his gambling companions with distaste. I don't feel like playing anymore, he said.