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No Love of Learning:

My Dad lived most of his life in the 20th century. But he wasn’t born there.

He was the third son and first to survive of six children born to a prairie farming family in southern Illinois. We think he was born in 1898, not that anyone bothered to make a record of it at the time. Establishing this later required a correspondence with a LaFayette County clerk in 1932 to get an affidavit to the effect that Dad, did, indeed, exist for the purposes of his enrolling in the government’s newly established Social Security Program.

He had one surviving younger brother and ultimately two younger sisters.

After completing their basic 8th-grade education at the local one-room school in Vandalia, both his brother and the elder of his two sisters, drove the wagon to neighboring Centralia to attend the area’s high school. Their second sister, considerably younger than the rest of them, eventually finished her schooling in California. Not Dad, however. Once he finished 8th grade, his formal education was effectively over.

On this matter, I’m not sure my Grandfather didn’t deserve some part of the blame. He was oh-but-definitely a man of the “old school”.

As Leon Garfield was to point out in one of his novels, it wasn’t a particularly good school, but every old man of that type seems to have gone to it. My grandfather’s particular “old school” seems to have specialized in farmers, but I am sure that it had equivalents in other walks of life.

In any case, the overriding lesson taught there is that the Father is the Head of the family.

And, as the Head, he is the only one in the family allowed to think.

The message handed down is that nobody else should ever try to think. My Dad was just fine with that.

He did make at least one abortive attempt to escape the farm and fulfil his boyhood ambition, however. Dad’s teenaged dream was to be a secretary to the United States Supreme Court.

I don’t know whether this was an ambition which Midwestern farm boys routinely harbored back before the first World War, but he certainly did. And, at seventeen, he set off, leaving home in favor of Brown’s Business College, with, I gather, his parents’ blessing.

Well, if he’d had more money, more support and encouragement, more ambition, or more aptitude, he might at least have lasted out the course, even if he didn’t ever rise any higher than a position as a clerk somewhere. As it was, he couldn’t cut it. (I’ve since wondered if he hadn’t shot himself in the foot by leaving a gap of some years between finishing 8th grade and starting at Brown’s, falling out of the habit of study and so losing momentum.)

Dreams are not enough. In his case, shorthand was the insurmountable obstacle. But I don’t suppose he was much more adept at the rest of the curriculum. As he was to comment to Ida, years later; thinking, “made his head hurt”. It’s not an activity he made the mistake of attempting often.

Certainly the only two books I can recall my father ever admitting to have read, are ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ and ‘Black Beauty’. Both of which “made him feel sad”. I would be willing to bet you anything that he read both of them prior to finishing 8th grade, too, and only then because he was forced to it. But I doubt that I’d have any takers.

Well, there is always work on a farm.

I really can’t think of any sort of gainful employment at which my father might have actually excelled. He might have done acceptably in the military. He was certainly used to following orders. But he never took the risk. Although our entry into WWI blew up quite soon after the Brown’s debacle, and he talked about enlisting in the Navy, his mother managed to talk him out of it.