Friends and fathers, sons and colleagues

My dad didn't finish high school. He had the usual eight grades of the one- room district school to which he walked a quarter of a mile with his books, lunch pail, and dog to absorb the knowledge imparted by a girl high school graduate who taught all eight grades. She did impart a great deal more than folks today suppose.

As my dad got bigger, he had more and more chores to do at home, for there was no mother, no brothers and sisters, and he and his father were doing their best to keep going. The September morning came when Dad would walk two miles to the village and begin high school.

He was up at daylight doing barn chores. He made breakfast, his lunch, tidied the pantry, made the beds, and with his dog set out through the woods for town and the schoolhouse. Halfway, he sent the dog back home.

That October he would turn 15, and when he did, he quit school and left home to seek his fortune in Boston. Maine boys did that in those days. But before he quit he had a couple of experiences that he remembered always and frequently mentioned to me.

The first had to do with Arnold Crosby, a senior when Dad first came as a freshman, who had a grand bass voice and could be heard all over the place when he stood to recite his Greek lesson. Dad neglected his own studies to listen to Arnold, and his desires were kindled to study Greek.

Dad left school that October, so he never studied Greek, but he always urged me to take it. When my turn came, the school no longer offered Greek, so Dad and I settled for Latin.

Arnold came to school by horse and buggy, and stabled the nag at the Stilkey place while he was in school. He had to run over during noon hour to feed and water his horse, and several times Dad went along to lend a hand. Dad's leaving school ended that friendship. But another high school experience gave him a friend for life.

There was, my dad discovered, a friction in high school betwixt the village boys and those who came from the outlying district one-room schools. It was hazing, and there was no supervision to keep it in check. One boy in the entering class was especially abused, a boy small for his age. His name was Vincent Canham, and he was also from a one-room school.

My father didn't like to see the town bullies picking on a smaller boy, so he stepped up to the boss bully and said that enough was enough. At the time, they were making Vincent rub his nose in the dirt and root like a pig.

Vincent had expressed his opposition to this, and my dad suggested to the bully that he should have paid attention. At more or less that exact moment the bully made a grievous error. He unwisely took a swing at my dad.

My father nimbly shifted from here to there, bringing up his left hand from an unexpected direction, and puffed up the bully's lip. Then the fun began.

Vincent and my father stood knee to knee and met the combined onslaught of the townies much in the fashion of Horatius at the Tiberian bridge. My father said Vincent, when he got going, had a beautiful right slammer. Dad left school, but he and Vincent Canham kept in touch the rest of their lives.

Some of you have already guessed that Vincent Canham was to become the father of Erwin Dean Canham, famed editor of The Christian Science Monitor, and I was to become the son of my daddy. I knew about Erwin Canham as soon as I knew about anybody, and he about me.

Erwin's father became the farm and home editor of the Lewiston Journal. Erwin said one time that his father wasn't much of a writer, but when my father heard that he said, "Vincent has a better talent than that. He may not write too well, but he always tells us who did it. Newspapers have subscribers, but Vincent has readers!"

My dad became a railway postal clerk and would send "nixy" newspapers to Vincent. A nixy is a piece of mail that lacks an address. Some newspapers used to put a few nixies in each bundle, thinking they might reach someone who'd subscribe. A Polish newspaper in Pennsylvania always stuck two or three nixies in the Maine bundle, and my dad would send them to friends who couldn't read Polish. The postage had been paid, so no infringement was involved.

Vincent Canham got a free Polish newspaper almost every day, and he couldn't read a word of it. One day I was in the city, and I stepped into the newspaper office to give Mr. Canham my father's greeting. Canham saw me coming. When I entered his office, he was reclined in his swivel chair, feet up on his desk, Polish newspaper in his extended hands. "My gracious!" he said, "Isn't this an awkward situation we have in Danzig!"

When Erwin Canham was editor of the Monitor, I mailed a dozen or so essays to him. He never responded, even though we'd see each other frequently when he came to visit his Aunt Cora Gowell, who lived neighbor to us.

But I did get a letter from Donovan Richardson, chief editorial writer, who said Mr. Malcolm Bayley would be my editor. There is nobody at the Monitor today who was there when I appeared under the editorial cartoon in 1942.

After the Monitor changed from broadsheet to tabloid, I was moved from the editorial page to The Home Forum. By that time, Editor Canham had retired. And that's the way things happened, fathers and sons.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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