You are here
John Wheeler - Session I
John Wheeler - Session I
Usage information and disclaimer
This transcript may not be quoted, reproduced or redistributed in whole or in part by any means except with the written permission of the American Institute of Physics.
This transcript is based on a tape-recorded interview deposited at the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics. The AIP's interviews have generally been transcribed from tape, edited by the interviewer for clarity, and then further edited by the interviewee. If this interview is important to you, you should consult earlier versions of the transcript or listen to the original tape. For many interviews, the AIP retains substantial files with further information about the interviewee and the interview itself. Please contact us for information about accessing these materials.
Please bear in mind that: 1) This material is a transcript of the spoken word rather than a literary product; 2) An interview must be read with the awareness that different people's memories about an event will often differ, and that memories can change with time for many reasons including subsequent experiences, interactions with others, and one's feelings about an event. Disclaimer: This transcript was scanned from a typescript, introducing occasional spelling errors. The original typescript is available.
In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:
Interview of John Wheeler by Kenneth W. Ford on 1993 December 6,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
This is one of 22 sessions of oral history interviews with John Archibald Wheeler conducted by Kenneth W. Ford between December 6, 1993 and May 18, 1995. They represent research material for Wheeler’s autobiography, Geons, Black Holes, and Quantum Foam: A Life in Physics (Norton, 1998).
A young man went out one door from the Washington Public Library (which still serves people from its location at or near 15th and K Streets in Washington) and a young woman, Mabel Archibald, went out another door at the end of the day. They didn't go out together because there is too much gossiping, but they would meet in Rock Creek Park and read Coleridge, Wordsworth, Shelley. I was just a gleam in their eye at the time of those meetings in Rock Creek Park. That was around 1909-1910.
How did those two young people get into library work? My father had to work his way through Brown University. Part of the time he painted sign boards. Part of the time he worked in a cutlery store that sold jack knives, and he always had a love for a good jack knife. But the job that he stayed with the longest and most steadily d had most to do with his future was working nights in the Providence Public Library.
He tried to give me a little of that experience because in college days I myself had a job Saturday nights, Saturday afternoons, and sometimes other nights in the Reference Department of the Baltimore Public Library. There was one simple rule: Don't let the patron leave until you've given him the best thinking that's available on the subject of the question that he raises.
He was very much impressed in his work in Providence with the amount of skilled small industry making small 'des of metal. People would come in to get advice on this, that, or the other problem of metal working or design. A little later, after his graduation from Brown, to get some formal introduction into the world of library work, he took a course at the Library School at the New York State University at Albany. I don't know if it was a special summer course or what.
Mabel Archibald was there too, trying to get a background for her job. I think that training was what helped her to end up with her position at the Reference Department of the Washington Public Library dealing every day with the greatest variety of questions from the patrons, using the reference books on hand to help answer those questions. She had had no college education. The family funds had run out by that time. Her older brothers John and Ralph and Robert had all gone to college and all had become mining engineers, which was natural because they lived at this time in Colorado. She was only about 18 when she and her parents moved to Washington. Her father had been able to get a job in the government—I have forgotten which branch—in Washington, so that gave them a steady income, in contrast to the ranch in Colorado, which was not a dependable source of income.
MY FATHER'S FAMILY
Neither side of the family was great on the money side of life. I suppose that was because one or another enthusiasm got the better of the families. My father's father had been assistant to the Vice President of the Boston and Maine Railroad. He was in love with railroads, but his family was growing up in a time when one or another religion was sweeping the country. At least New England was swept by a wave of interest in a denomination known as Swedenborgianism after the Swedish scientist and thinker Swedenborg. So, with five children—all boys—and no other income, he quit his job and studied to become a minister and became a Swedenborgian minister to various communities in southeastern New England, from Providence, Rhode Island to Bridgewater, Massachusetts.
How had he acquired such an interest in religion? My father gives me a little background. From time to time in the summer, he would visit his father's father and mother at Laporte [Q. sp?], New Hampshire. His father was then still in the Boston and Maine Railroad and as a small boy when night came on he would climb a ladder to a trap door in the ceiling that let him into the attic and he would sleep up there. If he left the trap door aside, he could hear the discussion going on, and he could hear his grandfather and grandmother discussing religion. They had different religious outlooks. I forget what they are. I'll have to discover. But each tried to convince the other to accept this way of looking at things. They dearly loved each other, but they wanted to save each other from perdition. So, here the little boy would listen to these learned discussions: salvation, predestination, foreordination, and all the issues that have always been traditional sources of difference.
That was Ezekiel and Mehitable who did the arguing. And their boy was George. He had no brothers, but he had two sisters. (Did they live in Laporte or did they live in Laconia? I'm not quite sure.) But I do remember visiting with my father at a later time when we were driving across New Hampshire seeing the railroad roundhouse where the locomotives could be driven onto a section of rail mounted on a turntable and turned around. These two sisters of my grandfather George, Annie and Emma, I knew in later years myself and there exists in the Joseph Wheeler collection in the Library School of Florida State University at Tallahassee a tintype showing the three of those people sitting together, my grandfather between his two sisters. And I recall a collection of papers of my grandfather—maybe sermons by him or letters from him, I'm not sure which—which were done up in a little packet with a ribbon and had written on it in my great-aunt Annie's handwriting: "These be eternal things. Think on them.
Aunt Emma was the one of those two sisters who married. She married Oscar Hiram Bump, a lawyer who went on the become a judge in Rutland County, Vermont. They had one child who in something like his early twenties died, I don't know of what. They were inconsolable. And my father helped them by going to live with them for the first year after he finished college, so that they could have him as a substitute son. So he always had an affection for them. At that time, my great-uncle Oscar Hiram Bump was no longer a judge at Rutland but he was the owner of a sawmill which operated on water power out of a little pond in the township of Benson, Vermont. This sawmill took lumber brought in by local farmers and sawed it up into planks and boards. What my father loved the most working there in the sawmill was making boxes. I'm not sure what the boxes were used for, but I could imagine that they were used for shipping butter or maple syrup, two products of that farming countryside that seemed to take with people in towns.
I can remember visiting my great-uncle Oscar and my great-aunt Emma at their house overlooking the mill pond. I loved the smell of the freshly cut wood and loved to hear the saws ripping down a log and the clunk of the freshly cut piece as it fell into its new position. But in time Aunt Emma died and Uncle Oscar married her sister, Aunt Annie. I recall how concerned about health Aunt Annie always was. She would always say to my father, "I shall worry, Louie, I shall worry." She and the rest of the Wheeler family called him Louie after his middle name. He was Joseph Lewis Wheeler. But my mother changed that to Joe. Before Aunt Annie married Uncle Oscar, if I recall correctly, she had run a grocery store, selling especially hats in Laconia, New Hampshire.
Uncle Oscar had bought a nearby farm, a dairy farm, and its possibilities always appealed to my father, so in later life that farm was a kind of heaven on earth in his eyes. Eventually the farm was sold to Mr. Wiskowski, a Polish man. He and his wife and family took on that job, but they couldn't keep up the payments. They dropped out, and the farm ultimately was bought be a neighbor, Almon Charleton. I visited that neighborhood in the summer of 1991 and had fun talking once again with Almon, in his inimitable way. It's a hard life to keep a farm going. But there is one wonderful thing that the town of Benson has that some of our neighbors had to take advantage of. That is that if you can't pay your taxes in cash, you can pay them in work on the town roads.
After my grandfather became a minister, he moved around quite a bit— Providence and I don't know how many other towns in southeast New England. So my father, as a child, lived in several different places, and at one point, they needed a house and they decided to build it. My grandfather was too taken up with "higher things" and didn't pay much attention to it. My grandmother, my father tells me, would supervise the carpenters, and say "You ought to cut that corner straighter" or whatnot. She would ride herd on the workmen. So he was always, in later life, in his own work as a librarian a demon for supervision. He had a motto: There's nothing that can't be done better.
Well, he was a man of enthusiasm, and my mother was interested in ideas, yes, and she was a great reader, yes, but she was a rock of stability. As to her absence of a college education: I never heard her speak about it, but I think it was responsible for her shyness about going out in company. She felt that somehow she didn't measure up. But she was better educated than many college-educated people.
Well, the Wheeler side of the family began early in America. In 1645, as I understand it, there were 45 Wheelers living in Concord, Massachusetts, and there is still the Wheeler house there where Ralph Waldo Emerson lived at one point.
The early settlers in Massachusetts came, of course, primarily for religious freedom. My wife and I visited in Leiden, Netherlands, the church where the early Pilgrims had met before they made their trip to Plymouth in the new world. Freeman Dyson tells me that it took at that time about seven years of one's earnings to buy a trip to the new world. I do not know the financial story of them all. But we have been lucky enough to have visiting us at various times the historian Carl Brieenbaugh, who died a couple of years ago. His books include one called Vexed and Troubled Englishmen, analyzing the reason's why Englishmen left the old country for the new.
Further down the line was the battle of Lexington, and there was a so-called train band, the men of Concord, who organized to prevent the British from taking supplies from Concord back to Boston. That fighting was an early element in the family. I don't recall who served in the American Civil War. My grandfather Wheeler? No. His father? No. I'm not sure.
MY MOTHER'S FAMILY
The other side of the family—my mother's family—had come from the old world. They were Scottish families who had gone to northern Ireland to make a better world for themselves with a door opened for them by Cromwell. They were fortunate enough to survive the siege of that city in northern Ireland—I can't remember its name, I'll call it B; I must look up the history in Trevelyan. In B, people starved to death, on the left and the right. But they held out until the siege caved in. Later, they sought a better opportunity in the new world, and moved to New Hampshire. The New Hampshire town was named after
the one in Ireland. I'll call it B too. But then later, the British threw the French out of Acadia. New land was available and they moved from B in New Hampshire to Truro, Nova Scotia.
Among the people that came to Nova Scotia, I learned from the records in the Historical Society in Truro, was a family that I will call Stevens (I'm not sure it was Stevens). He was on a ship coming to the new world and they were afflicted by contrary winds. The voyage took much longer than they expected. They ran out of food and they were starving. Something had to be done. They decided it was more blessed to eat one of them than to have them all die. So they drew lots and he, by chance, got the lot that means he was the one to be cut up. They were about to get on with the job when off on the distant horizon, they saw a ship. They were able to get supplies from it. So, by such a chance as that, my family tree was created.
Janette and I had gone to Truro to visit and had driven into the burial ground. We were sitting in a certain place eating our lunch, casting our eyes around, and, by George, there was his tombstone.
One of the Archibald family had registered a deed at the County Court House and to get back to Truro as soon as possible, he took a shortcut across the flats while the tide was out. He didn't reckon with how fast the tide could come in.
So, he was done for. But later the body of the horse was found, and the deed was there.
This was all before the American Civil War, but the pressure was building. The Kansas-Nebraska Act had created a situation where it was catch as catch can. Whoever got in there first with the most people could vote whether to have slavery or not. And, in Massachusetts, there was set up a society—I can't recall the name of it—financed by wealthy Massachusetts residents to take people and help them settle in Kansas. So the Archibalds moved down to Massachusetts, and after becoming instant Americans, they went with a party of people to settle in Lawrence, Kansas, to help make Kansas a free state. Well, there was a group across the border in Missouri, and a freebooter named Quantrell, who wanted to stop this free-state business. He and his party raided Lawrence—it was a famous raid. They burned houses and shot farmers out in the fields working.
My grandfather Archibald was at home and Quantrell's people put him against a barn door and were going to shoot him, but his mother threw herself before him and said, "Don't shoot him. He's just a boy." So it helped me get a grandfather.
Later, the Civil War came on and he was in it. At one point, a cannon ball hit the field in front of him and bounced up, passed over his head, and knocked him out. He was lying there on the battlefield. Some farmer's wife came along
after the battle. She found there was a pulse there, so she took him in. After some days, he came to. So, he has a dent in his skull the way I have one in my skull. Mine was from falling over a cliff, his from a cannon ball.
Before the Civil War, when he was, I gather, something like 14, he had gone with a party of men—maybe six men—who were taking a printing press to Santa Fe, New Mexico, on the Santa Fe Trail, to help make New Mexico a free state. And it did become a free state, much to the disgust of Texas, next door. In the Civil War, Texas invaded, but the New Mexicans defeated the Texans at the battle of Glorieta Pass, so New Mexico stayed a free state.
After the Civil War, he went to the University of Kansas the first year it was open, and there he met a young woman who was also going the first year it was open, Sarah Reed from Ohio. Her family had been active in the underground railroad, helping ferry Blacks across into Canada. They struck it up and married, and then moved to this ranch near Trinidad, Colorado. My grandfather's brother was the one who persuaded them that Colorado was a good place with great opportunities.
This ranch to which they moved was in the southeastern corner of Colorado, a few miles southwest of Trinidad, essentially along the line of the Santa Fe Railroad, shortly before it goes into New Mexico at Raton Pass. From the ranch, my mother used to tell me, they could see a major peak—not Pike's peak, but another one.
My grandfather's sister Julia was a person who was deeply interested in women's rights, as was her mother, my grandfather's mother. She was known as a "bloomer girl." She was the first woman to climb Pike's Peak. Their father—in other words, Julia's father and my grandfather's father—was John Christie Archibald. (I just received in the mail an invitation to the graduation of John Christie Archibald IV!) He was deeply interested in this slave business, as he must have been to settle in Lawrence. John Brown tried to persuade him to go on that ill-fated Harper's Ferry expedition, but his wife persuaded him it wasn't a good idea.
On the way from Lawrence, Kansas to Santa Fe, the party of men had great fun kidding my grandfather as a boy. At one point, they pointed out to him a buffalo—the first buffalo he had ever seen—and said, "We'll give you the chance to be the first to shoot it." So he galloped up and shot it. And then they laughed their heads off, because they knew it was a tame buffalo that belonged to a man along the way. He got into a lot of trouble from that! On the way back, he did not go straight back with them. He went straight north. That's how he got to look at the country around Trinidad, Colorado, where he later moved.
During World War I, when my father was off, my mother and her then three children went to live with her parents in Washington, so I got to see more of my grandfather and my grandmother on her side. My grandfather went to a regular monthly meeting of the Grand Army of the Republic and he would often take long walks over to the park where the Soldiers Home was, and visit some of his former Civil War comrades. So I would be taken along on these adventures. He took me also to a naval ordnance factory where cannon were being made. I can recall that it was a bit sticky to get through the security. He talked about being a veteran and so on, said this was just a boy that he was bringing in. So I got to see the cannon being made. On another occasion during World War I, he took me to hear an address of Woodrow Wilson. It was an address that Wilson gave standing at the Lincoln Memorial. (I haven't yet found out just which address it was.)
[Note: A few paragraphs above, JAW said: "Well, there were lots of Hispanics in that part of Colorado where my grandfather was, on the ranch." Because he was interrupted by a question from K, he didn't complete this thought.]
My mother grew up in Colorado until she was eighteen. She was independent minded. Something that happened in class I remember she told me. The teacher said to the students, "You've got to apologize for this." The students didn't think they were responsible. They weren't apologizing. So the teacher said, "Well, you can just stay after school until you do. I'll stay here with you." One by one, they caved in and apologized and went home. But my mother wouldn't. Finally, it got dark; then the teacher caved in. So my mother had to walk home, the five miles that she walked every day to and from school.
I don't know if she later longed for the west. Once, when I was away, the whole family went out and visited the ranch. I can recall hearing from my mother about one of the problems. There was only so much water. Different ranchers would have different hours for use of the water. Sometimes there were fights because someone broke the rules. So I have never seen the ranch to my knowledge.
MY KNOWLEDGE OF THE FAMILY
My father in later years put together a lot of notebooks about different members of the family. They were up in Maine but my boy Jamie is a great man for grabbing things. I think he has most of them in Ardmore. I knew all four grandparents. My grandfather Wheeler I did not really know very well because he died while I was still very small.
MY EARLIEST YEARS - FLORIDA AND CALIFORNIA
As I mentioned, my father and mother met at the Library School in Albany, New York. They were married while at the library in Washington. In later years, I got to know the man who had been the director of the library then— George Bowerman. He recommended my father, who by then was assistant librarian, for the position of full librarian at Jacksonville, Florida, so that's where my father and mother went, and that's where I was born.
My father was in Jacksonville about six months, and then moved to Los Angeles as assistant director of the Los Angeles Public Library. In Los Angeles he was so full of ideas, getting so much done—and the newspapers wrote up so much—that the librarian evidently got his nose out of joint, and one day came to my father and said "Your position is being terminated." He didn't say, "You're fired." He said, "Your position is being terminated." Well, that's tough when you have a family and a second child on the way. My brother was born in 1914. But my father got a job with the World's Fair taking place at San Francisco. I'm not clear exactly what the Fair was—the Panama-Pacific Exposition, I think. I guess it had something to do with opening the Panama Canal. All I remember is him telling about the terrible storm on the ship going from Los Angeles to San Francisco, with the dishes clattering off onto the floor and breaking. And he told me about one occasion when his billfold was taken from his pocket. But for him it was a great experience to see all the people coming there and to meet Theodore Roosevelt, who visited.
All this was, I think, in 1914. He went alone to San Francisco. My mother and I stayed in Glendale, California, a suburb of Los Angeles.
In the meantime, he had been writing around about another position. He was offered the position of director of the public library at Youngstown, Ohio.
MY FATHER'S FAMILY DURING MY EARLY YEARS.
We moved from California to Youngstown, Ohio when I was three. We went by way of New England to visit the family there. I remember my grandfather Wheeler taking me to the Post Office at Kennebunkport, where he'd gone for the summer. The whole family was there. Also, I remember him taking me to the beach with tin pail and shovel. Of the trip by train to the east, I only remember the business about whether you kept the window open or closed. Whether you wanted ventilation enough to breathe smoke!
My brother Joe, newly born, was not well. He had to have goat's milk. My mother used to call him the little horned toad—a term of affection.
My mother and my grandmother Wheeler did not hit it off very well. My grandmother Wheeler was a very positive person. My father, in his later life, when Janette and I were going to Hawaii, said that as a young man he had been told by his family that it would be nice if he got acquainted with such-and-such a person—I forget the name now. She came from a good family, a well-to-do family, and he ought ultimately to mary her. Well, he didn't. But, when Janette and I were going to Hawaii, he said, "Why don't you visit this lady?" She was living in the Hotel Alocolade on the top floor—a beautiful place. She greeted us in a very friendly way. I don't know whether she had married someone else. (I probably have it written down somewhere, but can't recall now.)
Some amplification of the lack of rapport between my mother and my paternal grandmother: One is an easterner, one is a westerner. One always had to have everything done perfectly. My mother got the job done, one way or another. Their relationship is such an interesting point. My grandmother Wheeler was not given to giving approval easily—as, for instance, in my father's description of her treatment of the workmen building the house. My mother: I wouldn't call her devil-may-care, but she was breezier.
I think my grandmother Wheeler was a pretty stern taskmaster. I know that my father's older brother Gilman, like the other boys, had to be in at night. Well, he slid down the rain spout to go out at night, and he hurt himself, so he was found out.
Sometimes my grandmother had to watch out for my grandfather. Some poor devil in the church would come and see my grandfather, and if she didn't do something about it, he would give the poor devil some money. She had to watch him.
I know my father tells about being one time at church while his father was giving a sermon. My father was sitting right up front. He would look up and see his father. At one point, a very serious point, my father winked. The poor minister just broke down. He couldn't keep a straight face.
The five boys were very different. Oldest was my uncle George—George Gilman Wheeler. Then came my father, Joseph Lewis Wheeler. The next brother, Harold, also went into library work, also married in Washington, DC, and also went to live in the middle west, but never had any children. Then my uncle Herman, who had a job at the local bank as a cashier or teller, I'm not sure what; he did have some children.
Then the youngest son, Roger, who served in World War I and was, I think, gassed a bit, so he was always a little careful with his health. He was engaged before he left to go overseas to Miriam Turner. When he got back, they were still engaged, but nothing happened. The rest of the family were all distressed that he didn't get married. He died fairly young. He was a reporter for the Brockton paper, and I remember him saying, "Yes, it's a simple life. They take you in the front door and they kick you out the back door." He loved to go around Massachusetts. When we were visiting, he'd say, "Let's go down to such-and-such a place, maybe Scituate."
I almost got to see my grandfather Wheeler again. He was coming up in the dead of winter from some meeting he had been at in New York State. He was going to visit us at the farm when we were there. He got as far as Albany. We got this phone call that he was stricken. I forget whether my father got there is time to see him before he died. The rest of us never did see him again.
We got to Youngstown, Ohio, in 1914. We lived on Wick Avenue. Then, later, we moved to Millicent Avenue. Still later, we moved to Dennick Avenue, 157 Dennick Avenue if I remember right. Youngstown was a great steel city before steel had been hit, and also rubber. The fumes from the rubber plant would often come over our way. I don't know whether that was it or what, but I understand that X rays of my lungs show calcified remains of past tuberculosis.
Keeping with his idea that nothing can't be done better, my father felt that the library could serve people better if it had a more central location—that where it was was too monumental. There was a place right in the center of town, where main streets crossed. There was a little circle there in the center. He said, "That's a good place to put the library." Well, he got the town to allow that to be done, but the town wouldn't put up any money for it. So he got the labor unions to give the labor and the contractors to give the materials, so it got
built. That did more business than the central library. Between the two, a distance of about five or six blocks, you crossed the railroad tracks. That was always a pleasure when a freight train came by. My father loved to call off the names of the cars—Pittsburgh and Lake Erie; New York Central; Chicago, Milwaukee, and Western; Norfolk and Western; Chesapeake and Ohio; and, at the end, the caboose.
The schools in Youngstown were good, and I was very lucky that the high school was so good. There was Mr. Love, the teacher of English; Miss Doerschuk, the teacher of geometry; and Miss Lida F. Baldwin, the teacher of algebra. Murph Goldberger had some of these same teachers, later. He went to the same high school. A high school isn't anything unless it has an enemy. The enemy was South High.
I'm not sure which year it was when we moved to Washington during the war. [1917?] but that's where I began school. I can recall the teacher insisting about writing, how we should write, standing over us. I don't think I was an intrinsic lefthander. But when my grandmother Archibald visited us in California, she had taught me to hammer. She was hammering with her right hand, and I was facing her, hammering with my left hand. I still do it with my left hand. So woodworking I do with my left hand, but other things with my right hand.
In the Washington school, in this time of war, one of the things that the school dredged up and started to emphasize was the Pledge of Allegiance. I think that my family felt that that was too much like state-enforced religion. They didn't like it. I don't remember what I actually did. I don't think I ever came out against it in class.
BACK TO YOUNGSTOWN
We moved back to Youngstown in 1918 or 1919. McKinley School was the primary school in Youngstown. I suppose it is still going. I can remember walking up the street from McKinley School, looking at older people coming down. As I looked at their faces, I thought, "I can almost tell what that person is thinking." I don't know why I felt that way. During that time, my father wrote a book for men coming back from the services called Your Job Back Home. It was about the opportunities and how to get information about them. A little later he wrote a book called The Library and the Community. It was about 1926 or 1927 that the Baltimore Public Library induced him to come there as the director. He was a bit horrified about how low the budget support was for the library in Baltimore, but you know the old German saying—I never heard him quote it, but he might as well have quoted it—"Die Probleme existieren um überwenden zu werden" (Problems exist in order to be overcome).
BALTIMORE CITY COLLEGE
I was then 15, still in high school. My last year of high school was in Baltimore, in the Baltimore City College, as it was called. There it was quite something. The rival school was Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, also a high school. The Baltimore City College was, effectively, a training ground for future Baltimore politicians. There were two literary societies. One was Carrollton-Wight. The other was Bancroft Literary Society. The great event of the year was a debate between the two. But in the meantime, there were other organizational meetings—debates, talks. It was training in public speaking. I recall that you were called on. You would go up in the space between the two banks of seats to climb the steps to the stage. You were handed a piece of paper. You then pulled the piece of paper open. There would be the question you were to talk about, and which side you were to take. And you began by saying, "I shall discuss this question under the social, economic, and political heads." That gave you a little break.
SOME EARLY MEMORIES
Going back to before I started to school, I remember when I was three or four. This electric light socket could be disconnected from any electricity. You could turn the handle on it and hear it click. Then I discovered that if you had a marble and put it inside the socket and turned the handle, the marble would shoot out. It was wonderful. Then there were things like Mechano, putting things together. My sister tells me that my mother was taking me somewhere and we went past where the workmen were digging down and connecting pipes, and I said to her, "That won't work, because they've got to change it to look like this." Sure enough, they did have to. I can't recall when I first saw an airplane. It was a long time before I was ever on board an airplane. I do remember mechanical things more than books in those earliest years.
One of my favorite books was Howard Pyle's book, The Wonder Clock. It has wonderful illustrations as well as text. And then there was, of course, The Swiss Family Robinson and Robinson Crusoe. My father would bring home from the library books that had to be considered—should the library get them or not? He would get my mother in on that, so our family, typically after supper, was always sitting around in the living room, everybody with a book.
The Rayen High School in Youngstown came after I finished the McKinley primary school in Youngstown and after primary school in Vermont. My father had had an attack of scarlet fever in California while my mother and I were on our way from Jacksonville, Florida to take up residence in California, and this had damaged his heart. To take away some of the pressure and get himself back into physical condition, he took a leave of absence to go up to the farm in Vermont, which he had been buying gradually from my uncle Oscar. He had fallen in love with that country during his year up there and, little by little, he was paying on it. My mother was very patient about it. She must have felt in her bones that it was financially not a good idea, but she let my father go ahead on it. I know that every month it was a strain.
So we went to Vermont and lived in the farm house. I think it was in 1921, when I was ten. I can remember, in the winter we had a visit from Carl Milam, who was the Secretary of the American Library Association in Chicago, essentially its director. Well, he was staying some days with us in the farm house, and it was too cold—too cold for him and too cold for us. So he said one day, "I've got a solution. Let's all go out without putting on any overcoats, stay out fifteen minutes, and then go back in. You'll really feel warm." And so we did.
My father had had some nice labels printed up to put on cans of maple syrup. He had a dream of making maple syrup there and selling it. Mountain Brook Farm was the name. I recall going up in the winter with the other children in a sleigh with a horse pulling us through the woods, and getting to the sugar house, getting a barrel and putting it on the sleigh, then going around among the maple trees, from each one getting a bucket of sap to pour into the barrel, and taking the barrel to the sugar house right there in the woods. It was a house about the size of this [Jadwin Hall] office—not so tall and not so deep, but about the same length. It had a tray about two-and-a-half feet wide and ten to twelve feet long, held up by metal supports. Underneath was space for firewood. A fire was kept going there, boiling away the syrup. The room was about ten feet wide, twelve feet long, and eight feet high. (I should go up in the woods next time I visit and see if it's still there.) They would take this syrup out and try it to see if it was thick enough. But we didn't go in for making maple sugar. I don't know why we didn't go that far. It's so good.
I can recall Janette saying that her family—maybe her grandfather—would ship to her family in Baltimore for a Christmas present every year a can of maple syrup. After a while it would arrive empty, as evidently someone on board the Railway Express train drained it. So, they relabeled the cans from then on, "Varnish." Then it got through OK.
From time to time, every year roughly, I get a letter from one of my old classmates at the little elementary school there in Vermont. That school was on a section of land that had been given by my uncle Oscar—Oscar Hiram Bump—to the township. So it was called the Bump School. I would say that there must have been 35 students. The poor teacher lived at one of the nearby farm houses and walked to work. All eight grades she had to look after, one by one, rotating through the day. You might say it was distracting, but in a way it was productive because you could go ahead faster that way. I guess that's how come it was possible to skip two grades, so that when I got back to Ohio, I could go on ahead.
I can recall that my father must have got various books for me. The book of J. Arthur Thomson called An Outline of Science I enjoyed very much, particularly the discussion of how electricity is conducted with electrons going along. Also, there was this book called Mechanisms and Mechanical Devices, which stimulated me to try this and that gadget. I always had a dream of building a railroad around the farm, but it was completely crazy, because it would have cost too much. But we did build a dam in the brook. That was quite an enterprise. The name Mountain Brook Farm describes it, this brook coming down the side of a hill. If you ever camp, as we did later, beside that stream, and you listen to the stream going by after a rainfall, there is no more soothing music to send you to sleep.
After a year and a half on the farm, we moved back to Youngstown. We had a whole flock of chickens, including an obstreperous rooster. I can recall our taking our stuff down to the railroad station in Fair Haven, which is about ten miles away, the nearest railroad point. There we loaded these things into the freight car, and even the chickens came through OK to Youngstown. We built in our backyard in Youngstown a little place to keep the chickens—and the rooster. Little by little, these chickens got eaten up for Sunday dinners. Finally, we came to the rooster. That was a tough animal.
We had a buffalo robe in Vermont that we could use over our knees when we went for a too-long ride in the sleigh over the snow, the horse pulling us. I don't what's happened to that buffalo robe now. I haven't seen it in years. W e did have up there a good part of a wooden clock. By a wooden clock I mean a clock where all the gear wheels have been cut in wood, wooden teeth meshing. That clock my brother—or rather, his widow—has now in Texas. Then we also had in Vermont the theodolite that my grandfather [Archibald] had used as a surveying instrument at the ranch in Colorado. I suppose that's also with my brother Rob's things in Texas. I haven't seen that in years. That was a treat to have those real-life things.
In the Vermont school, it was very nice to be able to go, so to speak, at your own speed. I can't remember the teacher's name, and I can't remember
anything of special excitement there, but I think that mathematics was a special subject. My Grandfather Archibald, during the time I was in Washington, taught me algebra. My mother's son [slip of tongue] Archie Blake used to send me puzzles by mail. He also sent me Pierce's Table of Integrals, which I have over on the shelf now, with his inscription in it: "Merry Christmas and easier calculus problems." I don't know if there is anything more in it. Calculus I learned from a calculus book, but I can't remember the author. My father was good at wheedling books out of publishers' representatives. That may be where the book came from. My cousin Archie probably taught me some too.
When I got back to Youngstown, I don't how in Hades I managed to move ahead in school, but I did. It caused one awkwardness in music. I had missed out on a year when some things were taught about sharps and flats, so I was always at a loss there.
Almon Charlton, on the next farm, had bought our farm in more recent years. His sister Alda lives in that neighborhood still, and we get Christmas cards from time to time. She keeps in touch with my sister. (I should really go up and see my sister.)
Well, in Youngstown we boys had a wagon, and Dennick Avenue was on a hill. You could come down at a good speed. Naturally, any important traffic like that ought to be regulated, so we had arranged a signal, like a semaphore on a railroad, with a string you could pull to raise it or lower it.
In Vermont, when we went, there was no electricity to begin with. Most people are not accustomed to life without electricity. They don't know what it means. My father got the neighboring farmers together to form an alliance. The electric company said they wouldn't put in the power line, but if we put in the power line, they would supply the electricity. So we had to get dynamite and blast holes to put the poles in. We wired the farmhouse. The way that was done was with little porcelain brackets on the ceiling, two wires held by the bracket and two more brackets on top of that. We got the main floors done, but we didn't try to do the attic. The attic was the home for bats. You opened the door to the attic, and you heard the scuffling of the bats.
In the cellar there was a furnace. We burned wood there. There was a barrel nearby with apples. On the main floor there was a room where we had the churn. We turned the churn to churn the milk and make butter, and we had little molds to put the butter in. My father would take this butter into the larger town of Fair Haven, where the railroad goes, and sell it to individual people, house to house. Butter and maple syrup!
What I remember the best from the high-school years is my friend Burdette Moke. He and I made wooden guns to shoot wooden bullets and wooden safes with the wheels for the combination lock made out of wood. So we formed what we called the Wheeler-Moke Safe and Gun Company. He later went into geology, and became a professor at Wooster College in Wooster, Ohio. I don't know if he's still living. I would often visit his house on Saturdays, and he would visit mine. We were at totally different ends of town. His father was in steel. At the time of labor trouble, he told me one time, his father had gone to Pittsburgh with a load of rifles in his car to help make sure that the labor people didn't take over the steel mill there. I'm ashamed to say that it turned out once—I've forgotten how I found out—that his family wanted me to have contact with Burdette because they thought he would pick up a lot of extra words from me.
One of the things I remember most vividly is going with my father when he was giving some lectures in later life. It was probably during the Youngstown years. At the very same Library School at the University of New York at Albany where he had studied, some of the kind ladies would look after me. In Albany my father took me to see Houdini. He got bolted into a container and escaped from it under water. He also made an elephant disappear on the stage. I guess it was done with light and mirrors.