Tramping on Life - An Autobiographical Narrative
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Tramping on Life - An Autobiographical Narrative


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Published 08 December 2010
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The Project Gutenberg EBook of Tramping on Life, by Harry Kemp
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Title: Tramping on Life  An Autobiographical Narrative
Author: Harry Kemp
Release Date: March 19, 2005 [EBook #15415]
Language: English
Character set encoding: ISO-8859-1
Produced by Audrey Longhurst, Martin Pettit and the PG Online Distributed Proofreading Team at
Copyright, 1922, by
First Printing, September, 1922
Second Printing, November, 1922
Third Printing, January, 1923
Fourth Printing, April, 1923
Fifth Printing, July, 1923
Sixth Printing, September, 1923
Seventh Printing, November, 1923
Eighth Printing, May, 1924
Ninth Printing, November, 1924
Tenth Printing, July, 1925
Eleventh Printing, March, 1926
Twelfth Printing, February, 1927
Printed in the United States of America
All in this book that is good and enduring and worth while for humanity, I dedicate to the memory of my wife,
Waterbury, Connecticut,
May 20, 1922.
Now I am writing these things just as I was told them by my grandmother. For I have utterly no remembrance of my mother. Consumption ran in her family. And bearing and giving birth to me woke the inherited weakness in her. She was not even strong enough to suckle me.
I was born in the early eighties, in Mornington, Ohio, in a section of that great, steel-manufacturing city which was neither city, suburb, nor country,—but a muddy, green-splashed, murky mixture of all three.
They told me, when I was old enough to understand, that my mother was English, that her folks lived in Cleveland and owned a millinery and drygoods store there ... and that my father met my mother one day in Mornington. She was visiting an uncle who ran a candy store on Main Street, and, she girl-like, laughed and stood behind the counter, ready for a flirtation....
My father was young, too. And he was employed there in the store, apprenticed to the candy-maker's trade. And, on this day, as he passed through, carrying a trayful of fresh-dipped chocolates, he winked at my mother and joked with her in an impudent way ... and she rebuffed him, not really meaning a rebuff, of course ... and he startled her by pulling off his hat and grotesquely showing himself to be entirely bald ... for he had grown bald very young—at the age of sixteen ... both because of scarlet fever, and because baldness for the men ran in his family ... and he was tall, and dark, and wa lked with rather a military carriage.
I was four years old when my mother died.
When she fell sick, they tell me, my grandfather did one of the few decent acts of his life—he let my father have a farm he owned i n central Kansas, near Hutchinson. But my father did not try to work it.
He was possessed of neither the capital nor knowledge necessary for farming.
He went to work as clerk in a local hotel, in the rapidly growing town. Crazy with grief, he watched my mother drop out of his life a little more each day.
My father and mother both had tempers that flared up and sank as suddenly.
I had lung fever when I was a baby. That was what they called it then. I nearly died of it. It left me very frail in body.
As soon as I could walk and talk my mother made a great companion of me. She didn't treat me as if I were only a child. She treated me like a grown-up companion. I am told that I would follow her about the house from room to room, clutching at her skirts, while she was dusting and sweeping and working. And to hear us two talking with each other, you would have imagined there was a houseful of people.
My father's anguish over my mother's death caused him to break loose from all ties. Hisgriefgoaded him so that he went about ai mlessly. He roamed from
state to state, haunted by her memory. He worked at all sorts of jobs. Once he even dug ditches for seventy-five cents a day. He had all sorts of adventures, roaming about.
As for me, I was left alone with my grandmother, his mother,—in the big house which stood back under the trees, aloof from the wide, dusty road that led to the mills.
With us lived my young, unmarried aunt, Millie....
My grandmother had no education. She could barely read and write.
And she believed in everybody.
She was stout ... sparse-haired ... wore a switch ... had kindly, confiding, blue eyes.
Beggars, tramps, pack-peddlers, book-agents, fortun e-tellers,—she lent a credulous ear to all,—helped others when we ourselves needed help, signed up for preposterous articles on "easy" monthly payments,—gave away food, starving her appetite and ours.
When, child though I was, even I protested, she would say, "well, Johnnie, you might be a tramp some day, and how would I feel if I thought some one was turning you away hungry?"
My Grandfather Gregory was a little, alert, erect, suave man,—he was a man whose nature was such that he would rather gain a d ollar by some cheeky, brazen, off-colour practice than earn a hundred by honest methods.
He had keen grey eyes that looked you in the face in utter, disarming frankness. He was always immaculately dressed. He talked continually about money, and about how people abused his confidence and his trust in men. But there was a sharpness like pointed needles in the pupils of his eyes that betrayed his true nature.
Coming to Mornington as one of the city's pioneers, at first he had kept neck to neck in social prestige with the Babsons, Guelders, and the rest, and had built the big house that my grandmother, my aunt, and mys elf now lived in, on Mansion avenue....
When the Civil War broke out, that streak of adventure and daring in my grandfather which in peace times turned him to shady financial transactions, now caused him to enlist. And before the end of the war he had gone far up in the ranks.
After the war he came into still more money by a manufacturing business which he set up. But the secret process of the special ki nd of material which he manufactured he inveigled out of a comrade in arms. The latter never derived a cent from it. My grandfather stole the patent, taking it out in his own name. The other man had trusted him, remembering the times they had fought shoulder to shoulder, and had bivouacked together....
My grandfather, though so small as to be almost diminutive, was spry and brave as an aroused wasp when anyone insulted him. Several times he faced down burly-bodied men who had threatened to kill him for his getting the better of them in some doubtful business transaction.
For a long time his meanness and sharp dealings were reserved for outsiders and he was generous with his family. And my sweet, simple, old grandmother belonged to all the societies, charitable and otherwise, in town ... but she was not, never could be "smart." She was always saying and doing naïve things from the heart. And soon she began to disapprove of my grandfather's slick business ways.
I don't know just what tricks he put over ... but he becamepersona non gratain local business circles ... and he took to running a bout the country, putting through various projects here and there ... this little, dressy, hard-faced man ... like a cross between a weasel and a bird!
He dropped into Mornington, and out again, each time with a wild, restless story of fortunes to be made or in the making!
Once he came home and stayed for a longer time than usual. During this stay he received many letters. My grandmother noticed a furtiveness in his manner when he received them. My grandmother noticed that her husband always repaired immediately to the outhouse when he received a letter.
She followed after him one day, and found fragments of a torn letter cast below ... she performed the disagreeable task of retrievi ng the fragments, of laboriously piecing them together and spelling them out. She procured a divorce as quietly as possible. Then my grandfather made his final disappearance. I did not see him again till I was quite grown up.
All support of his numerous family ceased. His sons and daughters had to go to work while still children, or marry.
My Aunt Alice married a country doctor whom I came to know as "Uncle Beck." My Uncle Joe, who inherited my grandfather's business-sense, with none of his crookedness, started out as a newsboy, worked his w ay up to half-proprietorship in a Mornington paper ... the last I heard of him he had money invested in nearly every enterprise in town, and ha d become a substantial citizen.
My father still pursued his nomadic way of living, sending, very seldom, driblets of money to my grandmother for my support ... my uncle Jim went East to work ... of my uncle Landon I shall tell you later on.
The big house in which my grandmother, my Aunt Mill ie, and I lived was looking rather seedy by this time. The receding tide of fashion and wealth had withdrawn far off to another section of the rapidly growing city ... and, below and above, the Steel Mills, with their great, flaring furnaces, rose, it seemed, over night, one after one ... and a welter of strange people we then called the "low Irish" came to work in them, and our Mansion Avenue became "Kilkenny Row." And a gang of tough kids sprang up called the "Kilkenny Cats," with which my
gang used to fight.
After the "Low Irish" came the "Dagoes" ... and after them the "Hunkies" ... each wilder and more poverty-stricken than the former.
The Industrial Panic of '95 (it was '95, I think) was on ... always very poor since the breaking up of our family, now at times even bread was scarce in the house.
I was going to school, scrawny and freckle-faced and ill-nourished. I had a pet chicken that fortunately grew up to be a hen. It used to lay an egg for me nearly every morning during that hard time.
My early remembrances of school are chiefly olfactory. I didn't like the dirty boy who sat next to me and spit on his slate, rubbing it clean with his sleeve. I loved the use of my yellow, new sponge, especially after the teacher had taught me all about how it had grown on the bottom of the oce an, where divers had to swim far down to bring it up, slanting through the green waters. But the slates of most of the boys stunk vilely with their spittle.
I didn't like the smell of the pig-tailed little gi rls, either. There was a close soapiness about them that offended me. And yet they attracted me. For I liked them in their funny, kilt-like, swinging dresses. I liked the pudginess of their noses, the shiny apple-glow of their cheeks.
It was wonderful to learn to make letters on a slate. To learn to put down rows of figures and find that one and one, cabalistically, made two, and two and two, four!
It always seemed an age to recess. And the school day was as long as a month is now.
We were ready to laugh at anything ... a grind-organ in the street, a passing huckster crying "potatoes," etc.
I have few distinct memories of my school days. I never went to kindergarten. I entered common school at the age of eight.
My grandfather, after his hegira from Mornington, l eft behind his library of travels, lives of famous American Statesmen and Business Men, and his Civil War books. Among these books were four treasure troves that set my boy's imagination on fire. They wereStanley's Adventures in Africa, Dr. Kane's Book o fPolar Explorations,Mungo Park, and, most amazing of all, a huge, sensational book calledSavage Races of the Worldthis title was followed ... by a score of harrowing and sensational sub-titles in rubric. I revelled and rolled in this book like a colt let out to first pasture. For days and nights, summer and winter, I fought, hunted, was native to all the world's savage regions in turn, partook gleefully of strange and barbarous customs, naked and skin-painted. I pushed dug-outs and canoes along tropic water-ways where at any moment an enraged hippopotamus might thrust upoverturn me, crunchinsnout and  his g
the boat in two and leaving me a prey to crocodiles ... I killed birds of paradise with poison darts which I blew out of a reed with my nostrils ... I burned the houses of white settlers ... even indulged shudderingly in cannibal feasts.
The one thing that pre-eminently seized my imagination inSavage Races of the Worldthe frontispiece,—a naked black rushing full-tilt through a was tropical forest, his head of hair on fire, a huge feather-duster of dishevelled flame ... somehow this appealed to me as especially romantic. I dreamed of myself as that savage, rushing gloriously through a forest, naked, and crowned with fire like some primitive sun-god. It never once occurred to me how it would hurt to have my hair burning!
When Aunt Millie was taken down with St. Vitus's dance, it afforded me endless amusement. She could hardly lift herself a drink out of a full dipper without spilling two-thirds of the contents on the ground.
Uncle Beck, the Pennsylvania Dutch country doctor w ho married Aunt Alice, came driving in from Antonville, five miles away, once or twice a week to tend to Millie, free, as we were too poor to pay for a doctor. I remember how Uncle Beck caught me and whipped me with a switch. For I constantly teased Aunt Millie to make her scream and cry.
"Granma," I used to call out, on waking in the morning....
"Yes, Johnnie darling, what is it?"
"Granma, yesterday ... in the woods back of Babson's barn, I killed three Indians, one after the other." (The funny part of i t was that I believed this, actually, as soon as the words left my mouth.)
A silence....
"Granma, don't you believe me?"
"Yes, of course, I believe you."
Aunt Millie would strike in with—"Ma, why do you go on humouring Johnnie while he tells such lies? You ought to give him a good whipping."
"The poor little chap ain't got no mother!"
"Poor little devil! If you keep on encouraging him this way he'll become one of the greatest liars in the country."
A colloquy after this sort took place more than once. It gave me indescribable pleasure to narrate an absurd adventure, believe it myself in the telling of it, and think others believed me. Aunt Millie's scorn stung me like a nettle, and I hated her.
In many ways I tasted practical revenge. Though a grown girl of nineteen, she still kept three or four dolls. And I would steal her dolls, pull their dresses for
shame over their heads, and set them straddle the banisters.
We took in boarders. We had better food. It was good to have meat to eat every day.
Among the boarders was a bridge builder named Elton Reeves. Elton had a pleasant, sun-burnt face and a little choppy moustache beneath which his teeth glistened when he smiled.
He fell, or pretended to fall, in love with gaunt, raw-boned Millie.
At night, after his day's work, he and Millie would sit silently for hours in the darkened parlour,—silent, except for an occasional murmur of voices. I was curious. Several times I peeked in. But all I could see was the form of my tall aunt couched half-moonwise in Elton Reeve's lap. I used to wonder why they sat so long and still, there in the darkness....
Once a grown girl of fourteen named Minnie came to visit a sweet little girl named Martha Hanson, whose consumptive widower-father rented two rooms from my grandmother. They put Minnie to sleep in the same bed with me....
After a while I ran out of the bedroom into the parlour where the courting was going on.
"Aunt Millie, Minnie won't let me sleep."
Millie did not answer. Elton guffawed lustily.
I returned to bed and found Minnie lying stiff and mute with fury.
Elton left, the bridge-work brought to completion. He had a job waiting for him in another part of the country.
It hurt even my savage, young, vindictive heart to see Millie daily running to the gate, full of eagerness, as the mail-man came....
"No, no letters for you this morning, Millie!"
Or more often he would go past, saying nothing. And Millie would weep bitterly.
I have a vision of a very old woman walking over the top of a hill. She leans on a knobby cane. She smokes a corn-cob pipe. Her face is corrugated with wrinkles and as tough as leather. She comes out of a high background of sky. The wind whips her skirts about her thin shanks. Her legs are like broomsticks.
This is a vision of my great-grandmother's entrance into my boyhood.
I had often heard of her. She had lived near Halton with my Great-aunt Rachel for a long time ... and now, since we were taking i n boarders and could keep her, she was coming to spend the rest of her days with us.
At first I was afraid of this eerie, ancient being. But when she dug out a set of fish-hooks, large and small, from her tobacco pouch, and gave them to me, I began to think there might be something human in the old lady.
She established her regular place in a rocker by the kitchen stove. She had already reached the age of ninety-five. But there was a constant, sharp, youthful glint in her eye that belied her age.
She chewed tobacco vigorously like any backwoodsman (had chewed it originally because she'd heard it cured toothache, then had kept up the habit because she liked it).
Her corncob pipe—it was as rank a thing as ditch di gger ever poisoned the clean air with.
Granma Wandon was as spry as a yearling calf. She taught me how to drown out groundhogs and chipmunks from their holes. She went fishing with me and taught me to spit on the bait for luck, or rub a certain root on the hook, which she said made the fish bite better.
And solemnly that spring of her arrival, and that following summer, did we lay out a fair-sized garden and carefully plant each ki nd of vegetable in just the right time and phase of the moon and, however it ma y be, her garden grew beyond the garden of anyone else in the neighbourhood.
The following winter—and her last winter on earth—w as a time of wonder and marvel for me ... sitting with her at the red-heate d kitchen stove, I listened eagerly to her while she related tales to me of old settlers in Pennsylvania ... stories of Indians ... ghost stories ... she curdle d my blood with tales of catamounts and mountain lions crying like women, and babies in the dark, to lure travellers where they could pounce down from branches on them.
And she told me the story of the gambler whom the D evil took when he swore falsely, avowing, "may the Devil take me if I cheated."
She boasted of my pioneer ancestors ... strapping six-footers in their stocking feet ... men who carried one hundred pound bags of salt from Pittsburgh to Slippery Rock in a single journey.
The effect of these stories on me—?
I dreamed of skeleton hands that reached out from the clothes closet for me. Often at night I woke, yelling with nightmare.
With a curious touch of folk lore Granma Gregory advised me to "look for the harness under the bed, if it was a nightmare." But she upbraided Granma Wandon, her mother, for retailing me such tales.
"Nonsense, it'll do himgood, my sweet little Johnn ie," she assured her