Man's nature is like iron, never born in a pure state but always mixed with elements that weaken it. Envy, greed and malice are mixed with every man's nature when he comes into the world. They are the brimstone that makes him brittle. He is pig-iron until he boils them out of his system. Savages and criminals are men who have not tried to boil this dross out of their nature. Lincoln was one who boiled it out in the fires of adversity. He puddled his own soul till the metal was pure, and that's how he got the Iron Will that was strong enough to save a nation.
My purpose in slackening my heat as soon as the pig-iron was melted was to oxidize the phosphorus and sulphur ahead of the carbon. Just as alcohol vaporizes at a lower heat than water, so sulphur and phosphorus oxidize at a lower heat than carbon. When this reaction begins I see light flames breaking through the lake of molten slag in my furnace. Probably from such a sight as this the old-time artists got their pictures of Hell. The flames are caused by the burning of carbon monoxide from the oxidation of carbon. The slag is basic and takes the sulphur and phosphorus into combination, thus ending its combination with the iron. The purpose now is to oxidize the carbon, too, without reducing the phosphorus and sulphur and causing them to return to the iron. We want the pure iron to begin crystallizing out of the bath like butter from the churning buttermilk.
More and more of the carbon gas comes out of the puddle, and as it bubbles out the charge is agitated by its escape and the "boil" is in progress. It is not real boiling like the boiling of a teakettle. When a teakettle boils the water turns to bubbles of vapor and goes up in the air to turn to water again when it gets cold. But in the boiling iron puddle a chemical change is taking place. The iron is not going up in vapor. The carbon and the oxygen are. This formation of gas in the molten puddle causes the whole charge to boil up like an ice-cream soda. The slag overflows. Redder than strawberry syrup and as hot as the fiery lake in Hades it flows over the rim of the hearth and out through the slag-hole. My helper has pushed up a buggy there to receive it. More than an eighth and sometimes a quarter of the weight of the pig-iron flows off in slag and is carted away.
Meanwhile I have got the job of my life on my hands. I must stir my boiling mess with all the strength in my body. For now is my chance to defeat nature and wring from the loosening grip of her hand the pure iron she never intended to give us.
CHAPTER XVII. MAN IS IRON TOO
For twenty-five minutes while the boil goes on I stir it constantly with my long iron rabble. A cook stirring gravy to keep it from scorching in the skillet is done in two minutes and backs off blinking, sweating and choking, having finished the hardest job of getting dinner. But my hardest job lasts not two minutes but the better part of half an hour. My spoon weighs twenty-five pounds, my porridge is pasty iron, and the heat of my kitchen is so great that if my body was not hardened to it, the ordeal would drop me in my tracks.
Little spikes of pure iron like frost spars glow white-hot and stick out of the churning slag. These must be stirred under at once; the long stream of flame from the grate plays over the puddle, and the pure iron if lapped by these gases would be oxidized—burned up.
Pasty masses of iron form at the bottom of the puddle. There they would stick and become chilled if they were not constantly stirred. The whole charge must be mixed and mixed as it steadily thickens so that it will be uniform throughout. I am like some frantic baker in the inferno kneading a batch of iron bread for the devil's breakfast.
"It's an outrage that men should have to work like this," a reformer told me.
"They don't have to," I replied. "Nobody forced me to do this. I do it because I would rather live in an Iron Age than live in a world of ox-carts. Man can take his choice."
The French were not compelled to stand in the flame that scorched Verdun. They could have backed away and let the Germans through. The Germans would not have killed them. They would only have saddled them and got on their backs and ridden them till the end of time.
And so men are not compelled to face the scorching furnaces; we do not have to forge the iron that resists the invading cyclone and the leveling earthquake. We could quit cold and let wild nature kick us about at will. We could have cities of wood to be wiped out by conflagrations; we could build houses of mud and sticks for the gales to unroof like a Hottentot village. We could bridge our small rivers with logs and be flood-bound when the rains descended. We could live by wheelbarrow transit like the Chinaman and leave to some braver race the task of belting the world with railroads and bridging the seas with iron boats.
Nobody compels us to stand shoulder to shoulder and fight off nature's calamities as the French fought off their oppressor at Verdun. I repeat, we could let nature oppress us as she oppresses the meek Chinese—let her whip us with cold, drought, flood, isolation and famine.
We chose to resist as the French resisted—because we are men. Nature can chase the measly savage fleeing naked through the bush. But nature can't run us ragged when all we have to do is put up a hard fight and conquer her. The iron workers are civilization's shock troops grappling with tyrannous nature on her own ground and conquering new territory in which man can live in safety and peace. Steel houses with glass windows are born of his efforts. There is a glory in this fight; man feels a sense of grandeur. We are robbing no one. From the harsh bosom of the hills we wring the iron milk that makes us strong. Nature is no kind mother; she resists with flood and earthquake, drought and cyclone. Nature is fierce and formidable, but fierce is man's soul to subdue her. The stubborn earth is iron, but man is iron too.
CHAPTER XVIII. ON BEING A GOOD GUESSER
The charge which I have been kneading in my furnace has now "come to nature," the stringy sponge of pure iron is separating from the slag. The "balling" of this sponge into three loaves is a task that occupies from ten to fifteen minutes. The particles of iron glowing in this spongy mass are partly welded together; they are sticky and stringy and as the cooling continues they are rolled up into wads like popcorn balls. The charge, which lost part of its original weight by the draining off of slag, now weighs five hundred fifty to six hundred pounds. I am balling it into three parts of equal weight. If the charge is six hundred pounds, each of my balls must weigh exactly two hundred pounds.
I have always been proud of the "batting eye" that enables an iron puddler to shape the balls to the exact weight required. This is a mental act,—an act of judgment. The artist and the sculptor must have this same sense of proportion. A man of low intelligence could never learn to do it. We are paid by weight, and in my time, in the Sharon mill, the balls were required to be two hundred pounds. Every pound above that went to the company and was loss to the men.
I have heard that "guessing pigs" was an old-time sport among farmers. To test their skill, each farmer would guess the weight of a grazing pig. Then they would catch the porker, throw him on the scales, and find out which farmer had guessed nearest the mark. Sunday clothes used to be badly soiled in this sport.
But the iron worker does not guess his pigs. He knows exactly how much pig-iron he put into the boil. His guessing skill comes into play when with a long paddle and hook he separates six hundred pounds of sizzling fireworks into three fire balls each of which will weigh two hundred pounds.
The balls are rolled up into three resting places, one in the fire-bridge corner, one in the flue-bridge corner, and one in the jam, all ready for the puddler to draw them.
My batch of biscuits is now done and I must take them out at once and rush them to the hungry mouth of the squeezing machine. A bride making biscuits can jerk them out of the oven all in one pan. But my oven is larger and hotter. I have to use long-handled tongs, and each of my biscuits weighs twice as much as I weigh. Suppose you were a cook with a fork six feet long, and had three roasting sheep on the grid at once to be forked off as quickly as possible. Could you do it? Even with a helper wouldn't you probably scorch the mutton or else burn yourself to death with the hot grease? That is where strength and skill must both come into play.
One at a time the balls are drawn out on to a buggy and wheeled swiftly to the squeezer. This machine squeezes out the slag which flows down like the glowing lava running out of a volcano. The motion of the squeezer is like the circular motion you use in rolling a bread pill between the palms and squeezing the water out of it. I must get the three balls, or blooms, out of the furnace and into the squeezer while the slag is still liquid so that it can be squeezed out of the iron.
From cold pig-iron to finished blooms is a process that takes from an hour and ten minutes, to an hour and forty minutes, depending on the speed and skill of the puddler, and the kind of iron. I was a fast one, myself. But you expected that, from the fact that I am telling the story. The man that tells the story always comes out a winner.
CHAPTER XIX. I START ON MY TRAVELS
Now that I was a master puddler, I faced the problem of finding a furnace of my own. I saw no chance in Sharon. Furnaces passed from father to son, so I could not hope to get one of the furnaces controlled by another family. My father was not ready to relinquish his furnace to me, as he was good for twenty years more of this vigorous labor.
I wanted to be a real boss puddler, and so, when I was eighteen I went to Pittsburgh and got a furnace. But a new period of hard times was setting in, jobs were getting scarce as they had been in 1884. That was the year when we had no money in the house and I was chasing every loose nickel in town. The mill at Sharon was down, and father was hunting work in Pittsburgh and elsewhere. Then after a period of prosperity the hard times had come again in 1891 and '92. My furnace job in Pittsburgh was not steady. The town was full of iron workers and many of them were in desperate need. Those who had jobs divided their time with their needy comrades. A man with hungry children would be given a furnace for a few days to earn enough to ward off starvation. I had no children and felt that I should not hold a furnace. I left Pittsburgh and went to Niles, Ohio, where I found less competition for the jobs. I worked a few weeks and the mill shut down. I wandered all over the iron district and finally, deciding that the North held no openings, I began working my way toward the iron country in the South.
The Sharon mill did not shut down completely. The owner operated it at a loss rather than throw all his old hands out on the world. Twenty years later I met him on a train in the West and we talked of old times when I worked in his mill. As long as he lived he was loved and venerated by his former employees.
Father was putting in short time at Sharon and was badly worried. He was thinking of setting out again to go from town to town looking for work, but I had advised him against it. I had told him that he would merely find crowds of idle men roaming from mill to mill along with him. My brothers gave him similar advice.
"Father," we said, "it is a time of business depression and wide-spread unemployment. If you went to Pittsburgh you might find a few weeks' work, but it would not pay you to go there for it. You would have to lay out cash for your board and lodging there before you could send anything home to mother. Keeping up two establishments is harder than keeping up one. You have a home here partly paid for, and a big garden that helps support that home. It is better for you to stick with this establishment and work at half time in the mill than to roam around at big expense seeking full time in some other mill. There may be no mill in the land that is running full time."
This had not occurred to him. What lay beyond the hills was all mystery. But we young fellows had been brought up in the American atmosphere, we had read the Youth's Companion and the newspapers, and our outlook was widened; we could guess that conditions were the same in other states as they were in our part of Pennsylvania, for we were studying economic causes.
"It is better for you to stay here and wait for good times to come again. Hang on to your home, and if in a few months or a few years the mills begin booming again you will be secure for life. But if the iron industry doesn't revive, give up that trade and find other work here. If necessary go out and work on a farm, for the farming industry will always have to be carried on."
Father saw the force of our argument. So he stayed and kept his home. He has it to-day. But if he had wandered around as millions of us did in those hard days he would surely have lost it. This was my first little attempt to work out an economic problem. I had studied all the facts and then pronounced my judgment. It proved right, and so I learned that in my small way I had a head for financiering. This encouraged me, for it taught me that the worker can solve part of his problems by using his head.
The fear of ending in the poor-house is one of the terrors that dog a man through life. There are only three parts to the labor problem, and this is one of them. This fear causes "unrest." This unrest was used by revolutionists to promote Bolshevism which turns whole empires into poor-houses. Such a "remedy," of course, is worse than the disease. I think I know a plan by which all workers can make their old age secure. I will go into it more fully in a later chapter.
CHAPTER XX. THE RED FLAG AND THE WATERMELONS
I have said that the labor problem has three parts. I call them (1) Wages, (2) Working Conditions and (3) Living Conditions. By living conditions I mean the home and its security. My father had reached the stage where this was the problem that worried him. He was growing old and must soon cease working. But his home was not yet secure and he was haunted with the fear that his old age might be shelterless. We told him not to worry; the Davis boys were many and we would repay him for the fatherly care he had given us. But he was a proud man (as all muscular men are), and he could find no comfort in the thought of being supported by his sons. I am glad he never had to be. Independence has made his old age happy and he has proved that a worker, if he keeps his health, can provide for his old age and bring up a big family too.
We older boys left home and hunted work elsewhere. I was young and not bothered about working conditions or living conditions. I was so vigorous that I could work under any conditions, and old age was so far away that I was not worried about a home for my declining years. Wages was my sole problem. I wanted steady wages, and of course I wanted the highest I could get. To find the place where wages were to be had I was always on the go. When a mill closed I did not wait for it to reopen, but took the first train for some other mill town. The first train usually was a freight. If not, I waited for a freight, for I could sleep better in a freight car than in a Pullman—it cost less. I could save money and send it to mother, then she would not have to sell her feather beds.
All of this sounds nobler than it was. In those days workers never traveled on passenger trains unless they could get a pass. Judges and statesmen pursued the same policy. To pay for a ticket was money thrown away; so thought the upper classes and the lower classes. About the only people that paid car fare were the Knights of Pythias on their way to their annual convention. Railroad workers could get all the passes they wanted, and any toiler whose sister had married a brakeman or whose second cousin was a conductor "bummed" the railroad for a pass and got it. None of my relatives was a railroad man, and so to obtain the free transportation which was every American's inalienable right, I had to let the passenger trains go by and take the freights.
Once I got ditched at a junction, and while waiting for the next freight I wandered down the track to where I had seen a small house and a big watermelon patch. The man who lived there was a chap named Frank Bannerman. I always remember him because he was a communist, the first one I ever saw, and he filled my pockets with about ten pounds of radical pamphlets which I promised to read. He made a bargain with me that if I would read and digest the Red literature he would give me all the watermelons I could eat.
"I'm a comrade already," I said, meaning it as a merry jest, that I would be anything for a watermelon. But he took it seriously and his eyes lit up like any fanatic's.
"I knew it," he said. "With a face like yours—look at the brow, look at the intellect, the intellect." I was flattered. "Come here, wife," he called through the door. "Come here and look at the intellect."
The wife, who was a barefooted, freckle-faced woman, came out on the porch and, smiling sweetly, sized up my intellect. I made up my mind that here were the two smartest people in America. For they saw I was bulging with intellect. Nobody else had ever discovered it, not even I myself. I thought I was a muscle-bound iron puddler, but they pronounced me an intellectual giant. It never occurred to me that they might have guessed wrong, while the wise old world had guessed right. If the world was in step, they were out of step, but I figured that the world was out of step and they had the right stride. I thought their judgment must be better than the judgment of the whole world because their judgment pleased me. I later learned that their judgment was just like the judgment of all Reds. That's what makes 'em Red.
"Are there many of us where you come from?" the man asked.
"Many what?" I asked.
"Communists, communists," he said excitedly.
I wanted to please him, because we were now cracking the melons and scooping out their luscious hearts. So I told him how many comrades there were in each of the rolling mills where I had worked. I had to invent the statistics out of my own head, but that head was full of intellect, so I jokingly gave him a fine array of figures. The fact was that there may have been an addle-pated Red among the mill hands of that time, but if there was I had never met him.
The figures that I furnished Comrade Bannerman surprised him. I counted the seeds in each slice of watermelon and gave that as the number of comrades in each mill. The number was too high. Comrade Bannerman knew how many Reds there were in the country, and it appeared that the few mills I had worked in contained practically the whole communist party. He got rather excited and said the numbers were growing faster than he had imagined. He had figured that it would take forty years to bring about the Red commonwealth, but with the new light I had thrown on the subject he concluded that the times were ripening faster than he had dared to hope, and that there was no doubt the revolution would be upon us within three years.
The comrade told me he was not popular in the village for two reasons. The capitalistic storekeepers called him a dead beat and the church people had rotten-egged him for a speech he had made denouncing religion. I saw by his hands that he didn't work much, and from the hands of his wife I learned who raised the watermelons he was feeding to me. I remember wondering why he didn't pay his grocery bill with the money he spent on pamphlets to stuff in the pockets of passers-by.
CHAPTER XXI. ENVY IS THE SULPHUR IN HUMAN PIG-IRON
While I was feasting on the watermelons and feeling at peace with all the world, a long passenger train pulled into the junction. The train was made up of Pullmans and each car was covered with flags, streamers and lodge insignia. On the heels of this train came another and then another. These gay cars were filled with members of the Knights of Pythias going to their convention in Denver.
At the sight of these men in their Pullmans, my friend the communist first turned pale, then green, then red. His eyes narrowed and blazed like those of a madman. He stood up on his porch, clenched his fists and launched into the most violent fit of cursing I ever heard. The sight of those holiday-makers had turned him into a demon. He thought they were capitalists. Here was the hated tribe of rich men, the idle classes, all dressed up with flags flying, riding across the country on a jamboree.
"The blood-sucking parasites! The bleareyed barnacles!" yelled Comrade Bannerman. He shook his fists at the plutocrats and cursed until he made me sick. He was a tank-town nut who didn't like to work; had built up a theory that work was a curse and that the "idle classes" had forced this curse on the masses, of which he was one. He believed that all the classes had to do was to clip coupons, cash them and ride around the country in Pullman palace cars. Here was the whole bunch of them in seven "specials" rolling right by his front door. He cursed them again and prayed that the train might be wrecked and that every one of the blinkety blinkety scoundrels might be killed. If all these idle plutocrats could be destroyed in a heap they would be lifted from the backs of the masses, and the masses would not have to work any more.
Bannerman was a fool, and I could even then see just what made him foolish. He was full of the brimstone of envy. The sight of those well-dressed travelers eating in the dining cars drove him wild. He wanted to be in their places, but he was too lazy to work and earn the money that would put him there. I knew that they were not rich men; they were school-teachers, doctors, butchers and bakers, machinists and puddlers. They had saved their money for a year in order to have the price of this convention trip to Denver. Comrade Bannerman was pig-iron, and envy made him brittle. He should have been melted down and had the sulphur boiled out of him. Then he would have been wrought iron; as were the men he was so envious of.
He was not envious of me, of course, because he thought I was a tramp. Indeed he thought I was as envious as he, and so he classed the two of us as "intellectuals." From this I learned that "Intellectuals" is a name that weak men, crazed with envy, give to themselves. They believe the successful men lack intellect; are all luck. This thought soothes their envy and keeps it from driving them mad.
I thanked Comrade Bannerman for his pamphlets and threw him a few coins to pay for the melons he had given me. But my peep into his soul had taught me more than his propaganda could teach me. Later I read all the pamphlets because I had promised I would. They told of the labor movement and the theories at work in Germany. One of them was called Merrie England and declared that England had once been merry, but capitalism had crushed all joy and turned the island into a living hell. I remembered my mother in Wales rocking her baby's cradle and singing all day long with a voice vibrant with joy. If capitalism had crushed her heart she hadn't heard about it.
When the lodge excursion train had passed on toward the convention city, I hopped a freight and bade Comrade Bannerman goodby. Had I told him that from my earnings I had salted away enough money to buy his little shack he would have hated me as he hated the lodge members in the Pullmans. I did not hate those men. They were doing me a service by traveling across the country. For they belonged to the fare-paying classes; their money kept the railroads going so they could carry politicians and some of us working men free.
CHAPTER XXII. LOADED DOWN WITH LITERATURE
After I had read the various pamphlets that Bannerman gave me I was like the old negro who went to sleep with his mouth open. A white man came along and put a spoonful of quinine in his mouth. When the negro woke up the bitter taste worried him. "What does it mean?" he asked. The white man told him it meant that he "had done bu'sted his gall bladder and didn't have long to live." A mighty bad taste was left in my mouth by those communist pamphlets. If they were telling the truth I realized that labor's gall bladder had done bu'sted and we didn't have long to live. One book said that British capitalists owned all the money in the world and that at a given signal they would draw the money out of America and the working men here would starve to death in twenty-nine days. It seemed that some crank had fasted that many days in order to get accurate statistics showing just how long the working man could hope to last after England pushed the button for the money panic.
Another book said that Wall Street now owned ninety per cent. of the wealth in America and was getting the other ten at the rate of eight per cent. a year. Within twelve years Wall Street would own everything in the world, and mankind would be left naked and starving.
The wildest book of all was called Caesar's Column. It was in the form of a novel and told how the rich in America worshiped gold and lust instead of God and brotherly love, and how they drove their carriages over the working man's children and left them crushed and bleeding in the street. America had ceased to be a republic and was an oligarchy of wealth all owned by a dozen great families while the millions were starving. The end of the book described a great revolution in which the people arose, led by an Italian communist named Caesar Spadoni. The mob took all the fine houses and killed the rich people. Caesar took the bodies and, laying them in cement like bricks, he built an enormous column of corpses in Union Square towering higher than any building in New York. He established his headquarters in a Fifth Avenue palace and was directing the slaughter of all men who owned property, when some of his followers got jealous of his fine position and killed him and burned the house. By that time everything in America was destroyed, and the hero of the book, having invented an air-ship, flew away to South Africa to escape the general demolition. This book was being circulated by communists as a true picture of what the country was coming to.
These pamphlets came into my hands at a time when work was getting scarcer every day and a million men like myself were moving about the country looking for jobs. Then for the first time I realized my need for a broader education. If these things were true, it was my duty to stop chasing the vanishing job and begin to organize the workers so that they might destroy the capitalists. But how could I know whether they were true? I had no knowledge of past history. And without knowing the past how could I judge the future? I was like the old man who had never seen a railroad train. His sons took him thirty miles over the hills and brought him to the depot where a train was standing. The old man looked things over and saw that the wheels were made of iron. "It will never start," he said. He knew that if his wagon had heavy iron wheels, his team could never start it. But his sons said: "It will start all right." They had seen it before; they knew its past history. Soon the train started, gathered speed like a whirlwind and went roaring away down the track. The old man gazed after it and then, much excited, he exclaimed. "It will never stop!"
The wisest head is no judge unless it has in it the history of past performances. I had not studied much history in my brief schooling. The mills called me because they needed men. Good times were there when I arrived, and as for hard times, I was sure they "would never start." Now the hard times were upon us and panic shook the ground beneath our feet. "It will never stop," men cried. Had they studied the history of such things they would have known that hard times come and hard times go, starting and stopping for definite reasons, like the railway train.
I had done the right thing in quitting school and going to the puddling furnaces at a time when we needed iron more than we needed education. The proverb says, "Strike while the iron is hot." The country was building, and I gave it iron to build with. Railroads were still pushing out their mighty arms and stringing their iron rails across the western wheat lands. Bridges were crossing the Mississippi and spanning the chasms in the Rocky Mountains. Chicago and New York were rising in new growth with iron in their bones to hold them high. My youth was spent in giving to this growing land the element its body needed.
Now that body was sick. What was the matter with it? Lacking an education, I was unprepared to say. When I left school my theory was that every boy should learn a trade as soon as possible. Now I saw that a trade was not enough. A worker needs an education, also. The trade comes first, perhaps, but the education ought to follow on its heels.
During the next ten years of my life I was a worker and a student, too. My motto was that every one should have at least a high-school education and a trade.
CHAPTER XXIII. THE PUDDLER HAS A VISION
That caravan of railroad cars bearing the happy lodge members to their meeting in the Rockies, had started a train of thought that went winding through my mind ever after. In fancy I saw the envious Bannerman shaking his fist at his thriftier, happier brothers. Should I denounce the banding together of men for the promotion of fun and good fellowship? Were these men hastening the downfall of America as the communist predicted? Is not good fellowship a necessary feeling in the hearts of civilized men?
Love of comrades had always been a ruling passion with me. I joined my union as soon as I had learned my trade, the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel and Tin Workers of North America. It was a long name, and we liked every word in it. We felt the glow of brotherhood, and as I said before, we used to share our jobs with the brother who was out of work. The union paid a weekly benefit to men who had to strike for better working conditions. At that time there were no death benefits nor any fund to educate the children of members killed in the mills. When such a death happened, the union appointed a committee to stand at the office window on pay-day and ask every man to contribute something from his wages. There is a charitable spirit among men who labor together and they always gave freely to any fund for the widow and orphans. This spirit is the force that lifts man above the beasts and makes his civilization. There is no mercy in brute nature. The hawk eats the sparrow; the fox devours the young rabbit; the cat leaps from under a bush and kills the mother robin while the young are left to starve in the nest. There is neither right nor wrong among the brutes because they have no moral sense. They do not kill for revenge nor torture for the love of cruelty, as Comrade Bannerman would in praying that the train be wrecked and the rich men burned to death in the ruin. The beasts can feel no pity, no sympathy, no regret, for nature gave them no conscience. But man differs from all creation because he has a moral sense, he has a conscience. My conscience has been a very present thing with me through all my life. I am a praying man. I never take a doubtful step until I have prayed for guidance.
"You'll never get anywhere, Jim," fellows have said to me, "as long as your conscience is so darn active. To win in this world you have got to be slick. What a man earns will keep him poor. It's what he gains that makes him rich." If this is so, the nation with the lowest morals will have the most wealth. But the truth is just the opposite. The richest nations are those that have the highest moral sense.
But this was a great problem for a young uneducated man. To be told by some of my fellows that dishonesty was the only road to wealth, and to be shown in communist documents that the capitalists of America were stealing everything from the workers, put a mighty problem up to me. And that's what made me pray for guidance. I pray because I want an answer, and when it comes I recognize in it my own conscience. Praying banishes all selfish thoughts from mind, and gives the voice of conscience a chance to be heard. I pray for a higher moral sense, that which lifts man above beasts, and when my answer comes and I feel morally right, then all hell can't make me knuckle under. For civilization is built on man's morals not on brute force (as Germany learned to her sorrow), and I fight for the moral law as long as there is any fight left in me.
Nature planned that when the cat ate the mother robin, the young robins in the nest must starve. Nature had other robins that would escape the enemy. But among men it is wrong for the little ones to suffer when the hand that feeds them is destroyed. For man has sympathy, which beasts have not. Sympathy is the iron fiber in man that welds him to his fellows. Envy is the sulphur that pollutes these bonds and makes them brittle. Suppose some master puddler of humanity could gather thousands of men into a melting-pot, a fraternity whose purpose was to boil out the envy, greed and malice as much as possible, and purify the good metal of human sympathy. How much greater the social value of these men would be. Bound together by good fellowship and human sympathy these men could pool their charity and build a happy city where all the children of their stricken comrades could be sent to school together, there to learn that man is moral, that the strong do not destroy the weak, that the nestling is not left to fate, but that the fatherless are fathered by all men whose hearts have heard their cry.
This vision came to me in the darkest days of my life. I had seen the children of my dead comrades scattered like leaves from a smitten tree never to meet again. I had left my parents' roof to be buffeted about by strikes and unemployment, and I feared that our home would be lost and my brothers scattered forever. The voice of hate was whispering that the "classes" would ride down the children of the poor, and with this gloomy thought I went to bed. My couch was a bed of coal slack, and I was journeying to a mill town in a freight car.
As we rolled along, I saw in a vision train after train of lodge men going to some happy city. They were miners and steel workers, as well as clerks and teachers, and they were banded together, not like Reds to overthrow the wage system, but to teach themselves and their children how to make the wage system shed its greatest blessings upon all. The city they were going to was one they had built with their own hands. And in that city was a school where every trade was taught to fatherless children, as my father taught his trade to me. And with this trade each child received the liberal education that the rich man gives his son but which the poor man goes without. This was the wildest fancy I had ever entertained. It was born of my own need of knowledge. It was a dream I feared I could not hope to realize.
CHAPTER XXIV. JOE THE POOR BRAKEMAN
A brakeman stuck his head in the end window of the box car and shouted at me:
"Where're you going?"
"Birmingham," I answered.
"What have you got to go on?"
I had some money in my belt, but I would need that for the boarding-house keeper in the Alabama iron town. So I drew something from my vest pocket and said:
"This is all I've got left."
The trainman examined it by the dim light at the window. His eye told him that it was a fine gold watch. "All right," he said as he pocketed it and went away. I never knew whether I cheated the brakeman or the brakeman cheated me. The watch wasn't worth as much as the ride, but the ride wasn't his to sell.
I had bought the watch in Cincinnati. A fake auction in a pawnshop attracted my attention as I walked along a street near the depot. The auctioneer was offering a "solid gold, Swiss movement, eighteen jeweled watch" to the highest bidder. "This watch belongs to my friend Joe Coupling," he said, "a brakeman on the B. & O. He was in a wreck and is now in the hospital. Everybody knows that one of the best things a railroader has is his watch. He only parts with it as a matter of life and death. Joe has got to sell his watch and somebody is going to get a bargain. This watch cost eighty-five dollars and you couldn't buy the like of it to-day for one hundred. How much am I offered?" Some one bid five dollars, and the bidding continued until it was up to twenty-five dollars. At that price the watch was declared sold, and I strolled on, thinking the matter over. I figured that the story of Joe the injured brakeman must be false. If he had an eighty-five-dollar watch he could borrow forty on it. Why should his "friend" have sold it outright for twenty-five? The fakery of it was plain to any one who stopped to think. Who then would be fool enough to pay twenty-five dollars for a fake watch at a side auction? Not I. I was too wise. "How easy it is," I said to myself, "to solve a skin game."
The next day I happened to pass the place again and they were selling the same watch. I listened for the second time to the sad story of Joe the brakeman. He was still in the hospital and still willing to sacrifice his eighty-five-dollar gold watch to the highest bidder. Just for fun I started off the bidding at two dollars. The auctioneer at once knocked down the watch to me and took my money. The speed of it dazed me, and I stumbled along the street like a fool. What was the game? I held the glittering watch in my hand and gazed at it like a hypnotized bird. I came to another pawnshop and went in. "What will you give me on this watch?" I asked. The pawnbroker glanced at it and said he couldn't give me anything but advice.
"I can buy these watches for three dollars a dozen. They are made to be sold at auction. The case is not gold and the works won't run."
I had been caught in the game after all. The whole show had been put on for me. The men who did the bidding the first day were "with the show." Their scheme was to get a real bid from me. When I failed to bite, they rung down the curtain and waited for the next come-on. The show was staged again for me the following day, and that time they got me. I had the "brakeman's watch" and he had the laugh on me. In the next wreck that Brakeman Joe got into I wished him the same luck Comrade Bannerman wished for the trainload of plutocrats. "If I should meet Joe now," I said, "I'd gladly give him back the timepiece that he prizes so." Let us hope that the brakeman I gave the watch to down in Alabama was Brakeman Joe.
There was much to think of in that auction incident. Experience will often give the lie to theory. My theory of the game was good enough for me. I acted on my theory, and they got my money. Perhaps the theory of Bannerman was wrong. He claimed he knew just how the capitalists were robbing labor. Suppose we backed his theory with some money and got stung? I was now theory shy and I have stayed away from theories ever since.
If you know the facts, no swindle can deceive you. I spend my life in getting facts. I now have seen enough to know that capitalism is not a swindle. If all hands labored hard and honestly the system would enrich us all. Some workers are dishonest and they gouge the employers. Some employers are dishonest and they gouge the workers. But whether employer or employee does the robbing, the public is the one that's robbed. And they are both members of the public. In making the world poorer they are rendering a sorry service to the world.
Dishonesty is the thing that does the trick. And it is not confined to any class. It was not a capitalist but a slick wind worker who robbed me by the watch swindle. He had to swing his jaw for hours every day in order to steal a few dollars.
CHAPTER XXV. A DROP IN THE BUCKET OF BLOOD
In Birmingham I found a job in a rolling mill and established myself in a good boarding-house. In those days a "good boarding-house" in iron workers' language meant one where you got good board. One such was called "The Bucket of Blood." It got its name because a bloody fight occurred there almost every day. Any meal might end in a knock-down-and-drag-out. The ambulance called there almost as often as the baker's cart. But it was a "good" boarding-house. And I established myself there.
Good board consists in lots of greasy meat, strong coffee and slabs of sweet pie with gummy crusts, as thick as the palm of your hand. At the Bucket of Blood we had this delicious fare and plenty of it. When a man comes out of the mills he wants quantity as well as quality. We had both at the Bucket of Blood, and whenever a man got knocked out by a fist and was carted away in the ambulance, the next man on the waiting list was voted into our club to fill the vacancy. We had what is called "family reach" at the table (both in feeding and fighting). Each man cut off a big quivering hunk of roast pork or greasy beef and passed the platter to his neighbor. The landlady stood behind the chairs and directed two colored girls to pour coffee into each cup as it was emptied.
These cups were not china cups with little handles such as you use in your home. They were big "ironstone" bowls the size of beer schooners, such as we used to see pictured at "Schmiddy's Place," with the legend, "Largest In The City, 5c." (How some of us would like to see those signs once more!) To prevent the handles from being broken off, these cups were made without handles. They were so thick that you could drop them on the floor and not damage the cups. When one man hit another on the head with this fragile china, the skull cracked before the teacup did. The "family reach" which we developed in helping ourselves to food, was sometimes used in reaching across the table and felling a man with a blow on the chin. Kipling has described this hale and hearty type of strong man's home in Fulta Fisher's Boarding-House where sailors rested from the sea.
"A play of shadows on the wall, A knife thrust unawares And Hans came down (as cattle fall), Across the broken chairs."
But the boarders did not fight with knives at the Bucket of Blood. Knifing is not an American game. We fought with fists, coffee cups and pieces of furniture, after the furniture went to pieces. We were not fighting to make the world safe for democracy, although we were the most democratic fellows in the world. We slept two to a bed, four to a room. Not always the same four, for like soldiers on the firing line, some comrade was missing after every battle.
These fights started in friendly banter. One fellow would begin teasing another about his girl. The whole table would take it up, every man doing his best to insult and enrage the victim. It was all fun until some fellow's temper broke under the strain. Then a rush, and a few wild swings that missed. Then the thud of a blow that connected, and the fight was over. These men had arms with the strength of a horse's leg, and as soon as their "kick" struck solid flesh, the man hit was knocked out. He wouldn't be back for supper, but the rest of us would, without having our appetites disturbed in the least. I didn't like these methods, but if the boys did I was not going to complain.
My practice of studying at night offended my roommates. The lamplight got in their eyes. There were three fellows in the room besides myself. For several nights they advised me to "cut out the higher education, douse that light and come to bed." Finally they spoke about it in the daytime. "Majority rules," they said, "and there's three of us against you. We can't sleep while you have that lamp burning. The light keeps us awake and it also makes the room so hot that the devil couldn't stand it. If you stay up reading to-night we'll give you the bum's rush."
I was so interested in my books that I couldn't help lingering with them after the other fellows went to bed. Everything grew quiet. Suddenly six hands sized me and flung me out the window. It was a second-story window and I carried the screen with me. But as it was full of air holes it didn't make a very competent parachute. I landed with a thud on the roof of the woodshed, which, being old and soft with southern moss, caved in and carried me to the ground below—alive. The fellows up above threw my books out the window, aiming them at my head. They threw me my hat and coat and my valise, and I departed from the Bucket of Blood, and took up my abode at "The Greasy Spoon."
CHAPTER XXVI. A GRUB REFORMER PUTS US OUT OF GRUB
The Greasy Spoon isn't an appetizing name; not appetizing to men who live a sedentary life. But it was meant as a lure to men who live by muscular toil. It sounded good to us mill workers for, like Eskimos, we craved much fat in our diet. We were great muscular machines, and fat was the fuel for our engines. Muckraking was just beginning in those days, and a prying reformer came to live for a while at the Greasy Spoon. He told us that so much grease in our food would kill us. We were ignorant of dietetics; all we knew was that our stomachs cried for plenty of fat. The reformer said that our landlady fed us much fat meat because it was the cheapest food she could buy. Milk, eggs and fruits would cost more, and so this greedy cruel woman was lining her pocket at the expense of our lives.
The landlady was a kindly person, and she took the reformer's advice. She banished the fat pork, and supplied the table with other food substitutes, but she was generous and gave us plenty of them. We ate this reformed food and found we were growing weaker every day at the puddling furnace. We got the blues and became sullen. Gradually all laughter ceased in that boarding-house. We even felt too low to fight. At the end of two weeks there was one general cry: "Hog fat, and plenty of it!" Our engines had run out of fuel; and now we knew what we needed. We were so crazy for bacon that if a hog had crossed our path we would have leaped on him like a lion and eaten him alive.
Fat came back to the table, and the Greasy Spoon again rang with laughter. How foolish that reformer was! He did no work himself and was a dyspeptic. He tried to force his diet upon us, and he made us as weak as he was. How many reformers there are who are trying to reshape the world to fit their own weakness. I never knew a theorist who wasn't a sick man.
To-day we understand that we can't run a motor-car after the gasoline is played out. The burning of the oil in the engine gives the power. The burning of fats in the muscles gives the laborer his power. Sugar and starches are the next best things to fat, and that's why we could eat the thick slabs of sweet pie. We relished it well and have burned it all up in our labor in the mills. We came out with that healthy sparkle that dyspeptics never know.
When we realized that the reformer didn't know what he was talking about, and that in his effort to help us he was hurting us, we saw he was our enemy, and we gave all of his ideas the "horse laugh." His theory that the boarding-house keepers were in a conspiracy to rob the workers by feeding them pork instead of pineapples turned out to be much like all the "capitalist conspiracies" in Comrade Bannerman's pamphlets. I am glad I have lived in a world of facts, and that I went therefrom to the world of books. For I have found there is much falsehood taught in books. But life won't tell a fellow any lies.
A man who knows only books may believe that by writing a new prescription he can cure the world of what ails it. A man who knows life knows that the world is not sick. Give it plenty of food and a chance to work and it will have perfect digestion.
CHAPTER XXVII. THE PIE EATER'S PARADISE
The Greasy Spoon was all right. It was a peaceful place. The landlady was Irish, and her motto was: "If there's any fighting to be done here I'll do it myself." On the sideboard she kept a carving knife as big as a cavalry saber. Whenever two men started a row, she grabbed this carving knife and with a scream like a panther she lit into them.
"Stop yer fightin' before I hack your hands off!"
The men were in deadly fear of her because they knew she meant business. The sight of that swinging knife quelled every riot before it got started. We fellows were like children in that we only thought of one thing at a time. And when we saw the landlady's carving knife we forgot whatever else was on our minds. This woman was a real peacemaker. She not only wanted peace, she knew how to get it. Such things afford us lessons that are useful all our lives. This woman had learned by sad experience that healthy men will quarrel and thump each other; that these fights put men in the hospital, after breaking her dishes and splattering her tablecloths with blood. Hating bloodshed, she prevented it by being ever ready to shed blood herself. She stood for the moral law, but she stood armed and ready.
Impractical men have told me that right will always triumph of itself; it needs no fighters to support it. The man who believes that is ignorant, and such ignorance is dangerous. Right is always trampled down when no fighter upholds it. But men will fight for right who will not fight for wrong. And so right conquers wrong because right has the most defenders. Let no man shirk the battle because he thinks he isn't needed.
The reason a woman with a carving knife was strong enough to put a stop to fighting in the Greasy Spoon was this: she had behind her every man except the two who were fighting. Had either of those men struck down the woman, then twenty other men, outraged by such a deed, would then and there have swarmed upon the two and crushed them. The woman stood for right and she always triumphed because she had (and these two knew she had) the biggest bunch of fighters on her side.
This is what peace means, an equilibrium between forces. It is the natural law,—God's way of keeping peace. And any plan for World Peace that is builded not upon this law is nothing. Justice must stand with an upraised sword. When two states quarrel she must admonish them, and let them know that should they overthrow her, all good nations would rush in and crush them. The same law that keeps peace in a rowdy boarding-house will keep the peace of the world. For what is this world but a big wide boarding-house, and all the nations rough and greedy grabbers at the table?
I left the Greasy Spoon and went to the "Pie Boarding-House." The Greasy Spoon had peace, but peace is not enough. After peace comes prosperity. The Pie House represented prosperity. For the woman who ran it knew how to make more pies than the fellows ever heard of. You see, we were all from the British Isles where they have pudding. The pie is an American institution. Nobody knows how to make pies but an American housewife. And lucky that she does, for men can not thrive in America without pie. I do not mean the standardized, tasteless things made in great pie factories. I refer to the personally conducted pies that women used to make. The pioneer wives of America learned to make a pie out of every fruit that grows, including lemons, and from many vegetables, including squash and sweet potatoes, as well as from vinegar and milk and eggs and flour. Fed on these good pies the pioneers—is there any significance in the first syllable of the word—hewed down the woods and laid the continent under the plow. Some men got killed and their widows started boarding-houses. Here we workers fed on proper pie, and we soon changed this wooden land into a land of iron. Now the pie is passing out and we are feeding on French pastry. Is our downfall at hand?
Life in the Pie Boarding-House was a never-ending delight. You never knew when you sat down at the table what kind of pie would be dealt you. Some of the fellows had been there half a year and swore that they had seen fifty-seven varieties and were expecting new ones at any meal. The crowd here was a selected crowd. It was made up of the pie connoisseurs of mill-town. Word was quietly passed out among the wisest fellows to move to this boarding-house and get a liberal education in pie. So it was a selected and well-behaved crowd. They didn't want to start any rumpus and thus lose their places at this attractive table.
And that is one way that virtue is its own reward. Only the well-behaved fellows were tipped off to the pie bonanza. From this I learned that the better manners you have, the better fare you will get in this world. I had steadily risen from the "Bucket of Blood," through the "Greasy Spoon" to a seat at the cherished "Pie" table. Here the cups were so thin that you couldn't break a man's head with them. I was steadily rising in the social world.
CHAPTER XXVIII. CAUGHT IN A SOUTHERN PEONAGE CAMP
It was while I was in Birmingham that the industrial depression reached rock bottom. In the depth of this industrial paralysis the iron workers of Birmingham struck for better pay. I, with a train load of other strikers, went to Louisiana and the whole bunch of us were practically forced into peonage. It was a case of "out of the frying pan into the fire." We had been saying that the mill owners had driven us "into slavery," for they had made us work under bad conditions; but after a month in a peon camp, deep in the swamps of Louisiana, we knew more about slavery than we did before. And we knew that work in the rolling mills, bad as it was, was better than forced labor without pay. To-day when I hear orators rolling out the word "slavery" in connection with American wages and working conditions, I have to laugh. For any man who has ever had a taste of peonage, to say nothing of slavery, knows that the wage system is not real slavery; it's not the genuine, lash-driven, bloodhound-hunted, swamp-sick African slavery. None is genuine without Simon Legree and the Louisiana bloodhounds. The silk-socked wage slave, toiling eight hours for six dollars, is not the genuine old New Orleans molasses slave. He may carry a band and give a daily street parade, but if he's not accompanied by Simon Legree and the bloodhounds, he is not a genuine Uncle Tom, his slavery is less than skin deep. You can't fool me. I know what real slavery is. I know as much about slavery as the man that made it. He's the guy that taught me. I worked under Simon Legree in Louisiana.
On the way to New Orleans we paused at a siding, and a native asked me, "Who are all them men, and which way are they goin'?"
I told him "which way" we were going, and that we were needing jobs. He replied:
"You-all are comin' down hyah now looking for food and work. In '65 you was down hyah lookin' fo' blood!"
When we reached the great city on the Mississippi, we scattered over the town looking for jobs. I saw a pile of coal in the street before a boarding-house. I asked for the job of carrying in the coal. There were two tons of it. I toted it in and was paid a dollar. New Orleans was a popular winter resort where northerners came to escape the severe cold of the North Atlantic States. I was given the job of yard-man in this boarding-house. I carried in groceries, peeled potatoes, scrubbed the kitchen floor and built fires each evening in the guests' rooms. Each room had a grate, and I carried up kindling and coal for all of them. For this work I received a dollar a day, with two meals (dinner and supper) and was permitted to carry away from the kitchen all the cooked food that remained after the guests had eaten. This privilege had grown out of the custom of the colored help in the South having their "man" to feed. I had several men to feed. My "gang" was still looking for work and not finding any. Times were desperate. For five cents a man could get a glass of beer and floor room to sleep on in a lodging-house for homeless men. This was called a "Five Cent Flop" house. My pals were not able at times to raise the five cents a day to buy sleeping quarters. It was late fall and too cold to sleep in the "jungle" down by the levee. The poor fellows were able to stave off starvation by visiting various free lunches during the day. Every night I arrived with my dollar, and that meant beer and beds for a score. I also brought along a flour sack half full of biscuits, cold pancakes, corn bread, chicken necks and wings and scraps of roasts and steaks. These hungry men, with their schooners of beer, made a feast of these scraps. My loyalty in coming every night and giving them everything I could scrape together touched them deeply. They regarded me as deserving special honor, and while they believed in democracy as a general proposition, they voted that it would be carrying equality too far if they permitted me to get no more out of my work than all the rest got. So they decided that I was to have a fifteen-cent bed each night instead of a five-cent flop with the rest of them. And I was assigned to the royal suite of that flop house, which consisted of a cot with a mosquito bar over it.
At this time they were holding "kangaroo" court in the New Orleans jail. Every vagrant picked up by the police was tried and sentenced and shipped out to a chain-gang camp. Nearly every man tried was convicted. And there were plenty of camp bosses ready to "buy" every vagrant the officers could run in. My bunch down at the flop house was in deadly terror of being "kangarooed" and sent to a peon camp in the rice swamps.
One day when I was renewing the fuel in the room of a Mrs. Hubbard from Pittsburgh, I found no one in the apartment and Mrs. Hubbard's pearls and other jewels lying on the dresser. Immediately I was terrified with thought of the kangaroo court. I knew that the jewels were valued at several thousands of dollars. If I went away some one else might come into the room and possibly steal the jewels, for they were lying in plain sight and were valuable enough to tempt a weak-willed person. I sounded an alarm and stayed in the doorway. I refused to leave the room until Mrs. Hubbard returned and counted her valuables.
She found them all there and thanked me for guarding them. She said it was by an oversight that she had gone away without locking up her treasures. She asked me how she should reward me. I told her that I was already rewarded, for I had guarded her jewels in order to protect myself from being suspected of their theft and so kangarooed into a slave-camp.
But in spite of all my precautions, I landed there after all. The gang down at the flop house was dazzled by an employment agent, who offered to ship them out into the rice country to work on the levee for a dollar a day and cakes. The men were wild for a square meal and the feel of a dollar in their jeans. So they all shipped out to the river levee and I went along with the gang.
As our train rattled over the trestles and through the cypress swamps the desperate iron workers were singing:
"We'll work a hundred days, And we'll get a hundred dollars, And then go North, And all be rich and happy!"
When we reached the dyke-building camp I learned how ignorant I really was. I could not do the things the older men could. I was young and familiar only with the tools of an iron puddler. The other men were ten years older and had acquired skill in handling mule-teams and swinging an ax. They saw I couldn't do anything, so they appointed me water carrier. The employing boss was what is now called hard-boiled. He was a Cuban, with the face of a cutthroat. Doubtless he was the descendant of the Spanish-English buccaneers who used to prowl the Caribbean Sea and make headquarters at New Orleans. Beside this pirate ancestry I'll bet he was a direct descendant of Simon Legree. He suspected that I couldn't do much in a dyking camp, so he swarmed down on me the second week I was there and ordered me to quit the water-carrying job and handle a mule team and a scraper. I saw death put an arm around my neck right then and there. But I wouldn't confess that I couldn't drive a team.
I put the lines over my head, said "Go 'long" as I had heard other muleteers say, and, grasping the handles of the scraper, I scooped up a slip load of clay. My arms were strong and this was no trick at all. But getting the load was not the whole game. The hardest part was to let go. I guided the lines with one hand and steadied the scraper with the other as I drove up on the dump. Then I heaved up on the handles, the scraper turned over on its nose and dumped the load. But that isn't all it dumped. The mules shot ahead when the load was released, and the lines around my neck jerked me wrong side up. The handle of the scraper hit me a stunning blow in the face and the whole contraption dragged over my body bruising me frightfully. I staggered to my feet with one eye blinded by the blood that flowed from a gash in my brow. Simon Legree cursed me handsomely and told me I was fired. I asked him where I would get my pay, and he told me he was paying me a compliment by letting me walk out of that camp alive. I went to the cook shack and washed the blood off my face. I was a pretty sick boy. The cook was a native and was kind to me.
"Boy, you're liable to get lockjaw from that cut," he said. "I'll put some of this horse liniment on it and it'll heal up." He then bandaged it with court-plaster.
"It's a long way back to New Orleans," the cook concluded. "And you might as well have something to keep your ribs from hitting together." He cut off a couple of pounds of raw bacon and put it in my pocket together with a "bait" of Plowboy tobacco. And so I hit the road. When I came to the place where my pals were working, cutting willows along the levee, I told them of my plight.
"Never mind, boy," they said. "You go back to New Orleans and wait for us. After we've worked our hundred days to get a hundred dollars each, we will work a few days more to get a hundred dollars for you. Then we'll all go north and be rich together."
I began footing it thirty-five miles to the city. I decided, like Queen Isabella, to pawn my jewels to enable me to discover America again. I had an old ring and I met a darky who had a quarter. He got my ring. After tramping all day I was exhausted. I came to a negro cabin and went in and offered the "mammy" a pound of bacon for a pound of corn pone. I further bargained to give the first half of my other pound of bacon if she'd cook the second half for me to eat. She cooked my share of the bacon and set it and the corn bread on the table. I ate heartily for a while, but after two or three slices of the bacon, I was fed up on it. She hadn't cooked enough of the grease out of it. I began feeding this bacon to a pickininny who sat beside me.
"Man, don't give away your meat," the mammy said. I told her that I had had all I wanted. Then she said to the pickininny:
"Child, doan eat that meat. Save it foh you papa when he come home."
When I got into New Orleans the next morning, I traded my Plowboy tobacco for a bar of laundry soap. With my twenty-five cents I bought a cotton undershirt. Then I went into the "jungle" at Algiers, a town across the river from New Orleans, and built a fire in the jungle (a wooded place where hoboes camp) and heated some water in an old tin pail I found there. Then I took off all my clothes and threw my underwear away. A negro who stood watching me said:
"White man, are you throwing them clothes away?"
"I certainly am," I replied.
"Why, them underclothes is northern underclothes. Them's woolen clothes. Them's the kind of underclothes I like."
"You wouldn't like that bunch of underclothes," I said.
"Because if you look in the seams you will find something that is unseemly. I've been out in a levee camp."
"Hush mah mouf, white man," laughed the negro. "Them little things would never bother a Louisiana nigger. Why we have them things with us all the time. We just call 'em our little companions."
He picked up the garments and walked off proud and happy. I took my soap and warm water and scrubbed myself from crown to heel. I put my clothing in the pail with more soap and water and boiled the outfit thoroughly.
Then I went back to New Orleans and got my old job in the boarding-house. I saved all my money except my fifteen cents for the nightly flop. A month later my gang came roaring back from the peon camp. They had worked thirty days and had not got a cent. Slave-driver Legree had driven them out when they demanded a reckoning. They were lucky to escape with their lives, their cooties and their appetites. Instead of financing me, I had to finance them again. They finally got cleaned up and we all went back to Birmingham, where the strike was over.
"Show us that spieler," they said, "who told us the wage system was the worst kind of slavery. If daily wages is slavery, God grant that they never set us free again."
CHAPTER XXIX. A SICK, EMACIATED SOCIAL SYSTEM
The hard times I have been describing were in the early nineties. The year before there had been a financial crash. Nobody seemed to know what was the matter at the time, but it has since been learned that the hard times were the fruit of crop failures, if one can call failure fruit. All over the world bad years had destroyed the harvests. This great loss of foodstuffs was exactly the same as if armies in war had ravaged the fields. Farmers had to borrow money to buy food. They had no other buying power. So trade languished, credit was strained, and finally came the financial collapse. It happened after the good crop years were returning. That's why the people could not understand it. Farmers were raising crops again, but labor was idle and could not buy bread.
The lesson is this, when commerce is starved down to a certain point, it goes to pieces. Then when the food comes it can not assimilate it. It is like a man who has been without food for thirty days. His muscles have disappeared, his organs have shrunk, he can not walk; he is only skin and bones. The disappearance of the muscles is like the disappearance of labor's jobs in hard times. The shrinkage of the vital organs is like the shrinkage of capital and values. When the starved man is faced with food he can not set in and eat a regular dinner. He must be fed on a teaspoonful of soup, and it is many months before his muscles come back, his organs regain their normal size and he is a well-fed man again. So it is with the industrial state. It can be starved by crop failures, by war waste or by labor slacking on the job. Anything that lessens the output of field and factory, whether it be heaven's drought or man's loafing, starves the economic state and starves all men in it. If crop failure should last long enough, as it does in China, millions of men would die. If war lasts long enough, as it did in Austria, millions of citizens must starve. If labor should try slacking, as it did in Russia, the economic state would starve to death and the workers die with it.
Men who have been through strikes and lockouts until they have been reduced to rags and hunger place no trust in the Russian theory that men can quit work and loaf their way to wealth. We loafed our way to hunger, misery and peonage. We saw that the whole world would come to our fate, if all should follow our example. Luckily we won our point, so we went back to work and helped feed the starved social state, and in a few years America was rich again. And America continued rich and fat until the World War wastage shrank her to skin and bones again. Much of her muscle has disappeared (1921: five million workers are idle) and she must be nursed back by big crops, and big output by labor before she will be strong enough to reabsorb into her system every muscle in America.
That's my belief. That's my gospel. I did not make this gospel. It is God's law and we can not alter it. If I were asked to write the BIBLE OF LABOR, this chapter would be the law and the prophets. And from these truths I would advise each man to write his own Ten Commandments.
CHAPTER XXX. BREAKING INTO THE TIN INDUSTRY
I decided to leave Birmingham as soon as my stomach had got used to regular meals and my pocket knew what real money felt like again.
The dry years had ended and once more the northern farms were yielding mammoth crops. But the country was so sick that it couldn't sit up and eat as it ought to. So the farmers were selling their crops at steadily falling prices. This drove some of them frantic. They couldn't pay interest on their mortgaged farms, and they were seeking to find "the way out" by issuing paper money, or money from some cheap metal with which they could repudiate their debts. Banks could not collect their loans, merchants could not get money for their goods, manufacturers were swamped by their pay-rolls and had to discharge their men. Coxey was raising a great army of idle men to march on Washington and demand that the government should feed and clothe the people.
All my savings had long since gone, and from the high life in the Pie Boarding-House I had descended to my days of bread and water. All men were in a common misery. If a hobo managed to get a steak and cook it in the bushes by the railroad track, the smell of it would draw a score of hungry men into the circle of his firelight. It was a trying time, and it took all the fortitude I had to look hopefully forward toward a day when things would begin picking up and the wheels of industry would whirl again. The idle men who had camped by the railroads had drunk their water from, and cooked their mulligan stews in, tomato cans. The tin can had become the badge of hoboing. The tin trade was new in America and I foresaw a future in the industry, for all kinds of food were now being put up in tin, whereas when I was a child a tin can was rarely seen. I decided that two trades were better than one, and I would learn the tin plate trade. I went to Elwood, Indiana, and found a place there in a tin mill. My knowledge of puddling, heating and rolling, occasionally working in a sheet mill similar to a tin mill, prepared me for this new work. In tin making a piece of wrought iron is rolled thin and then covered with a thinner coating of pure tin. After this is done the plate remains soiled and discolored, and the next process is to remove the stain and polish the tin until it shines like silver.
To have a job and eat pie again made me happy. Our union contained several hundred members, so I had a lot of prospective friends to get acquainted with. I was then nearly twenty-one and a pretty good mixer; I liked men and enjoyed mingling with them and learning all I could from what they told me. When they drifted into a saloon I went along for the company. I did not care to drink, so I would join some impromptu quartet and we would sing popular songs while the other fellows cheered us with the best will in the world. A drink of beer or two heightens a man's appreciation of music, and the way the boys applauded my singing makes me rather regret the Volstead Act. It queered my act. Since beer disappeared nobody has asked me to sing. Prohibition may be good for the health but it is sure death to art.
Those were happy days. But just when all my troubles seemed ended and the rainbow of promise in the sky, a new cloud appeared, black and threatening. In fact it swept down like a tornado. The men decided to strike.
A strike! Of all things! We owned about the only jobs in Indiana. Our strike wouldn't last long—for the mills. For us it would last forever. The day we walked out, others would walk in. And it would be so small a part of Coxey's army that the main body would march on and never miss it. I had just gone through that long, soul-killing period of idleness and had barely managed to find a job before I collapsed. Now that we were to strike I would have to push that job aside and sink back into the abyss.
In reaching Elwood, I had tramped from Muncie, Indiana, to Anderson, a long weary walk for one whose feet, like mine, were not accustomed to it. From Anderson I tramped to Frankton, and there I caught a freight and rode the bumpers to Elwood. The train took me right into the mill. It was summer and the mill had been shut down by the hard times. The boss was there looking over the machinery. They were getting ready to start up. I faced him and he said: "Do you want a job?"
"Yes," I said.
"What at? Greasing up to-night," he said. Weary and hungry as I was from my hoboing, I went right to work, and all night I, with a few others, greased the bearings. The next day he gave me a job as a catcher. A catcher is one who seizes the rolled plate as it comes out and throws it back to the roller. It has to be rolled many times. The boss who gave me this much-wanted job was Daniel G. Reid, who afterward became one of the big men in the tin industry.
After I became Secretary of Labor I was a dinner guest at the White House. When I arrived the President said: "Here's an old friend of yours." To my surprise and keen pleasure President Harding led forward my old boss, Daniel G. Reid. There was much laughing and old-time talk between us. "Do you recall," said Mr. Reid, "how during the tin strike of '96, you steered to the lodge room and unionized men who came to take the place of the strikers?" Mr. Reid thought this was a great joke. He had always been favorable to ending the strike and signing the men's agreement, but for a long time had been deterred by his partners. Mr. Reid in nearly every conference was selected for chairman, and this was considered by the employers a very fine tribute of respect and confidence. Turning to the president, Mr. Reid said: "If Jim is as industrious in your service as he was in the Elwood tin mill you have got a good secretary. Jim knew more about the tin plate business when he was a worker than any other man in America. I wanted to get him to join our sales department but he declined my offer!"
When the matter of the Elwood strike was referred to the next regular meeting I had been working only three weeks. I wrote to my father in Sharon asking for his counsel on the subject. He wrote back: "In as much as it isn't a question of wages or rules, I'd vote to stay on the job and wait for my pay. There's no pay out here to be had even by waiting. The mill is down, and if we hadn't raised a big potato crop we wouldn't know where to look for our next meal."
CHAPTER XXXI. UNACCUSTOMED AS I AM TO PUBLIC SPEAKING
With father's warning on my mind I went to the meeting where the strike was to be voted. Nobody had opposed the strike, for the cause was plainly a just one. The men wanted their pay to be issued to them every week, and they were entitled to it. The only question in my mind was one of expediency. Could we hope to win a strike at a time like that when the mills were on the verge of closing because of bad business?
While the speakers were presenting the reasons for the strike I noticed that not a man examined or discussed the dangers in it. The mind of the meeting was made up. I was talking to the fellow who sat beside me, and I told him what my father had written me.
"I agree," he said. "A strike at a time like this doesn't seem to be the right thing to do."
"If you don't think it a wise move," I said, "why don't you get up and say so. For this meeting is going to vote strike in the next two minutes, sure as fate."
"I can't make a speech," he said. "You do it."
The men were paid monthly checks and had never heard any complaint from their landlords and grocerymen who were willing to wait for their pay. The complaint had been made by a few outsiders who wanted to see money circulate faster in town and thus boom things up a bit. They had aroused the strike spirit of the men by speeches like this:
"The bosses own you body and soul. They regard you as slaves. Your work makes them rich and yet they won't pay for your work. While they are piling up profits you go around without a nickel in your jeans. At the end of the week you want your pay. Why don't they give it to you? Because they would sooner borrow money without interest from you than go to the bank and pay eight per cent. for it. You men are their bankers and don't know it. You could have your money in the bank instead of in their pockets—it would be drawing interest for you instead of drawing interest for them! The interest on the wages of you men is five hundred sixty dollars a month. No wonder they hold your pay for a month and put that five hundred and sixty dollars in their pockets. But those wages are yours as fast as you earn them. The interest on your money belongs to you. That five hundred and sixty dollars a month belongs in your pockets. But it will go into the bosses' pockets as long as you are willing to be robbed. You have rights, but they trample on them when you will not fight for your rights. Are you mice or men?"
When it was put that way they answered that they were men. The strike was "sold" to them before the meeting, without their having had a chance to state their side of it. I felt that this was wrong. There are lynch verdicts in this world as well as verdicts of justice. When men have a chance to make up their own minds their verdict is always just. But here a little group who knew what they wanted had stampeded the minds of the men, and a verdict won that way is like a mob verdict.
I decided to get up and speak, although it was really too late. It seemed to me like calling a doctor after the patient is dead. "Men," I said, "I'm a newcomer here and I never made a speech in my life. I wouldn't try to now, only I've been asked to by others—by somebody that's been here a long time. He thinks there ought to be a little more said before we ballot. It's a hot day and I don't want to keep you here if you don't want to listen to me. What I've got to say probably don't amount to much."
"Go ahead," somebody said.
"We've decided to strike, and I don't know how it will turn out. I've been out of work for several months and you fellows haven't, so I can tell you what it's like. The country is thronging with idle men. If we lose this strike we can roam all over the country before we find another job. I came all the way here from Alabama, where they drove a bunch of iron workers into the peonage camps, and I was glad to get out alive. Conditions are awful bad in this country and I have been trying to study 'em. Money is scarcer now than it's ever been before. They tell us that the bosses are keeping our wages in their pockets. That's a mistake. They haven't got anything in their pockets. They've mortgaged their homes and pledged everything they own. They're having a devil of a time to rake up the money every month to meet the pay-roll when it's due. They aren't taking in the money as fast as they're paying it out. Their salesmen are on the road trying to sell tin plate, but the tinners are so hard up that few of them can buy.
"I believe we ought to get our pay every week, but how can we get it if the boss hasn't got it? We've got to look at this thing in the light of facts. The facts are that we have our jobs and are sure of our pay once a month. There are a million men who would like to have what we have. Those men will swarm in and take our jobs. You can't stop them. A hungry man can't be stopped by the cry of 'scab.' You all know that there are so many union men now idle that we have to pass around our jobs to keep the men in this town from starving. When word goes out that we have struck, you'll see the workers swarm in here like locusts. They'll be glad to take their pay by the month. What's the use of a strike that hasn't got a chance to win? We joined the union to make our jobs secure and to get good pay. We're getting good pay. Our jobs are secure unless we lose them in this strike.
"I don't believe we've looked at both sides of the case. I don't believe the boys really want this strike. The demand for it originated outside our ranks. Who started it? Wasn't it started by fellows who want us to get our pay quicker so they can get it quicker? They're the ones that worked up this strike. They tell us that the bosses are robbing us because they hold our pay till the end of the month. They say we ought to have it in the bank. They know we wouldn't put it in the bank. You know we wouldn't put it in the bank. We don't want to put it in the bank, and you bet your boots they don't want us to put it in the bank. They're liars when they say they're boosting for the banks. They're boosting for their own pockets.
"But we've really got our money in a bank—or what's good as a bank. The mill keeps our money for us just the way a bank would. No bank in town pays interest on checking accounts, you know that. Then why take our money out of the mill office and put it in a bank? It's just as safe in the mill office. And you've got the right to draw on it if you really need money in the middle of the month. Only in case of death or accident does a man need money in the middle of the month. And he can go to the pay window and get it when he needs it. The doctor doesn't send his bill till the end of the month. The landlord doesn't collect the rent till the end of the month. The grocer and butcher let you run a bill till the end of the month. Some of us are really better off getting our pay at the end of the month. For it's all there for us and we can pay our bills promptly and hold up our heads as men. If we didn't leave our money in the office until the end of the month, we might blow it in at a bar, and when the wife wanted money to pay the rent and food bill we would have to tell her we were broke and she would have to hang her head. When the landlord and butcher came for the money she would have to try to stand them off. Do we want to let the rent go unpaid until the landlord cusses us out? Is that what we are striking for? If the landlord and butcher are willing to wait till we draw our pay, we ought to be willing too. Isn't it better to wait a month for pay than to wait a year? I'm right here to tell you that after this strike we'll wait for our pay until hell freezes over and the devil goes skating.
"Let us make no mistake. We are calling this strike not of our own free will, but were shoved into it by a lot of slick talkers that are in business and are not workers. They have hoodwinked us. They have made fools of us. A speaker asked are we mice or men. I ask them are they rats or men. I want these rats to come out of their holes and stand upon this floor. Who was the first man that suggested this strike? I want to see the color of his hair. Stand up, if he's in the hall. If he isn't here, why isn't he?"
No one answered.
"If this strike was called by outsiders," I cried, "why don't the outsiders do the striking? Whose jobs will be lost in this strike—our jobs or the outsiders' jobs? If the man who started this strike has a job that won't be lost in the strike, then I claim that we have made a bad mistake. And if we're making a mistake, men, what are we going to do about it?"
I sat down, exhausted by the first attempt at public pleading I had ever made. Everything grew dark about me, and I knew that I had done my best and that I was through. I was quite young, and I went to pieces like an untrained runner who had overdone himself.
The men were talking to one another, and somebody moved that the meeting take a recess until after supper. It would give time to think it over and find out what the men really thought about the strike proposition.
CHAPTER XXXII. LOGIC WINS IN THE STRETCH
At seven o'clock we met again and several men made short talks opposing the strike. Each fellow, when he got up, seemed to have a lot of ideas, but when he tried to express them he grew confused, and after stammering a while he could only put forth the bare opinion, "I don't think we ought to strike." This meeting was quite different from the other one. Here every man was thinking for himself but nobody could say anything. In the previous meeting the speakers had talked passionately, and the rest had been swept along with them as a unit. In other words, the first session had become group-minded instead of individual-minded. It is like the difference between a stampede and a deliberative body. The second meeting was calmly deliberative and it finally voted a reconsideration, and the strike resolution was overwhelmingly defeated.
If this were a novel, it would be fine to record in this chapter that the young orator who at the last moment turned the tide and saved the day became the hero of the union and was unanimously elected president. That's the way these things go in fiction. And that is exactly what happened. In due time I found myself at the head of the Local, and nearly every man had voted for me. I started negotiations for more frequent paydays, and a few months later we were being paid on the first and fifteenth of the month. Life is indeed dramatic,—at least it has seemed so to me. Some men say that life has no meaning; that men are the playthings of blind forces that crush them, and there is no answer to the riddle. This is nonsense. I admit that we are in the grip of blind forces. But we are not blind. We can not change those forces. If we fight against them they will crush us. But by going with them, guiding our careers along their courses, they will bear us to the port we're steering for.