By Ernest L. White of Hampton, New Hampshire
Written in the 1930s
Even as I was tacking up that little notice in the general store and post office at Riggsville, Maine, that March day so long ago, I knew it was a foolish thing to do. But we were hungry, Jim and I, really truly hungry. Not the hunger that develops between the customary three meals a day, but the gnawing, desperate hunger that builds up and grows and grows and accumulates strength after weeks and months on a very restricted and limited diet.
We were partners, Jim and I, on a very unsuccessful island chicken farm on the coast of Maine. Neither of us had any practical knowledge of chicken raising. We were two young city slickers who had taken a six week's course in poultry husbandry and were now endeavoring to put in practice what we thought we had learned. The very small amount of borrowed capital we had started out with had been used to buy eggs, incubators, tools and seeds, fourteen hens, one rooster (our breeding stock), some bags of grain, a few groceries and a leaky boat.
After investing in things necessary for our business, we had only a few dollars left and could only buy a few groceries for our-selves, very few, and of no great variety. We bought fifty pounds of oatmeal, one gallon of molasses and one hunk of salt pork and five pounds of corn meal. The last two articles were to be used when we fried fish, which we thought we could catch unlimited amounts of, but found out later we were wrong. Small fish such as cunners and flounders were still hibernating some place off shore and we had no fit boat to go outside and try our hands at cod fishing.
Why worry? So we didn't, not the first month or so. We filled our incubators with eggs and high hopes, remodeled the kitchen/bedroom into a brooder room of sorts, pulled tons of icy, half frozen rock weed from the slippery rocks that hemmed in our little cove and in a creaking wheel-barrow, transported it to a little rocky field where we planned to raise vegetables to sell to the "summer people" who would also buy our broilers. We hacked down spruce trees and towed the logs behind our leaky boat to a saw mill miles away, generally against a strong tide, the resulting lumber to be used to house, in years hence, many, many pedigreed chickens.
So we labored and planned and dreamed and ate up our scant rations 'til the time came when all we had to nourish ourselves was the mixed feed originally planned for our feathered partners mash. We did have, at certain times, the unfertile eggs and some of the others as well, that showed in the process of candling that the germ within had stopped developing.
Of course, we could not kill and eat any of our breeding stock. That would soon put us out of business. Neither could we eat the eggs they laid, for each egg was a potential broiler, breeding cockerel or prize pullet, and as for buying the customary staples of life, why we couldn't, for we didn't have a red penny between us.
As long as the pork lasted to grease the fry pan in which we mixed and baked our bread of mixed feed, we could eat the mess, even if it tasted a lot like wormwood. But came the day when we chewed, sucked and swallowed the last worn out rind of salt pork and we really were up against reality. We really should not appropriate for ourselves any more hen feed either. There was barely enough left of that to last the hens but a little while longer. Yes, they came first, of course.
We talked the situation over as we rested, and took a "breather" in our leaking boat, as we struggled to tow a small raft of logs to the mill one early March day. Cold, gray, wet fog was billowing 'round the point of our island. Came the ding-dong of the pitching bell buoy and the mournful bellow of a fog horn.
Jim bailed out water and thin particles of ice from the tossing boat while I shivered and watched big drops of water drip from the spruce trees growing right out unto the ledge against which I was holding the leaky boat.
"Look," Jim said, "we've got to get hold of some money."
Of course that was obvious and I told him so and he said, "How do you plan to do it?"
"Me?", says Jim, "I ain't planning to do it myself. I'm planning for you to do it."
"Listen," he said, "we're planning to have a summer school for boys here during July and August, aren't we?" I nodded my head wondering why he thought that dream could be capitalized on in March. "As I remember it," he continued, "you agreed, as your part of the project, to teach such things as boxing, wrestling, fencing and all kinds of sports, while I tutored them in things pertaining to higher education, such as mathematics, English and science." I nodded my head again, wondering and dreading what he was planning. "Of course," he continued, "those fishermen that gather every night over at the store and post office wouldn't be interested in learning how to do the high jump or pole vault, the hop-skip-and-jump or see how quick they could run around their fish houses, but I think they would like to know how to box 'cause that's a manly art and liable to come in handy lots of times."
I felt like someone had dumped a whole scoop full of that icy slush, floating around the boat, right down my neck. I sensed right off what he was driving at.
"So we better tow these logs into the cove," he continued, "and while you're making them fast so they won't float away, I'll go in and make up a nice poster advertising the fact that you will give boxing lessons to anyone interested, and at any time, for fifty cents a lesson. Then you can take it over to Riggsville post office and tack it up. If you only average one lesson a day we'll get money enough so we can buy some flour and make some and won't it be swell to nibble on a nice, crisp slice of bacon and find out what coffee really tastes like, instead of filling up on ice water just so your stomach will feel full of something.
"See here," I said, "I did agree to give boxing lessons to any boy you might get to come to your summer school, but I never agreed to give boxing lessons to any big, rugged, muscular fisherman."
"Shucks," he said, "they can't even hit you if you keep out of their way. Why man, they're probably muscle bound and if they should start to get rough, why box 'em, box 'em, tire them out!"
"Oh, yer" I said sarcastically as I could, "ain't that just dandy, and so easy."
Then he got real persuasive. "Think of all the nice things to eat we can buy with the money we'll get."
Darn it all, that was all I could think about, because I was hungry, really hungry, and that's why I tacked up that notice in the Riggsville post office, that cold and dreary day in March so long ago.
The next evening while I was stuffing some more dried eel grass into my mattress to make it softer, five of the biggest, huskiest men I ever saw, or so it seemed to me, knocked on our door and explained they had come to learn to "fight".
Hastily I explained I gave boxing lessons, and tried to make them understand that boxing and fighting were not one and the same. Yet from the first to the last they referred to the event that followed as a fight, and in truth, it was. I fought for the fifty cent fee with which to buy food, real food. My pupil and opponent fought for the fun and entertainment he got out of it. His name was Fred.
I stalled all I could at first, for I knew what I was in for. Fred, in one motion, pulled off the heavy double breasted blue fisherman's shirt he was wearing, exposing a hairy torso worthy of an Apollo. I found it difficult to get his large, scarred, knobby hands into the padded gloves, while the sight of his arms where great muscles played and ripples, gave me a chocking feeling and a sinking feeling in my empty stomach.
I spoke to him of feints and guards. Tried to show him how to block and deliver different blows and counter blows. I suggested that he strike lightly and slowly until he had mastered the rudiments of the sport and tried to show him how to hold his arm and hands so that he might guard his body and face. I doubt if he heard me, for even as I was talking and explaining the art of boxing to him, he grinned and made a pass at me. The lesson was over and the fight was on.
I took my licking as gracefully as possible, and when they later filed out of our nearly wrecked kitchen, Fred solemnly tended me fifty cents for his "lesson". I knew as they all did that Fred was the teacher and I the pupil. They came of course, for a little fun and I guess they had it.
I awoke next morning stiff and sore all over. I felt as if I had been through a threshing machine. My face was discolored and swollen but only a mile or less away, over rough water, where broken ice floated, was a store and food, and in my pocket was fifty cents.
Jim put a couple of bricks under one corner of the stove where the leg used to be, put back the stove pipe, built a fire and heated water. We both had a nice drink of hot water and while Jim went out to feed the hens and attend to the incubators, I broke the thin sheet of ice in our boat, threw it over-board and rowed over to Riggsville.
I pushed open the door and took a few steps toward the counter, hardly noticing the men seated about the stove until I heard one them shout to me and call me by name. "Come over and sit," he said. "I was just telling these old mossbacks here, what a tough old rooster you are." It was Fred. He slapped me good naturedly on the back, pointed out to everyone in the store the shiner I had given him and the bruise and cut on his cheek bone, covered with a piece of court plaster. He made much of the puny blows I had managed to land on him and praised me warmly, endeavoring to ease the hurt to my pride, and when, just before I left the store with my few little articles of food, I stepped up and yanked down the poster I had tacked up only a few days before, no one smiled or spoke in derision. In fact, the little incident seemed to break down the wall of prejudice and misunderstanding that existed between us and the town's people, for from then until the time we had to acknowledge defeat and give up our poultry farm for more lucrative work, those "rubes" gave much help and kindness to the two city slickers within their town.
Yes, Jim and I received more, much more, than just that fifty cents that Fred paid me for that boxing(?) lesson I gave him so long, long ago.
But at last came a day, in spite of our optimism and enthusiasm, our spirits and courage reached low tide and we had to admit to one another that our dream was over and we must find something else to do to earn a living, or starve. We had eaten our last handful of oatmeal, our first hatch was poor, very poor, and the few chickens we did get had been later smothered in our home made brooder, consisting of a box and a lantern, which like the unsatisfactory husband, smoked too much and went out nights. We could expect no monetary return from our garden for months. In fact, nothing we yet planted except a few peas, and as for prospective students for our summer school, not one had even shown interest enough in the numerous letters Jim wrote to several private schools soliciting candidates, to even inquire for "rates and further particulars".
And then, when things were the worst and we could not see a glimmer of light, came a letter to Jim that changed all our plans. How often in life this happens. That proverb, "It is always darkest before the dawn" has proven often times, at least to me, to be true.
It was a special delivery letter from a Mr. Washburn, then president of the Rhode Island State College (which we both/attended the previous year). He was also Agricultural Advisor for a coffee and rubber plantation in Old Mexico. His letter requested an interview at a certain date at Providence, and tentatively offered Jim the position of Resident Manager of said plantation at what seemed to us both a princely salary, and also offering me the position of assistant.
Needless to say, we were both greatly excited at this most unexpected offer, but as an interview was requested by the directors of the company at Providence to arrange details, etc., before it could be definitely settled and we had no money to pay our way there, our spirits were somewhat dampened.
Somehow, we must get the necessary funds, enough at least for one of us to make the trip and keep the appointment. There was no time to appeal to our parents as the date of appointment was fixed in the letter for only two days away and one of them was already gone.
But where there is a will there is a way, and we separated and visited all the people we knew, offering our few farming tools, our incubators or anything else we owned, to anyone we thought might like a bargain for cash.
Jim managed to sell a half bag of mixed feed and a little cracked corn to a woman at Five Islands at a greatly reduced rate, while I hunted up Fred, my former pupil of the manly art of self-defense and more because he wished to help us out then because he really wanted the articles, I sold, or rather pawned my incubator with its contents of half incubated eggs for $3.00. I tried to get an offer from him for my boxing gloves but he said they would only bother him if he ever did want to do any fighting (he still persisted in referring to boxing in that way) and intimated he couldn't be bothered hunting them up when he felt like a little brush with someone, claiming his bare hands would do more damage anyway, a statement I could not dispute.
It was a busy day, but when night came we had procured, in various ways, enough money to take Jim to Providence, R.I., had made arrangements with a farmer at Riggsville to take Jim to Bath the following morning by horse and buggy so he could catch the early morning train to Boston, overhauled, repaired and pooled our wardrobes, selecting with great care the best among the miscellaneous lot and fitted the chosen ambassador out with the best, regardless of who was the real owner.