T.S. Hawkins was enamored of the ability of some men to make a bull whip crack like a pistol and keep a team of oxen in order. Accordingly, he watched them closely and figured he’d caught on to the trick.
[S]o giving my whip a mighty twirl through the air, I brought it back just as they did, but instead of the wonderful report I was expecting, the lash coiled itself a half-dozen times around my neck. At first I felt sure it had taken my head off, but when I found it still on, I carefully unwound the lash and swore a mighty oath never, never to try again.
Hawkins tells this story in Some Recollections of a Busy Life which he published privately in 1913 and now has been reissued by McSweeney’s with an introduction by Dave Eggers, his great-great grandson.
Eggers is to be thanked for giving this book new life, but I wish he hadn’t repurposed a New Yorker essay of his as the book’s 27-page introduction. It keeps the reader from getting to Hawkins right away, steals a bit of his forebear’s thunder and isn’t always accurate. For instance, when Hawkins was growing up, his family used tree bark for coloring clothes, not as clothing itself, as Eggers writes.
“A live coal”
When Hawkins was writing his memoir in his mid-70s, he was a banker in California in a world with indoor plumbing, indoor gas heating and lighting, telephones, a dense national network of railroad routes, electric lights and automobiles. A far cry from the existence he was born into in 1836 on a Missouri farm near Hannibal.
We had no cook stoves and not even a match. Like the Sun-worshippers, we were always expected to have a live coal on our altars. When the family retired for the night, the fire was carefully covered with cinders and if by accident it should go out, one of the children was sent to a neighbor to borrow or else a little powder was poured into the old Kentucky rifle, some “tow” rammed down on it, and this was fired out against the wall, where paper and shavings were prepared to receive it; being thence transferred to the open fireplace, where it was cared for until a good blaze was finally started.
Much is made of the changes in today’s world wrought by computers and the Internet, but, during the course of his life, Hawkins witnessed an even bigger transformation — from eons-old peasantry to modernity. That transformation provides a frame for his book as Hawkins looks back at his life, focusing mainly on his experiences as a child and a young man.
In the log cabin where he was born and raised, Hawkins and his brothers slept in the attic where the roof didn’t always keep out the elements, especially in winter:
It was glorious up in the old-fashioned feather bed, with the blankets up to one’s ears, listening to the roar of the wind, the pelting of the hail and snow and the war of the elements, until one fell asleep. In the morning we would awake to find the bedding and the floor covered an inch or more in drifted snow.
In 1860, Hawkins and his family took a small wagon train on a six-month, 2,000-mile journey across the continent to make a new life on the West Coast.
In describing this journey, as well as the journey of his life, Hawkins is direct, witty and self-deprecating, usually with a sweet turn of phrase. He mentions that fire wood was difficult to obtain on the prairies so most people used buffalo chips, the dried manure of the bison.
I must acknowledge that I had a most unreasonable antipathy against this fuel. It made a good fire for cooking, and really in the final analysis was nothing more than condensed grass.
Nonetheless, Hawkins would go out of his way to find and chop down a dry tree that, at great labor, he would attach under his wagon. That would fuel his fire for a week, and he brags:
I do not remember we ever used those ‘chips’ at my fire a single time.
Patrick T. Reardon
This review originally appeared in the Printers Row section of the Chicago Tribune on 4.24.16.