Chapter 1: Boyhood
Even from earliest memory, life always has seemed unusual, eventful, exciting.
I was born July 31, 1892, of respected and upright parents who were of solid Quaker stock. My ancestors had emigrated from England to Pennsylvania with William Penn a hundred years before the United States became a nation. My ancestry, through a paternal great-grandmother, traces back to Edward i, king of England.
I first saw the light of day in a red brick two-apartment flat on the northwest corner of East 14th and Grand Avenue, in Des Moines, Iowa. Of course I remember absolutely nothing of the day of my birth—even as you remember nothing of the day you were born. But my mother always remembered it, especially since I was her firstborn, as my father was a firstborn son before me.
A friend in Des Moines, some years ago, jestingly remarked that I “became famous too late”—the flat in which I was born long since had been replaced by a business property.
The earliest events that linger in memory occurred when I was 3 years of age. Our family then was living on West Harrison Street in Des Moines, near 14th. We lived in a modest cottage, and my father’s parents lived in a two-story house next door. I remember scampering through the rear side door of their house to sample the delicious apple pies my grandmother made.
Also there is still memory of my maternal great-grandfather, Elon Hole, then between 92 and 94, often taking me up in his arms—and the tragedy that occurred when he fell down the stairs and died from the fall. Then there was an uncle, Jesse Hole, in my memory—also in his 90s.
I started kindergarten at age 5. I can still hear in my mind the mournful clang of the school bell, one block south.
Swearing Off Chewing
It was at this advanced age of 5 that I swore off chewing tobacco. A ditch was being dug in front of our house. Of course ditches were still being dug with shovels by hand in 1897. This was quite exciting for a 5-year-old. I spent most of my time out in the front yard watching. Ditch diggers in those days universally chewed tobacco. At least these particular diggers did.
“What’s that there?” I asked, as one of them whipped a plug of tobacco out of his hip pocket and bit off a corner.
“This is something good,” he answered. “Here, sonny, bite off a chaw.”
I accepted his generosity. I can remember distinctly struggling to bite off “a chaw.” That plug was really tough. But finally I got it bitten off. It didn’t taste good, and seemed to have a rather sharp bite. But I chewed it, as I saw him chew his, and when I felt I had it well chewed, I swallowed it.
And very soon thereafter—a minute or less—I swore off chewing tobacco for life!!! I say to you truthfully, I have never chewed since!
This was very shortly after the days of the old horse-drawn streetcars. The new electric trolley cars had just come in—the little dinkeys. I remember them well. The conductor on our line was Charley, and the motorman was old Bill. The most fascinating thing in the world was to park myself up at the front of the long side seat, on my knees, so I could look through the glass and watch old Bill run that car. I decided then what I was going to be when I grew up. I was going to be a streetcar motorman. But something in later years seems to have sidetracked that youthful ambition.
I do remember, though, that my father had a different idea of what I would be when I grew up. I was constantly pestering him with questions. I always seemed to want to know “why?” or “how?” I wanted to understand. At age 5 I can remember my father saying: “That youngin is always asking so many questions he’s sure to be a Philadelphia lawyer when he grows up.”
That obsession for understanding was to have great influence on founding the Plain Truth magazine and Ambassador College in later years.
Those Important First Years
When I was 6 the family moved to Marshalltown, Iowa, where my father entered the flour milling business.
I remember the events of those days at age 6 much better than I do those of age 56. The mind is much more receptive, and the memory far more retentive, in the earlier years.
Believe it or not, every baby learns and retains more the very first year of life than any year thereafter. Each year we learn and retain a little less than the year before. Few, however, realize this fact. For each succeeding year, the total fund of knowledge increases. Knowledge accumulation is additive; that of each year is added to the fund of previous years. Writing up these early experiences brings this forcibly to mind. Occurrences are coming back to me in my mind now, as I write, that I have not thought of consciously for years.
Old Century Out—New Century In
After a year or so the family moved back to Des Moines. It was while we lived there that my brother Russell was born, January 26, 1900, when I was 7½.
Another milestone event that lingers vividly in memory was the turn of the century. (Actually, the true turn of the century was January 1, 1901.) That particular New Year’s Eve was a once-in-a-lifetime event. Then and there I formed an aversion to church “watch nights” on New Year’s Eve.
I couldn’t see any fun, at 7½ years, in having to sit quietly in church from about 8 o’clock until midnight, unable to get up and play or run around, just quietly “watching” the old century out and the new century in. We were only watching the passing of a humanly calculated point of time, anyway. I only knew that it was a droll and dismal evening for me. I went to sleep once or twice, only to be awakened.
This new-century watch-night event occurred 26 days before my brother Russell was born. When my little baby brother was a few months old we moved to Union, Iowa, probably spring of 1900, where my father went into partnership in a hardware store.
The ‘Pigeon Milk’ Hunt
One day I wandered into the town job-printing shop. I must have been on one of my usual information-seeking forays, asking so many questions that ways and means had to be thought up for ridding the printers of the nuisance.
“Say, sonny, I wonder if you’d run an errand for us,” asked the printer. “Run over to the grocery and ask them for a half pint of pigeon milk.”
“What’s it for?” I asked. “Why do you want it?” I always had to understand why and how.
“To grease the presses with,” explained the printer.
“How’ll I pay for it?”
“Tell ‘em to charge it,” was the answer.
At the grocery store the grocer explained, “Sorry, bub, we’re just out of pigeon milk. They carry that now at the jewelry store.”
From the jewelry store I was sent to the furniture store, then to the drugstore, and after almost every store in town, I went to my father’s hardware store. Dad explained that I had been chasing all over town on a fool’s errand. Anyway, I added to my store of knowledge the fact that pigeon milk is not to be found in stores. And I didn’t think it was a more foolish errand than the one a rookie sailor was sent on when his ship was anchored at Pearl Harbor. Older sailors sent him to a dour commandant on shore to get the key to the flag pole—and he got thrown into the brig.
While at Union I sold the Saturday Evening Post every week. I remember the special canvas bag with the magazine name on the side very well.
Our barn in Union was badly infested with rats. I determined to do something about it. I obtained a large cage rat trap at the hardware store, and almost every morning I had a number of rats in the trap.
I remember a birthday party my mother had for me on my 9th birthday, July 31, 1901, probably because a picture taken at the party has remained in the family box of old pictures.
Back to Des Moines we moved again in 1901, in early fall, after a year and a half in Union, this time near East 13th and Walker. I was now in the fourth grade. We lived a short distance from a Seventh-Day Adventist Sanitarium with a bakery shop near the front entrance. I remember being sent often to this bakery for special “health” bread—probably whole wheat. The thing that most impressed me, however, was the impression on my boyish mind that these Adventists must be some kind of odd religious people, because they “kept Saturday for their Sunday.” Even at that age, anything different from common custom and general social acceptance automatically seemed strange—and if strange, then of course it seemed wrong. Why do people assume that the rank-and-file of people can’t be wrong?
It seems most of us, unless we do stop to think a bit, are like Mrs. O’Rafferty, watching her son march with the soldiers down Broadway, just returned to New York after World War i.
“I was that proud of Dinny,” she said, “for, d’ye know, they were all out-of-step but him.”
Well, perhaps it was Dinny who was properly in step—who knows? The point is, we blindly assume that the majority of people can’t be wrong. But I was to learn, in later years, that people as a whole can be wrong—so terribly wrong that people are now bringing the end of their wrongly built civilization crashing down on their own heads.
Only, most people are still unaware of it!
When I was 11, in 1903, the automobile was in its earliest infancy—mostly built like the horse-drawn carriages, hard solid rubber tires, steered by a stick or handle rather than a wheel. We often called them horseless carriages. My father was always jolly, and he loved a joke. It was while we were living in this house that he called out to us:
“Hurry! Come quick! Here goes a horseless carriage!”
Seeing one of these early automobiles was a rare sight. We came running to the front window. A carriage was going by. It was a horseless carriage all right. It was drawn, not by horses, but a pair of mules. My father’s strong bass voice boomed forth in hearty laughter.
Wrestling became a favorite sport in those days. These were the days of Frank Gotch, Farmer Burns, Zbysco and others, when wrestling was a real sport and not a fakery show. “Clayt” Schoonover’s older brothers had set up a real wrestling mat, and they taught us all the main holds.
I think I loved ice skating perhaps more than any other sport, however. I had learned to take wide, sweeping strokes in a style so that my body would sway way over, from one side to the other, using the force of gravity to help propel me forward. There was a rhythm and sort of sensation to it that was thrilling.
At that time, 1902–03, many of the streets in the city were as yet unpaved. The sidewalks were wood slats nailed down on two-by-four runners, with narrow cracks between slats. I remember this because of an incident. One day someone dropped a dime—a 10-cent piece—and it fell onto the sidewalk and disappeared through one of the narrow cracks. Neighbors must have spent two or three man-hour days tearing up the sidewalks hunting that lost dime. I learned then that people will expend far greater effort to prevent losing something than they will to gain something. Later I used this bit of psychology with good effect in advertising copy.
When a Boy Is 11
I have often said that the happiest year in any human life is that of a boy at age 11. At that age a boy experiences something, I believe, which a girl never knows. He has no sense of responsibility to weigh him down. He has no burdens but to have fun. Of course boys that age will do foolish things, sometimes dangerous things. How any boy lives to adulthood I will never know—unless there is a guardian angel watching over and protecting each boy.
Another condition of the time illustrates how recently this world has become really modernized. The street lights in our neighborhood were gas lights. Electricity had not yet reached that stage of modernization in 1902–03. A man came by on horseback every evening about dusk with a lighted wick on the end of a stick, with which he reached up and lit each light. Then, about sunup next morning he had to ride by again turning the lights off.
During these days I did a great deal of bicycle riding, developing big calf muscles on both legs. By this time my father had invented the air-circulating jacket idea around a furnace, and had gone into the furnace manufacturing business, with a small factory on East 1st or 2nd Street. I worked summer vacations in the factory.
Our transportation, 1903–04, was horse and buggy—and my bicycle. Going to the factory in the morning, we had to use the whip on the horse occasionally to keep him trotting. But returning home in the evening, it was necessary to hold tight rein on him. He needed no urging to trot. He seemed to know his oats were waiting for him in our barn.
Early Religious Training
I think it is time, now, to explain what boyhood religious training was mine.
Both my father and mother were of solid Quaker stock.
From earliest memory I was kept regularly in the Sunday school and church services of the First Friends Church in Des Moines.
From earliest boyhood I was in a boys’ class in Sunday school, and we all sort of grew up together. I can’t remember when I first knew those boys. I guess we were all taken there as babies together.
Anyway it was interesting, some 25 years ago, to learn what had become of most of them—for I had drifted away from church about age 18, and had gotten completely out of touch. One of them had become dean of student personnel at San Francisco State College, with a Ph.D. from Yale. I contacted him, and he gave me considerable and valuable assistance and counsel in founding Ambassador College in 1947.
Another, who had been perhaps my principal boyhood chum through those early years, was a retired retail furniture merchant, who had enlarged and successfully maintained the retail establishment founded by his father. Another was a successful dentist. The son of the pastor of my boyhood days had died apparently early in life. Another had become director of a large relief agency in the Middle East. On the whole, the boys of that class had grown to become successful men.
The Awakening—Spark of Ambition Ignited
During the years between 12 and 16, besides school, I had many Saturday and vacation jobs. I carried a paper route, was errand boy for a grocery store, special delivery boy for a dry goods store, spent one summer vacation as draftsman for a furnace company, and there were other odd jobs.
But at age 16, during summer vacation, I obtained my first job away from home. The job was waiting on tables in the dining room of a semi-resort hotel in Altoona, the next town east of Des Moines. There was an electric line—an interurban streetcar—that ran out through Altoona and on east to the little town of Colfax. This Altoona hotel served food of a standard that attracted many guests from Des Moines.
The owner was a single man of perhaps 45. He complimented my work highly. Soon he began to tell me that he could see qualities in me that were destined to carry me to large success in life. He constantly expressed great confidence in me and what I would be able to accomplish, if I were willing to put forth the effort.
The effect it had on me reminds me of an experience my wife has related which happened when she was a little girl. She was in her father’s general store. A man came in, placed his hand on her head, and said: “You’re a pretty little girl, aren’t you?”
“I’ll thank you,” spoke up her mother indignantly, “not to tell my daughters they are pretty! That’s not good for them.”
Promptly little Loma ran to a mirror and looked into it. She made a discovery. She said to herself approvingly: “Well I am pretty, amn’t I?”
I had never realized before that I possessed any abilities. Actually I had never been a leader among boys. Most of the time I had played with boys older than I who automatically took the lead. But now, for the first time, I began to believe in myself. This hotel owner aroused ambition—created within me the desire to climb the ladder of success—to become an important somebody. This, of course, was vanity. But it also was ambition for accomplishment—for self-improvement. And he also stimulated the will to put forth whatever effort it would require to achieve this success. He made me realize I would have to study, acquire knowledge and know-how, be industrious, and exercise self-denial. Actually this flowered into grossly overrated self-confidence and conceit. But it impelled me to driving effort.
Life’s Turning Point
It is impossible to estimate the importance of this sudden arousal of ambition—this injection of an intense desire for success—this igniting of the spark of determined energy to achieve worthy accomplishment.
This was the turning point of my life.
Suddenly life became a whole new “ball game.” There had awakened within a totally new outlook on the future.
This, I believe, is the vital ingredient that has been missing in most human lives. Most continue through life as I was prior to this arousal of ambition. As I have stated, up to this point I played with boys older than I. It seemed natural for them to assume leadership. I simply “went along.” The idea of looking forward to achieving success, or an accomplishment of any note, never intruded itself into my mind. Nor does it, probably, in the average mind. And it was like an intrusion, for my mind was uninterruptedly occupied only with the interests, pleasures and enjoyments of the moment.
Suddenly all this was changed! Drastically changed! What a tragedy the vast majority of human minds cannot be given this hope—this desire—this ambitious expectation—this confidence—in their future! The general attitude of hopelessness for the future has spawned the modern mod rebellions—the hippie movement—the campus protests, riots and violence.
Of course, as yet, at age 16, there had formulated no definite goal to work toward, further than the general ambition to succeed. Of what that success was to consist had to crystallize later.
Also, so far, it was pure vanity. But it was a positive vanity, and that might be vastly preferable to a negative, purposeless humility. It was the first start toward later accomplishment.
Some few years later, I was considerably inspired by one of Orison Swett Marden’s “inspirations” books, titled, He Can Who Thinks He Can. What a pity that there seems to be a famine of such books today.
Returning to Des Moines, I continued as a student at North High School. I began to spend extra hours outside of high school at the city library, mostly in the philosophy, biography, and business administration sections. I began to study Plato, Socrates, Aristotle and Epictetus. It was at this time that I first read Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography.
My first date with a girl took place at about this time—a date to escort a next-door neighbor girl in my class in high school to some school function. At that stage I was pretty much in awe of girls and felt awkward in their presence. It has always been a puzzle to me that so many boys around that age are afraid of girls, ill at ease before them, and yet girls seem not to be shy or bashful in any way in the company of boys. For the next 8 years I continued to date this girl on and off (not what today is termed “going steady,” however), but never did I put my arm around her, kiss her, or as they would say today, “neck with her.” (It was called “loving up” in those days.)
North High had a total enrollment of only 400 then. In high school I went out for football and for track, and played a small amount of basketball in the gym. In football I played end or halfback. I weighed only 135 in those days, and was too light to make the team, but I suited up with the team in all of its home games, usually played in the Drake University Stadium. In track I went out for the mile run in my sophomore year only, but never was entered in the state meet. The best time I ever made was 5 minutes flat, on the Drake track, where the annual Drake Relays, nationally famous, are still run. Today the world’s best milers run the mile under 4 minutes!
I was an average student in school. But in final exams I always got grades of 95 to 98 percent.
But as yet there had been set no definite goal in life. At the tender age of 16 the idea of fixing a definite objective—of finding the true purpose of life—occurs to few teenagers. Ambition had been aroused. I was burning with desire to go somewhere in life—to become a success. But exactly where, or precisely what constituted the “success,” had not as yet crystallized.