Chapter 2: Learning Important Lessons
At age 18 I found a book in the public library, titled Choosing a Vocation. It took the reader through a searching self-analysis and a survey of vocations, occupations and professions to place the candidate where he best fit.
A thorough study of this self-analysis and survey indicated that I would probably be most successful in the profession of journalism and advertising. And this, to me, was one of the truly exciting, thrilling professions.
It so happened that my uncle in Des Moines, Frank Armstrong, my father’s younger brother, was the most prominent advertising man in the state. He had led the movement of establishing Ad Clubs in other cities over the state, and he was the first president of the state association.
I went to my uncle for counsel and advice. From that time, since I had chosen his field, he practically steered my life for the next 11 years, and I owe much to him. To me he seemed like a sort of second Benjamin Franklin, and on the whole I felt he had unusual insight, understanding and sound judgment.
The place to begin in the advertising profession, he advised, was the want-ad department of a daily newspaper. This was the freshman class of the advertising school of hard knocks.
It was late December 1910. Now the big question came: Should I stay in school, and take courses in advertising and journalism in college or university?
“Well, Herbert,” he counseled, “that depends on you and how much ambition and drive you have. It happens that no college or university in the country has yet offered a course in this profession that is worth a plug nickel.”
“Now I know,” he continued, “that nearly everybody has the delusion that an education is something you get at school—and higher education at the university. It’s like going to a hardware store or department store to purchase a lawn mower. People seem to have the idea that an education is something they have all wrapped up at the university, ready to hand it over to you when you buy it by paying the tuition. But it has always seemed to me that traipsing across the doorsill of a college classroom, or sitting in an armchair, is not putting an education into your mind. Education comes from study—from books—from lectures—from contacts—from travel—from thinking about what you see and hear and read—and from experience.
“The reason we have to maintain schools and universities is simply that most people are too lazy—most lack the ambition and persistence, the drive—to procure an education outside of schools and colleges. Most people must have someone do their thinking and planning for them, assign lessons and homework, and force students to study and learn by a system of rewards and punishments in the form of grades, and finally, a sheepskin with a degree.
“Now if you have the initiative, and the will to drive yourself to study, without these prods of rewards and penalties, you can acquire just as complete an education outside the classrooms as in. You can gain a much more thorough and practical knowledge of the profession you have chosen outside than in. And so far as general education is concerned, you can acquire that, if you have the gumption and the will. I can help you choose the proper textbooks to study in general educational areas, as well as in advertising and journalism, and psychology—which, by the way, you’ll have to understand and use.”
“Actually, Herbert,” he continued, “a majority of corporate heads, presidents and board chairmen of New York and Chicago banks are primarily self-educated beyond high school education. The doctors, dentists, scientists and technologists, of course, went on through university.”
At that time a small percent of high school graduates went on to matriculate in college or university. Today that condition has reversed, and as high as 90 percent of high school graduates enter the mad scramble to gain entrance into the institutions of higher learning. Also, in 1910, a much smaller percentage went on to graduate even from high school.
I went home and thought it over thoroughly. Ambition is not only the desire, but the determination and the will to achieve the desired goal. For two years ambition had burned fiercely within me. I wanted both success and to become a well-educated person. I knew I wanted these goals intensively enough to drive myself to any needed extent to succeed.
I told my uncle my decision. He assigned me to one year’s experience in want ads, and advised that I get a job in the want-ad department of the Des Moines Daily Capital, then published by Lafe Young, senior United States senator from Iowa.
Applying Laws of Success
I didn’t know, as yet, what later I came to learn were the seven laws—or seven steps toward success—but I was starting out with the first four of them.
Well, almost! The first law is to choose the right goal. I had chosen my life’s goal. I thought then I had chosen carefully, intelligently, wisely, and the right goal. I had put myself through a thorough self-analysis and survey of professions and occupations. I had not unthinkingly stumbled on to whatever job, field or occupation that was nearest me.
Most people, I have observed, are victims of circumstance. They have given no intelligent thought to choosing where they live, what they do, or planning for the future. They have no specific aim or goal in life. They are headed toward no definite purpose. They are where they are by circumstance.
I was to learn later that the right goal was one I knew nothing, as yet, about. But I had chosen the field that was to provide the precise needed training for the right goal, when my eyes became opened to it. I was getting the precise needed training, education and experience.
The second law of success is education—the specific specialized education and training needed for success in the chosen goal, in addition to the general balanced education one needs to develop the whole person.
With the determination and drive to study, and by applying myself to the task, the course of study and training had been laid.
And next comes good health, to which I gave much thought and diligence. And fourth was the drive to push oneself into getting these things done. My ambition was so strong—the desire to succeed so intense—that I was imbued with almost excessive drive. And on this first assignment I became a hustler.
The fifth requisite is resourcefulness—the ability to think a problem or obstacle through—to find a better way—to find the solution to problems—to think about what one is doing while he is doing it.
And my very first experience on the new job was to demonstrate that.
I did not ask the Capital if they needed any help. That was too negative—might have resulted in being turned down. I went straight to the manager of the want-ad department, told him I was entering the advertising profession and had decided to join his staff because it offered the best opportunity to learn and to advance. I got the job. The starting salary was $6 per week.
I had no conception, then, that the advertising profession was not, after all, to be my final life profession—or that this experience was merely the preliminary training needed for the ultimate bigger job later in life.
In those days I had developed a very excessive case of self-confidence. I was snappy, confident, self-assured—yet sincere and, in the intent of heart, honest.
On this want-ad job I soon became known as a “hustler.” On the street I hurried—walked rapidly. I was a dynamo of energy. Off nights I studied. Books were procured on advertising, psychology, merchandising, business management and English. All the leading trade journals were subscribed to and diligently read—primarily Printers Ink and Advertising & Selling, the two leading trade journals of the profession.
My uncle directed the training in learning an effective style in writing. Constantly I studied the writing style of Claude Hopkins, president and chief copywriter for the Lord & Thomas Advertising agency. This man reputedly drew a salary of $50,000 a year (big money in those days) writing the advertising copy for Quaker Oats, Pepsodent, Palmolive, Goodyear tires, Blue Jay Corn Plasters, Ovaltine and others. His rapid style—unique, yet plain, simple and easy-to-read—built multimillion-dollar businesses for those firms.
Also my uncle started me reading Elbert Hubbard, with his two magazines The Philistine and The Fra—primarily for ideas, writing style, vocabulary. Later I was to become personally acquainted with Elbert Hubbard.
The ‘Goat Work’
The first day in want ads I was started out, bright and early, on a job they called “the goat work,” tutored by a young man now ready to graduate from that job.
This job in the newspaper business might be compared to “boot camp” in the Marines. It is a most undesirable, tough, breaking-in job. I soon learned what it was.
We each armed ourselves with a copy of the previous night’s paper, a want-ad blank and a pencil. Then we started out afoot. We headed up the hill on West Fourth and Fifth—the rooming-house district.
“I’ll stop in at a couple of rooming houses,” said my predecessor-instructor, “just to show you how to do it; then I’ll go back to the office, and you’re on your own.”
Stepping boldly up to the first rooming house door, he rang the bell. The landlady opened the door, instantly recognizing the folded newspaper in his side pocket and the want-ad blank in his hand.
“NO!” she snapped decisively, before he could say a word. “I don’t want to run any want ads.”
“But lady,” my instructor put a foot in the door being slammed in his face, “you know Mrs. Jones down in the next block, don’t you?”
“Never heard of her!” Of course not. Neither had the boy with me.
“Well, Mrs. Jones put her ad in the Capital, and at least a dozen men came trying to rent the room. The reason you didn’t get results is that you put your ad in the wrong paper.”
But by this time the madam had managed to dislodge his foot and slam the door.
This same procedure was repeated at the next house.
“Well—“ said my want-ad buddy, happily, “that shows you how to do it. Hope you sell a lot of ads. So long—see you at the office.”
Finding a More Effective Way
But it didn’t seem that he had demonstrated how to do it—but rather, how not to do it.
I waited until he was out of sight. I hid both the newspaper and the want-ad blank in my inner pocket, covered with my overcoat. Then I walked briskly up to the next rooming-house door.
“I hope you haven’t rented your room yet,” I smiled as the landlady opened the door. “May I see it?”
“Why, certainly,” she smiled back, opening wide the door.
I trailed her to the second-floor room. No doors were going to be slammed in my face.
“Why,” I smiled, “this is a delightful room, isn’t it?” The landlady beamed expectantly. I whipped out the want-ad blank and began rapidly writing.
“Here!” she exclaimed suspiciously. “What are you doing with that want-ad blank?”
But she could not slam the front door in my face now—nor did she appear big enough to attempt throwing me out bodily.
“Now look,” I said calmly. “This is a lovely room. Do you know why your want ads have not rented it for you? The want-ad solicitors have told you it was because you put it in the wrong paper. You know that’s bosh as well as I. The reason you didn’t rent your room is that you are not a professional advertising writer!”
By this time I had the want ad written—at least two or three times longer (and costlier) than the average.
“Listen,” I continued, “imagine you are a young man reading all the room-for-rent ads, looking for a room that is going to be your home. Now think how all those other ads are written—then listen to this, and think!—which room would you go to see, and rent?”
I read the ad, which certainly made the room sound very desirable. In fact, its glowing terms probably flattered her. She just couldn’t resist seeing that flowery description of her room in print in the paper.
“Why, I’d certainly want to rent that room, instead of those ordinarily described in the want ads,” she replied. “That does make it sound good.” She bought the ad—as large as three ordinary ads.
And the ad did rent her room!
That was the first advertisement I ever wrote that was printed. But I had already been diligently studying textbooks on advertising writing.
Since 1958 we have been large purchasers of double-page and full-page advertising space in several of the world’s leading mass-circulation magazines, including, in the United States, Life, Look, tv Guide, and around the world, double pages in many editions of Reader’s Digest; half pages in London Sunday Times; full pages, full color, Sunday Times magazine; Hörzu in Germany; and other leading magazines in Australia, South Africa, the Philippines and others.
The 20 years’ experience in the advertising and journalism profession, starting with this first want ad, was the preparation that supplied the know-how for effective use of this type of media, reaching a readership in excess of 150 million worldwide. Results were more than gratifying. Two such double pages in English in Reader’s Digest brought 20,000 new subscribers in India for the Plain Truth.
After an energetic morning I was back at the want-ad office about 1 p.m., the deadline for getting ads to the composing room. I had a handful of want ads.
Soon I thought of a faster, more pleasant way to sell more room-for-rent ads, in less time.
The rival papers were the Register & Leader and the Daily News. The News didn’t count as a want-ad medium, but the R&L, as we then called it, was the city’s big want-ad medium. Today the Des Moines Register is recognized by many as one of the nation’s 10 great newspapers. In 1924 I was offered the job of advertising manager of the Register, and refused it—but that’s getting ahead of the story.
The R&L printed perhaps three or four times more room-for-rent ads than the Capital. Rooming-house landladies had become smart. In order to prevent newspaper solicitors annoying them on the telephone, or prospective roomers turning them down on the phone before actually seeing the rooms, they usually gave the street address only, in their ads.
I knew that the “information” office of the telephone company indexed according to street addresses, as well as by name, but the information operators were not supposed to give out names or numbers for a given street address.
So I called the information office, and first engaged the operator in a jocular conversation. After a while I persuaded her, this once, to give me the name of the rooming-house landlady at a certain street address.
“Well much a-welcome,” I said jokingly.
“Oh, you’re entirely welcome,” she said.
“No!” I came back. “I’m not welcome—I said you’re much-a-welcome.”
She was a little confused at this 18-year-old kidding.
“Well, what am I supposed to say, then?”
“Why, you’re supposed to answer, ‘you’re entirely obliged!’”
She had a good laugh. That joke sounds about as “corny” as Iowa’s tall corn, now—but it certainly got me results with that information operator.
Next morning I called “information,” and said, “This is Much-a-welcome again!” It brought a friendly laugh. I was, in my self-confident assurance, a reasonably glib talker. Somehow I managed to talk this information operator into giving me the names and telephone numbers of every room-for-rent want ad in the morning paper that we had not carried the evening before.
Always I ended by saying, “Much-a-welcome,” and she would laughingly reply, “Oh, you’re entirely obliged.” Silly, perhaps—but it got me the names and telephone numbers I wanted. Quite a telephonic friendship was struck up with this information operator. Often I wondered how old she was—what she looked like. I never knew. It did not seem appropriate to suggest a face-to-face meeting. But this daily morning procedure continued as long as I was on rooming house ads.
Getting Ads by Phone
Once I had the names and telephone numbers, they were called by phone.
“Good morning. Is this Mrs. Smith?” I would start off, cheerily.
While I was only a boy of 18, I had inherited a strong bass-baritone voice from my father, even lower-pitched then than now, and sounded quite mature on the telephone. I discovered, even then, that I was possibly more effective audibly than visually. Indeed, this was the first prelude training for radio broadcasting that was to follow, beginning 24 years later.
“I wonder,” I would continue the telephone conversation, “if you would describe your room to me.” While getting the description, prompted by repeated questions from me, I was rapidly writing a very descriptive want ad. Then I explained that she had not described it well enough in the morning-paper ad to cause anyone to really want to walk out to see it, and told her that I was an expert ad-writer, and quickly read the ad that would tell enough about the room to cause prospective roomers to want to see it. I explained that the reason she had not been getting results was the fact her ad was written so inexpertly.
A large majority of these hastily written telephone ads were sold. The rooms were usually rented—unless they failed to live up to the description after prospective roomers called to see them.
Soon we were carrying more room-for-rent ads than the R&L. Whenever one of our rooming-house customers had a vacant room, they automatically called for me on the telephone, and soon rented the room again.
One of the seven laws of success, I repeat, is resourcefulness. Also an important point I have always stressed to students in Ambassador College is to think—and constantly to think about what you are doing while you are doing it! This experience in thinking of a more effective way of selling room-for-rent want ads might offer a helpful example to some of my readers.
My First Display Ads
It was not long until I was promoted out of the room-for-rent columns and into the real estate section.
But first came a challenging test—the toughest of all. The want-ad manager, a young man (older than I) named Charles Tobin, had an ambition. He hoped to increase his salary to a point that would enable him to wear a fresh-laundered shirt every day. Immediately, that became one of my ambitions, too. The assignment he gave me was to sell a special section on the want-ad page, of single-column display ads to the secondhand furniture dealers.
These stores were all owned by a type of men who did not believe in advertising, and valued every penny as if it were a million dollars. To me, this was an unpleasant task, because so many of these stores were dirty and dusty and musty, cluttered and ill-arranged—an unpleasant atmosphere to enter.
Here again, however, ads were sold by writing the ads and making attractive-appearing layouts. These were the very first display ads I ever had printed. I remember staying up until midnight studying a book on advertising and selling psychology. It took the combination of all the selling psychology, attractive advertising layouts and copy, and persuasive personality I could muster to accomplish that assignment. But it was accomplished—a total of about a third of a page or more, as nearly as I can now remember.
During this “special number” crusade, I encountered a somewhat handicapped Jewish boy of about my age, the son of one of these “used furniture” merchants. The store owner was delighted to learn that I had some influence over his backward boy. It seemed like a responsibility that had come to me, to encourage him to go back to school, to study hard, and to begin to believe that he could be a success someday, and to start working, and fighting, even against sluggish impulses of self, to make something of himself. For some months I continued occasionally to drop in at this store to give this lad another “pep talk.” It seemed to be doing good. I hope the progress continued, but after about a year we lost contact.
The $2-per-Week Lesson
But after “putting over” this special number, I was given a real estate beat, and the salary raised to $8 per week.
I was put on a regular “beat,” calling daily on a certain number of real estate brokers to pick up their ads. Here again, I started writing ads for them. Results were increased. More and more the dealers on my route began using large ads in the Capital, using less space in the R&L.
It was on this job that I became known as a “hustler.” I walked at a pace that was almost a run. It was drive, drive, drive!! all morning long—until the 1 p.m. deadline. Then the afternoons were spent in the office preparing form solicitations, to which were attached clipped want ads from the other local papers, or even those of other cities, which were mailed out. Thus I learned to sell want ads by mail. This knowledge landed an important job, later.
It was not long until Ivan Coolidge, then want-ad manager over at the R&L, asked me to drop over and see him. He offered me $10 a week if I’d leave the Capital and join the Register staff. Later on, Ivan established an advertising agency of his own in Des Moines, which, I believe, gained some prominence—but he was unfortunately cut off somewhere in midlife by premature death.
I told Ivan I wanted to consult my uncle before giving him my decision.
“So,” chuckled my Uncle Frank, with the wisdom of a Ben Franklin, “the opposition is beginning to feel the pressure, eh? Want to hire you away from the Capital—willing to pay $10 a week to stop the competition, are they? Well, now listen, Herbert, a little encouragement once in a while is very helpful. It shows you are making good. You can get some inspiration out of it to provide incentive to keep driving yourself on. But I’ve noticed that there has been a tendency in some branches of our family to keep shifting around all the time from one thing to another—never staying with one thing long enough to make a success of it. There’s a good deal to the old adage, after all, that a rolling stone gathers no moss. One of the great success lessons you need to learn is persistence—to stay with a thing.
“Now suppose you quit the Capital and go over to the Register. You wouldn’t learn any more about the advertising profession over there than you’re learning where you are. The only advantage is the $2 per week. You’d probably blow that in, and 10 years from now you wouldn’t remember having had it. I think the time has come for you to pay the $2 a week to learn the important lesson of staying with a thing. Every week, when you draw your $8 at the Capital, remember you are paying the extra $2 you might be getting at the Register as the price of that lesson, and I think you’ll remember it.”
I had started out to spend one year in want ads at the Capital. The temptation had come to weaken and get off that schedule.
I took my uncle’s advice and stayed on the schedule.
Learning Rules of Success
Thus, at the early age of 18, some of the seven important rules of success were being learned.
The first success rule—I emphasize by repeating it—is fixing the right goal. Avoid fitting the “square peg in the round hole.” I was yet to learn the real purpose of life, and the one true supreme goal. Actually I had set out on a wrong goal—that of becoming someone “important,” achieving business success and status for the purpose of making money. But at least I had made the self-analysis and the survey of vocations to find where I should fit within the realm of business, the field of this goal.
At least, ambition had been kindled.
And, though little realized at the time, all this experience was building the necessary foundation for the worldwide activities of later life.
The second success rule is education—fitting oneself for the achievement of the goal. I was getting, not mere impractical and theoretical classroom book education, but the combined education of book study at night and practical experience in the daytime. And even here, the self-education being received was precisely that required to properly prepare me for this present worldwide Work of God, without which this Work today could not have become a success.
The third rule of success is good, vigorous health. Food plays a major part in this, and I was not to learn of the importance of food and diet until I was 38 years old. But I had learned the importance of sufficient exercise, deep breathing, daily bathing and elimination, and sufficient sleep.
The fourth rule, drive, putting a constant prod on oneself, seems to have come naturally as a result of the ambition that had been generated at 16. There was always the sense that I had to hurry! I was learning to plunge into a task with dynamic energy.
The fifth, resourcefulness, or thinking about the problem at hand, was unconsciously being developed by experience. For example, the experience of the “goat work” job, and then in finding a way to get in room-for-rent ads faster by telephone, was an example of learning this rule by experience—thinking through and applying initiative to a better way of solving a problem. Most people do such a job just as they are shown, without ever applying thought or resourcefulness to the activity.
And now, the sixth rule, perseverance, never quitting when it appears to everyone else one has failed, was being learned at the very low price of $2 per weekly lesson. In 1947, and again in 1948, Ambassador College appeared hopelessly to have failed. It seemed everyone else knew we had come to the “end of our rope.” It has happened many times. But that $2 per week lesson learned at 18 turned a seeming hopeless failure into a worldwide ever-expanding success.
The seventh and most important rule I was not to learn until much later.
The First Sidestep From the Goal
But now came a big mistake in judgment.
Humans do not learn well from experience, nor all at once. The lesson of the forbidden fruit has not been learned by humanity in 6,000 years. My $2 a week lesson was not really learned until later.
As the scheduled year of training in daily newspaper want ads drew to a close, a flattering offer came. And this time I failed to seek out the advice of my Uncle Frank who had wisely steered my business career thus far.
On the Daily Capital staff was a book critic, Emilie Stapp, who edited a book review department. Her desk was on the second floor adjacent to the want ad and display advertising section. She had, apparently, observed my work, noted I was energetic and produced results. She was a sister-in-law of W. O. Finkbine, one of two millionaire brothers who owned and operated the Green Bay Lumber Co., with lumberyards scattered all over Iowa; the Finkbine Lumber Co., a large lumber manufacturing company in Wiggins, Mississippi; and operated a 17,000-acre wheat ranch in Canada.
Miss Stapp lived with her sister, Mrs. W. O. Finkbine, “out on the Avenue,” as we called it—meaning the millionaire residence street of Des Moines, West Grand Avenue. I doubt very much that all the residents of that fabled street were millionaires, but at least so it seemed to those of us who were of ordinary means in Des Moines.
One day, near the end of my year at the Capital, Miss Stapp told me she had spoken to Mr. Finkbine, and I was being offered the job of timekeeper and paymaster at the big lumber mill in southern Mississippi. I was first to work a short period in the company’s commissary store, managed by her brother, whose name was Hal Stapp.
The job sounded flattering. The prospect of travel to far-off southern Mississippi had alluring appeal. I succumbed to it, going off on a tangent from the planned advertising career.
The First Meeting With a Millionaire
Before leaving, I was to go to the office of Mr. W. O. Finkbine for a short talk of instruction. I shall never forget my visit to the headquarters’ offices of this lumber firm. I met also Mr. E. C. Finkbine, president of the corporation. W. O. was vice president.
It was my first experience meeting millionaires. It made an intensive impression. I was awed. There seemed to be something in the appearance and personalities of these men that simply radiated power. It was instantly apparent that they were men of higher caliber than men I had known—men of greater ability. There was an expression of intensity which seemed to radiate an aura of positive confident power about them, and affected one who came within proximity of it. I could see that they were men who had studied, used their minds continually, dynamically and positively.
Of course I was over-impressed, due to the plastic susceptibilities and inexperience of youth. A very few years later I began meeting so many millionaires that they began appearing quite ordinary, after all—just human!
I was taken into the private office of W. O. Finkbine. He wanted to give me a little general advice before sending a young man so far away from home. I have never forgotten what he said.
“We are going to send you down with the manager of our Canadian interests,” he said. This man’s name I do not remember now. It was early January, and he was going down to Wiggins for a vacation, and to inspect the company’s operations there, during the off-season in Canada. I had never been farther from Des Moines than Omaha and Sioux City. It was a thrill to look forward to the trip, first to seeing Chicago, then the deep South.
“First, I want to give you some advice about traveling,” said Mr. Finkbine. “Most people look upon it as an extravagance to ride in the Pullman cars on trains. They are wrong. As you’re starting on your first long trip from home, I want to impress on you the importance of always traveling in a Pullman car, except when you do not have the money to do so.
“First of all, especially at your age, we humans are influenced by everyone we come in contact with. On the Pullmans you will come in contact with a more successful class of people. This will have more influence than you can realize, now, on your future success in life. Then, in the Pullmans it is not only cleaner, but safer.”
“Now,” he continued, “whenever you stop at a hotel, the same principle applies. Always stop at the leading hotel in any city. If you want to economize, get the minimum-priced room, but always go to the best hotel. You are among more successful people, which will influence your own success. The best hotels are either fireproof or more nearly so—always safer—worth the little difference, if any, in cost as insurance against accident or fire. You are a young man, just getting started in life. Try to throw yourself into the company of as many successful men as possible. Study them. Try to learn why they are successful. This will help you learn how to build a success for yourself.”
I did not disdain his advice. There have been many times in my life when I did not have enough money to travel on Pullman cars or stay in the best hotels. Under such circumstances, I have traveled as I could afford—and I have traveled a great deal since that eventful day in early January 1912—in fact a goodly portion of my life has been spent in traveling, as you will see as this autobiography progresses.
Since we moved to Pasadena, I have learned that these Finkbine brothers later retired from business, and moved to Pasadena. Very often, these days, I drive past the home where W. O. Finkbine lived in retirement, and died. One lesson in life he apparently never learned. When a man decides he already has achieved success, and retires—quits—he never lives long. I expect to stay in harness as long as I live.
Introduction to the South
As I look back now, after a travel-filled life, on this first real trip away from home, it seems strange that I could have been so absolutely inexperienced in travel. But I suppose one must be initiated, and learn, and this was my introduction to a life of travel.
We boarded a Pullman car in Des Moines one night—my first experience riding in one. I think I was too excited to sleep much, wanting to see as much of the scenery as possible—especially my first glimpse of the great Mississippi River as we crossed it between Davenport and Rock Island.
There was a cold blizzard on our arrival in Chicago next morning. The ground was covered with snow. We went over to see Michigan Avenue. I was thrilled. We went through “Peacock Alley,” a very long and narrow lobby, nationally famous, in the Congress Hotel, and walked through the tunnel under the street connecting it with the Auditorium Hotel. I think we visited the Stock Yards, taking the first ride in my experience on an “L” (elevated train).
Near midday we boarded the famous all-Pullman “Panama Limited” on the Illinois Central Railroad at 12th Street Station. Going into the diner for lunch and again for dinner was an exciting experience—I had never seen the inside of a dining car before. It was a new experience to learn about tipping waiters, redcaps, porters, bellboys—but my companion was an experienced traveler, and this initiation into the “ropes” of traveling was under good tutelage. I learned fast. Night came all too soon, and this time I slept soundly in my berth.
The next morning the train arrived in Jackson, Mississippi, where we changed for a local train on the “G. & S. I.” line.
This was the strangest experience of my life up to this time. We had left Chicago in below-zero temperature and a blizzard. I had gone to sleep that night somewhere near Cairo, Illinois. And now, this morning, after a brief sleep, here it was—summer!
I had never seen southern Negroes before, and in those days, January 1912, they were quite different from the colored people I had known up north. (Readers will understand that in those days blacks were called “Negroes” and “colored people.”)
Here in Jackson, Mississippi, it seemed that there were more black people than white on the streets, and they were utterly different from any people I had seen in the North—and, for that matter, from southern blacks today. Today the blacks of the South are comparatively well educated, on the average, but then very few had been privileged to receive much, if any, education. I was especially attracted to the dresses of the black women—bright and loud colors—such as a bright yellow or orange, clashing with a loud purple.
Arriving in Wiggins, I found a room in town, over a mile walk from the commissary store and the lumber mill, just outside of town, and was quickly introduced to my job in the store. Saturday night was the big night at the store. The mill employees were paid Saturday evening, and thronged the store. I was broken in immediately as “soda-fountain jerker.”
One of the first men I met was a Negro I shall never forget—whose name was Hub Evans. One of the men in the store brought him around to me.
“Hub,” he said, “tell Mr. Armstrong how many children you have.”
“Thutty-six, suh,” replied old Hub, promptly and proudly—“hope t’ make it foty ‘fo Ah die!”
I was not merely amused—but intensely interested. “Tell me, Hub,” I responded, “how many wives have you had?”
“Only three, suh!” Hub was a proud man.
The New Job
After not more than a few weeks, I was transferred over to the mill office as timekeeper and paymaster. Later I learned that only a short time before, this job had been shared by three men, and all of them men of ability—one of whom was now the leading real-estate dealer in Wiggins, another was now the company’s bookkeeper, and the third the assistant manager of the company.
The company was logging timber off a big tract east of Wiggins. It had its own railroad, by which the logs were brought into the mill. About 350 Negro men were employed, besides various department managers and top-ranking skilled employees, all white.
As mentioned above, Negroes of 62 years ago had received little or no education. There was not a man of this entire force who could write his own name. All statements were signed with an “x”—“his mark.” This was a legal signature.
I learned at once that the black employees had to be paid three times a day—morning, noon and night. They had never been trained in the handling of money. Had they been paid only once a week, they and their families would have starved before next payday, for they were nearly always “broke” before Monday morning.
But the company paid them in cash only on Saturday night. At all other times, they were paid in trade-checks on the commissary store—good only in trade. What a contrast from the condition of today. This was in 1912, only some 45 to 48 years from slavery. The terrible years after the war had done little toward giving our black people the economic, educational and social advantages the nation owed them.
But, even though we do not yet have the civil rights problem fully solved, the black people certainly have come a long way! These problems require time, patience, understanding and replacing prejudice with a love of fellow man. I am here recording only true factual history, which should help us understand today’s problems.
A Fish out of Water
I was to learn that I was a square peg in a round hole. I had fixed a life goal in the advertising profession, where self-analysis had shown I fit. The glamor of getting to travel to far-off southern Mississippi, combined with the flattery of being offered such a job as a result of my record during that year in want ads, had momentarily blinded me to my previously fixed purpose. Of course, travel is an important phase of education—so this six-month sidetracking was not altogether wasted time.
I have mentioned that this job combined the work previously done by three capable men, now risen to more important jobs. But it was not the kind of work into which I fit. It was, as we say, out of my line. I was a fish out of water. A square peg in a round hole.
In order to keep up with the job, due to inadaptability and resultant slowness, it became necessary to work nights. I established a system. I worked alternately one night until 10, the next until midnight, rising at 5:30 every morning. Time had to be taken out to walk the one or two miles from my room to the mill, and also to walk over to the boarding house where I took meals. I kept awake on the job nights by smoking a pipe—my first habitual smoking. In just six months this overwork and loss of sleep exacted its toll, and I was sent to the hospital with a very severe case of typhoid fever.
Escape From Death
But during this six months in Wiggins there were a few social events. One was a pre-World War i encounter with a German, in which I narrowly escaped being shot to death.
I took meals at a boarding house out near the mill. The daughter of the landlady was an attractive southern brunette near my age. I had a few dates with her—but, I think, quite unlike most dating today. There was no “necking” as today’s youngsters call it. Indeed I had never yet kissed or had my arms around a girl. It just wasn’t done, then, on the universal scale of these postwar years. Two world wars have brought greater social and moral changes than most people realize—and mostly bad.
That girl’s name was Matti-Lee Hornsby. The few dates I had were on Sundays, and consisted of walking and of conversation.
That kind of date would seem pretty “dull” to most 19-year-olds today, I suppose. I wonder if it isn’t because they have lost the art of interesting conversation. I have always found that a scintillating conversation can be far more interesting than a prefabricated daydream in a movie or before a tv set—far more stimulating, enjoyable and beneficial than the lust-inciting pastime called “necking.”
But more of the dating experiences later. I had not had a great many dates up to this time. One thing, however, sticks to my memory—whenever Matti-Lee became a little provoked with me, her dark eyes flashed and she snapped out the epithet: “yankee!” It was, of course, half in fun—but I found that epithet was supposed to be insulting. I had never heard it before.
One acquaintance I made there was a young German. He must have been about 21 at the time. His father was a lumberman in Germany, and had sent the son to America to study American lumber methods. He was spending some few weeks at the Finkbine mill in Wiggins.
This German, whose name I do not remember, bragged at length on the superiority of German products, methods and systems. One day, in his room at the boarding house, he was demonstrating to me the superiority of his German-made revolver over a Colt or other American make.
In play, he pointed the revolver straight at me.
“Don’t point that at me!” I said, dodging.
“Oh, it isn’t loaded,” he laughed. “Look, if you’re afraid, I’ll point it away from you and show you.”
He pointed the revolver a couple of feet to one side of me, and pulled the trigger.
It was a very superior weapon, all right. It drilled a hole completely through the wall of his room, and let a little round ray of sunlight shine through from outdoors!
My German friend turned white, and trembled in confusion.
“Why,” he stammered in frightened embarrassment, “I was sure it wasn’t loaded.”
It is the gun “that isn’t loaded” that has killed many people. And before I leave this little digression, may I respectfully suggest to all who read this that you teach—yes, really teach your children never, under any circumstances, to point even a play gun at any person. The life you save may be your own!
In the Hospital
My stay in southern Mississippi was brought to a sudden and rude halt. By summer, weakened by overwork and loss of sleep in the desperate struggle to make good on a job I didn’t belong in, a tiny typhoid germ, according to medical theories, found fertile soil. I became delirious. The mill officials, on doctor’s orders, had me taken to the Southern Mississippi Infirmary at Hattiesburg. I entered there with the most severe case in the hospital’s history. I was unconscious for two or three days.
But just to be able to stay in bed, after that six months’ grind with all too little sleep seemed so good that somehow I “snapped out of it” quicker, apparently, than any previous typhoid patient at that hospital, and recovery was rapid.
One thing I want to mention here, for the benefit of a very large portion of my readers. It isn’t often considered “nice” to talk about it, but constipation is called by some medical men “the mother of all diseases.” A large percentage of people are plagued with it. For some two years I had been. Cathartics give only temporary relief. There isn’t a cure in a carload.
In the hospital I was forced to fast. Daily they gave me castor oil. Ugh! I have never taken it since, but I can taste the nasty stuff yet! They fed me only lemon juice, and occasionally buttermilk.
When I left the hospital the constipation was cured. Fasting, on raw fresh fruits (no bananas), will cure it, if you will keep it up long enough. I did not undervalue the blessing of being rid of this thing. I appreciated it enough to be sure that I kept regular. I have never permitted that condition to return. That fact alone is responsible for a large part of whatever dynamic energy I have been able to give to our great Work—and for long life. One of the seven basic rules of success is good health! I hope this is enough said. You can’t overestimate its importance.
In the hospital I was the favorite patient of practically all the nurses. Most of them were just a few years older than I—but not so much that we did not enjoy a great deal of conversation while I was convalescing. My room became a sort of social rendezvous for the nurses. Often there would be five or six of them in there at a time. I really enjoyed this rest in the hospital—the release from that frightening responsibility of trying so desperately to keep up with a job in which I did not belong, getting ample rest and sleep at last.
But I have always believed in the admonition: “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might,” even though I didn’t know it was in the Bible (Ecclesiastes 9:10) until much later. I gave that job all I had. Now, in later life, there is some satisfaction in looking back on that.
The doctors told me I would have to return back north to protect my health. Thus, by forces outside my control, I was jerked out of this misfit detour job, and I thought I had learned, now, the lesson for which I sacrificed $2 a week the year before.
Arriving back in Des Moines, Iowa, midsummer 1912, I went this time to seek my uncle’s advice. Now began my real advertising career. I think the story picks up in interest at this point.