Orison Swett Marden Chapter VII

The Open Road

The Life Story of Orison Swett Marden Chapter VII: 

The transition from childhood to boyhood is one of the most interesting as well as trying periods of youth. Young Marden was greatly troubled by his experiences during these formative years — not only on account of the gloomy outlook, but also because of the inconsistencies of his dual nature, of which he began to be conscious.

Some days he would feel sullen, bitter, resentful; so discouraged that even Nature herself did not seem to soothe him. He would feel so blue and downhearted that he scarcely realized that the sun still shined down upon him at mid-day. One day he would be in harmony with all Nature, with everything and everybody; the next, he would be out of tune, at odds with the whole universe.

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He could not understand the strange contradiction in his nature; he would say to himself that nothing had touched him during the night; nothing new had come into his life while he was sleeping; then why should everything be changed in the morning?

Why should he say and do the things today that nothing would have tempted him to say and do yesterday, — things at which his better nature revolted?

Were there two Orison Mardens, and did they change places while he slept or when he awoke in the morning? Or did they glide so seamlessly into each other that he was not aware when the transformation took place?

He was uneasy, at war with himself, full of vague, undefined desires, longings, and questions that needed answers. New faculties were clamoring for recognition; latent mental powers were stirring in him, dimly reaching out for expression.

Although shut away from the companionship of educated, cultured people, and deprived of books and of every sort of mental culture and development, he still had something within which was, as yet, unconsciously groping toward the light.

Transcending all physical changes and emotions, deep down in the very foundation of his being, there was growing within the boy a purpose as strong, a will as adamant as the granite of his native hills. A spirit was quickening within him that would one day lead him out of bondage and push his horizon far beyond the hills of Thornton Gore and the surrounding country.

"What great thing would you attempt if you knew you could not fail?"

- O.S. Marden

The first fruit of the new spirit, and the first step to the larger life awaiting him beyond the hills, was a determination to run away. He had heard that "God helps those who help themselves." He would help himself, then, for he could see no hope for improvement in his condition while he remained where he was. This was borne in upon him by an incident which carried both disappointment and conviction to his soul.

A farmer who lived some miles across the river from the place he then called home promised the lad that, if he would get his cows and sheep home for him during the summer, he would pay him liberally. Delighted at the prospect of earning something, Orison engaged to do this extra work after his regular daily routine.

It was a four-mile tramp for the barefooted youngster every evening, and he seldom got home until long after sundown.

Although plentifully experienced in hard work, he had had no experience in selling his services and so failed to make a definite bargain with the canny New England farmer. Imagine his chagrin when in the Autumn, with high hopes, he called on his new employer for payment for his Summer's work and received the paltry sum of twenty-five cents.

Nevertheless, this fateful "quarter" was the determining factor in closing the door on 'slavery' and eventually opening the door to Freedom.

He had been two years with his present "master," when, one Sunday, while the family was at church, he stole away after the morning sermon, returned to the house, and entered by a window which had been left unfastened. Gathering together his few personal belongings and tying them in a bundle, with a regretful look at the little red trunk and the gun which his father had left him, the young adventurer made for the open road.

When the folks returned from church they found the door locked and a window open, but no hired boy. They were greatly distressed, he afterwards learned, when they discovered that he was not in the house. They feared that he had met with some accident — had been killed, perhaps, or drowned. They dragged the river and the near-by lake, but without result. Their consciences, perhaps, troubled them, but too late, for the boy had gone out of their lives forever.

While they searched for him, the fugitive, with a light heart, hoping for better luck than had thus far befallen him, trudged along the open road that led to his uncertain future. None of us can see very far along this road, but to youth it is always luminous with the rosy glow of hope. No matter what may be behind, no illusion has been lost, and its possibilities stretch beyond the horizon—limitless, glorious!

Walking much of the way through the woods, gathering berries to appease his hunger, and sleeping in a barn that night, he found himself the next day in a place called Mad River Valley. Delighted with its picturesque location, he decided to stop there and look for work in an old-fashioned saw-mill which attracted his attention.

"The mill," he says, "was situated in a deep valley, near a granite dam across Mad River. This wild, treacherous stream was often swollen to a torrent by reason of the enormous watershed created by the mountains on either side for a distance of twenty-five miles.

"On one side of the valley a great bluff loomed like a towering giant that seemed to touch the sky. On the opposite side Bald Nob mountain lifted its mighty bare head into the clouds, while its face, veiled in mist and fog, was often completely hidden from those who lived in the valley. Great forests of spruce and pine carpeted the shaggy sides of the mountains with a richness of green that shaded off into an infinite variety of colors.

"He was getting his training in a school that makes or breaks a boy's will, that molds a man or a weakling according to the material it has to mold."

- O.S. Marden

"The river, which was so low in summer that we could cross it almost anywhere without getting our feet wet, was full of tremendous boulders, and great holes. Here, in summertime, we used to fish for the shy trout.

"Great eagles could nearly always be seen circling around the towering cliffs. Loons, partridges, wild geese, ducks, and a great variety of other birds inhabited the place. Nature seemed to be especially kind to this valley, for there were all sorts of wild flowers as well as wild birds. In fact, I never saw anywhere else such a wonderful profusion and variety of beautiful wild flowers as there were in Mad River Valley.

"Red deer roamed the hills, and black bears, foxes, and wild cats constantly menaced the farmers, whose clearings dotted the entire valley. They had to work hard to protect their sheep and lambs from the bears, and their chickens, turkeys, and other fowl from the foxes."

The owner of the saw-mill, whose name was Foss, was not very encouraging when Orison applied to him for a job. He looked the boy over, and although he was fourteen and very tall for his years, Foss said he wasn't big enough to do the work he wanted done. He admitted that he had a place for a man, but not for a boy, for, he remarked, "It takes a stout man to handle this timber."

Moreover, he seemed suspicious of a "runaway boy," — for Orison had not tried to conceal the fact that in fact he was. He plied him with all sorts of questions, asking who he was, where he had come from, what he had been doing, why he had run away, — in short, the man wanted to know his whole history.

"You will always have to live with yourself, and it is to your best interest to see that you have good company - a clean, pure, straight, honest, upright, generous, magnanimous companion." 

- Orison Swett Marden

Orison Swett Marden Chapter VII , continued...

Impressed by the boy's earnestness and evident sincerity, the man finally agreed to let him try the work until he could get a chance to find something else. Nor did he lose any time in putting him to work. After dinner he was taken to the saw-mill and set his employment into motion.

The mill was an old-fashioned one, with an up-and-down saw, which cut through the big logs at a snail-like pace. While it was making its long journey to and fro, the boy was instructed to keep bunching shingles, which were thrown down in a pile by the man who tended the shingle saw. When the saw approached the end of the log, he had to run the carriage back, take the tacks out of the log, set it for a board plank, timber, or whatever they were starting, start it going again, put the lumber on the pile, and then go back to his shingles.

This was his work at the mill from seven o'clock in the morning until after dark, with one hour for dinner. In addition, he had to milk the cows, drive them to pasture, take care of a horse, and help about the house. He got the wood in for the night, split the kindling wood for the morning fire, and did other chores.

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With this daily program marked out for him, there seemed little doubt that his new employer would get liberal returns out of his scant investment in the boy. In truth, the outcome of his runaway adventure was so far removed from the rosy vision he had cherished while traveling the open road to what he fondly believed would be Freedom, that Orison decided to communicate with his guardian. This only brought more disappointment, more disillusionment, ending in his being regularly spoken to as Mr. Foss's "hired boy."

As he grew larger, his work equaled that of a man, and, in addition, he had to bear the brunt of his employer's temper, which seems to have been extraordinarily violent. When angry — the merest trifle would put him in a rage — and he would even beat his own animals without mercy.

While in the grip of those fits of fury, the man seemed bereft of reason, and he didn't care how he injured his cows, horses, oxen, or other animals in venting his rage on them. Not only the hired boy, but also his wife and children, everybody about the place, feared him, and did not dare cross him when in his temper, for they couldn't tell what he might do.

If, while milking, a cow should switch her tail in his face, or kick the pail over, in trying to keep away the flies in summer, he would beat the poor animal with a fence stake, a piece of board, or anything else he could lay his hands on. In this way he would sometimes break a cow's ribs. He was just as cruel to the horses and oxen.

When going up a steep hill near the saw-mill with a load of lumber, if anything angered him, he would run the sharp brad which he had put at the end of the goad stick its entire length fully three-quarters of an inch, into the animal's side, until the blood would run down upon the snow. This he would do when the oxen were pulling every ounce they could bear.

Yet at the same time, it appears that Mr. Foss, like most men of violent temper, had a kindly vein in his nature, even at times could even be accused of having spasms of generosity. He also seemed to be very pious, and had family prayers morning and evening, with the reading of a chapter from the big family Bible.

Mrs. Foss was even more strict than her husband in the observance of all religious rites and dogmas, and was fond of asking neighbors who dropped in, "how they enjoyed their mind," "if they had made their peace with Jesus," and "if they were considering their later end?" She would admonish the young women not to be frivolous, but sober and devout.

Card playing and dancing were intolerable in the Foss household, and Orison was soon given an opportunity to see how Mrs. Foss regarded these amusements.

"During the busy season in the mill," he says, "we always had one or two extra hired men who boarded with us. Never shall I forget the scene in the Foss home when one of these men, in taking off his coat before dinner — they always ate in their shirtsleeves — dropped a pack of playing cards on the floor. At sight of them, Mrs. Foss actually turned pale as a ghost. She could not have been more shocked had Satan himself appeared on the scene.

"He had heard that "God helps those who help themselves." He would help himself, then, for he could see no hope for improvement in his condition while he remained where he was."

For a while she was too much disturbed to speak, but when she finally recovered her voice she broke into a passionate tirade against card-playing. She told the man that she wondered why he wasn't afraid of being struck by lightning while carrying those devilish things in his pocket, adding that it was bad enough to carry the cards around with him, to say nothing of playing the terrible games which had worked more ruin than anything else in the world, except perhaps, drink and dancing.

"The man felt abashed and humiliated, whether from a sense of guilt, or because he had been caught with the cards and lectured before the others, didn't seem clear. At all events, he got up from the table and, much to Mrs. Foss's delight, threw the offending cards in the fire. She felt, perhaps, that she was instrumental in 'saving the man from a fiery end.'

"Later in the season we were all invited to an 'apple bee,' where Mrs. Foss got another opportunity to do missionary work. An apple bee was an informal gathering of neighbors for work and play. When I was a boy it was the custom all through New England for neighbors to go around from house to house to help pare one another's apples, and then string and hang them up near the ceilings to dry.

"After we had finished paring the apples, some of the young people got up and began to waltz in the kitchen. Mrs. Foss seemed even more shocked at this than at the cards, and delivered her regular sermon on the evils of dancing. She told them that dancers were marked for the devil, that dancing was his own pastime and was the beginning of a terrible downfall. In fact, she declared that no one who danced was fit to be recognized by decent people, but that they should be condemned as enemies of mankind!"

The outlook in the new home to which Fate had driven Orison was far from reassuring. His ill luck in getting into places where hard work and scant fare were the rule was consistent. He was getting his training in a school that makes or breaks a boy's will, that molds a man or a weakling according to the material it has to mold.

The faculty of making the most of every gleam of sunshine, of every opportunity to brighten and broaden his life that came his way, stood by him here as elsewhere. And there were improvements even in the Foss home. They did much - not only to make life endurable, but also to open the door to the big world of Opportunity that lay beyond the horizon of the New England hills.

Chief among these was the chance given him, in the intervals of work, to attend school. This is gathered from the following letters, written half a century later:

West Pawlet, Vermont.
Nov. 14, 1916

Dear Doctor Marden:

Do you remember, fifty years ago, going to school at Mad River, and Nellie Rowe, the teacher?

The writer is that teacher, now Nellie Rowe Horner. I have been much interested in reading of your success, and can hardly realize that the boy who used to walk such a long distance to school when it was freezing cold, and after a morning of hard work, has become the Doctor Marden I read about in newspapers and magazines.

I read your first book, "Pushing to the Front," and knew you had gained by experience that which enabled you to write such an encouraging book for young people.

I taught school for twenty-five years, and, every term I taught, told my pupils about you, hoping to encourage some of them to "Push On."

I hope that your health is good and that you may be able to write many more books; also that you haven't forgotten the little old schoolhouse at Mad River and the teacher who didn't know much about teaching at that time, but thought she did, and signs herself...

Yours sincerely,
(Mrs.) A. E. HORNER.

In reply Doctor Marden wrote:

"I certainly do remember my teacher, Nellie Rowe, and your letter brought back to me many pleasant memories of the old Mad River schoolhouse from which the boys used to tear the clapboards for kindling wood.

"For years I have been gratified every little while by receiving letters from men and women who attended school with me when I was a boy, and I was greatly pleased to hear from you. Should you ever come to New York I would be very glad to see you."

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