No man is your enemy; no man is your friend. All alike are your teachers.
The above quotation from that marvelous little treatise Light on the Path has intrigued me ever since I read it years ago. It opened up vistas of understanding where before there were but impenetrable stone walls; in particular, it completely altered my approach to that age-old problem of "Good and Evil."
We understand life only to the extent that we experience it and garner the aroma of its vicissitudes. We are prone to look upon the things that are pleasing as "good," and the things that frustrate and hurt as "evil," being compelled, by the eternal fitness of things, to interpret life in terms of personal experience.
Out of the nostalgic past come distinct recollections of my first brush with the "enemy," and as far as I can recall, it was the first "arrow of outrageous fortune" to puncture my innocent state of bliss. It was but a straw-like wisp of an arrow, tempered, like the wind, for the shorn lamb, but just forceful enough to "get under my skin" and leave a scar for life.
I was about twelve years of age when the incident occurred that first awakened me to the fact that everything in this world just didn't run on well-oiled, roller bearings twenty-four hours of the day, and that there were such things as disappointments and frustrations. The next and logical conclusion that augmented my store of juvenile wisdom was that these things happened because there were people who didn't play the game according to recognized and accepted rules, and who went around throwing sand in other people's gears just to make trouble and the going harder. It was all so needless, so unnecessary and uncalled for. If some people could do the right thing, why couldn't everybody? That was that, and I knew it because someone had thrown sand in my gears, and I felt the injustice of it. I had the case all wrapped up; the opposition hadn't a leg to stand on, and Blackstone himself couldn't have found a flaw in my argument. That was as far as my philosophy of the problem of good and evil went — which wasn't very far. It all happened more than fifty years ago, but since that time I have met many people whose understanding and attitude have never grown beyond that point.
What I failed to grasp at the time, and which did not sink into my consciousness until a few more arrows had come my way, was the purpose of such experiences — that I would never really understand and know what injustice was until I had been on the receiving end.
The first and most important factor involved, as I then believed, was money — the magnificent sum of six cents. Then there was a long, covered, wooden bridge; a six foot, gangling, house painter, and a woman with but one eye. A rather unique association of stage properties and characters, but such was the setting of the drama that I would not have missed for a great deal, and which time and a broader understanding of life have mellowed into even a happy memory.
About a mile beyond the limits of the mid-western city where I grew up there was a village community we will call Ballville where I had an after-school paper route. The farther side of the village was skirted by a fair-sized river, spanned by the long, covered, wooden bridge. I had but one customer beyond the bridge, the previously described house painter, who in the interests of anonymity we will call Mr. Skinner, and whose wife was the woman with the one eye. I had attempted to obtain other trans-bridge subscribers to make it worth while, but to no avail. The trip across the bridge to his place and back again involved nearly a quarter of a mile, and as my daily profit on each paper was but half a cent, considerable doubt began to grow up in my mind after a few long bridge trips as to the intrinsic value of Mr. Skinner's patronage — particularly in view of the fact that every Saturday night I experienced difficulty in collecting my six cents! Mr. Skinner was somewhat of a happy-go-lucky character. Sometimes he worked, and sometimes he didn't, and around the village store, and particularly the bar, he was known as a "regular fellow."
But I didn't find him so. I delivered his paper regularly, but wasn't paid regularly — a condition always bad for business morale, and little business men as well as big business men need what has become popularly known as "incentive." A gradual accumulation of the mental barnacles of doubt, fear, and dissatisfaction with conditions as they were, increased from day to day as I weighed the matter pro and con late every afternoon while crossing the bridge. At times I was able to hitch a ride on some farmer's wagon, but farm wagons never seemed to run on a dependable schedule, so I usually walked, thought, debated with myself and wished profoundly in the very depths of my soul that I had never laid eyes on Mr. Skinner.
Near the entrance to the bridge stood Simon Fronizer's country store, adjoining which was a bar with a large, open, double doorway between, and where I would frequently see Mr. Skinner talking very earnestly, trying to settle world problems. Several times I tried to deliver the paper there to save the long bridge trip to his home, but he didn't want to be bothered. He would say: "Why, I don't want to read here. Now be a good boy and take it over to the house to Hannah. She'll want to read it tonight before I get home. Ask her to pay you." Even so I would try again, as it was an excuse to go into the bar which maintained a free lunch counter! More often than not, however, I would be detected by Mr. Moore the bartender, and then the blast would come: "Hey, you, get out of here! Listen boy, I don't begrudge you the food — that isn't the idea. But if the Ballville, Temperance Union finds out that we let kids come in here, why, they'll crucify us. Now get out and stay out!"
So, disheartened, I would go on my way to Hannah, who opened the door just wide enough to get the paper through, peer out at me with her one eye, and say:
"I'll have to pay you next week. Will ain't home yet from work, and I just can't imagine what could possibly be keepin' him so long."
Either Hannah hadn't become very well acquainted with Will yet, or she was utterly devoid of imagination. At one time the account ran four weeks — twenty-four cents, till finally Hannah asked me if I had any change along. When I told her I had, she handed me a quarter through the crack of the door and held her projected forearm, palm up, until the transaction was completed. Then she did something I have wondered about ever since. She closely scrutinized the penny with her one eye just to make sure she was getting the right change!
One Saturday afternoon Mr. Skinner informed me "he'd decided to quit takin' the paper as he didn't have very much time to read, and Hannah's eye wasn't too good for reading either." This was the moment that for weeks I had dreamed of! As if by magic, a great weight was suddenly lifted from my shoulders, and the mental barnacles took off and winged their way into the ether! It was one of those moments which come so rarely in this life when our spirits soar from the bottom of the scale to the highest note — but which last only momentarily! So it was in this case. I was brought back to harsh, grim reality by a distant voice, as in a dream, which I heard say: "I'm a little short of change this week, but if you'll come back next Saturday I'll have the six cents for you."
Mr. Skinner definitely had no Finnish blood in his veins. How many times had I crossed the bridge to collect six cents! I finally came to some very definite conclusions regarding Mr. Skinner.
During the next several years I would occasionally see him in town, usually on payday, but always he seemed to be in a hurry, running in and out of establishments with swinging doors, that I never attempted to detain him. Wild horses couldn't have stopped him when he was going in, and no one would want to when he was coming out. As far as I was concerned he had upset the cosmic harmony of the universe; man's inhumanity was blazoned in fiery letter the length and breadth of my consciousness, and for a long time my recollections of Mr. Skinner had a definite bilious hue.
The covered wooden bridge, Mr. Skinner and Hannah are long since gone. Time and experience have wrought other changes too. Some mystical and invisible center of spiritual gravity seems to have shifted. It is a change that science has never recorded on instruments, and probably never will, but it is definitely perceived and registered in the consciousness of those who have experienced it. Our happiest hours have their place, but they teach us little. It is the "arrows of outrageous fortune" that awaken and temper the soul, and give purpose and meaning to life. Long ago the great frontier to be conquered shifted from unhappy recollections of Mr. Skinner right into my own back yard — just as it does, inevitably, for everyone.
Mr. Skinner departed this life little realizing, I am sure, either that he had hurt me, or of the important role he had played in my education, for I would indeed be poorer in experience and understanding had the circumstances been otherwise. But I trust that no one will interpret this as a green light to go ahead and start pushing newsboys or anyone else around as a formula for improving the world and mankind. Mother Nature very obligingly makes all these arrangements herself in her educational system, and it is not our duty to take upon ourselves the responsibility of deciding who has to learn what. Such events and experiences naturally fall into their proper place at the appointed time.
I wouldn't for the world want Mr. Skinner to think I was holding anything against him after all these years, and that is why, long ago, I had the following notice inserted in The Cosmic Bugle and Intelligencer in the hope that it will catch his eye if he has time to read newspapers now:
"Attention Mr. Skinner: Don't worry over the six cents. All is forgiven. You wouldn't know Ballville now. Old wooden bridge, store, and bar gone. Big hydro-electric plant located there. White bass still run every spring. Good luck, and please do try and stay away from those swinging doors."
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O trust ye aye in Providence,
For Providence is kind,
And bear ye a' life's changes
Wi' a calm and tranquil mind.
Though pressed and hemmed
On every side,
Ha' faith and ye'll win through
For ilka blade of grass
Has its ain drap o' dew.