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Black Lamb

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Now in its 14th year of publication, this magazine was created to offer the discerning reader a stimulating selection of excellent original writing. Black Lamb Review is a literate rather than a literary publication. Regular columns by writers in a variety of geographic locations and vocations are supplemented by features, reviews, articles on books and authors, and a selection of “departments,” including an acerbic advice column and a lamb recipe.

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Childhood in Upstate New York

November 1st, 2006

Although the scale of living was not high, there was no dire poverty, and everybody could find work of some kind. In our community there were only a few servants, and we boys felt proud when mother engaged our first “hired girl,” named Maggie, at the wages of two dollars a week. Even after that my mother, unwilling to let any one else take over, did most of the cooking, leaving it to Maggie to make the beds, sweep the rooms, and watch out for us children. Each housewife was locally famous for some special dish, like chocolate cake or doughnuts, and regularly made that her contribution to church suppers and Grange parties. My mother’s was Saratoga Chips, and when these were being prepared, they took precedence over everything else in the home economy.

There were no dinners, formal or informal, although we often had guests for Sunday luncheon. In the Fuess household, as in nearly every other, alcoholic beverages were taboo. Nobody would ever have thought of serving cocktails or wine at a meal. The saloon was the horrible place where that craving was satisfied. In the Fuess family one of the worst charges against a neighbor was “He drinks!” Some experiments which I carried on with California Port — twenty-five cents a bottle — had to be planned surreptitiously, and the results were disastrous.

My father stopped smoking after his two sons were born, in order to set us a good example. The consequence of this sacrifice was that I smoked almost everything, beginning with tea and “doc” seed and corn silk, and continuing through old horsewhip (made of rattan), dried leaves, cubebs, Sweet Caporals, and Cycles — twenty for five cents — the last unquestionably the rankest form of alleged tobacco ever placed on sale. But all our smoking was done stealthily, usually in the woods. Not until I returned from college as a freshman did I venture to light a cigarette in my father’s presence. He then calmly but happily resumed the habit which he had abandoned fifteen years before.

One spectacle particularly absorbed my attention. A traveling preacher stood with a pointer in his hand, explaining a large strip of canvas divided into two sections, one depicting the successive steps in a modern “Rake’s Progress,” the other showing “Virtue Rewarded.” On the left half at the top was a fine fresh-faced youngster following down the “primrose path of dalliance,” being seduced into smoking his first cigarette; and below were crude drawings of him as he sank lower and lower, drinking his first glass of beer, then being enticed by a damsel clearly no better than she should be, stealthily robbing his employer’s till, and finally in an ecstasy of viciousness slaying her employer, like Lizzie Borden, “with an axe.” The last scene ending this “strange eventful history” revealed the sinner as roasting in what anybody could see was a well-heated environment, as a punishment for his wrong-doing. On the other side another equally attractive boy began by refusing to smoke a cubeb. Then he moved upward, declining to listen to profanity, rejecting an invitation to play poker, and resisting even the temptation to go swimming on Sunday. Eventually, as he drew near the top, he married the boss’s blonde daughter and at last was disclosed in a place of pearly gates, playing an instrument of at least ten strings, and magnificently crowned. The lessons for us boys should have been obvious, but I regret to say that we were moved only to ridicule. At the end of an impassioned discourse, when the preacher called upon his audience to testify, more than one of us would have loved to step forward, but we did not quite dare. Some fear of being eternally damned held us back. Perhaps Hell might be a very real place!

—Claude Fuess’s Independent Schoolmaster, 1952

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Smoking & Drinking Issue | Link to this Entry

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