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"The Neighbor's Kids" from Fruit Garden and Home

by Ellis Parker Butler
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from Fruit Garden and Home
The Neighbor's Kids
by Ellis Parker Butler

I have on my place just one tree that is capable of producing an edible -- it's an apple tree -- but it is still so young that it has had no apples. I'm afraid it is going to have some soon because this spring it had three apple blossoms on it. When it begins to bear apples I may cut it down and burn it, because I like a calm and peaceful life, with unjarred nerves, and there is nothing in the world that rouses up a man and makes him froth in the brain equal to the sight of a brace of the neighbors' kids surreptitiously whanging chunks of firewood up into the boughs of his apple tree. I can sit in my back window almost any late summer or early autumn day and see from two to five kids glide cautiously from behind my neighbor's hen house, steal across the intervening open spaces and begin slinging sticks into his crab tree or his apple tree, stuffing crabs or apples into their pockets and waists, and then making a rapid and guilty getaway.

Even that sight makes my blood boil, and that is why my place is not all fussed up with grapevines, watermelon patches, fruit trees and tomato vines. If the neighbors' kids come gliding into my yard they don't find much sustenance; the hungry young marauders at 242 State Street have to go away as hungry as they came unless they have perverted appetites and like to eat tulip bulbs or dahlia stalks.

I know all about my neighbors' kids, because I was one myself once. I was a good one -- a good boy -- and I never went out and raided anyone's precious Bartlett pear tree. That, I think, was because I did not know where there were any Bartlett pear trees. But if there was anything else in our part of town that I did not raid it was because I was too busy raiding some better thing. I had a boy friend who was a fine guide in that sort of thing; when a backyard vineyard had the warning "Keep Out -- Spring Guns!" he knew exactly the corner of the fence to crawl under to avoid the spring guns and at the same time keep out of sight of the house.

I can remember, in these raids, getting apples, cherries, grapes, gooseberries, hickory nuts, ripe tomatoes and watermelons, and I remember that on these pleasant little excursions the signal to climb the fence and get busy was usually any signboard that said "No trespassing," "Beware of the Dog," or "Spring Guns, Keep Out!" They were the spoor, so to speak, of luscious game. But, when I think of those raids now, and figure most generously my total takings, I can see that the whole value -- at the top market prices -- of all the fruit of four or five years of raiding was just about fifty cents. The watermelons we got were usually the "culls," left in the fields as worthless, and the apples were the wormy windfalls that would have rotted where they lay if we had not rescued them. I suppose, all in all, I "hooked" ten ripe tomatoes, and at that time they were worth ten to twenty cents a bushel, but that was when they were delivered at the canning factory.

From the immediate neighbors, those on our block and the next block, I don't think I got more than eighteen cents worth, all told. One fourth of July I had a blank-cartridge pistol, and I loaded it with a dried cherry stone and shot one of Mrs. Spring's chickens, but the chicken only gave one astonished yawp and scuttered back to its own yard, so I don't imagine it was damaged over about two cents worth. The total average damage done by a neighbor's kid during his five active damaging years can be put, I should say, at about one dollar -- say twenty-five cents a year, to be on the safe side. This does not include windows broken by baseballs; they count as accidents. I can't see that this raiding trait is a sign of viciousness or of deep dark immorality. The worst I can think of it is that it is a hangover of the hunting spirit of our primeval ancestors, showing up in the boy. It is as natural for a boy to feel the urge to go somewhere and by skill and stealth get something to eat as it was for our savage ancestors to do it, or as it is for a cat to do it now. It's the old primitive man-animal working according to schedule.

Now and then you do find a neighbor's kid who is vicious, just as you find a dog that will bite all comers, but he is not a normal boy. The normal boy is all right basically. I remember hearing Jacob Riis, of whom Roosevelt thought so much, telling about a boy -- a Kansas City boy, I believe. Riis was always interested in boys and Kansas City had just established a "boy court" where boys could be tried for petty offenses without being herded with real criminals, and the judge had just discharged a boy with a good lecture when Riis came to visit this court. The judge said: "I've just sent that boy yonder about his business with a warning, and I think he'll be all right from now on. He stole a purse with ten dollars in it. He was in a store and a woman left the purse on the counter and this boy and his chum saw it and took it. They went out and the first thing they did when they saw they had ten dollars was to go to a restaurant and buy two duck dinners. Probably that boy loved roast duck and had never had his fill of it. Then they went to a second-hand store and bought a secondhand cornet -- paid two dollars for it and sat on the steps of a vacant house and tried to play the battered old thing. That was normal -- probably that boy had a musical streak in him and had always longed to be able to play a cornet. They hadn't done anything very vicious with their stolen gains yet, had they? And then the other boy had to go home to do his chores, and what do you think this boy did with the five dollars he had left? He went up to the Y. M. C. A. and bought a five dollar season ticket!"

Riis suggested that if anyone should have gone to jail it was the woman who left her purse lying around loose to tempt the kid. And it is pretty much the same way, I think, with the neighbors who flaunt loaded fruit trees before the eyes of these young primitive hunters. You might as well put a beefsteak on the floor and go away and expect the cat to leave it alone; there are iceboxes to put steaks in, and there are boy-proof fences to put around places that have fruit trees and grapevines. I've seen them advertised. And when it comes to advertising there's nothing that advertises itself better than an apple tree, unless it is a grapevine. It stands right up and shouts, "Oh, you boy! What are you anyway -- a molly-coddle or a live kid? Have you the natural boy instincts, or are you a dead one?"

We've got to remember that every fruit tree and berry bush and grapevine and melon patch is shouting at the boy all the time. They recognize the boy as an old-time chum and partner, just as the blossom recognizes the bee. Every fruit tree and berry bush and grapevine and watermelon has been inviting boys to come and rob them for years and years and years. They all want to be spread around, given new places to grow in, and they've counted on the boys to grab the fruit and scuttle away and drop the seeds in new places. The boy is what the biologists call an "agent" -- a seed scattering "agent." Why, every fruit tree and berry bush and grapevine is just coaxing the boys to come and rob it. You don't blame the bee for rushing to the flower when the flower decks itself out like a fleet of ships, and you can't blame the boy (himself) for making a bee line for the tree when it dolls itself all up in red apples that can be seen for a mile and a half on a clear clay and says "Come hither! Come hither!" The boy can no more keep away from that tree than his twenty-year-old brother can keep away from the girl with the pink cheeks and the "come-hither" eyes. It's Nature's own work, not the devil's.

But I'm inclined to think that if a boy gets to be too confounded much of an "agent" and breaks forty-'leven branches off somebody's prize peach tree it won't do him a bit of harm to have his dad talk to him in words of one syllable, limber leather strap language, straight from the elbow, explaining that the Constitution of the United States is based on property rights.

My experience is that the neighbors' girls, as a class, don't raid orchards as enthusiastically as boys do, although I have known one or two girls who were jim dandy at it. When you do find a girl of that kind she is usually the ringleader -- a genuine Eve when it comes to apples -- and she is usually a spitfire and a tomboy. Probably she has some Diana strain in her; Diana was the great huntress, you'll remember. I've noticed that those girls usually turn out to be great flirts; they're born hunters. Seeing one of those tomboys tucking her skirts between her legs and shimming up a tree with the boys of her block always makes me think of the Jungle Book and of Kim running with the wolves in the chase. It's rather attractive. And many a girl who has grown up to be the head of the Women's Home Mission Society could remember, if she wanted to, times when some fire-angry fruit owner shook a club and shouted, "I'll get ye, ye dad-blasted rascals; I'll get ye yet!" while she beat it for the road as hard as her legs could twinkle and rolled under the low rail of the fence with her nose in the moldy leaves. I'll bet there are a lot of nice old grandmothers sitting in rocking chairs who think, when the fruit season comes "My, my! I'd like to crawl under a fence and up a tree and taste old Hodge Huffin's cherries just once more!"

For about sixteen years now I've always had a sand pile in the back yard and a barn with an empty haymow, and the neighbors' kids come here, and our kids go to the neighbors', and we've had mighty little trouble with any of them, theirs or our own. I don't know but what it might be a reasonable sort of philanthropy for some rich old fellow to buy a big place and grow all kinds of fruits and vegetables a kid can eat raw -- have grape arbors and apple trees and cherry trees -- and put a bar wire fence around it and stick the posts simply full of signs saying "Beware of Dogs" and "Spring Guns! Keep Out!" and Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted." Something like that ought to be done, in neighborhoods that get too neat and tidy for a kid to have any real boy fun in. The owner ought to be a fierce-looking old fellow, with whiskers and, it possible one wooden leg, and he ought to let the grass grow wild and weeds grow high and he ought to have a voice like a bull to shout at the kids with. It would be best to have the fruit quite a distance from the fence so that when he comes out and shouts at the kids they will have a long and exciting dash to make, and the barbs on the fence ought to be extra thick set, so that seats of breeches will catch on the barbs easily. Oh, boy! The boys would remember that man when they were ninety years old and when they had forgotten all the mayors and aldermen and grown folks they ever knew in the old town.

Or, if the neighbors' kids are too much of a nuisance to us, why don't we do something else about it? Personally I am strong for the Boy Scouts, but once in a while I get a feeling that there are almost too many nice little spectacled boys in the troops and that some of the leaders are so very very good that they haven't much zip. It is almost a crime to think anything of that sort, I know, but I can't help what I think. The trouble with me is that while I'm just the sort of man who would make the best Scout leader in America I'm too indolent to want to bother with it. I'd rather sit off at one side and jaw about the poor way the job gets done. If it is a poor way -- it isn't, most time, I guess. Anyway, Scouting seems the best thing we've been able to think up in that line so far. It admits, right at the start, that boys will be boys, and it gives them something pleasant and helpful along that line. There's a whole lot too much of the "boys must not be boys" feeling these days.

I was in Portland, Oregon, not long ago and while coming down one of the streets from the Terwilliger Drive I came on three boys, and one of them was standing off to one side while the other two were having a grand fight -- pounding each other in fine style. They were little fellows, about five or six years old, and I stopped and said "Here! here! Stop that!" So they stopped fighting and looked at me in surprise, and the other kid said, "Say, mister; they got a right to fight, they's brothers."

It's a good deal that way with the neighbors' kids -- they've got a right to circulate around the neighborhood more or less and get into and out of harmless mischief, because they are the neighbors' kids. That's what a neighborhood is for, isn't it? But I've sort of noticed that the woman who has a cookie jar and remembers now and then that the neighbors' kids like cookies -- or doughnuts fresh from the kettle -- and the man who has a tennis court and doesn't care what neighborhood kids use it as long as they don't swear too much and do put the net back -- I've sort of noticed, I say, that those people are never so much troubled by the mischief end of the kids as are those who never notice the kids except to shake sticks at them.

The boy's neighborhood is his club; it is a fine thing for him if one neighbor has boys' books and boys' magazines to lend him, another neighbor has a vacant lot for his ball games, and another has a wife who likes to give a boy a doughnut now and then. It might not be a bad thing if every neighborhood tried to be a little proud of its kids and see what it could do for them instead of never thinking of them except as a lot of pesky nuisances. It would mean a lot to the kids; they're such eager wistful things, never quite sure whether they are going to be patted on the shoulder or batted on the head.

Ellis Parker Butler has written a sensible article on "What's Wrong With the Home?" It will appear in an early issue. Mr. Butler knows this subject and he has a knack of presenting it in a new and clever fashion that will cause you to say, when you lay it down: "Well, that's right! It's time we talked sense about the home!" You'll feel like writing Mr. Butler a letter of congratulations when you finish reading it.
--- Editor



Saturday, October 07 at 1:11:43am USA Central
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