I found that reprint of the book my grandfather gave me.  The actual title is The American Boy’s Handy Book:  What to Do and How to Do It, first published in 1890 (mine is the centennial edition).  The author’s Daniel Carter Beard, founder of the Boy Scouts of the USA.  For my money, this book is as much of an American classic as Huckleberry Finn.

If it’s okay with you, I’d like to quote a few choice morsels.

From the foreword to the centennial edition, written by Noel Perrin:

Part of this concept [boys are natural savages] was common to all of Western culture in the nineteenth century and derives from the Romantic movement.  It was Wordsworth who spoke in England back in 1803 of the prison house closing ’round the growing boy.  But part of it was specially American–and this part was to be found in its purest form in the Midwest, or, at any rate, off the Eastern seaboard.  In the East, the idea of boy-as-savage was complicated by the rapidly growing class structure.  A son of the upper class, and even a son of the bourgeoisie, tends to learn early that self-control is what makes his class strong.  Even at twelve, he may be conscious that there are certain things he doesn’t do, certain boundaries he doesn’t cross.  To have boundaries is to limit freedom.

If he is a young gentleman, he is hardly free at all–and it is no accident that Penrod in Booth Tarkington’s books finds the phrase “little gentleman” (used of him with infuriating frequency by the Episcopal clegryman who is courting his sister) the ultimate insult.

That right there explains a large part of the book’s appeal for me.  I grew up in an Episcopal church that put a good deal of stock in decorum, restraint, and tradition (I still go, and I still love it, even though I have my doubts about some of the content).  My dad didn’t go to church with us; he was one of those “I don’t need nothing from nobody, I’ll do it my own damned self” kind of guys–very keen on self-control and self-reliance, and with an intense (dare I say “admirable”?) disgust for anything that smacked of authority.

Here’s an illustrative anecdote:

When I was eleven or twelve, one of my older sisters wanted to join a sorority called the Rainbow Girls.  Sororities, of course, reek of hierarchy and authority, so my father wasn’t too keen on the idea, but he was a very laissez faire, make-your-own-mistakes-and-learn-the-hard-way kind of father so he didn’t stand in her way.

Part of the written application for the Rainbow Girls asked “What religion are your parents?”  Everybody knew that my mother was an Episcopalian, but my dad’s faith–if he had any–was a mystery, so she had to ask him, an act that took brass balls of enormous measure.  Nobody in their right mind asked my dad anything personal, much less if it had to do with religion (or politics, but that’s another story for another time), and much much less if it was instrumental in joining a lousy mob like the Rainbow Girls.

I was there when she asked him, and I thought that she was reckless or suicidal.  I fully expected him to go into a sky-blue fit (an extremely rare event, but spectacular and memorable–I once heard him say “Damn it!” which, in my house, was spectacular and memorable).  Instead, he called forth his powers of restraint and said “Tell them I’m a druid.  Write down ‘druid.’  You can also tell them that any child of a druid is also automatically a druid.”  My sister walked away, squinty and mumbling.

A few days later, one of my Zach White classmates–I think it was Devon Smith–asked me what religion I was (you could get away with that in 1972), and I said, “Well, I used to think that I was an Episcopalian, but it turns out that I’m a druid.”  The teacher, Miss Rasmussen, overheard and busted out laughing, but I wasn’t trying to be funny or sassy; I believed it.  If my dad had told me that my Aunt Minnie was the Queen of Siam, I’d have believed it.  To me, he had more credibility and authority than any school or church.  If he’d known that I felt that way, he’d probably have gone into one of his sky-blue fits (“Damn it!”).

Anyway, my sisters–who are more into formal ancestry research than I am (I’m more of an anecdotal evidence/oral history kind of guy)–believe that there’s a pretty good chance that our dad actually was a druid.  Closeted and non-practicing, but still a druid.  And you know what?  I wouldn’t be surprised.

So there I was, being tugged in one direction by savagery and druidism, and in the other by school and church.  I was an intractable smart-ass at school, and I felt like a fraud and a hypocrite at church (I never even took communion until the day my daughter was baptized).  My maternal grandmother was a blue-blooded Yankee and staunch Episcopalian, one of those people who could tell, by looking, which is a salad fork and which is a shrimp fork.  She never told either of her daughters–my mother and my Aunt Betsy–to shut up, pipe down, or put a cork in it.  Instead, she very calmly said “Fermez la bouche,” which is French for “Shut your mouth.”

Her husband’s the man who gave me the How to Be a Savage handbook.

Brief sidenote:  My friend Ben was a Catholic priest.  One night we were talking about the Jesuit Order, which I was interested in at the time, and he asked me what religion I had grown up with.  “Episcopalian,” I said.  “Oh, good God,” he replied, shaking his head.  “You people are more Catholic than the Catholics.”

Okay, enough babbling.  Back to the book.  Here’s a snippet from Beard’s original preface:

The author would also suggest to parents and guardians that money spent on fancy sporting apparatus, toys, etc., would be better spent on tools and appliances.

Let boys make their own kites and bows and arrows; they will find a double pleasure in them, and value them accordingly, to say nothing of the education involved in the successful construction of their home-made playthings.

The development of a love of harmless fun is itself no valueless consideration.  The baneful and destroying pleasures which offer themselves with an almost irresistible fascination to idle and unoccupied minds find no place with healthy activity and hearty interest in boyhood sports.

Prescient, wouldn’t you say?  (Where Beard says “boy,” I automatically think “or girl.”  Healthy savagery knows no gender.)

Here’s the table of contents:

  • Spring:  Kite Time; War Kites; Novel Modes of Fishing; Home-made Fishing Tackle; How to Stock, Make, and Keep a Fresh-water Aquarium; How to Keep Aquatic Plants in the House or Flower-garden; How to Stock and Keep a Marine Aquarium; How to Collect for Marine Aquarium.
  • Summer:  Knots, Bends, and Hitches; the Water Telescope; Dredge, Tangle, and Trawl Fishing; Home-made Boats; How to Rig and Sail Small Boats; Novelties in Soap-bubbles; Fourth of July Balloons, with New and Novel Attachments; How to Camp Out without a Tent; Bird Singers, etc.; Bird Nesting;  How to Rear Wild Birds [two chapters]; Home-made Hunting Apparatus, etc.; How to Make Blow-guns, Elder Guns, etc.
  • Autumn:  Traps and Trappings; Dogs; Practical Taxidermy for Boys; Every Boy a Decorative Artist.
  • Winter:  Snowball Warfare; Snow Houses and Statuary [“A number of snow-pigs, of various sizes, will give a lively and social air to the yard of a snow-house.”]; Sleds, Chair Sleighs, and Snow Shoes; How to Make the Tom Thumb Ice-Boat and Larger Craft; The Winged Skaters, and How to Make the Wings; Winter Fishing–Spearing and Snaring–Fisherman’s Movable Shanties, etc.; In-door Amusements; The Boy’s Own Phunnygraph; How to Make Puppets and a Puppet-show; Puss-in-Boots, Dramatized and Adapted for a Puppet-show; How to Make a Magic Lantern–a Kaleidoscope–a Fortune Teller’s Box, etc.; How to Make the Magic Fairies, the Bather, and the Orator; How to Make Various and Divers Whirligigs; the Universe in a Card-box; Life Instilled into Paper Puppets, and Matches Made of Human Fingers; Home-made Masquerade and Theatrical Costumes.


I would like to quote from Chapter XVI, “How to Camp Without a Tent:  Choosing Companions”:

Never join a camping party that has among its members a single peevish, irritable, or selfish person, or a “shirk.”  Although the company of such a boy may be only slightly annoying at school or upon the play-ground, in camp the companionship of a fellow of this description becomes unbearable.  Even if the game fill the woods and the waters are alive with fish, an irritable or selfish companion will spoil all the fun and take the sunshine out of the brightest day.  The whole party should be composed of fellows who are willing to take things as they come and make the best of everything.  With such companions there is no such thing as “bad luck”; rain or shine everything is always jolly, and when you return from the woods, strengthened in mind and body, you will always remember with pleasure your camping experience.

If I can impart a fraction of this wisdom to my daughter, I’ll go to my grave believing that I was a pretty good dad.