Alumnus Enjoys Reminiscing
Truth can be stranger than fiction. In my old age I enjoy proving this by relating some autobiographical phases of campus life. I do this fully aware that personal references are not likely to be offensive because sixty years of hindsight are favorable to historic objectivity. I could wish that I had Dr. Sypherd for a critic of this "theme,” or Dr. Foster, whose desk occupied the northwest corner (downstairs) of the present Alumni Hall. This desk was notable because it supported a humidor of sublime tobacco, which he automatically pushed toward me when he saw me coming. Hereby hangs a dilemma; it took me fifty years to overcome my bad habit of smoking; but as an undergraduate my one luxury was a beloved pipe with silver inlays “2-D-3,” which was extremely hard to keep stoked.
Another example of student-faculty charisma resulted from a gift of Mrs. Miller (the widow of Dr. Miller, known to all engineers for his Qualitative Analysis course). She gave me his vintage 1900 tuxedo coat, vest, pleated shirt and studs. For three years my formal needs were met, and all Sol Wilson ever got from me was the price of one pair of black pants. I think I detected some sideglances by George Madden as we glided past the orchestra, but who cares if he is otherwise on Cloud 9?
When I graduated from Philadelphia Central High in 1915, I aspired to enter the U. of Pennsylvania, but family circumstances did not permit. So I got a job as a Maintenance Department clerk at the DuPont Carney’s Point plant, paying $50 per month. At my three-room boarding house I paid a dollar per day, which included meals and lodging in the guest room. This room was furnished with wall-to-wall cots which were used on a day and night shift basis. In a month or so I obtained better lodgings at the new company Club House for stag office workers.
At that time DuPont was making smokeless powder for the Czar of Russia, and Black powder for shotgun shells. When Uncle Sam got into the fracas, they transferred me to Old Hickory in Tennessee, a huge powder works they built and operated for the War Department. Somehow I survived the Armistice and the flu epidemic, and in 1919 they transferred me back to Wilmington, where I lived at the YMCA.
By Chance (no relation to Elbert) I found myself occasionally eating breakfasts at a Greek restaurant (bowl utmeel and fry-tuh) with Dr. Mitchell’s son, who was headed for M.I.T. I must have revealed my yen for college, for I soon found myself having lunch at the Knoll in Newark with the Mitchell family. This was heady stuff for a lonesome roamer. But I got the message: “Come on down.”
Accordingly, I soon found myself in a room at Harter Hall. Here I pondered the question of how I could spend four years on the campus on the $385 I had in my pocket. I am still pondering, but I did it.
Word soon reached me that Dr. Mitchell, no less, had arranged an interview with three elderly sisters who lived in a manor-type farm house two miles south of the B & O depot on Elkton Road. I borrowed a bike, which I subsequently purchased, and preso!
I made a deal in which I agreed, in exchange for two meals a day and lodging, to perform such duties of man-about-the-house as closing all downstairs shutters after supper, and heaving an occasional log into the huge fire-box of the basement heater. I soon improvised some hooks to fasten the green market basket to the handlebars of the bike to carry books, as required by Freshman Rat Rules. But I never could keep that beanie on my head when the wind blew.
One day a pipsqueak sophomore discovered in the locker room of Old College that I wore white socks under my military puttees for sanitary reasons. Three days a week the uniform was required for R.O.T.C. drilling, and it also saved on wear and tear of civilian clothes. So, they hauled me before the Kangaroo Court in the lounge at Old College, unbandaged my eyes in a glaring light, and instructed me to say, “I am a rat, SIR!” three times. Believe it or not, I did not punch the aforementioned pipsqueak in the nose.
Back to the farm:
Sister No. 1 was the silent one. My memory of her was mainly her insatiable capacity to eat the red hot sausages they frequently served for breakfast.
Sister No. 3 was the boss. She presided at the head of the large dining table--I at the other end--and the other two “passers” at the sides. Although the kitchen was off-limits for me, I suspected she presided there also, along with the purse strings. My best memory of her was the occasional Sunday she had her nephew who lived on the adjacent farm, hitch up the horse and buggy. I acted as a coachman and drove her to the Episcopal Church, across from the Deer Park, at the foot of Quality Hill. Luck was with me. Being city bred, I didn’t know one harness buckle from another, and we must have cut quite a caper as we trotted up to the hitching post in the shed behind the church.
My favorite was Sister No. 2. She trotted all over the place, denouncing everything in general, especially Mr. H. She was Mrs. H., but never offered any particulars about her spouse, except that he was a scoundrel. One night when I was literally burning the midnight oil (no electricity) cramming for tomorrow’s test, there was a knock at the door, and she handed me a card on which was printed a literary gem, which I shall try to recall for your edification
“I thank you for the flowers you sent,”
she said. She smiled, and blushed,
and drooped her head.
“I’m sorry for the words I spoke last
night. Your sending the flowers
proved you were right. Forgive me.”
So he forgave her.
And as they walked and talked
beneath the bowers, he wondered:
“Who in hell sent her those flowers?”
1. When I was in Newark for our 50th Reunion, we had a look at the old farm. Apparently DuPont has converted it into some sort of chicken research laboratory.
2. Mentioning the Deer Park reminds me that the question of whether or not I was a resident of Delaware affected tution fees. Fortunately, I had registered and voted for Warren G. Harding at the Deer Park.
3. If Perchance you had heard the literary gem before--sorry to have bored you!
John M. Wells ‘23
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