My school life in those earliest days didn't seem to make much impression on me. I have no distinct impression of any of my teachers, or my school mates.
I had one little playmate, though, to whom I was devoted. He was a little boy who lived in the same house with me. I think his name was Johnny. He was several years younger than I was and I used to take him to school with me, and fight the boys if they bothered him. I could lick any boy my size. My right was quite famous. My right arm was developed from pitching so much.
One day after school I was alone in our house upstairs when I heard a terrible noise downstairs. For a minute if curdled my blood, then I ran down wildly. Johnny had gone too near the fire and his clothes had caught and were burning and he was screaming with pain and fright. His mother was standing there, wringing her hands and screaming, too, like a crazy woman and not doing a thing.
When I came tearing in Johnny screamed "Clara, Clara, help me." He ran over and jumped into my arms.
I had just enough sense to know what to do. I laid him on the floor and rolled him up in the carpet and tried the best I could to put the fire out. The poor little fellow struggled and screamed all the time.
I shouted for his mother to get a doctor and she ran out. I stayed alone with Johnny, holding him in my arms rolled up in the carpet and trying to soothe him and quiet him. I was crying all the time myself and pretty nearly crazy, too. I seemed to feel the fire on my own flesh, and every time he cried out it seemed to me I couldn't bear it any more.
The doctor came. He couldn't do anything. The little fellow died in my arms. He was just - just all burned up, that's all. I tried to pray then, begging God not to let him suffer like that. The last thing he said was "Clara- Clara-."
When I knew he was dead I went upstairs and cried for hours. I have never cried but once like that since. That was when my mother died. It seemed to me that life was just too terrible to be borne. When my mother came in I was asleep. I had cried myself into complete exhaustion, and I was ill for several weeks. The shock had been too much. For months I used to wake up and think I heard that little fellow calling "Clara-Clara-help me." Things like that are terrible for a little child to go through - I was only about eight or nine, I guess.
As I got older, I played with the boys more and more. I still was an awfully plain kid. I was shy and nervous around girls. They were always hurting my feelings and I thought they were silly anyway. I wore plain clothes and kept my hair tied back out of my face. I was as good at any game as any of the boys. And just as strong. They always accepted me as though I had been one of themselves.
We used to skate together and play baseball and all sorts of rough games in the street and I never felt there was any difference between us. At night sometimes we would build a bonfire and sit around it after we had skated awhile, and the boys never noticed me. They talked about everything just like they were alone. That was where I learned what boys really think. I knew how they judged girls. I knew which ones they could kiss and how they made fun of them. I was mighty glad they didn't think I was a sissy. I'd do any darn thing to prove I wasn't. We used to hop rides on trucks and get lost and do all sorts of crazy stunts. They let me take care of myself, too, just like I'd been another boy. Once I hopped a ride on behind a big fire engine. I got a lot of credit from the gang for that.
All this time my mother was growing more ill. She had always been subject to fainting spells and they grew gradually worse. They weren't fits and they weren't regular fainting spells. Often they would happen two or three times a day, and then maybe she would be free from them for a long time. When she felt them coming on she would look at me so pathetically. Like a woman caught in some trap. Then her eyes would grow glassy and she would start to gasp for breath. It was just as though she were being strangled. She would fight and fight for breath.
Usually I was alone with her, and I would run to her and massage her throat to try to make her breathing easier. I'd say, "Mother, mother, don't - please don't." When father was there sometimes we'd cry together, because it is terrible to see someone you love suffer like that and not be able to help them.
We never had much money, you know, and so we couldn't consult any specialists. Our own doctor told us it was a nervous disease. My father said her mother had once told him that when she was a child she had a bad fall on her head. When I was four years old she fell again, on the stairs, and it opened up the old scar. They had to take stitches in it. Probably advanced brain specialists today would tell us that that had a lot to do with it. Perhaps they might have helped her, but we didn't know what to do.
Of course when she was having her bad times I had to do most of the house work and the washing and cooking. Father had had a lot of bad luck. Everything seemed to break against him. He worked as a carpenter or an electrician, or at any odd jobs that he could get to do. Everything seemed to go wrong for him, poor darling. He wanted so much to do more for us and he worked so hard, but just bad luck followed him all the time. So I had to do the best I could taking care of mother and the house, but I wasn't very good at it. I never had any knack about housework, or cooking. I got to be a pretty expert nurse for mother, but it always frightened me when she got bad and I dreaded seeing her suffer.