Read CHAPTER VII of The Harbor , free online book, by Ernest Poole, on

Then I found Joe Kramer.

He had “queered” himself at the beginning in college. I had barely known him. He belonged to no fraternity, and except on the athletic field he kept out of all our genial life. And this life of ours, for all its thoughtlessness, was so rich in genuine friendships, so filled and bubbling over with the joy of being young, that we could not understand how any decent sort of chap could deliberately keep out of it. We put Joe Kramer down as a “grouch.”

But now that I too was “queering” myself, our queerness drew us together, or rather, Joe’s drew mine. In the ten years that have gone since then I have never met any man who drew me harder than he did, than he is drawing me even still-and this often in spite of my efforts to shake him off, and later of his quite evident wish to be rid of me. For Joe had what is so hard to find among us comfortable mortals, a sincerity so real and deep that it absolutely ruled his life, that it kept him exploring into things, kept him adventuring always.

In long tramps over the neighboring hills, on our backs in the grass staring up at the clouds, or in winter hugging a bonfire in the shelter of a boulder, or back in college over our beer or over countless pipes in our rooms, together we adventured through books and long hungry talks down into life-and of the paths we discovered I see even now no end.

Joe was tall and lean, with heavy shoulders stooping slightly. He was sallow, he never took care of himself. He ate his meals at all hours at a small cheap restaurant, where he bought a bunch of meal tickets each week. His face was obstinate, honest, kindly, his features were as blunt as his talk. He was the first to understand what I was so vaguely looking for, and to say, “All right, Kid, you come right along.” And as he was farther along than I, he pulled me after him on the hunt after what he called “the genuine article” in this bewildering modern life.

His own life, to begin with, was a tie with this real modern world that had forced itself on me long ago through the harbor. For Joe had been “up against it” hard. Though blunt and frank about most things he talked little about himself, but I got his story bit by bit. “Graft” had come into it at the start. In a town of the Middle West his father had been a physician with a good practice, until when Joe was eleven years old a case of smallpox was discovered. Joe’s father vaccinated about a score of children that week. The “dope” he used was mailed to him by a drug firm in Chicago. It was “rotten.” Over half the children were desperately ill and seven of them died. Joe’s father, his mother and both older sisters did duty as nurses day and night. After that they left town, moved from town to town, that story always following, and finally both parents died. Since then Joe had been a teamster, a clerk in a hardware store, a brakeman, a telegrapher, and last, the assistant editor of a paper in a small town. He had scraped and slaved and studied throughout with the idea of coming East to college. He had come at twenty-two, beating his way on freight trains. On the top of a car one night he had fallen asleep and been knocked on the head by a steel beam jutting down under a bridge. Then, after two weeks on a hospital bed, he had arrived at college.

Here he had earned a meager way by writing football and baseball news for a string of western papers. Here he had looked for an education, and here “a bunch of dead ones” had handed him “news from the graveyard” instead.

I can still see him in classroom, head cocked to one side, grimly watching the prof. And once during a Bible course lecture I heard his voice blandly ironic behind me:

“Will somebody ask Mister Charley Darwin to be so good as to step this way?”

“We’ve been cheated, Bill,” he told me. “We’ve been cheated right along. Take history, for instance, the kind of stuff we were handed in school. I got onto it first when I was fourteen. It was a rainy Saturday and my mother told me to go and clean out an old closet up in the attic. Well, I found my German grandfather’s diary there, written when he was in college in Leipsic, in 1848. The way those kids jumped into things! The way they got themselves mixed up in the Revolution of Forty Eight! To hear my young grandfather talk, that year was one of the biggest times in European history. Our school history gave it five pages and then druled on about courts and kings. ‘I’ll go to college,’ I made up my mind. ‘College will put me next to the truth.’ So I saved my little nickels and came. But college,” he added moodily, “ain’t advanced as far as it was in my young grandfather’s time.”

“Do you know who’s to blame for this stuff?” he said. “It’s not the profs, I’ve nothing against them, all they need is to be kicked out. No, it’s us, because we stand for their line of drule. If we got right up on our honkeys and howled, all of us, for a real education, we’d get it by next Saturday night. But we don’t care a damn. Why don’t we? Are we all of us dubs? No we’re not. Go down to the football field and see. There’s as much brains in figuring out those plays as there is in mathematics. Would we stand for coaches like our profs? But that’s just it. It’s the thing to be alive in athletics and a dub in everything else. And because it’s the thing, every fellow fits in. On the whole,” he added reflectively, “I think it’s this ‘dear old college’ feeling that’s to blame for it all.”

“My God, Joe!” This was high treason!

“Sure it is,” he retorted. “It is your god and the god of us all. This dear old college feeling. It’s got us all stuck together so close that nobody dares to be himself and buck against its standards.”

This from Joe Kramer! How often, in a football game, have I seen him on the reporter’s bench, his sallow face now all a-scowl, now beaming satisfaction as he pounded his neighbor on the back.

In pursuit of “a real education” we got into the habit of spending almost every evening in the college library, where except at examination times there was nobody but a few silent “polers.”

I grew to love this place. It was so huge and shadowy, with only shaded lights here and there. It had such tempting crannies. I loved its deep quiet, so pleasantly broken now and then by a step, a whisper, the sound of a book being moved from its shelf where perhaps it had stood unread for years, or occasional voices passing outside or snatches of song from the campus. And here I thought I was finding myself. That French prof had introduced me to Voltaire, Hugo, Balzac, Maupassant and others who were becoming my new idols. This was art, this was beauty and truth, this was getting at life in a way that thrilled.

But now and then looking up from my book I would see Joe prowling about the place, taking down a book, then shoving it back and scowling as he ran his eyes along whole rows of titles.

“This darned library shut its doors,” he would growl to himself, “just as the real dope was coming along. But there’s been such a flood of it ever since that some leaked in in spite of ’em.”

Joe would search and search until he found “it” on back shelves or stuck away in corners. Angrily he would blow off the dust and then settle himself with a sigh to read. There was always something wistful to me in the way Joe opened each new book. But what a joy when he found “it”-Darwin, Nietzsche, Henry George, Walt Whitman, Zola, Samuel Butler. What a sudden sort of glee the night he discovered Bernard Shaw!

When the library closed we adjourned for beer and a smoke, and often we would argue long about what we had been reading. Joe had little use for the stuff I liked. Beauty and form were nothing to him, it was “the meat” he was after. My mother’s idols he laid low.

“The first part was big,” he said one night of a recent English novel. “But the last part was the kind of thing that poor old Thackeray might have done.”

In an instant I was up in arms, for to my mother and me the author of “Pendennis” had been like a great lovable patron saint, a refuge from all we abhorred in the harbor. To slight him was a sacrilege. But reverence to Joe Kramer was a thing unknown. “Show me,” he said, in reply to my outburst, “a single thing he ever wrote that wasn’t sentimental bosh!” And we went at it hammer and tongs.

It was so in all our talks. Nothing was too sacred. Joe always insisted on “being shown.”

He had a keen liking but little respect for the nation built by our fathers. From his own father’s tragedy, caused by graft, his own hard struggles in the West and the Populist doctrines he had imbibed, he had come East with a deep conviction that “things in this country are one big mess with the Constitution sitting on top.” And when the term “muckraker” came into use, I remember his deep satisfaction. “Now I know my name,” he said.

He was equally hard on the church. How he kicked against our compulsory chapel. “Broad, isn’t it, scientific,” he growled, “to yank a man out of bed every morning, throw him into his seat in chapel and tell him, ’Here. This is what you believe. Be good now, take your little dose and then you can go to breakfast.’”

“I’m no atheist,” he remarked. “I’m only a poor young fellah who asks, ’Say, Mister, if you are up there why is it that no big scientist has brains enough to see you?’”

“Look here, J. K., that isn’t so!”

“Isn’t it? Show me!” And we would start in. I had a deep repugnance for his whole materialistic view. But I liked the way he jarred me.

“What I want to do,” he said, “is to bust every hold that any creed ever had on me. I don’t mean only creeds in churches, I mean creeds in politics, business and everywhere else. I want to get ’em all out of my eyes so I can see what’s really here-because I’m so sure there’s an awful lot here and an awful lot more that’s coming. If I make a noise like a knocker at times you don’t want to put me down as any Schopenhauer fan. None of that pessimistic dope for little Joey Kramer. I never open a new book without hoping I’ll find the real stuff I want, and I never open a paper without hoping that some more of it will be right here in the news of the day. Kid,” he ended intensely, “you can take it from me there are going to be big doings soon in this little old world, big doings and great big ideas, as big as what caused the Civil War and a damn sight more scientific. And the thing for you and me to do is to get ourselves in some kind of shape so we can shake hands with ’em when they arrive, and say, ’Hello, fellahs, come right in. You’re just what we’ve been waiting for.’”

When Joe gave up college at the end of the junior year, he left a small group of us behind. “The Ishmaelites,” we called ourselves. For though most of us “couldn’t quite go Joe,” we had all “queered” ourselves in college through the influence on us he had had.

There are thousands of Joe Kramers now in colleges scattered all over the land. Each year their numbers grow, each year more deep their vague conviction that somehow they’ve been cheated, more harsh and insistent every year their questioning of all “news from the graveyard,” whether it comes from old fogey professors or from parents or preachers, eminent lawyers or business men, great politicians or writers of books. Arrogant and sweeping, sparing nothing sacred-young. Ignorant, confused and groping, almost wistful-new. They are becoming no insignificant part in this swiftly changing national life.

Joe Kramer was one of the pioneers.