BACKGROUND OF A CITIZEN: An immigrant's famous son explains his patriotic debt
By CLARENCE BUDINGTON KELLAND
Distinguished U. S. Mystery Novelist and Arizona Political Leader
From the Rotarian Magazine Dec. 1954
ALL MY LIFE it has seemed to me that I have owed a sort of obligation to be as good a citizen as I can—and that I have owed it to a great many people who camebefore me. It has also seemed to me that the best way to discharge this obligation is to take part in public affairs and politics.
Maybe the fact that I am the son of an immigrant has something to do with this. My father was born of a family of weavers in Manchester, England. When he was 6 years old he went to work in a mill in Manchester, He started work at 6 o'clock each evening and worked through the night until 6 o'clock in the morning. For his labors he received 2 shillings a week. Though at 6 he may have been a pretty mature fellow, my father still was actually a frightened little lad in a vast loft lighted only by candles. He worked at a carding machine, a frame covered with teasels over which the worsted runs and prickers raise the nap on the cloth. He was so small that he had to stand on a box in order to reach this frame upon which he worked.
At the next machine worked an old, broken-down, drunken weaver who could perform only the same duties as this 6-year-old boy. But that old drunken weaver was to my father and to me probably the most important personage who ever lived. Fortunately for both of us this old souse had a photographic memory, and through the long nights he told my father stories. He not only told him stories, but he recited them word for word—all of Shakespeare's plays, the classics of Dickens and Scott. Night after night he whiled away the long hours reciting these tales to this poor, little boy at the machine next to him. That was my father's education.
It is difficult for me to imagine today the severe poverty in which the Kelland family lived in England a century ago. This family—my grandfather and grandmother, four sons, and two daughters—in common with millions of other unfortunate people in Europe looked across the ocean to the United States of America, and there they saw hope. They believed that if they could find some way, of crossing the ocean, passing Ellis Island, and entering the United States, then their lot might be far different. Somehow they got the money to cross the ocean in the steerage of a sailing ship that look 12 weeks from Liverpool.
Upon arriving in the U.S., the family met and held a council. Two of the sons were men of reasonable age, old enough to enter the military service. Since it was then the second year of the Civil War, they decided it was their duty to express their gratitude to their new homeland by sending two of their sons to fight in the Union armies. That was my father's introduction to the United States.
He never became distinguished nor wealthy, but he was a good citizen. And he, from the time was very young, taught me his ideals of citizenship and of gratitude to the country which gave him refuge. In him resided those virtues which we today may look upon with something of envy.
He and my mother worked hard. Every time a dollar was earned they saw to it that a portion of that dollar was put away. They asked favors of nobody. The largest sum that my father ever earned was after middle age when, he became a travelling salesman at. the magnificent salary of $1,300 a year.
Yet my family had a pleasant life. We lived in a little Michigan town named Portland. It had 1,200 inhabitants. Dad clerked in a general store and Mother ran the local millinery store. Most of the business that was done in that town was done by barter. I can still remember sitting with Dad and candling the eggs that farmers had brought to trade for the cloth and groceries and whatever else they needed. The only contact we had with the Government of the United States in Washington was our trip to the post office to buy a 2-cent stamp. That was a pretty ideal age in a pretty ideal town.
We had another thing that was good to have—the Sabbath Day, I can remember now on Saturday being put in the washtub in front of the stove and given my Saturday-night bath. And on Sunday morning I was rousted out of bed.
There was something special about those Sabbath mornings. You had time to sit on the church porch and look off across the countryside at the yellow wheat and the apple trees and the locust and the maples. You could sense a sort of hum in the air. Everything was still and serene and very lovely. Then at 10 o'clock the Baptist church bell would ring. It was the biggest and the deepest-toned bell in town. Then the Congregational church bell would ring, and then the Methodist church bell, and then the bell in the United Brethren church. And the sounds of these church bells mingled and joined with the sounds of the birds and the insects and the rustling of the wind in the wheat and the trees; and somehow you knew that you had perfect peace.
Now what do these childhood memories have to do with citizenship? They have a great deal to do with it.
Good parents pass their blessings on. Though my father never had opportunity to go to school, he, I think, was the most usefully educated man I have ever known. Thanks to that old drunken weaver in his boyhood, he was intimately acquainted with all English literature. Ile would sit evenings around the hanging lamp in the parlor and read to me those stories that he had been told. That was our amusement. From it my father instilled in me a love of the written word.
Though my parents never attained great wealth, they nevertheless passed on their material gifts. When my father died at the age of 88, I found I knew far less than I thought of his and my mother's financial affairs. For years I had done what I could to see that their life was happy, but I now learned that they used hardly a penny that I had been able to give them. I now discovered that my parents owned two apartment buildings in Detroit, Michigan, and had $15,500 in Liberty Bonds! I think all of us might draw some sort of lesson from lives like that.
I think, too, that the world needs more of the church bells like those I used to hear in Portland. We need bells that will ring baud and long to call us to Divine worship where we can sit in our several places of reverence and meditate a little about the people that have gone before us, their integrity and independence, and the debt we owe them and ourselves and our children to be good citizens.