By Jesse Halsey c1937
2726 Cleinview Ave.,
Cincinnati, Ohio, 24385
[rejected by The Reader’s Digest, Pleasantville, N.Y.]
We had come up through the hills along the twisting roads, brushing the wisps of fog that half hid the mountains and blanketed the lakes. It was early and we were looking for breakfast—and other things to follow. An old man who was trudging along the road leaning heavily on a light pole, such as the Bible would call a staff, stepped aside to let us pass. I stopped the car to ask the way to Plymouth.
“Top of the hill, turn right fer the cemetery, the village’s t’th’ left”—direct Yankee fashion.
No, he would not ride.
“Good day t’yer”—like that.
We drove to the cemetery. Wrong light for pictures. But the severity of the place, and the simplicity of those two stones in granite, made their impression. Films not needed.
Some unknown hand that very morning, beside the President’s stone, has laid a handful of goldenrod, rosemary, and yarrow. The Coolidge name is common in that cemetery. Seven generations lie there. Always a “John” or a “John Calvin.”
Breakfast was not ready, “yet.” So to the post-office store.
It is hardly a village, just a few houses and barns scattered about with a flagpole, a store and a church snuggling where the roads meet in a triangle.
A “tea-room,” in thrift and cleanliness, stands down the road. “Open at eight.”
While we waited for our griddle-cakes and maple syrup (made famous in the White House), we asked questions of the postmistress (a thousand times repeated, she said!) and looked in on the room where “he was born” and visited the house across the way where “he was sworn in, by a kerosene lamp,” and there bought some maple syrup, “in the very room,” and made, “on this very farm.”
Hurrying back, half-famished, toward the tea-room, we found our ancient guide, now sitting on a corner of the post-office stoop, titled back in a Windsor chair, balancing with the aid of his stick.
Breakfast over and light favorable, I began to take pictures. When I snapped the store, the old man turned his face away. The second time, before focusing, I asked him to turn around.
“No,” he said, “I don’t like it.” “Lots o’ times they been here taking pictures when the President was home, but I always went inside. Somehow, I just don’t like it.”
So I have my pictures of the place where Coolidge was born, there in the back room of his father’s store, and of his father’s house across the street, (which later became his own), but I have no picture which shows the face of that old man on the post-office steps.
He was, however, glad enough to talk, when later, I asked him some questions—and he found out that I wasn’t a reporter.
His name was Brown, he said.
“Knew the President?”
“Well, he’d oughter! Had talked with him many times while they waited with the neighbors on the steops for the mail.”
Neighbor Brown, Miss Cilley, and the keeper of the tea house tell you interesting things, but you glean no gossip; there is none to glean. Their memories of their famous neighbor are wholesome; they have a genuine respect and affection. You feel you are back in the presence of some of the simplicities and realities that helped make the nation. More generous, the setting (and these characters) might be. Care and prudence are in evidence, but not parsimony.
At the time of the Civil War the township had fifteen hundred population and now it is less than four. But the contemporary Plymouth did its bit, and under the great elm stands a granite stone to a dozen World War veterans.
I asked about the old homestead across the way. He told of the new addition, never used, with its fireplace and extra bath—“so they could have company”—the furniture and gifts from Washington, never unpacked. A small house in trim New England weather-boarding with clean white paint, one building attached to another, the house, the sheds, the barn, strung together, all white and glistening in the early morning light, but with some kind of green composition roof. I listened while looking. Somehow, that roof was not properly acclimated.
Brown told about the man—“the President,” their neighbor. He told me many things—they were all true to form, “a plain man, well respected.” And then, this, which I remember almost word for word, though the drawl and accent I can’t convey by my pen.
“I was settin’ there, right on the top step.” His long stick tapped the spot. “I was settin’ there waitin’ fer the mail one day when the President was home on his vacation. That was the year, likely, they put on that new roof you was askin’ about. I was settin’ here when he come across the street and sets down on that lower step, awhittlin’ on a stick he carried. Not sayin’ much, but whittlin’ slow and careful. Bym’bye the President he says to me, ‘Brown, that looks like a nickel’—pointin’ toward the road with his stick he was whittlin’. Then he gets up, goes down the step, bends over, and picks up somethin’ out of the dirt, and comes back. ‘By Jiminy, Brown, it is a nickel,’ he says, and puts it into his vest pocket.”
Luckily, I didn’t interrupt and he went on.
“A few days later I saw Mrs. Coolidge. She passed the time o’day with me, and I says to her, ‘Mrs. Coolidge, excuse me, ma’am, but what did the President do with that nickel he found in the road, t’other day?’”
“’Why, Mr. Brown, he’s put it to work,’ says she.”
We talked on. That roof still interested me. I had seen Sunday supplement pictures, some years back, of Mr. Coolidge cleaning up old shingles while his father’s house was being repaired. He had worn a curious kind of over-all-apron, and had his arms full of old shingles ready for the woodhouse.
In that country, in the heart of the wooded New England hills, it seemed a pity to put anything except wooden shingles, with their deep shadows, on that old house. But I is now resplendent (and “tight,” no doubt) in a coat of fire-resisting, green-colored composition asbestos—imitation slate. (I am not expert enough in such things to give the name of the brand.”
A leaky roof, it seemed, had “been the botheration of the Colonel” (the President’s father) who had long since sold his store and moved to the little house across the road. While he was looking round for a carpenter, so Mr. Brown said, and pricing wooden shingles, a salesman from a concern that manufactures asbestos ones appeared and offered to cover the house and barn and connecting sheds and woodhouse—all of them—with his superior product, free of all cost to the owner—“just for advertising.” After due investigation, the Colonel accepted the offer and told the agent to “go ahead.”
A few days later, along came another agent extolling the quality of another kind of composition shingles. He offered to cover the buildings—and to pay a premium of $5,000 for the privilege! “Good advertising, I suppose,” said Brown.
“And what did the Colonel do?” I asked.
“Do? Why he told that second feller there was ‘nothing doin’ . . . ‘the thing was settled’ . . . ‘a contract was a contract, whether it was signed or not’ . . . ‘He’d told the other man, that was the end of it.’”
“And that,” said Mr. Brown, tapping the top step with his staff and squinting up at me as the sun came into full view above the mountains, with the fog “all burned off,” “that’s the other side of yer nickel.”