Lincoln and His Boys Lincoln and His Boys

read an excerpt


Every evening my brother Tad and I run over to Father's office on the corner of Adams Street. We huck handfuls of pebbles up at the windowpanes so Father knows we are coming. Tad is smaller than I am, but he can throw the pebbles harder and make more noise.

Mr. Herndon, Father's law partner, likes things neat and quiet. He says we act like little wild orangutans, which is true. But Father doesn't ever scold us for what we do. If Mr. Herndon gets that look on his face and shakes his finger at us, Father laughs. Tad makes most of the trouble. I never squirt ink or ruin briefs. Mostly I stack the big old law books and make pyramids out of them and then knock them all down. It's our job, says Mama, to pull Father out of his office and get him home for supper on time, so that's what we do after the sun goes down.

On the walk home to our house on Jackson and Eighth, Father and Tad and I always stop and talk to neighbors and dogs, which makes us late. Then we run into the house and Father puts his arms around Mama and waltzes her around the room until she smiles and comes out of her fretfulness about our being late for supper.

When we sit at table, Mama makes dead sure we have good manners. We are not allowed resting on elbows. Sometimes she chides Father for wearing shirtsleeves around the house and not putting on his coat. He puts on his coat to make her happy. Then he puts his hand over his smile and declares the coat has just taken flight like an eagle and come to rest on the back of his chair.

We chew with mouths closed and don't slurp our soup. Tad has trouble eating. He was born with a hole in the roof of his mouth and has to have all his food cut up for him. His manners are not as good as mine, but they are on the way up.

Tonight at supper, when Tad pulled my hair, Mama said, "Taddie darling, who knows where we'll be a year from now? It might be in the finest palaces of Paris, France! They don't let little boys with no table manners eat in the dining rooms in the palaces!"

Immediately I wonder why Mama says this about palaces in France. It might could mean she is planning an escape from Springfield to a fancier place. Long ago Father was a congressman in Washington. Does this mean Father is redding up for another election? Willie and I discuss it in bed.

"Mama ordered a new black suit for Papa-day," says Taddie from his pillow. "She sent money in the letter. Two pair of trousers."

"How do you know?" I ask.

"She told me," Taddie answers. "She let me mail the letter to Mr. Steinway, the tailor in Chicago. That's how. I said to Mama, 'What's this letter for, Mama?' and she tried to get me to read the address and I couldn't. But then she said it's to Mr. Steinway's tailor shop on Dearborn Avenue in Chicago. It's for a new suit."

"What do you think the new suit means, Tad?" I ask.

Tad doesn't hesitate. "Papa-day's gonna turn around and re-whup Mr. Douglas." Taddie always says Papa-day; it's his way of saying Papa dear. Taddie's cleft palate gives him lots of lispy speech trouble.

Sometimes I have to translate what he says to people outside the family. A lot of people think Taddie is slow, but he doesn't miss a thing. He's as smart as a snake. When the time is right, I'll ask Father if indeed he's working up to another scrap with Mr. Douglas. Mr. Douglas beat father in the Senate election in '58. We did not like that one bit, since Mr. Douglas told lies about Father during their debates.

It is decided that I, Willie, have good enough manners that I may visit Chicago with Father when he goes to the courthouse there in early June. I am more excited than I have ever been in my nine years on earth.

On June 2nd, the morning of our trip, Mama parts my hair with her ivory comb. She slicks it down both sides with water. It stays in place until the station. Then she kisses the top of my head when the train comes down the tracks. I let go her hand and change it for Father's. Her hand is no bigger than a plump little sparrow. His hand is hard and brown and the span of my whole arm.

Father scoops up my small bag and his large one. A strand of Mama's black hair has come loose. It blows in her face until she tucks it back into its bun. She waves to us until I know it hurts her arm. Her eyes are shaded with her other hand, and she is squinting under the sun until she can't see us or the train anymore.

Now I have Father all to myself. "This is a superior train, Pa," I tell him proudly because it is my first train. Father says that it's a pretty tinky railway compared to others in Pennsylvania and New York. It takes all of a day to get to Chicago. Father and I walk to the Tremont Hotel. I never did imagine so many people or so much noise all in one place.

"Willie, you look like the preacher on his first day in heaven," Father says to me. "Surprised to see that so many other people got there too!"

People say about Father that he's pine tall. This is due to his double-long legs. In the way that tall people do, Father tips sideways to hold my hand.

In the Tremont Hotel lobby is a whole forest of trees set in porcelain tubs. I ask what their strange long leaves are. Father says they are palms. "The palm has a frond, not a leaf," he explains."F-r-o-n-d. Frond."

I spell it back to him and he is pleased.

Then there is strange music. It is not fiddle. It is not piano or horn.

"What is it, Pa? What is that little popping music?" I ask him.

"It's a harp," says Father.

So I say, "That lady playing it must be an angel. Only angels play harps!"

Father agrees that she must be an angel. He tells me, "Close your mouth, son, and don't forget to blink your eyes once in a while!"

close