Hard by the railroad station at the Michigan town of Plymouth there stands a bungalow so huge as to be almost majestic, now a kennel for well-bred poodles. There I was born, in 1918. The house—which belonged to my grandfather, Frank Pierce—was one of the earliest of prefabricated dwellings, purchased from Sears, Roebuck, and Company, complete with bricks for the fireplace and the tall chimney, veranda, entrance-hall, handsome oak woodwork, leaded-glass bookcases and cupboards built in, a long living-room bench of a single heavy oak plank (all of my birthplace that now remains to me), 10 rooms, two bathrooms. Night and day, the steam locomotive puffed and hooted 50 yards distant.
A good town to be born into, Plymouth had been founded by New Englanders in the late 1820’s. Although only 20 miles to the west of Fort Street Station in Detroit, Plymouth throughout my boyhood remained a tranquil place with handsome old houses (all but one of them vanished today), streets shaded by great elms and maples and oaks, and a square on the New England pattern, complete with bandstand and cannon. The town marshal and deputy sheriff, living next door to my grandfather’s house, made cigars in a shed at the back of his garden: This amiable German, George Springer, sufficed for the police power in our town of 3,000 souls.
I grew up in Plymouth’s North End, or Lower Town, the quarter of the railroad yards and the millpond. The town’s relative prosperity had for its source the air-rifle factories and the great roundhouse, rip-track, and yards of the Pere Marquette Railroad. Eighteen passenger trains stopped daily then, across an alley from my grandfather’s house. My strong, quiet father was a locomotive engineman—though he liked horses better.
It was this railway junction that had drawn my grandfather to Plymouth from the town of Williamston, where he had been a bank manager. Beside the passenger station at Plymouth, he had put up a large frame building, F.J. Pierce’s Restaurant, for railwaymen and passengers, with a good many sleeping rooms on the second floor. I still possess a number of the pencils he passed out to customers: “A lunch or a warm meal at any time, day or night.” My formidable grandmother, who was given to quoting Pope’s Essay on Man and Combe’s Dr. Syntax, daily baked an incredible number of admirable pies.
With a banker’s sagacity, my grandfather generously extended credit to railwaymen, selling them monthly meal tickets with punch-holes; the Pere Marquette would deduct the month’s bill from the pay envelope at the end of the month. A boomer switchman not so privileged, and in debt to F.J. Pierce’s Restaurant for a month’s food and lodging, left his handsome oldfangled pocket watch in pledge; he never returned, and that watch ticks in my pocket as I type these lines.
Frank J. Pierce did more to form my mind and character than did anyone else except my mother. A village Hampden, Mr. Pierce was the champion of the working-class Lower Town—a village commissioner, president of the town’s school board, advisor to everybody who sought his counsel, as many did. He had been born in a log cabin; had shifted with his family to Mecosta, up north; had labored on a farm in the wake of the Panic of ’93; had studied music for a term at Valparaiso University, in northern Indiana; had educated himself in history and literature and mathematics; had become a bank manager, and later a restaurateur; later still he would be manager of the Lower Town branch of the Plymouth United Savings Bank, “strong as the Rock of Gibraltar,” on Liberty Street, an easy stroll from his house.
The handsome shelves of his bookcases in the long living room were crammed with sets of Dickens, Mark Twain, Hugo, Macaulay. Ridpath’s three-volume illustrated History of the World, bound in calf, became my introduction to historical consciousness. Presently, as I grew, my grandfather gave me Van Loon’s The Story of Mankind and two or three years after that H.G. Wells’s Outline of History. (I would sense that the latter, though so interesting, somehow was wrongheaded.)
On Frank Pierce’s library table—later to become the station of the ancestral typewriter on which I would compose The Conservative Mind, and on which sits an IBM now, as I type this paragraph—lay copies of The Bookman and The Literary Digest. (At the age of nine or 10, I would hawk the latter magazine door to door.) These books and periodicals were Frank Pierce’s friends: Although he had many admirers in the North End, he admitted no intimates. It was with his grandson that he talked and walked.
Even when, of an evening, Mr. Pierce walked Mill Street and Liberty Street collarless and in his shirtsleeves, he carried himself with a certain leisurely confidence and dignity, portly in both the archaic and the colloquial significations of that word. His clothing exuded the fragrance of potpourri and of the good soaps that his wife, Eva, secreted in his dresser drawers. Theodore Roosevelt was his hero: Once, when grandfather and grandson were at the movie-house, the picture of Teddy was flashed upon the screen briefly, and Frank Pierce applauded loudly but alone, to his shy grandson’s embarrassment.
As Roosevelt’s disciple, Pierce now and again set his face against Vested Interests. On the village council, he defeated a proposal to supply water free of charge to the Daisy Air Rifle Company—at the risk of being dismissed from his post at the bank through the vengeance of Daisy.
Should young married couples without visible assets be unable to qualify for a bank loan, Frank Pierce might advance them a sum from his own pocket, out of his salary of $200 a month, thereby laying up treasure in Heaven, conceivably—although he never spoke of Heaven or Hell—but not here below, for he took no interest on such private loans. As a small boy, I spent much time with him at the bank, stamping cancellations or endorsements on checks for him, and even making building blocks of the safety-deposit boxes in the vault.
He was perfectly honest and perfectly fearless. Bank robberies were all the rage in the later 1920’s, and the North End branch of the Plymouth United Savings Bank was not spared. In a handy drawer there. Pierce kept his revolver; in the breast pocket of his jacket, a tear-gas fountain pen.
He foiled several attempts at robbery. On one occasion, a crazy farmer thrust a shotgun in his face, declaring that the bank had cheated him and must give him all its money. Mr. Pierce calmly stated that first he must telephone the bank’s president to obtain permission for so large a transaction; the farmer assented. Actually Mr. Pierce called George Springer, the deputy sheriff, and that worthy neighbor scurried through the alley to the bank, crept upon the farmer, and disarmed him. In the winter of 1929, confronted by two armed men. Pierce dropped below the tellers’ counter and pulled the tear-gas lever. Because the bank’s janitor had a way of hitting that lever with his push-broom accidentally, so sending staff and customers flying outdoors with streaming eyes, the gas canister happened to be empty; but the noise of its explosion was mistaken by the robbers for a gunshot, and they dashed away, to be caught by George Springer in the street.
Mr. Pierce’s only defeat occurred near the end of his life. Starting out early one morning to walk from his house to the bank, he was asked directions by two persons sitting in a car parked at the curb. In his courteous way, the old gentleman came up close to reply. On being greeted by the muzzle of a submachine gun, he found it necessary to enter the automobile. Of the occupants, one was a hardfaced voluble man, clearly an accomplished professional criminal; the other, who never spoke, was dressed as a woman, but presumably was a disguised man.
Having driven Pierce to the bank, these two compelled him to unlock the street door, entered, and demanded that he open the vault. He told his captors that a time-lock secured the vault, even against himself until the hour of eight. “We know that already, Mr. Pierce,” the voluble man said. “We’ll wait the half hour.”
During the interval, the principal robber favored Mr. Pierce with some account of his life and hard times. The man subscribed to the argument of the sophist Thrasymachus (although without reference to The Republic) that laws are a device of the strong to exploit the weak. This philosophical bandit had been born to low estate; but knowing himself by nature one of the strong, he had set out to redress his condition; and by setting the law at defiance, he had succeeded famously. This dialectical apology—not put so formally as I have expressed it—the man with the submachine gun offered for disturbing the even tenor of Mr. Pierce’s ways.
The hour of eight being arrived, Mr. Pierce was instructed to open the vault. He refused.
At this, the chief robber declared that he must shoot his captive. He explained that this would be a hard necessity, unpleasant, he having taken a liking to the bank manager; but his professional reputation depended upon enforcement of his commands. “Where’d I be if I didn’t get the cash every time?”
This Thrasymachus meant business. Frank Pierce turned the dial and opened the vault.
Then the two robbers drove off with the cash and the bank manager. On my way to school past the bank, I found a crowd assembled there, and my grandfather missing.
The bandits took Frank Pierce to a barn on a desolate farm and there bound him. Thrasymachus scribbled a note: “Mr, Banker had to do it or die.” This absolution he civilly deposited in one of Mr. Pierce’s pockets and told the bank manager that he would be killed, should he leave the barn in less than half an hour. The pair disappeared. Contriving to release himself in a few minutes, Mr. Pierce ran out of the barn in vain pursuit.
Years later, after Frank Pierce’s death, Chief Springer participated in a lawmen’s tour of the prison where was confined Machinegun Kelly, reputed author of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago—the extirpation of the O’Banion gang. Kelly told George Springer that “The Plymouth job was one of mine. I liked that banker for his nerve.” Whether or not this was braggadocio, it was no casual, masterless man who defeated Frank Pierce.
Never forgiving himself for having opened the safe—though no one reproached him—he died of heart failure in an elevator three years later, well before all banks fell to their ruin at Franklin Roosevelt’s bank moratorium, his death was my first great sorrow.
His high virtues were more Stoic than Christian, although he lacked not charity, either material or spiritual; such habits and customs had run in the family, ever since Abraham Pierce had settled at Massachusetts’ Plymouth in 1623. Puritanism among the Pierces had faded to the shadow of a shade by the 1920’s, my grandfather and his household never attending any church—although the domestic circle’s ways might have been approved by Free Methodists, no strong drink ever being drunk nor any cigarette ever smoked in that commodious bungalow by the railroad tracks. There occurred no family prayers and no domestic sermonizing; all teaching was by example, not by precept, and it prevailed. Two or three generations earlier, the family’s sojourn in the Burnt-Over Country of northern New York, seedbed of strange dissents, seems to have left the Pierces with no dogmata but belief in a divine power, in a life eternal, and in personal rectitude. Tradition, adherence to this tradition, was the sheet-anchor, and it held.
My grandfather and I, on our long walks westward up a glacial moraine or eastward through the railroad yards to a forgotten ravine (now effaced by the construction of huge factories), had conversed unforgettably, a conscience speaking to a conscience. The old gentleman and the shy boy had talked of the notion of Progress, and the iniquities of Richard III, and the books in the handsome paneled library of the new grade school that Mr. Pierce had built in the Lower Town, and the yearning after immortality, and the significance of dreams, and why the sea is boiling hot, and whether pigs have wings. Yet it was by example, rather than through discourse, that Frank Pierce had taught his grandson what it is to be a man.