Special Articles

The Slacker

Agnes C. Laut November 1 1917
Special Articles

The Slacker

Agnes C. Laut November 1 1917

The Slacker

Special Articles

Agnes C. Laut

Author of "Lords of the North,” “The Canadian Commonwealth," etc.

Noth.—Miss Laut s article denis largely with condition United States daring the first draft, hut everything that is said applies more or les» directly to Canada, where the first draft is about to be applied. The article contains a strong message for the women of Canada—a message that every mother, sister and sweetheart should read. Sacrifices arc necessary during this timi of ter'rilde strain and the willingness of the young man to do Ins bit must not be dulled by horne influence. Such is the lesson conveyed.

THESE are soulsearching times for Uncle Sam. For the first time in his history, he has been taking stock of his own motives and testing the pure gold of his own ideals. Twice before in his history—the Revolutionary War, first; and the Civil War, second—

he has tested out how far the sons and daughters of an utterly free democracy would go in paying the price of blood for their ideals; and they have not failed him.

But for forty years they have had their blood intermixed with alien strains, and for two years they have listened "to counsel darkened by words without knowledge." They have been told to blow hot and to blow cold, and to keep cool and to flame with patriotism, to keep out of the war and to jump into the war; and a new generation has grown up with new ideals; and the call to the war is testing out those ideals.

Are, for instance, the six hundred slackers, who are reported to have tried to evade the draft at one station, the result of indifferentism, which has been eating out the vitals of the nation, or of national pacifism at any price? You cannot calla countrya nation of slackers when some thousands of its young men have enlisted in Canadian regiments in order to get into the fight. I know a young American, rejected on this side on account of his eyes, who at once crossed the Border to join a Canadian regiment.

“I’d rather have my blank head shot off,” he said, “than be classed in the future as one of these slackers.”

I was riding down on the train one morning with the mother of a boy, who had been called in the first draft He could easily have evaded the call under the President’s ruling, for he had been married less than a year; but he refused to claim exemption under that ruling. I quote the mother’s words: “Personally, I would give my very soul to bring sudden peace,” she declared. “It would save so many precious lives; but there is something more precious than life; and I would sooner have my boy die than not have that I want peace—that is, with all my heart and soul; but I am afraid if peace comes to this nation now, we shall have taken the profit and not paid the price; and if that were possible, it would shake the world’s faith in God.”

Yet that was the mother of a boy, who could have claimed exemption and did not. Under her roof was a brother’s son—-a city boy—come out to claim exemption as a country worker. The country boy was married and need not have gone. The city boy was single and should have gone, yet it was to save such as he that the boy, whose life was worth saving, was going to the war.

About the time the Draft Bill passed Congress, a very curious thing occurred in the labor world—particularly

in the munition factories and on farms, where it was pretty generally supposed that munition and farm workers would be exempt from military duties. Before the Draft Bill passed, factory owners and fanners were beside themselves for extra help for extra work. Both were assuming double duties for the war. Surplus labor simply did not seem to exist. The Draft Bill passed. Suddenly, in a night as it were, scores of youngsters felt the call of the land. Strapping fellows quit their office jobs in town and hied themselves in haste out to the farm, lopping a year or two off their ages as they ran.

“I hope to thunder,” said a disgusted city employer to his head accountant, who left him at a day’s notice. “I hope to thunder you are drafted the very first call.” I know of men who at this time simply disappeared—commercial travellers who went out on their route and never returned.

Not all of these went back-to-the-land, though a dead set was made for easy jobs with city farmers, who are popularly supposed to do their farming with kid-gloves and a parasol. A great many aimed to act as motor men for city farmers — dozens and dozens of them working only for their board, when they worked at all, though it required a kettle drum and a regiment of alarm clocks to get them up in the morning. Some of them had the most remarkable and mysterious illnesses with unaccountable relapses, whenever there was a prospect of any one being needed outside to pitch hay, or saw wood. It didn’t take the farmers long to discover they were being blessed with a pest of slackers shirking service.

I HAD mothers come and ask me to take full-grown fellows of twenty-four and hide them in the country. I had mothers ask my. manager if their boys couldn’t stay on the farm and work for their board, “but to keep them away from horses and machinery and things.” I actually had one mother ask if her boy couldn't help “to wash dishes” so he could get a pass on his examinations for having worked thirteen weeks on a farm ; and I had one boy run home with trembling lips to his mother because he fell off a load of hay and hurt himself as he bounced, though the men could not find mark, bruise or trace of injury; and I actually had another, who went to bed and lay in bed three weeks because he had bumped his nose and had a nose bleed. Not all the chaps, who rushed to the country, were of this yellow-liver hue. I had one young-

ster of fourteen came to me and do a man’s work through the holidays as his “bit” for the war; and we had to hold him back from over-doing himself. Also, it should be remembered, though nine million men registered for military service, to date only a few thousands have been arrested as slackers.

A neighbor farmer had a boy — a nephew—come up to work, and he lay in the hammock smoking cigarettes till they sped their parting guest; and he left with the grieved reproachful words: “I’ve had the most unpleasant feeling that I was not wanted here.” He wasn’t! The slacker is wanted no place on the round earth to-day—whether he is an I-Won'tWork, or an I-Didn’t-Raise-My-Boy-tobe-a-Soldier. The world being gradually and painfully reconstructed by the war has no place for the slacker, except to die and fertilize the ground; and in a world where on the farm, in the factory, on the firing line, men and women are paced to the limit to save the self-governing peoples of the world from extermination, why should the slacker be given quarter? Why should the brave boy go forth and die, that life may be made safe for the coward and the shirker to multiply their kind? Is their kind wanted? Does it do any good? Does it justify being alive? What do they give to life that they should live?

'T'ALK to members of the Exemption A Boards and Sub-Committees. Talk to recruiting officers of the Army and Navy. They are being inundated and swamped with fake appeals and sham excuses, but the thing that shocks is. nine cases out of ten, the appeal is behind a woman’s skirts, a mother’s or a sister’s. These women don’t see why some other woman’s son shouldn't die that their son may live.

And that brings up the question—Are slackers home-made? Why is a slacker? Is it the boy’s fault? It isn’t that we have not had slackers before this war. We have in every line of life. They have been the curse of schools, of employers, of homes, of farms, of offices, of factories— the boy who is always tumbling over his own feet, always getting hurt, always wanting somebody to tie a rag round a sore thumb, always wanting jam, always cadging to be petted and coddled, who must never be corrected, or braced, or crossed because it might hurt his feelings, who is always lacking when there is some work to do and always very much there when there is some Cake and jam. It isn’t that we have not always had the slacker type. We have! It is simply that the war is going to brand them—and brand them hard and indelibly on the open forehead. They are going to be remade into men, or to wear a brand that will mark them as the mavericks and outcasts of valiant life. Nor are the worst slackers cowards. Cowardice can be cured by showing how blind and panicky is fear, how it draws what it dreads and always dispels the shadow by going forward. Cowardice is often the result of fear in the mother’s heart before the child’s birth, and yet oftener the result of forcing a child to behave by threats. Cowardice has only to be faced to be conquered; but the worst form of slacker is the skulk, who habitually, constitutionally and chronically shoves his share of life’s job on some one else’s shoulders, leaves his work undone or half done, who drags backwards always and is always lacking when he is wanted, and slack in every motion and thought from shuffling feet to clumsy hands.

THE Indians of the South-West have a custom when a boy comes to adolescence of sending him blind-fold up a dangerous precipice to fast and commune with the Great Spirit for a period of months. I have often looked and wondered at the perilous ledges boys have to scale for this ordeal. If they slip and fall, they are dashed to death; but better a valiant death trying to do something, than the shameful life of the slug that is ninety per cent, dead all the time he is supposed to be alive. But as a matter of record, the Indian boy seldom does slip; for only the warriors lead him out; and the women leave him severely alone; and there is no braying of shrill sopranos to make him 8lip down when he should be climbing up.

I do not know why they blind-fold him, unless it is to symbolize that youth is always blind to danger, and that is why it grasps the stars. At the top of the precipice, where there is no shadow between him and the sun, the boy takes off his bandages. The warriors, or priests, nightly bring him water. There, alone, he fasts and communes with the Spirits, subsisting only on the lightest herbs, dry cracked corn, roots, dried berries. The vision that he sees in his dreams will be the dream visions to guide him through life. The spirit that comes to him at night, when he lies spent and prone and weak, will be the spirit to whom he will look in his secret thoughts for guidance all his life. Hunger, thirst, the craving to come down, fear, home-sickness, loneliness, aches, weariness, the desire to talk, to tell, to ask for encouragement or sympathy—he conquers them all. He is learning utter and absolute obedience to his will, and to a

something higher than his own will—the will of the tribe. He is learning to conquer physical fear and spiritual impulse. He is learning not to blab, but to take secret and sacred counsel of his own soul; and to let no other human being pry into that soul. That is what they mean when they say you can never get under the skin of an Indian. When he comes down, the tribe give him a feast, and he will be regarded as no longer a youth, but a man. If he should fail of the test in process and come running whimpering home with lies of woe, they might or might not puthim in skirts, but he would be known ever afterwards by the most contemptuous epithet in the Indian language.

TT is something akin to this, the war is -*■ gong to effect on our softened and spoiled boy slackers. This is what the mother meant when she said she would be afraid of peace now. We would draw the profits without paying the price; and that destroys manhood in a nation.

But the point I want to make clear is that the Indian women don’t handicap their boys before they set out for the stars. They don’t poison their resolution with self-pity before they have acquired will-power. They idolize their children. But when adolescence comes there is no Indian mother who would not rather take a knife and slay her son, than have him grow up a skulk, a coward—something less than a man.

And the horror to me as a woman is when you trace this slacker business back, you so often find a woman. We say that “the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.” It does; but it also has it in its power to ruin what God meant to be a man. Self-made men nearly always ascribe their success to a mother’s influence, not to an influence that coddled and pampered and cuddled, but an influence that taught them to toe the scratch, and to jump at a chance not half way, but almost before it was in sight round the corner, and to tackle life singing jubilantly, not whimpering over chapped hands or a stubbed toe.

“I don’t like being jumped on this way,” said a young secretary to an employer, who was at that very moment looking for an assistant to take over duties at four times this poor incumbent’s salary. “I don’t thank you to tell me I am wrong.”

“You don’t, eh?” answered the employer studying the poor cub. The sec-

retary was a cocaine fiend, though he did not know his employer knew that. He had been married and discarded five times, and was not yet twenty-seven, though he did not know his employer knew that. He had been taken on his job at the time purely owing to an accident in the office forces, though he didn’t know that; and he had been given a salary of $60 a month instead of the $40 he asked, because it was quite plain he had not had sufficient nourishment and had no clothes to make a decent appearance, though he did not know his employer had taken notice of these things.

“No, I don’t,” flared up this slacker. “I don’t like being jumped on just because I make a little mistake.”

“Then,” said the employer, quietly, “take your time, and go to the cashier’s desk and get your cheque, and go ! I can’t afford to keep a man, who makes mistakes, and doesn’t kick himself for it. I haven’t time to run round picking up his mis-

In that interval, the employer had said to himself: “He isn’t worth saving. It would take too much time and be poor junk at that.”

SIX months later in that very same office a younger secretary made the very same error. It was the kind of error that can tie an office up in bow-knots of confusion. “Look,” said the employer sharply, “don’t you see if you let that pass, it will go down through every department and throw everybody out and take days to trace.”

The young secretary flushed to the roots of his hair. He was a college man. He was a double-barreled graduate from two big institutions and a star in his class at both. Also he worked on his nerve and had a temper on a hair trigger—all of which made him a very valuable prospect if it could be made over into a man.

“Look here,” flared up the young secretary in almost the same words, “I don’t

like being jumped on-”

“Hold on,” interrupted the employer, who wanted nothing said that could necessitate a second firing. “I don’t know how you are built, son, but I know how I am. If I am making a mistake, I want to be jumped on by a thousand legs with spiked boots—I want to be jumped on and kicked before I make ^he blunder, so I’ll not need to go through the rest of the day’s

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work proving it wasn’t my fault, or through the rest of life proving it was the world that was wrong and not me. How about it, son?”

Behind this youngster were generations and generations of good New England blood; but he had been idolized by a mother, a grandmother, sisters, cousins.

aunts. Also he had been a good boy from the time he went in pants, and he wasn’t used to being jumped on and jerked up without apologies before with a poultice and rose water after. His women relatives unconscious of it, themselves, had always been the shock absorbers that stood between him and the thumps of life.

The fact of his employer wanting to be kicked by a thousand legs with spiked boots struck the youngster as so funny that he laughed; and the boy who can laugh instead of sulk is already on the mend. Your slacker always sulks when he can’t have his own way, and is cross when he is crossed, and has such a fine disposition that he is too sensitive to be jerked up on the bit.

“I—I never thought of being jumped on in that light,” said the young chap. In two months his wages had gone up from $40 to $100 a month, because he never made the same mistake twice; and before he was twenty-three he was earning $400 a month. I said “earning.” It was earning. He gave value for every cent; and he is now in a managerial position, that is unique for his age; and it has not turned bis head.

TO go back to the slackers, who jumped their town jobs this summer, in the United States, likg a pest si la&ista to the land, and to the Exemption Boards, who are just now being plagued by loving mothers and cousins and aunts and sisters and other fellows’ sisters, it may not have begun as the boy’s fault, but it is on the boy’s life the blight will fall. That is one of the important things the war is going to do for the United States of America, whether it last a year, or ten years. It is going to make some young American slackers over into men. It has already made over the Paris Apaches. It has re-made the spineless, decorative brica-brac of England. It is going to call not only the best out of the American boy,

I but it is going to put the best into him. No woman on earth wants her boy to be a failure. Yet she often sows the first seeds of failure in him by sapping his willpower. He finds he can get his own way by fooling his mother. Or he gets his mother to take sides with him against his teacher. Or he gets his mother to stand between him and his father. Very often he inherits an apprehensive temperament from his mother. He early finds he needs excuses to put himself in the best light.

I Untruth begins in shielding himself to hide his own weakness—like Che boy who really believed he was coming out “to do his bit on a farm,” when he was really skulking examinations and coming out to get pay from a farmer for skulking from work that would get him a pass on examinations.

A BOY of seventeen had gone into the marine service. On his first severe correction on the training ship he ran away and hid in a disreputable resort in Philadelphia. His father was a very wise and rich man. He was, in fact, a steel magnate. The commander went to the father. “We can quietly expel him,” he said, “or we can lick him into some kind of a man. It would take less time and trouble to expel him. We can do it without anyone knowing. Which do you wish?” he asked the father.

“I vote unanimously for the man,” answered the father, “but thank God you didn’t go to his mother first.”

I think of an almost identical case in a country town. The boy got into some disgrace. When he incurred disgrace in the Navy, instead of sticking it out till he had worked out his salvation and erased his shame, he sent pathetic appeals to his mother and his sisters. They clubbed their slender means and somehow or other bought him off. Within a year of his re-

lease, he was in gaol, in his home town for still deeper disgrace; and this time, he ruined other lives besides his own ; and he wasn’t sorry for the act. He was sorry for himself.

On the firing line, there is only one way to run, and that is forward, and that is true of all life. Behind are the bayonets of the next line to the front In front are the enemy rifle bullets. You must stiffen up and go forward if you die for it; but you can’t go back. If in training, the slacker shows his yellow colors, he is promptly ducked in the horse trough or forced to be manly. He has to be a man, every inch of him, or be trained and drilled and grilled and made over till he is a man; and that isn’t a bad thing for a nation. It is what the American youth needs to-day more than anything else on earth. It is what the American nation needs—discipline, stiffening, team work, hardening, subordination of self to a big cause, utter forgetfulness of profits.

AND so I go back to the question—Why is a slacker? Is he a home-made product? I do not answer the questions.

I only set down the facts as they have come under my observation during the painful process of the American draft What will military training do for these boys, whether they serve on farm, firing line or factory?

Physically, it will make them fit and stiffen spines and liven footless feet and harden flabby muscles and teach the boy physical, to toe the scratch and jump to the line. Spiritually and mentally, it will waken up all the manhood in him. It will teach alertness, obedience, concentration, accuracy, thinking straight to the point and not in aimless unclean emotional slither, subordination of self to team work, keeping pace with the brightest and bravest and best—for there is a bayonet behind always as there is a bullet before— and there is no way but to go forward, over the dead, perhaps over a dead self, to victory. And, I too, like the American mother, fear a peace that comes now. The war has regenerated every nation in the world. There are signs that it has regenerated even Germany, Austria, Turkey; but if we take the profit and do not pay the price, though we be a nation of millionaires with all the gold of the world in our vaults, we shall be left the most poverty-stricken in spirit, the most craven, the most self-saving, of all peoples in the world; and ours the sentence written by the unseen hand upon the walls of Babylon’s feasters — “weighed in the balance and found wanting.”

I write “we”; for I take it I have no more right to be a hyphenated CanadianAmerican in the United States than a German has to be a German-Canadi?.n in Canada. Canada and the United States are divided by an invisible boundary. Yet this country has been almost disintegrated by the slacker and the hyphenate; and Canada hasn’t. But Canada has come close enough to the danger line to appreciate the infinitely greater danger here, where only 30% of the population are native born American blood.

In the December issue will appear a Christmas poem by Arthur Stringer and a Christmas story, “The Cobweb Sweeper," by A. C. A Henson.