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Chapter IV - In Europe Four to Fourteen

n 1897, when Larry was only two, his father died. That was the end of the high life at Evanston. The proceeds of her husband's life insurance weren't enough to allow Idea to live in the manner to which she had growned accustomed. But Idea, like her widowed mother before her, was undaunted. She finally decided that in Europe she could live more cheaply, resume her studies as an artist, and see that her children got fine educations and a rich cultural background. She rented the Evanston home to a man who had fallen in love with it, found an impoverished relative, Mimi, to take care of little Larry, and in 1899 she took her four children and Mimi to England. They went down to Wall Street and called on J. P. Morgan. She explained that she was a banker's widow, and asked for financial advice. She got the advice, and it helped her support the five Hammonds on coupons and dividends until the children grew up.

This was still in the horse and buggy age. But on the beach at Brighton in England, there was a funny-looking carriage with a noisy motor in it - and no horse. For sixpence you could ride down the beach and back. They all climbed in, and off they chugged in great excitement. By the time they came back, an enormous crowd was waiting. This was Larry's first automobile ride. It was probably about this time that a conductor, lifting Larry down from the coach, said, "If your legs were as long as your curls, Laddie, I wouldn't have to do this." Larry had been feeling rebellious about those curls for some time, and this was the end. Before they could leave that railroad station, they had to take him to the barber, and get him a decent haircut.

rossing the Channel, they found Paris in such an alarming uproar over the Dreyfus case that Idea took them all instead to Geneva, in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. The Hammonds lived in Geneva two years. But then Idea got worried about the way Larry was developing. Larry had had a French governess, had learned French before he spoke English; now he was getting more and more French. He seemed to do better in French than English, and that was an alarming thought to Idea. She decided to move to Germany, and they all spent two years in Dresden, while he was seven and eight. All the Hammonds learned to speak nothing but German in a matter of months.

At my school in Dresden, the teacher would cane the boys for misdemeanors. My mother objected to that, and told them that she didn't wish to have her boy caned, and if they would write down what I'd had done and what was wrong about it, she would punish me herself. That school had some pretty rough boys. Three of them became my personal enemies, and tried to gang up on me and haze me, but I was short and stocky, and had a great book sack on my back, and I used it when needed as a sort of weapon. Once when the three tried to gang up on me, I swung around suddenly with my book sack skillfully aimed, and Wham! Wham! with one swing, I hit two of them so hard that I left them crying on the pavement, while the other one ran off as fast as he could. After that sortie, it was easier.

ell, with two years in Dresden, Idea had had enough of it; by now she was really itching to go to Paris, because that's where her heart lay in connection with becoming an artist; and to Paris they went. With talent far beyond that of most of the young men who used to go to Paris to study art, she had confidence in her own artistic ability - that she might be able to sell some of her own paintings to help support the family, if she had to. She soon found a school on the Left Bank where she could improve her skill in painting, and her brush strokes really began to flow. She was an impressionist, and some called her the next best American woman painter after Mary Cassatt.

In Paris she also found a wonderful school for Larry (now nine), the Ecole Alascienne, which we have already heard of. It has become famous, because a tremendous number of important Frenchman have graduated from it.

On the same Rue d'assas where Larry's school stood, there lived another American family, the Anton-Smiths, just like Larry's. The mother was also a widow, with a son and three daughters, who had decided to live in Europe for cultural and economic reasons, - and the two families met. One of the girls was about nine, and Larry was rather intrigued with her; her little sister Mildred only four, and stuck out her stomach and marched around rather belligerently, and Larry had no time at all for her. But she was the girl he was going to marry twenty years later, and live with in great happiness for thirty years. He probably would have been horrified at the thought then.

Friends in Evanston had solemnly cautioned Idea that she should take some kind of precautions against the awful morals of the French. So she decided that wherever they went, they would have family prayers every morning, and for several years they did. Every day the children would learn and recite psalms, and she would give a miniature sermon, and then they all knelt and prayed. It took a lot of character, but she stuck to it, day in and day out.

But these precautions didn't deter young Larry from going to the studio, where as a young boy he could kind of brush his way in - ostensibly to get his mother, but actually to look at the naked models. Most of them, however, he observes somewhat wistfully, were considerably beyond their prime. At the dancing school his mother made him go to, the girls were all properly dressed, and therefore less interesting.

This was held in a very large round room with vertical mirrors all around so you could see yourself dance, and a balcony for the girls' nursemaids and mothers up above, watching it all. It was run by Washington Lapp, who I decided was a sadist who wanted to make you feel as bad as possible. You had to go over to some poor girl he indicated somehow, and bow and invite her to dance, and she'd graciously accept. After a little hesitation, off you'd go. Then you'd have to bring her back to her seat and dump her before the next thing. The first few times I was practically in a tizzy - then I got hardened to it.

The Hammonds' apartment overlooked the Jardin du Luxemburg. One warm day Larry was playing diablo in the gardens when Annette Kellerman appeared in her one-piece bathing suit - extraordinary in those days when layers of cloth covered all of a woman except her head, neck, hands, and feet. She was just learning diabolo, not an easy game, in which you tossed something up in the air spinning and caught it with two sticks. Seeing young Larry more adept at it than she, she played back and forth with him for quite a long while. The other boys stood around watching, green with envy.
Annette Kellerman

he Hammonds and Anton-Smith children played prisoners' base in that garden when the weather was good. They were eight in all. It was a serious game. Larry was the youngest, but the best runner. When the winter set in, they would play charades instead, four and four. For Idea's birthday, the Hammond children would suprise her with a new play they had written, and which they acted out for her with great skill. It was a wonderful family.

From an early age, Larry would concentrate on something he was interested in and forget everything else. One day his mother sent him out to buy half a kilo of raisins. He didn't come back and he didn't come back, and they were beginning to get alarmed when he finally came in, his eyes dancing with excitement. He had seen a horse fall down in the street, and stayed to watch the desperate struggle to get it up again; his account of it all fascinated his family. But finally someone asked:

"Well, ah, what about the raisins?"
"I guess I ate them, watching the horse."

Years later in this same France he would, with great skill, direct the righting of a locomotive that had turned turtle.

Idea bought her son a bicycle with a carbide lamp. The carbide produced an acetylene flame when water fell on it, drop by drop. He used to carry carbide in a sort of waterproof pouch in his pocket. Sometimes he'd drop it in a gutter running with water, for the excitement, and once he dropped a firecracker ball (coated with gunpowder) in at the same time. The water in the gutter, to the astonishment of passersby, seemed to catch fire as it ran alongside the curb. "Boy!" he thought, "What that carbide would do in that enormous inkwell on the teacher's desk!" and finally the thought gave birth to the act. He really didn't expect it to hit the ceiling.

There was one other American in Larry's class at L' Ecole Alasacienne. Larry was visiting him one day when they decided to see what would happen if they hitched the water and gas lines together. A rubber hose extended from the bath spigot. They fastened it over the end of a gas pipe, then turned on both the gas and the water. Of course the water pressure was much stronger than the gas pressure, but it was quite some time before screams from the kitchen announced that water was spotting out of the burners of the stove, which had suddenly turned into aa fountain. Genius is said to be hard to live with. I'm sure that French cook would agree. But Larry wasn't mean. his mother and three sisters adored him. He was just normally mischievous and incurably experimental.

s in the year of his expulsion from school, Larry and his sisters weren't usually able to finish a school year, or start one on time, because their mother would take them on long educational trips to Italy and Spain, Switzerland or Austria, where she could rent a house and live fairly cheaply. She was a wonderful manager of the funds she had to live on - mostly the income from his fathers life insurance. On their train trips, the family - Idea, the four children and Mimi - greatly preferred to have a compartment to themselves, of course. If they got one, Larry could always keep it exclusively theirs by leaning out the window when the train stopped at a staion and making idiot faces so repulsive that no one had any wish to enter that compartment. People would come along the platform looking for a door to open and then they'd see this idiot boy, and they'd pass by. Nobody wanted to get in with him.

In spite of the shortened school years, Larry's education at L'Ecole Alsacienne was through and exacting, with plenty of unloved Latin, and French history. he always hated geography - it was just learning names of places and rivers, with no logic or system to it as a shortcut to understanding - just a multitude of names to memorize. "Whereas if the subject had anything to do with mechanics, you could kind of reason from one thing to another, and you could understand how a steam engine works - you could construct it in your mind - you only had to be told a little about it and you knew all about it."

Art he loved - especially impressionist painting, in which his mother was caught up. He liked literature some, but he never considered himself a literary person. As to poetry, his sister Eunice said that of all intelligent people she knew, he was the stupidest about poetry. He had no use for the obscurity of poetry. If someone had an idea, Larry felt it should be expressed in the simplest possible straight forward prose that anyone can understand. As to math - although he much later developed a strange form of math which he used to solve practical problems that stumped the mathematicians around him, Larry was not good at math in school, and even flunked a course in college and had to take it over again. But he was always interested in mechanical things - to the exclusion of all others. He was always tinkering with things, and the reputation he had built up at school is all too clear from the inkwell incident.

One year he bought an Edison cylinder and a very primitive gramaphone to play it on, for seven francs fifty. He began to learn something about acoustics from this device.

At the age of twelve, he actually designed a method to automatic gearshift for automobiles. His mother promptly took him down to a lawyer to file a patent for it. Then she said, "Now you must go and explain your invention to one of the big automobile manufacturers, and see if anyone will pay any attention." His mother had a commanding way. When she said to do something, you did it. So he did. He had lots of trouble, but eventually he got in and talked to everyone, including Panhard's Chief Engineer. "Little boy, who really invented this?" He finally convinced them that he had, and they said it was a remarkable thing. The device was theoretically correct - but no steel of the toughest variety, no material, could possibly stand the gaff, so it wasn't really practical. They all were very charming to him, and said they hoped when he grew up he would come and work for them.

Larry's heros at this time were Pasteur and the Brazilian aeronant, Santos-Dumont. The latter was a desiring dashing devil who was willing to try anything, and he was a flyer. He had all kinds of Rube Goldberg-type dirigible balloons, and he flew around Paris and landed on the roof, going right through the glass top of a big store.

On a more intellectual plane, Larry's sister Louise had taught him the rules of chess while he was very young, and one summer, above the Lake at Thun, Switzerland, he met a German boy who had a number of books on chess. The two began to study these books, and to learn chess as it should be learned, and by the end of the summer their games had improved a great deal. Then his mother took the family to Vienna, to a boarding house, where he found a middle-aged man with a chess board, and offered to play with him.

He didn't proceed cautiously and I beat him fast. "My God, can you play like that?" he asked. He wanted to play with me, and would take me to the science museum, or to lunch, or even treat me with a beer, for the sake of a chess game, which he always lost.

uring that chess summer near the Lake of Thun, Larry became fascinated by the mischief he could accomplish with thin black thread. A clockmaker came by regularly to wind the grandfather clock. Larry tied black thread to the chimes mechanism, and when the clockmaker was on his way out from winding the clock, the boy, from quite a distance would pull the thread, and the chimes would ring. Then the clockmaker would go back to see what was wrong. Larry had made sure there was a frayed section of thread by the chimes, and if the man started to take the clock apart, thhe boy would pull hard and break the thread, so it couldn't be found. But although he never found out how it was done, the clockmaker eventually stopped investigating the mysterious ringing of the chimes - he just knew it must be those boys.

Larry had dropped out of piano lessons as soon as he was allowed to. And he couldn't sing a key, which seemed to outrage his mother, and her peremptory comments frustrated his desire to sing.* He was fascinated by alcohol, and seldom missed an opportunity. One day that summer, an elderly lady connected with his family gave him a ten franc gold piece. He was temporarily rich! Before the coin could burn a hole in his pocket, he went down to the village, bought a huge quantity of liqueur-filled candies, rented a rowboat, and rowed out to the middle of the Lake of Thun. There he proceeded to gorge on the alcoholic sweets, and to sing at the top of his voice to his utter content, where no one could hear him. He kept singing and absorbing the alcohol until it overcame him, and he fell backwards over the seat into the bottom of the boat, out cold. It was pitch dark when he finally came to, and guilt replaced his joy. First one oar and then the other would flail the air as it missed the water while the boat careened wildly on a wobbly course across the black water to the glimmerimg lights of the village.

*This must have relieved Mimi, who couldn't abide off-key music, and was forever pointing out to Peggy that a cello note was flat or sharp. Peggy took permanent aversion to Mimi as a result


 
   
Chapter V - Evanston High School Days    Index

ęCopyright 1974, Stuyvesant Barry All Rights Reserved May not be copied, published, used on anyone else's web pages or in any way without express written permission.


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