Marching Men

by Sherwood Anderson

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Book II: Chapter I

It was late in the summer of 1893 when McGregor came to Chicago, an ill time for boy or man in that city. The big exposition of the year before had brought multiplied thousands of restless labourers into the city and its leading citizens, who had clamoured for the exposition and had loudly talked of the great growth that was to come, did not know what to do with the growth now that it had come. The depression that followed on the heels of the great show and the financial panic that ran over the country in that year had set thousands of hungry men to wait dumbly on park benches poring over want advertisements in the daily papers and looking vacantly at the lake or had driven them to tramp aimlessly through the streets, filled with forebodings.

In time of plenty a great American city like Chicago goes on showing a more or less cheerful face to the world while in nooks and crannies down side-streets and alleys poverty and misery sit hunched up in little ill-smelling rooms breeding vice. In times of depression these creatures crawl forth and joined by thousands of the unemployed tramp the streets through the long nights or sleep upon benches in the parks. In the alleyways off Madison Street on the West Side and off State Street, on the South Side, eager women driven by want sold their bodies to passersby for twenty-five cents. An advertisement in the newspapers of one unfilled job brought a thousand men to block the streets at daylight before a factory door. In the crowds men swore and knocked each other about. Working-men driven to desperation went forth into quiet streets and knocking over citizens took their money and watches and ran trembling into the darkness. A girl of Twenty-fourth Street was kicked and knocked into the gutter because when attacked by thieves she had but thirty-five cents in her purse. A professor of the University of Chicago addressing his class said that, having looked into the hungry distorted faces of five hundred men clamouring for a position as dishwasher in a cheap restaurant, he was ready to pronounce all claims to social advancement in America a figment in the brains of optimistic fools. A tall awkward man walking up State Street threw a stone through the window of a store. A policeman hustled him through the crowd. "You'll get a workhouse sentence for this," he said.

"You fool that's what I want. I want to make property that won't employ me feed me," said the tall gaunt man who, trained in the cleaner and more wholesome poverty of the frontier, might have been a Lincoln suffering for mankind.

Into this maelstrom of misery and grim desperate want walked Beaut McGregor of Coal Creek--huge, graceless of body, indolent of mind, untrained, uneducated, hating the world. Within two days he had snatched before the very eyes of that hungry marching army three prizes, three places where a man might by working all day get clothes to wear upon his back and food to put into his stomach.

In a way McGregor had already sensed something the realisation of which will go far toward making any man a strong figure in the world. He was not to be bullied with words. Orators might have preached to him all day about the progress of mankind in America, flags might have been flapped and newspapers might have dinned the wonders of his country into his brain. He would only have shaken his big head. He did not yet know the whole story of how men, coming out of Europe and given millions of square miles of black fertile land mines and forests, have failed in the challenge given them by fate and have produced out of the stately order of nature only the sordid disorder of man. McGregor did not know the fullness of the tragic story of his race. He only knew that the men he had seen were for the most part pigmies. On the train coming to Chicago a change had come over him. The hatred of Coal Creek that burned in him had set fire to something else. He sat looking out of the car window at the stations running past during the night and the following day at the cornfields of Indiana, making his plans. In Chicago he meant to do something. Coming from a community where no man arose above a condition of silent brute labour he meant to step up into the light of power. Filled with hatred and contempt of mankind he meant that mankind should serve him. Raised among men who were but men he meant to be a master.

And his equipment was better than he knew. In a disorderly haphazard world hatred is as effective an impulse to drive men forward to success as love and high hope. It is a world-old impulse sleeping in the heart of man since the day of Cain. In a way it rings true and strong above the hideous jangle of modern life. Inspiring fear it usurps power.

McGregor was without fear. He had not yet met his master and looked with contempt upon the men and women he had known. Without knowing it he had, besides a huge body hard as adamant, a clear and lucid brain. The fact that he hated Coal Creek and thought it horrible proved his keenness. It was horrible. Well might Chicago have trembled and rich men strolling in the evening along Michigan Boulevard have looked fearfully about as this huge red fellow, carrying the cheap handbag and staring with his blue eyes at the restless moving mobs of people, walked for the first time through its streets. In his very frame there was the possibility of something, a blow, a shock, a thrust out of the lean soul of strength into the jelly-like fleshiness of weakness.

In the world of men nothing is so rare as a knowledge of men. Christ himself found the merchants hawking their wares even on the floor of the temple and in his naive youth was stirred to wrath and drove them through the door like flies. And history has represented him in turn as a man of peace so that after these centuries the temples are again supported by the hawking of wares and his fine boyish wrath is forgotten. In France after the great revolution and the babbling of many voices talking of the brotherhood of man it wanted but a short and very determined man with an instinctive knowledge of drums, of cannons and of stirring words to send the same babblers screaming across open spaces, stumbling through ditches and pitching headlong into the arms of death. In the interest of one who believed not at all in the brotherhood of man they who had wept at the mention of the word brotherhood died fighting brothers.

In the heart of all men lies sleeping the love of order. How to achieve order out of our strange jumble of forms, out of democracies and monarchies, dreams and endeavours is the riddle of the Universe and the thing that in the artist is called the passion for form and for which he also will laugh in the face of death is in all men. By grasping that fact Caesar, Alexander, Napoleon and our own Grant have made heroes of the dullest clods that walk and not a man of all the thousands who marched with Sherman to the sea but lived the rest of his life with a something sweeter, braver and finer sleeping in his soul than will ever be produced by the reformer scolding of brotherhood from a soap-box. The long march, the burning of the throat and the stinging of the dust in the nostrils, the touch of shoulder against shoulder, the quick bond of a common, unquestioned, instinctive passion that bursts in the orgasm of battle, the forgetting of words and the doing of the thing, be it winning battles or destroying ugliness, the passionate massing of men for accomplishment--these are the signs, if they ever awake in our land, by which you may know you have come to the days of the making of men.

In Chicago in 1893 and in the men who went aimlessly seeking work in the streets of Chicago in that year there were none of these signs. Like the coal mining town from which Beaut McGregor had come, the city lay sprawling and ineffective before him, a tawdry disorderly dwelling for millions of men, built not for the making of men but for the making of millions by a few odd meat-packers and drygoods merchants.

With a slight lifting of his great shoulders McGregor sensed these things although he could not have expressed his sense of them and the hatred and contempt of men, born of his youth in the mining town, was rekindled by the sight of city men wandering afraid and bewildered through the streets of their own city.

Knowing nothing of the customs of the unemployed McGregor did not walk the streets looking for signs marked "Men Wanted." He did not sit on park benches studying want advertisements, the want advertisements that so often proved but bait put out by suave men up dirty stairways to glean the last few pennies from pockets of the needy. Going along the street he swung his great body through the doorways leading to the offices of factories. When some pert young man tried to stop him he did not say words but drew back his fist threateningly and, glowering, walked in. The young men at the doors of factories looked at his blue eyes and let him pass unchallenged.

In the afternoon of his first day of seeking Beaut got a place in an apple warehouse on the North Side, the third place offered him during the day and the one that he accepted. The chance came to him through an exhibition of strength. Two men, old and bent, struggled to get a barrel of apples from the sidewalk up to a platform that ran waist high along the front of the warehouse. The barrel had rolled to the sidewalk from a truck standing in the gutter. The driver of the truck stood with his hands on his hips, laughing. A German with blond hair stood upon the platform swearing in broken English. McGregor stood upon the sidewalk and looked at the two men who were struggling with the barrel. A feeling of immense contempt for their feebleness shone in his eyes. Pushing them aside he grasped the barrel and with a great heave sent it up onto the platform and spinning through an open doorway into the receiving room of the warehouse. The two workmen stood on the sidewalk smiling sheepishly. Across the street a group of city firemen who lounged in the sun before an engine house clapped their hands. The truck driver turned and prepared to send another barrel along the plank extending from the truck across the sidewalk to the warehouse platform. At a window in the upper part of the warehouse a grey head protruded and a sharp voice called down to the tall German. "Hey Frank, hire that 'husky' and let about six of the dead ones you've got around here go home."

McGregor jumped upon the platform and walked in at the warehouse door. The German followed, inventorying the size of the red-haired giant with something like disapproval. His look seemed to say, "I like strong fellows but you're too strong." He took the discomfiture of the two feeble workmen on the sidewalk as in some way reflecting upon himself. The two men stood in the receiving room and looked at each other. A bystander might have thought them preparing to fight.

And then a freight elevator came slowly down from the upper part of the warehouse and from it jumped a small grey-haired man with a yard stick in his hand. He had a sharp restless eye and a short stubby grey beard. Striking the floor with a bound he began to talk. "We pay two dollars for nine hours' work here--begin at seven, quit at five. Will you come?" Without waiting for an answer he turned to the German. "Tell those two old 'rummies' to get their time and get out of here," he said, turning again and looking expectantly at McGregor.

McGregor liked the quick little man and grinned with approval of his decisiveness. He nodded his assent to the proposal and, looking at the German, laughed. The little man disappeared through a door leading to an office and McGregor walked out into the street. At a corner he turned and saw the German standing on the platform before the warehouse looking after him. "He is wondering whether or not he can whip me," thought McGregor.

       *       *       *       *       *

In the apple warehouse McGregor worked for three years, rising during his second year to be foreman and replacing the tall German. The German expected trouble with McGregor and was determined to make short work of him. He had been offended by the action of the gray-haired superintendent in hiring the man and felt that a prerogative belonging to himself had been ignored. All day he followed McGregor with his eyes, trying to calculate the strength and courage in the huge body. He knew that hundreds of hungry men walked the streets and in the end decided that the need of work if not the spirit of the man would make him submissive. During the second week he put the question that burned in his brain to the test. He followed McGregor into a dimly-lighted upper room where barrels of apples, piled to the ceiling, left only narrow ways for passage. Standing in the semi-darkness he shouted, calling the man who worked among the apple barrels a foul name, "I won't have you loafing in there, you red-haired bastard," he shouted.

McGregor said nothing. He was not offended by the vileness of the name the German had called him and took it merely as a challenge that he had been expecting and that he meant to accept. With a grim smile on his lips he walked toward the German and when but one apple barrel lay between them reached across and dragged the foreman sputtering and swearing down the passageway to a window at the end of the room. By the window he stopped and putting his hand to the throat of the struggling man began to choke him into submission. Blows fell on his face and body. Struggling terribly the German kicked McGregor's legs with desperate energy. Although his ears rang with the hammer-like blows that fell about his neck and cheeks McGregor stool silent under the storm. His blue eyes gleamed with hatred and the muscles of his great arms danced in the light from the window. As he looked into the protruding eyes of the writhing German he thought of fat Reverend Minot Weeks of Coal Creek and added an extra twitch to the flesh between his fingers. When a gesture of submission came from the man against the wall he stepped back and let go his grip. The German dropped to the floor. Standing over him McGregor delivered his ultimatum. "You report this or try to get me fired and I'll kill you outright," he said. "I'm going to stay here on this job until I get ready to leave it. You can tell me what to do and how to do it but when you speak to me again say 'McGregor'--Mr. McGregor, that's my name."

The German got to his feet and began walking down the passageway between the rows of piled barrels. As he went he helped himself along with his hands. McGregor went back to work. After the retreating form of the German he shouted, "Get a new place when you can Dutch, I'll be taking this job away from you when I'm ready for it."

That evening as McGregor walked to the car he saw the little grey- haired superintendent standing waiting for him before a saloon. The man made a sign and McGregor walked across and stood beside him. They went together into the saloon and stood leaning against the bar and looked at each other. A smile played about the lips of the little man. "What have you been doing to Frank?" he asked.

McGregor turned to the bartender who stood waiting before him. He thought that the superintendent intended to try to patronise him by buying him a drink and he did not like the thought. "What will you have? I'll take a cigar for mine," he said quickly, defeating the superintendent's plan by being the first to speak. When the bartender brought the cigars McGregor paid for them and walked out at the door. He felt like one playing a game. "If Frank meant to bully me into submission this man also means something."

On the sidewalk before the saloon McGregor stopped. "Look here," he said, turning and facing the superintendent, "I'm after Frank's place. I'm going to learn the business as fast as I can. I won't put it up to you to fire him. When I get ready for the place he won't be there."

A light flashed into the eyes of the little man. He held the cigar McGregor had paid for as though about to throw it into the street. "How far do you think you can go with your big fists?" he asked, his voice rising.

McGregor smiled. He thought he had earned another victory and lighting his cigar held the burning match before the little man. "Brains are intended to help fists," he said, "I've got both."

The superintendent looked at the burning match and at the cigar between his fingers. "If I don't which will you use on me?" he asked.

McGregor threw the match into the street. "Aw! don't bother asking," he said, holding out another match.

McGregor and the superintendent walked along the street. "I would like to fire you but I won't. Some day you'll run that warehouse like a clock," said the superintendent.

McGregor sat in the street-car and thought of his day. It had been he felt a day of two battles. First the direct brutal battle of fists in the passageway and then this other battle with the superintendent. He thought he had won both fights. Of the fight with the tall German he thought little. He had expected to win that. The other was different. The superintendent he felt had wanted to patronise him, patting him on the back and buying him drinks. Instead he had patronised the superintendent. A battle had gone on in the brains of the two men and he had won. He had met a new kind of man, one who did not live by the raw strength of his muscles and he had given a good account of himself. The conviction that he had, besides a good pair of fists, a good brain swept in on him glorifying him. He thought of the sentence, "Brains are intended to help fists," and wondered how he had happened to think of it.

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It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.