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My Life and Hard Times

by James Thurber

Paperback, 106 pages, HarperCollins, List Price: $11.99 |


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My Life and Hard Times
James Thurber

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The influential American humorist and cartoonist describes his childhood in Columbus, Ohio and college years.

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Excerpt: My Life And Hard Times

My Life and Hard Times


Copyright © 2004 James Thurber
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060933089


The Night the Bed Fell

I suppose that the high-water mark of my youth in Columbus, Ohio, was the night the bed fell on my father.It makes a better recitation (unless, as some friends of mine have said, one has heard it five or six times) than it does a piece of writing, for it is almost necessary to throw furniture around, shake doors, and bark like a dog, to lend the proper atmosphere and verisimilitude to what is admittedly a somewhat incredible tale.Still, it did take place.

It happened, then, that my father had decided to sleep in the attic one night, to be away where he could think.My mother opposed the notion strongly because, she said, the old wooden bed up there was unsafe: it was wobbly and the heavy headboard would crash down on father's head in case the bed fell, and kill him.There was no dissuading him, however, and at a quarter past ten he closed the attic door behind him and went up the narrow twisting stairs.We later heard ominous creakings as he crawled into bed.Grandfather, who usually slept in the attic bed when he was with us, had disappeared some days before. (On these occasions he was usually gone six or eight days and returned growling and out of temper, with the news that the federal Union was run by a passel of blockheads and that the Army of the Potomac didn't have any more chance than a fiddler's bitch.)

We had visiting us at this time a nervous first cousin of mine named Briggs Beall, who believed that he was likely to cease breathing when he was asleep.It was his feeling that if he were not awakened every hour during the night, he might die of suffocation.He had been accustomed to setting an alarm clock to ring at intervals until morning, but I persuaded him to abandon this.He slept in my room and I told him that I was such a light sleeper that if anybody quit breathing in the same room with me, I would wake instantly.He tested me the first night--which I had suspected he would--by holding his breath after my regular breathing had convinced him I was asleep.I was not asleep, however, and called to him.This seemed to allay his fears a little, but he took the precaution of putting a glass of spirits of camphor on a little table at the head of his bed.In case I didn't arouse him until he was almost gone, he said, he would sniff the camphor, a powerful reviver.Briggs was not the only member of his family who had his crotchets.Old Aunt Melissa Beall (who could whistle like a man, with two fingers in her mouth) suffered under the pre-monition that she was destined to die on South High Street, because she had been born on South High Street and married on South High Street.Then there was Aunt Sarah Shoaf, who never went to bed at night without the fear that a burglar was going to get in and blow chloroform under her door through a tube.To avert this calamity--for she was in greater dread of anesthetics than of losing her household goods--she always piled her money, silverware, and other valuables in a neat stack just outside her bedroom, with a note reading: "This is all I have.Please take it and do not use your chloroform, as this is all I have." Aunt Grace Shoaf also had a burglar phobia, but she met it with more fortitude.She was confident that burglars had been getting into her house every night for forty years.The fact that she never missed anything was to her no proof to the contrary.She always claimed that she scared them off before they could take anything, by throwing shoes down the hallway.When she went to bed she piled, where she could get at them handily, all the shoes there were about her house.Five minutes after she had turned off the light, she would sit up in bed and say "Hark!" Her husband, who had learned to ignore the whole situation as long ago as 1903, would either be sound asleep or pretend to be sound asleep.In either case he would not respond to her tugging and pulling, so that presently she would arise, tiptoe to the door, open it slightly and heave a shoe down the hall in one direction, and its mate down the hall in the other direction.Some nights she threw them all, some nights only a couple of pair.

But I am straying from the remarkable incidents that took place during the night that the bed fell on father.By midnight we were all in bed.The layout of the rooms and the disposition of their occupants is important to an understanding of what later occurred.In the front room upstairs (just under father's attic bedroom) were my mother and my brother Herman, who sometimes sang in his sleep, usually "Marching Through Georgia" or "Onward, Christian Soldiers." Briggs Beall and myself were in a room adjoining this one.My brother Roy was in a room across the hall from ours.Our bull terrier, Rex, slept in the hall.

My bed was an army cot, one of those affairs which are made wide enough to sleep on comfortably only by putting up, flat with the middle section, the two sides which ordinarily hang down like the sideboards of a drop-leaf table.When these sides are up, it is perilous to roll too far toward the edge, for then the cot is likely to tip completely over, bringing the whole bed down on top of one, with a tremendous banging crash.This, in fact, is precisely what happened, about two o'clock in the morning. (It was my mother who, in recalling the scene later, first referred to it as "the night the bed fell on your father.")

Always a deep sleeper, slow to arouse (1 had lied to Briggs), I was at first unconscious of what had happened when the iron cot rolled me onto the floor and toppled over on me. Continues...