In past generations Gilbert Patten, using the pen name of Burt L. Standish, was one of the country’s most popular – and most prolific – writers. Each week, from April 18, 1896 to July 27, 1912, Patten wrote a 20,000 word half-dime novel about Frank Merriwell, and each week hundreds of thousands of boys spent a nickel for the latest issue of Tip Top Weekly: An Ideal Publication for Youth, a magazine containing the latest Merriwell adventure, plus a few pages of fan mail about the stories, and sometimes a column on physical fitness. Many of the Tip Top purchasers would then lend or trade the magazine to other boys, thus increasing the readership. Four times a year 13 of the stories would be combined into a Tip Top Quarterly book.
Patten wrote 850 of the 20,000 word short novels – that’s 17 million published words about Frank Merriwell and, later on, his newly discovered younger half-brother Dick. Frank’s adventures started when he was enrolled into a boarding school named Fardale, and continued when he attended Yale. And, because Frank’s college years needed to last as long as possible, he would occasionally take long breaks to travel the world in search of whatever Patten decided would be somewhat logical for the young man to hunt for.
Many of the stories centered on sports, for Frank Merriwell played on every team his school had. Baseball, football, rowing, track and field – if it was connected to athletics good-old Merry was the team captain, while maintaining sterling academic honors. Since I’m not interested in sports I never paid much attention to Frank Merriwell, but when I came upon a story about his first job I decided to see if the clean-living All American youth could hold my attention. He did.
In Frank Merriwell’s First Job he was about to start a new year at Yale when he received a letter informing him that his guardian, Professor Scotch, had speculated with his fortune and lost every dollar. He immediately took a train to Bloomfield, and walked to the house left to him by his deceased uncle.
Frank felt no anger towards his guardian, for the man had no experience in money management when he’d been appointed to look after Frank’s inheritance. He knew the professor had been swindled by Darius Conrad, a cad who’d claimed to have made a fortune on Western mining property. Frank was angry at Conrad, and let him know the day would come when he’d pay for his crimes.
Frank tried to help Professor Scotch, who’d lost his reason over the shock and guilt of losing the money. After the professor died Frank had to sell the beloved house he’d inherited, then he paid all debts, and set out to find work. But first, just to show what a splendid person he was, Frank went to investigate a fire, and discovered the Conrad house was burning to the ground. Darius Conrad’s nasty son Dyke was trapped inside, and everyone said it would be impossible to rescue the youth. So of course Frank went inside, and returned carrying Dyke Conrad. That impressed the good folks of Bloomfield – and probably some of the folks that weren’t so good.
We next see Frank going into the roundhouse of the Blue Mountain Railroad and politely inquiring where he can find the foreman. A greasy, nasty bully called Old Slugs kept insulting Frank, but the youth remained polite, until the man spit tobacco juice on the job-seeker’s clean white shirt. Then Frank planted his fist between the eyes of the bully. Everyone stopped work to watch, for no one had ever won a fight with Old Slugs. But Old Slugs had never before treated Frank Merriwell with disrespect, so the clean-living former Yale student was the victor against a man who drank beer on a regular basis. (“Merry” never lectured, but the author made sure readers learned that liquor and tobacco ruin a man’s health.)
The foreman had seen the fight, and said he’d fire Old Slugs, but Frank told him not to. He would fight a man if need be, but didn’t want him to suffer afterwards. Frank asked for work, but the only opening was being a wiper, which was the lowest, dirtiest job on the railroad. Wipers oiled every moving part on the engines, then wiped off excess oil. They also had to turn the tables, which rotated a train engine to face in the opposite direction. Plus a wiper shoveled coal ashes, along with other difficult tasks. After years of work a wiper could be promoted to fireman, and shovel coal into an engine’s boiler to keep up the proper head of steam.
Frank was hired, though many believed he would quit after the first day. He was given the hardest jobs available, but did them without complaining, and watched and listened to all around him. At night he read books on how a locomotive runs. He found a room to rent in a poor area of town, and discovered his next-door neighbors were street musicians. Jack was 17, a guitarist with a crippled leg; Nellie was a blind 15-year-old singer. Nellie had lost her sight after a blow to the head, and the brother and sister were saving money to pay for a surgeon to heal her. Frank became the siblings’ friend and protector.
At work most of Frank’s coworkers were starting to like the new wiper. Even Old Slugs admired him, and was now his friend. But there was a cruel engineer named Hicks who hated Frank. Hicks was an excellent engineer when sober, but that wasn’t often. It’s a good thing Frank had promised his dying mother he’d never drink alcohol, because most of the troublemakers he met were drunkards.
The foreman began assigning Frank to wipe and inspect Hicks’ beloved Engine 33, though Hicks thought Frank a worthless newcomer. When Frank discovered a break in the center casting, after Hicks had reported the engine in perfect condition, Frank told the foreman about the danger. Hicks was given time off without pay, which is serious when a person spends most of his money on liquor, and hasn’t saved a dime for his old age.
Remember Jack and Nellie, the musicians saving up for the eye operation? Hicks found out the orphans were his late sister’s children, and he planned to get custody of the youngsters and their money. Frank vowed to keep the cad from getting legal custody of the siblings, and that did nothing to endear Frank to the man.
There were wipers with years of experience waiting for a job promotion, but after Frank had worked a month the foreman promoted him to fireman – and assigned him to work on Engine 33 with that nasty Hicks. I don’t want to give away too much, so I’ll just say that if an engineer should suffer from temporary insanity and try to kill his fireman with a wrench, that fireman had better be a great athlete, with experience in winning fights with men who drank too much.
If that fireman promised to not get the engineer in trouble as long as the man agreed to never harm his niece and nephew, and if the foreman fired the engineer anyway, don’t expect the engineer to be understanding about the matter.
The story tells of events that probably would never happen, but there was never anything that I thought was an impossibility. Frank Merriwell is both honorable and likable, and I enjoyed reading about him. The problem with Hicks ended satisfactorily, but Nellie still hadn’t had her surgery, and I was expecting Frank to have another encounter with Darius Conrad, the man who stole Frank’s inheritance, but folks had to have a reason to spend another nickel on the next issue of Tip Top Weekly.
If you’d like to read Frank Merriwell’s First Job the story can be downloaded free of charge at: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/64635