When I was a boy, there was but one permanent ambition among my comrades in our village on the west bank of the Mississippi River. That was, to be a steamboatman. We had transient ambitions of other sorts, but they were only transient. When a circus came and went, it left us all burning to become clowns; the first negro minstrel show that came to our section left us all suffering to try that kind of life; now and then we had a hope that if we lived and were good, God would permit us to be pirates. These ambitions faded out, each in its turn; but the ambition to be a steamboatman always remained. . . .
By and by one of our boys went away. He was not heard of for a long time. At last he turned up as apprentice engineer or ‘striker’ on a steamboat. This thing shook the bottom out of all my Sunday-school teachings. That boy had been notoriously worldly, and I just the reverse; yet he was exalted to this eminence, and I left in obscurity and misery. There was nothing generous about this fellow in his greatness. He would always manage to have a rusty bolt to scrub while his boat tarried at our town, and he would sit on the inside guard and scrub it, where we could all see him and envy him and loathe him. And whenever his boat was laid up he would come home and swell around the town in his blackest and greasiest clothes, so that nobody could help remembering that he was a steamboatman; and he used all sorts of steamboat technicalities in his talk, as if he were so used to them that he forgot common people could not understand them. He would speak of the ‘labboard’ side of a horse in an easy, natural way that would make one wish he was dead. And he was always talking about ‘St. Looy’ like an old citizen; he would refer casually to occasions when he ‘was coming down Fourth Street,’ or when he was ‘passing by the Planter’s House,’ or when there was a fire and he took a turn on the brakes of ‘the old Big Missouri;’ and then he would go on and lie about how many towns the size of ours were burned down there that day. Two or three of the boys had long been persons of consideration among us because they had been to St. Louis once and had a vague general knowledge of its wonders, but the day of their glory was over now. They lapsed into a humble silence, and learned to disappear when the ruthless ‘cub’-engineer approached. This fellow had money, too, and hair oil [emphasis added].
Also an ignorant silver watch and a showy brass watch chain. He wore a leather belt and used no suspenders. If ever a youth was cordially admired and hated by his comrades, this one was. No girl could withstand his charms. He ‘cut out’ every boy in the village. When his boat blew up at last, it diffused a tranquil contentment among us such as we had not known for months. But when he came home the next week, alive, renowned, and appeared in church all battered up and bandaged, a shining hero, stared at and wondered over by everybody, it seemed to us that the partiality of Providence for an undeserving reptile had reached a point where it was open to criticism.
The reason why I happen to remember this is that my copy of Life on the Mississippi I bought used, and whoever’d read the book before had underlined “hair oil.” Then, thirty years later, I happen to get myself in a conversation about hair oil, and I have the perfect literary passage to point you to.
Mark Twain didn’t quite make it to the final round of our speaker competition (as you may recall, he lost out to Miguel de Cervantes), but when it comes to quotes about hair oil, he’s got everyone beat.
P.S. As for the second-most-quotable writer on hair oil, here’s a pretty good (if sloppy) page of Peter De Vries quotes. I only remember a few of them. It’s a long time since I read Peter De Vries, 20 years, maybe? Also no sources are given so I don’t know if they’re all real. Anyway, here are a few that give a sense of some of his moods:
Who of us is mature enough for offspring before the offspring themselves arrive? The value of marriage is not that adults produce children but that children produce adults.
I am not impressed by the Ivy League establishments. Of course they graduate the best – it’s all they’ll take, leaving to others the problem of educating the country. They will give you an education the way the banks will give you money – provided you can prove to their satisfaction that you don’t need it.
Do you believe in astrology? -I don’t even believe in astronomy.