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Benjamin Franklin looked up from the stinky vat of tallow. Quickly, his frown turned to a grin. “John! How are you?”
John Collins, Benjamin’s best friend stood in the door of Franklin’s Chandler Shop. “I’m doing well. How about you?”
Benjamin grimaced. As much as he wanted to complain about the stench and the work, he knew it wouldn’t make anything better. Benjamin shrugged. “I’d rather be by the sea.”
“Why, good day, young John Collins. How might we be of service to you?”
Benjamin jumped. He hadn’t heard his father come from the back room.
John bowed respectfully. “Good day, Master Franklin. Mama sent me to purchase some candles and soap on my way home from school.” Josiah nodded, and turned to the shelf behind the counter.
After Josiah’s back was turned, Benjamin scurried to John’s side. “You’re coming to the mill pond tonight, right?” He whispered.
John grinned and whispered back, “Of course. I wouldn’t miss it! Papa said the tide comes early tonight, so the minnows will be easy to catch. Why?”
“Any kind of soap in particular?” Josiah asked over his shoulder.
John glanced up. “Lye, if you still have any, sir.”
“I think I just might, at that.”
“Well, I’m sick to death of feeling the mud squish between my toes when we fish.” Benjamin vehemently whispered back. Something unpleasant wafted into his nose. But, then again, it was a chandler shop, and they specialized in tallow. It always smelled horribly in there.
Frustration bloomed on John’s face. “Fine! If you don’t want to, don’t come. I’m sure some of the other boys would to take a boat out on the ocean–”
“Oh, don’t be a ninny,” Benjamin waved John’s argument aside. “I want to fish, too. But we should build a wharf.”
John blinked. “A wharf?”
“Yes. A wharf. A structure made out of wood, earth, or something that sticks out over the water so you can enjoy yourself without getting your stockings and britches muddy and then worrying that your mother will tan your hide when you get home.”
The odor was steadily worsening, and John wrinkled his nose. Benjamin himself held his breath against the stench. What was that smell?
“I know what a wharf is, but where would we get the supplies?” John answered.
Benjamin looked back at his father. He was wrapping the soap in paper and twine– he didn’t have much more time. He let out his breath and answered quickly, “That’s easy. There’s a pile of stones by the millpond. We just need to help ourselves. If enough of us are there tonight, I’m sure we can get it done before we need to leave for supper. Tell the other boys– and tell them to bring a change of clothes. It will be easier to get away with it if our parents aren’t alerted by filthy garments.”
A slow smile spread over John’s face, and he nodded.
Josiah returned to the counter. “Alright, John, here is your mother’s soap. 4 1/2 cents, please.”
John rifled in his pocket and handed the required coins to Josiah. “Thank you, Master Franklin.” With a conspiratorial glance at Benjamin, he left the shop.
“Benjamin.” Josiah said with displeasure.
Surprised, Benjamin turned to face him, noting the displeasure mirrored on his face. “Yes, Father?”
“You forgot the tallow.”
Benjamin’s eyes grew wide as he recognized the smell: burning tallow. “Oh no!” He ran to the vat, and gagged. Frantically grabbing the paddle with both hands, he began to stir. Perhaps he could make the scorch less noticeable, and they’d still be able to sell the batch.
“No, Benjamin. It’s too late for that batch. We can pour off the top and use a bit, but most of the batch is ruined.
Benjamin’s eyebrows furrowed as he watched Josiah pull the pot off the fire. “But, Father, it isn’t too scorched. If we simply mix it in, none of the customers will notice.” Under his breath, he murmured, “At least not above the regular tallow smell.”
Josiah wiped his hands on his apron and raised an eyebrow at Benjamin, but ignored his last comment. “To do so would cheat. I would always have you be honest, son, even if it costs you. Now, run into the back room and get another pan. We shall pour what we can into that.”
When the work day was over, Benjamin couldn’t run to the millpond fast enough. Even on the far side of the mill, he could hear the other boys laughing and yelling at each other. He rounded the corner and noticed his playfellows in two groups standing in the salt marsh that bordered the millpond, engaged in the most intense mud war he could remember. Everyone was spotted with mud from head to foot. On the shore, a good distance from the pond, were several piles of clothes, where the other boys had dropped them.
The salt marsh had been a favorite play place of the boys of Boston as long as Benjamin could remember; and long before that, to hear his brothers talk. The mud on the shore was made of peat, rich with stinky, rotting plants, and salt from the ocean waters that filled the millpond during high tide. This did two things. First, it was a perfect place to catch frogs, fish, and other small creatures who enjoyed a calm place to eat during high tide. Second, it kept all the girls away, since none of them liked to play in mud that smelled like bad eggs.
Benjamin jumped into some thick bushes and quickly changed. He dropped his own pile of clothes on the ground before running to the bank, scooping up a handful of stinky peat mud and throwing it at the other team. SPLAT! Much to Benjamin’s immense pleasure, it hit John squarely in the chest. “Bet you can’t do any better, Collins!” He challenged.
John stumbled back a step before regaining his balance. Grinning widely, he scooped up a large handful and hurled it back at Benjamin, who ducked. He grinned at John, but in that moment of distraction, the side of Benjamin’s head exploded in pain as it received a direct hit with another clod.
John doubled over laughing.
Benjamin took a second to catch his breath, then picked up another handful of mud and threw it with a war cry. Before he could see if it reached the target, he grabbed two more handfuls and threw them.
Ten minutes, later, Benjamin, covered with mud, paused when he heard his name called. John stood on the grass, beckoning to him. Benjamin threw his clod and stumbled to him. “What?”
“What stones were you talking about in your father’s shop?”
Benjamin pointed to a large pile about a stone’s throw away, just as a couple more boys joined them. “Those. They should make a wharf long enough for two of us to lay down on.”
Another boy ran up at that point. He noted the pile of stones and asked, “So, where are we going to make this wharf?”
“Over here!” Benjamin skirted the battle ground, more boys joining the entourage. After another ten yards, he stopped. “This is the best spot. It’s just off of the quagmire we’ve made by trampling the bank, but it’s not too deep. It’s still in the salt marsh area, so the minnow fishing will be good.”
Benjamin looked around at his friends. The group had grown–there were only a few boys still throwing mud clods at each other. The rest of them were gathered around him. He looked over the crowd of boys, their bright eyes inflaming his enthusiasm. “Friends, we’ll be able to catch so many more minnows once the wharf is in place! But this won’t just improve our fishing abilities, our play battles will be so much better when we have a wharf to play on.
“Some of the rocks are large and heavy. But if we work together, two or three boys to a stone when need be, we can be done in an hour or so. John, you stay here to direct the placing of the stones. Everyone else, follow me to the stone pile!” With whoops and hollers, the boys galloped to the stones. Benjamin charged ahead, his soul flying as high as a kite. He was born leader and knew it.
The next day, Benjamin had to endure many hours in the chandler shop. On top of the drudgery of the work and the stench of the tallow, Benjamin’s muscles ached. Nonetheless, whenever he thought of the wharf, he smiled. They were able to finish the project, and all of them were excited to return that night to try it out.
At least, those who weren’t in too much pain. Some, like John, would be able to sit all day at school. He, on the other hand, had been on his feet all day.
Not like he planned to let that stop him.
Benjamin paused as he swept the floor and glanced around. The shadows were long– soon Josiah would close the shop for the evening. Then, Benjamin could go to the millpond. Renewing his chore with vigor, he swept the dust, wax, and other small pieces of trash to the open door and flung them out into the street.
“Good day, Benjamin,” a deep voice called to him.
Benjamin looked up and bowed respectfully. “Hello Master Allen! How are you today?” Master Paul Allen was a local stonemason and a good friend of his father’s.
“Oh, I’ve had better days. Is your father in?”
Benjamin nodded. “Aye, sir. He’s in the back. Step in and I’ll fetch him.” He walked inside, putting away the broom as he passed the counter, then ducked in the back. “Father? Master Allen is here. He asked to speak with you.”
Josiah glanced up from the account books and nodded. “Thank you, son.” Carefully, he cleaned his fountain pen and stepped behind the counter. “Good afternoon, Paul. I wasn’t expecting to see you today.”
Paul nodded quietly. A bit too quietly, Benjamin thought. Whenever he came for supper, he laughed loudly and often. Even if he wasn’t laughing, he would frequently forget to speak quieter indoors. But that was because he worked outside and typically forgot to use quieter tones when he was inside. So why was he so quiet today?
“Josiah, the other stonemasons and I had a slight problem this morning. We went to build a cottage for young Master Daniels and his bride, but found ourselves impeded by the absence of a pile of stones we had left there the night before.”
Benjamin paled. He hadn’t thought that the stones might have had some other purpose. He hoped that Master Allen was simply inquiring after the pile instead of complaining of Benjamin’s contribution.
“After looking around some, we found them,” Master Allen continued. “They were made into a wharf on the millpond. We asked a few people, and discovered that there was a large group of boys there last night building it. Unfortunately, your boy Benjamin was one of them.”
Benjamin shook when he saw the scowl on his father’s face. He was by no means a cruel man, but Benjamin was certain he would be severely punished for the caper. “I see. Thank you for bringing it to my attention. I’d be happy to reimburse you for the stones, if that would be most acceptable to you.”
“Oh no, that won’t be necessary. We retrieved them all and began working on the house.”
Benjamin’s heart sank and he bit his lip to keep the tears at bay. All the work they had done the night before had been for nothing.
“‘Twas a shame, though– I almost hated to tear it down, as it was extremely well made. I only bring it to your attention because, as his father, you have the right to know.”
“Yes, I do,” Josiah agreed. Still, he hadn’t looked at Benjamin, which meant he was probably very angry. Benjamin got antsy, wondering how long it would be before he would be able to sit down without pain after his father was through with him.
“Those who observed the mischief weren’t able to name all the lads, and I was wondering if you could convince your son to list them so we can talk to their fathers as well. Normally I wouldn’t ask a boy to bear tales, but in this instance, the boys need to know this behavior is not acceptable.”
“Most definitely,” Josiah replied. “If you want to stop by tomorrow morning, I will give you a list of their names.”
Master Allen nodded. “I would be much obliged. Have a good evening, Josiah.” With that, he left.
Josiah closed the door behind him and locked it. Without turning around he said, “Benjamin, go get a willow switch.” Benjamin trembled, but obeyed.
After his punishment, Benjamin stood before his father, sniffing back the tears and rubbing his backside. His father still hadn’t said anything, and Benjamin was worried he was still angry. If that was the case, he might not get his dinner, on top of being spanked.
“Do you care to tell me what you were doing with those stones?” Josiah asked quietly. “They were not yours for the taking, and you knew that.”
Benjamin gulped, his thoughts racing, trying to come up with a reason that would placate his father, knowing the reasons he gave John would not convince the man in front of him. After a moment, he looked his father in the eye. “Father, I know they weren’t mine, but think of the usefulness of the project!”
Josiah’s eyebrows raised. “Usefulness? I would hardly call it useful.”
“But Father, we were industrious with our time, not allowing ourselves to be idle. Besides, even Master Allen said it was well made.”
Josiah’s lips twitched for a moment before returning to his serious expression. “Son, do you remember the tallow from yesterday?”
Benjamin nodded. “Aye, sir.”
“We could not sell it because it would have cheated our customers. It would not have been honest. Likewise, when you took those stones, you did so dishonestly. No task can be useful when it is void of honesty.”
Benjamin hung his head. “I’m sorry, Father.”
“I forgive you. But I want you to ask pardon of the stonemasons tomorrow.
Benjamin nodded. “Aye, sir.”
“And Benjamin, never forget the lesson you have learned today. If you will take this lesson to heart, you will always be honorable and well respected.” Benjamin nodded vigorously, certain that he never would. “Good. Now, let us go home.”
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For Further Reading…
Colonial Soap Making http://spadet.com/soap-making-history-and-techniques/
The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
What is a Salt Marsh? http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/saltmarsh.html
Copyright © Angela Cornell 2016