by Carl Sandburg
Down in southern New Jersey, they make glass. By day and by night, the fires burn on in Millville and bid the sand let in the light.
Millville by night would have delighted Whistler, who loved gloom and mist and wild shadows. Great rafts of wood and big, brick hulks, dotted with a myriad of lights, glowing and twinkling every shade of red. Big, black flumes shooting out smoke and sparks; bottles, bottles, bottles, of every tint and hue, from a brilliant crimson to the dull green that marks the death of sand and the birth of glass.
From each fire, the white-heat radiates on the "blowers," the "gaffers," and the "carryin'-in boys." The latter are from nine to eighteen years of age, averaging about fourteen, and they outnumber the adult workers. A man with nothing, hailing from nowhere, can get an easy job at fair pay, if he has boys who are able to carry bottles — many men in Millville need no suggestion from Roosevelt — boys can carry bottles and girls can work in the cotton-mills near by.
The glass-blowers union is one of the most perfect organizations in the country. The daily wage runs from five dollars to twenty dollars, and from four to eight hours is a day's work. But the "carryin'-in" boys work nine and ten hours and get two dollars and a half and three dollars a week. Passing back and forth in the pale, weird light, these creatures are imps in both the modern and the old-time sense of the word. They are grimy, wiry, scrawny, stunted specimens, and in cuss-words and salacious talk, they know all that grown men know. In the use of the ever surviving, if not ever fitting, superlative, "damndest," they are past masters all.
Their education has consisted mainly of the thoughts, emotions and experiences that resulted from contact with "blowers" and "gaffers," besides views of a big, barn-like space lit up by white-hot sand. This has been their universe at those times of day when they were most alive, most wide-awake, most sensitive to impressions. The manufacturers have endowed a night-school, but (the teacher told me) the boys cannot keep their heads up and their eyes open during the sessions, therefore their brains don't make much headway — God help them!
Yes, I think, God help them, for their eyes remind me of shriveled pansies, and I can't resurrect pansies, I can only see that the pansies have good soil to grow in, pure water, fresh air, sunshine, stars, and dew; and for companions they should have roses, carnations, asters, violets, sweet-peas, — and pansies that likewise are not shrivelled, Brother Shawlgotch will lead us in prayer!
All around Millville are "miles upon miles of sweating sand," — not a decent farmer in a radius of six miles. It was all at one time a sea bottom, and as the man of imagination tramps thru the half starved, scrubby pine trees, his mind is carried back thru the centuries to the time when the air about him was water, and uncouth, nameless monsters lunged and lolled where now the sweet, south winds blow. There were then no joyous, merry sounds — for fishes do not sing — and silence brooded over all save for the endless surging of the desolate waters. Yet if fish there were, then it was here near the bottom that the eyeless fish lived and saw not. And why should they, if perchance they wandered into shoals where the light broke through, be denied the tints of the sea-shell, the green and amber glows that the sun wove into the water, the pale, golden glints of the rising moon spanning the waves? Had they known what they were missing — the full significance of their blindness — we would have seen morbid, riotous, revolutionary, restless — very, very, restless fish.
Perchance they were eyeless because their forefathers preferred the ooze-dark of the bottom. The light that was in them was darkness, therefore how great that darkness! Then as they worked upward with longing and desire, gleam by gleam, ray by ray, light thrilled their nerves from head to tail. So to-day the flying-fish cavort in the tumbling white-caps as though neither now nor in the dawn of the ages was there a slimy, unlighted sea-bottom that lured good fish from the light of a final and glorious destiny. I' faith I think —
There should be a tale of the fish sans eyes,
Who roamed where the sea-ooze gloats,
Where the pearl fed skull of the sailor lies
And mocks the slumbering boats.
How the fish roamed up in their restless pride
And learned to laugh in the light,—
How they came to see in the moaning tide
Things of the day and night.
They romp in the blue of the surface glow,
So glad, so gay, and so free,—
To think that once far away and below,
They had no eyes in the sea!
Sandburg, Charles, In Reckless Ecstasy, Asgard Press, Galesburg, Ill., 1904. Originally published as Charles A. Sandburg.