Chapter One: “Mouse” —
Comedy of Errors may also be purchased from Main Point Books in Wayne,
Herman Long, a shortstop who began his baseball career in 1889 with the Kansas City Cowboys and ended it in 1904 playing for the Philadelphia Phillies, holds the record for the most career errors in the history of Major League Baseball: 1,096. Despite Long’s many errors, Hall of Fame pitcher Kid Nichols proclaimed this error king as the “greatest shortstop of them all.” The reason for this contradiction lies in the fact that Long had the greatest range of any shortstop and would reach for any ball hit anywhere near him, which resulted in him leaping for balls that would touch his glove, but which he couldn’t catch, or running and diving for impossible catches of ground balls that would have made their way to the outfield without his attempt to stop them.
Oftentimes, errors in baseball are like incomplete passes in football; they have nothing to do with the skill of the fielder’s or quarterback’s attempt, but with the skill, or lack of it, of the players who support them, or the skill of the members of the opposing team to thwart the attempts of their competitors.
The same evaluation can be made for people who make errors in life. Their inability to succeed may have been caused by circumstances beyond their control which could easily have changed the outcome of their lives, if they only had had a better backup team to assist them on their journey.
Stewart Little was such a man. Athough he was nearly 5’ 11” by the age of 18, he was cursed by his family name, as well as the first name “Stewart,”chosen for him by his parents, Dottie and Jim. When he was born, his parents thought the name was cute and never considered the later ramifications of naming their son after a mouse who was the protagonist of a children’s book: Stuart Little, by E. B. White.
Stewart’s full name was Stewart James Little, with the “James” honoring his father and his parents’ favorite actor, Jimmy Stewart. His last name was anglicized from the German “Klein” to “Little” by his grandfather, who changed it after America joined the fight with England against Germany during World War I. Why Stewart’s parents chose to reverse the order of his first and middle names remains a mystery, and Stewart could have elected to change his name to James, but he never did. He liked his name and respected his parents’ decision. Perhaps that was a mistake...or not.
Stewart spent his early years in Havertown, a suburb of Philadelphia, in a planned community built in 1949. The houses were small, but each had three bedrooms and were designed for newly married couples raising families after World War II. Many of the men who returned from Europe and the Pacific had returned to jobs taken over by women when the men were sent overseas. Although incomes were often low, these young families were happy to start fresh, and the men tried to forget about the deprivations and horrors they had endured during the war years. Few of the men who returned without physical injuries were considered damaged from the effects of the battles they fought, even as they dove under their beds at night when they heard a car backfire, or woke in a sweat after a dream of a firefight. It was to be expected and not something to worry over. They tried to be stalwart, not wanting to show weaknesses to their families, and they were just thankful for their return to a normal life.
Many young men and women of those times had endured the Great Depression as children and were accustomed to hardships in the years prior to the rationing of food and other staples due to the war. Many had lost brothers, sons, cousins and friends, while others they knew returned diminished by blindness, missing limbs and irreparable damage to their brains, lungs and masculinity, along with other deformities that would remain with them throughout their lives.
Stewart was raised from a toddler to a pre-teen in the 1950s, which in later years would make him a member of the Baby Boomer generation, defined as people born between 1946 and 1964. For many children of those times, life was free of worry. Jobs were plentiful and the economy was bustling. Schools were well-funded, and if a child was white, he or she was confident that his or her future would be bright and secure.
The Littles seldom spoke about the war, or the excessive and persistent drinking problem of Stewart’s father. The dependency might have begun prior to Jim’s four years in the Pacific, but it became more pronounced after he returned to the States. He would often arrive home stumbling through the door and berating Stewart’s mother for her failings as a wife. When he’d worn himself thin of complaints, he’d fall across the bed fully clothed, leaving his wife to quietly cry under a blanket in the living room, hoping not to disturb Stewart’s sleep.
Jim Little had worked as an oil and gas lease manager in Port Alleghany before the war, and was skilled at his job and of value to his employer, who hired him back immediately upon his return. But as the weeks and months went by, Jim began to drink in the morning before his arrival at work and started making serious mistakes on the job. Employers of that era had a great deal of sympathy for such men, since many of their own sons and nephews also had difficulty adjusting to normality and had turned to drink for solace. So Jim’s manager had a talk with him, and for a while Stewart’s father attempted to change his ways, but even as he tried to shield himself from his memories of the battles he had faced in the Gilbert and Marshall Islands and the friends he had lost, flashbacks of fellow soldiers exploding in front and to the sides of him filled him with dread and he’d often have to leave his post for the toilets, where he would convulse in tears and tried to calm himself, many times by sipping from a flask he kept with him at all times.
Alcohol calmed his shakes to a certain degrees, but Jim wasn’t able to moderate his drinking. It possessed him in a way that mimicked Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll, who turned into the monstrous Mr. Hyde in the movie Jim saw before leaving for boot camp. Jim’s hair would even stand up in spikes as his personality changed from a man of kindness into a slovenly, uncouth and raging beast.
His boss finally came to the realization that Jim was not only dangerous to himself and his family, but also to the firm, and apologetically fired him with severance pay after speaking with Stewart’s mother and explaining the reason for his decision.
“Jim has a major issue, Dottie, but he needs help, and we can’t have him on the rigs under the influence of alcohol. See what you can do to get him counseling.”
Jim’s boss handed her $500 to assist, and Dottie thanked him for his help, but her anger at her husband’s behavior had begun to match that of his anger when he was drinking.
Jim never did get counseling, and each time after a disappointing interview he’d come home drunk, having spent what few dollars the family had on shots and beers.
The family moved back to the Philadelphia area, first to Havertown and then to Broomall, at which time Dottie finally called it quits and moved with Stewart back to her mother’s house. Stewart’s grandfather on his father’s side had been dead for many years, so Jim’s only alternative to homelessness was to live with his mother in her tiny apartment, where he slept on a foam rubber mat in the hallway. He tried to get work and took whatever employment he could get, including soliciting phone orders for a fish market in nearby Ardmore, and picking up and shredding fallen tree limbs for a landscaping company, and digging around the bases of telephone poles, treating the wood below ground level with insecticide to prevent further insect damage.
Dottie secured a job as a salesgirl in the women’s department of Gimbels, a department store near her mother’s home in Cheltenham. Dottie’s mother coldly stated to her daughter that she had raised her as well as three other children and paid for excellent educations for them with her husband’s earnings as a cab driver, and that it was not her job to take on the care of her grandson, so Stewart was soon sent off to live with Dottie’s sister and her family.
Eventually Dottie found a job rendering black and white drawings of shoes, handbags, perfume and women’s accessories in the eighth-floor offices of the Gimbels headquarters in Philadelphia, and pulled her family together by renting a small apartment in the suburb of Upper Darby. Since she couldn’t manage raising Stewart by herself, she reunited with Jim, who watched over Stewart and never again attempted to gain steady employment. Dottie provided Jim with a small allowance for personal needs, which included drinks at a taproom near the family’s home, the second floor of a stone twin where Stewart lived until he completed high school and technical school.
During the early years of his life, Stewart, though not exactly thriving, took many of his family’s difficulties in stride. As an only child, his parents were the central focus of his life, even as they struggled to maintain the mere basics of food and housing. When his father was sober, he was a nice, if ineffectual, man, and the parents doted on their only child as much as possible. Stewart knew the difficulties they faced, but they were his parents and he understood that it was their problem to take care of him while it was his to endure the many difficulties of growing up poor, including a lack of direction for his future, and surviving the name he’d been given, but not chosen.
During Stewart’s grammar school years, his teachers smiled when calling his name when he raised his hand, usually sounding out his whole name, and the children seemed to accept that he shared his name with a fictional mouse. His name only became a problem for him after entering junior high school, at a time when children begin to change from innocents into vicious little creatures intent on playing off the weaknesses of their classmates.
Soon after Stewart entered the seventh grade, he encountered a rough-and-tumble Irish boy, Jason McCann, who had transferred from a Catholic school to Stewart’s junior high. In one of his meaner moments, Jason coined the name for Stewart that stuck well into his high school years: Mouse! Once the term escaped the young bully’s mouth, the nickname quickly spread throughout the junior high.
It was somewhat surprising that no one before that time had thought to call Stewart “Mouse,” but kids often have strange names, and most of his classmates knew him only as Stewart, or Stew. But having read earlier in his life the E. B. White story of the courageous little mouse, Jason couldn’t help but denigrate Stewart by giving him a nickname that many of the other young teens then applied to Stewart as well. Though the stories painted Stuart Little as heroic, when passed from classmate to classmate as “Mouse,” the name provided great fodder for derision of Stewart, suggesting he was of small stature, which he was not, that he looked like a mouse, which he didn’t, and was less than capable at normal tasks, which he never was, nor ever would be.
The positive aspects of the tiny Stuart Little, as described by White, contributed nothing to any appreciation of Stewart and his own abilities, but instead led him to retreat further into his parents’ lives and avoid contact with as many students as possible.
It was also only then that Stewart pondered why he was given such a name and decided it was time to read the book. Stewart was surprised to find little to be upset about after the reading Stuart Little as he, too, admired the small, rodent-like boy. But he could also sense that it would be nearly an impossible task to educate students into reevaluating their opinion of him, since the name “Mouse” was more than just a derogatory name: it also referred to a particularly annoying kind of vermin that in no way translated to Mickey Mouse or Mighty Mouse, but to a dirty rodent to be trapped, used as snake food, and who made women shriek as they climbed upon chairs to avoid them in their pantries or kitchens.
After graduating from junior high school, the ninth grade classes of two Upper Darby schools merged into one larger class in a high school two miles from Stewart’s home. Meeting new students and finding friends required Stewart to develop a counteroffensive plan to erode the negativism his name seemed to imply. Over the summer, he had learned to draw various expressive cartoons of mice by copying and then enhancing characters in a how-to book he had borrowed from the Upper Darby Public Library. The book provided Stewart with the groundwork for a series of pictures of bright, fun-loving mice involved in various scenarios such as driving a sports car, reading classic novels, visiting world-famous sites such as the Eiffel Tower, and racing a small bicycle to the front position of a competitive team of cyclists.
On the first day of class, Stewart handed out fliers he had made using different images he’d created for each homeroom classmate as well as the teacher. Though each drawing was unique, Stewart titled each one the same in red marker: “Call Me Mouse!”
Below the headline he wrote, My name is Stewart Little, and I was named for a courageous little mouse in a children’s story by E. B. White, a famous writer and editor for The New Yorker magazine, who wrote the tale of Stuart Little two years before I was born.
Very few of the kids I know call me by my real name, Stewart, or Stew. Instead, they call me “Mouse.” So whichever name you choose to call me, I welcome it.
The flier was signed “Stewart J. Little.”
As he had hoped, Stewart’s classmates got a kick out of the fliers and soon shared their own personalized versions throughout the school.
After reading her own flier, Stewart’s homeroom teacher addressed the class and having not previously understood Stewart’s purpose in passing the flier to his classmates, commented that it would probably be best if they all called him “Stewart.”
Her response added to Stewart’s confidence and his imagination as he wondered how he might further capitalize on his name. The flier proved that he possessed some of his mother’s artistic ability, but it also showed that he could turn a disadvantage into an advantage by using his imagination. Over the next few years, there were those who still called Stewart “Mouse,” but as an honor rather than with any thought of being malicious.
Another benefit from the flier was that instead of being viewed as quiet or weird, he was noted by students and teachers alike for his creativity and for a name connected to a famous writer’s work. Even Jason McCann, the Irish boy who had originally made fun of him and his name, altered his attitude towards him and, when passing Stewart in the hallways, would sometimes high-five him, smile and then silently mouth the word “mouse” and roll his eyes, proud of himself for having invented the nickname, but also very pleased at Stewart for taking ownership of it.
Overall, Stewart began paying more attention in class and read other E. B. White books, including Charlotte’s Web, and many of his essays on writing and on life. Although Stewart may not have known it at the time, the author was to become a mentor to him, though it would take years for him to realize the impact of the man on his life. Certain phrases written by White remained with Stewart as he struggled through his early career as a draftsman, but more so as he developed his avocation as a cartoonist, a skill upon which he built hus reputation and a career that would celebrate him and his name: Stewart Little.