Adventures in Darkest Africa
Frank Herbert’s paternal grandfather, Otto, was born in 1864 on a boat while coming to America from Bavaria with other immigrants. As a young man, Otto met Mary Ellen Stanley, an illiterate Kentucky hill-woman. By the turn of the century the couple was living in Cairo, Illinois, with five sons.* Otto worked as a solicitor for a steam laundry there, and subsequently on the line in a bottling works. A restless, energetic man, he began attending meetings sponsored by the Social Democracy of America. This was a socialist group, founded and led by Eugene V. Debs. The SDA had a plan to colonize certain Western states, including the state of Washington, in order to dominate the politics of those regions. Eventually they hoped to alter the moral and economic order of the entire country. But the colonization idea was steeped in controversy, and socialist leaders, including Debs himself, came to feel that it was not the most efficient utilization of people and assets on behalf of the socialist cause. Political action in the cities and mill towns would produce better results, they thought.
Still, Burley Colony in Washington State was founded in 1898 by “the Co-operative Brotherhood,” an SDA splinter group that pushed forward with the colonization plan. Burley Colony was on Burley Lagoon at the head of Henderson Bay, just north of Tacoma. This was a shallow lagoon where whales were sometimes trapped when the tide went out.
The colonists were idealistic, advocating universal brotherhood, equal pay for all jobs and equal rights for women. They had mottoes like “Make way for brotherhood, make way for man” and “Do your best and be kind.” They liked to say “ours” instead of “mine,” and “we” instead of “I.” Each colonist received broad medical insurance.
At its zenith, Burley was headquarters for an organization having 1,200 members all over the world—only a minority of whom actually lived in the commune. There were affiliated “Temples of the Knights of Brotherhood” all over the United States, including facilities in Seattle, Tacoma, Fairhaven (Washington), Portland (Oregon), San Francisco, Reno and Chicago. Contributions came in from powerful social organizations in Chicago, New York City and Rochester.
It was a short-lived colony, an experiment in socialist utopia that would last only a decade and a half. But at its height, the colony had a large church, community hall, library, schoolhouse, post office, sawmill, shingle mill, hotel and dining hall, general store, blacksmith’s shop, dairy, laundry, and many other mercantile businesses. They printed a socialist newspaper and colony currency, in the form of coupons good for purchases at commune businesses. They had factories for the preserving of catsup and pickles, and a cigar factory—the largest in Washington State. The cigar factory produced Marine Cigars, selling for three to six cents apiece. They were excellent and popular, made of fine Kentucky burley tobacco, imported to the colony. Hence the colony’s name: Burley. Cigar boxes and labels were produced locally as well.
Today the town of Burley, with only a few houses, a general store, a community hall and a post office, is but a shadow of its former self. Most of the buildings, including the mills, the hotel, and the cigar factory, are long gone. Many houses, built without concrete foundations, have decayed into the ground.
In 1905, Otto and Mary, now with six sons, and Otto’s younger brother, Frank, took a train from Illinois across the Great Northern route to Washington State and thence through recently opened Stampede Pass to Tacoma. From Tacoma it was a short steamboat ride across the narrows to Gig Harbor, followed by a six-mile trip by horse-drawn stage to the colony through thick virgin forests. Otto and his brother each took a small government land grant just outside of Burley and set about making themselves part of the community. With his brother’s assistance, Otto built a two-story log house, and ultimately the Herberts bought property inside Burley itself—land that curved around the lagoon.
Burley, called “Circle City” by locals because of the arrangement of buildings in a half-circle around an artesian well, had undergone a dramatic economic change shortly before the arrival of the Herberts. Through an amendment to the articles of incorporation of the colony, private ownership of land and industry was permitted. The Brotherhood remained in control, with profits going in equal shares to members. But this was no longer the socialist utopia originally envisioned by its founders. It was a curious amalgam of socialism and capitalism, and would last only eight more years before falling apart entirely.
But even with the departure of the Brotherhood in 1913, a community remained, with many former co-op members staying in the area. The land of this valley was dark and fertile, excellent for farming. Other former co-op members logged, operated dairies and raised poultry. For many years Burley remained the center of intellectual and social activity for the county.
There were three Frank Herberts in my family. The first, Otto’s brother, eventually gave up his land near Burley and went on the circus and vaudeville circuit as “Professor Herbert,” becoming a well-known performer of strongman feats, gymnastics and daredevil acts. The next Frank Herbert, known as “F. H.” in ensuing years, was Otto’s third son, born in December, 1893, in Ballard County, Kentucky. F. H. in turn had a son, Frank Jr., who would become my father and one of the world’s best-known authors.
In Burley, Otto, Mary and their children prospered and increased family real estate holdings. For many years Otto operated a general store, “Herbert’s Store.” The establishment carried, in the words of an old-timer, “everything from tires to toothpicks.” It had hay, grain, cow-feed, chickenfeed, clothing, medicines, dishes, hardware and most everything else imaginable, piled high to the ceiling. It was not a “green grocery,” as it sold no fresh produce. The locals grew their own vegetables and fruit, and canned them. Credit slips hung on the wall behind the cash register.
Otto’s sons worked with him in the store, and when they grew up they formed “Herbert Brothers,” which operated the family store, a gas station, an auto and electrical repair shop, a stage line, and a logging business.
A stern, stocky little man, Otto was the undisputed ruler of his household. He named all six of his sons, and it is said that he did so without input from Mary. The boys were raised with stern “German discipline,” as my father called it later, the same sort of attention he would in turn receive from his father.
* * *
At 7:30 in the morning on October 8, 1920, Frank Herbert, Jr., was born at St. Joseph Hospital in Tacoma. It was his mother’s nineteenth birthday, and he would often joke in later years that he never forgot her birthday.
F. H. and his wife, Eileen, were living in Tacoma at the time of their son’s birth, but at every opportunity they visited Burley and the extended family there. Fond memories were formed in this little town on a lagoon, and these halcyon times would have a lasting impact upon young Frank Herbert. At the time of Frank’s birth, his father was operating an auto-bus line between Tacoma and Aberdeen to the south—an offshoot of the family’s successful stage line that ran between Burley and Gig Harbor.
The business became unprofitable, however, and by 1923 F. H. was working in Tacoma as an electrical equipment salesman. A stint as an automobile salesman followed. Then he became a motorcycle patrolman for the recently created Washington State Patrol. He had the “Mount Rainier beat,” from East Pierce County to the base of the mountain. He was paid $30 a week.
By 1925, family trips to Burley became easier. A modern car ferry transported them from Tacoma to Gig Harbor, and from there they drove to Burley on a fine new highway for motor vehicles.
Frank’s mother, Eileen Marie (Babe) Herbert, was a McCarthy. She was one of thirteen children, most of whom were girls. “They were beautiful red-haired Irish colleens,” my father would tell me many years later. Babe’s grandfather, the eldest son of an eldest son, was in a direct Irish royal line of succession that could have given him Blarney Castle in County Cork, which they called “Castle McCarthy.”
But under British rule, such a lineage became meaningless to Babe’s great-grandfather. He was an Irish Catholic rebel, operating in County Cork and elsewhere in the mid-nineteenth century. The rebels made an attempt to overthrow British rule, but police action crushed the insurrection. The McCarthys fled their homes in Ireland, just ahead of pursuing British authorities. The family went to Canada, and then to Wisconsin in the United States, where Babe was born. Her father, John A. McCarthy, was a mining engineer.
In The White Plague, a novel published by my father many years later, he wrote about one of the stories his maternal grandfather, John A. McCarthy, used to tell at the dinner table. Here is the passage from the book, with actual names substituted for fictional ones:
* * *
“All of this for seven hundred rifles!”
That had been the McCarthy family plaint during the poor times. (Frank) had never lost the memory of Grampa (John’s) voice regretting the flight from Ireland. It was a story told and retold until it could be called up in total recall…The McCarthy silver, buried to keep it from piratical English tax collectors, had been dug up to finance the purchase of seven hundred rifles for a Rising. In the aftermath of defeat, Grampa (John’s) father, a price on his head, had spirited the family to (Canada) under an assumed name. They had not resumed the McCarthy name until they were safely into the United States, well away from the thieving British.
* * *
Frank Herbert’s earliest memory went back to 1921, when he was around a year old. He was at his Grandmother Mary’s house in Burley, and he recalled walking straight under a wooden dining room table covered with a white tablecloth.
In May 1923, at the age of two and a half, he was attacked by a vicious malamute dog, an assault that nearly blinded him and left him with a lifetime scar over his right eye, just above the lid and extending into the eyebrow. His life was saved only because the dog knocked him beyond the reach of its chain. The terrifying image of the malamute’s ferocious mouth, filled with sharp teeth, remained with my father for the rest of his life, and he had difficulty overcoming an acute fear of aggressive dogs.
When Frank was five, his Uncle Ade (Adrian) McCarthy, who was a hunter, gave him a beagle puppy, which Dad took an instant liking to and named “Bub.” It was not a large dog, certainly not ferocious, and his uncle told him it would help in the hunting of rabbits one day when the boy was big enough to handle a rifle.
On a Tacoma beach one day, Dad and his father were digging clams.* Bub put his face down by a hole, and a clam spat stinging saltwater in his eye. The dog yelped, and in a frenzy dug the offender out of the sand. Thereafter Bub always growled at spitting clams and dug them up for the boy. Young Frank thought it uproariously funny. For years he referred to Bub as “the dog who hated clams,” and eventually wrote about him in Chapterhouse: Dune.
My father had an early fascination with books, and could read much of the newspaper before he was five. He learned everything around him quickly, had an excellent memory and a long attention span. His number skills came to him early, and he loved puzzles.
Everything interested him. At the age of ten, he saved enough money to buy a Kodak box camera with a flash attachment. He began taking pictures of family events that often involved hiking, sailing, or fishing. In his early teens he purchased one of the “newfangled” folding cameras, and shortly after color film was introduced in the mid-1930s he purchased a miniature camera and began developing his own film. He set up a darkroom in the basement of his parents’ home. Photography would remain a lifelong love for him.
He was without question a gifted child. When a school tested his IQ, he claimed it was one hundred and ninety, well into the genius range. He would often say in later years, however, that IQ tests were not accurate in measuring intelligence. They were, in his opinion, heavily weighted toward language skills.
Frank Herbert often spoke with fondness of the extended family in which he lived as a child, of time spent at the homes of aunts, uncles and grandparents in Tacoma and Burley. His father had four brothers living in the area, and his mother had eight sisters and two brothers nearby. So young Frank had many cousins with whom he could play, and if he happened to be over at a relative’s house at dinner time the aunt or uncle would phone home and say young Frank was staying for the meal, and often that he was going to spend the night.
His Irish Catholic maternal aunts, who attempted to force religion on him, became the models for the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood of Dune. It is no accident that the pronunciations of “Gesserit” and “Jesuit” are similar, as he envisioned his maternal aunts and the Bene Gesserit of Dune as female Jesuits. The attempted brainwashing by his aunts, as he later termed it, was performed over the protestations of F. H., who was an agnostic. Before giving up the fight, F. H. had many arguments with Babe over this. In the end, the boy’s religious beliefs became more like those of his father’s than those of any other adult he knew.
It would be impossible, perhaps, to categorize Frank Herbert’s religious beliefs. He ascribed to no single organized belief system, but instead drew from many. He was attracted to Zen Buddhism in particular, as can be seen in his classic novel, Dune, where there are wordless truths and “Zensunni” and “Zensufi” belief systems. Though he would not study Zen in detail until he met Alan Watts in the 1960s, he was exposed to it in his childhood. For a time, he had Nisei friends, second-generation Japanese who were born and educated in the United States. Some of them held Zen Buddhist beliefs.
He also knew Coast Salish Indians, and would come to know and respect their religious beliefs. This world view would become central to his only non-science fiction novel, Soul Catcher (1972).
At a time before television, the children, particularly Frank, became adept at imagining adventures and frightening tales. In the evening around the fire at scout camp, everyone came to count on young Frank to come up with a scary story. Typically a boy or a counselor would call out a blood and guts idea, such as “blood in the well” or “a screaming eyeball from hell,” and my father would fill in details to create a story around it. He never failed to entertain. In darkened bedrooms with his cousins, where mattresses and sleeping bags were thrown on the floor, he would do the same. His stories were filled with fright, adventure, voice alterations and sound effects, and frequently involved ghosts, the old West, and the sea.
In 1928, while still on the state patrol, F. H. moved his family to Burley, where they maintained a small subsistence farm for the production of family foodstuffs, with a cow, chickens, and pigs. Bub, “the dog who hated clams,” accompanied them. They had a large vegetable garden, with corn, peas, beans, carrots, lettuce and other crops. Young Frank, now seven, had chores to do, and he accepted responsibility for them. Regularly rising in the frosty time before dawn, he milked the cow, collected eggs and fed the pigs. Sometimes the farm animals were treated as pets, and the boy named them. He stopped doing that, however, when a favored chicken ended up on the chopping block.
“Never name your dinner,” his mother told him one day.
He was in the 4-H club, and participated in a number of county fairs held in Burley. In one 4-H project, he raised and canned five hundred chickens by himself.
Children in town didn’t have to go to school on their birthdays. In October 1928, on the morning of his eighth birthday, Frank Herbert went downstairs to a breakfast of sourdough flapjacks and real maple syrup, favorites of his that had been prepared specially for him by his mother and paternal grandmother. After the breakfast dishes were cleared away, he climbed on top of the table and announced to his family, in a very determined tone, “I wanna be a author.”
That morning he wrote his first short story, entitled “Adventures in Darkest Africa,” which he read to his family. Crayon drawings accompanied it. A jungle tale that began with a pretty good narrative hook to get the reader’s interest, it involved an interesting character who had to surmount obstacles and find his way back to camp. The jungle, though described with childish inaccuracy, was nonetheless a threatening, problem-filled environment. Young Frank had been on a number of hunting and camping trips with his father and uncles in the forests of Washington State, and this story was an extrapolation, based upon what he had learned about not getting lost in the woods. He had never been to Africa, except in imagination.
Being the son of a police officer, he had heard adventurous tales of law enforcement. These were frequent topics of conversation at the dinner table, especially when police friends came to visit. The adults told of the time Babe helped arrest a drunken soldier, and of speakeasy raids she went on with F. H. One time an arrested man committed suicide in front of F. H. There were wanted criminals, fugitive chases and police manhunts.
Such material found its way into Frank Herbert’s early stories. Soon he was using soft-lead pencils to scrawl his stories on lined sheets of newsprint and in notebooks, illustrating many of them in crayon. He misspelled a number of words rather badly, and his handwriting wasn’t too steady, but the tales and drawings were colorful and imaginative.
With steady work, his stories improved, and he had them piled all over his room. His mother, obsessed with keeping order in a small wood-frame house, was forever making neat piles. In a safe place, she put away stories and drawings that she particularly liked, and kept them for the rest of her life.
From an early age Frank Herbert was fastidious about his teeth, spending as much as fifteen minutes at a time brushing them. In his entire lifetime he never had one cavity, and his teeth were so perfect that dentists marveled upon seeing them.
His father, F. H., was an expert fly fisherman and a knowledgeable all-around outdoors man. Frequently he took his son on trips into the woods, out in small boats or clamming on the beaches of Henderson Bay. Young Frank especially liked to fish in Burley Creek, which was loaded with brook trout. In the fall, salmon were so plentiful that they could be caught with bare hands. There were many smokehouses in the area, some dating back to the days of Burley Colony. It was a picturesque creek, winding through a forest of cedar, alder and maple and falling across a sequence of rocky benches…emptying ultimately into Burley Lagoon. Often the boy went out on the salt water of Puget Sound and fished from a rowboat.
On some fishing trips with his best friend, Dan Lodholm, they rode bicycles to nearby lakes, where they fished for bass, using an unusual method taught to them by their elders. A fake mouse was secured to the fishing line, and with a short cast this mouse was plopped onto the top of a lily pad. Bass could be seen swimming under the lily pads, and when one came close, the boy would pull the line a little, toppling the mouse into the water.
Every time Frank went fishing he tossed a book in his Boy Scout pack, which he carried with him everywhere. He loved to read Rover Boys adventures, as well as the stories of H. G. Wells, Jules Verne and the science fiction of Edgar Rice Burroughs. His maternal grandfather, John McCarthy, after observing that the boy was always reading, said of him, “It’s frightening. A kid that small shouldn’t be so smart.” The boy was not unlike Alia in Dune, a person having adult comprehension in a child’s body, with childlike emotions.
These were formative days for my father, when the seeds of literary ideas were germinating. Throughout his career as a writer, he would continually call upon boyhood experiences.
* * *
In the late 1920s, Burley was a place where gossip traveled fast. “It was a curtain-twitching town,” my father would recall. “Someone looked out every time you passed a window.” A colorful local, Logger Bill Nerbonne, and F. H. frequently took young Frank on hunting and camping trips. The boy’s uncles, maternal and paternal, also took him hunting, particularly Uncle Ade McCarthy (one of Babe’s brothers) and Uncle Marley Herbert (one of F. H.’s brothers).
One afternoon F. H. and another of young Frank’s uncles, Jack McCarthy, staged a convincing fight in a ditch in the middle of Burley. The whole town came to watch as the men wrestled, tore their shirts and threw fists. The fight went on for the better part of an hour, and matched any seen in Hollywood annals, with theatrics but no real injuries. Presently, F. H. and Jack put their arms around one another, tucked in their tattered shirts and walked off, saying, “That’ll give ’em something to talk about.”
After that, several people in town refused to speak to the Herberts or McCarthys ever again.
* * *
F. H. and Babe were on-again, off-again alcoholics during my father’s childhood, consuming large quantities of whiskey. When his parents were on binges, the boy was too ashamed and embarrassed to bring his friends home. So he spent much of his time away from the house, fishing, hunting and hiking. To a large degree he grew up on his own and became independent at an early age. Young Frank became something of a provider for the family, as he brought home trout, salmon, crabs, clams, rabbits and grouse for the supper table. His mother, though she had a problem with alcohol, was a wonderful cook.
Above all outdoor pursuits, Frank was a fisherman. When he didn’t have to go to school he was often up before dawn, and off he would go with his fishing gear to a favored spot or to a new one he hadn’t yet tried. Sometimes he took his gear to school, so that he wouldn’t have to go directly home after classes. He smoked much of the salmon he caught, and took it to school for lunch, along with fruits, vegetables and hard-boiled eggs from the family farm.
The young man, despite his time spent outdoors, didn’t tan readily, and his skin was pale. Some adults were concerned about his health. He had one bout with pneumonia, but overall was a tough, wiry kid, with tremendous arm and leg strength. These physical attributes made him a powerful swimmer at an early age.
In 1929, the Washington State Patrol assigned F. H. to the highway between Gig Harbor and Bremerton. A big Harley Davidson motorcycle was a common sight parked in front of the Herbert house. In those days, patrolmen wore forest-green uniforms with black pocket flaps and black trouser stripes. The hats were military-cap style, and the men wore puffy fascist trousers and high black boots. F. H. was quite a daredevil. Sometimes he turned off his motorcycle lights at night and roared up behind speeding cars, then flashed on his lights and pulled them over.
F. H. also took his son into the backcountry with camping and hunting gear on the Harley, a practice that would never be permitted today. F. H. wore a Sam Browne Belt with a .38 caliber Colt “Police Positive” revolver holstered to it, and the boy sat behind him, holding onto the back of the wide belt. On one occasion they went to Sunrise Lake, up a long dirt road. They stopped to make camp, and as F. H. was setting the kickstand of his bike, he spied a blue grouse seated on a low pine bough.
With a fluid movement he drew the big Colt revolver, took aim and fired. The grouse was peppered with pine needles, but did not move. In a frenzy, F. H. emptied his revolver at the bird, missing every shot. The bird stared back at him. Frustrated, F. H. reloaded and moved closer. He fired again, but only knocked the branch out from under the bird. It flew away, eluding another hail of bullets.
Eventually F. H. became quite a marksman, moving up to captain of the patrol’s drill team. A banquet was held in the state capitol at Olympia one year, at which he was slated to receive a distinguished conduct award. Frank attended, and just before his father went on, he told the master of ceremonies about the grouse. When the emcee introduced F. H., the boy took the stage and recounted the embarrassing story, breaking the audience up.
From the time when he was eight years old, young Frank went out spotlighting for deer with his paternal uncles Marley and Louis. The men had a spotlight (built at the Herbert Brothers shop) that was a swiveling car headlight hooked onto a six-volt car battery. When a deer was located, the boy flipped on the light and pointed it at the deer, causing the animal to freeze, staring into the light. Then Marley or Louis would fire their rifles. My father would recall later that there was no sport to it. They just went out and got meat for the family.
On one daylight hunting trip with Uncle Marley, Marley suddenly stopped and pointed. Frank looked, and saw a big buck with its forepaws on a tree. Marley didn’t say a word or make a sound. He just passed the rifle to the boy and wagged his finger at the buck. Frank took careful aim and pulled the trigger. He hit the deer square in the chest, and it fell.
Grandpa Otto had the biggest gun in the family, an eight-gauge shotgun brought over from Germany. A muzzleloader, it had been built by an independent craftsman under the old apprenticeship system, and was such a powerful, dangerous weapon that guns of its gauge would be outlawed a decade later in the United States. One day, Grandpa Otto said Frank could fire the gun, and told him to shoot at an old rotten tree trunk. The boy understood the physics of recoil even at an early age, and was afraid to put the gun against his shoulder. So he jammed the butt of the weapon against a sapling, aimed and pulled the trigger. The roar was deafening. He blew a “hell of a big hole” in the rotten tree, and cracked the sapling with the recoil of the butt!
On other trips, Frank learned from Logger Bill that it took less energy to step over a log than on it. I, in turn, would learn this lesson from my father many years later. On one hunting trip with Logger Bill and Uncle Marley, however, an exception to the rule presented itself. Logger Bill stepped over a log onto the back of a sleeping six-point buck. The deer jumped and sent poor Logger Bill flying, with his gun coming out of his grasp.
Some of Dad’s trips into the woods were with his Uncle Ade McCarthy, who, along with his brother Jack, had a secret spot where they dug for crystals and loaded them into knapsacks. The men had a thriving mail-order business selling crystals for crystal radios and other uses. His uncles were also involved in oyster farming, where young Frank learned to skin dive. In these and other ventures he earned money to buy school clothes.
When he was in his teens, he converted a rifle into a shotgun for bird hunting. He remained an avid hunter throughout most of his adulthood. Late in his life, however, he would develop the opinion that hunting was one of the myths of mankind—the myth that a man could hunt for all the meat his family needed. This was linked, in his view, to the larger myth of complete self-sufficiency—that a modern family could live entirely off the land, completely independent of stores, power companies and money.
*The surname—Herbert—was not adopted until Otto’s parents entered the United States. The original family name has been lost.
*This time they were using shovels. On other occasions, young Frank dug for geoducks—large, burrowing clams—with a crowbar, which he could use to get under the creature more quickly and pop it out of the sand.
Copyright © 2003 by Brian Herbert