By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, February 23, 1935
“Mike fright,” said Jimmie Frise, “seems a silly thing to me.”
“It’s like stage fright,” I explained.
“But stage fright is understandable,” said Jim, “facing thousands and thousands of people, row on row. But mike fright, that’s silly. Imagine being frightened of a little round instrument about the size of a turnip or a tin of gingersnaps!”
“It’s the unseen that frightens you,” I further elucidated, “the unseen, the unknown.”
“What you don’t know won’t hurt you,” cut in Jimmie.
“Yes, but you do know,” I said. “You know that there are thousands, maybe millions, of people listening to you. They are not at your mercy, sitting in theatre seats, all more or less obliged by good manners to sit and say nothing. On the air you picture all those people, thousands, millions, sitting in their own homes where manners do not exist. Some millions of them are reading the newspaper. Other millions of them are sitting talking together. Very few of them are actually sitting in rows in front of the radio listening to you as they would listen to you from the stage.”
“Ah,” said Jim, seeing the point.
“Yes, I went on. “The unseen, the unknown. As you step up in front of that little round microphone the first thing you imagine is that about ninety-nine million out of the billion will promptly, at the first sound of your voice, jump up angrily and turn you off. They can’t do that in a theatre. Or in a public meeting. But that’s what you imagine. You say to yourself, “How can I speak so gently, how can I be so immediately interesting that everybody in the world, with a loud Anarrrhhnnn, won’t jump up and rush over and cut me off?’ That’s how you get mike fright.”
“The reason I ask,” said Jim, “is that Bill Berry has to speak over the air to-morrow night. And he’s nearly crazy.”
“Who, Bill?” I exclaimed. “I didn’t think he’d be fazed by anything in the world.”
“He’s nearly nuts,” said Jim. “He’s been in, to see me the last three nights at the house and walked the floor and rehearsed his speech for me. He’s nearly nutty.”
“The poor chap,” said I.
“I drove him down to work this morning,” proceeded Jim, “and dear old blatherskite Billy sat there like a man in a trance. He never spoke all the way down, except to moan a few times.”
“The poor fellow,” I agreed.
“I’ve seen Bill Berry,” stated Jim, “meet notables and millionaires and statesmen as if he were their buddy. I’ve seen him the life of a hundred parties. He has the nerve of a canal horse. At hockey games he stands up and roars and yells like a bull in a barn and thinks no more of the stares and “sit-downs” of the mob than if they weren’t there. But this morning Bill Berry was worse than a bride with the hives on her nuptial morn.”
Scared By Remote Control
“How did he ever get himself into this jam?” I inquired.
“Oh, some service club,” said Jim. “Some service club is putting on a fifteen-minute appeal. And nobody but Bill Berry could put over the right gusto, the right hail-fellow, the right life of the party. And Bill admits he was kind of tickled at first with the idea of talking over the radio. It was just four or five days ago that he got mike fright.”
“He shouldn’t have mike fright yet,” I cried.
“He’s got it,” said Jim. “Mike fright, by remote control. Every hour it gets worse. It’s worse than buck fever. It’s worse than waiting for the day of your execution. Last night he didn’t sleep a wink. Do you know what he did last night?”
“He just sat in a rocking chair all night and rocked.”
“Oh, dear,” I said.
“I wonder what we could do to help him?” asked Jim. “You’ve often talked over the air. Can’t you think of something?”
“Could somebody else make the speech for him?” I suggested.
“I told him that,” said Jim, “but he’s too proud. He won’t hear of it.”
“Maybe we could get a doctor to give him some dope,” I thought, “some sleeping pills, something that will dull him down for the remaining twenty-four hours.”
“He’s full of aspirin now,” said Jim. “And sleeping powders.”
“I am sorry for him,” I said, “but I can’t see what’s to be done about it. A guy undertakes to talk over the radio, he’s got to take what comes with it.”
“How would you like to come with us?” asked Jim. “I said I’d drive him to the studio to-morrow night. You’re a good hand at cheering people up. Come with us.”
“Sure I will,” I agreed.
The next night Jim picked me up at the house about 7.30. In the front of the car beside him sat Bill Berry.
“HUL-lo, Bill,” I cried, in my best service club manner. “Howsa boy?”
Bill did not answer. He just settled a little deeper into his coat collar. In a swift glance, I saw how he had failed. His derby, instead of being on the side and somewhat on the back of his head, was set primly on the centre. It seemed a little too big for him. His face had shrunk. It was pallid and expressionless, and there was a dull look in his eyes.
“Well, well, so we’re making our radio debut?” I cried, opening the back door and stepping in.
Rusty was there. Jim’s Rusty, an Irish water spaniel of advanced age, a dear old dog, but somewhat fallen from his natural estate. Rusty was bought eleven years ago by Jimmie to be a retriever of countless ducks that Jimmie was going to shoot. Rusty comes of a noble breed that fears not the roaring wave nor the icy water, but will plunge in where polar bears would fear to tread, after wild ducks.
But Rusty had two paths to take, and he took the lesser. He became, in a few weeks, a house dog, a guardian of children and property rather than a noble beast of the chase. During the past ten years, any time Jim takes Rusty into the duck blind, poor Rusty just sits there emitting whines in a hoarse Irish voice, demanding to be taken back to terra firma, and houses and property and children, his chief interest.
“Hullo Rusty,” I said as I got in beside him and he grudgingly gave me a bit of the seat to sit on.
A Very Strict Rule
Jim drove rapidly downtown. I could see Bill Berry’s head, with that incongruous bowler sitting so stiff and straight on his head. His neck seemed shrunk. His head looked shaky and his ears stuck out forlornly in a way I had never noticed before.
I tried four or five starts at conversation. I tried the Rotary, then the Kiwanis, then the Lions and finally the Young Men’s Board of Trade manner on him.
None of them worked.
“Bill,” I said, “how would you like me to sub for you? They’ll announce you, and then I’ll step up and imitate your voice so that even your own wife wouldn’t know it wasn’t you?”
“No, no,” said Bill hollowly. “I’ll see it through.”
So I spent the rest of the ride scratching Rusty and talking to him.
“You can’t leave Rusty in the car,” I remarked to Jim. “What was the idea of bringing him?”
“My nights belong to Rusty,” said Jimmie. “Where I go he goes.”
“But he goes frantic if he is left alone in the car,” I reminded Jim.
“We’ll take him inside and tie him up to a radiator in the hall or something,” said Jim easily.
At the studio, we both had to help poor Billy Berry out of the car. He had gone stiff. His legs wouldn’t bend. In his right hand he clutched a wad of paper that was his speech. It was just a wad.
We got him out and stood him there, like an invalid, while Jim put the leash on Rusty and handed it to me.
I held Rusty on the leash and Jim and I each took an arm of Bill and led him slowly down the street and into the radio broadcasting station door.
His feet dragged, he was breathing in short gasps and you could hear a slight moan with every third or fourth breath.
As we went through the door, he leaned his weight on us and stumbled.
“Here, here,” I hissed. “Bill, this won’t do at all.”
In the lighted entrance. I saw his face. It was white and beaded with moisture. His eyes had a glassy look and his lips were muttering. I caught a few words:
“… now altogether, with one heart and voice, let us say…”
“Wait till you get into the studio,” I said, patting his back.
We were ushered upstairs into a waiting room with wicker chairs. We lowered Bill Berry into the biggest one. A few ladies in evening dress stared at him coldly and unsympathetically, and one man in a dress suit played faint trills on a piccolo across the room.
“Is this dog going to take part in any program?” asked a very young man who had come into the waiting room.
“No,” I said. “He’s just an onlooker.”
“Sorry, you’ll have to take him out,” said the young aristocrat, pleasantly. “There is a very strict rule.”
Jim winked at me.
I started out with Rusty, who dragged back on the leash. Rusty knows his nights are for Jimmie.
“Put on That Smile”
Jim caught me in the hallway.
“Walk around here and there,” said Jim, “and at two minutes to eight sharp, come up here. Hide Rusty under your coat.”
“Under my coat?” I expostulated, “Him weighing fifty pounds?”
“I always said that coat of yours was for you and who else,” said Jim. “Stuff him up under your coat, walk in here at the right minute and then push in with the rest of us.”
“No, Jim.” I protested. “I hate trouble. You take Bill inside. I won’t need to go.”
“Listen, you come,” declared Jim. “He’s better, just having you near. I can see it. You sit in the studio where he can see you. Put on that smile. You know the one. The smile that means ‘great stuff, fella.'”
“Now do it for me.”
“Why didn’t you leave Rusty at home?” I demanded.
“I should have,” said Jim. “But he knows he goes where I go at night. I couldn’t disappoint him.”
“I can readily understand why he isn’t a bird dog,” I said, giving a yank to the leash.
So Rusty and I went out and walked around the street for six or seven minutes, and then, by the clock, I started sneaking back in. We took the stairs up. We went slowly. I watching the wrist-watch, and Rusty anxiously sniffing his way back up to Jimmie.
At exactly one minute to eight o’clock, we were at the top step of the stairs of the studio floor. I reached down and put Rusty under my arm and draped my large English-style overcoat over him. In the hall, as I came through, the party to which Bill belonged was thronged at the doorway of the studio.
All was hushed and “hissed.” Young officials of the studio were signalling with eyes and fingers and forming soundless words with their mouths.
I drew alongside the throng of artists and speakers. Jim mode way for me so that I was in the middle of the group.
The studio door opened and out came sounds of final, triumphant, signing-off music. I heard a quiet voice announcing the end of a program. Our party was ushered, like a herd of cows for the slaughter, into the studio. Its hushed atmosphere was slightly broken by the rising and departure of a horde of shirt-sleeved musicians tip-toeing out. The quiet voice again speaking, and as the outgoing throng made way, we crept anxiously to chairs and benches. There were curtains on the walls and curtains dependent from the ceiling There were wires and cables on the floor and strung across the room itself in midair.
All was hushed and disorganized, yet strangely organized. Rusty was wriggling under my coat and I patted him.
The men on the box, who was talking in the quiet voice, signalled toward Bill Berry and Jim led him forward. A lady was already playing the piano and a short fat man in a dress suit suddenly burst into loud baritone song. Rusty struggled fiercely under the coat, so I let his head out and he glared about the room until he saw Jim. Then he sagged comfortably.
In the Awful Silence
I sat down to one side, where Bill could see me. Jim was holding Bill’s arm, they were seated side by side, and Bill’s face was as white as death. He was listening with intense interest and an expression of surprise, to the man singing. Other officials of the service club were grouped around, most of them looking quickly at Bill and then looking quickly away again.
It was all very swift. Time flies in a studio. On hushed wings it flies.
“It is now my pleasure,” said the announcer up on the box, with an easy and jolly manner, and common gesture toward Bill, “to introduce to you, ladies and gentlemen, one who is known throughout the city and, indeed, throughout the country as a whole, as a great fellow, a great organizer, a great leader, a great worker in many noble and worthy causes, who will put, in a nutshell, the meaning of this campaign in the behalf of an underprivileged section of our great community, Mr. William Berry!”
He said it the way Joe Penner’s announcer announces Joe.
Bill was on his feet. He was in a trance. Jim was whispering in his ear, trying to get him to take a step forward. But Bill’s legs were locked, apparently.
I had to act quick, if I was going to act at all.
I slid Rusty down on to the floor. I stood up. I started toward Bill and Jim.
And under my foot, in that awful hushed silence, I felt Rusty’s tail go squnnch!
“Ki-yi-yi-yi,” yelled Rusty. “Ki-yi-yi-yi! … oooowww!”
“Here, here!” I rasped. But Rusty was crouched down, scrambling out of the way of all big feet, under chairs, looking over his shoulder in terror and letting out a staccato stream of
The room was in a panic. Announcers rushed from side to side signalling madly but all in that awful hush in which Rusty’s incredible yowling and ki-yi-ing filled and blasted the air. Frantic faces appeared at windows looking into the studio. Five of six of us were now sprawling on the floor trying to quiet Rusty, but the more we struggled the worse Rusty yelled, and chairs fell over and finally –
“Cut!” roared the announcer.
At that loud call, Rusty and I were like two worms tossed into a flock of chickens
The hush was broken with a babble of voices as officials rushed in and seized Rusty and me and everybody else out the studio, except Jim and Bill.
I stood outside explaining to a mob of infuriated radio experts for only a half a minute until out came Jimmie, leading poor Bill, who was now just one complete quiver, head, knees and all.
They grabbed their coats. We went in a body down the stairs.
“What happened?” I asked Jim. “Did he speak?”
“He couldn’t speak,” said Jim, quite simply. “So the announcer said, ‘You have just heard a few remarks by Mr. William Berry, that well-known worker in behalf of the underprivileged of this great city.'”
“So Rusty made the speech? I cried.
“That was him,” said Jim.
We drove Mr. William Berry back home to his astonished and waiting wife.
Editor’s Notes: Greg did speak often on the radio, he even considered giving up newspaper work in the late 1930s to become a radio announcer. He participated in a series called “Let’s Face the Facts” in 1940, where speeches by notable Canadians commented on different aspects of the war effort. This was accumulated in a single volume in 1941.
Joe Penner was a popular radio comedian at the time.
An illustration from a story by Fred Griffin about passers-by helping a lady recover the beads from her necklace that broke.
By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, February 19, 1944
“For instance,” said Jimmie Frise, “a man could mend umbrellas.”
“True, Jimmie,” I mused. “When I was a boy, I recollect the umbrella menders. There would be one come along our street at least once a month. They would have a half a dozen tattered old umbrellas under their arms, and a little bag of tools, like a doctor.”
“They would rap at each door,” went on Jim, “and say to the lady, with a lift of the hat, ‘Any umbrellas to mend, lady?'”
“Nowadays, I still see scissors grinders,” I confessed, “with a little treadle strapped on their backs, and ringing a hand bell through the streets.”
“They are foreigners now,” said Jim. “But when I was a boy, they used to be our fellow countrymen. And the children would come and gather round to see the blue sparks fly off the wheel, and to hear him sing. I knew one Irishman, young Irishman, with a bright face, and he loved sharpening scissors and knives. And he used to sing a tune in time with his foot pumping on the treadle. A quick tune.”
“I can’t understand any man nowadays,” I stated, “being out of work even though he can’t do war work. There are so many things a man can do. Things men used to do, that seem to be forgotten. Why, I remember the spectacle sellers. Don’t you remember the spectacle sellers? Nicely dressed young men who, when you opened the door, were standing there, with a bright smile, and a sort of suitcase strapped around their necks and spread open in front of them filled with spectacles of all sorts fastened to the tray. From door to door, these merchants went, fitting spectacles to all the housewives.”
“And,” cried Jimmie, “the packmen! With a big black oilcloth pack on their backs with a tray in their hands, containing everything the home required – needles, threads, buttons, tape, elastic, bobbins, wool of all shades, hooks and eyes, buckles.”
“I remember,” I admitted, “my dear old grandmother searching all over the house one time for a bodkin, and finally saying – ‘I wish the packman would come by.’ And then she stopped still and looked wistfully out of the window, and said, ‘Why, I haven’t seen a packman in thirty years.’ And that day she grew many years older.”
“The packmen,” said Jim. “Merchants, with their stores on their backs. Today, it a man comes to your door with needles, thread, shoe laces, all he has got is a little bit of stuff in his hands and he is so shabby and importunate, you know he is only begging. But packmen never begged. They were proud men. They were merchants. Merchants of a prouder and older order than these modern ones that sit in stores. They belonged to that ancient craft of merchants who travelled by camel train and little ship across all the earth, selling as they went.”
“And the clock menders,” I cried. “Where are the clock menders? Don’t you remember the men, mostly with gray beards, who called at each door, and asked ‘Any clocks to mend, lady?’ They had a little handbag full of tools. I can still remember how they would come in and take the clock apart on the dining-room table, and we were allowed to stand there, with our hands behind our backs, and watch him in silence. And these clock menders were silent men, who breathed heavily through their beards as they bent over the mysterious million wheels and springs on the dining-room table. We always used to give them a cup of tea when they were finished, and the clock’s fine gong was ringing through the house again.”
“Now there,” said Jim, emphatically, “is an idea.”
“It sure is,” I agreed.
“This city, this whole country,” declared Jim, “is full of wonky clocks that people want repaired because some lines of new ones are hard to get on account of the war. Why, I’ve got two big clocks right now in my house that don’t go and haven’t gone for years and years.”
“I’ve got three of them,” I remarked.
“Isn’t that funny thing?” mused Jim. “I have, up in this minute, thought of those clocks just as ornaments. It is years since they went. I wonder why I haven’t done anything about them?”
“Because,” I stated, “the clock menders no longer call from door to door. Because you can’t think of anybody to come and take them away. Because they are too big and clumsy to take downtown yourself. I bet there is a million dollars’ worth of clock mending to be done right in this city.”
“I wonder,” thought Jimmie, “if it is because we have all grown lazy and indifferent? I wonder if, as the result of all the inventions of the past fifty years, life hasn’t become so soft, so easy, that the whole human species has grown lazy, careless, indifferent. Why wouldn’t I go to the trouble of taking a clock off the mantel, carry it out to my car in the morning and deliver it to a store downtown?”
“Nobody wants to do the little old-fashioned things any more,” Jim went on. “Even the piano tuners. Do you remember the piano tuners? You didn’t have to send for the piano tuner. He just turned up.”
“I remember, even,” I submitted, “a sort of general mender that used to come around about once a year. He had a wooden box on his back. He used to sit in the vestibule. He could resole shoes, mend leather gloves, sew up carpets that were torn, mend carpet sweepers, regild picture frames …”
“The country is full of work. And the grandest kind of work of all – working for one’s self,” said Jim.
“I guess the only kind of work anybody wants now,” I said, “is what somebody else tells them to do.”
“Well,” stated Jim, “one good thing has come out of this conversation. I’m going to get my clocks repaired.”
“The same here,” I said. “Only, it seems a shame that after all this talk about laziness and loss of enterprise, I have to confess that I am the great-grandson of a clockmaker.”
“Are you?” said Jim.
“Yes, my great-grandfather, born here in York, before it was Toronto, even, was Thomas Bradshaw McMurray, watchmaker, probably the first native born watchmaker in this city.”
“Indeed,” said Jim. “Maybe, some of these countless clocks that aren’t going all over Toronto were actually made by him.”
“Possibly,” I confessed. “But I inherit not the slightest aptitude with machinery of any kind.”
“You would hardly call a clock machinery,” pointed out Jim. “A clock is, after all, a very simple mechanism. It is, in fact, as simple as a child’s wind-up toy. It consists of a spring you wind up, a ratchet that holds the spring, and a series of geared wheels which relax the springs at a rate controlled by levers with tension on them. Really very simple.”
“Even so,” I confessed, “I have a horror of opening a clock. I must inherit some reaction from my great-grandfather. I shudder even when I take the back off my wrist watch. To look in and see all those tiny, delicate wheels and sprockets and springs breathing, as it were. Breathing and slowly ticking, ticking, like the beat of a heart. It gives me the creeps.”
“You surprise me,” said Jim. “All I see to clock mending, is, unscrew the works, take it all apart, laying each separate piece in a precise spot on the dining-room table, so that you will remember just when, rather than where, it goes back. Wipe everything with a rag dipped in gasoline or some such solvent. Reoil with great care, and very sparingly; and then reassemble. I should think it would be very simple.”
“Jim,” I cried. “Don’t do it. Don’t you do it.”
“Besides,” went on Jim, “if we learn how to mend a clock, then anybody can learn. And we could then not only advocate clock mending as a trade to the unemployed, but we could actually, when some poor chap calls at our door with a packet of needles or soap. bring him in, teach him the trick of clock mending in an hour or two, and set him on his way a free man, man with a trade and calling.”
“Mmm, mmm,” I said, doubtfully.
“How about the country?’ demanded Jim. “You pass all these little villages and cross roads in the country. There is no glazier there, but all the windows are mended. There is no clockmaker, no plumber, no tinsmith, no dentist, but all the country’s clocks are ticking in the kitchens, the pumps work, the roofs are tight … there must be men all over this country who do know about making things go.”
“Give it up, Jim,” I begged him.
But Jim went back to work at his drawing board with a hard dry look in his eyes, and that night, when the telephone rang right after dinner, I knew it would be Jim. And it was. And he invited me to come over to his place to see him mend a clock. And of course, a man would be a pretty poor specimen that wouldn’t do that much for a friend.
The clock, which Jim had standing on the bare dining-room table, was a large greenish yellow marble clock with gold pillars at the corners and a gold ornament on top. It was a clock made after the shape of a post-office or the British royal exchange or maybe the Greek temple or something severe. Jim had the dining-room doors closed and locked.
“I have here,” he said, “the small screwdriver from the sewing machine, a large screw-driver, a thing to tap with, in case of rust, a rag moistened with gasoline and an oil can. The whole outfit wouldn’t cost a dollar.”
Jim removed the back of the clock with four deft twiddles of the screw-driver. He peered inside, studied, examined, lit matches and peeked; and finally undid a large screw which let him lift out the bowels of the whole clock. It was heavy, brassy and compact.
“I will start at this corner of the table,” explained Jimmie, “and work across the table diagonally that way. I will lay each thing I take out, in its proper order. Thus, when reassembling the clock, I will start at that far corner. And so, as simple as falling off a log, it will go together again.”
I said nothing. Beads of perspiration began to stud my brow.
Jim removed eleven screws, large and small, and laid them, in a sort of row, across the table. Then removed the whole disjointed carcass forward to the head of the row, and delicately pulling, lifting, twisting, he began to take the machinery apart. Each piece he laid separately in the row.
“See,” he said, breathing heavily, “how simple it will be?”
I just moaned.
He worked straight across the table and then made a wide turn and started back on a second row. Still the machine came apart. Still grew that incredible line of wheels, screws, levers, bolts. The spring came away, a thick, dreadful looking thing, coiled like a serpent. Jim studied it, looked through its coils.
“Just as I thought,” he said. “Gummed with ancient oil. Glued, you might say. I will swish it in a bowl of gasoline.”
But on, on he went, finishing the second row and starting on a third. The face of the clock fell out. Jim picked it up and detached the hands.
“There,” he cried. “Was that difficult? Was that intricate?”
I stifled a groan.
With his gasoliney rag, Jim proceeded to wipe each part. He rubbed and scrubbed.
“Be careful,” I said hoarsely. “Don’t lean against the table. Don’t jiggle the least bit.”
“Imagine a man,” remarked Jim, “having a horror of clock insides!”
“It’s inherited,” I muttered.
And then Jim, shifting the duster in his hands to get a fresh clean bit to use, flicked with the tail of the rag the middle row of parts. It was just the lightest possible flick. But my rivetted and fascinated gaze saw a small brass wheel and a very tiny steel pin about the size of a one-inch nail, scamper across the table, and I let out a yell.
“You’ve ruined it, you’ve ruined it!” I shouted.
But Jim, bending down, picked up the wheel and the bolt and a sort of rocking beam sort of thing like on the top of an old-fashioned steamboat. It had a hole at each end.
“Not that, not that,” I hissed.
“I remember where they go,” said Jim easily, and he bent over, studying the rows of parts, and looking for the space the parts belonged to. “Here, this is where the wheel was. Or was it the rod?”
“I’m going home,” I stated.
“Just a second,” exclaimed Jim. “Let’s see. This flat thing was here. And this wheel was … there. Was it?”
“Oh, oh, oh,” I moaned.
“Mmmmm,” said Jim, “I remember this large sprocket was there. It must have moved, too. I’ll put it back there, and then this … Let’s see. This … Well, well, mmm, mmm, dear me.”
He straightened up. He stared narrowly at the rows of bits.
“Jim,” I said, taking his hand tenderly. “I’m off. Good-night.”
“Hold on, a jiffy,” said Jim, eagerly. “Now wait a minute.”
But he was frightened, and it showed. There was perspiration along the top of his forehead, too. I couldn’t leave the poor chap in such a plight. I hid my face in my hands and sat down.
“Mmm, mmm,” Jimmie kept saying, “Mmm, mmm.”
I heard little clicks. I heard snaps, clinks, snucks and taps. I heard things going together and things being grunted apart. I heard a loud tapping, and looked up to see Jim hammering a wheel on to an axle, using the butt end of a screw-driver.
“It’s all over,” I said brokenly.
“Well, anyway,” sighed Jim, holding small gear about the size of a dime, “I’ve found one thing I’ve been looking for for months. This gear will exactly fit my casting reel. The one with the black handles.”
“Please,” I begged, “don’t start trying tinker with your fishing reel.”
“It’s the very fit,” said Jim. “And now I know where I can get wheels and springs and anything like that.”
And he laid the clock on its back and rescrewed the face on it, and then laid it on its face and on its back door he just dumped, dumped all the works, packing them in and prying them in with the screw-driver and tamping them down with the butt of the screw-driver, and finally getting the back door closed and the little button turned.
“There,” he said. “Nobody will ever notice.”
Editor’s Note: Gasoline was also used as an all-purpose cleaner back in the old days.
This story is a repeat of “Mmmm, Mmmm!” which was published on February 29, 1936. The image from that story is at the end.
By Gregory Clark, February 17, 1923
Training 3,000 Really Human Girls Not To Talk Back When They Are Barked at – a Triumph of Feminine Psychology.
What is your favorite telephone hate?
Wrong number? Line busy? Cut off? Delay in getting central?
All old stuff. We’ve heard a good deal about YOUR hates.
What about the girl at the other end of the wire? What is central’s favorite hate?
Without exception, the hello girl gives it to the tired business man who roars, snarls, swears, growls, groans and yells.
It all the assorted sounds that are sent in over the wires in one day to a downtown central office of the telephone company were saved and set loose at once, it would sound very much like Ringling’s Circus at feeding time in the big tent.
Men are the worst offenders in rattling the nerves of the swift fingered girls who handle the delicate nerve-system of the telephone exchange. But there are women offenders, too. There is a sweet, meowing kind of lady who can say the cattiest things–
How few wrong numbers you get, how astoundingly few errors you are served with in your daily use of your telephone you will never know, you can’t know, until you have seen the system, have a faint, superficial idea of this miracle of wire and buttons which, in the city of Toronto alone, handles from one million and a quarter to one million and a half telephone calls every twenty-four hours.
Errors occur – in which it has been fairly estimated that YOU are in perhaps half the cases partly to blame.
Delays occur – many of which are caused by YOU taking the time to express your opinion of the girl at central.
And in at least half the errors that do occur the central girl on whom you pour out the vials of your wrath has no more to do with the error than the lady in the moon.
Let’s take a case in point.
Suppose you are phoning from your home in a Parkdale number to another Parkdale number.
The central to whom you give your number reaches with the plug from your phone direct to the hole under the number you have asked for.
Now suppose the lady you are calling is upstairs and is slow answering her phone. You get impatient. You can hear it ringing all right, but you begin to think something is wrong. So you start rapidly clicking your receiver hook up and down.
This causes something strange to happen on central’s board in front of her. When you first took your receiver down, a light lit in front of central. When she plugged in to answer you that little light went out. As soon as you hang up your receiver, that light comes on again, as a sign that you are through. Central promptly switches the cord out of your number and you are disconnected.
Now, when you begin jiggling your hook up and down, that light comes off and on, off and on, but so rapidly that it appears to be on. That is central’s sign to disconnect. She does so. It is your fault.
If you want central, move that hook slowly up and down, to the beat of a grandfather’s clock.
Have you ever been called out of bed to answer the phone, only to find when you get there that there is nobody on the line, and central asks politely: “Number?”
Say your phone is in the Hillcrest exchange. Somebody in the North exchange has decided to call you up. The North person gives his central your number. That central does not, cannot give him the number direct. She presses a button on her board which automatically connects her with the Hillcrest exchange, and a girl in the Hillcrest building, miles away, takes the number, gives the North girl the number of a “trunk line” to put your friend through, and then your phone starts ringing.
In the meantime the North girl and the Hillcrest “trunk line” girl go on with their automatic labor of answering other little lights and switching thirty-four plugs and cords about their board.
Your friend listens to your phone ringing. He wonders at the delay. He looks at his watch and discover it is much later than he had thought. He doesn’t want to get you out of bed. So he hangs up the receiver.
On come the lights in his central’s office. His central promptly pulls out the plug. The light comes on in the Hillcrest “trunk line” girl’s board, and out comes her plug.
By this time you are at the phone and are prayerfully yelling “hello, hello,” and variations thereof.
Suddenly you hear central’s quiet voice say “number,” just as if nothing was amiss.
You roar. You rave.
“I’m sorry,” says central, “there is no one on your line now.”
“Well, what do you mean dragging me out of bed?”
And the fact is, of course, this little girl yon are speaking to doesn’t know any more about your mysterious call than you do. The call had been handled by two switchboards that she didn’t see, one miles away, the other in a different part of the building. In fact, until your friend’s plugs were pulled out after he had hung up, and until you lifted the receiver off, no light came on the board of this central of yours.
She is no more to blame than the lady in the moon. And if she cuts you off in the middle of your abuse you have a hemorrhage.
When you are cut off in the middle of a conversation, be sure of several things before you raise your voice. If you are talking from an office where there is a private switchboard, the cutting may have been done by the fair lady who presides at this board, for in most offices she is not only switchboard operator, but office boy, stenographer, private secretary to the head clerk and several other things. Then if you are speaking to someone outside your own exchange, as from Main to Junction, it may not be the central you can speak to at all, but the girl away out in West Toronto.
So don’t blame the only girl you can speak to.
The telephone company is listening in all the time for the purpose of checking their staff, a whole platoon of supervisors and instructors being employed in every exchange for this purpose every hour of the day. These experts declare that at least half the wrong numbers are due to the indistinct speaking of the person asking for the number, or to the defective memory of the customer, who asks for Main 6017 when the number he wants to Main 6107 – and when he gets what he asks for, Main 6017, says to the party at the other end:
“Oh. I’m sorry, central gave me the wrong number.”
Only the rules of the company prevent the supervisors who overhear such conversations as that from taking their revenge and yelling over the phone a triumphant –
The telephone is a miraculous development of a thousand frail things into a substantial and ever-ready service to mankind. Back of that box on your wall is a mechanism so intricate as to stun a layman.
It is also a triumph of psychology. To take three thousand girls, feminine to their fingertips every one, and train them not to talk back – what more profound reform of feminine nature than that? Yet despite the blame and the bullying they are subjected to (a thing which is decreasing every year in marked degree), they must not talk back, however innocent they are, however in the wrong the bully is. Speed is the watchword! Service! And to every irate subscriber they must be polite, lest they prolong the argument, and delay the service with its million and a half calls a day!
But it is not merely mechanical after all. The girls are human. Many of them are strained and unnerved by the grumblers and barkers. The girls get to know the plug holes or “jacks” of the chronic grouses. They come to detest that man – unseen, but visualized as a fat, mottled-faced crank – oh, they are human enough to fancy the faces behind those little plugs, behind those voices kind or rough, quiet or petulant, smiling or snarling.
Human! You ought to see the long distance office. Girls on roller skates! Yes, sir! Young girl messengers whizzing about that big room from board to board, carrying the memos of calls from one town to another by means of one roller skate, propelling themselves with one foot and scooting like streaks on the ether, from Toronto to North Bay or Belleville, that is to say, the boards representing those towns. It looks like great fun. But it’s work – for you, that you might be served with speed. Some time when you are in Eaton’s, drop into the Grill Room at 10.30 a.m. or 3 p.m. and see the demonstration the telephone company is putting on there in connection with the Made-in-Canada exhibit all the month of February. They have the switchboards up, and girls demonstrating the entire process, with all the points referred to in this article graphically explained by means of little dramatic skits.
Editor’s Note: The early days of phones usually required the need to talk to an operator and give the number, which could include the name of the exchange you were calling. Toronto had a 2-letter, 4-number system until 1957 when it switched to a 2-letter, 5-number system to meet new North American standards. The letters could be converted to numbers seen on the dial, which could also accommodate direct dialing without the need of an operator. The letter system was dropped from directories in 1966 when the conversion to 7 numbers was completed.
By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, February 13, 1943
“Meet me,” instructed Jimmie Frise, “at exactly 10 to 5.”
“Make it 5,” I suggested.
“No, sir, not by a jugful,” cried Jim. “I don’t want to get torn to pieces, and clawed and trampled into the bargain.”
“I beg your pardon?” I inquired.
“If you’re not there by 10 to 5,” stated Jimmie, “I’ll go on. Ten to 5 on the dot.”
“What is all this?” I insisted. “Why the exact specifications?”
“If you get on the street car,” explained Jim, “at 10 to 5, you can get far enough back in the car to have a fighting chance. But at five minutes to 5, the women are already on the run. And at 5 exactly, the stampede of the women is on. Your life isn’t worth a cent if you get in their path.”
“Women!” I protested. “How do you mean?”
“Don’t tell me,” said Jim, “that you haven’t been on a crowded street car lately. Don’t tell me you haven’t observed the Wartime Woman.”
“Jimmie,” I enunciated, scandalized, “the womanhood of Canada has risen to a man…”
“Yah,” cried Jim. “You hit it on the head. Risen to a man. That’s the trouble.”
“Why, Jimmie,” I protested. “If it weren’t for the women who are helping in industry, in the factories and munitions plants, where would we be right now?”
“It’s not the munitions girls I’m talking about,” asserted Jimmie. “They’re wonderful. They’re real he-men, to the core. They’ve got all the best traits of the men whose work they are doing. They have all a man’s innate courtesy and consideration for his fellow mortal.”
“Then who …?” I demanded.
“Wait till I finish with the war worker,” said Jim. “Those girls demonstrate a curious fact: give a girl a man’s work to do, and she develops the character of a man. I think the sight of a street car crowded with tired munitions girls going home from work is one of the most moving spectacles of our time. Weary to the bone after a long day’s toil, free by reason of their work clothes from that awful self-consciousness which the ancient laws of style and personal beauty have imposed on women, they sit relaxed, their faces untouched by make-up, with a softness and naturalness that a man somehow associates only with his nearest and dearest, like his mother or sister; those munitions girls are far more lovely to look at than they dream.”
“I agree,” I said.
The Wartime Woman
“If girls only knew,” sighed Jim, “how much more attractive and truly appealing they are when they are tired, a little dishevelled and unconscious of themselves.”
“A man,” I said, “hardly ever falls in love with a girl, no matter how hard she slaves over her make-up and clothes and pretty ways, until suddenly one day he catches her in tears, or scared to death or all mussed up and bewildered. That’s when a man falls in love.”
“When he sees,” summed up Jim, “what a girl really is, not what she is trying to be, he feels it safe to fall in love with her.”
“That’s it,” I declared. And I bet you some of the happiest marriages this world has ever seen are being framed up right now, when all those beautiful girls in the factories and war plants are being too busy to be anything but themselves.”
“Isn’t it a pity so many of the boys are away at the war,” Jim muttered. “The best guys may be missing their match.”
“Never,” I cried. “What these girls in the factories are learning about being natural they will never forget. And the wisest of them know that one fine day, a quarter of a million young unmarried men are coming swarming home from war, fuller of love of home and all the things that really matter to a happy life than any of the canny lads who have stayed home, no matter how valuable their services here may be. Those girls will wait for their boys to come home, don’t fear.”
“It’s not the munitions girls I’m scared of,” declared Jim.
“Then who’s this Wartime Woman you referred too?” I inquired.
“War,” detailed Jim, “due to the absence of a huge percentage of the male population, places new and unaccustomed burdens and duties on women. Those who enter men’s work, like in factories, are brought under men’s discipline. But of those who remain women, though brought out of the home into business and affairs, some become a problem.”
“How?” I inquired.
“It has taken men centuries and centuries,” explained Jim, “through contact with one another in the market place and the factory, to learn public manners. I grant you, men’s manners are still a long way from perfect. But you rarely find a man who will act in a crowded street car the way too many women do.”
“Jim,” I cautioned him, “you are on very dangerous ground. One of the oldest traditions in the world is the tradition of the gentler sex.”
“Gentle my elbow,” snorted Jim. “Women are lawless, untamed. For centuries, we have had to keep them tied up in the home while we men went out into the world to try and work out a system of civilization.”
“If women are so untamed,” I demanded, “how did we weak, sentimental men succeed in keeping them tied up in the home?”
“By refusing to marry any but the kind who would stay home,” Jim explained. “We men glorified the soft, feminine, gentle characteristics of an imaginary ideal womanhood. We hoped, by the process of natural selection, to eliminate the lawless woman. It worked to some extent. For a few centuries, we kept them tied up with domestic duties, family cares, trying to get them all worn out before they could break loose. We’ve always known they were untamed. We built up our civilization, in the hope that it would be too strong for the women to destroy even if they did get free. Then, 40 years ago, about the start of the 20th century, they got free. They entered business. Next they got the vote. Now they are loose upon the world. And look at it.”
Ladies in a Hurry
“For mercy’s sake,” I protested, “you don’t blame the women for the mess the world is in today!”
“The 20th century,” stated Jim, “is already known to history as the Bloody Century. Two of the most savage wars in all human history have taken place, and the century’s not half over yet. Now, what is the other thing the 20th century is notable for? What basic thing, different from all others? The emancipation of women.”
“Why, Jim, this is terrible,” I cried. “To accuse womanhood of any share in the things they hate and detest most …”
“Who hates and detests?” demanded Jim. “Is it that ideal woman we men have been dreaming up for a couple of thousand years? You just wait till we get on the street car after 5 o’clock. Anyway, I make no accusations. I draw no morals. All I do is go into the forest of speculation and bring out a few logs of fact. You do the building any way you like. I say the century of the emancipation of women happens also to be the Bloody Century. Maybe there is no connection.”
“The 20th century,” I cried, “has seen the greatest strides in social reform in all history. And the influence of women is to be credited with much of that reform.”
“The 20th century,” announced Jim, “is also the bloodiest century in human history. No other century can hold a candle to it.”
“But how could women be involved in that?” I shouted.
“Good grief,” shouted Jim, “it’s five to 5! Come on!”
So we grabbed our coats and hats and hurried out to the elevator. The elevator was full of girls, all with very determined expressions on their faces. The girl operating the elevator said:
“Room for one only.”
And as I tried to squeeze in beside Jim, she threw the lever that automatically slides the door shut, and I was very nearly sliced like a ham.
“Wait for me,” I yelled to Jim as the elevator door slammed.
The next elevator had a couple of men in it, along with about twice as many girls as the elevator would hold. The men held their breath and drew in their stomachs to allow me to squeeeeeeze in.
As the elevator door opened on the ground floor, and I stood aside to let the ladies out first, the lady behind me gave me a shove in the back with her knuckle.
“Okay, lady, no hurry,” I mumbled.
Jim was standing over by the pillars and we joined forces and fought our way out the revolving doors. Girls are nimble. They have grace. They can nip through revolving doors. But a man likes to approach a revolving door deliberately.
It was spinning too fast for me; so I paused. Two spaces whizzed round empty.
“Come on, Grampaw,” said a commanding voice behind me, and a young lady bunted me into the next vacancy and came round with me.
“Young lady…” I said indignantly as we popped out on the street and I caught my hat.
But she was gone in the throng.
“See?” said Jim, coming pop out after me.
When we reached the street car stop, there was a big crowd, about equally men and women. Three cars arrived in a bunch. The second one was our choice. We ran for it.
So did about five determined looking men and about nine women and girls. The men won.
They grabbed the hand rails and clung on the steps.
The girls panted behind us.
“How about this, Jim?” I inquired, my face buried in the coat tails of the gentleman ahead of me.
“Aw, we have to get on first,” explained Jim, “because the girls have to hunt through their handbags for their street car tickets. It is always best for the men to get on first, because they always have their tickets in their hands.”
“I see,” I said, hoisting myself another step up.
And more by luck than good management, Jim and I, poke checking a couple of men ahead of us, and executing a sort of echelon movement familiar to students of naval battles, got an empty seat together.
“Aaaaah,” we breathed, in a sigh familiar to all street car riders.
The warlike women poured in after us, nabbing seats with agility and speed until the seats were all filled and they scattered themselves down the aisles. None of them paused near Jim and me until, near the last of the load, a lady of about our age, obviously not a downtown worker but a shopper, came and grabbed the handrail of the seat with a very heavy sigh and a slight groan.
And she leaned back slightly and stared expectantly at Jimmie and me.
“How about it, Jim?” I murmured, when she shifted her fierce gaze off us for a minute.
“We come to a factory in two or three blocks,” said Jim out the side of his mouth. “Save our seats for a couple of war workers.”
“Okay,” I said firmly, and stared with intense interest, like a stranger in town, out the window.
The lady in the red-feathered hat and handbag, swayed alarmingly as the car started and stopped. She braced herself in the aisle against all who attempted to squeeze down the car to make room.
Her handbag caught Jim a couple of suggestive cracks on the ear. She continued emitting heavy sighs and faint groans and occasionally seemed to be muttering to herself. But I kept watching out the window with unabated interest.
Then we came to the factory street stop which we knew by the merry sounds of laughter and of crowds outside the car doors.
“Move down, lots of “room at the back,” cried the motorman heartily.
“Umffff,” snorted the lady beside us, holding her ground.
But despite her efforts, half a dozen of the slim war workers managed to eel their way past and at the sight of the first of them, Jim and I leaped dutifully to our feet and with the detached courtesy that becomes grizzle-headed old gents, gave them our seats.
“When We Stop Idealizing”
I could feel the lady’s breath hot on the back of my neck. For an instant, I feared for myself.
“Mashers,” she muttered; but I heard her.
The car started.
I lurched back. My foot came down on something softish and lumpish.
“Ow-ooooo!” screeched the lady with the red handbag.
And giving me the elbow so that my head banged against the upright rail, she aimed her shot and brought her heel down on my foot.
“Clumsy fool,” she grated.
I limped down the car and Jim followed, screening my confusion from the eyes of those who had witnessed the little contretemps.
“See?” murmured Jimmie in my ear, when we found a spot to cling.
I was too busy suffering to continue the debate. But after about 30 blocks, the crowd thinned in the car and I saw the lady in the red feathered hat get off the car and shake herself with all the grace of a horse getting up after a roll in the stubble.
“She didn’t get a seat all the way,” I gloated.
“Now you see what I mean about women,” said Jim. “No man would deliberately stamp on your foot like that.”
“But my dear sir,” I exclaimed, “she was only one. Look at all the rest of the fair sex in this car. All quiet and feminine and self-effacing. You can’t base a whole philosophy on one woman in a carload.”
“How’s your foot?” inquired Jim.
“I think,” I said, wriggling them cautiously, “she broke one of my toes.”
“Well, it wasn’t any man did that,” argued Jim.
“The thing is too complicated for me, Jim,” I pleaded. “That lady belonged to our generation. She was brought up to expect a seat in a car, no matter how crowded. It wasn’t my accidentally stepping on her foot that made her sore. She felt insulted.”
“Maybe,” said Jim, “we were at fault in idealizing them. If that dame is a sample of what idealizing does, we were wrong. If all the rest of the girls in this car are a sample of what letting them work in factories does, we sure were wrong.”
“Maybe keeping them tied up at home,” I submitted, “made them bad tempered, like tying up a dog.”
“Maybe,” rounded up Jimmie, “when we stop idealizing all things for our own comfort and security, even wars will end.”
And then a couple of dopey looking downtown business men, who had been sitting like two potatoes all the way, got up.
And Jimmie and I, like two potatoes, sat down for the remaining seven blocks.
Editor’s Note: A lot of creative writing had to go into this piece to both praise and complain about women on the home front during World War Two. I can picture their editor being very careful to ensure that women working would not be offended.
Jim illustrated this article by Stephen Leacock. It is about “Blue Laws” that were popular at the time to restrict any non-religious activity on Sundays. In Ontario, the Lord’s Day Act was passed in 1906, which prevented all sorts of activities including shopping, on Sundays. It was not repealed until 1985. I’m guessing there was more enforcement at the time, giving rise to article. The illustration is from this passage:
“Just to take a simple example: they say that under the Blue Laws the cigar counter in the rotunda of the hotel will be shut on Sunday. I am sorry, sorry over that. It was my wont always after breakfast at my hotel to stroll over to this counter and buy a two-for-a-quarter cigar from the Girl with the Golden Hair who stood behind it. She would smile at me over the purchase of a twelve-and-a-half-cent cigar in a way that made the place feel like home. It was my custom of a Sunday to talk to her, while I bought that cigar, of the kind of weather that we had been having in my home town. I suppose a hundred men a day told her about it.”