By Greg Clark, January 9, 1943
“How do you fix a tap?” inquired Jimmie Frise.
“It’s very simple,” I explained. “Do you know where to turn off the water main in your cellar?”
“Sure, it’s a little old brass tap down near the cement floor,” said Jimmie.
“Well, turn that off,” I pursued, “and that cuts the water off all over the house. Then you take a monkey wrench, see, and undo the nut that holds the tap on. Then you fasten in a new washer.”
“It’s a funny thing,” said Jim, “but in all the years I have been a householder and a taxpayer, I have never fixed a tap.”
“This war,” I agreed, “is certainly making men of us.”
“I have signed leases,” said Jimmie, “and signed agreements for sale. I have arranged mortgages and negotiated loans at the bank. I have put my signature to all kinds of elaborate and intricate contracts with the Hydro, with the gas company, with motor car sales corporations and sellers of radios on time payment plans. But I have never fixed a tap.”
“Life, in the past 20 years,” I mused, “was very complicated. All the simple things, like fixing taps, we left to other people. And all the complicated and intricate things we did ourselves. Wasn’t it silly?”
“I imagine the period,” said Jim, “between 1920 and 1939 will go down in history as one of the blackest in all time. It will be famous in history as the period in which humanity went flabby. For 20 years, humanity just stood still and flabbied.”
“Flabbied?” I inquired. “Is there such a word?”
“If there isn’t, there ought to be,” stated Jimmie. “Because it describes as no other word could the conduct of the human race for that 20-year period. Everything flabbied. It was the dawn of the age of gaggle music, known as jazz at first and now known as jive. It was the age in which the dance, that most graceful and beautiful of all human antics, became a mere flab.”
“Flab?” I demanded. “Hey.”
“Politically,” went on Jim, “the whole world flabbied. Our rich people, the leaders, owners and masters of the earth, were so flabby that they could not see past the edges of their cheque books and led the whole mass of mankind first into a world-wide depression of colossal cruelty, and finally into a war so ruinous that all are engulfed, from the richest to the poorest.”
“It was the age,” I recollected ruefully, “of abdications, assassinations and unheralded invasions.”
“Everybody was so flabby,” declared Jim, “that when the flabby masters of the world tried to scare us into obedience to their flabby will by shouting at us that the red bogey man would get us, all we did was stand still and flab.”
“There’s that word again,” I muttered.
“Okay, think of a better one,” suggested Jimmie.
Masters and Men
“It’s a pretty unwholesome spectacle, that 20-year stretch from 1920 to 1939,” I admitted. “But maybe from a little distance, history won’t be too cruel on us. After all, many beautiful buildings were erected in that time. Many great advances in industry and science were come by. Sulfa drugs were invented. And sulfa drugs are the greatest boon to humanity since Louis Pasteur.”
“Sure,” agreed Jim. “Radio was invented during that 20-year period. And the airplane was brought practically to its present state of perfection in that time. A thousand things were perfected. But for all the perfection of the means of communicating between human beings, we neglected just one thing. And that was the human relation. We developed radio so that we could, every last living soul of us, sit in our own easy chair, at home, and hear the voices of men speaking to us from every nation on earth. But the one thing we did not do was try to understand him.”
“Aw, there were never so many crackpots,” I asserted, “in the world’s history as since 1920.”
“We developed, in that 20 years,” insisted Jim, “the motor car to that point that anybody could own one and go anywhere. We speeded up communication so that ships crossed the Atlantic in four days and planes crossed the same ocean in 16 hours. But the more free we were to visit and see and understand our fellow man everywhere, the less we understood him and the more, eventually, we grew to hate him.”
“H’m,” I admitted. “That is a queer one.”
“We perfected all the means of contacting our fellow men, everywhere,” concluded Jimmie triumphantly, “and ended up by rushing at one another with murder in our hearts.”
“How do you explain it?” I demanded.
“Flabby,” said Jim briefly. “Just flabby. It was not the common man who rushed at the other common man. It was our masters who sicked us on to each other. Our masters do not want the common man to get together. Our masters live in only one great and consuming fear, and that is that the common man of the world will get together with all other common men and then the jig is up, as far as masters are concerned. So when they saw the changes coming over the world in that period from 1920 to 1939, with every change making it easier for the common man to get together, they began to worry. And they raised up all kinds of scares and bogies. Millions of innocent Chinese and Abyssinians and Spaniards were killed and destroyed before they finally got us all tangled up in a vast, world-wide hatred and misunderstanding. If we hadn’t been flabby, we could have seen through our masters.”
“Who are these masters you talk about?” I demanded indignantly.
“All the people, in all countries,” said Jim, “who feel they are superior to the common man.”
“But my goodness,” I protested, anxiously.
“All the people,” insisted Jim, “in all countries, who feel they are superior to the common man and who, therefore, league together with those others they think, by their own standards, are also superior to the common man. It starts with little neighborhoods, in small towns. It spreads to larger neighborhoods in cities. Presently it spreads to groups in whole nations, who band together in banks, companies, directorates, universities, industries and finally political parties. And the meanest of them who thinks he is superior to the common man becomes the devoted slave of the greatest of those who thinks he is superior.”
“But the Germans,” I pointed out, “now imagine that their whole race is superior.”
“That’s the same thing carried to insanity,” explained Jim. “But we’ve got it here, too. It is everywhere. The thing we have got to get rid of, after this war, is the whole theory that some men are superior to the common man.”
“But aren’t they?” I demanded firmly.
“Not when it comes to eating,” said Jim, “sleeping, being clothed, having a job, being secure. Not when it comes to dying in battle or dying in a slum. When 10 men are dead, including a king and a beggar, they are all equal. When 10 men are hungry, or cold or homeless or without hope, they are all equal.”
Visionary or Plabbie?
“You are a visionary,” I informed him.
“I am no longer flabby,” said Jim definitely.
“But you can’t fix a tap,” I recalled to him.
“Ah, yes,” said Jim. “Yes, yes, yes, Let’s see: I go down cellar and turn off that little brass tap down near the floor. Then I go up….”
“Have you got any washers?” I inquired.
“Sure,” said Jim, “In the second drawer in the kitchen cabinet along with hockey pucks, cook books, screw drivers and things for helping remove tight lids off jam jars.”
“Are you sure?” I inquired. “We could get some washers from the hardware store, as we walk over to your place.”
“Ah, so you are coming to help me with the tap?” said Jim.
“Something tells me I had better,” I muttered. “You have a washer?”
“If I haven’t,” said Jim, “I can take one out of the hose, I won’t need the hose. …”
“But a tap washer,” I cried, “is not like a hose washer. A tap washer is a little round nubbin, a sort of half ball of rubber, with a small hole through it….”
“That isn’t the kind of washers we used when I was a boy,” declared Jim. “I remember washers. They were round rings, like hose washers.”
“My dear boy,” I assured him, “taps have changed mightily in this last period from 1920 to 1939.”
So we walked the other way, round the block and called at the hardware store where I wheedled one of the pre-war washers out of the hardware man. He only had six left which he was keeping for his own family use.
A visit to a hardware store is always a delight to a family man, and any little excuse will serve. One of the finest features of a hardware store is that it is practically all one big notion counter. Its shelves, bins and showcase tops are stacked with items of intense utility. While the hardware man hunted up his private stock of tap washers, I selected, a. nice sharpening stone to send to my brother overseas, a very handy gadget for a soldier; and also a stick of wax for preventing drawers and windows from sticking. Then the man arrived with the washer.
“What a ridiculous little thing,” said Jim, examining the washer. “How does it work?”
“Very simple,” I explained. “You take the tap out, unscrew the old worn-out washer, screw this one back on the end of the rod that goes down from the tap. Then, when you turn the tap, this washer tightens down on the hole in the pipe, shutting off the stream.”
“From now on,” said Jim, “I am going to do all my own tap repairing. If I’d known it was as simple as this, I could have stopped leaky taps that must have dribbled thousands of gallons of water away in the past 30 years.”
“Thirty flabby years,” I reminded him.
When we arrived at Jim’s, we proceeded at once to the kitchen and Jim indicated the tap that needed the washer. It was the hot water tap.
“Why,” I protested; “you’ve been wasting good hot water. Either electric energy or fuel oil has been criminally wasted by this dripping tap, Jim. Wait a minute.”
And from the shelf I took an empty milk bottle and set it under the dribble.
“Now,” I explained, “we can calculate how many gallons of costly hot water you have been wasting.”
We watched the water dribble and drip, and in 12 minutes, the milk bottle was half full.
“There you are, sir,” I stated accusingly. “One pint in 12 minutes. That is two and a half quarts in five hours. That is five quarts in 10 hours. That is around 12 quarts or three gallons in a day. In a year, that comes to….”
“Wait a minute,” said Jim, “that tap has only developed a drip in the past week.”
“Well,” I said, “now that you have recovered from the flabbiness that had you in its grip for the past 20 years, I am glad you decided to fix it within a week.”
“I’m fixing it,” retorted Jim.
“With a hose washer,” I scoffed.
“Wait till I run down and shut off that brass tap,” said he, disappearing down the cellarway.
“Okay, lad,” he said, reappearing in a moment.
And he got the monkey wrench out of the second drawer in the kitchen cabinet, from amidst the hockey pucks, baseball gloves, can openers and cook books.
“Let me show you,” I said, taking the wrench.
But the tap had not been dealt with for a long time. The nut securing it was firmly fixed. I grunted and heaved.
“Here,” said Jim.
And he put his weight on it and loosened it.
A welling of water started immediately around the edges of the nut.
“Just the overflow.” I assured him. “Go ahead. Wind her off.”
“But as Jim unwound, the water flowed more lively around the nut.
“Are you sure you turned the main off?” I cried.
“Certainly.” said Jimmie, wrenching rapidly. “Off tight.”
And with a sudden explosion, the tap came up and off in his hands, whence it clattered into the sink and a solid column of water, an inch thick, spurted straight up in the air, saturating Jimmie and causing him to leap backwards and fall over the stool.
I clamped my two hands over the tap. But it was hot, and getting hotter.
“Get a rag.” I roared. “Get a bucket.”
And while Jimmie scrambled furiously in all directions to find a bucket which we could invert over the tap to prevent it flooding the kitchen. I held on as bravely as I could, getting very wet in between the taking off and laying on of my hands.
But finally Jimmie found a galvanized pail and we put it upside down over the tap, holding it firmly against the force of the stream of now quite hot water, which deflected it down into the sink.
“What do we do?” shouted Jim, damp and excited. “Will I phone the plumber?”
“You’ll never get a plumber soon enough, I shouted back. “Did you turn it off at the main? Hold this while I go and look.”
“Of course, I turned it off,” roared Jim. “Do you think I am a complete nitwit? I turned it off tight.”
“Hold this,” I commanded, indicating the upside down pail.
So I ran down cellar and looked at the laundry water pipes. I followed them with my eyes until I came to the brass tap which, by its rugged appearance, indicated itself as the main tap. I put my ear to it and could hear the water gushing. I seized it, turned it, and it turned freely down.
In a moment, the water had ceased to flush in the pipe.
Jimmie’s voice came down the stairs.
“Okay, it’s off,” he said breathlessly. “What did you do?”
“Come down here,” I commanded. And I met him at the foot of the steps.
“Where did you turn it off?” I inquired sweetly.
“Right there,” stated Jim indignantly.
And he pointed at the gas main tap, one foot off the floor, and on the pipe leading straight into the gas meter.
“Jim,” I said, sadly, “we’re still flabby. You turn it off. And I take your word for it.”
So we finished the job, put the washer in, made a perfect job of it, so that the tap fitted snug and sweet with nary a dribble.
And after we had mopped up the kitchen floor and had the water and gas all organized again, Jimmie sighed with the air of a man who has accomplished much and inquired:
“And how many gallons of hot water do you figure you let escape from under your hands?”
Which shows you the measure of human gratitude.
Editor’s Notes: The term sulfa drugs is not so common now.
Sulfa drugs were the first antibiotics developed in the mid-1930s and were the only antibiotics available before penicillin.
Though Greg was a war correspondent, he was back in Canada enough to still publish stories. He mentions sending a sharpening stone to his brother (Joe) who was Director of Public Relations for the Canadian Armed Services at the time.
Greg uses the term “down cellar”, which is a good, old Ontario saying for “in the basement”, just like my grandmother used.