By Greg Clark, July 4, 1942
“This is Army Week,” announced Jimmie Frise, “and about the best way we could honor the army would be by joining it.”
“Not active,” I protested. “We’re too old to go active.”
“I mean the reserve army,” stated Jim. “They’ll take us up to almost any age if we’re fit.”
“How about that hand of yours?” I demanded. “Do you realize it’s 25 years since you lost part of that hand at the battle of Vimy? Be your age, Jim.”
“It’s still a good hand,” said Jim indignantly. “It can still hold the front end of a shotgun that knocks down five ducks to your one.”
“The reserve army isn’t for old crocks,” I insisted. “It Is for men in fit physical condition who are not quite fit enough for active service, and for all those not eligible for active service by reason of their age, family or business circumstances; or any other reason. But it is not an assemblage of old crocks. Because one of these fine days, if an attack comes on our shores, our reserve army is going to be called out very active indeed.”
“Well, you’re not afraid of a little action are you?” snorted Jim.
“Sir,” I said hotly. “I am one of the few Canadians who were in the retreat to Dunkirk.”
“Yah,” said Jim. “But you didn’t come off at Dunkirk: you came off at Boulogne.”
“Well, I was in the big skedaddle, anyway,” I said very hurt. “And I ought to know about how useful a bird of my age is in modern warfare. I tell you that it would be no picnic, you and me fighting up in Labrador or Alaska or somewhere. You’re as old as you feel, I always say. And some days, we’d be fighting fools. But other days, we’d have to be carried with the rest of the baggage.”
“Canada has been mighty sweet to us. It’s given us a grand time. We’ve had fun for 50 years. I don’t know a better way of squaring our debt to the rocks and rivers and lakes and forests of Canada, not to mention her cities, and towns and villages in which we have lived and through which we have joyously passed in our travels, than to conk out behind some rock in Labrador of Alaska, with a neat little rifle in our hands and 10 nicks filed in the butt.”
“Common sense ought to enter into this reserve army thing,” I asserted. “If 15 per cent of a reserve unit consists of old billy goats full of vim but not much vigor, they are going to be an awful burden on the unit when it comes to fast moving and hard fighting. Everybody admires an old timer trying to do his bit in the army. All the younger fellows would march slower for us. They’d weary themselves trying to carry our packs. They’d waste time trying to rescue us if we were wounded.”
Harder Than Fighting
“We could be used for traffic control, police duty and odd jobs around the camps,” declared Jim. “The main thing is – get in. All these problems will have been worked out by the reserve units, you can bet. They’ll know what to do with us. Probably they have some plan all ready to put in operation the minute the unit is called, by which they will weed us out and take only the younger men. And leave us at home to mind the armories.”
“Then what’s the use of us getting in.” I demanded, if it is only for show and pretense?”
“Listen, mister,” stated Jimmie, “if war comes to Canada, it will be far better to be even a half-baked soldier than a panic-stricken refugee. And you’re the boy that should know it.”
“I guess you’re right,” I muttered, thinking of Brussels and Lille and Arras and Amiens and all the towns I had seen two years ago, almost to the day, when the middle-aged and elderly men of France, Belgium and Holland had been looking for wheelbarrows for somebody to push them in along the shrieking roads of Flanders.
“Bad luck,” invoked Jimmie, “on the house that does not entertain a soldier to dinner this week, this Army Week! Bad luck on the prince of good fellows amongst us who does not invite a soldier friend to lunch with him this week, even if he has to go out of his way to do it; even if he has to hunt through the telephone book! The itch, the hay fever and the eczema on all who have no soldier of their own, if they fail this week to write that long-forgotten letter to some old chum, old friend, old enemy who is abroad with the Canadians in the ends of the world today! Dandruff, hangnails and a mote in the eye of all who fail to send off a parcel to some dim forgotten friend in the army overseas! For this is Army Week, and we’ve got to remember the boys, here and abroad, until our conscience wakes up and begins to hurt, like a little, far off toothache.”
“If our army had been shot to pieces in battle,” I surmised, “we’d be thinking of them hour by hour.”
“But our army has done a far harder thing than fight a battle,” declared Jim. “In a few weeks, our army will be three years old. By this time, in the old war, I had been wounded and sent back to England, and you were a frost-bitten old campaigner waiting for your captaincy to come through. By this time, in the old war, the Battle of the Somme was over and the newspapers of Canada had printed whole black pages of casualties. But that was easy, compared with what our army has done so far. For they have soldiered with never a glimpse of an enemy. They are like hockey players who practise day after day, month after month, with never a game. Yet they can’t get fed up. They can’t quit the team and go back to work. No, sir! They’ve got to go right on practising hockey, full of pep, like professionals. They’ve got to keep the team together, but never a game played.”
“I hadn’t thought of it that way,” I mumbled.
“It’s like having a car,” went on Jim, “which you wash and polish and open and shut the door and get into it and get out of it. But you never go any place in it.”
“Tough,” I admitted.
“It’s like being a skilled mechanic, but the factory hasn’t opened for business yet.” said Jim. “It’s like being a doctor, but you can’t get a practice. It is like having worked up an appetite, with no sign of supper. It’s like being unemployed.”
“We don’t realize,” I confessed.
To Join the Reserve
“Our army,” declared Jim, “has given a demonstration of morale that may stand as one of the greatest exhibitions of intelligent guts in history. Most men can fight. Most men like fighting. But to stand on the edge of a fight month by month, year by year, a fight in which you are personally concerned, a fight in which you, your friends and your family are being hurt – and still keep your shirt on takes a kind of courage that goes far, far deeper than the courage to step into the fight.”
“Maybe we needed Army Week?” I said. “Maybe it will take a week for that little fact to sink in.”
“You see,” said Jim, “the navy has been in the fight from the drop of the hat. The air force has performed some of the greatest miracles in history. The army has had to stand back, grinding its teeth. But its day will come. When a ship goes forth, it has to return to a port. When a plane goes up, it has to have a landing ground to come back on. But from the ship, the army can wade ashore. And from the plane, the army can drop by parachute. It is the army that does the trick. It is the army that takes.”
“Long live the army,” I said.
“God bless the army,” said Jim.
“I guess there is nothing for it,” I stated, “but for us to get into the reserve. Even to have a second-rate right to wear that uniform is an honor no man can dare to miss.”
“When will we find out about it?” inquired Jim, rising to his feet and reaching for his hat.
“How about now?” I agreed.
So, though it was only seven blocks to the armories, Jimmie and I went out and caught the street car.
“Don’t let’s get up there puffing,” advised Jim.
We had no more than sat down before the car, at the text block, took aboard quite a crowd of people.
And two young ladies came and stood beside our seat, cheerily chatting.
“Hrrmmpph,” I suggested to Jim, indicating the young ladies.
“Eh?” whispered Jim.
“Remember,” I whispered back. “a couple of gallant young sprigs like us must act the part. Get up and give your seat to the lady.”
“Of course!” cried Jimmie, rising very athletic and lifting his hat in the manner of 1912.
For it must be confessed, for the past few years, Jimmie and I have both been a little short-sighted on street cars – except for ladies of our own age, or older.
With lithe and straight-backed alacrity, Jimmie and I got out of the narrow little pew, flourishing our hats elegantly and bowing.
“No, no, no, no,” exclaimed the girls with great embarrassment. “No, no, no, sir.”
One of them even put her hand on my shoulder and tried to press me back in the seat.
“Please,” she said, as though speaking either to a little boy or to an elderly person, “please sit down, now; don’t be silly. We can stand.”
But I was out of the seat and the two of us very proudly stood aside.
The girls were a little flustered, and obviously did not want to take the seats at all, when one of them called out:
“Oh, Uncle Joe! Why, there’s Uncle Joe.”
Two soldiers were standing down the aisle, hanging grimly to the uprights. They were old soldiers. They had ribbons. They were in battle dress. And in the battle dress, they sagged.
“Huh?” said one of them, turning.
“Uncle Joe, here’s a seat for you,” called one of the pretty young ladies.
They Looked Pretty Tired
Without hesitation, Uncle Joe came for it.
And his comrade, another old-timer, followed smartly
“Hello, Sis,” cried Uncle Joe genially.
“Take this seat,” urged the young lady, pulling at Uncle Joe’s arm.
“Not at all,” said Uncle Joe. “Sit down, girls.”
“How about those blisters?” demanded Sis archly.
“Aaaaaah,” said Uncle Joe, collapsing into the seat without another struggle. “Hey, Bill, sit down here.”
“Aaaaaah,” echoed Bill the other old boy. “It isn’t blisters with me. It’s chafe. This battle dress is made of sandpaper.”
The girls had their backs to us now and the four of them, the two old soldiers and the girls, went into a jolly huddle.
“Next stop, Jim,” I said, pulling the bell cord.
“Uncle Bill,” Sis was explaining to her girl friend, said he was 49 when he really was 53. It isn’t the colonel that is finding him out. It’s his feet.”
And to mixed laughter of men and girls, Jimmie and I pushed down the aisle and got off.
“How old,” I asked Jim, as we turned north towards the armories, “would you figure those old timers to be?”
“About our age,” said Jim.
“They looked older,” I stated.
“The uniform makes them look older,” explained Jim. “Battle dress is funny. It makes a young soldier look younger and an old soldier look older.”
“They looked pretty tired,” I submitted, as we walked smartly in step up the avenue.
“They’ve probably been on route march down town,” said Jim.
“I guess that battle dress is kind of chafey,” I supposed.
“I wonder if they’ll let you wear your own boots in the reserve army?” wondered Jim.
In step, with our backs stiff, we marched across the cinders to the side door of the Armories. On duty at the gate, his hands behind his back, his rotund figure showing noticeably in front of his battle dress, an old soldier was standing. He looked a good 60.
“Good-morning,” said Jim. “We were going to make some inquiries about the reserve army.”
“Sure, boys,” said the soldier. “I’ll show the way. Were you thinking of joining up?”
“We’ll, we’re both old soldiers,” I explained. “And we thought …”
“What’s your age?” asked the weaponless sentry.
We told him.
“Ah, ah,” he said, halting. “Fifty is the top limit.”
“I suppose you’re only 49?” I demanded.
“As a matter of fact, I’m only 48,” said the sentry. “Never say 49. They always look up at you, if you say 49. We all say 49 if nobody tips us off. The thing to say is 48 or even 46, and then the officer never even looks up from writing.”
“Don’t they ask for your birth certificate?” inquired Jim.
“Say, listen,” said the sentry, indignantly. “The reserve army is too honorable to pull any dirty tricks like that. What kind of work have you been doing, by the way?”
If You’re Past the Age
He looked us over narrowly, and felt my muscles and gave Jim a little poke in the stomach. Jim hasn’t much of a one, but what there is of it is round, like a football and those tall, thin men like Jimmie show it.
We explained that we were office men, writers, desk men.
“Mmmmmm,” he said, turning me around and feeling my back muscles which protrude just a little over my kidneys. “What exercise do you take?”
“Fishing, shooting,” I said. “Outdoor …”
“Somebody rows the boat for you?” enquired the sentry.
“I bet I’m nearly 10 years younger than you,” I said a little warmly.
“Feel this,” said the sentry, bending his arm and lowering his biceps. “Hey, hit me here, hard as you like.”
He protruded his chest at me.
“I tell you, boys,” he said, leading us back towards the entrance. “They want men in the reserve in the worst way, but you’re over the age limit, and the only way you can get in, if you’re past the age, is to look and feel under the age. Now, me, I’m a carpenter. I played soccer until I was 40. My tool kit weighs 60 pounds. I carried it every day for 30 years.”
“By the way,” I asked, “does that battle dress chafe?”
“Well, it isn’t exactly silk,” said the sentry.
“And how about those army boots?” inquired Jim. “Do they give you blisters?
“The Canadian army boots are the best of any army’s in the world,” recited the sentry. “Of course, if you’ve been wearing silk socks and wearing itsy-bitsy dancing slippers all your life …”
“Look here,” I cut him off. “I told you we were old soldiers.”
“Well, you don’t look it,” said the sentry kindly. “What have you been doing with yourselves the last 20 years?”
“Good-day,” I said, Jimmie and I marching off.
“I tell you what,” called the old boy after us. “You go into training for a few weeks, walk an hour every night, row your own boat when you go fishing, eat sparingly, get regular sleep…”
But Jimmie and I pretended we didn’t hear him.
“Let’s walk back to the office,” said Jim. “It won’t matter if we’re puffing when we get back there.”
And on Bay St., there was a big parade before the City Hall, and a band began playing, and the crowds cheered, and the sound, the strangest, most moving, most heart-meeting sound in all the world smote our ears.
The sound of men’s feet, marching.
Editor’s Note: This is the first story I’ve ever seen where it is admitted that Jim has a wounded hand.