By Greg Clark, January 12, 1929
The other day, at the height of the festive season, two of us who had cemented our friendship twelve years ago in a town called Villers au Boil, saw on Yonge St. three young chaps walking along slightly tipsy.
It was an uncommon enough sight, though we two belong to a generation that can remember the long bars of Yonge St. They were young fellows about twenty-three or four, obviously belonging to the best class, with the ex-Varsity look. They had just had enough to drink to be noticeable. Their passage up Yonge St. created a mild sensation and there was much turning of heads and pausing to look back at them.
We followed slowly behind them, because one of us was a clergyman and the other a newspaper man and this human spectacle in the midst of the city was our proper meat.
The faces of the people who passed them showed mixed sentiments. Some ranged from disapproval to disgust. Others smiled or were merely interested. With laughter and a kind of arrogance, the three young men swaggered up Yonge St.
They paused to look in a store window and we had a better look at them. The padre and I both exclaimed together:
“Why, that’s young Blank – Dick’s kid brother!”
And the detached human spectacle at once lost its detachment and became a personal matter. For the middle one of the three mildly hilarious members of the younger generation was the younger brother of a man who, but for a stray shell one lazy misty morning of an August far back, might have been walking up Yonge St. with us too.
“Jove, he looks like Dick!” whispered the padre. We had stopped.
“Shall we speak to him?”
“No, no,” exclaimed the padre. “Not just now.”
“Look at the walk of him! Isn’t he Dick to the life? This is uncanny, padre.”
“The younger generation,” said the clergyman
“Yet within our memory, padre, was the time Yonge St. would have dozens, yes scores of sights like this any afternoon.”
“I wonder should I speak to him?” whispered the padre. “Tell him I knew Dick? Maybe that would get him off the street like this.”
“He’s all right. He’s not tight. Just merry.”
“Yes, but it’s different now. Times have changed. Dick wouldn’t like to see this.”
“Dick? Padre, have you forgotten Dick and you and me …”
And the padre turned fiercely.
“But these are only kids!”
“They are as old or older than you were in France!”
A Challenging Human Riddle
“By Jove!” breathed the padre. We lost the three young chaps. We stood in the traffic current, looking at each other for a long and curious moment.
“Let’s go in here somewhere. Let’s think about this.” said the padre. And we climbed a stairs to a tea room. A candle was lighted between us on the table. We saw each other’s faces in a soft familiar light that helped more than anything to restore us to those already distant years when we were more than blood brothers together. The candle in the whiskey bottle-neck on the dugout table. The pipe smoke clouding between us.
And with the incident of the three young men, the three unwise young men on Yonge St. for his text, the clergyman worked out a sermon that probably he never will excel for insight and charity. It should be said here that in the days of our highest friendship he was not a clergyman nor was there in his or any of our minds the faintest dream that he ever would be one. He was just a gay rollicking lieutenant distinguished by an overwhelming kindliness that made him a good deal braver than the next.
“Don’t blame the war,” said the padre, “for the younger generation. I think it would still have been the younger generation even if there had been no war. The motor car, the immense Increase in the sensual entertainments such as movies, radio, and so forth, would have had a speeding up effect without any war. Just plain prosperity, which gives young people jobs and makes them free, would have effected a great change since 1914, if there had been only peace.
“But seeing Dick’s kid brother out there has given me a great idea. Maybe it will help us to understand the younger generation a little better. And, if we understand them, it will make us better men, never mind them.”
And this was the padre’s idea:
Into the middle of a marvellously commercialized and industrialized world came a great and spectacular war.
For drama and color, there had never been anything like it in the history of man. Millions of men set loose to kill. Majestic legions marching in incredible numbers on the highways of the world. The wars with which we stir the imagination of youth paled into petty fights before this awful and lordly war. The statesmen of the world used their oratory to rouse their nations. The poets sang of blood. The brains and wealth of the world were poured out to serve. And the men of the world of every degree and station went forth to give their lives.
Romance beyond the splendid dreams of the story-tellers of the past, air fighting. millions gloriously dead, millions smashed, gigantic guns, combat unbroken across hundreds of miles, combat in different continents, war magnificent beyond the vision of the school books and the mighty songs of old.
Now while some of us may have known war to be filthy and futile, to be not gallant but terribly dreary, to be not picturesque and splendid but grimy and encompassed by a few square yards of earth, there were others who could not know these things.
When the Splendor Vanished
They heard the bugles and the drums. They saw the swinging legions through the dreaming eyes of childhood. They read the mighty headlines and saw the stern pride of their elders and the bitter tears. They were the younger generation, sensitive and aglow, who found themselves in a world dedicated to glory and sacrifice, to mighty deeds, to manhood. And above all things, to action.
Too young to have any sense of the proportions of life, old enough to gather to the full those impressions of splendor that really did exist and were played to their fullest pitch in the midst of the war. At the most sensitive age, the age of the schoolboy, they were taught by that surest of teachers, example, the virtues of sacrifice, courage, and the manhood Homer extolled. Life to them was filled with promise. The promise of action of excitement, of gallantry, of death. And how would any boy of fourteen die better than on the quarter-deck of his flag-ship or on the field of battle amidst the corpses of his enemies, or in the far sky, like a hero?
I would like to know, asked the padre, the dreams that the young men of to-day dreamed when they were boys.
And suddenly, all the promise was ended.
All the splendor vanished. The world went back to bookkeeping.
Home came the elder brothers and threw aside their swords and took up the workaday world. Laughed about the war. Smiled for their gallant dead comrades. Threw aside the royal robes of romance and stuck pens behind their ears.
Now do you begin to see, asked the padre, what I am getting at?
We who were old enough to go to war were old enough to know what the world was like before we went, and we came back to it gladly. We had lived. Well, let us live on. The tumult and the shouting dies. The captains and the kings depart.
But what of those kids? The tumult and the shouting that filled their ears, the captains and the kings who marched before their growing vision? Those virtues that are called manly inspired in them as it has been inspired in no other generation, and they come to their manhood to find life a business of alarm clocks rather than alarms, of routine not route marches. Not courage and audacity but a kind of colorless diligence is the virtue that the world expects of them now.
What the elder brothers did, the younger brothers will never be free to do.
And at this point the padre set the candle in Its brass candlestick to one side and stared crestfallen across the table.
“Dick and you and I,” said he, “could take a drink. But Dick’s kid brother cannot. I mean he cannot. There was an excuse for us. What hard fellows we were, eh? Masters of our fate. By that I mean ready to give our lives when called for. Masters of the lives of many men. Strong. responsible men at twenty-four. At twenty-four, the average man of to-day is not much more than an apprentice. And despite what I have been saying. I say now that these young fellows have no right to take a drink. Isn’t that odd?”
Seeking Outlet for High Spirits
It is odd. But the padre’s ethical confusion was his own. It does not need to be shared.
The main thing is that he seems to have uncovered an angle of view on the young men and women of to-day that might help a good deal in understanding them. They were born to action, and action is denied them. When they show audacity, it is because they were nurtured in the sight of audacity that was splendid. When they show boldness, maybe it is the boldness of a Billy Bishop sky-shooting through a Hun formation and taking his pair. If they want to swagger, perhaps it is in emulation of the elder brothers who swaggered not in the homely streets of Toronto but down the Strand or through l’avenue de la Paix. When they burst out and raise the devil, where is the trench for them to take, where the disputed barricade at which to keep their rendezvous? Their spirits are colored not with the strict spectrum of school and a safely industrialized life all about them, but with the red and steel-gray memories of the promise of their elder brothers.
“How does that explain the girls, padre?”
“Girls are only women not yet grown. And it is the nature of women to give the men what they want. It the men want action, very well, the girls will try their pretty pathetic best to give it to them. Bob their hair, throw their old-fashioned modesty to the winds, create a sort of jazz excitement that will respond in however small degree to the brooding desires of a war-bred race of boys who are asked to pay their elder brothers’ debt by close application to a desk.”
“Really, padre, that young edition of Dick out there on Yonge St. was a pathetic sort of a sight?”
“Yes. Sorry for him,” said the padre. “I was just remembering Dick that night at Roclincourt, when it was that chap What’s-his-name’s turn to take a raid. And Dick disappeared, you remember? Went over himself in command of the party. And when he was before the colonel, he said he went because he was worried about the men. But Dick thought the world of that poor, scared What’s-his-name. Did you ever see a stranger friendship? Would that young Dick we saw out there be capable of a thing like that?”
“We wouldn’t, but maybe that younger brother would.”
“Or would he be as game as Dick was in that court-martial at Bruay?”
“Maybe he would.”
“Or would he be where Dick was the morning he was killed?” demanded the padre, tapping out his pipe.
“Possibly he would.”
“The point is,” said the padre, “he will never get the chance.”
Editor’s Notes: This story reflects some of the older generation’s trepidation with the rapid changes in society during the 1920s. There is also a change of attitude in old World War One soldiers in the attitude toward the war. It was not uncommon to display disgust with the war, and anger at the loss of life. However, there was also a remembrance of the camaraderie, and friendships. Looking back at the war as glorious would be unusual, and Greg expressed all of these emotions when writing about it over the years.