By Greg Clark, May 23, 1941
In which Greg and Jimmie confirm the old adage that one good turn deserves another good turn
“Guess who’s in the army?” cried Jimmie Frise.
“Goodness knows,” I guessed.
“Wesley,” shouted Jim.
“Not old Wes?” I protested. “Why, he’s older than we are.”
“He’s in,” declared Jimmie excitedly. And he’s coming over to the house tonight. In his uniform. And I said you’d be there for sure.”
“I’ll be there. I stated. “If only to find out how he did it.”
“Well, he did it by persistence, of course, said Jim. “He hasn’t drawn a happy breath since this war started. Now he’s in heaven.”
“But he’s away over 50,” I protested. “Wes is just about the Methuselah of the army, I’d say.”
“You’re jealous,” smiled Jimmie. “Just jealous.”
“Not me,” I assured him. “I’ve seen a lot more of this war than old Wes will ever see. I’ve seen more of it than most of our army has seen yet.”
“Yeah, but a war correspondent isn’t a soldier,” submitted Jim, “even if you have a uniform.”
“This country has come to a pretty pass,” I insisted, “if they have to take men as old as Wes.”
“I think they took him,” said Jim, “to get rid of him. He has been public nuisance Number One at all the military headquarters in the country, including Ottawa. He has a file nearly a half a foot thick from Ottawa alone.”
“What’s he going to do?” I inquired. “What branch is he with?”
“Oh, some supply department,” said Jim. “He’s too old to fight.”
“Why, he was in the old First Division, a quarter of a century ago,” I scoffed. “He enlisted on August 5, 1914. I remember thinking he was rather oldish for a lieutenant in that old war.”
“He was a great fighter,” declared Jim. “He won two decorations.”
“Maybe it is just to show off his ribbons that he’s been so crazy to get back in,” I suggested.
“Now, that’s a lousy thing to say,” declared Jim. “Even if your jealousy does hurt you, you shouldn’t say a thing like that. Wes deserves great credit and honor. If there had been more men like Wes in this country we’d have been better off.”
“I’m sorry,” I apologized. “You’re quite right. Wes is a real patriot, even if he hasn’t done so good these past 20 years.”
“He’s just had bad luck,” said Jim.
“Bad luck?” I laughed. “The last war ruined Wes. He came back from the old war a hero. And there was no more call for heroes. So instead of forgetting about the old war and settling down to business like the rest of us, he tried to travel through life on his reputation as a soldier. There were plenty like him.”
Solver of All Problems
“I didn’t know you felt like this about Wes,” said Jimmie. “I thought you liked him a lot.”
“I do like him,” I explained. “But I think it is silly for an old guy like him…”
“Heh, heh, heh,” laughed Jimmie. “I’d like to see the standing broad jump you’d take if you got the same chance Wes got.”
“I know my age,” I declared, “and my capacity.”
“Ah, the army,” sighed Jim dreamily. “No more worry. No more fretting. You get up to a bugle and you go to bed by a bugle. You eat to a bugle call and you go to work to a bugle call. Your pay goes on, whether you work or not. The more dependants you have, the larger your allowance. No cares in the world.”
“It sure must be heaven to old Wes,” I agreed. “He hasn’t had a steady job for 22 years until now. He first tried selling insurance to all his old army friends. Then he went into the stock brokerage business. Then he got a job as sales manager of a novelty furniture company. He came in to see me one day with some crazy kind of collapsible shell he tried to sell me. His life, ever since the last war, has been one long worry. No wonder he was frantic to get back into the good old, safe old, cosy old army.”
“Well, the way things are going,” said Jim, “with taxes and everything, it seems to me the boys in the army are the wise guys.”
“Maybe that’s why I feel a little envious,” I confessed. “The army sure was wonderful wasn’t it? When I first enlisted, I thought with a kind of horror about the surrender of my personal liberty to an institution like the army. But suddenly I found all my personal cares had been lifted from me. All the little, petty carping worries and anxieties of my daily life vanished. I had nothing any more to decide. Everything was decided for me. Always somebody to tell me what to do. I did not even have to decide how to dress for the day. It was all laid down in orders. I did not have to make any decisions as to how I would spend the day or even my spare time in the evenings. There it all was, laid down in the syllabus.”
“It’s freedom, that’s what it is,” declared Jim. “Army life is not the surrender of freedom. It is the sudden liberation from a thousand little, unrealized cares that like a swarm of bees follow a man in civilian life wherever he goes.”
“We never understand how enmeshed like fish we are in little bonds and shackles,” I agreed, “until we go into the army and discover the nearest approach to freedom there is in the world.”
“A monk in holy orders,” said Jim, “escapes from the cares of the world.”
“And a soldier can do what he likes in the evening,” I added.
“The army is the solver of all problems,” declared Jim.
“It is the only way I know,” I concluded, “in which you can chuck your troubles and tribulations on the nation’s back and get credit for it.”
“Maybe Wes can give us some tips on how to get back in,” suggested Jim.
Back in Uniform
“What rank has he got?” I inquired.
“Lieutenant,” said Jim.
“Well, I couldn’t get along on lieutenant’s pay,” I pointed out. “I was a major in the last war. If I could get a colonel’s job…”
“You’re a lot wiser than you were in the old war,” agreed Jim.
“And there are a lot of jobs on organization and so forth,” I submitted, “where I could fit in without losing my wind at all the hills.”
So after supper I went down to Jim’s and we sat on the steps until Wes arrived. We saw him coming halfway up the block. He was magnificent. The old Wes I had seen many a time bowed and shrunken with his worries and disappointments of the past 10 years had left not a vestige of its mark upon the fine upstanding soldier coming down the street, his back as straight as ever it was, his head up, his chin out, and carrying his little swagger-stick as carelessly as though he had held a swagger-stick all his life. His stride was long and lithe. He was like a parade all in himself.
“Let’s give him a cheer,” I said.
“Don’t embarrass him,” cautioned Jim.
So we rose to our feet and stood forth to meet him in honor.
“Wes,” I said, wringing his hand, “this is a great treat for us all.”
“It’s nothing, boys,” he said happily. “It’s where I should have been 18 months ago …”
Even his manner was altered. Wes, of recent years, had got a tired sort of voice, with a little tinge of complaint in it. Not now. His voice was vigorous and it rang. And there was just the trace of an English accent in it, such as many of us affected in the old war.
So we went inside and got settled in the living-room and all gloated.
“When did you put it on, Wes?” we asked.
“I didn’t get the uniform until 5 o’clock,” laughed Wes. “I haven’t had it on three hours.”
“And yet you look as if you had never had it off,” said Jim heartily. “Sit down, Wes.”
But Wes would not sit down. He preferred to stand. He stood against the mantel. He stood over by the windows, his hands behind his back. He walked back and forth in the living room. In a new uniform, you hate to sit down.
His ribbons glowed on his chest. Men of 50 are pretty crafty at noting the age of their peers. A man of 50 who can carry his years is an ever-pressing reproach to all his fellows.
“My first parade,” said Wes, “tomorrow morning.”
“Are you going to have to drill again?” I exclaimed
“Ah, no,” said Wes. “This is just an office parade. I mean that I must present myself to my new C.O. at 8.30 am. He’s quite a stickler. I want to make a good impression.”
A Bit of Spit and Polish
You could see the old Wes feebly trying to assert himself amidst the force and splendor of the new Wes.
“May I suggest,” I ventured kindly, “that you could put a bit of the old spit and polish on those buttons?”
“They’re lacquered,” said Wes. “I haven’t got a batman yet. I may not have one for some time, they told me. So I thought I would leave that lacquer as long as I could to protect the shine.”
“Aw, Wes,” I protested. “An old soldier like you? With dull buttons?”
“They’re not dull,” said Jim.
“I agree they’re not what they should be,” said Wes, looking down appreciatively at his handsome frontal expanse. “But I have no button stick, yet, and no polish. It takes a little time to get things organized again, after all the years…”
And he gazed at space with a strange, joyous, exalted expression on his face.
“After all the years,” he said quietly.
“What chance,” began Jimmie, “do you think we might have, Wes, of getting back into the game?”
“I’m shocked, Wes,” I cut in, “to think that an old soldier like you would be stumped by the want of a button stick. Haven’t you made hundreds of them, in your younger days, out of cardboard?”
“Where’s some cardboard?” laughed Wes, promptly. “Jimmie, find us a bit of stiff cardboard. And have you any metal polish in the house?”
“Down cellar there’s sure to be polish,” said Jim, rising.
So we followed him. And down cellar on the shelves we found three kinds of metal polish. And Jim got a piece of heavy card board, from which we fashioned a button stick. In the army, it is usually of brass. It is a small panel of brass with a slot cut in it which you slide under your buttons to polish them and keep the cleaning fluid off your tunic. We made one, as most soldiers do, out of the cardboard.
“Have you got a good polish,” asked Wes. “that will cut the lacquer?”
From the three assorted polishes, we chose the one that seemed likely to have the most bite.
“Wes,” I said, “take off your tunic and let me have the honor of being your first batman in the great world war.”
And Jim gave me a friendly look, as much as to say that I was making decent amends for some of the things I had said behind Wes’ back. But I am a great believer in acts of humility. I sometimes think they are about the only ones that God happens to notice.
Wes took off his tunic and handed it to me. I slid on the button stick under the buttons and proceeded to wet them up. The lacquer was very hard. I had only rags, but Jim dug up an old brush and with that I scrubbed the buttons. And under Wes’ anxious eye, I began to get results. The lacquer certainly began to dissolve.
“Now,” said Wes, “lay on the flannelette.”
And you should have seen those buttons gleam.
“To think,” said Wes, ashamed, “I came through the streets with those dull buttons.”
A Great and Broken Cry
Long and tenderly we buffed and fluffed the brass buttons until they shone like liquid jewels.
“You know,” I submitted, “a batman’s life isn’t so bad.”
But when we removed the cardboard button stick to attack the smaller buttons on the pockets of the tunic, Wes let out a great and broken cry.
For around each button was a nasty yellowish stain from the brass polish seeping through the cardboard.
“Quick, quick,” shouted Wes in an agonized voice. “Get something.”
“Water, Jim,” I shouted.
“No, no,” bellowed Wes, “some kind of cleaning fluid.”
“Cleaning fluid,” said Jim, promptly diving into the cupboard. “I saw it here.”
And he came out with a large glass jug labelled “Cleaning fluid.”
“Douse it on,” I commanded.
“Easy now, easy,” begged Wes, his voice cracking with anguish.
Jim got a fresh rag and we dipped it in the cleaning fluid and wiped it over the stains around the buttons. Instantly the nasty yellowish stains turned white, as if the very dye out of the khaki cloth had been removed.
“Oh, oh, oh,” roared Wes, snatching the tunic from us.
Jimmie found out later, from the family, that this cleaning fluid was for cleaning floors and sinks and things like that.
“Wes,” I said, as he stood staring in rage at the beautiful new tunic with the horrid ghastly stains all down the front, as neatly spaced as the buttons themselves, “I hope you don’t think I did this on purpose.”
“On purpose?” cried Wes, too confused and amazed to try to understand.
“I’m an artist,” said Jim, resolutely, “I think I can mix up some color in some kind of medium that will touch out those spots temporarily.”
“My first parade,” said Wes, “tomorrow at 8.30.”
“The tunic is ruined,” I said bitterly.
“Come upstairs,” commanded Jim firmly. “I’ll see what can be done.”
So while Wes sat, all hunched up and broken in heart in the living-room, Jim worked in his study, where he keeps his amateur artist stuff – he is in artist by profession, but is a pretty fair amateur artist on the side tinkers at landscapes and things – and taking a tiny patch of cloth from the inside of one of the tunic pockets he worked with colors in ink and alcohol until he got a reasonable match for khaki.
But when he picked up the tunic to start applying the color, he found, with a great yell, that the nasty spots had almost disappeared from the cloth. Only a vague circle of paler color surrounded the buttons.
So we took a damp cloth and sponged around some more until we had abstracted still more of the offending polish and cleaner. And by the time the cloth dried, you could barely see the stains, even in bright 100-watt light.
Wes donned the tunic and stood a little way off.
“Why,” cried Jimmie, “all it looks like that the shine of the buttons has lit up the surrounding cloth.”
So Wes ceased muttering and went off home and we have no doubt his first parade was a complete success.
Editor’s Notes: As indicated in the story, Greg was already a war correspondent at this point in World War Two, and was in Europe during the fall of France.
A swagger-stick was a short stick like a riding crop that officers would carry as a symbol of authority.
A batman was a servant to an officer. This was much more common in the First World War, when class hierarchies were much more prominent in the British Army, and to a lesser extent, in Canada.
As described in the story, a button stick was used as an aid to polishing buttons.