By Greg Clark, July 22, 1939.
“It’s little wonder,” declared Jimmie Frise, “that our generation is dying off in middle age.”
“Referring?” I inquired.
“Referring to you,” said Jim. “You’ve had the jitters now for three solid hours. Why don’t you relax?”
“Relax?” I cried. “Relax?” How can I relax when you said you’d be ready to leave at 12 noon. And now It is precisely 3.15 p.m.?”
“I have my work to do,” said Jim with dignity.
“You said you’d have it all finished last night,” I complained. “You said there would be nothing for you to do this morning but clean off your desk.”
“I miscalculated the job,” said Jim. “Anyway, what’s the difference? If we lose three hours on this end of the trip, let’s take three hours at the far end of it. Why this slavish devotion to plan?”
“Aw, for Pete’s sake,” I moaned.
“That’s what’s killing off the human race,” said Jim, working away industriously at his drawing board at a cartoon that should have been in last Tuesday. “Trying to be machines. Trying to work with the precision of a machine. Trying to make and keep schedules for everything. It’s unnatural. It’s killing us off.”
“You should live to a ripe old age,” I submitted.
“Now, look,” said Jim kindly. “Explain to me. What are you all in a lather about? Why are you acting slightly demented just because I am a couple of hours later than I expected to be?”
“Jim,” I pleaded, “we make arrangements to spend the week-end at Pat’s cabin. It’s 150 miles. We agree to leave at 12 noon sharp, so as to get there early enough to have part of the late afternoon and all evening. If we had got away on time, we would have been at the cabin by now. But where are we? Here. In Toronto. In your office. On a Saturday afternoon, in a deserted city. And you ask me, what am I fretting about?”
“But look,” said Jim calmly. “What real difference does it make? Next October, what difference will it make if we don’t go at all? Why get all in a foam over the fact that some trifling detail of a week-end trip away back here in midsummer was a little muddled? I can’t see it. Honestly I can’t. In a few hours today is yesterday. Next fall this hour is so far buried in the past you won’t even recall it. Then why in heaven’s name give this hour such tremendous importance?”
“Jim,” I began indignantly; but what could anybody say in reply to such outrageous thinking?
“The trouble with our generation,” went on Jim, “is it has no sense of the past or the future. It is aware only of the present. Nothing matters but now.”
“But, good heavens,” I argued.
“It’s machines that are to blame,” sighed Jim. “We invented machines about a hundred years ago. Now, instead of trying to be worthy of being God’s image, we are trying to make ourselves into the image of the new god, the machine.”
“That’s not bad, Jim,” I admired.
A Silly Human Mistake
“Human nature never was and never will be capable,” stated Jim in a platform manner, “of precision. There have been a lot of silly mistakes in human history. Men have tried to be a lot of things different from what they are. They have always paid for it. But the attempt to convert men into machines is the silliest and stupidest mistake of all. And we’ll pay for it heaviest. In fact, we are paying for it now. Paying for it in confusion and fear and anxiety and insecurity. Paying in world-wide bewilderment.”
“A man should still be capable of being on time,” I contributed.
“Absolutely not,” said Jim. “A man who presumes to be always on time is guilty of blasphemy. Not against God, but against human nature.”
“You can always think up remarkable excuses,” I said.
“Leave a man a man,” said Jim, “and he lasts 70, 80 years, hearty and happy. Try to make him a machine, and he wears out like a machine. Why is it, may I ask, that despite all the wonderful advances in medical science, the almost unbelievable surgical discoveries, the actually spooky revelations regarding glands, why is it that despite all this and all the improvements in every department of living, men do not only not live longer but live less long than they used to?”
“I admit we live shorter,” I said, “but we live better and more fully.”
“Puh,” said Jim. “Our whole social philosophy today is the philosophy of the libertine. Never mind tomorrow. Just live for today.”
“Life is ten times more interesting than it was in the Middle Ages,” I declared.
“Ask somebody who lived in the Middle Ages,” suggested Jim. “Life, my friend, is life. In proportion, life is just as dear to a bug as it is to a man. When you have it, it is all. When you lose it, you lose all. When you step on a bug, you have ended something that was, in its proportion, mysterious, beautiful, and never to be restored. You think nothing of stepping on a bug. But now, you are growing careless with your own life. You think only of now. You do not pause to look back over the past and remember all that was best in it. If you did, you would act in the present in such a way as to preserve in the future the most and the best of what you had in the past.”
“Hurry up with that cartoon,” I muttered.
“By George,” said Jim, “I just remember I haven’t had any lunch.”
“Let’s call the trip off,” I suggested bitterly. “I’ll go and ‘phone the village store to send a message in to Pat that we’ll be up some other time.”
“Five minutes, and I’m done,” said Jim. “And I can grab a sandwich or a chocolate bar in passing somewhere.”
“You’d better have some lunch,” I said reluctantly, “if you want to live to a ripe old age.”
But Jim set to and scratched the final pen strokes on his cartoon, studied the finished product wryly, rolled it up for the engravers, and we dashed for the corridor.
The lunch counter we usually snack at was closed. The downtown streets deserted except for a few underprivileged citizens in their best clothes slowly strolling in the desert of blank shop windows and pavement. So willy-nilly we hastened around to the parking lot, where our car stood all alone.
And in 15 minutes we had left the city behind and joined the ragged procession of the belated for the north.
“As a matter of fact,” pointed out Jimmie, “it is a lot pleasanter being late than getting caught up in the traffic fury of the early birds. The guys who are all trying to be first.”
And it was. Now and then a furious individual, all cramped up to his steering wheel, passed us madly. But most of us late-goers seemed to be a reconciled lot. A sense of our lateness imbued us. We just plodded along.
“Hot dogs, three hundred yards ahead,” sang out Jimmie, reading a sign.
“Okay, if you must,” I sighed, slackening for a gasoline station on the right hand side ahead. “I could do with one myself. If they’re any good.”
“Hot dogs are always good,” said Jim. “The mustard kills any bacilli, if any.”
“Ugh,” I stated.
When we ran off on to the gravel of the gas station we saw a little booth to one side labelled hot dogs. As we got out, a man came hurrying from inside the gas station, his hands and arms all smeared black with oil.
“Is it hot dogs, gents?” he asked anxiously. “I’m sorry. My wife has just run up to the village …”
“We’ll get to Pat’s some day next week,” I offered Jim.
“I’m right in the middle of a generator job,” said the service man, apologetically. “But if you like, help yourselves and leave the money in the cigar box behind.”
“Can we go right in?” exclaimed Jim, very pleased.
“The wieners are on a little gasoline heater,” said the garage man, pushing the side door of the booth open with his elbow, “and the buns are in that box there.”
“Okay,” cried Jim, heartily. “Go about your business, mister, and we’ll help ourselves.”
“You don’t mind?” smiled the garage man.
“This is swell,” assured Jim. “Self-serve hot dogs. The idea ought to go big.”
It was cosy in the booth. An old automobile sent served as a lazy bench. On a tiny gas burner a saucepan simmered, with three wieners in it, all plump and suntanned. I opened a large tin biscuit box, in which reposed dozens of hot dog buns.
“Nice and fresh,” I announced, pinching them.
“Okay, two up,” cried Jim.
Two Good Samaritans
And I slit the buns with the large knife lying on the shelf; Jim lifted the wieners and let them drip, laid them restfully in the buns. From the big jar of bright yellow mustard we ladled out the condiment in lush blobs.
“Yummmm,” said Jim, biting his.
And as we ate, conscious of the pleasantly sharp mustard, the soft bun and the gently bursting sausage between our teeth, another car whirled into the gas station yard and ran up in front of us.
“Five,” yelled the genial gentleman at the wheel. “Five fat ones and make it snappy, boys.”
The garage man came rushing out, all greasy and embarrassed.
“Sorry, sorry,” he said to the new arrivals. “My wife has had to run uptown. These gentlemen are just helping themselves…”
“Okay, brother,” Jim interrupted, “If you’ll appoint us your wife’s deputies we’ll gladly serve these folks.”
“That’s the spirit,” joined in the stranger.
“It’ll just be a minute,” said Jim, turning up the gas flame to make the water bubble. “I have to heat the weenies.”
In a basin on the lower back shelf lay a couple of dozen wieners, and from the pile Jim took six and popped them into the saucepan.
I dug out five buns and expertly slit them open.
“Gentlemen,” said the stranger, leaning outside on the counter, “I envy you. Gosh, how I envy you. Taking time off to do a decent little job like this for that garage man. And for me and my family. And for yourselves.”
“It’s a pleasure,” said Jim, standing back in the expert chef manner and shaking the saucepan on the flame.
“Now, you take me,” said the stranger. Those women in the car have been yelling at me for the past five hours to hurry, hurry, hurry. We’re late. It will be dark before we get to the cottage. The kids will be tired and cranky. It’s been an awful day. And here I stand, looking at two people who have all the time in the world to be a couple of good Samaritans along the highway.”
Jim stepped on my foot.
“Gosh, gentlemen,” said the stranger, “you’ve got the right slant on life.”
“Okay, brother,” said Jim, lifting the pan and seizing the fork to spike out the fatly gleaming sausages.
And with me holding the buns and the stranger ladling out the mustard, we did very expert job. And 50 cents went plunk very loud into the cigar box.
“There,” murmured Jim, as the stranger distributed the hot dogs, “that’s your answer. What could have happened to us up at Pat’s half as amusing as what has happened the past 10 minutes?”.
“Here’s some more,” I retorted, as another car, with four young people in it, whirled dustily on to our gravel.
“Okay,” said Jim, grabbing another handful of wieners from the basin and dumping them into the saucepan.
So I dived for the buns and slit them, and when the garage man came and grinned anxiously out the door of the gas station at us Jim yelled:
“We’ll carry on until your wife gets back!”
“She’ll be back any minute,” sang back the gas man. “She don’t like to miss any dimes.”
So we fed the four youngsters and before their hot dogs were assembled another car with two arrived; and a moment later a car with five; and by the time all these were served there were only three wieners left in the basin.
“Do we want another?” inquired Jim. “Before they all go?”
But before we could decide a final car hove in, with three customers. And the sausages now were all gone. We kept the pan stewing, the buns splitting and mustard flying, and when the last were served we hastily lifted the hooks and lowered the front of the booth as a sign that the hot dogs were run out.
“Well,” said Jim, “there’s eighteen hot dogs and $1.80 in the cigar box that wouldn’t have been there.”
“And we’re a good half hour later than we would have been,” I reminded.
And at that moment a car drew in and lady got out with a parcel. It was the garage man’s wife, sure enough, and he came out and explained to her what a fine job we had been doing for her. Which we blushingly took.
“Why, that’s lovely,” said she, coming in the booth and looking around, “but where did you get the wieners?”
“In the basin,” said Jim.
“Oh, mercy,” said the lady.
“Why, wha…” said Jimmie and I.
“Why, those,” cried the lady, “those were as stale as anything. I threw them out. I was up to the village for a new supply.”
A mucky kind of silence occurred.
“Were they bad?” I inquired hollowly.
“Not bad,” said the lady, “but stale. I wouldn’t have served them.”
“Nobody complained,” stated Jim. “Every body ate them very heartily.”
“Well, I suppose men feel differently,” murmured the lady, looking into the cigar box and ticking over the money with her finger tip.
“Anyway,” pursued Jim, “all hot dogs are good. The mustard fixes them.”
“And besides,” I added, “the human race is getting tougher all the time.”
Upon which, I stepped on Jim’s foot, and we shook hands and drove off and watched all the way along the highway for miles, but saw nobody dead.
Editor’s Note: Jim could be slow with his work, resulting in time where the presses had to be held up until he finished.