By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, January 20, 1934
“You’re not,” said Jimmie Frise, “the man your great-grandfather was.”
“I suppose not,” I admitted. “Did you know him?”
“What I mean,” said Jim, “Is that to get along at all in your great-grandfather’s time you had to be strong. Nowadays anybody can get along.”
“In a way,” I said.
“Every year,” went on Jim, “it becomes easier for the weak to compete with the strong.”
“So much the better,” I stated.
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” said Jim. “Just hold on a minute. Where you get out of bed in the morning, in a house heated with a furnace, your great-grandfather…”
“Call him Ebenezer,” I put in.
“Ebenezer had to creep out of bed in an ice-cold shanty and light a fire in the stone fireplace. Where you get your breakfast on a gas stove Ebenezer had to cook his at the open hearth. Where you back your car out or catch a street car Ebenezer had to walk to his job.”
“I don’t think the winters were as cold in those days,” I said. “At any rate, not being accustomed to steam heat, they wouldn’t feel the cold the way we do.”
“In your great-grandfather’s time,” continued Jimmie, “it was easy to pick a man of strong character. They stood out over the heads of all the men of weak character. Men of weak character succumbed to all the hardships of climate and toil. Nowadays, it is as easy for a man of weak character to get along in life as it is for a man of strong character.”
“The weak still fail,” I argued.
“Yes, but the whole scheme of modern life is to prevent them failing,” said Jim. “It won’t be necessary much longer to have strong characters.”
“Holy doodle, Jim!” I gasped, as the power of his argument lifted me.
“Your great-grandfather Ebenezer,” went on Jim, “wanted a wife. Having demonstrated his strong character by the way he stood the hardship, stuck to his job, delivered the goods, he was entitled to one of the best girls in the neighborhood. And he got her. To-day a girl doesn’t have to be much of a hand to be a competent housewife, with ready cooked foods, newspapers full of menus and ideas, electric devices for cooking and cleaning. How much variety would a modern girl get into her cooking if she had nothing but an open fireplace to cook on and if she had to walk three miles to the nearest store for her groceries?”
“How much variety did Ebenezer’s wife get?” I inquired.
“We’re All Getting Soft”
“Men can make a good living nowadays,” said Jim, “just sitting and watching a machine. In the olden days there used to be a sort of fat, loquacious man who sat all day on a barrel in the corner store, discussing everything. To-day that fat man is a big shot salesman, with the help of a car to haul him around from barrel to barrel all over the land.”
“Life is certainly filled with opportunity these days,” I admitted.
“But no opportunity to demonstrate character,” said Jim. “And that is why leaders are so hard to find, all over the world. Only a hundred years ago our leaders stood out clearly defined in every village. And they chose our leaders for the country. And the leaders of the countries directed the world, with firm hands. No doubt they were often wrong. But they were firm. It is that firm touch we miss to-day.”
“What are we going to do about it?” I asked.
“We could give up our motor cars and walk to work,” said Jim.
“My great-grandfather never walked eight miles to work,” I said. “And even if he did, it wasn’t across a hundred streets filled with dangerous traffic. It was along pleasant paths through the woods.”
“We ought to do something,” said Jimmie, uneasily. “I feel as if we were all getting soft. This is the era of ease and comfort. When it is so easy to keep warm, get good food and earn an easy living, why should we bother about vague, faraway things such as Ottawa or Geneva or Hollywood or the chain broadcasting corporations! They are our real rulers. But why worry?”
“We could take out our telephones,” I suggested, “and send our kids over to do the messages to the stores.”
“That would be good for our kids,” admitted Jim. “But it wouldn’t strengthen our characters.”
“I feel all weak inside, Jimmie,” I said. “I never realized how soft my character has become.”
“Look at the Scotch,” said Jim. “They are noted all over the world, in business, politics, war, for their strong character. And it comes from the fact that they have no fancy modern inventions in Scotland.”
“Do you suggest we stop all inventing and bust up all the factories and wreck Niagara?” I cried.
“Which would you rather have?” retorted Jimmie, sternly, “comfort or character?”
“Well, we’ve got comfort,” I said. “Can’t we get character, too?”
“How?” demanded Jimmie.
“We could all start thinking about it,” I ventured.
Resolving To Go Primitive
“You can’t add one cubicle to your character,” declared Jimmie, “by taking thought.”
“Well, then, this very night,” cried Jimmie, “we will go primitive! We will try to recapture some of the stern stuff our forefathers were made of. We will test ourselves, just to see how far we have fallen, how shabby our strength of character is, our resolution, our firmness. We will start by walking home from work!”
“Oh, Jimmie, it’s a cold night!”
“My ancestors,” shouted Jim, “trekked forty miles through the virgin winter wilderness to carry a sick woman to the nearest doctor!”
“My great-grandfather Ebenezer,” I claimed, drove heard of twenty cattle from Holland Landing to the town of York for twenty-five cents!”
“We’ll walk home to-night,” declared Jim.
“What will our wives say?”
“My wife is out,” said Jimmie, “for supper and for the whole evening.”
“I’ll telephone my wife and tell her I have to work tonight,” I said.
So we started at five-thirty to walk to Lambton, where we live, near the banks of the Humber.
It was a fine cold night. Our spirits were inspired by the feeling of character actually growing within us. We set out, as Jimmie explained, to follow the old Dundas road which Colonel Denison cut through the wilderness during the War of 1812, to allow travellers to escape the American gunboats lying off the mouth of the Humber which would shoot at wayfarers following the lake shore highway.
Side by side we strode out Dundas street and we passed the Grange and Spadina avenue and were well past Bathurst street before we began to slow up a bit.
“How do you feel?” asked Jim.
“My character feels a hundred per cent improved,” I replied, “but my feet are starting to hurt. Our ancestors didn’t have to wear shoes like ours and walk on hard, icy pavements. They wore moccasins and walked on lovely, soft snow.”
“The more your feet hurt, the better for your character,” said Jim.
“It seems a long way to Roncesvalles,” I said. “And then from there to the Humber…!”
So we took it a little easier and talked about other means we might discover for improving our characters.
“One thing we will do,” said Jimmie, “when we get home, we’ll go to my place and cook our supper on the open fire in the grate! My folks are all out to-night. We can have the place to ourselves.”
“Ham and eggs,” I said. “Boiled potatoes.”
“And tea,” said Jim. “We’ll boil the potatoes and the tea and fry ham and eggs. That’s the sort of food our ancestors cooked on the hearth.”
“Is it a wood fire?” I asked.
“No. I’ve nothing but soft coal, but we will get some wood on the way home.”
“If we pass wood yard,” said Jim, “we could each carry an armful. Or maybe we could go down in the valley by the Humber and cut some wood. That would be better. There weren’t any wood yards in our great-grandfathers’ days.”
These discussions spurred our feet, but by the time we got to Lansdowne avenue, to what used to be called the White Bridges, I noticed even Jimmie was picking his feet up tenderly, while I had sharp aches up both my legs and my feet were sore, as if scalded. But my character was shining inside of me like a 60-watt bulb.
“It’s ten minutes past seven,” said Jim. “Perhaps this is enough character building for to-night. To get on with the cooking before my folks get home, perhaps we had better take the street car.”
So from Lansdowne we took the car, and walked from the end of the bus line to Jimmie’s house. We got an axe and went down to the end of the street and into the Humber ravine.
“We want pine and birch,” said Jimmie.
“It is illegal to cut trees down here,” I warned him.
“Men of character do not let technicalities deter them,” said Jim.
But no matter how woodsy the Humber valley looks in summer you would be surprised how few fire-wood trees there are. We slithered and slid around the valley for nearly half an hour before we found a birch tree and a small fallen pine. And while I kept watch for the county police, Jim cut firewood. And with two good big armfuls we climbed the hill and hastened back to Jim’s without meeting any police and hardly any surprised pedestrians.
In no time we had a splendid fire roaring in the grate and it was a toss-up which shed the brightest glow about Jimmie’s living room, our characters or the crackling wood fire. Jim got a couple of fancy candles from the dining room and lit the living room with them, turning out the electric lights.
He got two pots and the frying pan. I peeled the potatoes while Jim arranged some pokers and curtain roads on the fire basket to serve as cranes and hobs, such as our ancestors used for cooking.
On the living room table Jim spread bread and butter, salt and a Spanish onion.
Wonderful Pioneer Feeling
There, glowing with the loveliest glow, we squatted before the fireplace and started to prepare our meal. We set the potato pot and the tea pail on the rods and got the frying pan hot for the ham and eggs. Owing to the fact that Jim’s fireplace was not originally intended for cooking, the addition of these pots and pans in some way affected the draught, so that a lot of smoke got into the room.
“But that is all the more real,” said Jimmie. “Our ancestors lived in smoky rooms.”
The potatoes took a long time to start to simmer, and there was no sign of boiling in the tea pail, when Jimmie, in moving the frying pan, tipped the potato pot over and the water put the fire out.
It took all of fifteen minutes to recover the potatoes and get the fire going again.
“I guess you had better go down and cut some more wood,” said Jim.
“It’s against the law, Jimmie.” I said. “We got away with it once. But the law of averages is now against us. This time, we would be caught.”
“There isn’t enough wood left,” said Jim.
“Seeing this is our first experiment,” I said, “let us fall back on coal. Our ancestors were resourceful men. They would not have hesitated to use coal if it were handy.”
So we put soft coal on and had a splendid fire in no time, though it took the potatoes a terrible time to get started again. Once they did start to boil, it took one man all his time lifting them off every time they boiled over for fear they would put the fire out again.
With the tea pail and the potatoes boiling merrily, and the ham and eggs sizzling in the pan, I tell you it was a wonderful pioneer feeling that filled our bosoms, crouching there in our shirt sleeves before the open fire. It was now nine-thirty, and we were hungry enough to eat a horse.
The coal cracked and spluttered a good deal, and quite a lot of black smoke got into the ham and eggs. They caught fire once, and Jimmie leaped back so violently with the frying pan ablaze that he upset the potatoes again. But there was so little water in them that it did no harm.
“Now,” cried Jimmie, ladling the ham and eggs on to plates on the table. “Now how does your character feel?”
“I certainly have an empty feeling,” I said, “if that is character.”
Jim laid the frying pan down, and there was a hiss as it scorched a big bubbly ring in the living room table top.
“Not so good,” said Jim, laying the pan back on the brick hearth.
When Character is Rugged
The potatoes were not quite boiled. The ham and eggs tasted of coal. The tea tasted of something funny, but we never discovered what it was. But character, when it is strong, can stand for almost anything in the way of food. We were just finishing our meal when Jimmie cried: “Hist!”
There were sounds on the veranda.
“Quick!” cried Jimmie, leaping up. He led me out through the kitchen, the back porch and into the dark yard.
“No time!”, he gasped. “My family!”
“But where do we go?”
“We’ll hide out here for a while, until they get over it,” said Jimmie. “And then we will go back in and say we know nothing about it.”
“It’s an awful mess,” I said. “Those pails and pans and the wet wood ashes, and smoke all through the house, and that burn on the table!”
“We’ll say we were at a movie. We’ll say it must have been burglars that broke in,” said Jimmie.
“But our coats and hats are inside,” I protested.
“We’ll say we just ran out for the police.”
“Jimmie!” I cried. “Is this character? Lying out of it like this?”
“They would never understand,” said Jimmie.
“We could explain that we are building up our characters, we could tell them the whole story,” I said.
“No, I have a better idea,” said Jim. “Let’s go over to your house and I can stay there until my folks are all in bed, then I can sneak in. It is easier to explain things in the morning than at night.”
So in our shirt sleeves, we hustled through the night to my house. It was easy to explain our shirt sleeves to my family because we told them we had run out suddenly from Jimmie’s to see a car crash we had heard in the night, and it was half way to our house, and we just ran over here to let Jimmie see a new book I had on dogs.
Jim and I sat drowsily in my den until about one o’clock and then, he wearing one of my old coats, I let Jimmie out quietly.
“Good luck,” I whispered.
“I’ll be all right,” replied Jim.
“Sneak in softly,” I warned.
“Leave it to me.” said Jim softly.
So, full of character, we parted.
Editor’s Notes: At the time of writing in the mid-1930s, Greg and Jim really were close neighbours. It was indicated that they lived in the Lambton neighbourhood, which is essentially correct. Greg lived on Baby Point Road, so it is the general area. So if they wanted to walk from the old Toronto Star Building at 80 King Street West to the corner of Baby Point Road and Jane Street, it would be a distance of 10.6 kilometres (about 6.5 miles). They also mention Roncesvalles, which would be a neighbourhood they would pass.
Captain John Denison was an early Toronto settler.
Smoke detectors were not a common household item until the 1970s, so they would not have had to worry about the house filling with smoke.
This story appeared in the book Silver Linings (1978).