Greg and Jim welcome a long-lost friend by staging a surprise party – but it’s as much of a surprise to them as it is to their friend
By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, March 25, 1939
“We’re invited to a surprise party,” announced Jimmie Frise.
“At our age?” I protested.
“It’s time we started taking back from the young people,” declared Jim, “some of the things we’ve handed over to them.”
“Surprise parties., I demurred, “never did appeal to me. Even in short pants.”
“We’ve handed over everything to the kids,” pursued Jim. “We have handed over authority to them. They boss us now. We’ve given them our cars. We’ve admitted them to knowledge, so that the average kid of 15 knows more than his father.”
“Let them keep the surprise parties,” I pleaded, “and we’ll take back our cars.”
“At 10 years of age,” went on Jim relentlessly, “we teach them in school the art of debate. So they can come home and confound us.”
“Surprise parties,” I insisted, “never surprise.”
“Since I was a boy,” propounded Jimmie, “a great revolution has occurred. We have handed over the world to childhood. It’s time we cut out this sentimental nonsense and started to take back a little of life for ourselves. Let’s start putting the kids in their place.”
“By going to surprise parties?” I scoffed.
“Let’s start stealing back,” said Jim. “some of the fun that formerly belonged to children. Let’s start by stealing their parties.”
“Huh, huh,” I laughed, “and play post-office?”
“The party we’re invited to,” informed Jim, “is at Bill McDoodle’s.”
“Bill McDoodle’s,” I cried. “That big shot? Why, we haven’t hardly seen Bill in 15 years.”
“He used to be our pal,” said Jim.
“Yeah,” I muttered, “until he started up in the world. Until he became a big executive with a capital B.”
“Aw, well, for old-time’s sake,” said Jim.
“Listen,” I stated, “the last 10 times I’ve seen Bill McDoodle, he hasn’t known me. He looks at me with an expression of faint recollection and then decides he must have been mistaken – it wasn’t me after all.”
“Big business makes men that way,” explained Jim.
“Big business my ear,” I cried. “He used to be just one of our gang. Then he got that vice-president job out of a blue sky. We were as pleased as he was. Don’t you remember?”
“We staged a celebration for him,” remembered Jimmie.
“And he didn’t come,” I recalled. “Inside of a year, if we ever ran into him anywhere, he was good-humoredly condescending, and chuckled over the old days. The old days, as if he had outgrown all that.”
“Well, now he wants to recapture the old days,” pleaded Jim.
“Let him chase them,” I asserted. “They’re hard to catch.”
“Listen,” wheedled Jim, “it’s his wife invited us. You remember her? A mighty fine girl.”
“Sure, I remember her,” I agreed. “Many’s the time I’ve lent her my coat. Yet one year after they’d gone up in the world, I spoke to her in the lobby of a theatre, all dolled up in an opera cloak, and she looked right past me.”
A Pathetic Figure
“Look,” said Jim. “I told her we’d come to her party. She actually begged us to come.”
“I wonder if Bill’s had a come-down?” I mused wickedly.
“It isn’t that,” explained Jim. “She told me just how it was. They’ve had their fill of society. Nothing gives them any pleasure any more. Bill is unhappy all day long and all night. He just sits, moody and glum. Business doesn’t interest him. The clubs he belongs to sour him. His wife caught him last week up in the attic, looking at his old abandoned fishing tackle and guns, and he was sitting with his hip rubber boots on, up in the attic, his head buried in his hands.”
“Huh, huh, huh,” I laughed sympathetically.
“So she’s decided to give him a big surprise,” went on Jim. “She is going to stage a surprise party, and invite about 30 of the old friends they had, 20 years ago. Friends of their youth. Not a single person they have met in the last 10 years, she said.”
“Jim” I declared, “I don’t see why we should accommodate them in this whim. Friends are too precious a possession to cast away. We’ve remained friends across all the years, with Bumpy and Vic and Skipper and all the lads. Some of us have got rich and some of us poor, but we’ve weathered all the years. We’ve retained something lovely and precious. Why should we let these people horn in on it?”
“Friendship,” said Jim, “ought to be great enough to lift across a gap of years. They used to be our friends. In folly, they cast it away. Now they ask us to take them back. If our capacity for friendship is big enough, we’ll take them back.”
“The capacity for friendship, Jim,” I informed him, “decreases with the years. When I was a boy, all boys were my friends. When I was a young man, I found I was narrowing down the field. By the time I was 30, I had pruned down my friends to a rough dozen, and I was beginning to be doubtful of some of them. I figure a man of 60 is lucky to have one friend.”
“The party,” said Jim, “is to be a surprise party and a hard times party.”
“Good grief,” I exclaimed. “They’ll play post-office for sure.”
“We can dress up in old rags and goofy hats,” enthused Jim, and it won’t be for our prosperous exterior that Bill will welcome us to his swell big house.”
“He’s got quite a house, I hear,” I admitted.
“It’s a mansion, assured Jim. “It must have cost him $50,000 and they say he gave an interior decorator $10,000 to furnish it.”
“Yet he sits in the attic,” I accused, “with his head in his hands.”
“That’s what comes,” pointed out Jim, “of letting somebody else plan your home. The home a man loves is the home he has assembled piece by piece, item by item, picture by picture. You are never lonely in a home that you have built little by little, because wherever your eye rests, you see something of yesterday. And yesterday is all that appeals to a man after he reaches the age when tomorrow makes him afraid.”
“You’re trying to make him out quite a pathetic figure,” I said.
“He is a pathetic figure,” said Jim. “And even if it is only for the mean satisfaction of showing him how happy and carefree you are, how full of friends and life, you ought to come to the party.”
“When is it?” I inquired.
“Thursday night,” said Jim.
“Thursday’s a big night on the air,” I pointed out. “I like to sit at home Thursdays.”
“If the party bores you,” said Jim, “I know you well enough to know that you’ll go and turn the radio on and sit there like a bump on a log.”
“It isn’t my manners that have kept me my friends,” I agreed heartily.
“Can I count on you?” asked Jim eagerly.
“Okay,” I said, “I like to get inside a rich man’s house now and then just for a quiet smile.”
So we spent a while planning our hard times costumes. It is a little difficult in these days to get together a real hard times outfit. Your wife has given everything away. But I remembered a straw hat that hung on a nail in the cellar, and Jim recalled a derby, greenish with age, that some previous owner of his house had left on the fruit shelves. If I wasn’t mistaken, my mother-in-law had kept an old cutaway coat, vintage of about 1890, which was a relic of far-off romance, which she trotted out on festive occasions along with a great gray lustre ball gown of hers, trimmed with black velvet. I figured I could borrow the cutaway, and enhance it with a frayed shirt. Jim had a pair of faded overalls in the back of his car which he used for duck hunting.
“We’ll manage,” he assured me.
And when Thursday came, we managed all right. In the straw hat and greenish old cutaway, and a pair of antique tan boots we found in a trunk, I cut a peculiarly disgusting figure. And Jim, in the derby, and overalls and a bedraggled old sweater coat he borrowed from the furnace man, looked like something fallen off a freight train.
“There,” shouted Jim, when I called for him, “doesn’t that take you back 30 years?”
“I was just thinking we looked pretty average,” I said, “considering the times.”
So we drove from the modest neighborhood where we live up, up, into an ever more refined region, where the corner drugstores got farther and father apart and presently there were no more stores at all, but just dark and gloomy houses. By a lot of peering, we finally located Bill’s street and eventually his house, set back from the neighbors. We looked at our watch.
“Right on the nose,” said Jim, parking. “Nine p.m.”
The house seemed quiet. There were a few other cars parked about.
“Let’s wait for the gang,” I suggested.
“No, Laura said she’d meet us and steer us into a downstairs room,” said Jim. “Come on.”
We walked respectfully up the handsome steps and rang the bell. A uniformed maid opened.
“What is it?” she asked sharply.
“We have an appointment with Mrs. McDoodle,” said Jim, stepping in.
The maid looked us over shrewdly and pointed to an oak bench in the hall. She flounced her skirts at us and went upstairs. The house was deathly silent. Footsteps pattered above and then down the grand staircase came Laura.
“Good heavens!” she gasped, halting and throwing her hand to her mouth.
“What?” said Jim and I, rising smartly to our feet.
“What are you doing here?” hissed Laura, leaping down the stairs and glaring at us fiercely.
“The party?” smiled Jim thinly.
“The party’s tomorrow night,” hissed Laura, starting to shove us towards the door, the little maid standing bravely behind her.
“I thought you said Thursday night,” said Jim, all muddled and trying to recover us both.
“I said Friday night,” cried Laura, brokenly. “Now you’ll ruin it all.”
“Sssshhh,” said Jim.
For heavy footsteps came from above.
“What is it?” called down Bill in a melancholy voice.
“Nothing, dear, nothing,” said Laura, wildly jockeying us to the door.
But down the stairs came Bill and saw his wife trying to shoo two tramps out the door.
“Hey, wait a minute,” shouted Bill, hurrying.
“Oh,” moaned Laura.
“Why,” gasped Bill, when he recognized us. “Why … Laura … these are old friends. Why,
it’s Jim. And Greg. Why …”
And he came and took our arms and looked with horror-stricken eyes into our faces and down at our clothes.
Behind him danced Laura, her finger on her lips, signalling us frantically.
“Why, boys,” said Bill, with a husky voice. “Why, my dear boys.”
And gripping our elbows fiercely, he steered us back through the handsome hall and into a little den, all lined with leather and books. He shoved us in, shut the door on poor Laura who was dancing desperately behind us.
“Laura,” said Bill, a little sharply, “if you don’t mind. I’ll just see the boys alone.”
He shut the door gently on her.
He shoved chairs out for us, with pathetic eagerness. He tried his hardest not to look at us, but we could see his shocked glance furtively taking in our ragged clothes, our shapeless boots, the silly hats we carried.
“Cigars,” he said hoarsely, with trembling hands reaching for a walnut box. “Cigars, boys …”
Suddenly he halted. Pulled himself up. Tightened his jaws and then stared us square in the face.
“Bill,” began Jim, slightly hysterical.
“Boys,” cried Bill, holding his hand up commandingly. “This is very, very strange thing, I’ve been thinking of you fellows for weeks. I tell you it’s an answer to my prayers to see you here.”
“Bill …” I began, trying not to snort with laughter.
“Please,” begged Bill, brokenly, “please, let me have my say. It’s a pitiful thing, but let me say it. Boys, for years I’ve been lonelier than in hell. For months I have been wondering what was the matter with me, life had gone sour. For weeks, I have been actually thinking of you two, and Vic and Bump and Skipper and all. I’ve been praying, do you hear … praying that I could find some decent way of discovering the friends I used to have … before I… before…”
He looked at us and we at him, and of all the dreadful sights in the world, if there weren’t tears tumbling down Bill’s face.
“I didn’t know,” he said, in his nose. “I didn’t know, God be my witness, that you had come on tough times. God be my witness. Nobody ever told me. You’d think somebody would have told me. But why should anybody tell me? And Laura trying to shove you out of my house.”
He glared at us through his tears.
“Boys,” he said, “anything I’ve got is yours. You can have anything in the world you want of me. Why didn’t you come to me sooner? I’ve been so damn lonely. So damn lonely.”
And Bill suddenly leaped forward and grabbed for our hands, and began, for the first time, boldly to look close at our faded rags, our cheap and ragged shirts, at Jim’s horrible soggy sweater coat.
“But, Bill,” said Jim, after several twists of his neck to find his voice, “Bill, it’s all right. We don’t want anything. We just came to call on you.”
“It’s a miracle,” said Bill passionately. “A miracle.”
But Laura had been listening at the keyhole, the way those rich women do; and she pushed the door open and looked with a white face at Bill and us; and then she said: “Jim, what did I tell you?”
So we all had to sit down quietly while Laura and Jimmie and I patiently explained to Bill all about the surprise party and how we, as usual, had got the dates mixed. And how, therefore, Bill had been trapped into revealing something more surprising than any surprise party.
And we stayed until 1 o’clock Friday morning, and Friday night, when the whole 30 of us came, was it ever a surprise party, to them and to Bill and to us and all the old friends who meet sooner or later.
Editor’s Notes: Post office is a kissing party game played at parties between boys and girls. These sort of party games seemed much more common in the first half of the 20th century.
A “Hard Times” party was like a costume party where people wore worn out or ragged clothes, rather than their best outfits. Sometimes they may be used as fundraisers, with the idea that rather than spend money on a fancy gown, the money would then be used to collect for a charity. Since this took place during the end of the Great Depression, Greg remarked that they look average “considering the times”. It would also not be far fetched for Bill to really think that they had become poor.
$50,000 in 1939 is $914,000 in 2021, which won’t buy you a mansion in Toronto today. You’d only get a condo or a small home in serious need of repair.
This story appeared in Greg Clark & Jimmie Frise Go Fishing (1980).