By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, October 5, 1946.
“The world,” insisted Jimmie Frise, “is getting better.”
“I can see no signs of it,” I asserted.
“It’s getting better and better all the time.” declared Jim. “Better and better for ever larger numbers of people in ever wider areas of the world’s surface.”
“Aw,” I protested, “you mean India and China and Africa and such…”
“Certainly,” said Jim sharply. “Why not? Do you mean the world just around you? Maybe it isn’t so comfortable right in your own immediate circle.”
“How can I judge the world,” I demanded, “except from where I sit?”
“From where we sit,” smiled Jimmie, “is where most of us are judging the world these days.”
“Back in the good old days,” I complained, “we didn’t know about the rest of the world. Occasionally, some missionary would come home from China or Africa and preach to us about the tragic way of life of all those teeming millions. So we gave a dollar to the missionary fund.”
“Conscience,” agreed Jim, “was cheap a few years ago. But nowadays, with the movies and radio and everything, there is no escape for us.”
“Not to mention,” I added, “that millions of British, American and Canadian boys have been in those far parts of the earth – India, China, Africa – and are apt to have formed some opinion.”
“Public opinion,” submitted Jim, “was easy to manage, 20, 30 years ago. Nobody knew anything but what they were told.”
“And now,” I confessed, “when a politician gets up and tries to steer the mob his way, 20 or 50 or 100 young guys who have been in China or India or Africa can get up in the audience and slaughter him with a few words.”
“It isn’t going to be easy to be a politician from now on,” gloated Jim cheerfully. “Too much food for thought lying around everywhere. Newspapers, feature magazines, radio, movies. And too many people eating it.”
“Eating what?” I inquired.
“Food,” said Jim, “for thought.”
“Do you think,” I asked, “that if more people start thinking, the world will get better?”
“Maybe not for us comfortable people,” explained Jim, “who have been doing the thinking in the past.”
“Does thinking make us comfortable?” I parried.
“Thinking,” elucidated Jim, “is merely masticating or chewing food for thought. If you don’t give the people anything to think about, they don’t think. Back 50 years, when only a selected few were allowed to go forward with their education as far as the end of high school, much less the university, only a selected few were given any food for thought. There were no modern newspapers and magazines. No movies, no radio. The serious theatre was expensive and largely designed for that same selected few who had already been supplied, by education, with food for thought. But look at the world now! Education is becoming compulsory. Forced feeding. Whether the young people of today have any appetite for food for thought or not, they are stuffed with it by force. And modern publishing, movies and radio are furiously competing in cooking the food for thought in attractive forms and serving it up in an appetizing way.”
“Darn you and your metaphors,” I groaned.
“I don’t suggest all these millions,” went on Jim, “are going to think straight. But they are going to think. You can’t shove food for thought into the mouths of millions without them chewing it.”
“It’s a horrible simile,” I protested, “Everybody, will have indigestion. Mental indigestion.”
“Maybe, maybe,” agreed Jim cheerfully. “But which is worse? Starving? Or indigestion?”
“In the past, Jim,” I presented, “the people who went ahead eating food for thought were those with the appetite for food for thought.”
“I think,” mused Jim, “that everybody is born with the appetite in some measure. But the way we have had the world organized, the appetite was killed in early life for the vast majority of human beings.”
“But not any more?” I queried.
“Not any more,” said Jim.
Jim drove the car slowly homeward. It was only mid-afternoon, but we had a caulking job to do at Jim’s house. We were going to go all over his downstairs window frames which, over the years, had shrunk somewhat, leaving wind cracks for winter.
“It’s a sort of cafeteria,” he suggested. “And even compulsory education is getting into line with publishers, book, newspaper and magazine, the movies, the radio and all the other distributors of food for thought, so as to make the cafeteria presentation as attractive as possible.”
“Jim,” I suggested, “in the past, when only a comparatively few people were equipped for thinking, what did they devote their thinking to?”
“Okay, what?” asked Jim guardedly.
“They devoted their thinking,” I stated, “to how to get out of doing work. They devoted their thinking to how to get others, who didn’t think, to do their work for them, and make a profit.”
“Now, now,” laughed Jimmie.
“It’s a fact,” I cried. “That’s all thinking really amounts to. How to escape working for somebody else.”
“Well …” said Jim, puzzled.
“And if we equip everybody in the world to think,” I demanded, “then what happens?”
“Well …” floundered Jimmie.
Suddenly he tramped on the brakes and steered the car sharply towards the curb. We were just approaching a big public school. Not a soul was to be seen about it, except a middle-aged man wearing a white cap and white cross bands of canvas over his chest, who was sitting on the curb with his head in his hands.
“I’ll Handle The Traffic”
“Something wrong here,” muttered Jim.
“He’s the guy who ushers the kids across the intersection when school’s out,” I said.
“I know, but look at him,” said Jim, as we bailed out.
“Hi,” said Jim.
The man turned a gray face up to us.
“Sorry,” he said. “I had a bad turn there for a minute …”
“Are you all right?” asked Jim. “Can we run you home? Or to a doctor, maybe?”
“No, no, I’ll be all right,” said the old boy, trying to struggle up. But his knees gave way under him.
“Say, look,” cried Jim, putting his arm around the old chap. “Let’s run you home, eh?”
“No, no,” he said thickly. “The children will be out in a minute …”
I looked at my watch. It was 3.15.
“They won’t be out,” I assured him, “for 15 minutes. Look, we can take you home, and my friend and I …”
“Hey!” interrupted Jim sharply and gave me a fierce look.
“We can call the police station,” I corrected, “and they’ll …”
“There’s no time,” moaned the old boy, weaving in some sort of anguish. “There’s no time to get a substitute.”
“Then,” I stated firmly, glaring straight at Jim, “you give me your hat and cross belt, mister, and while my friend drives you home or to your doctor, I’ll handle the traffic…”
The old fellow clutched his stomach and looked up at me eagerly.
“Would you?” he gasped. “Would you do that? It’s a grave responsibility. All those little children …”
Jim shook his head at me with an expression of disgust on his face.
“Certainly I will,” I assured the old boy kindly. “Think nothing of it. It is a duty any citizen…”
“It would be terrible,” groaned the old man. “All the teachers will think I’m on the job. Nobody will be watching. They’ll stream across … the smallest ones are the worst.”
He was unfastening his cross belts. He handed me his white cap, and a round fanlike sign with “Stop” printed on it. Jim assisted the old chap to his feet and led him to the car.
“I’ll be back in a jiffy,” he told me.
I stood near the school-yard gate, holding the cross belt, cap and stop sign behind me; and planned my strategy. Traffic was typical 3.30 traffic – delivery trucks in charge of slouching boys whizzing past; middle-aged ladies out on their afternoon jaunts, gripping their steering wheels with fixed expressions; trucks, oil tankers, business men busily chewing the fat with their fellow passengers and not looking at the street at all.
Children – Millions of them!
As I watched the traffic in this pleasant residential neighborhood. I suddenly became conscious of its menace. I had never noticed that menace before. Highway traffic has menace. Downtown traffic has menace. But does menace come away up into these nice residential regions?
A small scarlet delivery truck in the hands of a surly youth of about 17 suddenly careened around the corner of the school. His tires screeched. My outraged glare he countered with a lazy sneer and waft of his hand. Down the street came four passenger cars in a row, and behind them a giant truck with trailer. As the parade neared the school, the truck slewed out of line, roared its engine and by-passed the passenger cars.
I looked at my watch. It was 3.26. Four minutes!
To me, it seemed as if traffic suddenly exploded. Cars, trucks, lorries, vans, motorcycles appeared from north, south, east and west.
I cautiously started to strap on the white cross belt.
Glancing around, I tried the white cap on. It didn’t fit. It perched on the top of my hair. Suddenly. I hear bells ringing in the school. And instantly. I could FEEL the school burst into a thousand little lives. At which instant, I heard a particularly fierce screech of tires on the pavement, and there was Jimmie bounding out to my aid.
I had no time to ask him how the old boy was. Already the school doors had swung wide and out poured the children, millions and millions of them. All yelling, all screaming, all darting in every direction like darning needles, butterflies and ants.
“We’re fools!” gasped Jim, as he helped lash the cross belt on me. “Fools! Talk about thinking!”
“Thinking!” I grated. “What this world needs is action, and not so…”
But the horde was already streaming past us. Jim leaped to the gate. I ran to the corner, holding the white cap with one hand and waying the stop sign with the other.
“Stand fast, everybody!” I bellowed in the most authoritative manner, holding the stop sign as high as possible.
A Rabble of Ruffians
A rugby ball took me fair on the back of the head and knocked my cap off.
“Here, GIVE me that football,” I yelled amid the screaming, screeching and din.
“Hey never mind that,” came Jim’s voice bellowing above the tumult.
Cars whizzed, children screeched, trucks groaned, lorries hooted, cars tooted, motorcycles machine-gunned, bicycles swerved and the whole earth seemed a madhouse of racing, gyrating, tumbling, dancing, jumping children of all ages.
“Steady!” came Jim’s voice in my ear.
I held the stop sign to the fullest extent of my arm high over my head. I held my other arm extended. Then I proceeded to walk slowly and with dignity across the intersection. A rabble formed about me, swarmed ahead of me. The football came sailing from nowhere and knocked the stop sign out of my hand. I made a wild leap and caught the ball AND the stop sign in one stoop.
Car horns tooted from all four points of the compass. I was tackled by three young ruffians. With dignity, I continued across the intersection, dragging them with me. Jim followed, holding a little boy and a little girl by the hand.
But 1,249 other children went north, east, west and south, regardless. And when I reached the far corner, 19 young hoodlums tackled me and downed me on a doctor’s lawn. There they played bags on the mill with me until Jim finally got them off.
By which time, the traffic jam had untangled itself, most of the children had gone the way they wanted to go, nobody had been killed, and my services were no longer required.
I walked across and sat on the curb in the exact spot the old man had been sitting when we found him. I too, put my head in my hands. Jim stood over me.
“You see,” he said, “thinking is not enough. You have to reflect. You have to weigh and ponder.”
Three lady teachers came out of the school and walked over to us.
“You might have caused a disaster,” scolded the eldest. “We were watching from the window. Who appointed you to this corner?”
“He appointed himself,” explained Jim. “The regular crossing guard was taken ill and I drove him home while my friend here undertook to take over the duties …”
“You should know better,” said the same lady, “To be a school crossing guard calls for a very special talent.”
“Which my friend hasn’t got,” added Jim.
He helped me to my feet. We undid the white crossbelts off me, and retrieved the white cap and the stop sign from the doctor’s lawn across the street. And we drove around to the regular incumbent’s house and returned his property.
“He’s in bed,” said his wife at the door. “I’ve given him a nice hot drink. He’ll be all right.”
So Jim drove me home and we too revived ourselves with nice hot drinks.
Editor’s Note: I’m not quite sure what “they played bags on the mill with me”, means, but from what I can tell, it just might mean piling up on top of each other.