All the time the doctor kept shaking his head more and more

By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, November 18, 1933.

“I suppose,” said Jimmie Frise, “you have had your old tin hat and uniform out of the moth balls?”

“As a matter of fact, I have,” I confessed. “The world is very uneasy.”

“If they are going to have a war,” said Jim, “I wish they would pull it off soon, while us old birds are still eligible, instead of waiting until our kids are grown up.”

“That’s just what I felt,” I said, “when I went up to the attic and got out the old tunic and Sam Browne belt.”

“How did they fit?” asked Jim.

“Terrible,” I said. “The tunic won’t come within five inches of meeting across my stomach. My breeches don’t fit at all. Anywhere. I’ve used up all my old khaki shirts long ago, of course, fishing and hunting. But I’d have to get a whole new outfit.”

“The tin hat still fits, though,” suggested Jimmie.

“Even the tin hat felt funny,” I admitted.

“Well,” said Jim, “I tried on my old uniform the other night, and I must say I used to be a far better man than I am now.”

“Jimmie,” I reminded him, “you must remember it’s nearly twenty years ago!”

“Oh, no!” cried Jimmie. “Not twenty!”

“In less than one year,” I said, “it will be twenty years since the night you and I stood out in front of the old Star office looking at the bulletin boards, with the crowd jammed right across the road to the old red brick Bank of Commerce building, and out to Yonge St.”

“Twenty years,” breathed Jimmie. “It seems like the year before last.”

“There are young men,” I went on, “who are to-day just the age you and I were that night when we were watching the bulletins announce the declaration of war, who weren’t even born that night!”

“My goodness,” whispered Jim.

“And they’d be the ones to go tearing up University Ave. to enlist,” I said. “And they don’t know a bayonet stud1 from a breech bolt2.”

“Or a bridoon3 from a snaffle,” cut in Jimmie, always butting in with some artillery stuff.

“Imagine them having to learn all over again what we learned,” I said. “And this modern young crowd so cool and sarcastic and nice. They’d hate it.”

“We were kind of innocent at that age,” mused Jimmie.

“And sort of yessir, nossir,” I said. “It was easy to make soldiers out of us. They wouldn’t find it so easy with the twenty-year-olds of to-day.

Getting Ready For the Next War

“If they’re going to have a war,” said Jim, angrily, “let them have it now while we’re still good. It takes two years to learn how to pull on a drag rope4. Why put it up to our kids to have to go through all of that again?”

“Or how to work a patrol in No Man’s Land,” I cut in. “Or how to sleep in a barn, without even straw. Or how to carry a man with his leg off.”

“Or how to build a funk hole5,” came Jimmie, “or make a gun platform on soggy mud, with nothing solid for miles around.”

“Or how close to walk behind a rolling barrage,” I said. “There’s a thing! It takes years to teach the boys how close to walk behind their own barrage, and it costs thousands of lives just to learn that one thing.”

“They ought to have their war now, if they are going to have it,” cried Jimmie, “so that those of us who know the tricks can use them.”

“Jimmie,” I said, “let’s get going. Let’s rejoin the militia and get in shape.”

“What will we join?” demanded Jim. “You were an officer in the infantry and I was only a gunner in the artillery. Let’s go together to this next one.”

“Right!” I cried. “We’ll both join the infantry.”

“We will like the dickens!” exclaimed Jim. “Why should a man want to spend his life sitting in the mud? The artillery’s the thing, with horses to ride, and great big shiny guns slamming in the dark, and interesting things to do every minute of the day and night. I’d die of inaction in the infantry, just sitting around.”

“Where do you get that stuff about sitting around!” I demanded heatedly. “Boy, if it’s action you want….”

“Now listen,” pleaded Jimmie. “If we go back to the infantry, you will be a major or colonel, and I’d have to start at the bottom as a buck private.”

“I’ve got it,” I cried. “You be my batman6!”

“If you are honest about wanting to take part in a war to end war,” said Jim, levelly, “if you wish to make the world safe for democracy, a world fit for heroes to live in, just to use a few phrases of a former and almost forgotten nobility, then you will be willing to start at bottom again. And you’ll join the artillery with me as a gunner.”

“I suppose it would be only fair,” I confessed. “But I’ll be surrendering a lot of ground I gained in the last war.”

“The last war,” snorted Jimmie. “What a fizzle you made of that! I should think you would be glad to start at the bottom again.”

“All right,” I said, “I’ll join the artillery with you, and you can teach me how to polish a horse.”

“There’ll be a lot of things I can teach you,” said Jimmie, darkly.

For the Good of the Corps

So Jim found out what night the local artillery units would be parading, and taking on men if any.

And about 8 p.m. we went down to the armories on University Ave. One or two infantry regiments were also holding parades that night, and I held Jimmie back while we stood inside the huge wooden paved drill hall and watched the boys forming up.

“Aren’t they splendid, Jimmie?” I cried. “Oh, it’s a shame we are not going into the infantry.”

We watched a company form up. We saw the sergeants and then the lieutenants inspecting.

“There is a slight sort of I-don’t-know-what missing,” I said to Jim. “They haven’t quite got a sort of something that my boys used to have. I can’t say what it is.”

“Wait till you see us gunners,” said Jim.

The officer commanding the company took over and gave a few drill commands.

“Ah,” I said, “now if I were out there in his place, you would hear commands. You would hear a voice. Like a bomb. It would make this place ring.”

“Come on,” said Jimmie, “let’s get on down to the artillery barracks if it’s style you want.”

We walked around the corridors and came to a room with some mystical numbers on the door which Jimmie said meant Field Artillery. Two young men in uniform were sitting at a desk reading some documents. They did not look like infantry. They had a clean, tidy look, and they had white cords over their shoulders that gave them an appearance of chastity, nobility, which is not part of the disposition of infantry. You could not imagine either of these gentlemanly young men charging a stuffed sack with a bayonet and the proper facial expression.

“Good evening,” said Jim.

The two lads looked up at us pleasantly.

“My friend here and I,” said Jim, “are a couple of old soldiers and we thought we would like to join up again. Are you taking any men on?”

“Were you artillery?” asked one of them.

“I was,” said Jim, proudly. “My friend here was infantry, but he is anxious to switch.”

The two high school boys smiled at us and at each other.

“Well,” said the better looking youth, “as a matter of fact, we are fairly well up to strength just now.”

“What we were thinking,” said Jim, sitting down on the corner of their desk, “was that the militia would be rather keen on getting some of us old timers back into harness. For the good of the corps. We know the ropes. It wouldn’t be like taking on new recruits.”

Everything To Unlearn

The two lads looked at us solemnly.

“For instance,” went on Jimmie, earnestly, “you chaps are no doubt thoroughly trained on theory and gunnery. But what do you know about active service conditions? Did either of you ever haul on a drag rope?”

“Which war were you in?” asked one of the slim young men. “The South African or the 1914-1918 affair?”

Jim and I were both astonished.

“The great war,” we said.

“Ah, things have changed a lot since those days,” said the first youth. “You would have to unlearn everything you learned in that old war. Nothing is the same. For example, I suppose you used to fool around with horses?”

Jim nodded speechlessly.

“Of course nowadays,” went on the young man, “everything is mechanized. Guns are drawn by tractors. The personnel travel in fast trucks. Are you a good mechanic?”

Jimmie slid off the corner of the desk.

“Well, well!” he breathed.

I felt extremely sorry for Jim.

“I can’t imagine artillery,” said he, “without horses. Without the stables, the trumpets sounding. Now I suppose you toot the horn on the truck for the boys to fall in. No more ‘stables,’ no more trumpets sounding hoarsely, no more horse lines, pickets, all the romance gone, all the thrill of driving the guns into action, the night roads, the pack trains of ammunition going up the line.”

The two lads smiled pityingly.

“Oh, there’s romance in the guns,” they said. “I suppose you old boys who did your courting in a buggy can’t imagine a modern youth doing any courting worth while in a fast roadster, huh?”

“Jim,” I said quietly, “I told you before you should come into the infantry. Nothing changes there. It is the same to-day as it was in Caesar’s time, or the Duke of Marlborough’s.”

“How fast,” asked one of the bright youths, “did your machine gun shoot in that 1914-1918 show?”

“Sir,” I said, with dignity, taking Jim by the arm, “our Vickers guns fired upwards of four hundred a minute!”

“Well,” laughed the first youth, “even the Vickers is stepped up to 800 a minute now, but modern infantry will be using the new Farquhar-Robertson gun that fires 2,400 shots a minute, air cooled, and you can change a barrel in three seconds!”

“I don’t believe you!” I said.

“Fact,” said both the young soldiers.

“I don’t believe it,” I shouted.

Jim and I stalked from the room.

“Which infantry units will we join?” I asked, as we strode along the corridors filled with striplings.

“Any one at all,” said Jim. “My gosh, going into action in a motor truck in low gear! You can tell an artilleryman in the dark by the smell of gasoline instead of horse!”

“Jimmie,” I said, “it is a soulless machine age, and it was foolish of us not to foresee that in twenty years there would be dynamic chances in such a thing as artillery. But infantry, now! No matter what new inventions they may make in the art of war, they still have to have the foundation, the infantry! The good old gravel crushers. Come on!” From the corridor we emerged into the huge echoing drill shed.

There was the good old infantry!

In mass!

“Shun!” shouted an officer.

“Standat-ICE!” he yelped. “Shun!”

“Slow-ope-UPPS!” he barked.

“Come on, Jimmie,” I cried breathlessly, “the same old stuff! Duke of Wellington! King Canute! Nothing changes. Let’s get into it, the changeless and unchanging…”

We hastened around the walls of the echoing vasty drill hall. We went into an open door.

There were two or three young lieutenants standing, in the room.

“Is this an infantry unit?” I cried.

“Yes,” said they, poising their cigarettes.

“All right,” I exclaimed. “Show us where to sign up. Where’s the orderly room7?”

“I’m in charge of the orderly room,” said the tallest of the lieutenants coolly. “What is it you want?”

“We want to sign on,” I said. “We’re going to get into the game again. We’re two old soldiers and we think it high time we were back in uniform. Give us a couple of attestation blanks8.”

“Hold on,” said the tall lad. “How old are you boys?”

“Pardon me,” said Jim, standing stiffly. “You are talking to an ex-major!”

He indicated me. I stood at attention, but my stomach seemed to be in a different place from where it was the last time I stood at attention. I shifted it around here and there, but I realized the effect was not good.

The three lieutenants put their heads together. They were mere cadets.

“So you want to join up,” said the tall one. “Aren’t you on the reserve?”

“I wish to go in with my friend here,” I said. “And I am going to start at the bottom, again. With him.”

“We will rise together,” said Jim.

Just Two Decrepit Old Men

They put their heads together again. “I think,” said the tall one, “a medical examination might be arranged to-night. If you will just wait, I will go and see if I can locate the medical officer.”

He left us with the two young lieutenants and they chatted with us pleasantly, asking us about the Great War, and we told them various stories that would show how important it is that an army should be filled with old veterans. They seemed very impressed with us, and they both said it would certainly be a comfort to have men of our experience in their regiment.

The tall young officer returned with a fat officer who told us to follow him. The other three lieutenants followed, too.

We went into a small bare room and the medical officer ordered us to strip. It was a chilly little room and we both had the goose flesh by the time we got our shirts off, and I am afraid we made a poor impression on these younger men who had youth on their side. The doctor measured us longways and across, he listened to our hearts, lungs; asked us to cough, made us read printing at ten feet; and all the time he kept shaking his head more and more.

“Both of you have flat feet,” he said, at last. “Your hearts are full of murmurs, your chest expansion is practically gone, your eyesight is defective, you have got fallen diaphragms, one of you is overweight, and the other is underweight, I can see every sign of high blood pressure and hardening of the arteries. Your King and country may want you, boys, but they don’t want you bad.”

They all helped us dress. They assisted us out the door. They saluted us ceremoniously as we staggered out into the drill hall heading for the main exit.

They saluted us ceremoniously as we stalked out into the drill hall heading for the main exit

Down University Ave. we moved, with leaden feet, Jimmie helping to hold me up by my elbow. By the time we got to Queen St. we were just two decrepit old men, with our backs bowed, our cheeks fallen in and our legs bent at the knee so that our poor old feet slid along the pavement, instead of lifting.

“Jimmie,” I said, and my voice was thin and quavering, “even if we could go to war, I don’t think we would enjoy it any more.”

“Not with caterpillars pulling the guns,” said Jim, in a cracked old voice.

“And machine guns,” I whined, “shooting at the rate of 2,400 a minute, not for me!”

“It sounds like a game for younger men,” said Jim.

“They’ve taken all the pleasure out of it,” I yammered.

“Let these young squirts find out about war for themselves,” squeaked Jimmie.

And two old veterans, holding themselves very stiff and marching in step, held a parade all by themselves along Queen St. to the City Hall, where our car was parked.

Editor’s Notes: There were a few of these types of stories, just before the Second World War, where they spoke of signing up again. This is very early, from 1933 rather than others that appeared in 1939 or 1940.

  1. A Bayonet stud is the metal mount that either locks the bayonet onto the weapon or provides a base for the bayonet to rest against, so that when a bayonet cut or thrust is made, the bayonet does not move or slip backwards. ↩︎
  2. A Breech bolt or breech block is the part of the firearm action that closes the breech of a breech loading weapon before or at the moment of firing. ↩︎
  3. A bridoon is a bit (for horses) designed specifically for use in the double bridle, while a snaffle is a simple bit used with a single set of reins. ↩︎
  4. A drag rope is a rope with a short chain and a hook that is attached to an artillery carriage and used in emergencies in dragging it or locking its wheels. ↩︎
  5. A funk hole is another name for a dugout, a concealed place where one can hide in safety. ↩︎
  6. A batman was a soldier assigned to a commissioned officer as a personal servant. These disappeared before World War 2, except for only the most senior officers (so Greg is out of touch here as well). ↩︎
  7. The orderly room is a room used for regimental or company business. ↩︎
  8. Attestation blanks are the forms used to give personal details when signing up. ↩︎