The Work of Greg Clark and Jimmie Frise

Category: Greg-Jim Story Page 1 of 11

Strength of Character

It was a wonderful pioneering feeling that filled our bosoms

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?”

“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.”

“How?”

“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).

Spinach

We are capitalizing on the piety of the people. They associate whiskers with saints

For lunch we had an eggnog through a straw

By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, January 14, 1933

“I see by the papers,” said Jim Frise, “that whiskers are coming in again.”

“It’s about time,” said I. “Nothing but whiskers will save the world.”

“What are you giving us?” snorted Jim.

“I’m telling you,” I repeated, “nothing but whiskers can save the world. Whiskers went out of style about forty years ago. And since then what have we had? Just a series of mistakes, disasters, wars and calamities. A lot of women have been running the world. The razor is Satan’s cleverest invention.”

“How could whiskers help us?” asked Jim.

“Whiskers,” I said, “are the symbols of masculine authority. The trouble with the world these days is that there is no authority. Nobody is boss. All faces are bared to the light of day and each of us can see what poor, weak faces all the rest of us have. Now, God provided us with whiskers to disguise our true character. A man hidden behind a bush of imposing red whiskers can get away with anything. You can’t see his expression. It is the same as a masked bandit. You are impressed by him. You can’t see his lips trembling with anxiety or nervousness. He seems to be a rock of purpose and courage.”

“Maybe you’re not so far wrong,” admitted Jimmie.

“Just look at the past ten years,” I went on. “Just a series of bare-faced disasters. International conferences where a lot of woman-faced politicians revealed their true intentions to one another, and each world conference more useless than the last. Whereas, if nobody but men with whiskers had been allowed to attend those conferences, all entrenched behind their barricades of fur, with nothing but their sharp and clever eyes peering out at one another, I bet you the world’s problems would have been solved by 1925.”

“By gosh,” said Jim, “when you come to think of it I am a lot more impressed by Dr. Chase’s remedies on account of the late Dr. Chase’s whiskers than I am by President Hoover’s problem solving, just because I look at Hoover’s face and say to myself, nobody with an expression like that could think of anything new.”

“You’ve got it,” said I.

“The past half a century,” said Jim, “has been a period of revelation. Revealing everything, even our faces. No secret of nature or science too sacred to be yanked out into the full view. What we need is a return to concealment. I tell you what! I’ll start growing whiskers if you will.”

“M’m,” said I. “It takes time to grow whiskers.”

“What of it?” demanded Jim.

“The worst part of whiskers is what you might call the period of incubation. One time I grew whiskers for a month on a camping trip. I know about whiskers. They don’t grow the same length at the same time. Here and there they are thicker than elsewhere. It makes you look as if you had leprosy or the mange.”

“What do you care for appearances?” cried Jim.

“Well,” said I, “to tell you the truth, my wife …”

“Ah, there you go!” accused Jim. “There’s the secret! It was the women who robbed us of our whiskers, like Delilah did to Samson. And they will die fighting before they will ever let us get back our old glory and power.”

Feeling a Sense of Power

“I tell you what we might do, Jimmie,” I suggested. “We might, experiment a little. We can get very good false whiskers at these masquerade costume places. I’ve seen them. They put them on so cleverly nowadays that they would fool even a detective.”

“You mean,” said Jim, “we could go around and see what effect whiskers would have in increasing our authority?”

“Precisely.”

“I’m on,” shouted Jim. “Black whiskers for me and red whiskers for you!”

And that was how it came about that you could have seen walking along King street the other morning two gentlemen who might have stepped right out of the eighteen-seventies. Jimmie’s whiskers were a sort of blue-black, suiting his lean and oriental cast of countenance. They were wide and full, concealing not only all his features but his eyes and nose but also his necktie and scarf. They entirely transformed that genial gentleman, whom all bums instinctively salute for a dime, into a sinister and menacing Riff chieftain.

My whiskers unfortunately were governed by the fact that I have hardly any neck, and they were therefore reddish, short and bushy, and no matter how the masquerade costume man tried to make me look romantic or imposing all he could make out of me was a sort of bad-tempered man peering spitefully out of a fox-colored hedge.

“We ought to have different overcoats,” I said to Jim. “Our friends will know us by our clothes.”

“I wouldn’t know you,” said Jim. “In fact, I don’t believe it is you now.”

So we went out on to King street and started walking bravely toward the business district.

The effects of our whiskers were instantaneous. Instead of the casual glances of passing strangers, every person we passed looked at us with a most respectful and even a slightly shocked expression.

“By gosh,” said Jim, as two girls went by with scared averted eyes after one swift, wide-eyed survey of us, “I feel a sense of power.”

“Maybe,” said I, “it is one of those instinctive feelings of respect our whiskers inspire. When all these people were little they were brought up on pictures of the twelve apostles, and they all had whiskers. We are capitalizing on the early piety of the public. They associate whiskers with saints.”

As we got into the business section dozens, scores, hundreds of people passed and every one of them gave us a definite, respectful and awakened glance. I know how Professor de Champ feels now.

“Look who’s coming!” hissed Jimmie.

It was our editor. He is a wide-eyed and observant man. He saw us forty feet away and fastened his eyes on us. We stared back at him. He did not remove his eyes from us until we passed, and never before nor ever again shall we achieve such a respectful expression in our editor’s gaze.

“Boy!” breathed Jim, as the ordeal was over. “Let’s do all our conferences with him in these whiskers.”

In the next block, which was near the office, we passed six different men and two girls who are known to us and who know us. They stared at us and drew delicately aside as we passed.

Our friend, Horses Ayers, runs a tobacco shop in between writing times as a horse authority. He knows us better than a brother. He knows us as only a man can know those who borrow money. We walked into his store.

“Cigarettes,” I commanded, in my ordinary voice, naming my usual brand. I handed him a two-dollar bill.

“Yes, sir,” said Horses, in soft and polite voice. He gave me the cigarettes and change, $1.75.

“That was a five-dollar bill I gave you,” I said sternly, making my red whiskers bristle.

“I BEG your pardon!” cried Horses, diving into the till and giving me three dollars more. “I BEG your pardon.”

“I beg your pardon,” said “Horses,” diving into the till and giving me three dollars more

“Granted!” said I, splendidly.

Jim and I stalked out of the store and got out of sight and had our first practise at laughing in whiskers. It is rather a terrible experience. There you are looking at your friend yelling haw, haw, haw, and it is like a corpse laughing.

“Listen,” groaned Jim, “anybody that can take three dollars off Horses Ayers..!”

“We could make a good living out of short-changing in whiskers,” said I.

“It just goes to show you,” said Jim. “Whiskers give you power.”

Symbols of Authority

“What now?” said I.

“Let’s go up to the city hall and complain about the tax rate,” said Jim.

There is no need to give you the details of our journey all over town. We were received with remarkable politeness by the mayor’s office. They were extremely sorry his worship was out, but they took down carefully all we had to say about the tax rate. We went up to see Premier Henry, but he was out of town. Anyway, they were most cordial. Our complaint to Premier Henry was about the color of this year’s automobile licenses. Yellow again! Could they not think of any colors but yellow and white? Had they, no imagination at all? In sad times like these did they not realize the psychological importance of brightness? Why did they not make the 1933 markers a bright cherry red?

They took it all down and said the matter would receive the attention of the minister.

“Of the cabinet council!” said Jimmie, sternly.

“Yes, sir, of the cabinet council,” replied the official, his hand trembling with the pencil.

We asked a policeman where there was a good speakeasy in the neighborhood. He was sorry he did not know. A real estate agent drove us all over Forest Hill village and showed us through the fifty-thousand-dollar houses.

“Haven’t I seen your picture?” asked the realtor of Jim. “Your face is very familiar.”

“Doubtless, doubtless,” said Jimmie.

When he asked us our names we informed him that our names did not matter. We had seen his goods and if we wanted any of them we would let him know. Hidden behind those whiskers, with the tell-tale mouth and the expressive lines of the face all concealed, it is astonishing how rude and bold you can be.

“How about lunch?” Jim asked about one thirty.

“Nothing doing,” said I. “It takes a lifetime to learn to eat through whiskers, and then very few of them ever learn to do it well.”

“But I don’t want to take these oft yet,” said Jim, thinking of the painful operation of removing the gum that attached the hair to us.

“Let’s have an eggnog through a straw,” said I. Which we did.

“Now,” said Jim, as the afternoon wore on and we could think of no further ways of proving the power of whiskers. “Let’s go home and see what happens.”

So we went home. I do not know the true facts about Jimmie’s case. He says they just laughed. His wife is supported by four daughters, which is, of course, an unfair disposition of the troops in any case.

“Oh, they just laughed,” said Jim.

When I let myself in the front door the maid screamed and ran into the kitchen.

My wife came into the hall and stood staring at me.

“Are you hurt?” she gasped.

“How do you like me in whiskers?” I asked.

“What on earth are you up to?” said my wife. “I thought that was some kind of a fancy bandage you have on your neck.”

“Whiskers,” said I. “How do I look in them?”

“You look as if you had the eczema,” laughed my Delilah.

“Aw, go easy,” I begged. “Don’t they sort of give me a look of importance?”

“Boys,” called my lady, “come and take a look at your daddy!”

My various boys trooped in and all at once the whole scene became a rowdy pandemonium, with everybody dancing around me and dragging me into the light.

“He looks like Duke!” shrieked my mother-in-law. Duke is an Airedale dog of our acquaintance.

“Wait! Wait!” roared the oldest boy. “I know who it is! It’s Paddy Lone!”

Paddy being a feeble-minded gentleman who sits on the side roads up in our part of Muskoka.

I strode upstairs and removed the whiskers.

All of which goes to prove that whiskers do give a man a power, an authority he does not enjoy in his bare-faced condition.

Everywhere except at home.


Editor’s Notes: Spinach” is slang for a beard. It seems to have been most in use in the intra-war years. Since the 1870s and 1880s were the high point of extravagant beards and moustaches, it would be older men who still sported them in 1933.

The “late Dr. Chase” is Dr. A.W. Chase, a 19th century “patent medicine” seller who sold home remedy recipes, under the title Dr. Chase’s Recipes; or, Information for Everybody. He would also sponsor popular almanacs that would still be sold by his company long after his death, and would be known in 1933. He had a very long beard.

Referring to Jim as a “Riff chieftain”, is in refence to the Rif War, a 1920s colonial war between the Spanish and French on one side, and Berber tribes of the Rif mountainous region of Morocco on the other.

Greg indicated that “I know how Professor de Champ feels”. He is referring to Charles Saint-Elme de Champ, founder of the Alliance Française de Toronto. He also had a magnificent beard.

George Stewart Henry was Premier of Ontario from 1930-1934.

Though 1933 Ontario licence plates were yellow, they did go with red in 1937.

The Green Parcel

Just as the big guy flirtatiously closed his eyes in sniffing, I reached out smoothly and…

By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, Janaury 11, 1947

“Well, of all the nerve!” murmured Jimmie Frise in my ear.

“Mmmm?” I inquired.

“Did you see that?” hissed Jim more sharply. “Did you see that guy calmly pick up my parcel?”

“Uh?” I said, removing my attention from the counter where Jim and I were inspecting fleece-lined gloves.

“My green parcel!” whispered Jim. “See? That big guy at the end of the counter….”

At the end of the counter, a big fellow was pausing casually to look at some merchandise. Along with another smaller parcel, he was carrying Jim’s green package containing a beautiful llama wool sport cap of the kind the Swiss hunters wear, a sort of round wool cap that can be pulled down around the neck and ears. Grand for rabbit hunting at this time of year.

“He was standing here beside us,” whispered Jim hurriedly. “I’d laid my parcel down. Just as he walked away, I noticed my parcel gone….”

“Go and ask him for it!” I commanded promptly. “Before he gets away.”

“Nix,” said Jim, “let’s follow the guy. Let’s watch him operate. It’ll be an education.”

“It’ll be a story,” I corrected. “Okay. Now don’t let him see we’re on to him.”

We went ahead examining gloves. Out of the corners of our eyes we watched the big guy stalling around. Obviously he was stalling. He was waiting to see if we would miss the green package and raise an outcry. In which case he could easily plead he had picked the parcel up with his other, by mistake.

“He’s waiting,” murmured Jim guardedly, “for a bunch of people to come by in the aisle and then he’ll just melt into the crowd.”

“Okay,” I agreed. “Don’t let’s lose him.”

“We can’t lose him,” said Jim. “Imagine a guy the size of that engaging in shoplifting! Why, he’s as conspicuous as a moose.”

“And intimidating,” I submitted. “Lots of people, even if they suspected him, would be a little leery of tackling a man that size.”

At which moment, just as we expected, a little crowd of people came down the wide aisle of the store. And as smooth as silk, the big fellow quietly swung in with them and started away.

“Heh, heh, heh,” I chuckled, as Jim and I, without hurry, calmly fell in pursuit.

“The nerve of him!” admired Jim. “Look, he doesn’t ever try to conceal the parcel. Look, he’s carrying it more conspicuously than the other.”

“Aplomb,” I said. “A shoplifter, or any other kind of crook for that matter, has to have aplomb.”

“What the heck is aplomb?’ inquired Jim.

We Study the Master

“It’s self-possession, sort of,” I explained, as we casually strolled along in the shopping crowd, our victim fair in view. “The word aplomb comes from the same root as plummet. It means perpendicular. Straight up and down. A hotel doorman has aplomb. A bishop has aplomb. This guy has aplomb. Look at the proud, self-possessed way he carries himself! A successful crook always has that air. An unsuccessful crook cringes, is bent over, looks anxious. You can see he is a crook. But this kind of smooth operator is always ready to carry off any accident with the greatest assurance. I bet he wiggles out of 100 per cent of the cases in which he is caught in the act.”

He had paused at the notions counter. He was slowly moving, a step at a time, along the counter, studying with rapt attention the cards of buttons, the cards of hooks and eyes, dome fasteners.

“See!” hissed Jimmie, as we too slowed along the opposite side of the aisle. “See that woman ahead of him? And that expensive-looking package she’s carrying? Well, wait till she lays it down!”

We watched covertly with bated breath.

“What art!” I breathed. “What technique! The guy is a master. He knows that in the notions counter women are always picking things up, and in order to pick things up, they’ve got to lay things down. How much do you bet he gets that expensive-looking package?”

“By the look of that package,” assessed Jim. “I figure she’s got a $15 bed-jacket. Or maybe one of those $20 cashmere cardigans …”

Slowly, the unsuspecting lady, with the parcel tucked under her arm, moved along the notions counter, peering at everything, the spools, the safety pins, the knitting needles. And slowly behind her, moving with the greatest indifference, lost in contemplation of the trivial things on the counter, drifted the big man.

She halted. The man halted. She picked up a large spool of colored elastic. She studied it intently. She made as if to take the package from under her arm. We stiffened.

But she suddenly changed her mind and tossed the elastic back and walked briskly on. The man followed. When the lady turned right at the end of the notions counter, the big fellow paused, and then turned left.

“He takes his time,” admired Jim, as we followed, at leisure. “No ordinary packages for him. He only chooses the best.”

“What a queer hobby!” I mused. “It’s sort of like gambling. He never knows what he’s getting until he gets home.”

We followed him up the main aisle, and then began a most fascinating chase. He went to the escalator and took it up. At a discreet distance, we followed.

“Do you think he’d recognize us following him?” I inquired.

“Not him,” said Jim. “He’s like a hound on the scent. He’s like a setter at point. Each job, once done, is forgotten in favor of a new victim…”

The Vulnerable Point

“But look here, Jim, how about your llama cap?” I demanded. “At what stage are you going to get that green parcel back? If by any chance he did see us, and recognize us as the two guys he stuck down there at the glove counter, he might make a sudden dive into an elevator or something … Or he might even chuck your green parcel out a window.”

“Hmmmm,” said Jim uneasily. “I don’t want to lose that $3 cap. Let’s keep a closer watch …”

So instead of following 30 feet behind, we moved up to about 15 feet.

He was marvellous. He got off the escalator at the third floor and wandered straight over to the ladies’ lingerie department. If there is any place the ladies lay their parcels down, it is in the lingerie department. No lady is ever satisfied merely to look at lingerie. She’s got to feel it, finger it, twiddle the silk between her fingers. And to do that, she’s got to put her parcels down on a counter.

“I wonder if he takes purses?” I suggested.

“I wouldn’t think so,” said Jim. “Purses are too easily identified, too immediately noticed if gone. Ladies don’t often lay down their purses, even when they set down all their packages. And besides, there is never very much in a woman’s purse. Maybe $3 or $4. No, it’s parcels this guy is after. They’re easily explained a mistake, madam, a mistake! I’m very sorry! With that aplomb …”

We followed the big fellow around the lingerie department. He was a superb actor. He paused here and there to examine various garments with that shy and slightly self-conscious air a man uses in the lingerie.

When the masterful salesladies of the lingerie department came and spoke to him, he just smiled, shook his head and wandered on.

Two or three times, we thought we were about to witness a snatch. Ladies did lay parcels down and wander a few feet away. The big guy DID pause, long enough to cast his practised eye over the packages. But apparently none of them were good enough to merit his attention.

“I guess an expert,” said Jim, “can tell at a glance what’s in a parcel.”

We followed him up to the fourth floor, then to the fifth. He went with unerring instinct to the departments where people set parcels down. The wool department. No lady can buy wool with other packages in her arms. She must feel the wool, fondle it.

The china department. Several people laid themselves open, became vulnerable here. To examine a tea cup or a cheese dish, you’ve got to lay your parcels down. The big fellow moved calmly about the china department, pausing here, pausing there; and we could see, in each instance, just which victim he was appraising.

In the china department, he startled us by actually buying something. He bought a green glass beer mug with a wooden handle.

“Hmmm,” said Jim, puzzled. “Do you suppose by any chance he has spotted us following him around? Do you think this little purchase is intended to throw us off the scent?”

“Jim,” I urged, as we retreated a little way in confusion, “let’s get it over with now. Either walk right up to him and demand the parcel back, or else get a floor-walker to act for us. The floor-walker can do it very nicely, no scene …”

“Are you afraid of that big lug?” Jim demanded meanly.

“Well, there’s no use getting punched on the nose,” I submitted.

One on Him!

“Listen, all we’ll do,” said Jim, covertly watching the rascal as he calmly awaited his parcel and change, “is walk up to him quietly and ask him what is in the green parcel. Tell him we saw him pick up our parcel and have followed him all over the store. That’ll frighten him. He’ll know we’re on to him. When we ask him what’s in the green parcel, of course he won’t know. Whatever he says, we’ll say it’s a llama wool cap. We’ll demand he open it, or we’ll call the store detectives…”

“Look!” I exclaimed. “I’ve got a better idea, Jim. Why not serve him his own trick? Why not US pinch your green parcel off HIM?”.

“Eh!” Jim checked.

“Let’s,” I said with increasing excitement, “beat him at his own game! Let’s tag on to him until he lays HIS parcels down and quietly snatch yours back.”

Jim looked speculatively over to where the big crook was standing with his back to us, awaiting his parcel. He had, for a fact, laid his other parcels down. Jim’s green one was on top.

“That,” chuckled Jim suddenly, “is an idea! Imagine his feelings when he finds the green parcel gone! He’ll be in a panic …”

At which moment, the salesgirl came back and gave him the beer mug which, after a moment, he stuffed into his overcoat pocket. Then he meandered over to the elevator and took it down to the main floor, us packed beside him in the car. It was breathtaking to be this close to the scoundrel. For there, just under my nose, and not a foot from Jim’s, was Jim’s green parcel brazenly exposed. Oh, it was exciting!

We let him off first. He led us to the perfume counter. He laid his two parcels down, green one on top. He spoke jokingly to a salesgirl, and she proceeded to let him sniff a variety of perfume bottles.

It was an odd sight. This big goof going through all the ecstasies, and refinements of selecting an itty-bitty bottle of perfume…

I cased the joint. Jim moved over to protect me from the off side. Just as the big guy flirtatiously closed his eyes in sniffing, I reached out smoothly and, all in one sweet swipe, picked the green package off the counter, moved on and handed the parcel to Jim. Without pause, we went straight out the main door and down Yonge St.

Our hearts were beating wildly. Our breath was coming fast. But it was with laughter we were bursting.

“What a joke!” bellowed Jim as we got out into the winter air. “Boy, I’d like to see that guy’s face right now…”

Who Robbed Who?

We went into a coffee shop for our 11 o’clock pot of tea and relaxed. Ah, it was delightful! There is nothing more enlivening to the humdrum life of modern society than a little excursion like this into the realm of the unusual, the bizarre…

I got my tea and sat back. From my coat pocket I took my own package and opened it to have a look at the muffler I had bought.

Jim, with doting fingers, undid his green parcel to try on the llama cap.

It WASN’T a llama cap!

It was a lady’s bright blue nightgown!

“Oh, my gosh…” gasped Jim, struggling to his feet. “Oh, OH, my gosh!”

We stood transfixed with horror.

“What do we do?” moaned Jim. “What do we DO!”

“The.. uh… who … aw …” I explained.

“Don’t you see!” wailed Jimmie. “We’ve ROBBED a guy, a poor, innocent big guy…”

“You saw him snatch the parcel … the green parcel…” I croaked.

Jim stood staring agonized into space.

“No,” he whispered. “No! Now that I come to think of it, I believe I left my green parcel on the fishing tackle counter, when we were talking to Jack Sutton …”

“You … you …” I accused.

So we left our tea and hastily wrapped the green package and ran back up the street to the big store.

We ran to the perfume counter. We hastily searched the aisles, but in the crowds we knew it was hopeless. We hastened to the tackle counter and, as soon as Jack Sutton saw us coming, he reached down under the counter and picked up a green parcel, which he waved reassuringly to Jim.

“Oh … oh … OH!” moaned Jim.

So this is what we did.

We went up to the lost and found office and turned the other green parcel over to the girl.

We said we had found it on Yonge St, and, on opening it, we had found the bill inside and knew it had come from this store.

“You are very kind,” the girl smiled, “and very HONEST.” (The capitals are mine.)

“Say, just for fun,” I said, “will you keep track of whoever calls for that parcel, if someone does I’d like to know what kind of person buys nightgowns that color?”

“Tee-hee-hee, I will,” assured the girl.

I telephoned the next day.

“It was a great big man,” the girl informed me. “He was a policeman on his day off. And he was so glad to get the parcel, because he was sure somebody had snatched it on him. Some shoplifter. And he said he was SO MAD…!”

Just as the big guy flirtatiously closed his eyes in sniffing, I reached out smoothly and…

Editor’s Note: This was the last Greg-Jim story published in the Toronto Star Weekly before they moved to the Montreal Standard. The microfilmed image is at the end, while the colour image is from an online auction.

Cat’s Paw

With nasty spitting sounds, the cat retreated farther and farther out on the cross-beam.

“What life requires of us, now and then, is a feeling of sudden desperation.” Like climbing telephone poles after cats, for instance

By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, January 6, 1940

“Come for a walk,” said Jimmie Frise, appearing at my front door. “It’s a lovely Sunday afternoon.”

“A walk?” I said, being in the middle of a good book on trout fishing.

“A walk,” said Jim. “W-a-l-k. Look, you move your feet like this. Walk.”

“Okay,” I said. “Only you sort of surprised me.”

“The way you acted,” said Jim, as I threw on my overcoat, “you would think I had invited you to come for a fly or a creep or a hop-scotch or something.”

Rusty was with him, waiting on the steps, and I joined them and we stepped merrily out into the mellow winter sunshine. It was for a fact a lovely afternoon.

“Walking,” said Jim, as we started away, “is becoming an unusual act. Your surprise, at my invitation, was probably quite normal. It is probably far more unusual to receive an invitation to come for a walk than to receive an invitation to come for a fly in an airplane.”

“Walking,” I agreed, “is going out of fashion. The only walking we do any more is the little we have to do between vehicles. We walk to the garage. Then we walk from the parking lot to the office. Then we take the elevator.”

“At the office,” went on Jim, “everything is laid out on an economic plan that requires as little walking as possible between departments. The less walking done in a modern plant, the happier the management is.”

“And rather than walk three rooms to see a colleague,” I pointed out, “we telephone him on the private switchboard.”

“The whole scheme of modern life,” said Jimmie, “is to eliminate walking. I suppose the perfection towards which we are struggling is to have all mankind squatted on a soft pillow and carried from place to place by miraculous vehicles. A vehicle to lift us, on our pillow, out of bed in the morning, carry us all over the world, and then deposit us tenderly back in bed at nightfall, without having to set foot on the vulgar earth.”

“I wonder, Jim,” I submitted, “if all our troubles may not be due to our loss of touch with the earth? My grandmother would never let me wear rubber-soled running shoes when I was a boy because she said it would give me weak eyes. She held the opinion that it was necessary for human beings to touch the earth all day. If you cut yourself off from the earth by any unnatural substance like rubber, you were like a plant whose stem was cut.”

“Well, the less we walk,” said Jim, “the worse off we seem to become. The more we perfect our mechanization, the less human we grow. Never in the world’s history did we walk less. And never were we in a greater muddle, intellectual, spiritual and physical.”

“My grandmother may have been right,” I declared. “Maybe we are children of the earth after all. Maybe we have to keep touch with the soil. Maybe there is some divine elixir, like electricity, that exudes out of the earth into our bodies. And to have perfect strength and health of mind and body, we have to get our daily charging, through our feet.”

Contact With the Earth

“Well, I will say this,” submitted Jimmie. “Most of the craziness of the present world comes from cities rather than from the country. You don’t find many country people in the governments that lead the various nations to disaster. The more industrialized people grow, the crazier they grow. And living in cities, they rarely touch the earth with their feet.”

“We might have hold of something there, Jim,” I declared.

“Look at Rusty,” said Jim, pointing to his amiable Irish water spaniel. “See how he scorns the sidewalk. The sidewalk is dry and warmed by the sun. Yet Rusty prefers to adventure out on the icy and snowy lawns. Why? Because he is in contact with the true earth.”

“Maybe my grandmother was right,” I repeated. “Maybe there is some strength we get out of walking on the earth.”

“When people are ill,” said Jim, “we send them out into the country. We say it is the country air. With the wind blowing all day, how can country air be any different from the air in cities? No, it isn’t the air that heals people. It is something that comes out of the earth, some emanation, some rays, unseen, essential. And we can’t get them in cities of concrete and brick.”

“There is a blind need to put our feet on the earth,” I pointed out. “Look at golfers. Is there anything in the game of golf to justify the passion golfers develop for it? Biffing a silly little ball around the fields? But when you understand that the passion these men have for the game arises out of the soil, then all is clear. They think they love the game because of the club and ball. They really love it because, as slaves of the city, they are given the opportunity, in golf, to walk on the earth and absorb the life-giving rays, whatever they are.”

”That’s true of all outdoor sports,” said Jimmie. “What can there be in fishing trips which are always a fizzle, or shooting trips where you never see any game, yet which call us out, time after time?”

“You’re right,” I agreed. “As the bee is drawn to the flower we are drawn to the country. We think up a thousand excuses for going to the country. The simple fact is, we have to go to the country to get recharged out of the earth.”

“Walking,” asserted Jim, “should be enforced. The more our masters, the industrialists, eliminate walking as waste, the more we should make laws requiring so many miles of walking from all of us who are workers in cities. All city workers should work five days. And then, by law, have to go walking in the country for two days. Then the world would return to normal.”

“I’m glad you brought me on this walk, anyway,” I informed him. “I feel more normal already.”

Nothing Like Walking

There is a kind of winter’s afternoon that is not excelled by any other hour of all the year. May and early June at its loveliest always is lovelier by reason of contrast with the dreary March and April that preceded it. Star-scattered nights of August are incomparable, but there is the murmur of September in them. A mid-January afternoon, with a slight melting at the edges of roofs and crispness unsalted with wind or chill, is a jewel of time. Its vivid brightness, its purity, its hardness is like a diamond. It defies comparison with May or October. It has no sadness or envy in it. Every sound rings. No thought of sprouting flower or of vivid dying leaves creates that sense of time’s movement. Men close to 50 might choose to live in a perpetual afternoon of mid-January.

“Did you ever try to keep a record,” I asked Jimmie, “of the actually perfect hours of your life? There are not many of them.”

“Most of them,” said Jim, “have usually been associated with walking.”

“You’re quite right,” I agreed. “You don’t get into accidents or smashups while walking, Mischief never suggests itself to a man on his two feet.”

“Walking is the most peaceful of all things,” said Jim. “Let even two such peaceful men as we are sit down for five minutes, and trouble starts.”

“Atta boy, Rusty,” I said suddenly.

Because Rusty had come upon a cat sunning itself on a sidewalk. And with his tail wagging and a look of expectation, Rusty was moving in a stiff circle around the cat which slowly arched itself into a standing position and turned its head malevolently towards Rusty.

“Here, Rusty,” commanded Jim shortly.

“Atta, boy, Rusty,” I muttered.

And with a pounce and a hoarse bark, Rusty accepted the more agreeable of the two suggestions and made for the cat.

“Hyah,” roared Jim indignantly.

But Rusty was after the cat and chased it briefly to a telephone pole, up which it went, much to Rusty’s delight.

“Now, look,” accused Jim. “See what you did.”

“Good boy, Rusty,” I asserted.

Jim walked over and scolded Rusty away from the pole where he was barking,

“Okay, come on,” I suggested.

“You can’t leave a cat up a pole like that,” said Jim hotly.

“What are you talking about,” I retorted. “If a cat can run up a pole, can’t it run down?”

“No, it can’t,” said Jim. “The poor creature might be marooned up there all night. It might never come down. They might have to get the fire department to come and rescue it.”

“Oh, nonsense,” I protested. “You’ve another of those cat-conscious people. Don’t baby them.”

“Furthermore,” said Jim, “I don’t altogether like the way you interfere between me and my dog. When I speak to my dog. I don’t like people to countermand my orders.”

“Cats always excite me,” I apologized. “I’m sorry, Jim, but whenever I see a cat, something malicious springs to life in me.”

“There are people who love cats more than we love dogs,” stated Jim.

“A cat is not a normal human associate,” I stated. “It is purely a pet. You might just as reasonably love a crocodile. A dog is a natural friend of man, because it serves him, hunts for him, guards him. What does a cat do? Just creeps slyly about the house. And kills songbirds.”

A door opened in the house immediately beside us and a lady looked out.

“How,” she asked, “are you going to get it down?”

“Oh, it’ll come down as soon as we go away, madam,” I explained nicely.

“Oh, no it won’t,” said the lady. “We’ve had to have the fire department come more than once to rescue that cat.”

I looked up the pole, and hanged if the silly thing had not gone up right to the crosspiece.

“Why do people keep animals like that around?” I demanded.

“Why do people keep dogs,” retorted the lady, “that haven’t been sufficiently trained to leave cats alone?”

“The dog is perfectly all right,” Jimmie informed her, “if he weren’t sicked on by people who have no business to.”

“Do you suggest,” I asked, “that I climb up that pole and rescue that cat?”

“Well, you don’t suggest I do?” countered Jim.

“I’ll go up,” offered a small boy standing by, “for a quarter, mister.”

“No you won’t,” cried the lady. “We don’t want any children killed around here just because people keep savage dogs.”

“Lady,” said Jim. “this dog is no savage.”

“There are usually some young fellows hanging around that drug store Sunday afternoons, Jim,” I suggested. “Suppose we walk around by the corner and I get a couple of them to come and climb the pole?”

“Are you scared of a little climb like that?” demanded Jim. “With those rungs sticking out?”

“Certainly not,” I informed him. “But what do I do when I get the cat? I hate the feel of cats. So soft and limp.”

“Pshaw,” scoffed Jimmie. “Scared of a kitten. And I’ve seen you grab great big slimy muskellunge and haul them bodily into a canoe …”

“I don’t like soft, mushy things,” I stated firmly.

“Okay,” said Jim, unpleasantly, “okay, come on and hire some young hero hanging around the drugstore.”

“Just a minute,” called the lady on the veranda. “Are you going to leave that cat up there?”

“We are going to get somebody to bring it down,” I explained.

“Why can’t you get it down?” demanded the lady in one of those penetrating voices.

“Because,” called Jimmie, “he doesn’t like soft, mushy…”

Which caused me to leap to the pole and start up it before he even got the sentence finished. What life requires of us, now and then, is a feeling of sudden desperation.

But It Just Backed Up

Much as I dislike heights, even moderate ones, I clambered from spike to spike up the pole, and as I approached the top, the cat, with nasty spitting sounds, retreated farther out on the cross-beam.

“Come on, kitty,” I said, masking my natural instincts regarding cats in a gruff, kindly manner.

But cats have always been to me creatures that lacked any true human affinity. Even the most pampered cats act as if they didn’t really give a tinker’s rivet for their master or mistress or the fine home they share. True, they have a coy way of arching their backs and rubbing themselves against your leg. Or they will lie and purr on your lap. But that only goes to show how cheaply, with a little purring, you can wangle your way through life.

This cat eyed me with hard, glaring eyes. It bared its teeth in a soundless meow and arched its whiskers at me.

“Come on,” I said, not unkindly “Let’s both get down out of this.”

But it just backed up.

“Grab it,” called Jim. “Pick it up by the scruff of the neck. It won’t hurt you.”

In my boyhood, I have carried mice and even snakes in my pockets and all I can ask is, that those who dislike mice or snakes offer me the same respect I have for their fancies.

“Will you come down,” I hissed at the cat.

“Ffftt,” said the cat.

“He won’t come down,” I explained to Jim.

“For Pete’s sake,” said Jim disgusted.

So I reached quickly and caught the cat by the horribly loose fur on his neck, and pulled him clear of the cross-beam to which he stuck like a burr with all his nasty little claws. I lifted him and he curled around and clawed my wrist but I hung on and came down the rungs so slick and so quick Jim says I practically slid the whole way.

As I neared ground, I let go the cat and it lit as light as a ping pong ball and danced away for the veranda.

And even Rusty didn’t move. He just sat and looked eagerly at Jimmie and I never opened my mouth.

So we went to the drug store after all and I got a 15-cent bottle of iodine and carefully dabbed all my scratches. And for the remainder of the walk, we talked about the war, not about walking.


Editor’s Notes: More homespun wisdom from Greg’s Grandma Greig can be found in many of the stories Greg wrote that were collected in his solo books.

This was a nice example of Jim working a different angle, making the illustration long and thin, taking up the whole length of the newspaper page.

Sticky, Eh What!

The doors slid to and grasped the handle of the stick firmly. And the street-car started.

By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, December 30, 1944

Greg and Jim agree the auto and street car put the walking stick out of business, so they decide to revive the ancient and gentlemanly art of carrying a cane, but…

“Haw,” snorted Jimmie Frise, “a walking stick!”

“What about it?” I demanded indignantly.

“Have you sprained your ankle?” inquired Jim. “Or is it a bunion? Or have you just gone uppish?”

“Anything else to say?” I gritted.

“Or is it just old age?” concluded Jim.

“Do you know the difference between you and me, Jim?” I asked acidly. “If I feel like carrying a walking stick, I carry one. But even if you felt like carrying a stick, you wouldn’t for fear some silly yap like you would comment on it.”

“It looks conspicuous,” protested Jim. “Walking sticks have gone out of style long ago.”

“They’ll be coming back into style any day, Jim,” I suggested, “as soon as about 15,000 of the boys come back home who have leg wounds.”

“Aw, that’s different,” said Jimmie.

“I fail to see it,” I submitted. “If it is conspicuous to carry a stick, then we ought to cheer up the boys who have to carry them by a lot of us old fogeys carrying them, too. The boys won’t feel quite so conscious of their lameness if they see a lot of men carrying sticks.”

“I should say a stick was a badge of honor now,” put in Jim, “and only those entitled to it by wounds should be allowed by fashion to carry them.”

“I can’t understand how walking sticks ever went out of fashion,” I said. “I admit a very young man looks a little self-conscious carrying a cane. And maybe a man carrying a lunch pail and also a stick might look a little out of place. But it seems to me about half the men in the world would look a lot more comfortable if they were swinging a stick in their hands as they move about the streets.”

“The motor car killed canes,” said Jim. “Back in the days before street cars and motor cars it was all very well for men to use sticks. They were an actual help. When all the world walked, sticks were a real lift to a man’s legs.”

“What do you know about it?” I demanded. “You never carried a stick in your life.”

“I just sense it,” said Jim. “I can just imagine how a good stout stick in your hand would sort of inspire you to walk; it would sort of give you a swing and a lilt.”

“My boy,” I admitted, “your imagination does you credit. As an old stick swinger I can assure you that a stick gives you just that lilt and swing you imagine. And that is why I am an advocate of the return of the walking stick. I admit the street car and then the motor car put the cane out of business. But you will agree that it would be a good thing for all mankind if they would do more walking than they have done in the past 20 years or so. For the public health.”

“And you think walking sticks would inspire men to walk?” smiled Jim.

Precisely,” I asserted. “There is something familiar and cosy about a stick. Once you find a stick the right size and weight and shape, once you have felt the comfort and strength of a stick that has the right lilt and swing to it, you will find yourself, every now and then, with a hankering to just go for a walk somewhere.”

“H’m,” said Jim thoughtfully. “How do you mean the right size and shape?

A Stick to Fit

“Well,” I said, warming up. “you never see a man dawdling along when he carries a stick, do you? He is always striding out – that is, unless he is using it because he is hurt or lame. A stick gives you the impulse to stride and walk with pleasure.”

“But not any stick?” persisted Jim.

“Not at all,” I said. “A stick has to fit you the same as your collar or your boots. Anybody who has ever bought a stick at random – just walked into a store and picked one out, embarrassed and self-conscious, without giving the subject a little time and study, would naturally never fall in love with such a stick. It has to fit you.”

“How?” insisted Jim.

“First,” I stated, “it has to be just the length to reach to that round knob bone of your hip that you can feel jut out when you thrust your hip sideways a little. That is the exact height it should be, and you should have the stick shop cut it to that exact length.”

“What else?” inquired Jim, standing up and feeling the knob of his hip bone.

“Well, you don’t want too light a stick,” I pursued. “You want a stick with a little weight and balance to it. You can tell that best by just hefting it, in comparison with others. If you are the kind of man who is always fiddling with his hands, such as filling a pipe or putting his glasses on and off, you will want a curved handle, so you can hang the stick on your arm.”

“Don’t all canes have curved handles?” asked Jimmie.

“You’re thinking of umbrellas,” I said. “They always have to hang on your arm while you feel for car tickets and such. The best stick of all has a straight crook handle. A handle jutting out at right angles to the stick. That gives you exactly the right, comfortable, joyous grip to shove you along as you stride. Real connoisseurs of sticks spend years and years hunting the stick shops of the world for beautiful natural crooks – not artificially bent ones. Then there is the straight stick, with a knob on it, no curve or crook.”

“That wouldn’t be very comfortable,” surmised Jim.

“You’re wrong,” I informed him. “Soldiers prefer a good ash plant stick with a comfortable knob to all others. Half the time you don’t want to use the stick tapping on the ground. You like to swing along, holding the slick by the middle and using it as a sort of weight or pendulum to pace with. A knobbed stick is maybe the second best to a straight crook one.”

“You talk as if there was a science of sticks,” remarked Jimmie.

“There is,” I said. “Sticks have a history older than any other human implement. The first thing prehistoric man ever picked up was a stick. Long before he developed the idea of throwing things, man naturally picked up sticks to defend himself, to assault his game and to assist himself when he was tired or hurt. For ages sticks were associated with pilgrims. With all men who had to travel the weary world on foot. It is true that sticks became the fashion with gentlemen of leisure in the past century or so, but that was only when we got the law on gentlemen of leisure and forbade them to carry swords. Until the last 100 years or so, gentlemen were never very popular and they all felt uneasy when walking around on foot, unless armed with something to defend themselves against the vulgar masses.”

“Yah,” said Jim. “Socialism again.”

“Every sportsman should carry a walking stick,” I enumerated, “in between seasons, to keep his fly casting wrist limber, to exercise his shooting wrist or his golf wrist.”

“H’m,” mused Jimmie, looking at his wintry wrist.

“In fact,” I wound up, “a stick is the greatest invitation to a man to get up and do something there is. It is, you might say, an essential limb of the human body. Because all your ancestors, hundreds of them, straight back through the middle ages, back to the dark ages, right through to the cave man from whom you personally descended, used sticks as part of their daily life. I wouldn’t be surprised if men learned to walk upright, instead of on all fours, by reason of the instinctive and natural love of a man for a stick.”

“What about women?” countered Jim.

“Women just imitated men,” I explained.

This Motorized Age

“I’d never carry a stick,” declared Jim, sitting down again after having located his hip knob.

“You’ve probably given up walking anyway, Jim,” I suggested. “You’ve quit. You are baggage from now on. Your walking days are over.”

“Oh, yeah?” said Jim sharply.

“Yes,” I sighed. “After about 45 years of age a man’s dominant instinct is to avoid change. That is the heck of this motorized age. It accustoms a man to being baggage. That is all very well when a man is young and energetic. He will get out and play a little golf or something. But once he passes his naturally energetic years he comes under control of his basic instinct – which is to change nothing to go through the rest of his life by routine, by memory, by habit. So, in this motorized age, he becomes what? Just baggage!”

“He’s following nature, anyway,” declared Jim.

“Far from it,” I cried. “Up until just 100 years ago, the older a man got the harder he had to struggle to keep alive. The older a man got, the wiser, the shrewder he grew. That was why the world progressed. Old men could guide us. But ever since the industrial age began old men have been pensioned off and relegated to the corner. Result? All our old men are soft and ignorant. They have a mental age of about 40. All cunning. No wisdom. Hence the past century has been the most confused, bloodiest and most savage in human history.”

“Such bilge!” exploded Jimmie.

“Okay,” I said, “what’s your explanation of the Bloody Twentieth Century?”

“Well, it isn’t walking sticks,” crowed Jim,

“It might well be,” I replied. “It might indeed well be. If men would only return to walking sticks and go forth on their feet among their fellow men instead of whizzing past one another with steering wheels in their hands; if they would give up their awful isolationism of staying locked up in motor cars, locked up in offices, locked up in their homes beside their radios, cutting themselves off at every possible point from contact with their fellow-men, and get out with a stick and peregrinate around seeking the company of their fellow-men, looking at their fellow-men, talking with them and going on little pilgrimages with such fellow-pilgrims as they might find along the way – the world might be better.”

“I wouldn’t own a walking stick,” muttered Jim.

“I’ll buy you one,” I asserted. “I’ll go with you to one of the few shops where sticks can still be bought and get you a stick of exactly the right fit, the right heft, not a sissy polished walking stick such as men carry so awkwardly to church on Sundays, but a real, striding stick…”

“Not me,” laughed Jimmie scornfully.

But at noon I had no trouble guiding his steps free of the habitual course our short lunch hour stroll took us – that dreadful, same old stroll which hundreds of thousands of us take every day of our lives without realizing we are as helpless as squirrels in our cage – and got him off on a side street to a tiny shop I know which has a small but choice selection of real walkers’ sticks for sale.

Jim was quite interested in the limited display.

“Ah,” said the old stick man, “there is not many sticks being made nowadays. One of the biggest stick factories in Britain has just simply folded up, so changed is the fashion. Why, the gipsies in Britain and Ireland used to cut 1,000,000 sticks a year for the British home and export trade. In the Pyrenees they used to harvest tens of thousands of those beautiful light golden Pyrenees hazels. And from the East shiploads of whole-bark Malaccas used to be a great import business. Now all gone.”

But Jimmie was hefting a good plain curve handled oak with a faraway expression on his face. He tried it to his hip. It just fitted to the knob of his hip. He tapped it. Swung it a few times and tried a few paces. Then he lifted it by the middle and swung it. Finally tucked it under his arm jauntily.

He laughed a little awkwardly.

“Do you know,” he exclaimed, “it does have an old-fashioned feeling, somehow. A sort of … sort of …”

The old stick man smiled at me and I reached in my pocket for the two dollars.

“We’ll just take a turn around a couple of these less populated city blocks,” I said as we stepped out into the street. “A couple of gents out for an airing.”

We strode east on Adelaide to Jarvis and jogged down and along a couple of blocks of factory and warehouse areas. I showed Jim how to swing the stick in walking, the rhythm of the stick, that is, tap it down on the fall of the left foot, follow through, swing up and forward, then tap down again on the third fall of the left foot.

He dropped his cane a couple of times, due to its slippery newness, and at one crossing, as he stepped down off the curb the stick got in between his feet and threw him. Still another time, as he swung jauntily along, he gave the stick a particularly airy swing and hit a little boy on the head with it. The little boy’s mother was sweeping off the steps of a small frame cottage sandwiched in between two big factories. She was probably a descendant of a long line of proletariat who hated gentlemen with either swords or sticks, and when the little boy roared that the man had hit him with the stick she chased us half a block with the broom and caused quite number of heads to appear at factory and warehouse windows with her shouting. Just like the French Revolution.

“There you go,” said Jim bitterly as hastened around a corner and tried to resume the role of two gentlemen out for an airing. “The silly damn thing.”

And he tucked the stick under his arm, as though to hide it.

“Come on, come on,” I coaxed, swinging mine heartily. “Give it a chance. Wait till you feel the natural, old-fashioned lilt of it. You can’t expect to be a stick swinger in 10 minutes.”

“It doesn’t come natural to me,” complained Jimmie, tucking the stick still deeper up under his armpit and trying to hide its length with his sleeve.

Some Nasty Remarks

At one of the corners we passed, a group of the lads from a factory, all in their dirty overalls, were out taking a breath of air for the noontime recess, and as we approached one of them cheerily sang out –

“Ah, look at this, would you!”

And we strode by, pretending not to notice. But the gang gave us a pretty trades uniony sort of survey as we passed.

“Mm, mm, mm,” murmured one of them admiringly and fairly loudly.

As we got out of earshot Jimmie said:

“I’m going to chuck it into the first vacant lot we come to.”

“Nonsense, Jim,” I cried. “That is my gift to you. That cost two bucks.”

“Do you want it back?” he demanded, offering it to me.

“I’d look silly carrying two sticks,” I protested.

“I look silly carrying one,” retorted Jim.

We had now walked about nine or 10 blocks.

“We’ll take the street car back,” growled Jim.

Which we did. And Jim held his stick half under his coat as we boarded the car and fumbled for our tickets. I held my stick out boldly and dared any of the casual glances of the other passengers. After all, they’d glance at a briefcase or a bundle if you had one. There is a sort of natural automatic curiosity about most folk, thank goodness.

When we reached Bay St. I led for the door and, glancing back, saw that Jim had so completely concealed his stick that I couldn’t see it at all. I was looking forward, a little, to seeing Jim carry it into The Star building.

“Your stick?” I exclaimed, struck by a sudden suspicion.

“Oh,” said Jim guiltily, and went back three seats and picked it up where he had left it.

Jim shoved past me, the better to get the whole business over with. In doing so he bumped against a lady a little rudely, and I stood back elegantly to let her pass. As I stepped to the pavement I stuck my stick under my arm, to let this same lady have all the room she seemed to want.

At which instant the street car doors slid to and the rubber lips or edges of the door grasped the handle of my stick firmly. And the car started.

I need not describe what followed. No gentleman likes to be jostled about in public, especially by a street car. And especially a gentleman with a walking stick.

Suffice to say, the car took my stick, at a smart speed, right out of sight, solemnly projecting from the rubber-lipped doors.

And there was Jim with his stick on the curb awaiting me.

“Here,” he said, “take this one. You need a stick. “

“Not at all,” I said, thrusting it away. “It is too long. Much too long. Nothing looks worse than a man with a stick too long for him.”

“Take it,” hissed Jimmie, casting anxious glances at the windows of The Star building looming above us.

I walked away. Jimmie looked desperately around. There was a dilapidated motor car handy, nobody in it and its window open. Jim thrust the stick in and dusted off his hands.

“Somebody,” he said as he overtook me, “will be glad of it.”


Editor’s Note: Greg would be a life-long stick carrier (he picked up the habit in the First World War). He would later write that it came in handy for a short man like himself, for reaching.

Christmas Crush

Before the astonished eyes of the attendant we skidded forth off the escalator.

By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, December 18, 1937

“So help me,” said Jimmie Frise devoutly, “I’ll never get caught in this last-minute Christmas rush again. So help me.”

“Millions and millions of people all over the world,” I informed him, “are saying the same thing, this same minute, in a hundred different languages.”

“So help me,” declared Jimmie firmly.

“You said it last year,” I stated. “You will say it next year. And so will all the other millions and millions.”

“Never again, so help me,” reiterated Jim, fiercely.

“There wouldn’t be any Christmas,” I said, “if there were no Christmas rush. That is what Christmas has come to mean. A time of crowding and gathering and jostling. A time of joy and weariness, of feasting and visiting. Of buying and selling.”

“Yeah, commercialized,” accused Jim.

“No, not commercialized,” I corrected. “That’s an easy sneer at Christmas. But suppose Christmas were nothing more than a holy day on the calendar, can you imagine how it would go by? Just as unremembered as any other holy day. Do you recall what you did on Good Friday three years ago? Certainly not. But you can remember what you did three, five, ten Christmases ago; who was at your house; how the children acted, especially the youngest one. You can count back. You can count back ten Christmases, when your youngest girl was three. And close your eyes, and there you can see it, as clear as if it were yesterday. Why? Because that was the year she crashed the Christmas tree in her new scooter, or something. And then, bit by bit, the whole dear, tender picture returns to you, and you’ve got something. A memory.”

“That’s all very well,” protested Jim, “anybody can get sentimental over Christmas and try to gloss over the evils of it. But I say, this Christmas crush is getting tougher all the time. And believe me, I’m through with it.”

“Tougher?” I cried. “My dear boy, nowadays it’s nothing compared to what it was a couple of thousand years ago, the day all this is supposed to commemorate. Don’t you remember that it was so crowded there wasn’t any room at the inn, and Joseph and Mary had to find a manger, in a stable?”

“Aw,” said Jim.

“Crowded?” I continued. “The streets jammed with people from miles around, and donkeys and camels, their bells tinkling and their drivers shouting and complaining and the inns roaring with trade and all the little shops filled with fighting people, trying to get waited on. Crowded? And detachments of Roman soldiers down from Jerusalem to help the tax enumerators do their work, and them in all the best billets in the little town. And the government men turning the front rooms of the inn into offices to work on their tax rolls, and outside, all the lineage of David lined up in queues and wanting to be away home again about their business. Crowded? Jimmie, Christmas has to be a kind of panjandrum, in memory of that day.”

“What Have You to Get?”

“Well, we’ve succeeded,” agreed Jim. “And Christmas has become the worst-tempered season of the whole year. Everybody tired and worried over money, and shopgirls so gaunt and white looking, and delivery men sloshing through the night, and factory girls working overtime, and store keepers dizzy for want of rest, and everybody’s nerves on edge and ready to crack any minute.”

“Fine,” I exulted. “Glorious. Instead of camel drivers shouting, we have car horns yelling impatiently, and instead of Roman soldiers lounging around keeping the crowds moving, we have extra police on duty. It’s a perfect representation.”

“Have you finished your shopping yet?” demanded Jim, grimly.

“No, siree,” I assured him. “I’ve still got a few things to get. And I’m proceeding with it in the spirit of the season. I’m going to be shoved and pushed and tramped on, and camel drivers are going to shout me out of the path, and Roman soldiers are going to thumb me on my way imperiously. I will rub shoulders with all my brethren, poor and rich. I will see, thrust close to mine, faces I have never seen before, thousands of them, my brothers in life. I will be full of pride and contempt and anger, all of them warm, healthy feelings. I will be conscious of my own importance, as I am pushed around by people far beneath me in money and clothes. That too is a nice sensation. There will be a great hum and roar of low sound, the sound of a multitude, and to men, so afraid of being alone, that great sound is always curiously comforting. There will be buying, selling, choosing, selecting, deciding. There will be possessing.”

“What have you to get?” inquired Jim.

“I haven’t the faintest idea,” I assured him, “which is another grand part of the whole business. That glorious aimlessness with which the multitude wander through the stores and along the streets, undecided, indecisive, at a loss, bewildered. That’s the true spirit of Christmas, too.”

“That’s what makes me so mad,” disagreed Jim. “Me trying to go direct to the ladies’ glove counter and having to fight my way through a solid scrimmage of people who don’t want to go anywhere, or else don’t know where they want to go. That vacant stare, mixed with weariness and crankiness, that’s the expression of Christmas.”

“Wouldn’t it be dreadful,” I argued, “if at Christmas, everybody went trimly and smugly and smartly direct to what they wanted? How cold, practical, chilly, the whole business would be. No, Jim, it’s that complete breakdown of everything sensible and reasonable that makes Christmas what it is, the pinnacle of the year.”

“Well, if you don’t know what you want,” said Jim.

“Oh, I know roughly,” I explained, “that I want something for a boy of thirteen something for an elderly lady and something for a man, a tie or a cigarette tray or something casual.”

Everything Seems to Bulge

“We may as well go together,” said Jim, wanly. “I’ve got to get something for two of my girls and some other odds and ends. When you have somebody with you, it doesn’t seem so bad.”

“Come along,” I said.

And we entered the downtown streets which, even at nine a.m. are already congested and which, by four p.m. are just a hopeless slow tangle. Where do they come from? Are all the offices and desks and work benches abandoned, these last few days before Christmas? Is everybody shopping? The pedestrian traffic is trebled and the wheel traffic at least doubled.

Everything seems to bulge. The streets are congested, the windows are congested. Doorways are not wide enough and from the wagons and trucks parcels project perilously. People cannot pass one another, even in straight walking, but have to pause and bunt and wriggle around. At every doorway, there is confusion.

Nobody seems to have his mind on what he is doing, a general uncertainty prevails. People are all looking up, looking left, right or down. Their mouths are slightly open, as if listening to something inside them. They halt suddenly, turn around and return the way they had come. They burst into little trots. At the intersections, they impatiently attempt to cross against a red light, change their mind, stand dreaming, and then, when the green light comes on the people behind have to push them to get them started.

Jim and I got into the tide and drifted with it, storewards.

“How about an air rifle for that boy of 13?” said Jim, helpfully.

“No,” I said, “he got one two years ago. How about one of those nice needlepoint vanity cases for your girls?”

“No, they’ve got all that stuff,” said Jim. “Could you get your boy one of those metal hammering outfits?”

“He’s got one,” I replied. “Say, I saw some of the swellest ski outfits the other day for girls. Little helmet things….”

“No, no,” cried Jim. “They’ve got so much ski stuff. I think that’s what keeps the snow away. I wish I had boys to buy for. They’re so much easier to choose for than girls.”

“Don’t kid yourself,” I assured him. “I can go right through a department store without seeing a single thing fit for a boy, and every place I look, I see something a girl would just love.”

“You wouldn’t think so,” said Jim, “if you had girls to look after. It’s just the other way round, as a matter of fact. The stores are simply bursting with stuff for boys, but there hasn’t been a new idea in the line of Christmas presents for girls in the last ten years.”

Going With the Current

 “You certainly are cockeyed, Jim,” I assured him, as we joined a great herd and charged across an intersection, bunting and shoving.

We arrived at the big stores. What had been the Niagara rapids of traffic here became Niagara Falls. Clinging together like mariners wrecked, we went with the raging currents, timidly daring to steer a course, whenever an eddy permitted, towards the elevators but ending up at the escalators instead. Trying to catch the up one, we were inexorably forced on to the down one, which took us to the basement, and there, by skillfully pretending not to want to reach the elevators, we succeeded in arriving there and caught one almost empty which took us to the seventh floor before we could battle our way free. By putting on an expression of joy as if the seventh floor were really seventh heaven, where we had been trying to get for years, we had hardly any trouble getting to the stairs, and we walked down three flights to the sporting goods department. Jimmie and I find one thing about the sporting goods department. In case we do get marooned there, we have something to look at.

“Roller skates,” cried Jimmie. “The very thing for your boy.”

“The very thing for your girl, you mean,” I corrected. “Anyway, they can’t roller skate in winter.”

One of the young temporary salesmen they have at Christmas, one of those boys with the expression of a mischievous wire-haired fox terrier in his eyes, overheard my remark.

“Let me show you, sir,” he said, “the latest thing. Here’s a floating power skate, a ball-bearing, knee-action roller skate that is so pleasant to use, a boy will ride on it winter, summer, in the rain, at night, all the time.”

Very skillfully, like a cowpuncher herding steers, he manipulated us out of the swarming traffic into a kind of pocket. And he handed us each a very fancy looking roller skate.

“A kid,” said the enthusiastic young salesman, “will be asking you for messages to go, if he has these skates, see? He’ll be out in the fresh air, taking easy, natural exercise all day long. They’re like velvet. They’re soundless, smooth, like floating in a canoe. Like blowing along on the wind. In fact, I’m saving my money to own a pair of those skates myself. sir.”

We examined them. They just looked like roller skates to me.

“I’d be having,” I said, “to buy new rollers, new wrenches, all the time. They’d leave marks all over the hardwood floors.”

“Just sit down here, sir,” said the young man. “Just sit here one second.”

I am always glad to sit. So is Jim. We sat. The young man squatted down and skillfully snapped a skate on to my foot.

“See?” he cried. “Modernized. A patent device. It just snaps on. Nothing to fall off or work loose. Just a second.”

He snapped the mate on.

“Now, sir,” he said, “just stand up on those.”

I stood up, cautiously, the young chap holding my elbows to steady me. He rolled me a foot or two.

“Did you ever,” he demanded, “feel anything so airy, so smooth, as the action of those skates?”

I took a couple of cautious slides, holding to the counter edge. It was certainly an eerie sensation. Floating is the word. I shoved myself pleasurably along the counter. When I turned, also cautiously, I saw that Jim had been outfitted with them and, being more leggy than I was trying a few slow curvy strokes with them, amidst the crowd swerving past.

“Slick, eh?” said Jim, whirling over to me and doing one of those skating carnival halts.

“How much are they?” I asked.

“I didn’t ask,” said Jim, and we looked for our young man, who, in the true spirit of Christmas, was already waiting on somebody else, letting us soak, as it were, on our skates.

“I think I’ll get a pair,” said Jim.

“I’d imagine they’re pretty high,” I said, “Did you ever feel anything so smooth?”

Watching for a Break

Holding each other, we took a couple of slides along the counter. We came to the main aisle. Jim was being a little too expert and his weight carried us out into the driving storm of doggedly moving humanity.

“Hey,” I said, missing my grab for the counter. “Hey.”

But how was anybody to know we were on wheels? We held fast to each other, as the thick, packed throng moved us pleasantly away, waiting for an opening or else a chance to seize hold of a pillar.

We had become involved, however, in one of those solid swarms that slowly shuffle, hour by hour, through the great stores these final festive days, and, since we were so tightly packed neither Jim nor I could stoop down to undo the skates from our feet, and since it would have been ridiculous to try to explain to the uninterested people pushing from behind or leaning back against us in front, we just let matters ride, until we got a break.

“Don’t struggle,” warned Jim quietly. “If we upset, we might start some kind of a panic. Take it easy.”

We took it easy. The ones behind shoved, the ones ahead laid back, and there, as snug as steers in a cattle car, we moved effortlessly along.

“Jim,” I confided, “this is an idea. I bet we could sell this idea to the big stores. Roller skates for rent, to make Christmas shopping easy.”

We rolled once around the sporting goods and twice around the toys. A couple of times, I thought I saw the chance to climb over small children and get a grip on a counter edge, but Jim’s grasp on my sleeve prevented me.

“Jim,” I said, “try to signal that young brat that is waiting on us.”

But the tide set out to sea and we started leaving the sporting goods.

“Jim,” I muttered, “turn your toes a little to the right, and try to steer us to the side. We’re getting out of the sporting goods into the hardware.”

We both turned our toes right, but it made no difference. We were just lightly and easily rolled along, at the pace of the throng.

“One thing,” said Jim, “we can’t fall down and be trampled to death.”

“Hardware passing,” I said. “Linoleums next.”

We slowly rolled through the linoleums, past the coconut matting into the hooked rugs.

“Watch for a break,” I advised, “and see if you can make a grab. Once we get out of the crowd, we can fall down and take them off.”

But through the hooked rugs we slowly floated, and suddenly a dreadful presentiment assailed me.

“Pssst,” I hissed, “the escalator!”

“I’m afraid,” said Jim, “we’re for it.”

We could hear the dull rumble of the escalator. We tried to thrust out of the throng, but with nothing to grip with but our hands, all we succeeded in doing was irritating people whose arms we clutched, and they glared at us haughtily. Slowly the throng thickened, packed, pressed together and leaned hard over, in the general determination to get to the escalator. It was hopeless. When your turn comes to the escalator, you take it, willy nilly. We took ours.

Clinging to the fat rubber rails, we kept upright. I tried to raise one leg in order to unfasten one of the skates, but my knee bunted the lady ahead of me in an undignified fashion and she turned and hissed–

“Don’t get fresh!”

So, swiftly, inevitably, we reached the bottom of the escalator without having any time to plan or organize our arrival. And on the shining steel plate which bottoms all escalators our feet rolled forth and our helpless hands had to let go the fat rolling rubber railing and, ingloriously we skidded forth before the astonished eyes of the attendant and such shoppers as had enough interest left in life to bother looking.

The attendant helped us take the skates off. He did not, as I suggested to him, suppose we were trying to steal the skates.

“Not a tall, not a tall,” he assured us. “Things like this are happening all the time during the Christmas rush.”

So we took the skates slowly back to the young temporary salesman, who had not noticed our absence, and told him we would think the matter over.


Editor’s Notes: This story serves as a reminder to anyone who bemoans that Christmas has become commercialized. Long before Charlie Brown complained about the commercialization of Christmas in 1965, people were complaining about it even earlier.

Old roller skates were metal and had to be strapped to your shoes. Since “one size fits all”, you needed a skate “key” to adjust the length to fit to your feet, and tighten and lock it.

It’s Not All Twaddle

Jimmie sat slouched deeper and deeper in the chair, an air of complete coziness and social ease engulfing him as he blathered to one of his friends.

By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, December 12, 1942

“To heck with it,” muttered Jimmie Frise, slamming down the telephone receiver roughly.

“Easy, easy,” I counselled. “That telephone isn’t your property.”

“Oh, yeah?” growled Jim, giving the instrument another shove.

“What’s eating you?” I demanded.

“I’ve been calling my house,” said Jimmie loudly, “for the last 15 minutes. And it’s busy, busy, busy!”

He reached over and gave the phone another shove, until it was almost off his desk.

“Well,” I scoffed, “is that the telephone’s fault? Why don’t you use a little reason, Jim?”

“Sometimes,” said Jim, “I wish the telephone had never been invented. It is the cause of more high blood pressure than all the rest of our so-called modern improvements put together. Oh, if there only were no telephones what a lovely, simple, happy world this would be!”

“Jim,” I calmed him, “without the telephone our world would be impossible. Why, our industry, our domestic life, our whole modern economy, you might say, is founded on the telephone. The shape of our cities, the size and length of our streets, the location of our business districts as compared with our industrial or factory districts is entirely based on the existence of the telephone.”

“Wait a minute,” muttered Jimmie, picking up the phone and dialing slowly and deliberately.

He listened intently. And then flung the receiver down more violently than before.

“Still busy!” he rasped.

“Our fire protection system,” I went on calmly, “our police organization, the medical profession – all the security of the modern community is organized on the telephone.”

“We’d be better off,” growled Jimmie, “with a big bell hung at every street corner, to ring in case of fire.”

“And a fire station, I suppose,” I submitted, “every two blocks? Jim, if we didn’t have telephones the cost of fire protection alone would double our taxes.”

“Just a second,” said Jimmie, picking up the telephone again.

He dialed deliberately as usual, with the utmost care, sticking his finger in the right hole; and then, after one brief listen, laid the telephone down again with the greatest politeness.

“Still busy?” I inquired brightly.

“Mmmmmmm,” said Jimmie ominously.

Long Conversations

“Why is it,” I inquired, “that when an enemy attacks a city the very first objective of the bombers or the artillery is to knock out the telephone buildings, the exchanges? So as to throw the city into complete and hopeless confusion.”

“Well, if the telephones were all busy as usual,” said Jim bitterly, with the idle chatter of young ladies, it wouldn’t make much difference. I bet if you could in some way make a Gallup Poll of the telephone conversations in one 24-hour day in Toronto, you would discover that about 23 of the 24 hours of talk was all sheer piffle.”

“Oh, hold on, Jim,” I protested. “Think of the business that is done over the telephone.”

“One hour of the 24 would be business,” declared Jim grimly. “The rest would be sheer social twaddle. People have no right to use the telephone as a means of social intercourse. People have no right to go visiting on the telephone. If they want to spend a social hour with somebody why the blazes don’t they go and see them?

“After all,” I pointed out, “it’s their own telephone.”

“No, it isn’t,” announced Jim emphatically. “No telephone belongs to anybody, even in the degree that it is in their home. I realize the telephone instruments belong to the company and we only rent the service of them. But over and above that, no telephone belongs to any one person or any two persons. The telephone belongs to all the people who might want to call in. For example, take an old spinster living in an apartment. She has a telephone. Now, nobody could believe that the telephone is hers more than that spinster.”

“I see that,” I agreed.

“She talks on the phone all the time,” said Jim. “She is a busy church worker and belongs to the Ladies’ Frantic Endeavor of her church, we’ll say.”

“Okay,” I encouraged.

“So she holds committee meetings over the telephone, see?” went on Jim. “Instead of going to all the trouble of gathering the Ladies’ Frantic Endeavor together, either at the church or at somebody’s home, with all the nuisance of having to bring their own tea and sugar, why, she, as the chairman of the committee, simply calls each of the seven other ladies on the telephone. And after a nice long conversation with each one she sums up their opinions, adds up their votes, and then calls each one back again and informs them of the way the vote went and just how the committee feels.”

“It’s a common practice in business,” I pointed out, that very system.”

“Ah, yes, but wait a minute,” said Jim. “This lady is a spinster. Forty years ago she had a prospect. He was a young man of promise who was snatched from under this spinster’s nose by a local blonde.”

“This is getting interesting,” I urged.

But Jimmie, seeing through my false interest, suddenly remembered the phone and picked it up. He dialed rapidly. He listened acutely. Then he slammed the receiver down again as hard as ever.

The Lost Opportunity

“Still busy,” he said, this time without any blood pressure. “Well, sir. The very day that this spinster is holding a committee meeting on her telephone, that boyhood sweetheart of hers, now a widower, is passing through Toronto on his way from New York to Winnipeg. He is a widower now, the blonde having died of premature old age, as blondes so often do. He is rich. He is powerful. But he is lonely. He is returning to his great empty house in Winnipeg. And as he waits between trains in Toronto, just one hour, he remembers his old sweetheart and the thought occurs to him to look in the Toronto telephone book – at which he hasn’t looked in 30 years. And he sentimentally looks up his old sweetheart’s name. And there it is. Miss Julie Bonbon!”

“Very romantic,” I admit.

“So all slightly perspiring,” says Jim, “this rich old widower, who is an elder and manager in one of the biggest churches in Winnipeg, by the way, calls the number, in the remote chance that this Miss Julie Bonbon is the same Julie Bonbon he knew and loved 40 years before.”

“As indeed she was,” I remarked.

“He calls, his heart in his mouth,” pursues Jimmie, “and the line is busy. Good, he says, trying desperately to think up what he will say if it is indeed she. And he tries again. Line busy. He looks at his watch. Only 15 minutes before his train is called. He tries again. Until three minutes to train time that rich old widower tries that blasted telephone every minute. And all the time it is busy. Because of the committee meeting.”

“Why didn’t he make a note of her address,” I demanded, “and he could have written her from Winnipeg?”

“Nothing doing,” said Jim. “A telephone call is one thing. A letter is quite another. And, anyway, he was so mad by the time he called for the last time that he went and boarded the train for Winnipeg, saying to himself that he was a lucky man to have married the blonde instead of this awful blatherskite. At least the blonde was dead. And on the train home he sat smiling to himself and thinking what a silly fool he was to have even tried to telephone.”

“So the moral?” I queried.

“This tale needs no moral,” said Jimmie, picking up the telephone and preparing to dial his home again. “All you need is the spectacle of that spinster, sitting in her apartment, holding a meeting of the Ladies’ Frantic Endeavor on what she foolishly imagines to be her own private telephone. In view of the great mystery and all the possibilities of this life, no telephone belongs to anybody. You never know but what opportunity, which knocks only once, may only ring once on the telephone instead.”

Then Jimmie dialed slowly and carefully and a bright smile wreathed his face.

“It’s ringing,” he said, with great satisfaction.

And it rang and rang. And Jimmie rattled the hook and broke connections. And dialed again. And again it rang and rang.

Blathering On and On

“Well,” sighed Jimmie, setting the receiver down very politely. “Whoever was in has apparently gone out.”

What did you want to get your house for?” I inquired.

And Jimmie looked blankly at me for a moment and said:

“By gosh, that story I made up has chased it entirely out of my head!”

“What I dropped in to see you about,” I stated, “was that newsreel that shows Sam Doakes. I’ve located it. It’s at the Valley theatre.”

“Away out there?” cried Jim.

“It’s only half an hour on the street car,” I protested. “And after all the time we’ve talked about going to see old Sam’s face, it is time we went.”

“It’s only a glimpse,” said Jim. “One second. And we can’t be sure it is Sam.”

“His wife says it’s him,” I assured. “She’s seen it 30 times. It shows Sam standing beside an anti-aircraft gun with a pair of field-glasses and the gun is actually firing at the Huns.”

“Wait till it comes to some neighborhood theatre near home,” said Jim. “I was intending to stay in tonight and loaf. The family is out and I can get a lot of things done tonight that I have been putting off.”

“I even got the time the newsreel comes on,” I pleaded. “Look. What would Sam Doakes, a lifelong friend, think of us two if he knew his picture had been in the newsreels and neither of us had gone even to the trouble of going to see it?”

“What time does it come on?” Jim asked.

“Twenty to nine,” I said, “Allowing half an hour to get there by street car, we can leave your house at 8 and be in our seats in plenty of time…”

So Jimmie agreed that he would be ready if I called at his house a minute or two before 8.

And at five to 8 I was in his front hall and Jimmie came downstairs with his hunting boots in his hands, having been upstairs greasing them. It took him a few minutes to wash up and get his coat on. And we were just passing out the door at five minutes past when the telephone rang.

“Drat the thing,” said Jimmie, snatching up the receiver. “Why, hello, Andy!”

“Tell him you’ll ring him back tomorrow,” I said loudly, and pointed to the hall clock.

But Jim sat down on the hall chair. “You don’t say?” he said eagerly. “How many? Seven. Boy, that’s some litter. How many males?”

I walked over and stuck my watch under his nose. It was seven past 8.

“Mm-hmmm,” said Jimmie delightedly. “What color are the three males? All blue ticked, eh?”

And as the grandfather’s clock tocked and ticked the minutes away. Jimmie sat slouched deeper and deeper in the chair, an air of complete coziness and social ease engulfing him, his eyes shut, smiles brightening his countenance, his eyebrows lifting, as he blathered on and on to his old friend, Andy Perkins, breeder of beagle hounds.

Somebody Else’s Selfishness

His conversation consisted mostly of “Mmm-hmmm” and “Well, well” and “Think of that.” Just when you would think it was about to end he would ask some fool question, such as “Who was the grandsire of the dam. did you say, Andy?” and I could hear Andy’s voice scratching and droning endlessly away on the receiver.

Eleven past 8, 14 past 8, while I stood, watch in hand, coldly waiting for this social engagement to come to an end and recalling, vividly, the Jimmie I had seen a few hours earlier at the office slamming telephone receivers down and vainly dialing his home.

At 8.15 I walked over and held my watch down under his nose and made him open his eyes as he lounged there, drowsily “Mm-hmmm-ing.”

“Well, Andy,” he said, straightening up “it swell to hear from you. I’ll be coming over as soon as I can to have a look at the litter.”

And then it took him, another good five minutes to wind up. He stood up. He buttoned his coat with one hand. Straightened his hat. Smiled. Nodded his head. Bowed. Handed me the cigarette butt that was now burning his gloves. And at 23 minutes past 8 made his final “So long” and hung up reluctantly.

“Okay,” he said briskly.

“Jim,” ‘I stated bitterly, it is too late. We never can make it now.”

“Nonsense,” he cried. “I wasn’t three minutes.”

“Jim,” I stated, “you were 15 minutes on that phone. Longer than you were trying to get your house this afternoon, remember?”

“But I haven’t seen Andy for five months,” Jim said indignantly. “And, besides, it was a more or less of a business conversation …”

“It’s a queer thing,” I informed him levelly, “how we can always justify our own misuse of the telephone, even while our blood pressure is still up 100 over somebody else’s selfishness.”

“If we step on it,” said Jim, nudging me out the door, “we can still make it to the theatre by 20 to 9.”

But just off Jim’s front steps I saw my small daughter coming full pelt around the corner and when she saw me she cried out:

“Hurry, Daddy, hurry. Long distance!”

And up the street like a terrier I legged it to my house to hear across 1,000 miles from his camp in Nova Scotia the voice of my son.


Editor’s Note: In the early days of the phone network, the phone company would own the telephones as well. So when they were discussing the ownership of telephones, there was that aspect as well.

High Life

He came from behind and pushed the box between my stilts…

By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, December 8, 1934

“How,” asked Jimmie Frise, “do little short men like you manage to do your Christmas shopping? How do you catch the attention of the salesgirls?”

“As a matter of fact, Jim,” I replied, “you have touched on a very sore spot. We small people don’t talk much about our size. It’s a sensitive subject. And I may say we all observe the approach of Christmas with a good deal of misgiving. It is strenuous enough pushing and shoving your way through the stores even if you are six feet tall and weigh 200 pounds. But when you are handicapped!”

“We ought to get the stores to advertise,” said Jim, ” ‘Small people do your Christmas shopping early.'”

“Better still,” I enthused, “let us ask the big stores to set aside a certain week, in the month before Christmas, as small people’s week. It would be a swell idea.”

“Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday,” said Jim, “would be ‘small folks’ days’ and the doormen at the entrances of the stores would respectfully stop all large people from coming in.”

“And Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays,” I finished, “would be large people’s week.”

“And the doormen,” reminded Jimmie, “would respectfully stop all small people from going in on those days, so as not to be a nuisance to the large people by getting tangled up in their feet all the time and stumbling over them.”

“Well, I hardly think that is a polite way of saying it, Jimmie,” I protested. “But the idea is a dandy. We ought to take it up with the big stores right away.”

“I’d hate to be short,” said Jim.

“It has its advantages,” I demurred. “For example, in sleeping car berths. And in wars. Small people are usually quicker than big people. They are handier around the house, too. A great big man must be terrible bother around a house, lumbering around and making everything creak and wearing out the furniture.”

“You take elevators,” I said. “I hate getting into a crowded elevator. It is the most undignifying thing in the world. For one thing, nobody makes room for a small man. Yet when a big man comes charging at crowded elevator, everybody moves over, with uneasy little smiles, like patting a big dog, and squeezes to make room for him. Sometimes, I try to get in an elevator first, to get a good place. But sure as fate, some great big man gets in after me, turns his back and pushes his large anatomy right into my face. If I wait, to escape that indignity, I have to wiggle and squash to try to get in at all.”

“I never noticed those things,” said Jim. “After this, I will try to stand edgeways to any little men in the elevator.”

“And street cars,” I continued. “One reason I have worked and toiled in this world to make money was to own a car so that I would never, never have to ride in street cars. The way they shove you aside as you try to get aboard. The way they push and shove you, once you are in. I have had tall men rest their evening papers on my hat. I have had tall girls rest their elbows on my shoulder. Too lazy to hold on to the strap or rail above them, these big people just sag in the crowd, and let their swaying and lurching be taken up by the lesser people. And, naturally, by the law of ultimate consumption, it is us smallest people who take up the slack.”

“You move me deeply,” said Jim. “I had no idea.”

“I don’t like sport,” I said, “because big men stand up in front of me at the crucial moments of the rugby or hockey game. I may say I never saw a goal scored in my life.”

“Mercy,” said Jim.

“Motor cars are all made for big men,” I declared. “Golf sticks, telephone booths, mirrors in hotel bathrooms, counters in lunch rooms, are all made for big men. There are stand-up restaurants in Toronto, over which just my head shows. I wouldn’t eat there for a thousand dollars. Seats everywhere, seats in street cars, hotels, church, are all made for big men, so that my feet dangle in the air. I don’t go to church. If I try to buy a ready-made coat, and have it shortened in the tail so that my feet show, the pockets are slung so low down I have to bend to reach them.”

“The advantages in this life,” said Jim, “are all on the side of the tall people.”

“Agreed,” I admitted bitterly. “A big man is showered with respect and honor wherever he goes. He gets waited on immediately in stores and restaurants. He has his path cleared for him wherever he goes. The world pays respect and honor to big men, no matter who or what they are. Whereas a little man has to conquer the world, like Napoleon, before he can win the world’s respect.”

“And not always then,” put in Jim. “But what are you going to do about Christmas? Why not just do your shopping early? You small people know your own difficulties. Why don’t you act on that knowledge?”

“Because I don’t think it is fair,” I stated. “Because I have my rights, just the same as any two hundred pounder. Because I have as much right to be waited on in a store as any policeman in captivity!”

“Why don’t you use stilts?” asked Jim. “Just make a pair of stilts that would lift you up to about seven feet tall. I bet you would have no trouble doing your Christmas shopping then.”

“Jim,” I gasped, “what a peach of an idea …”

The Secret of Success

“The only trouble would be carrying your parcels on stilts,” said Jim.

“I could have everything sent,” I said, “All I would do would be to carry my stilts until I got to the department where I wanted to buy something. Then up on my stilts, make my purchase and then dismount. I wouldn’t even have to pay money. Just have the stuff sent c.o.d.”

“You certainly could see what was on sale,” admitted Jim. “One of my troubles is seeing what is for sale.”

“I’m going to patent this idea,” I cried, “and then sell it to the big stores. They could have a department near the main entrance, the stilt department, where stilts would be hired out for a normal sum to all short people. They could then hobble about the store, making their purchases as easily as anybody.”

“That would lose you the whole advantage,” argued Jim. “The first thing you know, big people would get tired of being crowded out by little people on stilts and then they would begin using stilts, and where would you be? No, sir. Use the stilts yourself and see how it works. In this life grab every advantage you can think of. That’s the secret of success.”

Jim assisted me in making the stilts in my cellar. We used seven-foot lengths of what the timber dealers call two by two. Three feet from the ground we nailed on two cleats for my feet to rest on. When we got them done that far I mounted the stilts and wobbled around the cellar.

“Hooray,” cheered Jim. “They’re perfect. And you’re a natural born stiltsman.”

It was exciting. We then put some fancy trimmings on them, such as pieces of rubber from an old tire, on the bottoms, and we put linings of more rubber on the cleats so that my feet would not slip when I was “up.” as they say in the racing world. I gave them a nice coat of varnish and set them to dry.

“I’ll come shopping with you,” assured Jimmie, “in case you want any of your parcels carried.”

“You’re the sort of partner,” I thanked him heartily.

I went home early two afternoons and did some practice on the stilts. By taking several small boys along with me I pretended I was showing them the fun of stilts. And by letting all of them try the stilts I was able to work in a lot of showing-how, which gave me plenty of practice until I became, if I may say so, quite handy.

We chose Friday afternoon for the shopping day.

“Make it the most crowded time of all,” said Jim. “It will be a real test of your genius.”

When we arrived at the main entrance of the big store, I carrying the stilts and nobody paying any more attention to me than if it were an umbrella I was carrying. Jim drew me aside.

“Look,” he said, “are you really going ahead with this stunt?”

I was amazed.

“Because,” said Jimmie, “people will think you are nuts.”

“Jimmie,” I retorted, “during these three weeks everybody thinks everybody is nuts. This is Christmas month. Anything goes.”

“Well, I warn you,” he sighed.

But he came with me. We walked through the soaps and the magazines. We passed the purses. We drew near the jewelry, I carrying the stilts at what soldiers call the high-port.

Invention of the Ages

“What are you going to get first?” asked Jim.

“Three pair of silk stockings,” I said, “in a gift box.”

The stockings counter was just a midway. Just a veterans’ reunion. Just a fight. Women were three and four deep around the counters, they were wedged one in beside another and, standing on the floor, I could not see the top of even a tall salesgirl.

“Now, Jim,” said I, “let me show you something.”

Standing well back from the melee, I mounted the stilts. With the skill of an old hand I waddled forward toward the stockings counter. Now I could see right over the heads of four rows of ladies, and up into my face stared not one but eight or nine salesgirls. Their expressions were wide-eyed and delighted. In an instant that tired Friday afternoon look vanished. Life became interesting to them once more.

I waddled down the counter, looking at the piles of stockings with the prices set in cards above them. Three of the girls left their customers and followed me anxiously.

“How much are those with the frilly top?” I asked.

“Eighty-nine cents,” said all three girls.

“May I have three pairs, please? Send them c.o.d. and in a gift box,” said I giving them my address.

Forty or fifty indignant female customers were by now glaring angrily up at me. Up, I say, and I mean up. I now realize the feeling a tall man must have in a theatre line-up or in a crowded elevator. It is a swell feeling. I felt like thanking Heaven.

“Yes, sir,” said the girl who had got her book open first.

“Thank you,” said I dropping easily off the stilts and resting them on my shoulder like a skier.

Jimmie, who had been concealing himself behind a pillar, came out sheepishly.

“Well I never,” said he.

“Jim,” I cried, “it’s the invention of the ages. I never in my life shopped so quickly or was treated so politely. You can have no idea of the power, the authority, the ease it gives you to be standing looking down on everybody. Especially a mob of indignant women.”

“I imagined you’d be mobbed,” said Jim.

“Now for the toy department,” said I.

We went up the elevator to the toys. Such a pandemonium you never saw. Dolls were my first concern, so I mounted my stilts in the rear of the mob in front of the doll counter. Most of the crowd thought I was one of the clowns hired to wander about the toy floor, and they laughed merrily while I waded in and gave my order for a nice fat doll. It didn’t take one minute to complete the deal. Then I hopped down and rejoined Jim.

“Try it, Jim,” I begged him. “Get up on them and try them.”

“I can see all right,” replied he.

“Now for ladies’ gloves,” said I.

“Main floor.”

The congestion was terrific.

“You’ll come to grief here,” said Jim. “Better wait until early to-morrow morning and order your gloves from the ground level.”

“I know the color, the size and the price I want,” I retorted. “Just stand aside watch.”

I mounted. I moved through the crowd. Two or three ladies elbowed my legs as I passed them. But as usual the salesgirls, seeing me towering above the throng, greeted me with sudden bright and interested glances.

“So,” I thought to myself, “this is the eye the tall boys get, is it?”

Speaking in a deep voice that fitted my height, I ordered the kind of gloves I wanted, the girl held them up for me to see, and I was in the act of leaning slightly forward to look at the quality of the leather when one of those boys they hire only for the Christmas rush, shoving one of those large boxes on wheels which you never see except during the worst of the Christmas rush, came from behind and pushed the box between my stilts.

Naturally it was impossible to foresee such a contingency. Not knowing what was spreading the stilts, I dropped off backward and fell into the parcel wagon the boy was shoving. There were a number of parcels in the little wagon, but not enough to prevent me falling deep into it. The boy, being a new boy and anxious to hold his job, kept right on pushing through the crowd, while Jimmie, appearing beside the wagon, said to the boy:

“Go right ahead, boy, deliver him.”

And over by the south elevators, where the crowd was not so thick, Jim helped me out.

“Get my stilts,” I insisted. “I’m not through.”

“You’re through,” said Jim, handing the boy a quarter.

“Did you, by any chance,” I asked icily “pay that boy to upset me?”

“I would spend far more than a quarter for an old friend,” said Jim.

“You’re jealous,” I cried, “You’re just jealous, because I was higher than you. Now I see through it all: you tall people are just childishly jealous of anybody taller than you.”

“You looked like a sap,” said Jim.

“Because you have always been used to looking down on me from a height,” I said. “Jim, I think this is mighty small of you.”

“Let us stay the way the Lord made us,” said Jim. “The expression on your face, up there on those stilts, was ridiculous. You thought you were a duke or something.”

“Jim, I felt good,” I admitted.

“It takes years,” ended Jim, “to grow the way we are. A sudden change ruins us. If you keep your feet on the ground I’ll help you with your Christmas shopping. I’ll come along and lift you up so you can see what’s on the counters.”

“Very good,” said I. But the pavement seemed stiflingly close.


Editor’s Notes: Buying something c.o.d., meant “Cash on Delivery”. The store would sent the item to your home, and you would pay full price on receipt.

Star Gazers

Jim took a piece of chalk from his pocket and started calculating. “The farthest stars are 840,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles away,” he stated.

By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, November 28, 1936.

“What a night,” cried Jimmie Frise.

“Did you ever see the stars so bright,” I agreed. “They are fairly dripping with light. Millions of them.”

“Millions nothing,” laughed Jim. “Even if you had good eyesight, which you haven’t, you could only see 3,000.”

“What are you talking about?” I snorted. Three thousand?”

“That’s the most you can see at any one time with the naked eye,” declared Jim. “Of course, there’s another 3,000 hidden around the other side of the earth. But even if you sat up all night and watched the whole parade of them go round, you could, with the best sight in the world, only see 6,000.”

“Why, Jim,” I scoffed. “I can see millions of them without turning my head.”

“All right,” said Jim. “Cup your two hands around your eyes, like this, and look up at one spot. Count the number in that one small section. You can count them easy.”

“Well,” I said, “I seem to see millions, anyway.”

“That’s the funny part of it,” said Jim. We seem to see millions. And there really are millions. Billions. Every time they build a bigger and better telescope, they find another few million stars. See all those dark bits of night, in between the stars? Well, even through a little bit of an amateur telescope, you find that each one of those dark bits, in between the stars we can see with the naked eye, has just as many stars as the sky itself now appears to have in it, without a telescope.”

“Jim,” I said, “suppose we don’t talk about it. This star stuff always gets me feeling kind of woozy after a few minutes.”

“You’re what they call an infinity coward,” said Jim. “You reel back from the edge of thinking about vast space the way some people reel back from the edge of a cliff, or a tall building.”

“I see nothing to be gained by thinking about astronomy,” I declared. “There are much more important matters to solve here on earth before we start exploring out into space looking for other things to solve.”

“You’ve got the infantile mind, all right.” stated Jim. “Science is not interested in problems. It is only interested in facts. Science looks in all directions. One scientist is sitting humped over a bottle of ketchup in a factory laboratory. Another is sitting humped up under a giant telescope, looking at something so far away, it took the light from it a million years to reach his eye. Yet they are both after the same thing. Truth.”

“Now, there’s something worth talking about,” I agreed heartily. “Ketchup. Let’s talk about ketchup and decide whether we like home-made or store ketchup the best. And why.”

“The stars,” said Jimmie, “are a perfect example of the distance that now exists between the mass of the people and the scientists. The average person thinks about stars as something pretty up in the sky on a fine night. If you ask them to think more than that, and ask them how many stars they can see, they will say, like you, millions whereas they don’t even know they can only see 3,000. If you ask them to pause and think about the vast endless empty space out there, filled forever and ever, amen with stars – they reel back, the way you do, from it. Yet the scientists working on astronomy are now somewhere in the neighborhood of 140 million light years off into space. The distance the stars are away from us is only exceeded by the distance the scientists are away from the mass of the people.”

“That’s why I say let’s talk about ketchup,” I said, “Now, my grandmother used to put a lot of mustard…”

“Do you know what a light year is?” demanded Jim.

“Not the faintest,” I said.

“The astronomers,” said Jimmie, “got into such large figures in trying to tell how far the stars were away, that they were using up all their books just with 00000000. For example, a scientist once wrote a set of books about the stars. Volume I consisted of the introduction and the first sentence of his monumental work, and then he started to write how far away the farthest stars were, so the rest of Volume I consisted of just 000000000 for another 240 pages. Volumes II, III and IV each was nothing but 000000000, and then in Volume V, he got down to his thesis. It was one of the greatest works on astronomy ever published.”

“I can believe you,” I said. “Now, with this mustard as a base…”

“Pardon me,” said Jim, looking dreamily up at the starry sky. “I have to explain what a light year is. It was the invention by which scientists saved paper. Light travels at the rate of 11 million miles a minute. See?”

“You mean the light of an oil lantern,” I asked, “or the light of a car headlight?”

“All light,” said Jim. “It travels at the rate of 11 million miles a minute. Now the astronomers multiplied the number of minutes in a year by 11 million and got what they call a light year. A light year, therefore, which is like counting ‘one’ to an astronomer, is six million MILLION years.”

“That’s just ‘one’,” I said.

Yes, that’s just the figure 1 to an astronomer,” said Jim. “So now when I tell you that the farthest star they have been able to see so far is 140 million LIGHT YEARS away – try and write that down on a piece of paper!”

“I tell you, Jimmie,” I said, “you write that down on a piece of paper and I’ll write down that recipe of my grandmother’s for ketchup with an extra mustard in it. You can have no idea the tang…”

“Would you like to see,” said Jim, “how far away the farthest stars yet found really are?”

“It wouldn’t register, Jim,” I protested. “Once I get over about 1,000, I don’t believe it anyway.”

Jim Does Arithmetic

Jim, always the artist, took a piece of chalk from his pocket and under a street lamp, started to do his arithmetic. We went along multiplying under seven street lights across one intersection and half way to the grocery store before he finished it.

There you are,” said Jim, gazing far along the street, “that’s how far it is, in miles – 840,000,000,000,000,000,000!”

“The thing,” I assured Jim, “doesn’t interest me. They haven’t even a name for it. Skillions, whillions -there isn’t even a word for it, and even the guys who think they’ve got only a million discover it’s all gone flooie in the market before they can count it. Why worry about things like this, Jim, when there are all the troubles we need just on this little world? Hitler and Mussolini, and Reds and Fascists, and winter coming on with thousands of babies with nothing to eat and only an old shawl to put around them. And disease and pain and old people dying in agony of ills we can’t solve so why bother about the stars?”

“Would you deny science the right to study the stars?” asked Jim hotly.

And hotly I considered the question.

“Yes, by golly, I would,” I shouted, so that a policeman walking along the dark street coughed warningly. “Yes, I would deny science the right to fiddle with the stars.”

“What a dreadful idea,” cried Jim. “Why, you belong in the middle ages.”

“All right,” I agreed. “I belong in the middle ages. I am glad to go back to that time in the middle ages where we all took the wrong turn and where science got off on the wrong foot, with its silly wild-goose chases after all knowledge.”

“What wild goose chases?” inquired Jim sarcastically.

“All the wild goose chases,” I stated, “that led the human heart away from the real problems at hand. The problems of this one small world. The problems of liberty, and poverty and disease and unhappiness. For all they have discovered about the stars and mathematics and physics and the mysterious contents of everything from pitchblende to ketchup, how far have we got since the middle ages in solving hunger, tragedy, fear, and death? With all the cowardly brains of the world for the past five hundred years running and hiding from these real problems and chasing the stars instead? Or molecules? Or theories of relativity?”

“What would you have the scientists do?” demanded Jim.

“I tell you what I would do,” I assured him. “I would put a world-wide ban on all idle science. I would forbid any man to waste his time or his brains on anything but the essentials. Let the whole scientific brain power of the world, Europe, America, Asia, everywhere, be devoted at once to the problems of society in this world – wealth, poverty, hunger, justice, wrong, pain, unhappiness. Not until all these so-called intellects have solved the human problem will they be allowed to go fooling around with the stars.”

Cringing Intellects

“My poor friend,” said Jimmie, “with every widening are of human understanding of the universe around us, a fuller understanding of humanity is implied.”

“Utter,” I cried, “utter poppycock. The cowardly cringing intellects that have been ducking the real problems have been putting up that bluff for ages. It’s time we called that bluff. All we have to do is ask them, for heaven’s sake, to look at the world. To pull their heads out of the sand, or down from among the stars, and look at the world. A great bewildered mass of misunderstanding, hate, poverty, pain, fear. Those are the facts. To hell with their theories.”

“Have you ever,” asked Jimmie, “visited a modern observatory? Do you know what you are even talking about? Have you ever looked through a great modern telescope?”

“No, and I most certainly don’t want to,” I assured him. “If I saw the Milky Way, all I would think about was the need of milk in a hundred poor streets not five miles, much less a million miles, from where we stand at this minute.”

“If I were you,” said Jim, “I would at least inform myself of the activities of science before turning myself into a street corner orator like this. I am willing to bet you anything you like that if I once got you into the new observatory up Yonge St., and had you set your eye to that wonderful reflector lens that will send your poor little soul sizzling out through infinite space for a brief journey, you would not be so free in condemning the intellect that has ventured into infinite space.”

“I could look through that telescope,” I stated loudly, “and say pooh!”

“Heh, heh,” laughed Jimmie sinisterly. “What time is it?”

“It’s 8.15,” I said, “and the second show doesn’t start until 9.”

“How,” said Jim, “would you like to come with me up to the observatory on Yonge St. instead of going to the show? I can drive you there in thirty minutes.”

“It’s a swell night for it,” I admitted, looking up at the glorious heavens.

“Come on,” said Jim. “I dare you. I dare you to risk one look at infinite space. If it doesn’t alter your notions!”

So we went. And up Yonge St. we drove, with all the myriads of traffic, and all the people just going along having fun, and being in love and going to shows and visiting the little fruit stores for beans and oranges, and at last we came out on to the big highway.

“It’s up here,” said Jim, “north of the prison farm, somewhere. You just turn off on to a side road.”

“Nice idea,” I agreed “Prison farm right here and a telescope for looking 140 whillion skillion miles somewhere else.”

We slowed down and watched for the turn.

“If I recollect,” I said, “I saw a sign somewhere along here.”

“We’re getting pretty far north,” said Jim. “Maybe this is it.”

Jim slowed down the car. Traffic behind us horned and hooted angrily.

“This will be it, I guess,” said Jim, making the turn into the side road.

But it wasn’t the turn. And we crept slowly along, looking for a lane. It was a clay road. A bad, holey, rutty road. With puddles.

“You’d better turn the first chance,” I warned Jimmie.

“I’ll turn,” he said.

But he didn’t turn and we came to a large clay bog hole and as Jim tried to negotiate the edge of it, I felt the wheels on my side slide easily and gooily in. Jim gave her the gas. A splurge, a surge and we backed splendidly right into the middle of it.

So we went and got garage men and lanterns and tow trucks and so forth, walking along under the stars.

“If those stars, Jim.” I said, as we walked, are as you say a hundred million light years away, how do we know they are there?”

“They aren’t there,” said Jimmie. “That’s the point. That’s where they were when the light we are getting now from them left them, a hundred million years ago.”

“So that at the moment,” I asked, “they might be right underneath us, or off to the side somewhere. or anywhere but where they appear to be?”

“The chances of them being where they appear to be,” stated Jim, “are very remote, considering the vast ages and ages and millions of years this light now striking our eyes left them.”

“Then,” I said, triumphantly, “maybe they aren’t there at all. Maybe they have died and blown up fifty million years ago. Maybe there are no stars by now!”

“That is quite possible,” admitted Jim.

“Then won’t it be a swell joke on your scientists if,” I cried, “just when they have discovered all there is to know about stars, they find there aren’t any stars?”

“That would be ironic,” said Jim.

“Very well,” I concluded, for now we were out where the bright glare of traffic on Yonge St. made the stars a little dim, “very well, I much prefer to think about starving babies wrapped in old shawls, who are with us to-day, than muddle my poor head about a lot of things that used to be where we think they are a billion years ago.”

“I give in,” said Jim.

And the garage man only charged us 75 cents.


Editor’s Notes: When Greg refers to “pitchblende”, is is the old term for Uraninite, a radioactive, uranium-rich mineral and ore.

The observatory they are referring to is the David Dunlap Observatory in Richmond Hill. When an observatory in downtown Toronto could no longer function due to light pollution, this observatory was constructed in 1935 (a year before this story). At the time, the main telescope was the second largest in the world and the largest in Canada. It operated from 1935 to 2007.

Aw, Rats

Jim limbered up with the baseball bat, in readiness. “You’ve got to be ready for fast work,” I cautioned him, “because when they come they may come in a bunch.”

By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, December 2, 1939

“What,” inquired Jimmie Frise, “do you know about rats?”

“Rats,” I informed him, “are my meat. What I don’t know about rats isn’t in the encyclopaedia. I have killed thousands of rats. Black rats, gray rats, brown rats, fat rats. In the army they called me the Pie-Eyed Piper.”

“There are rats,” stated Jim, “under my garage. They’ve tunnelled down under the concrete floor. You can see the two entrances. From this dugout they come at night and forage in the garbage cans of the neighborhood. Members of the family coming home at night see them scuttling. They are huge.”

“It will be no trick to get rid of them,” I assured Jim. “You can use traps, poison, fumigation or a ferret. Maybe a ferret would be the best fun.”

“I was thinking of sitting up some night,” said Jim, “with a pleasant companion, both of us armed with .22 rifles. I thought we might spend a very amusing evening popping off rats.”

“It would bring back the old days,” I admitted fondly. “Many’s the long night, in the war, I have whiled away potting rats with my revolver. I often thought that officers carried revolvers for no other purpose but rat shooting.”

“Gosh,” mused Jim, “did you ever see so many rats as we had in France, especially around the Vimy sector?”

“There were millions,” I agreed. “Great big scaly-tailed brutes as big as tomcats.”

“You might say,” said Jim, “that after dark you could look in any direction, at any spot on the ground, and within one minute a rat was sure to cross that spot.”

“They got so plentiful,” I submitted, “and so bold, that they no longer confined their activities to the night. They moved freely about all over the place in broad daylight.”

“And why not?” said Jim. “Nobody disturbed them. They had that vast silent world to themselves, especially by day. No human stirred. No man showed a head. It was at night that rats had to take care. At night we humans were abroad. We shared the night with the rats.”

“As soon as night fell, in the trenches,” I told, “and all the sentries were posted and all the working parties detailed, an officer had little to do but walk up and down and see that all was well. So presently he would pick a suitable spot, a bit of trench or a sap preferably near an old ruined house or barn. And there, sitting on the fire-step of the trench, he would unlimber his revolver and wait.”

“So that,” cried Jimmie, “was what all the shooting was about? We artillery used to sit away back with our guns, wondering what you gallant infantrymen were doing all the popping at.”

“Mostly it was rats,” I admitted. “I used to sit in the dark, motionless. In a few minutes, along the trench, on the parapet or from a rat hole in the wall of the trench, out would come a rat, secret, silent, sliding his head down, his back arched, seeking, sniffing. Quietly, the revolver comes up. Bang.”

“You must have made an awful mess of them with that army gat,” said Jim.

“If we hit them,” I provided. “The best way of hitting a rat was known as fishing for rats. It was mostly done in old dugouts that were rat infested. When it became so bad that the boys could not sleep owing to the rats running over them and fighting and squeaking all over the place, the boys would declare a fishing trip. All the men in the dugout would leave their snug beds on the damp cold planks of the dugout floor and go and sit on the stairways of the entrances. Then the expert would extinguish all the candles stuck along the plank walls and sit on the floor. Extending his legs, he would rest his rifle on his legs, the muzzle resting between the toes of his boots. Out from the end extended the bayonet; and on the end of the bayonet a piece of cheese would be impaled. There in the dark the fisherman sat, finger on trigger. When he felt a nibble on the cheese he fired. Seven times out of ten he blew the rat against the far wall of the dugout.”

“Rather nasty,” muttered Jim.

“What were sanitary corporals for?” I retorted.

“You wouldn’t get many that way,” said Jim.

A Major Problem

“The rats were so plentiful and so greedy,” I assured him, “that no sooner was one rat blown to pieces and the candles doused and the fisherman in position again before the rats, with a secret, soft, scuffling sound and squeaks and scutters, would be coming from their holes again amidst the planks of the dugout walls and ceilings, snuffling for that cheese. I have seen Corporal Cutsey Smith, now with God, get one dozen rats in one hour by this method.”

“But it was a hopeless business,” submitted Jim.

“It was,” I agreed. “And I have often wondered since how France and Belgium got rid of all those countless rats after the war. It must have been one of the major post-war problems.”

“When I close my eyes and try to recall what dugouts were like,” said Jim, “I can smell the queer sour smell of them, and the smell of coke gas and wood smoke. I can see again the dimness, the quietness, the men lying in their matted gray blankets and greatcoats on the muddy plank floors, see the two or three sitting up awake, in dim candlelight, writing letters; but most of all I can feel the silence, amidst which, ever and always, goes on the quiet scuffling and scratching of the rats behind the plank walls and ceilings, a sound that went on day and night.”

“I woke up one night,” I said, “with two rats fighting furiously on my chest.”

“I have had a rat,” countered Jim, “exploring in the dark come to me, lying on the ground, and place his two hands on the bridge of my nose to look over.”

“Ugh,” I surrendered. “What puzzles me is, if men hate rats so badly, how is it we haven’t exterminated them ages ago, like all the other animals we hated and killed off?”

“I figure,” said Jim, “there is a family of six rats under my garage.”

“Right,” I agreed. “The problem is, how can we deal with the present situation. I suggest poison.”

“Too many dogs in the neighborhood,” said Jimmie. “I would sooner put up with rats than poison a dog.”

“We can pump gas down the hole,” I suggested. “Put a tube from the exhaust pipe of your car and carbon monoxide them.”

Plan of Battle

“Wouldn’t you kind of like to sit up tonight, with .22 rifles, and do a little shooting?” wheedled Jim.

“It’s too risky,” I declared. “And too cold.”

“Very well, a ferret then,” said Jim. “Let’s get some fun out of this. I don’t like the idea of putting poison or fumes down the hole and letting them quietly die down under the concrete floor of the garage. They might smell. I’d like to get a whack at them. And a ferret would chase them out and we could stand at the hole with clubs.”

“Where would we get a ferret?” I demanded. “And besides, we’d have to have somebody handle the ferret. I don’t want to be partly responsible for a ferret getting loose in our neighborhood.”

“Well, I’ve got some rats,” said Jim, with pride, “and I want to find some sporty way of dealing with them.”

“I tell you,” I cried, “we’ll drown them out. Why didn’t I think of it sooner? Of course, drown them out. How many holes have they got?”

“Two,” said Jim. “One under the corner of the garage and another at the back. We can block one hole up and turn the hose into the other and they’ve got to come out.”

“You’ve got it,” I agreed. “I’ve often drowned rats out. They hate water.”

And we went home a little early so as to deal with the rats before darkness came to their aid. Jimmie got his son’s baseball bat and we brought the hose up from the cellar, where it had been stored for the winter. We turned on the water at the outside tap that had been turned off for fear of frost, and we proceeded to study the terrain.

Just under the south corner of the garage a hole about the size of a milk bottle led downward steeply. At the back of the garage a much smaller hole served as an emergency exit. Trust a rat for emergencies.

“It looks as if a whole army of rats used this front entrance,” I said, as we examined the larger hole. “They probably hold meetings here. Maybe this is a public hall.”

“They’ve got a great cave under there,” said Jim. “I bet it’s tunnelled into a regular apartment. An apartment with a concrete roof. The floor of the garage gives them an ideal bombproof shelter.”

So we took sticks and gravel and cinders and filled up the smaller emergency exit at the back. We shoved all the stuff deep down, packing it in, so as to prevent any possibility of the rats digging out by that route.

Then we turned the hose on and into the larger hole I directed the stream while Jim limbered up with the baseball bat, in readiness.

“You’ve got to be ready for fast work, Jim,” I cautioned him, “because when they come they may come all in a bunch.”

“Don’t fret,” said Jim, “I can hit with this bat faster than they can fight their way past that stream.”

And indeed it was a dandy stream, because in winter the water pressure is good. No other hose owners are watering any lawns. A powerful jet of water bored into the hole and we could hear it gurgling and swishing deep in the dark cavern of the rats.

“They may come any minute,” I warned. And Jimmie stood poised and tense.

“What do you suppose is going on down there?” I chuckled, as the water gushed. “I bet there’s a commotion.”

“They were likely asleep,” said Jim, “and about now they are getting anxious. This is no ordinary rainstorm.”

“Heh, heh, heh,” I laughed, and squatted down to aim the icy water deeper and more vicious.

“They probably have galleries and upper levels,” said Jim, “into which they are already fighting their way. How long do you suppose it will take to flood ’em?”

“Well, there’s probably quite a large space,” I submitted, “counting all the rooms and galleries. It may take several minutes. The earth is soft under there and will naturally soak up quite a lot of water.”

“It’s sand under there,” said Jim. “It sure will soak it up. This may take half an hour or more.”

“Relax,” I said, seeing Jim still poised with the bat. “Take a look around the back at that escape hole and see there is no sign of anything being tampered with.”

Jim skipped around to the back and returned eagerly to report that the hole was thoroughly stopped.

Still the water from the hose hissed and bored into the hole, which consumed it without any sign of filling. No sound of gurgling came from below any more though I put my ear down.

Jim made several trips around to the rear to see that the exit was properly secure. It was chilly work holding the hose, and when I suggested Jimmie take a turn at running the water in, he said I would be too cramped to do a proper job of execution in case the rats came out.

“Look What You Did!”

And suddenly there was a most extraordinary result. With a loud crash, something inside the garage fell. We could hear the car inside bump heavily against the front doors of the garage, and bulge them outward.

“The floor,” bellowed Jimmie, “the cement floor, you sap!”

I ceased firing with the hose and ran around to the front of the garage with Jimmie. Very carefully, Jim unlatched the bulging doors, and when he opened them, there was his car sunk down on its left rear wheel, its front end high in the air, one-half of the cement floor of the garage having collapsed into a huge dark hole in the ground.

“Look what you did,” shouted Jim.

“The rats did it, not me,” I retorted hotly.

“That water ate away the sand,” accused Jim.

“The rats had dug the hole,” I countered. “The whole foundation of your garage was honeycombed with rat tunnels.”

“It would have held forever, if you hadn’t bored in there with that hose,” concluded Jim. “You and your drowning out methods.”

It was a mess, all right. The car was tipped down at least three feet on its rear end, and securely wedged into the hole.

“Did you see any rats?” I inquired, incidentally.

“I certainly didn’t,” said Jim.

“Well,” I assured, “I bet you’re rid of them. That’s what I undertook to do, at your own request – rid you of the rats.”

“A fine mess,” said Jim.

“Now you can put a proper foundation under your garage,” I pointed out, “and never be troubled with rats again.”

“Any child would have known,” muttered Jim, “that you can’t run a hose for 20 minutes into sand…”

“Look, Jim,” I interrupted, “did you or did you not wish to be rid of the rats? Well, you’re rid of them.”

So Jim phoned for the garage man come with his derrick and hoist out the car. And the garage man’s brother-in-law was the cement business; and before supper, whole situation was well in hand.

And Jimmie is rid of rats.

We turned the hose on and into the larger hole I directed the stream while Jim limbered up with a baseball bat in readiness.

Editor’s Notes: This story was repeated on November 20, 1943, under the title “Rat Catchers“. The illustration for that story appears at the end, and you can see that the microfilmed copy was very poor. There was no difference in the story, except that references to the war were changed to the “old war”.

This story also appeared in Greg Clark & Jimmie Frise Go Fishing (1980).

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