Into the private office of the manager of a large wholesale establishment on Wellington street was admitted a middle-aged gentleman of refined appearance who told the information girl guarding the sanctum that he was an old friend of the manager.
The manager looked up as the visitor entered, stared at him with a look of puzzlement on his face, and smiled.
The visitor was smiling broadly.
“I have called,” he said, “to see if I could write you up for some insurance under a new plan my company offers men of your age.”
“Now, I’m pretty busy,” said the manager. Then, halting, he asked:
“Look here: I know your face well, but hanged if I can place you.”
Still smiling broadly, the visitor came closer to the manager’s desk. Laying his hat down, he snatched a newspaper off the desk, flicked it open, and, with a sudden movement, tucked it like an apron into his vest. Then, leaning both hands on the manager’s desk he leaned forward and said:
“What’s yours, sir?”
The effect was remarkable on the manager. He leaped to his feet and cried:
“Tim, you old scoundrel! Where have you been all these years?”
And the two set about shaking hands as if they were long-lost brothers.
But they were simply two old friends, a bartender and one of his pet customers, meeting for the first time after seven years of drought.
Tim was head bartender in the downtown bar regularly patronized by this business man for years. An intimacy had grown up between them such as few not habituated to drinking in bars can imagine. A formal intimacy like that between golfers and their old pro, or between a lady and her housekeeper of twenty years.
Making him seated and comfortable, the manager asked his old friend:
“What have you been doing?”
“Well,” said Tim, pulling on the cigar. “I have had some rough times. When the old establishment closed, in 1916, I had no plans, like all bartenders, and couldn’t believe it when the doors were really closed. The old boss offered me a job around the hotel as a sort of watchman. But I was deeply insulted. A soft drink bar was opened in the old bar, and I served exactly four days there, for some of the old boys came in, and to see the look on their faces as they drank a glass of pink pop was really more than I could bear. I felt fallen in the world. I felt unclassed. Without warning, for my kids were all grown up, I packed a valise and went over to the States. Not belonging to their union, I had a bad two years there. I was in several New York towns in succession, but getting further and further down in the mouth.
“When the States went dry, I hadn’t enough money to take me to Montreal, the last oasis. So I worked at odd jobs and darn near starved–“
“Poor old Tim,” stuck in the manager, with real sympathy.
“No, no. It was good for me,” said Tim. “While serving in a bar in Syracuse I made the acquaintance of an insurance man. Two years ago I met him on the street one day, and he gave me a job selling insurance.
“‘If a man who has listened to as many sad life stories as you can’t sell insurance,’ he said to me. ‘nobody can.'”
“So here I am looking up, one by one, all my old friends across the mahogany. Do you remember that sad story you told me one night–“
“Easy, Tim, easy!” implored the manager, a changed man after seven years.
“–about your fears for your poor family, and you feeling that your heart was in a delicate condition?”
“Tut, Tim I have a golf handicap of eight.”
At any rate, Tim drew forth, in the approved manner, his booklets and folders outlining in graphic style the proposition his company had to make to business men of fifty and over. And It was a good proposition, in spite of the sentimental appendages to the deal.
For Tim wrote his old friend policy for ten thousand.
Where are the four hundred and fifty bartenders who, up to seven years ago, were quenching Toronto’s thirst with beers, wines and liquors? Where are the skilful jugglers amongst them whom men traveled far to see, as they tossed a cocktail from glass to glass, a gleaming rainbow four feet long? Where are these repositories of the sad life stories of thousands of male citizens of this now happy city?
Their union is broken up. Thorough enquiries at the Toronto Labor Temple failed to discover Arthur O’Leary, former business agent of the Bartenders’ Union, in his heyday one of the most popular figures in the labor world.
Strange to relate, a good many of Toronto’s bartenders have stuck to bartending, even though the quality of the goods they sell is different.
In remnant of what used to be one of the longest bars in Toronto, now remodeled down to a mere fragment of its old glory, a bartender of twenty years’ experience admitted that he was too old to change his calling just because the law changed.
“Is there much difference between selling liquor and soft drinks?” he was asked.
“I feel,” he replied, “like a banker who has failed and has had to take up the grocery business for a livelihood. As a bartender, I was the friend and confidante of members of the business world, half the city hall staff knew me by name, city fathers took council with me, mayors have wept on my shoulder. In the old days, my customers were regular customers. But of that bunch–“
And he waved a contemptuous hand at a dozen people, mostly idle young men, lounging against the soda bar.
“–of that bunch I don’t know one. Never saw them before in my life.”
“What effect has prohibition had on your income?”
“I don’t get one-third the wages I used to make and I get no tips. My income is about a quarter what it was.”
“Prohibition has hit you hard?”
“Yes it has. But I still think the going of the bar is the best thing ever happened. I do, really. For one good bar, where men had a drink, there were three crooked bars where men got drunk. I never let a man get drunk off my bar in my life. Some bartenders considered their job was to rake over the coin. Some of us, however, figured our job was to serve refreshment to men. But we all got hit just the same.”
Most of the bartenders who are still serving drinks are serving them over the former bars of old hotels. Only a couple are in soda parlors.
A few of the bartenders have gone up in the world. One owns a good hotel near the centre of the city. Others have retail businesses, grocery, hardware and boot and shoe.
One very gifted bartender is now in charge of a gasoline station, and is serving up gas and oil without a hint, in the way he serves up a pint of “medium,” that he was in his day one of the most skilful drink slingers in the city.
But others, the older ones, have had a very poor time the last seven years. Some are jobless, some are janitors and handy men around old hostelries.
“It took prohibition,” said one old bartender, who has been out of a job four of the seven years since his profession quit him, “to show up how shallow was bar-room friendship. I had lived in it so long that I had begun to imagine it was genuine.”
“Men who called me affectionately by name when they ordered a drink, sports who got me to do favors for them, men I’ve cashed checks for, all turned me down when I called on them.”
“I wanted a job, recommendation. But a month after the bars were closed, most of them had forgotten who I was. Not three out of fifty of them held out the helping hand when I was in need.”
Perhaps the hardest part of prohibition to the bartender was not the loss of his calling, but the discovery of the fact that the bar-room affection that shed a glamor over his trade was as thin and unsubstantial as the beer fumes that induced it.
Editor’s Note: Prohibition went through all sorts of referendums and polls between 1916 and 1927 in Ontario when it was repealed. Greg was likely not in favour of prohibition, but his newspaper was. At the time of the article in 1923, Howard Ferguson had been elected Premier, and would move slowly and cautiously on limiting the restrictions.
These illustrations by Jim accompanied an article by Fred Griffin on female baseball players. One of the unexpected delights of reading pre-World War Two newspapers is the emphasis on amateur sports in the Sports section, often giving near-equal time to women’s sports. From the article:
Consequent upon witnessing the game of baseball described below, the Canadian National Exhibition authorities made arrangements to have the leading teams of the Toronto Major Girls’ League and other crack teams from other parts of Canada play off for the dominion championship in the Coliseum. The games will be played on the evenings of Sept. 1, 3 and 5. Three games will be played each evening. This will give Exhibition visitors an opportunity of witnessing the newest and most interesting sporting development of recent years.
“Be sure,” ran the memorandum, “to wear your old clothes for a rough time will be had by all.”
Chess is only one more of the innumerable games which has a big following in Toronto. And a chess tournament is a memorable sight. The tournament we witnessed was between forty members of the Toronto Chess Club and a single international expert and former world champion. To come to this scene in the Central Y.M.C.A. fresh from a baseball game touched the gamut of sport in one of the liveliest sport cities in the world.
The tables were laid in a hollow square. At each table sat a player with a friend at each elbow with whom he might consult. Around the inner side of the ring of tables walked the international expert, stopping a brief moment at each player to make his move and then on to the next. He played forty games against every other player’s one.
The large Y.M.C.A. room was crowded. Densely packed in back of the players were several hundred people, almost exclusively men, with eyes glued on to the nearest board. A complete silence reigned.
The players were of all ages. There was one old gentleman from Hamilton in his seventies. There was a boy of thirteen! There were university professors and mechanics, men run all to head and men all run to body, florid beef-eating men and pallid, biscuit eating men. But one thing they all had in common from the little boy and the very young men right through to the greyest head of all, and that was a peculiar air of contemplation which was fortified by a common mannerism-head rested on the hand and eyes glued to the board.
There is a stance in chess as there is in golf, tennis, bowling or anything else. Slightly sunk in the chair, each player sits forward enough to rest one elbow on the table, so that he can support his head on his hand.
As the great international expert arrives at his table the chess player does not look up. He wears a conscious, secretive expression, perhaps gently rubbing his head. The great expert looks at the board, glances shrewdly at the player’s downcast face, and then with a sudden, almost contemptuous gesture, makes his move. The player, his face unmoved except rarely by a faint smile that might reveal chagrin, never lifts his eyes from the board, but broods on and on, preparing for his next move.
Chess is a brooding, contemplative game. There appears to be hypnotism in it. The intensity of the attention which is directed down on that board for motionless minutes at time appears to be an effort to read some immense riddle, as if from some slight psychic gesture of the chessmen some hint could be got.
All the faces, after a little while, take on a blank expression as if the spirit had retreated to some far inner secret place. Hours and hours pass. The tournament started at 8 o’clock at night and the last of the games was not played until between 2 and 3 the next morning.
They say there is a peculiar type of mentality required for success in chess. In checkers, which is an infant’s game, there is life, movement, triumph, humor, action. It is a skirmish. Chess is a battle on a grand scale. The players try to read the riddle of enemy’s moves. Time does not enter into it. You could not dream of one of these players saying to another, “Come on, hurry up!” The players, for a fact, do not seem to be aware of each other at all. There is no human element visible. Abstraction settles down like winter night.
You can still see ping-pong played at the Y.M.C.A. There is still a lively trade in croquet sets at the big stores. Badminton – batting feathered shuttlecock across a net – takes up large space at the Armories. Every known form of card game has its devotees in Toronto, down to the queer fan-tan with buttons counted out from under an inverted saucer in the Chinese kitchens on Elizabeth street.
But for the remote extreme from those games of which huge grand stands and uproarious yelling is perhaps the most essential factor you must go to the brooding, contemplative, timeless abstraction of the ancient game of chess.
Editor’s Note:Fan-Tan is a form of a gambling game long played in China. It is a game of pure chance which has similarities to roulette.
Therefore The Maple Leaf, Borne Through Blood and Death, Has The Right to Its Place On The Flag of Canada – And The Spearhead That Foch Spoke About! – Here Is The Stuff of Which Flags Are Made and Tradition Is Perpetuated
Moved and seconded that the Canadian flag be the Union Jack with the Maple Leaf in gold emblazoned in the midst and the flag then mounted on a staff with a spear-head.
Fifty-seven thousand Canadian men lie on sundry half-forgotten hillsides of France and the low country with the maple leaf in brass on their breasts, though they be dust, enduring still.
Half a million Canadian men, with the maple leaf bright on their foreheads and on the collars, for four years made themselves known and marked in all of Britain, France, Belgium; in parts of the East, Saloniki, Egypt, Russia; and known, too, to every German.
In the Strand, on Princess street, Grafton street, the Rue da la Paix. Fifth avenue, the crowds would come alert and nudge one another when a plain figure in khaki, distinguishable from the hordes of brown only by brass maple leaves on brow and breast, went by.
“There!” they would say. “A Canadian! The fortress of Vimy – the quagmire of Passchendaele – the great spear-head of Amiens – the wolf pack that went with such a vengeful cry out from Arras, to Cambrai, Valenciennes, to Mons! A Canadian!”
We were known in every city and every village of more than half of Europe by a symbol, the maple leaf. Our clothes differed in no way from those of the British army, in which we served as a distinct corps. The Australian you could recognize a block away. We had only the little brass leaf. So we kept it very bright. There is no denying it: we were intensely proud of that small symbol. Men’s eyes, lighting on it, snapped swiftly to our faces. And we, conscious, stared back: conscious of fifty-seven thousand comrades left behind, on unfailing storied ground, near Ypres, on the Somme, on a certain impregnable ridge, in marshes by Passchendaele, and far and wide over a mighty battlefield of a hundred days, the hundred days of the spear-head, the days when we led the whole pack.
So the maple leaf, whatever shortcomings as a national emblem it might have had ten years ago, has no shortcomings now. It is hallowed and sanctified. Hall a million men went forth to give it meaning. Fifty-seven thousand men – and oh, that is many men! – wear it in their lonely graves.
If Canada’s performance in the world war has any meaning, national, international, imperialistic, political, then the maple leaf is important exactly in proportion to the importance of Canada’s entry on to the world stage.
When, at the Somme, we became a corps, and when, at Vimy, we got a commander of our own blood and bone, and the pride of our performance cost us no man knows what in life and death, we began to notice things. When we entered a soldiers’ hostel in the Strand, there over the central place hung all the flags of the British nations – the southern cross of Australia (and they with their distinctive, rakish uniform to boot!) – the flag of Africa, of India, even – and nothing for Canada save an ordinary marine ensign in error – we began to wish for something, too, of our own, that would symbolize the long miles between us and our home land, and the long generations far from the comfort and safety of these isles.
In the big canteens, back of the lines, again the flags of all the British nations, in each case the Union Jack with the marks of still further and greater unions on it – but nothing for Canada.
In the zone of battle a regiment goes by, columns of transport, of guns, and there, fluttering, the stars of Australia, and our guns bare and hard with never a shred of meaningful bunting on them, though their voices had as much meaning as any guns that faced the east.
The Meaning of Tradition
The Union Jack symbolizes the union of British races which founded the empire. The flags of the other nations that are growing up upon that foundation are, in every case, the Union Jack with certain further marks upon it to symbolize still further union and still wider empire. If Canada has been waiting for the right occasion to add her mark of union and of empire to the Union Jack, it has come. The maple leaf in gold emblazoned on the heart of the Union Jack.
The birth of a flag usually coincides with wars and conquests. Poetry and tradition are woven into it, if possible. Every old regiment in the world has certain honors and customs which it cherishes above all things. The King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, for example, as a unit, salutes nobody but the King. That special privilege dates to the day King William’s horse ran away with him at a certain battle, and charging away from the firing line carried his majesty with great indignity through and scattered the King’s Own, which was marching to the fray. Recovering control of his steed, the king rode back and jokingly chided the colonel for not saluting the king as he passed; and he said: “From now on, this regiment salutes nobody but the king.”
And so it is. Another regiment drinks the king’s health standing with one foot on the mess table. Another breaks the glasses when the toast is drunk. The army and the navy are full of customs and special etiquette based on some treasured incident or precedent or privilege accorded in olden time.
Canada has just such a priceless incident to treasure if she has the imagination. Flags that have no tradition and symbolism in their weave are not flags but bunting.
After the great advance of the Canadian Corps at Amiens, when, with the crack French Tenth Army on their right and the Australians on their left, they thrust a great point into the German defenses towards Roy, Generalissimo Foch, the supreme commander, said: “The Canadians are the spear head of the allies.”
This is the stuff of which flags are made. If Caesar had said to one of his legions: “You are the spear-head of my army,” they would have passed those words to the ages, would have emblazoned spear-heads on their cuirasses and have worn spear-heads on their helmets. If a modern king had said those words to one of his regiments it would have been taken and treasured in symbolic form for all time.
Why not take the magnificent and historic compliment of the supreme commander of all the armies of the allies for a legend?
Let it be laid down officially as flag etiquette that in remembrance of Foch’s words, the Canadian flag, born out of that great conflict, be unfurled always and only on a staff with a spear head!
In every land, wherever the Union Jack of Canada be flung to the breeze, it must be on a staff with a gilded spear head, as part and parcel of the symbol. A hundred years from now, when other flags are flying, with whatever tradition their colors and devices portray, the Canadian flag shall fly on its spear-headed staff to remind all men and inspire our children with the historic statement of Foch on the occasion of Canada’s first appearance on the stage of the world as an entity and as a whole.
Here we have the material of tradition. There is this consolation. If we do not grasp it, probably our children will.
At the Olympic meet at Wembley last year, it was suggested by the British committee that all the empire contestants, in the great parade of all nations before the opening of the contests, be grouped together behind the Union Jack. The United States had hundreds of athletes in their section of the procession. Britain thought how fine and significant it would be to place the contestants from Canada, Australia, Africa, India and every corner of the empire in one grand and overwhelming battalion. The committees of the dominions thought differently. They decided definitely to march each behind its own flag in proper alphabetical order, in amongst all the other nations.
Canada Entitled to a Symbol
And they were right. The effect was this: A the procession of athletes of all nations, starting with A and passing through the alphabet, went by, nation by nation. And every few moments a British flag went by. Not one British flag but a score were in that great parade. One by one, the flags of the world went by the international throng, and first Australia with a splendid regiment of men carried the Union Jack and its marks of union and empire by. Then some more nations, and the British Isles went past, a great showing behind the Union Jack. Still more nations of the world, and then Canada. So the nations went past, one by one, and at the beginning and at the end came the flag of Britain with the escutcheons of her sons added. How Infinitely more imposing – this recurrence of Britain throughout that review of the nations -than had all the dominions followed under the one flag, the British committee realized fully as the moment passed.
But the flag the Canadians bore that day was not an official flag. Nor did it strike instant recognition by some symbol already known and respected from the eyes of the beholders from all parts of the world.
The objection raised to the use of the Union Jack with a device laid in the midst of it is that governors-general, lieutenant-governors’ and governors’ flags, from olden time, are the Union Jack with the coat of arms of the colonies they govern set in the middle. In the case of the Union Jack with the gold maple leaf emblazoned boldly in the centre, there can be no confusion with the governor-general’s flag, since his is the Jack with the Canadian coat of arms in the centre. The gold maple leaf without inscription of any sort laid in the heart of the Union Jack could have only one meaning, either here or in most of the countries of the world.
Artists must come into the discussion when the subject is a matter of color and form such as a flag. And the Group of Seven, intensest of all Canadian artists, might be expected to have some thought on the question of a Canadian flag.
“It is merely a question of time until we have a flag of our own in Canada,” said Lawren Harris, of the Group of Seven. “Canada is entitled to a symbol, because Canada is already as entity. The idea of the maple leaf, simply emblazoned, without scroll or legend, on the heart of the Union Jack appeals to me immensely. And the conception of the spear head appeals to me even more. For it is sentimental symbols of that sort which the inarticulate mass of people may take for their means of expression of the love of their country, above all others.”
And if there is any means by which Canada’s exploit in the world war can be preserved and brought to the notice and remembrance of all nations of the world could there be a more picturesque and romantic one than that flag etiquette should demand that flag to be flown only on a staff with spear head?
Editor’s Notes: This rather flowery article from 1925 was part of a movement for a distinct Canadian flag that developed after the First World War. Greg uses the term “ordinary marine ensign in error” to describe the use of the Red Ensign, Canada’s unofficial flag.
Ferdinand Foch was Supreme Allied Commander during the First World War.
Greg mentions the “Olympic meet at Wembley last year”. I believe he mixing up the British Empire Exhibition of 1924 held in Wembley, England, and the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris. Maybe the committee met at the Exhibition before the Olympics.
The curtain was up. The theatre was filled with the music of a clever orchestra. It was a performance of the “Dumbells,” in their sixty-second week in Toronto.
A smartly-dressed chorus came out and then Marjorie appeared, long, lissome, with the old
remembered stride, so queenly, so graceful. And all of a sudden the scene faded. The solid walls of the Royal Alexandra melted away. The strains to orchestra grew fainter, fainter.
And by all that is queer we were all at once in a dirty old grey marquee, its side walls drooping sadly, and tall poles staggering into the gloom above, and a stage before us lighted with oil lamps shaded with home-made tin reflectors.
We were in the midst of a strange audience. It smelt strongly of wool and sweat and tobacco. It was bent forward tensely on its benches. It made not a sound.
Yet on this little ill-lighted stage before us, as on that Royal Alex stage which had so mysteriously disappeared a moment ago, on this narrow, shallow stage, there stood Marjorie!
In the shadows of one corner of the stage was a piano, and the pianist’s back was to us. A candle in a whiskey bottle gave light to his fingers.
What was he playing? “Hello, My Dearie!”
And there was Marjorie, swaying and leaning towards us, singing,
“… I’m lonesome for you;
I want you near me –
Yes, honest, I do…”
Not as gorgeous a Marjorie as we had a moment before on the stage that faded. Not such stylish clothes. Not so lighted up with footlights to show the delicate blossom on her cheeks and the lovely red bow of her lips. A big picture hat, a pink dress to set off her blonde beauty. And a parasol.
But a lovelier Marjorie than the one that the Royal Alexandra had been showing. Look how this audience cats her up, drinks her in! Did ever an artist have such an audience? Pipes and cigarets are held suspended. Heads are hunched forward. Eyes stare hungrily at this vision in the half light. She sings to the end in a clear soprano with a delicious break in it. She backs bowing to the burlap wings. The grey old tent trembles and bellies to the tumult of applause that crashes out. The khaki audience yells and claps and whistles and stands up.
Beauty They Craved For
The soldier at the piano strikes a chord. Strikes it again for silence. And from the wings steps jaunty Al Plunkett, wearing an opera hat and a stylish mackintosh. He is the picture of civil elegance. Ah, how sweet to the byes of men doomed forever, it seems to sweating brown wool! Al is smiling his ineffable smile. He twirls his cane at us. He raises his voice in an odd, laughing, suggestive tone and commences his song, “The Wild, Wild Women.”
The audience in lilting and chuckling with him on their benches of hard, narrow wood. The chuckle in Al’s voice increases. The words of the song have the boys leaning forward and nudging their neighbors.
” … ferocious women,
Are making a wild man of me!”
The troops shout and laugh. “Encore! Encore!” Al obliges. Ho sing the last verse and the chorus. He is more elegant and urbane than ever. He is the spirit of all that is free and Independent, and never a bugle nor voice can make a difference in his life, this dark, opera-coated swell.
A brass band hunched down under the front of the tiny little creaky stage plays an entr’acte and the audience lights up and smokes and chatters. Out in the night, far, far away, sounds the bumble and mutter of the distant guns. But in this marquee, the “Dumbells” are making pretense, for a regiment down from the line for a few days, that there is no war, that there is a world of reality, full of beautiful, attractive women and dark, alluring men in high hats, somewhere only around the corner. And the audience talks loud and laughs for fear they might not believe that that far rumble is only the traffic of the streets.
Marjorie comes on again. Amid a riotous cheer. Who could believe that the hard integuments of Ross Hamilton are concealed under those fair garments? Marjorie is not a female impersonator in this old marquee. She is a very real and very great artist. An artist depends so much on his environment, on his locale. Well, this Marjorie, I assure you, this Marjorie, posing and swaying before the starved eyes of a thousand soldiers who have seen nothing beautiful, but only mud and destruction and death for months on end – this tall, beautiful girl parading before them in the lamplight, is a very true artist indeed. For she is touching those nerves in the spirits of men which only artists can touch. She is making them live outside themselves. They are not amused by a female impersonator. They are looking at a beautiful girl with eyes that have seen no beauty in many day.
“Songs My Mother Sang”
Marjorie departs amidst a tumult. A singer whose name we have forgotten, which is a deep shame, comes forth clad in a quaint old-fashioned costume, with a tall wand, and sings for us “The Cornish Floral Dance.” A delicate, fine, artistic song, but the brown, tangled audience drinks it in. It is beautifully rendered. And the hard-boiled audience knows it. They demand an encore. With greater fervor, the fine baritone pictures again the little street and the dancing figures that kiss as they dance along.
Lay figures come out from the drab wings of the stage and set up a sentry box and a brazier. It is not a fake brazier, a stage effect. It is a real brazier, And the coke in it stinks through the marquee. And Al Plunkett, not in his stage clothes, but in his real, everyday clothes, his khaki uniform, comes out in the gloom, with only the brazier fire glowing on his downcast face, and he brings that big marquee full of soldiers to tears. For he sings a sad song: “The Songs My Mother Sang To Me.”
You may have heard sad songs in your life and shed furtive tears. But Al Plunkett, in his homely uniform, bent lonely over that brazier in so familiar an attitude, with his mobile voice breaking pathetically as he hums such old sweet songs as all our mothers sang – the songs of the southland, Alice Ben Bolt, the lullabies, the baby songs – oh, soldiers in the gloom, so still, so still, what Mills bombs are these stuck in your throats, what unmanly wet is this smearing your cheeks, while Al Plunkett wrings your heart to shreds with his tender and crooning voice?
These were mighty artists, I tell you, who could fill a night with such tears and such laughter. For there is a black face comedian, and Mert Plunkett, Captain Plunkett, the stout manager of all this fun in a dirty old tent out in some turnip field of Flanders, Captain Plunkett is the interlocutor of the black men. Then there is an orderly room scene in which ridiculous officers strut and comic lead-swingers cringe in cartoon of the real thing this audience will be facing on the morrow. The pianist with the candle in the bottle shows what he can do besides accompany. He plays a bit of Chopin and the latest hit from London. The fine baritone sings “Roses Are Shining in Picardy,” and here we are in Picardy, and such roses as shine are red, red.
The grand finale: Marjorie and Al, a chorus of girls and men, and that was the “Dumbells” as they were in the beginning, away back in grey, dirty old villages of northern France, before they had the money or the artists of other concert parties to make up the show of today. A night full of tears and laughter, of dim lights and such incense as a soldier can send up to his high gods.
They were all great artists those days. They will have to toil hard ever to be a great again.
Editor’s Notes: The “Dumbells” were a vaudeville group formed by soldiers during the first World War. Since it was made up of soldiers, all female roles had to be played by men in drag. They were extremely popular, and launched a Canadian show-business phenomenon that was to last through 12 cross-Canada tours until 1932. As indicated in the article, they engaged in standard vaudeville acts of skits, comedy, singing, and dancing, which also included minstrel black-face acts since those were still acceptable in the early 20th century. Their popularity could also be the result of nostalgia on the part of old soldiers, such as Greg. Their act fizzled out as people grew tired of old war acts, the advent of “talkies” (movies with sound), and the Depression.
American Tourists Have Quaint Notions About Canada
The lanky, well-dressed stranger strolled up to the bell captain of the King Edward.
“I’m from the States,” he said. “I want to take a run around your city and see the points of interest – the state house and that sort of thing. Whereabouts is the residence of the Prince of Whales?”
The bell captain informed him that the Prince of Whales did not live in Toronto.
“Ah, he’s in Montreal, eh? Or is it Que-bec?”
No, the Prince of Whales, the bell boy regretted to inform the American visitor, lived in London, England, and only visited Canada on rare occasions, spending most of his visit aboard Pullman cars.
“But he’s got a ranch here somewhere,” said the American.
He doubted the bell captain’s knowledge and inquired elsewhere, with the result that a most curious and interesting conversation developed.
“I had it firmly fixed in my mind,” confessed the American during this discussion, that the Prince of Whales lived in Canada the way the King lives in England. I thought you had princes instead of governors, you know, state governors.
“But tell me, it’s a fact, is it not, that you have British regiments quartered here in Canada?”
“No. We have one permanent infantry regiment in Canada – but it’s Canadian.”
“But you pay taxes to the King of England don’t you?” asked the American, shrewdly.
“No. We pay no taxes and we put a duty on nearly everything that comes from Britain.”
“No!” said the American, entirely out of his depth. “Well, I declare. Still, all your officials in your government at Quee-bec are sent out from England, aren’t they?”
“No, the only official sent out to this country from Britain to the governor general, and even at that we choose the one we want out of a number suggested by the King’s advisers. A matter of fact, there is a discussion under way just now regarding the appointment of a Canadian as governor general in future.”
“Then you’re turning?’ suggested the American.
“Turning away from England,” added the American.
“England has nothing to do with it,” explained his Canadian Baedecker. “Canada is more British, in the sense of empire, than England. Canada is peopled by English, Scotch and Irish who have done something for the British Empire besides stay at home. The King, as far as we are concerned, is a Canadian. It may hurt a Californian to know that your president is a New Englander. But it doesn’t bother us Canadians to know that our King is an Englishman. We still think he would be better if he were a Canadian, just as your Californian thinks the President would be better if he were a Native Son.”
It’s Hard to Beat the Movies
“Well, sir, yesterday,” said the American, “I saw lot of cavalry riding out near your Sunnyside park and I thought you were a hundred and fifty years behind the rest of America.”
“We are a little backward,” said his Canadian adviser, “in some respects; for instance, it worries us Canadians that we can’t seem to put on quite as much of a celebration for the Prince of Wales whenever he comes to America as New York can.”
All of which is a quaint and comic but by no means rare instance of the extraordinary point of view entertained by countless numbers of our American visitors.
At the Niagara Falls office of the Toronto Convention and Tourist Association, a party of ladies and gentlemen drew up in a costly car and came in to get information about crossing the border.
They stood in the office, glancing about. Then one of the ladies said under her breath to her husband:
“Why, they’ve got everything printed in English.”
They made no move to ask for anything. 50 the young lady who is manager of the office step ped forward.
“Is there anything I can do for you?”
“I knew you were an American!” cried the lady enthusiastically.
“I’m proud to tell you I’m a Canadian,” said the girl.
“But you’ve been educated in the States?”
“No, I was educated in Toronto, Canada.”
“Well, what in the world language do they speak over there anyway?” cried the American.
It takes a lot of propaganda to defeat the movies, for example. And what little of Canada has ever been in the movies has been mounted police, French-Canadians coureur de bois, Eskimos and dogs. When Canada gets into the news in a big way in the States, it is when trans-atlantic fliers pass over the Labrador wastes or land on our coasts so that it takes weeks to get them off even by flying machines. Or when balloonists land in Canada, they nearly die of it. The news reels that show glimpses of Canada are not views of our tall cities but shots of the arrival of the governor-general surrounded by protective soldiering or perhaps a bit from the Calgary stampede which is a circus mostly made up of troupers and trick performers from over the border.
Since 1926 the Toronto Convention and Tourist Association has been striving to defeat the movies and the sensational reports as part of its propaganda.
“But Toronto still remains,” states E. R. Powell, managing director of the association, “the poorest-known big city on the North American continent.”
“They Speak the Same Language”
There are three restaurants in Toronto that belong to a well-known chain of American restaurants and these are eagerly seized upon by the American tourists as a little bit of home.
“Why!” declare those who have motored right through from the border, as they pay for their meal at the cash desk, “your money looks exactly like ours! Yes, one dollar bills, sure as you live. And dimes and nickels!”
The manager tells of countless curious angles.
“You eat practically the same as we do in the States,” said one shrewd visitor. “Why, when I was in France, I could hardly get a single bit of what you might call civilized cooking.”
“I’m glad your restaurants are over in this country. I’ve read a good deal of Canadian literature in the magazines, and the one thing I was scared about coming over here was the things I’d have to eat -pemmican and bannock and pea soup and those things, and I’ve delicate stomach.”
Ex-Mayor Webb of Winnipeg describes a trip he made last winter to Florida. At one stop they overheard the children, in disappointed voices, saying: “They wear the same kind of clothes we do!” “They speak the same language we do.”
At the Niagara Falls office one elderly woman asked if she could see the boat that sails for Europe If she walked across the bridge. Three young men were in this office getting information and they argued the question whether to have lunch in Niagara Falls or wait until they got to Montreal.
Montreal and Toronto are not merely close together in the minds of a large proportion of the tourists, but they are readily interchangeable. Montreal is where Toronto is and Toronto is somewhere else. Canada to them is a little colony on the northern border, back of which is the arctic circle.
Even when they see Toronto they cannot realize that their previous conception is shot. A party came into The Star office last summer to ask if we knew of a man named Billings, an American living somewhere in Ontario.
“In Toronto? We’ll look him up in the directory.”
“No, he don’t live in Toronto, but somewhere here in Ontario. He’s an American. We thought probably you’d know of him. An American, named Billings.”
And they meant it.
It is generally believed by Toronto people that our fine big policemen are a source of wonder and admiration to the American visitors. We print stories about what the tourists any regarding the force.
But there are other angles. We asked an American what he thought of our police, as compared with the general type of stick-swinging, lamp-post leaning cop.
“I guess you’ve got to have good big police men over here, with all those outlaws and lumberjacks riding into town every once in a while,” said the American seriously.
But Let’s Not Be Snooty
School book history was doubtless responsible for another remark about the Toronto police.
“Mostly old soldiers, aren’t they?” asked the American.
“A good many are.”
“The police are kept up by the English, I suppose.”
Won’t somebody please write the Great Canadian Novel – all about Canada us it really is today – with enough eternal triangle and it in it to make it a best seller in the States? We’ve got to do something soon to counteract Sir Gilbert Parker and James Oliver Curwood, not to mention school histories that cease to refer to Canada after the War of 1812.
Of course, the best possible educational work is being done now, regardless of any effort. The Americans are coming to Canada as a playground in annual tidal waves that seem to double in volume every year. The tourist traffic is now one of the greatest commercial assets of the province of Ontario and within a very few years may be the greatest asset, regardless of mines, agriculture and everything else. Because there is no credit in the tourist business. It is all cash.
A flood of cash business bursting on Ontario’s shore every summer. And the more the Americans are astonished and enlightened the more they will talk when they get home. And the more they talk about Canada the bigger will be the tidal wave next summer. They are coming from far and near. And no other kind of propaganda could do what word-of-mouth is doing to enlighten the huge population to the south with regard to the facts about Canada.
There is a certain kind of Canadian who is snooty with all Americans. There are various reasons for this attitude. Part of it originates in the natural jealousy of a small country for a powerful neighbor. Part of it is the same ignorance that makes the American imagine “England” rules Canada as a colony, a sentimental hang-over from a century and a half ago.
But there is one ready-to-wear attitude that Canadians can wear in their relations with Americans. One thing every American speaks about in Canadians is the “manners” of Canadians. We are supposed to be a graceful and well-bred race.
If we are well-bred, good-mannered and courteous to our visitors, and if we use our humor and imagination in promoting the disillusionment that is progressing rapidly every moment that they are in the country, we will build up a tradition that will be even more valuable than the legend of the mounties and the whiskered Pierre and the canoe sliding down a mighty torrent.
Because that movie legend has not been without value.
It has advertised Canada as a land of vast natural resources, water power, minerals, unlimited forests.
And that is what the tourists are coming over to see.
Editor’s Notes: At the time of writing, the Governor-General of Canada was still British, though as indicated, there had been public discussion of the post being given to a Canadian.
I don’t understand what is trying to be said with the line that mentions “eternal triangle”. Eternal Triangle was a term that meant “love triangle”, so maybe it was a disdain against the kind of books that were popular?
Before the crack of dawn, and that’s four-fifteen in the morning, Marie wakes and starts singing.
She sings loud and clear. Like a robin. It is not cooing, or da-da-ing, or whining. It is straight, gay, and uncomplaining singing.
This wakes Annette first. And Annette, who is the trickiest of the quintuplets, generally manages to get one small bare foot out and stick it through the bars of her crib and push the bedside table. She knows a bedside table makes a grand bump. It does not fall. It just goes bump, bump.
The race for waking, Yvonne, Emilie and Cecile run neck and neck, though Cecile, “the pretty one”, is also the sleepiest one, who loves to open her eyes wide, suddenly, and then slowly close them again, the while finding her thumb and clamping on to it for a good comfortable smoke, a process involving much sudden wide opening of the big dark eyes, and much slow, lazy closing of them.
Thus morning comes to the Dionne hospital at Callander.
I spent a day with them to write this story in honor of their first birthday, which is fast approaching. I saw them sleeping and playing; being fed and being bathed. I saw them doing their first crawling, which at the moment consists of rolling over. Not a very precise mode of progression, but, when you see your sister – at least, one of them – whanging a large melodious pink rattle up against the play-pen bars, and you want to take it from her, certainly a slick trick that Clancy or Red Horner ought to know about is to roll over three times, roll right on top of your sister’s legs, pin her down, and then, amidst astonished protests from the victim, slowly, unsurely but inevitably, take the rattle from her.
The quints are at this moment flowering out of their first helpless Infancy. They have smiled, that shy crooked smile of babyhood, for a long time now. But now they laugh. They crow. In the big white bathtub, with its four inches of water in it, I saw them, two at a time, swimming magnificently, their fat little creased legs and arms flailing: and with those bright dark eyes, all aglitter with smiles, they watched each other. Then the nurses turned them over, and feet to feet, heads at opposite ends of the tub, they put on a splashing match, eyes screwed up, gasping at the splashes, and laughing – clear, crowing laughter.
And when they were lifted out, they complained in both French and English. They are bi-lingual, the quints.
So much has been written, in minute detail, about the famous Dionnes that it hard for a mere amateur daddy to know where to start a birthday party story about them. The thing that most arrested me was their color. The color of their eyes. Madame de Kiriline says they are hazel. But Nurse Yvonne Leroux says they are brown, gray and blue. They are remarkable eyes, very large and melting, and their expression veiled. As a matter of fact, when little mischievous and table-tipping Anette, lying on her stomach, rolls her head around to look up at you when you tap on the sight-seeing window of their nursery, there is an expression of almost amused condescension in her gaze. But they are certainly neither light eyes nor dark, because when you put them in a red-flowered dress, the eyes are quite dark. Yet when you put them in a blue dress, you see blue and gray in their eyes. They will be lucky when they are eighteen. They can wear both brown and blue.
The Big Drinker
They are dark babies, with a suffused flush in their color. There is nothing pearly and fragile about them, as in a blonde baby. They are very real indeed.
Another exciting thing is that they are off the bottle. Often you will see big chunky babies skilfully swizzling a nursing bottle. But at ten months precisely, all bottles went up to the hospital attic. For every one of them drinks from the glass. Cecile, “the pretty one”, is the big drinker. She drinks till she busts. She drinks until she has to come up for air with a great gasp, but with her wide eyes, she holds, she commands, the cup to remain. And then deep she dives into it again.
The race as to weight and size, the number of ounces, the number of inches, goes on week by week, but leaves me cold. For me it was exciting only for being the reason the two thirteen-pounders, Marie, and Emilie, were safeguarded in one play pen, while the three fifteen-pounders, Yvonne, Annette and Cecile, scrambled gaily about the other play pen. They are matched according to weight. It is a wrestling match, in those pens.
The routine of the babies starts at five o’clock in the morning. Fifteen minutes to three-quarters of an hour after little Marie, the robin, the alarm clock, has chanticleered the morning with her songs (and perhaps disturbed one of the big policemen sleeping in the very room with her – he’ll get used to it in time!), the whole place is alive and abustle. At that witching hour, eight ounces of whole milk and one ounce of tomato juice go down the five little red lanes. That is just an eye-opener, a hair off the dog that bit them and keeps on biting them all day long. They are changed and left to greet the swiftly rising sun.
“Daylight saving?” I asked Dr. Dafoe.
“We’ll stick to standard time hereabouts,” said he.
At 7 a.m., the day is away. Two small glasses of orange juice apiece – equal to one whole orange. And a teaspoonful of cod liver oil. I suspect those two glasses mean – one before and one after!
All this is done while the clock rushes around to 8 a.m., at which time they all, Annette usually leading, are shouting in plain bi-lingual baby talk: “Let’s eat! How about a little chow!”
And with 8 a.m. comes chow, to wit, one coddled egg, one glass of milk, and a kind of sticky-wicky made of arrowroot biscuit softened, mud-pied with water.
“How much of that there?” I asked Madame Kiriline.
“As much as they want,” said she. “They usually consume a couple of bikkies each.”
“The Pretty One”
This is an end to eating until 1 o’clock. For now at 9 a.m. they are all dressed in their little dresses and coats and out they go in their prams, rain or shine, to mumble awhile and listen to the first robins and the first song sparrows that have come, proudly, to lay their quintuplet eggs in nests nearby the hospital. Listening and crowing, there are curious small calls exchanged for maybe twenty minutes, until the last of them has rolled her eyes for the last time. And if you tiptoe across that veranda and look in each pram, you will see only five little heads, five little snubby noses, five sets of round red cheeks and, strangely, beautifully stirring, five little down-flung sets of eyelashes, the soft silken bars of sleep.
This is the hour of quiet, and the great big blue-clad police step softly on the hardwood floors, and the nurses whisk about, and the housekeeper hums to herself; Laurence, the housekeeper who is to be married the sixth of May – the Dionne hospital’s first romance, because Laurence, Madame Clusieux, is to marry the electrician she met when he came from “the Bay” to wire the new hospital.
In this time of quiet, Madame de Kiriline and Nurse Leroux showed me the works. The clothes closet where hang the rows of coats, dresses, dressing gowns, ad infinitum; where on the shelves lie the fives of bootees, and the fives of stockings and fives of this and that. Most of the gifts are from the makers of things, but there are a great many private gifts from individuals, mostly women. The things I liked best are bright red corduroy overalls, with braces and all. And on each bib of the overalls is worked the name of the wearer. It will be a big help when, in another four months or so, by the end of summer, the quints are staggering to their feet and making their first steps around the resounding nursery. We who peep through the wide observation window into that spectacular nursery will be able to know which is which.
“Do most of the gifts come from the United States?” I asked.
“It is about fifty-fifty between Canada and the States,” Madame de Kiriline thought. “There are none from overseas.”
The most curious gift was a set of five tiny white leather cases each containing a miniature set of false teeth, about the size of your thumb nail, the whole thing. Somebody in California thought of this whimsy for a toothless babe. Another odd gift was a stork made of a great southern pine cone, with pipe-cleaner neck and legs. They sent this stork across the road to the Dionne house.
Knowing which is which is problem. The nurses say they know them apart, not quite unerringly, by their expressions. Cecile, “the pretty one”, though they all looked pretty to my eyes, is rather reserved and quiet. Yvonne has a great crooked smile. Annette is, as I said before, slightly amused and tolerant in her gaze. Marie is the little one, the singer. And Emilie is the one with the rather still, slightly sly and mischievous expression.
Who are the favorites?
Annette is Madame de Kiriline’s favorite. Yvonne is Nurse Yvonne Leroux’s. Nurse Pat Mullen favors Marie. Mrs. Clusieux, the housekeeper, goes for Emilie, and Father McNally, “chaplain of the hospital,” sees something in Cecile that cannot be denied. Maybe it is a certain piety in Cecile.
Hard to Pick a Favorite
I tried to pick a favorite. I first and impulsively chose Annette, because Annette, on seeing my bulbous brow above the window sill of the observation tower, burst into a mighty toothless grin and quite accidentally succeeded in making a certain gesture up at me that was both disconcerting and extraordinarily diverting. I tried to hold her in my memory, so that I could tell her apart. But within five minutes another perfectly charming Annette gave me that same grin.
“Ah, Annette,” I cried. “Hello, there!”
“That’s Yvonne,” said Miss Leroux.
An hour later, I was again quite certain that it was Yvonne who was my favorite because there she was clapping two tiny hands together and looking at the miracle with her eyes slightly crossed – you know the way. So I praised her as Yvonne.
“That,” said Madame de Kiriline, “is Cecile.”
So I gave up. They are all my favorites.
“I would like to have them all on my knee,” I exclaimed. “The whole seventy-five pounds of them!”
“Unless,” remarked one of the policemen, leaning interminably on the window sill with me, watching them, “unless they all got the same idea at the same time!”
At one o’clock, noon, Marie sings a song about eating. It sounded about eating to me. Maybe it was only that she was cawing back at a crow, or warbling at a meadow lark. But by one o’clock, all the little prams were waggling and jiggling and there was a certain hollowness, like out of a tiny empty barrel, to the music.
The 1 p.m. meal is vegetables galore. Sometimes it is a kind of soup or puree of vegetables, carrots, green beans, spinach, beets. Sometimes it is mashed or strained. They are getting their vegetables a little more solid lately. After the feed of vegetables, they get either a baked apple, or bananas, prunes, apricots or apple sauce. Then a glass of milk.
“Who is fed first?” I asked jealously, because at this time I had my eye on Yvonne.
“Whoever is shouting the loudest,” said Madame de Kiriline. “There is no regular order.
So while Cecile was stretching out her little chin and eagerly gulping the spoonfuls, the other four yelled murder. Annette even had tears. But one by one they were fed their big meal of the day, and one by one they were dumped into the play pens, and there they rolled and kicked and humped themselves up like weight-lifters on their heels and the crowns of their heads.
And so came the rest hour, which is until three o’clock, and consists of about as much rest as you’ll see about beehive on a July noon when the clover is blooming. For this was the period of wrestling and of banging rattles, of Cecile lying serenely on her tummy, all uninterested in Yvonne and Annette who staged rolling match to see who could get on top and have the big pink rattle.
“Do they pull each other’s hair?” I asked anxiously.
“Not intentionally,” said Miss Leroux.
“H’m,” said I. For only that moment, one of them had deliberately pulled the hair of my then reigning favorite, Cecile.
“That one,” I accused, “pulled Cecile’s hair.”
“That one,” said Miss Leroux, “IS Cecile, and the one whose hair was pulled was Yvonne.”
“H’m,” said I.
At 3 p.m. they get a glass of pineapple juice to cover up another teaspoonful of cod liver oil.
Then Comes the Bath Hour
Thus they kick and sing and roll and sometimes snooze drowsy-eyed until five, when comes the bath. The bath is magnificent. They go two at a time. One odd one coming last. No order is kept. Sometimes it is Marie’s turn to be left. But they give them all an even break at playing the splashing game. They know about the splashing game. It is no accident. They lie feet to feet and slam their little legs as hard as they can, heaving up and gasping every time the adversary slashes theme good one.
Finally comes the last meal of the day, 5 p.m. Cereal, fine wheat cereal. And a glass of milk. And a big sigh. And a nightie. And no more people peering through the window. And quiet comes creeping. And away they go all five, like a flight of doves, into the Never Never Land. The nurses change. The policemen hitch up their belts and go out into the dusk.
But one policeman must modestly unveil and take off his belts and harnesses, his pistol and ammunition pouch, and when all is still, creep into the room to sleep on a couch set strategically amidst these tiny room-mates of a policeman … At his hand, in this sweet white chamber where five wee princesses, wards of the King, lie softly sleeping, stands a loaded rifle.
“Do you snore?” I asked Constable McCord, as he prepared himself for his incongruous vigil.
“I don’t know,” he confessed in a hushed and shocked voice.
So ends the day in this house of miracle. Far and lonely amidst a rocky land where patches of little fields lie sparsely scattered, this pretty bungalow is the centre of the eye of the world. And the heart. About a year ago, all science on earth would have gambled a thousand to one against this incomparable consummation. A million to one. Premature, like little raw nestlings in wild bird’s nest, all flung into the world within three quarters of an hour. Down this new highway that was then a rocky back road of the north came a motor car swaying through the bird-filled dawn of May 28. Between 4.30 and 5 o’clock in the morning, when the mosquitoes were just taking wing, these five were born before the astonished eyes of a country doctor and a huddle of neighbors.
“Not a chance,” said science in Chicago and Bombay and Vienna
But here is a fresh road. And here are telegraph wires and a special telephone line. And here, in this remote country is a hospital staffed with nurses and every aid to science, standing as a new monument to the ever-widening beam of heavenly light that shines on the babyhood of the world.
They live. Lovely and alive and gay, Yvonne, Annette, Cecile, Emilie and Marie, they live.
And for the heart as well as the mind of the world, they are guarded and watched and tended, the King has made them his wards, the fences are of steel, policemen armed with high-power rifles and wearing bedroom slippers slumber in a nursery, and the medical science of the whole world is at their command.
So strangely sleeping, we leave them.
Editor’s Notes: I debating including this story, since to modern readers, the sugary-sweet tone is appalling to anyone who knows the history of the Dionne Quintuplets. Aspects of the story treated matter-of-factly, like the armed policeman who stays in their room while they sleep, and no mention of their parents like they don’t exist.
They were the first known quintuplets to survive birth, and became a news sensation during the Great Depression. They were taken away from their parents by the government “to prevent exploitation”, but were in turn, put in a human zoo, and exploited by the government charged with protecting them. Admission was charged to see “Quintland”. Quintland constituted Canada’s highest grossing tourist attraction between 1934 and 1943, earning $1 million in its first year and as much as $500 million for the province of Ontario in total. In those nine years, approximately three million tourists paid admission to catch a glimpse of the Dionne sisters.
How could this have happened? For more information on this tragic story, I would strongly recommend Pierre Berton’s The Dionne Years: A Thirties Melodrama. Another highly recommended source is the episode The Infantorium by the podcast 99% Invisible, which explains the history of premature babies, incubators, and their ties to side-show carnivals. This really provides some context around babies on display, and specifically speaks of the Dionne Quintuplets at the end.
Canada’s Soldiers, Forced in the Field to Believe That Nearly All Illness Was Simply a Matter of the Imagination, or at the Worst a No. 9 Pill, Now Have the Idea that They Can Get Along Without Doctors Altogether – What a Change Has Come Over the M.O.’S.
By Greg Clark, February 28, 1920
The war has put a serious crimp in the medical profession.
Not that doctors fell down – far from it. In the pure advancement of the science of medicine and surgery, the war may be said to have speeded the profession up to unparalleled pitch.
But the practice of the profession has certainly suffered in so far as It concerns half a million Canadian soldiers, their wives, dependents and next of kin.
Picture the Medical Officer at war. Ho was merely a doctor in uniform. Yet, oh, what a difference —
You felt sick and sore all over. Your stomach had a far-away, detached feeling. There were shooting pains in your joints and your head was dizzy.
So you went to the Medical Officer, with that old unerring Instinct that, in prettier days, made you telephone for the same gentleman in civies, to call on you in your bed —
Aye, with that mournfullest of bugle calls, the Reveille, blatting in your ears, you rose in the chilly morn, and stumbled, sick, sore and half-clad, down to the Medical Officer’s billet.
You found him sitting, with his cap over one ear, in his raincoat over his pyjamas He glared at you with an undisguised professional eye. A hard, flinty and skeptical eye that seemed to penetrate your tibia, tarsus and medulla oblongata.
“Well!” said he.
“Sir, I’m sick,” you replied. “I’m dizzy and have pains here and here, and a sort of –“.
“Sergeant,” said the Medical Officer, “one ounce of oil and a number nine for this man. And mark him light duty!”
Pfft! All over in a twinkling.
Oil! Number nine! Ugh! Light duty! Ye shades of Caesar and D’Artagnan and General Byng! Was ever a poor soldier so whelmed in ignominy, so bereft of heart! Oh, the swing and the swank and the swagger of the carefree soldier’s life!
Reader, dost know what light duty is? Peeling potatoes for the cook, skimming grease off dixies of mulligan, sweeping out billets, emptying swill.
Somehow, you swallowed the oil and the pill under the marble eye of the Medical Sergeant. Somehow you staggered back to your billet and reported to the orderly corporal for light duty. Somehow the daylight nightmare passed, and at eventide as you laid you in your chicken-wire bunk amid the fumes of charcoal braziers and drying socks, you made a vow never to “parade sick” again, but to die, like a martyr, in your tracks some day, in the heat of battle, the victim of a malignant disease, while bullets passed you harmlessly by.
Yet, never was a healthier army known. Never did men smash all the medical rules with such impunity. Sitting in slush, wallowing in mud, sleeping all the sunny day in deep and damp and foul-aired dugouts and sitting in all night in the damp, chilly, night air. Nine men out of ten should have died of pneumonia or galloping decline. But they didn’t. A marvellous medical corps shot you a pill or a spoon of oil or merely a stern glance, and lo, all ailments vanished.
The soldier came to the conclusion that practically all illness is largely a matter of Imagination or at worst a simple matter of pills.
But the soldier comes home. Back to the soft bed, the steam heated billet, the umbrellas, the rubbers and the regular hours.
One day, he feels sick. Pains in his joints, dizzy of head, and so on.
And an almost forgotten instinct twigs him. With a mysterious smile on his face, he calls on the doctor.
He is ushered into a quiet, solemn little room. Presently a grave, but friendly gentleman enters. He shakes hands and eyes the patient with kindly and solicitous eye.
“Sir,” says the ex-soldier, a faint memory prompting him, “I’m sick. I’m dizzy and have pains here and here; and a sort of –“
“Mmm!” says the doctor, sympathetically.
“Yes,” continues the ex-soldier, “and I can’t eat, and my stomach feels far-away, kind of.”
“Mmm!” repeats the doctor. “Have you been this way long?”
“No, just since this morning.”
“Have you been eating meat?”
“Mmm! Let me see your tongue.”
Then the doctor takes his pulse and temperature, sounds his chest and back – scares the poor ex-soldier into a fit.
Mmmmm!” says the doctor, “Mmmm! Er – would your business permit you to lay off for a week or so?”
“Yes,” murmurs the awed ex-soldier.
“Very well. Go home,” says the doctor, “and go to bed. I shall call and prescribe certain things.”
So the patient hastens home with wobbly knees and crawls into bed.
The doctor calls twice a day for a week, feels pulse, takes temperature, prescribes dark medicine and Pulls Him Through!
But somewhere in this procedure the ex-soldier comes alive. He startles his poor wife half to death by suddenly bursting into wild laughter as he lies on his sick-bed. He has remembered. The incongruity of the thing has hit him. Again he can hear reveille sadly waking the morn with its flat ta-too, ta-too! The chilly crawl to the M.O.’s billet, the brief, disappointing interview —
“Hurroo!” yells the ex-soldier and leaps out of bed and confounds the doctor, when he calls, with a glance.
As we know now, much of the influenza was due to laymen trying to doctor themselves with various pills and powders and to fear. The best preventive of flu is to wear the hat at a jaunty angle over the ear.
But the returned soldier strikes the happy medium. He remembers that during the war he was unable to dope himself with all manner of pills from the corner drug store and that he was not subjected to any flummery on the part of the Medical Officer. Thus he was healthy.
A Toronto officer visited the booklined studio of his former regimental Medical Officer. The usual jovial and profane greetings over, the officer launched into a harrowing description of his symptoms. The M.O. sounded him, pulled a long face.
“Better lay up for a few days –” he began.
“Mo, you old rascal,” yelled the officer, “do you remember that day on the Lievin front that I was sick and you wouldn’t send me out because the Colonel fancied he was short of officers? Do you remember, I really was ill? Well, to-day’s the anniversary of that day, you old scalawag, and I just thought I’d drop in and celebrate it. There isn’t a thing the matter with me!”
So the M.O. smothered his chagrin, shed his professional manner, and become once again the jovial, cynical, hard-headed and congenial old poker-player he always was.
Editor’s Note: Not taking illness seriously during World War One became a common joke for soldiers, as men were always needed. The “Number 9 Pill” was a laxative.