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.