The Work of Greg Clark and Jimmie Frise

Tag: 1938 Page 1 of 2

“You Look Bad”

“You look bad,” said George. “What’s the matter?” “We’re O.K.,” said Jim emphatically.

By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, March 12, 1938

“What’s the matter?” cried Jimmie Frise sharply.

“How, who?” I replied, startled.

“You,” said Jim. “You look as if you had been pulled through a knothole.”

“I feel all right,” I stated.

“You look bad,” said Jim. “You look terrible. My dear chap.”

He stood staring at me, his face full of anxiety and concern.

“Wh-hy,” I laughed nervously. “I feel all right. I feel the same as ever.”

“Were you reading late?” inquired Jim, earnestly, “Or anything?”

“I was in bed before 11,” I said stoutly, “and I slept like a log and woke, now you mention it, feeling like a million dollars. Why. my family was all kidding me, not an hour ago, about my singing while I was shaving.”

“Hmmm,” said Jim, scrutinizing me narrowly, as I took off and hung up my hat and overcoat.

I sat down at my desk, rubbing my hands together. I smiled around the familiar office, at its pictures, mottoes and framed cartoons. I felt fine. I felt perfect. Not a pain or an ache.

“Maybe,” I suggested, “I just need a haircut.”

But I felt Jimmie watching me covertly. In fact, each time I looked up from opening my mail, I caught Jimmie just glancing away from me, with a secret look about him.

“Look here,” I said, “what’s the idea? What’s the big idea of peeping at me like that?”

Jim sat back in his chair and looked long and earnestly at me.

“How long is it,” he asked tenderly, “since you saw a doctor?”

“Say,” I cried, “what the dickens is the matter?”

“I’m asking you,” said Jim. “How long is it since you saw a doctor?”

“I had a life insurance examination,” I informed him, “less than two years back.”

“A lot of things,” said Jim, hollowly. “can develop in two years. In two weeks, even.”

And after a long, lingering stare, he returned to his work.

I finished opening the mail and noticed, incidentally, that my hands looked a little different from the last time I had looked at them. They seemed knucklier. The skin on them seemed drier and more crinkled than I had noticed ever before. I held up the left one. I was astonished to see that it was shaking slightly. Very slightly. When I tried to hold it perfectly steady, it trembled most decidedly. A very slight, but certainly a decided, tremble. I felt Jimmie watching me slyly, and looked up in time to catch him at it. He glanced away with an expression of shame.

“Hrrrmmph,” I said.

“When Did You See a Doctor?”

I leaned back in my chair and looked out the window. I then slowly went all over myself, with my mind, as it were, feeling all my joints, parts and insides. Slipping my thumb casually in the armhole of my vest, I felt my heart, first of all.

“Ga-bump, ga-bump, tiddle, ga-bump,” went my heart.

I had never noticed that “tiddle” before. In fact, that “ga” in front of the “bump” was not altogether familiar.

I listened, as it were, to my lungs, liver, kidneys and stomach. Quite suddenly, and without warning, I noted my eyes seemed queerly dull. The gray March light outside seemed grayer than March used to be. I tasted a little different taste in my mouth than I had ever observed before. And finally. I seemed to feel a slight limpness or numbness in my wrists, elbows, shoulders, knees and ankles.

As I turned from this contemplation of myself, this stock-taking, I caught Jim just turning his head from having been watching me intently.

“Jim,” I said, rising, “what is it you notice about me? Do I look pale?”

Jim got up and came to meet me.

“Look,” he said, “you just look kind of queer, that’s all. Not pale, but sort of drawn and peaked. There is a funny look to your eyes. You seem to have shrunk, somehow.”

“Jim,” I said, “what do you suppose it is?”

“How would I know?” demanded Jim. “But as your old friend. I think I have the right to tell you you look bad, when you do.”

I looked intently at Jim, to read his thoughts, to know the truth. And then I noticed Jim had a funny look about him. His eyes, which, the last time I had bothered to observe, were bright with light and twinkle, now seemed, as it were, faded. His skin seemed polished across the cheek bones. There were pouches under his eyes and the bridge of his nose looked bony.

“Jim,” I suggested sympathetically, “you don’t look so good yourself.”

“Eh?” said Jim.

“You don’t look very well yourself,” I said gently. “How have you been feeling lately?”

“Never better,” said Jim heartily. “I feel in the pink, that’s what made me conscious of you, I guess.”

“Jim,” I corrected, “you may feel in the pink, but you don’t look it. Now that my attention is drawn to it, your eyes have a dull sort of look, there are heavy pouches under your eyes, and look the way you are standing!”

Jim straightened sharply.

“Ah,” I pointed out, “you have been walking around awfully stoop-shouldered this last while. We get so used to seeing each other, we don’t notice these things until something forces our attention to it. Jim, you’re a kind of yellow color, do you know that? How is your liver? When did you see a doctor last?”

Jim walked over and looked out the window. He pulled up his belt and straightened his shoulders. He coughed and shrugged and I could see he, too, in his turn, was giving himself a mental going over, outside and in.

“Why,” he said, “I had a doctor look me over just last spring, when I had that tooth trouble. Or was that two springs ago?”

“Hmmmm,” said I. “a lot can happen…”

Sudden Anxiety

Jim turned from the window anxiously.

“How do you mean I look kind of yellow?” he asked, earnestly.

“Bilious, or jaundicey,” I said, turning him to the light so I could give him a good honest report. “Why, Jim, isn’t it funny how we change so suddenly? The last time I remember looking at you, and I see you every day of my life, practically, you were a lithe, springy, ruddy fellow, life in your eyes and skin and every movement.”

“And what’s the matter with me now?” questioned Jim crisply.

“Well,” I said sympathetically, “to put it very simply, Jim, you seem to have suddenly aged, your skin is sort of parchment like, your eyes have a dull look. I don’t know, you just seem to be aged, somehow.”

Jim stiffened and walked back to his desk. He sat down and picked up his drawing pen and started to scratch with it. He glanced up and caught me watching him.

“Let’s forget it,” he suggested, “Let’s just forget it.”

“Very well,” I agreed. “There is nothing we can do right now, but I’m going to see the doctor to-night.”

“The same here,” said Jim, humping down over his drawing board. And I addressed myself to the typewriter with intensity.

So through the morning Jim scratched, with little to say, and I banged and thundered on the machine, though I noticed long pauses in Jim’s scratching, and the pauses of my own machine grew ponderous and frightening, as I slowed between thoughts. I hated to feel a pause. I wrote many pages that I tore up because there was really nothing on them, only words that I wrote to fill the office with a busy sound.

We were both very happy when it came 12 o’clock and lunch. We put on our coats with an obvious sense of relief. We smiled and joked extra loudly in the corridors, as we met our colleagues of many departments going to lunch. We cracked the usual ones with the elevator man. It was a snappy day, and Jim and I, instead of dawdling along, stepped out with conscious vigor, and wove in and out through the lazy noon hour crowd. We arrived at the lunch counter we favor on those days we feel like walking three blocks and got stools side by side.

George, the boss of the lunch counter, who stepped up to ask us our order and dish us a glass of water, froze when he saw us.

“Hello,” he said, “what’s the trouble?”

“Eh?” said Jim and I heartily.

“You look bad; what’s the matter?” said George, solicitous and low leaning over the counter.

“We’re o.k.,” said Jim, emphatically. “I’ll take a hot beef sandwich with peas and coffee.”

“Have you had any bad news or anything?” queried George.

“Make mine,” I stated firmly. “hot pork with plenty of gravy, french fried and peas on the side. Brown bread.”

Friends are Solicitous

George looked at me closely.

“I wouldn’t recommend pork,” he said, surreptitiously. “Pork’s heavy.”

Saying which, he slid Jim’s plate on the counter, the big sandwich drowned in rich gravy. the peas vivid green, scoop of soft pallid mashed potatoes balanced on the edge.

George waited on somebody else while I thought what I wanted other than pork. Jim stared intently at the beef sandwich and picked up his knife and fork slowly and deliberately.

“I think,” said Jim, “I think I’ll change my mind. Make mine a… ah… a chopped egg sandwich and a glass of cold milk, eh, George?”

“Good,” said George.

“Mine the same,” I stated.

“Good,” said George, very kindly. “You’ll feel better than eating a big meal, the way you feel now.”

He slid away, but we could feel, as we nibbled the sandwiches, that George’s friendly eye was on us, sideways. I stole a glance at Jim. He was gaunt and hunched, and he was eating his sandwich as if it contained poison. I felt Jim looking at me, and I tried to take a big bite of my sandwich but I choked slightly.

“Here,” muttered Jim, flinging down the half of his sandwich. “Let’s get out and go for a walk. What we need is fresh air.”

As we paid our checks, we encountered three of the boys from the composing room.

“Well, well, well,” said they, standing us back to look at us, “what kind of flowers do you guys like? Will we make it a wreath or just a spray? Those sprays of spring flowers are …”

But Jim and I pushed out the door and got into the throng.

The lazy throng. The noon throng with gaze turned inward, digesting their food or perhaps pondering problems left unfinished at their offices. How comfortable and at ease they all looked, especially the girls, the business girls, with that superb look of indifference which distinguishes them from non-business girls.

Listlessly we drifted with them, they thrusting and pushing by with vigor and energy.

“Ah,” sighed Jimmie, as a particularly fat, healthy girl bounced past as if she was made of rubber all over, “little do they guess.”

“I never saw people so disgustingly healthy,” I stated. “They seem to flaunt it.”

“Yet any day,” said Jim, “any one of all these may glance in the mirror in the morning, and see the signs.”

“They look lovely now,” I submitted.

“One of the evils of being well,” said Jim, is that you never think of your health. It’s only when you lose it you think of it. We ought to have big posters all over the streets, saying in great big type, ‘Do you feel well? All right, then gloat.’ Or something of that kind.”

“I think,” I said, thinly. “I’ll lay off for the afternoon I’ll just go home and lie down for two or three hours.”

“I’ve got a good notion,” said Jim, “to slip up and see the doctor. His hours are from one to two.”

“That’s a better idea,” I admitted. “We’ll both go, and that will save time and money. We’ve both got the same trouble anyway.”

So we got Jim’s car and drove out home to see Jim’s doctor. We drove slowly. In fact, we drove too slowly.

“Just put a little steam into it, Jim,” I suggested. This slow pace sort of, sort of …”

So Jim put on the gas; even so, we did not travel along the Lake Shore at quite our usual pace. The doctor was in but there were three people ahead of us, an old lady whose head trembled all the time and who had a look of despair; a man with a bandage over his face, concealing something mysterious; and a young woman as pale as a ghost who never raised her eyes from the ragged old magazine she was only pretending to read. One by one, these three were called ahead of us, and we could hear far off, dim sad sounds in the utter silence of the waiting room.

When our turn came, we were so limp we could hardly get to our feet.

“Well, for heaven’s sakes,” said the doctor, with that relief doctors always feel when they come to their last patient, “and what are you two old hickories doing here?”

“How do we look, doc?” demanded Jim, posing.

“You look all right to me,” said the doctor. “What is it? Life insurance? Or are you trying to get me on some committee. Sit down and rest your feet.”

“Honest, doc,” said Jim, “how do we look?”

Feeling Terrible

The doctor sat back and looked with that secret professional eye at both of us sitting very stiff and pretty.

“Well,” he said, “off hand, I should say you look like a couple of steers all combed up for the Royal Winter Fair. Why, what’s up? Am I supposed to see a rash on you or something?”

So we told him. We said we were feeling fine, but we both had noticed how the other had failed lately, and then, when we went to lunch, everybody looked at us and said we looked bad.

“And did you feel bad?” asked the doctor.

“Not until Jim noticed how badly I looked,” I admitted.

“You do feel bad?” asked the doctor.

“Doctor,” I declared, “I feel terrible. To tell the truth. I feel kind of gone. My eyes feel dull and I can’t eat. I choke on my food, my mouth has a funny taste, and in all my joints, I’ve got a weak feeling, see?”

“How about inside?” asked the doctor.

“I have no pain,” I confessed, “but I have a sort of woozy feeling, as if something was wrong, something seriously wrong, perhaps.”

“Exactly the same here,” said Jim. “only I didn’t like to say so. I feel as if any minute I would get a sharp shooting pain in my insides.”

“Well,” said the doctor, very earnestly, “I’ll tell you what it is. It’s the spring.”

“The spring?” said we.

“The spring,” said the doctor. This time of year is like 4 o’clock in the morning. If you wake up at 4 in the morning, your faculties, your glands and humors are all at their darkest ebb. You feel only half alive. It is the same now, in March and part of April, until the first iris reaches up until the first buds get sticky, until the first robin nests in your tree.”

I looked at Jimmie. He was transformed. Before my very eyes, he seemed suddenly flooded with life and health.

“Maybe,” said the doctor, “you need a little sulphur and molasses, but probably you don’t. Probably all you need is to keep from thinking about how you feel. Don’t think at all. Don’t feel. Just wait for these weeks to pass…”

“Why, look at him,” cried Jim, pointing at me. “Look at the little beggar, fairly busting with health. What’s he been trying to put over, drooping around the office this morning as if he were in a galloping decline!”

I stood up. Jim stood up. The doctor stood up.

“Listen,” said the doctor, “never tell anybody they look bad, especially at this time of year.”

“That’s an idea,” admitted Jim.

“And here’s a trick,” laughed the doctor. “If anybody ever says you look bad, tell them right back that they look terrible.”

“Ha, ha, ha,” laughed Jimmie and I heartily, shaking the doctor’s hand muscularly and leaping into the car and driving back along the Lake Shore hell for leather.


Editor’s Notes: Sulphur and molasses made up a home remedy, also known as a “spring tonic” because of the laxative influence of sulfur.

Hell for leather” means “At full speed”.

Surrealism

The elderly gentleman and his daughter took a look at “Split Infinitive”. “He’s got it at last,” said he.

By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, October 22, 1938

“I think,” said Jimmie Frise disgustedly, “I’ll turn surrealist.”

“What are you now?” I inquired sweetly.

“I get so tired,” said Jim, “drawing this mug of yours every week. Sometimes I feel I can’t go on.”

“If you turned surrealist,” I asked, “how would you draw me?”

“Oh, boy,” mused Jim happily, “what wouldn’t I draw. Punkin on a boat. Ripe tomato singing. Pot full of spinach.”

“You could also,” I pointed out bitterly, “do some nice work on yourself in this cartoon. For instance, string bean partly sliced. The theorem of a pair of old scissors. Or nocturne in three pool cues.”

“You’ve got some nice surrealistic titles there,” stated Jim.

“Jim,” I asked, “what in the dickens is this surrealism? And by the way, is that the way you pronounce it?”

“Sur, meaning beyond,” explained Jim, “and realism. Beyond or above reality. That is what surrealism means.”

“It sure is beyond,” I confessed. “The pictures I saw at the Exhibition looked decidedly unreal. I mean, there were faint suggestions of hands, toe nails and things like that in them. But the rest of the picture was just a lot of formless shapes. Why do they put in suggestions of real things? Why not just paint a lot of different colored blobs?”

“Because,” explained Jim, “in all surrealism there is a faint suggestion of reality. Reality left behind. Reality only an echo, or perfume, a lingering, fragile, all-but-gone memory.”

“Come clean,” I coaxed. “Isn’t surrealism just nutty? Aren’t the people who paint these pictures just slightly touched? As well as those who see anything in them?”

“No,” said Jim, soberly. “I read in the catalogue of the Exhibition that surrealism was born of the disillusionment and despair that followed the war.”

“Ah, another war legacy,” I muttered.

“The way everything went cock-eyed after the war,” continued Jim, “affected even art. So the surrealists demand of art that it take into account not only the realities of what we see with the waking eye, but the fantastic and irrational things we meet in our dreams, in our subconscious selves, in those moments, of which there are many, when our minds and imaginations wander loose, detached from the actual world around us, dreaming and thinking idle, grotesque, often mischievous things.”

“We all have those moments,” I confessed. “To myself, I call that going slumming inside myself, and I try hard not to do it. I’ve got myself trained now to always take myself along as professional guide and bodyguard.”

“In order to cope with the eternal mystery of life,” said Jim, “we must know all about life. Art and literature have devoted themselves for countless ages only to the presentation of the better, the higher, the cleaner side of life. Hence we have no knowledge of life as it truly is. Not in other people, mind you; but in ourselves. To arrive at a true and just understanding of life, that eternal mystery, we must face life as it really is, and write about it and paint it and express it. Only when we have all of life before us, can we know about it. In the past, art and literature have merely put on a show, an unreal, pretty and entertaining show; yet on the basis of that show humanity has tried to arrive at a workable understanding of human nature. It can’t.”

“I never read these dirty modern books,” I declared firmly.

The Split Infinitive

“Then that is probably why you can’t ever,” replied Jim, “have any understanding of human nature. You admit that you occasionally, when you are not looking, slip away on a little slumming trip deep within your own nature.”

“Yes,” I retorted, “but I have learned how to take myself along as a guide. I don’t go as often as I used to.”

“You’re forty-five now,” smiled Jimmie.

“To heck with surrealism,” I declared.

“It is the coming thing,” replied Jim.

“It will die,” I claimed, “of malnutrition. Nobody will buy the silly pictures.”

“Thousands of people are buying them,” countered Jim. “Those pictures you saw in the Exhibition are the classics of the surrealistic school and are valued at huge prices by the museums that own them.”

“It’ll die,” I predicted. “A brief and passing fancy.”

“Why,” protested Jim, “I know an artist who is painting surrealist pictures and making money for the first time in his career. For 20 years, he has been painting landscapes and still life and he never sold $200 worth in a year. Yet in the past six months he has made over $1,000 painting surrealist subjects.”

“Let him make it as fast as he can,” I laughed, “for he’ll be back at the still life in another six months.”

“Don’t you ever believe it,” cried Jimmie. “This man has arrived. Inside of a year, the name of Philip Phowler will be known to the world.”

“Phooey,” I argued.

“Listen,” said Jim, “right now he is working on a commission. One of Toronto’s wealthiest old art collectors has commissioned Phowler to paint him a picture called ‘Split Infinitive’.”

“Split Infinitive,” I gasped. “What a beautiful subject for an artist to paint.”

“He’s getting $250 for it,” added Jim.

“Split Infinitive,” I scoffed. “What the dickens kind of a picture could anybody make out of that?”

“It is a tremendously interesting subject to paint,” declared Jimmie. “Absolutely fascinating to the artist and completely fascinating to the person who looks at it with understanding.”

“Split Infinitive,” I muttered.

“Don’t you see the possibilities,” cried Jimmie, “in surrealist technique? What is a split infinitive? It is an error in grammar. It gives away the character of those who use split infinitives, such as ‘to really go,’ instead of ‘really to go.’ It shows them up as incompletely educated persons. It shows them up as slipshod persons who lack the niceties of expression.”

“Sissy,” I submitted.

“Sissy, if you like,” said Jim. “But amongst a very large group of people, a split infinitive is as revealing as seeing a man eating peas with his knife.”

“Did you ever try eating peas with your knife?” I demanded. “It’s the hardest thing in the world to make peas stay on your knife.”

“In this painting of the ‘Split Infinitive’,” went on Jim, “the artist has to catch a suggestion of all the things associated with splitting infinitives. The senses of the superiority of those who know about the split infinitive. A sense of the type of people who do split them. A sense of shock and a sense of ignorance. Some feeling of the great mass of mankind, healthy, hearty and ignorant, who not only don’t know about split infinitives, but who simply couldn’t care about it, physiologically.”

“Some painting,” I agreed.

“The artist, in order to paint this picture,” went on Jim, “has to retreat within his own soul and ponder all the aspects of the split infinitive. The purely technical aspect, the split. The social aspects, that is, the division of human beings into classes, some who care and some who don’t. The aspect of wealth, made or inherited, so that those who inherit wealth and go to expensive schools, are in one class, and those who made wealth belong to another class and who only know about split infinitives by the expressions on the faces of their children. For instance, thousands of people who shudder at split infinitives are the children of people who made their fortunes in a foundry, and who only understand about splitting profits.”

“And how the heck,” I demanded, “could such a painting ever interest the beholder?”

“It all depends,” said Jimmie, “on the intelligence of the painter and the intelligence of the beholder. But that is true also of even the simplest painting. If a painter is not clever and the picture he paints is looked at by a stupid person, it amounts to no more than a surrealist picture.”

An Incredible Canvas

“I’d love to see this picture, ‘Split Infinitive’,” I admitted.

“Sure you can,” cried Jim. “We’ll slip over at noon. It’s not quite finished yet, but that will be all the more interesting. To see Phowler at work on it. He will explain each part.”

“That’s the trouble,” I claimed. “I don’t like pictures that have to be explained. I like a picture that steps right out at you.”

“You would soon get tired,” said Jim, “of mere decoration eternally.”

“In life at its best,” I countered, “the mind should be used as little as possible. And you know it.”

So we went across King St. at noon and upstairs in one of those ancient blocks of business properties dating to about 1860. And on the third floor we found Phowler’s studio, with a queer sign done on it with pieces of lath, blotting paper, a chicken feather and a little cheap paint brush.

“That design,” explained Jim, “spells Phowler, in surrealist terms.”

We rapped. There was no answer, though we could see cigarette smoke coming out the transom.

“Maybe surrealists,” I suggested, “are too far beyond reality to answer knocks.”

So we opened the door and walked in. Phowler was not to be seen. On a little table, made out of broom handles and ornamented with a fringe of curled pipe cleaners, a cigarette burned showing that Phowler was likely not far away.

The studio was an extraordinary mess. The windows were filthy. A big drape of raw burlap covered one wall. There were old boxes and junk of every description, old vinegar jars, a dilapidated baby carriage and an iron hitching post with a horse’s head design standing about; and the place was a complete litter of paper, dirty paint cloths, bits of canvas and pictures hung crooked, upside down and leaning against everything that was solid enough to stand.

“And it smells,” I commented, sotto voce.

On a large easel stood “Split Infinitive.”

It was an incredible canvas. There was a mottled magenta background or sky, across which flew curious geometric objects like pieces of a broken dish.

In the foreground, which was evenly divided between olive drab and peacock blue, were drawn a human hand, with two thumbs, fingers all extended; a lumberjack’s double bitted axe, blue and pink; a human nose, its nostrils curled up in terrible disdain; a can of worms, only the worms were drawn as tiny, elongated human beings, nude, all crawling and writhing, as if in agony.

“I suppose,” I supposed, after I got my voice, “that the box of worms is both the kind of people who split infinitives and the feelings of the better-class people who shudder at such vulgarity.”

“Do your own thinking and feeling,” said Jim. “It doesn’t help surrealism to talk out loud.”

So all to myself I supposed that the magenta sky with the pieces of china flying across it pictured the mental agony of people with finer sensibilities, when they read or hear a split infinitive. The horrible contrast of olive drab and peacock blue indicated the muddy nature of the masses and the blue blood of the classes.

“I don’t like this picture,” I stated emphatically, at the same time stepping backward.

Unknown to me, underneath all the rubbish with which the floor was covered, there was an electric light extension cord. My heel caught it. The cord was also passed under the legs of the easel. As I tripped, the easel received a violent jerk and with staggering suddenness, the easel threw itself sideways and the picture leaped into the air.

“Look out,” shouted Jim.

I made a tremendous leap to catch the picture, a sort of rugby tackle, but my snatch at the edge was miscalculated, owing to further entanglements in the electric light cord. Jim, in his effort to grab the picture, collided with me. I got a ghastly, sticky grip on some part of the picture and as I whirled to avoid it, the picture landed on the floor, butter side up, and I fell on top of it, gliding stickily and greasily across the upper half.

“Oh, good heavens,” moaned Jimmie.

Sense of the Imponderable

We picked up “Split Infinitive.” It was a most sickening sight. Where the seat of my pants had wiped across the upper half was just a smear of old paint and new paint, biliously stippled red and yellow. The broken objects were just dim outlines. Where my hands had clutched at the lower corner, another wavy smear existed, all but obliterating the human nose and part of the worm can.

“Oh, oh, oh,” groaned Jimmie, terrified.

“Pssst,” I hissed.

Footsteps were coming up the hollow echoing staircase of the old building.

Frozen with horror, we stood, staring at the ravished painting.

In the door stepped an elderly little gentleman with a beard, adjusting to his eyes a pair of heavy gold-rimmed glasses on a wide, black ribbon. Behind him came a young lady who turned out to be his daughter, for whom he was purchasing the painting. She was one of those intellectual and dowdy young ladies with her mouth open most of the time.

Without a word, they walked past us and took one look at “Split Infinitive.”

Then pandemonium broke loose. The old gentleman turned and grabbed his daughter ecstatically. They began doing a dance.

“He’s got it, he’s got it,” shrieked the old gentleman, almost insane with joy. “He’s got it at last.”

And they stopped only long enough to take another wild glance at the mutilated masterpiece before going into another barn dance.

“Oh,” cried the old gentleman breathlessly to us, his eyes glistening with joy. “I was so afraid he wasn’t going to get it. That sense of the vague, the imponderable, the unspeakable. I begged him the day before yesterday. I explained and argued. Yesterday, I threatened. I told him, unless you catch that sense of the obtuse, the incongruous, the capricious, I would cancel the commission.”

“But now, father!” cried the young lady. more bedraggled looking than ever.

“But now,” shouted the little gentleman “I shall double the price. Five hundred dollars.”

And lost in speechless admiration, the two clutched each other and stood, rapt, breathing heavily.

And in came Philip Phowler.

He crept in the door, all dirty smock and tousled hair.

When the other two saw him, they ran at him and embraced him. They shouted such words as grandiose, illusion, vibrancy.

I kept turning my back and getting nearer and nearer the wall for fear they should see the seat of my pants.

They drew Phowler around to where he could see the ruined painting.

He never even started. He never even gasped. He never so much as changed his facial expression.

And Jimmie and I excused ourselves, saying we would come back at a more auspicious time.

And I backed out.

“He’s got it, he’s got it,” shrieked the old gentleman, almost insane with joy.

Editor’s Notes: This story was reprinted on December 23, 1944 under the title “Finishing Touch”, with very few modifications. The drawing at the end was the one included in the 1944 version.

Eating peas with your knife was a common reference to someone who had no manners at the time. Details on why this is can be found here.

Here’s Boo Boo Again!

September 10, 1938

This is another illustration by Jim for a story by Merrill Denison after he moved to New York to work on Broadway, that features his dog Boo Boo.

The Complete Anglers

“His plug hit my hat, lifted it from my head and flung it 12 feet away.”

By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, August 6, 1938

Anyway, it was Greg’s own fault. He should have helped Jimmy catch frogs

“Will you help me,” inquired Jimmie Frise, “catch frogs?”

“I will not,” I informed him emphatically.

“You’re a lot closer to the ground than I am,” complained Jim. “I don’t see why you wouldn’t help a friend catch a frog or two.”

“I object to it,” I stated, “on all grounds. I can’t think of even one reason why I should help you catch those poor little devils that after all look more like human beings than even monkeys do.”

“We could go fishing sooner,” proposed Jim. “That’s one good reason for helping me catch them. It takes me an hour to catch 10 frogs.”

“Why don’t you give up bait fishing,” I asked, “and take up casting artificial lures, like plugs or spoons? It’s far more effective and 10 times the fun.”

“I do cast,” protested Jimmie indignantly.

“Yah,” I said, “Side-swiping. You don’t call that casting.”

“I get the line out,” declared Jim.

“You side-swipe,” I informed him. “You side-swipe. You grab the rod and take a swing any old way and hope for the best. You endanger the lives of everybody around you, in boat or on wharf. And no man living, much less you, can tell where the bait is going.”

“I’ve caught plenty of fish casting,” stated Jim.

“If you,” I said, “can catch plenty of fish side-swiping and flummoxing the plug around, how many more fish could you catch if you would only make an honest effort to learn how to cast properly, over your head?”

“I like fishing with a frog,” pleaded Jimmie. “It’s the old-fashioned way. Bass love frogs. I hate to fool a bass with a hunk of painted wood.”

“You hypocrite,” I hissed.

“Well, anyway,” said Jim, “I give him an even break. I toss him a frog. If he gets the frog off the hook, he at least has got something for his trouble. But what do you cast him? Just a hunk of painted wood or a little blade of brass or copper. And if he does succeed in taking that off you, what good is it to him?”

“You quibbler,” I grated.

“Fishing,” said Jim, “is like religion. If you don’t do it the way I do, you’re wrong. Why not let me fish my way and you fish your way and we’ll all have fun?”

“Fine,” I agreed. “But don’t expect me to go creeping and pouncing through the long grass, chasing poor little green frogs for you.”

“I only suggested that you help me, to save time,” said Jim. “And anyway, you’re good at catching frogs. Back in the old days, before you went high brow and started bait casting, you used to be able to catch more frogs than all the rest of us put together.”

“I have too many frogs on my conscience now,” I muttered. “I don’t want to add to the burden on my soul. Thousands of frogs. Baby frogs. I feel like King Herod.”

The Right Way Is So Easy

“Aw, a frog has no feelings,” said Jim. “Hardly any. Nature made frogs to feed herons, fish, snakes and people like that. If they were made for food, it stands to reason nature didn’t equip them with much feelings. The more rarely a creature is eaten, the higher are its sensibilities. That’s true, isn’t it?”

“It is true,” I admitted. “But I am not thinking so much of feelings as of life itself. Life is just as dear to that little frog as it is to us. We may have a little deeper feeling for life, but a frog is just as full of that feeling as we are, in proportion. I hate to take a frog’s life.”

“How about taking a fish’s life?” cried Jim.

“That’s different,” I guarded. “To take frog’s life in order to take a fish’s life, that seems to me doubly damned.”

“You have taken thousands of lives from fish,” said Jim. “Do you feel no compunction about that? Doesn’t it ever twinge your conscience?”

“Not in the least,” I defended. “In taking a fish’s life, I am relieving it from a very miserable, wet and slimy existence. Think of the life a fish must lead, forever down in that cold, dark chasm of the water. Beset by enemies of every kind, including his own kind. A fish lives in terror every hour of its life, from the minute it is hatched from the egg, a tiny helpless wriggler, until it ends at last the victim of my lure, deceitful, clever and skilled.”

“I imagine fish get used to living in the water,” said Jim. “Anybody can get used to his environment in time.”

“No, sir,” I said. “A frog, especially a bright green frog with gold markings on him lives a happy life in the shining grass alongside a lovely sandy beach. Amid sunlight and pretty flies iridescent in the sun, he dwells, and whenever he feels like it, he hops down and goes for a swim in the cool, lilied water. But a fish lives in shadow and gloom, in weeds and slime and cold. Beset with terrors, he slinks his way to maturity, and when he reaches maturity, what has he got? Does he escape from his lowly element? Like aquatic insects, does he emerge from the water, a slimy thing, and shed his skin, to become a light and airy dancer in the evening sunlight for a day? No. He grows old and scaly and scabby and mouldy and dies. Unless. …”

“Ah, unless,” said Jim.

“Unless I,” I said, “or some other humane soul comes along and rescues him from his unhappy lot.”

“With a painted plug,” said Jim.

“Or a good copper casting spoon,” I suggested, since I had decided to use a spoon fishing today.

“O.K.,” said Jim. “I’ll cast.”

“Not side-swiping?” I protested.

“You cast your way, I’ll cast my way,” said Jim.

“My dear boy,” I said, “it is so easy to learn to cast a plug overhead. The correct way. It is like throwing an apple off a pointed stick.”

“I never could get on to it,” said Jim.

“Look,” I said. “Rest your thumb firmly on the spooled line, see? That holds the plug dangling six inches from the tip of the rod. Point the rod in the direction you wish to cast. Then, with a short, smart upward movement, not forceful but swinging, cut an arc over your right shoulder, straight back to a little past the vertical.”

“I see it, so far,” agreed Jim. “Now what?”

“Not now what,” I protested vehemently. “It isn’t two motions. It is one continuous motion, back and forward.”

“That’s where I go wrong,” agreed Jim.

One Continuous Motion

“It is where nearly everybody goes wrong who can’t cast,” I informed him. “They make two distinct motions of the cast. They lay the rod back over their shoulder. They stop. Then they make a chuck forward. That isn’t it at all. It is one continuous motion, that throwing of the rod back and flinging it forward.”

“Let me see?” said Jim, taking my rod, with the spoon already on it for casting.

“You sort of bounce the plug forward,” I explained. “You use the spring of the rod. It is all very gentle and simple. No force. No chucking. You just swing the rod in an arc, over your shoulder, and instantly forward again, gently relaxing, but NOT releasing, the pressure of your thumb on the spooled line.”

“Ah, you don’t let go of the line?” cried Jim.

“Never,” I assured him. “That is what causes backlashes, or snarls. You just relax the pressure of your thumb enough to let the plug fly high and smooth through the air. You watch it sail out, feeling, gently, with your thumb the dwindling spool of line under it.”

“I think I’ve got it,” said Jim.

And standing forth and taking a deep breath, he swung the rod a few times back and forward and then, with a sudden effort, slashed forward with the rod. The spoon jerked wildly through the air for eight feet and then spanked ignominiously to earth. The reel was just a bird’s nest, just a great tumbled tangle of line.

“I must have let go my thumb,” muttered Jim.

“You didn’t,” I informed him. “You put enough energy into that forward cast to throw a cat over a barn. I tell you, make one continuous motion of the back and forward throw of the rod, and the plug bounces, without effort, really, straight and smooth through the air.”

“I’ll try again,” said Jim, picking at the backlash. He got it cleared up and rewound evenly on the spool. He tried a few more practice swings and then, the same as before, hurled all his muscles, from the balls of his feet to the back of his neck, into a violent forward shoot.

The spoon streaked forward in a blur of speed, curved back like a yo-yo ball, then dangled to a stop around the rod.

“Tch, tch,” I said. “You’ve done the same thing all over again!”

“Here,” rasped Jim. “Take your rod. I’ll do it my way. I can get it out as slick as syrup from a bottle my way. Your way is just fancy. Just a fishing refinement.”

“It is not a refinement,” I stated. “It is the only way to cast not only for the safety of others, but for accuracy. You don’t know where your lure is going if you chuck it sideways.”

“Fish are likely to be any place,” argued Jim. “Just as likely in the place my plug lands as in the place I try to land it.”

“We will go in separate boats,” I ordained.

“Let’s go together,” pleaded Jim. “so that I can watch you and perhaps profit by observation.”

“In that case,” I agreed. So we went together in the same punt, and proceeded with the pleasurable sport of bait casting. It is a comparatively new sport. It has the fascination of golf, in that there is the test of where you want them. But happily, unlike golf, you do not have to walk hopelessly after your shots, you merely reel them back into you, sitting. The art of bait casting from a multiplying reel and short rod was developed in Kentucky by the bass fishermen of the 90’s. At first, they cast their metal spoons, live minnows, frogs and other baits, weighting them to about three-quarters of an ounce, to make a nice weight to fling. About 1900, the wooden minnow or “plug” began to appear and today, there are hundreds of patterns, brilliantly painted creations, with three sets of treble gang hooks. They wobble in the water as they are being reeled in, and whether a fish takes them for food or merely out of curiosity, like the angler who bought them in the store, nobody knows, because I get most of my fish on the plugs that look the least like anything. The less it looks like something, the better it is.

I gave Jim the whole of the boat except the stern. I took the stern seat and huddled down in it, so that Jim, with his sideswiping, could have the whole world to himself.

“Now watch,” he said, rising to stand unsteadily in the punt.

And with a vicious looping side cut, he lashed his rod horizontally through the air, the plug flying savagely over the water to land, much to Jim’s astonishment, 30 feet to the left of where he intended it to go.

“Good,” he said. “That’s a better spot than the one I intended.”

And slowly he reeled the plug home, watching intently for the strike of the fish.

But no fish struck, as indeed, is usually the case, and rightly so. If fish came easy, who would fish except fish dealers? It is the casting that is the fun, saved from monotony now and then at long intervals by the sudden and wholly unexpected interruption of a fish. I suppose the average man casts 500 times for one fish landed. Perhaps a thousand.

Without ostentation, I did my overhead casting steadily and slowly and with intense pleasure. I laid my spoon precisely where I wanted it, or nearly so; along rock and ledge, stump and lily pad, as slick and trim as Ivanhoe ever laid his arrows, or nearly so. And with a whooshing sound and a fury of bodily effort, Jim swung and swiped and startled the great open spaces of water with the plunging arrival of his gaudy wooden plug. Once it snarled and the plug leaped back into the boat narrowly missing my leg.

“Let me out,” I said, “at the next point. I’ll be safer on land.”

But just then from a cottage veranda a young lad hailed us.

“There’s a nice bass hanging around our boat house,” he called. “See if you can catch it.”

And Jim, hastily reversing his stance, turned to face the boat house, side-swiped with power and his plug hit my hat and lifted it from my head and flung it 12 feet away in the water.

“Gee, I’m sorry,” said Jimmie.

“You’d be a funny one if you weren’t,” I said thinly.

“I never did that before,” said Jim, reeling my hat back into the boat.

“You never will again,” I informed him, “not the same person, anyway. Row ashore.”

“Listen, cast and get that bass,” begged Jim.

“Row ashore,” I commanded, in a Basil Rathbone sort of a voice.

So Jim rowed ashore, looking very flushed.

“Now, my friend,” I announced, as we stepped ashore, “take off one of your socks.”

“What for?” demanded Jim.

“For a frog bag,” I advised crisply.

So Jim removed one of his socks and we went frog hunting. It is not a knack. It is rather a comprehension. You see your little frog. You transfix it with a trance-like gaze. You stoop slowly to a squatting posture. All in the same lithe, effortless motion, your right arm is extended. It is a continuous motion. Your right hand reaches out in the air over the little creature, whose tiny intelligence seems to be paralyzed by the slow, rhythmic motions. In the same instant, your hand suddenly halts. The frog seems to tense. Then you dart your open hand straight down, not to where the frog was, but to where he is, in mid-air, about four inches straight ahead of where he was sitting when the manoeuvre began.

We got eight frogs between us. We returned to the boat and Jim rigged his rod with a sinker, to trail frogs over the side and I sat in reasonable security in the midst of the punt, casting.

And Jimmie caught one bass, four pike, one perch and nine rock bass with his frogs, and I got nothing with my spoon.

Which only goes to prove that it is every man to his own method.


Editor’s Notes: The colour illustration is from the cover of Greg Clark & Jimmie Frise Outdoors (1979), where this story also appears. The scanned image from the microfilm at the end shows a bit more of the artwork. I’ve also started to make some format changes. I will no longer include scanned title in the stories, as it is redundant since the title appears at the top. I’m also transliterating the captions that appear with the images. The idea is to focus more on the art, and not the text. As such, I will also be crediting both Greg and Jim with the date of publication. I’m also going to add new tags for common themes.

Basil Rathbone was an actor, best known for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes at the time.

Old Soldiers Never Die

By Greg Clark, July 30, 1938.

For twenty years three men have been waiting to talk back to their sergeant-major. At the Canadian Corps Reunion they get their chance

“What’s he mean, dumb insolence?” demanded Pte. Billings. “The old buzzard.”

“Dumb insolence,” explained Pte. Budd, this being in an estaminet near the village of Gouy-Servins in the year 1918, “dumb insolence is a sergeant-major’s pet crime. It means, you give him a dirty look. You didn’t say anything. You just looked it. So he crimes you. He has you up before the colonel for dumb insolence.”

“He can’t prove it, though,” interjected the third gravel crusher, Pte. Andrews. “He can’t have you up before the colonel and say, he had a dirty look on his face. He can’t do that.”

“Oh, yes he can,” said Pte. Billings, bitterly. “A sergeant-major can do anything.”

“I can’t go on,” said Pte. Budd darkly. “It can’t go on, boys. If the people back home knew what we were being subjected to over here. It isn’t the shell fire. It isn’t the mud and the lice. isn’t the lousy food. It’s the way we’re bullied and humiliated and shamed. Think of it. Three guys like us, three free-born Canadian citizens. And that blankety-blank old sergeant-major with his airs. You’d think we were dirt.”

“Why can’t we go before the colonel,” demanded Pte. Andrews, “and state our case? Why can’t we ask to be paraded before the colonel and tell him straight. Tell him, colonel, our lives are being ruined by this bloody old sergeant-major. He ought to be sent back to England, where he belongs. Around some parade ground in Shorncliffe, puffing and swelling, that’s where he belongs, not out here in France, with men.”

“We could ask the colonel,” expanded Pte. Budd, “how he expects to have any morale in this regiment, if he is going to let loose a vicious old rooster like the sergeant-major on us. Here we come out of the line, and right away, our lives are made hell.”

“The one reason I prefer being in the trenches,” contributed Pte. Billings, “is that you never lay eyes on that old buzzard. He sticks deep in the headquarters dugout for the whole trip. You never hear his voice, roaring like a bull. There he hides, sweet and soft and never making a sound for fear somebody will notice him and send him up the communication trenches.”

“And then,” took up Pte. Andrews, “the minute we come out of the line, oh, boy.”

“Yeah,” joined in Pte. Budd, “the night of the relief, when we are about three miles back, you begin to hear him. Faintly. Just a little bellow or two. Then, at four miles, he begins to really tune up. Hear him bellow. Hear him roar. And when we come into the village, there he is, standing at the crossroads, swollen up like an inner tube, roaring like a fog horn, pick ’em up, pick ’em up, make it lively there, you tramps.”

“Do you know what he called me, once?” asked Pte. Billings, pitifully. “He called me a hooligan.”

“He once said I looked like something,” chimed Pte. Budd, “that had been dug up by accident.”

“Hmmm,” said Pte. Andrews bitterly, gazing around the crowded estaminet where nine men were sitting at each of the tables for four, and a shabby mamselle was hurrying with glass pitchers of watery French beer. “I wonder we put up with it. Maybe the reason he never shows up, in the line, is that he is afraid he might get a shot in the back. There isn’t a man in this regiment that wouldn’t take a shot at him if he got the chance.”

“No shooting,” said Pte. Billings. There is enough shooting around here without any body having to shoot anybody in the back. He’ll get it one of these days. Mark my words. Things like that can’t go on forever. There is justice. He’ll get it. When he least expects it. Some day, in the deepest dugout, one of those rubber-tired shells with the long noses is going to go right through and hit him. Or maybe, when he’s standing as usual so big and important back in some safe village, some airplane is going to come over and drop a bomb square on top of him, right in the middle of one of his roars.”

“Couldn’t we send an anonymous letter to the colonel?” begged Pte. Andrews. “They’d never know who sent it. Just itemize a few of his worst deeds.”

“Today was the worst,” moaned Billings. “Us just walking along the street to this estaminet, and him standing there, with his stick under his arm, all pulled up like a telegraph pole, his mustache sticking out and that horrible grin on his face.”

“‘Well, my pretty soldiers, he says,'” recounted Pte. Andrews, “‘and where might you be going with no belts on and your tunics unbuttoned and your puttees put on like the wrappings on an Egyptian corpse?’ he says.”

“‘You’re filthy,’ he says,” remembered Pte. Budd. “‘You’re foul and you’re unclean.’ he says. ‘Your hair looks like a goat we once captured from the Afridis in the campaign of 1897. And you smell.'”

“Why shouldn’t we smell?” enquired Andrews. “Eighteen days in the line. Him, he had his nice little bath every morning in his deep dugout.”

“With water that should have been sent up for us, drinking water,” cried Budd.

“Goats,” grated Billings.

“And when we so much as looked at him,” said Andrews. “he roars, ‘Don’t look at me like that, my lads, or I’ll have you up for dumb insolence,’ he says.”

“Smell,” muttered Budd. “Wait till this war’s over. I’ve got it all worked out in my mind. I know what I’m going to do, after the war. I’m going to find that old buzzard, if it takes me years.”

“I’m going to lay for him,” echoed Andrews, “if I have to travel from Halifax to Vancouver.”

“Let’s form a pact,” said Billings. “Let’s form a secret society. The minute we’re out of uniform, we’ll start hunting for the old vulture. We’ll catch him and set him down on a chair. Then we take turns, like Heinies diving on an R.E.8, at telling him off. We’ll call him all the things he called us and all the things we have called him behind his back. We’ll tell him what the troops really thought of him, the big yellow belly. Taking advantage of his rank.”

“We’ll probably find him cleaning spittoons in some dirty little Montreal joint,” mused Buddy happily.

Planning Revenge

“Wherever we find him,” said Andrews, “we’ll take him and we’ll crucify him and we’ll call him down for hours until we can’t think of anything more to say and then we’ll beat him up.”

“That’s it,” agreed Budd, furiously. “We’ll just slap the starch right out of that silly mustache, and we’ll make him get down on his knees and beg our pardon. We’ll beat the tar out of him.”

“We’ll clip off his mustache,” said Billings.

And in the hum and din of the estaminet, the three sat, heads close together, a faraway and happy expression on their stubbled countenances.

“He pinches our rum,” muttered Andrews. “Every night in the line, each company, in rotation, loses one jar of rum, mysteriously.”

“It’s the only duty roster the old beggar keeps,” said Budd. “Which company’s turn is it tonight to lose one jar of rum out of their rations?”

“Don’t let’s forget.” said Billings, as a party of half a dozen newcomers burst in the estaminet door and started rowdily towards their table. “Don’t let us forget about after the war. If only one of us gets out, he promises the others that he’ll hound that old devil and get him and get him good.”

“It’s a promise,” agreed Andrews and Budd, reaching out dirty rough hands and clasping them across the stained table.

And then the newcomers dragged up chairs around the crowded little table and somebody started a new line of conversation. It was about that lousy old yellow belly, the sergeant-major.

Twenty years later, almost to the week, the day and the hour, Billings, Andrews and Budd are standing flushed and happy near the Prince of Wales gate of the Toronto Exhibition grounds. Age has not withered them, nor custom staled. Except for their bright blue berets and their clean though sweaty clothes, and a certain ripeness of feature that has developed, they are easily recognizable, here in their late 40’s, as the three lads that sat in the estaminet in Gouy-Servins, long ago in their middle 20’s.

Andrews has come from Edmonton, Budd from Newmarket and Billings is a Toronto boy, born, bred and bound. He has the Toronto look.

They have met by long appointment. They have been exchanging letters now for six months, ever since last January, when the big corps reunion was first mooted. They have been together now since Wednesday night, when Andrews arrived from the west and was met at the station by his two cronies.

They have been up to visit the two families, Budd’s and Billings’, where they stopped briefly and awkwardly and withstood the ironic stare of several children in their teens, and drank a lot of tea and ate a lot of pie. But they hurried back down town, where they sought out tables in dim places where they could lean far out on their elbows and set their berets at silly angles and unbutton the top button of their trouser bands, and tangle their feet, in an old fashioned way around the legs of their chairs.

“Somebody saw him yesterday,” said Billings, “right here. They said he came marching along him, with his beret and looking as sergeant-majory as ever, with his stick under his arm, pacing 120 to the minute and glaring fiercely at everybody, as if he was trying to recognize some of his old battalion.”

“Has he got nerve?” said Budd.

“He must be near 70 now,” said Andrews.

“Boy,” breathed Billings, “will it be a treat to see him.”

“Remember, now,” cautioned Budd. “Polite. No rough stuff. We’ll just gang up around him, very politely. We’ll be so glad to see him. And when we get him off by ourselves, we’ll let go.”

“Huh, huh, huh,” chortled Budd.

As If Old Muscles Stirred

They stood in the throng, now and then darting out to grab a passer-by and draw him into the group for a few minutes of pawing and back-slapping and laughter and bending over with glee. But the three never relaxed for an instant their watchful survey of the multitude in the colorful berets and the badges and medals and canes and pennants, milling in for the afternoon ceremonies.

“It’s him,” shouted Budd, suddenly, and all three leaped to tip-toe. “Look. On the grass over there, walking with his arm swinging away up.”

“Old Hatchet Puss,” breathed Andrews, as in prayer.

And the three, elbowing and tip-toe, thrust their way across the pavement in a wild scurry.

They reached the grass sward and curved, like hunting harriers, around ahead of their prey.

“Hello, sergeant-major,” said Billings, heartily.

The sergeant-major halted, clicked his heels, snapped his stick up under his armpit, and glared at the three.

“Let’s see,” he roared. “Who is this?”

“You remember me, Billings, B company?” said Billings.

“Billings?” bellowed the sergeant-major fiercely. “And who’s this?”

He threw his stick from under his armpit and pointed it scornfully at Andrews and Budd.

“Budd, sir,” said Budd.

“Andrews, major,” said Andrews.

They stood at attention, as if they couldn’t help it. As if old muscles stirred within them, forgotten muscles of the back, the thighs, the neck.

“Well, I’m damned,” barked the sergeant-major. “Billings, Budd and Andrews. Well, well. well. I’m delighted to see you.”

He snapped the stick up under his armpit again, and taking a smart pace forward, shoved his hand out at them as if it were a salute halted midway to the cap brim, fingers extended, palm turned out, tip of the middle finger….

The three stepped one pace forward, clicked and shook hands violently.

“Where have you come from? Where do you live?” roared old Hatchet Puss, in a voice like a ship’s whistle. “Are you married? Are you all working? Have you any children? Tell me all about yourselves!”

They started, but old Hatchet Puss interrupted them violently with a wave of his stick.

“What are you doing now?” he barked. “You look a little seedy. Have you been hanging about in beer parlors? What’s the matter with you? Straighten your beret, What’s Your Name. A little less on the back of your head. You wear it the way an old lady wears a bonnet. Are you enjoying yourselves?”

They were all in the midst of admitting they were enjoying themselves immensely when the sergeant-major roared:

“You’re coming up to tea. I brought my old lady down with me to visit my son during the reunion and I promised to bring her up some of the old battalion for tea. Fall in.”

There was a moment of indecision, a sort of flicker, as when a flock of blackbirds seems to lose direction for an instant, but then catches itself again.

“We’ll march to my son’s car,” barked the sergeant-major heartily. “I’ve got him waiting over here.”

“By the left,” roared the sergeant-major, dressing him, as of old.

The old boy got to the side and extended his stick to tap Andrews back into line, “queeeeeeek march!”

And he marking, they marched across the grass, left inclined, right inclined, marked time, wheeled, and then in column of threes advanced upon a motor car in which a huge young man, looking very much like the old man, sat grinning at the wheel.

“Halt,” roared the sergeant-major. “Left turn.”

Andrews and Budd and Billings filed into the back seat.

“Meet my son,” shouted the sergeant-major.

In the car, as they drove rapidly out of the multitude, the sergeant-major gave a brief account of himself.

“Returned to my old job,” he stated, loudly. “Bank messenger. Pensioned off three years ago. Live in a nice little cottage 20 miles out of town.”

One by one, with shouted questions, brief and businesslike, he queried the boys as to where they lived, how many children, what kind of jobs.

“Ah,” he roared, “it’s great to see my old boys a success.”

They pulled up in front of a pleasant little house. They marched in the side drive and into a garden where an old lady sat in a chair, a gentle little old lady.

They were paraded before her, column of threes, wheeled, halted, dressed by the right and then the nominal roll was called.

Tea was brought. Tea and tea biscuits and jam and white cheese.

“These were the men,” roared the old sergeant-major, “these were the men, mother, that made the victory possible.”

He slapped them on the shoulders. He got up and marched into the house for the cigars and cigarettes.

Andrews leaned one shoulder against a tree while Budd and Billings sat forward in their chairs.

“He’s a grand old man,” said Andrews confidentially to the old lady. “He was a father to us, in the war.”

“If it hadn’t been for him,” said Budd, “we’d have been like a lot of hoboes, I’m afraid.”

And when Billings saw the old sergeant-major coming out the back door balancing a tray of cigar and cigarette boxes, he leaped up:

“Let me give you a hand, major.”

And until the old man got his fill of them, they sat recounting the old days, while the old lady swung her gaze ever back, with pride and tenderness to her man; and finally he jumped up and barked:

“All right, lads, be off with you. Don’t get slack. Watch those berets. Wear them as I wear mine. Look! And listen to me: Square your shoulders. Try to look like men, not sandbags.”

And he allowed them the luxury of marching at ease out of the garden and even permitted them to slump into the son’s car, who drove them back down to the Exhibition grounds where they wandered easy in their minds amidst the multitude, having buried an enemy.


Editor’s Notes: On July 30, 31, and August 1, a reunion of the Canadian Corps was held in Toronto, commemorating the 20th anniversary of the end of the First World War. It was estimated that 100,000 people would participate in the three-day celebration.

Dumb insolence is an offence against military discipline in which a subordinate displays an attitude of defiance towards a superior without open disagreement.

An estaminet is a French cafe that sells alcoholic drinks.

The Afridi are a Pashtun tribe in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The old sergeant-major must have been in the army during the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878–1880)

The Royal Aircraft Factory R.E.8 was a British two-seat biplane in the war. Heinies were a slang term for Germans.

Icy Cold!

July 23, 1938

Ginseng Hounds

By Greg Clark, June 18, 1938

“It’s too hot,” gasped Jimmie Frise, “for trout fishing and the bass season isn’t open.”

“The song birds,” I agreed, “are too busy hunting worms for their young, to sing decently.”

“All the best of the wild flowers,” added Jim, “are through blooming.”

“So what is there to do,” I sighed, “but put on cream flannels and go, like all the rest of the saps, and sit around on wharves and verandas, looking sporty?”

“Never,” gritted Jim.

“Never, too,” I coincided. “I sometimes think that our prejudice against golf is ill-advised, Jim.”

“A man has to have some prejudices,” pointed out Jimmie. “All my life, I have found it a little difficult to form a prejudice. No sooner did I form a good one than I met the guy, or did the thing, or in some way contacted my prejudice. And lo, it vanished.”

“If we played golf,” I said, as we sat on the edge of the trout stream in the shade of a cedar tree, “we could fill up all this part of the year very happily.”

“No, the trouble with golf is,” explained Jim, “that it steals away all a man’s other recreations. Golf is a thief. Golf is the only thing there is to do in early April, so a man goes forth to this earliest amusement. And before he knows where he is, he is committed to a dozen pleasant golf engagements with friends. By the time he should be going fishing or taking his children into the wilds to hear the first songbirds or to see the first wild flowers blooming, the golf season is in full swing, and the poor devil can’t disentangle himself from its insidious meshes.”

“It’s the easiest way, too,” I agreed. “Here is a man faced with a week-end. He can either go out fishing or tramping in the woods or visit the summer resort in advance of the season. Or else he can slip out to the golf links and play golf. Of all the choices, golf appears the cheapest and handiest.”

“Never let golf get us,” said Jim, devoutly, and we sat in silence in the fragrant cedar shade, while a catbird, its bill full of pale green worms, came secretly and looked at us, on its way to some hidden nest. In a moment, we heard it mew, and knew its young were fed.

“The great thing in life,” said Jim, “is not to get entangled. Don’t commit yourself to any belief or sect or sport or business. The essence of freedom is detachment.”

“Most people,” I disagreed, “are looking for an anchor. Most people love to be moored fast to the shore, instead of being adrift on the sea, calm or stormy.”

In Tune With Nature

“Which is better?” inquired Jim, bravely, since we were safe in the sweet safety of a pleasant woods. “Which is better? To be wrecked at sea? Or to sink at the wharf, a decayed and rotted old hulk that has never even crossed the bay?”

“For,” I added sententiously, “we all sink, in the end.”

“You said it,” confirmed Jim. “I would rather be sitting right here, in this idle glade, with the limpid stream barren of trout and no cow bells, even, to be heard, and no sense of activity or industry or improvement, no birds calling that we can pretend we are studying, no flowers to make us imagine ourselves amateur botanists – just sitting here, in utter idleness.”

“Not even thinking,” I pointed out.

“I often think,” mused Jim, “that the Chinese are going to inherit the earth. They are the only race that seems in complete tune with nature. They have no great ambitions. They have only the ambitions that nature itself has, like these trees and that catbird and that stream. To live and grow and flow along. If storms come, fine. If the weather’s fine, fine. But all the powers of man, in the past centuries of trying, have never succeeded in making the weather fine, if the weather wants to storm.”

“But we’ve improved housing,” I protested proudly, “and invented raincoats and cars and trains to keep us dry on our way to work. You can’t say we haven’t done something to make our lives more comfortable than a catbird’s.”

“I was speaking,” said Jim, loftily, “in the allegorical sense. Unlike the Chinese, we have been trying for centuries to improve our physical life. With what result? That our world to-day is in greater confusion and terror and anxiety than ever before. It seems to be hovering eternally, day after day, year after year, on the brink of an immense precipice.”

“Yeah,” I said, “and where are the Chinese, may I ask?”

“Oh, they’re suffering a little storm, at the moment,” said Jim lightly. “But you know and I know and even the Japanese know, by now, that when the storm is spent, the Chinese will be there, as yesterday, today and forever, multiplying, living strangely and happily and slowly Inheriting the earth.”

“That gives me an idea,” I said. “Let’s hunt ginseng. Come on, let’s walk through the woods here and hunt ginseng?”

“You mean jinsin,”corrected Jim, not getting up.

“Ginseng is its proper spelling,” I informed him.

“Say, listen,” scoffed Jim, “don’t you try to tell me anything about jinsin. I was born on the farm. Lots of my neighbors grew big covered acres of jinsin. Why, every farm newspaper carried big advertisements about the fortunes that were to be made out of growing jinsin.”

“Wild ginseng,” I informed Jim, “is the only kind with magical properties.”

The Root of Life

“Listen,” laughed Jim, “I’ve seen all around our neighborhood, when I was a boy, big yards all roofed over with boards. There were posts stuck up every few feet, and the whole jinsin field roofed over with planks, with big cracks between, to let only a little sunlight in, just like in the deep forest where the jinsin grows.”

“Call it ginseng, Jim,” I insisted. “That’s the way it is spelled in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, although the Chinese call it Jen Sheng, the root of life.”

“All right,” said Jim. “if the Chinese call it Jen Sheng and the encyclopaedia calls it ginseng, then I’ll call it jinsin, which is what everybody called it up around my old home, and they grew it. So there.”

“Jen Sheng,” I said. “The root of life. The Chinese paid fabulous prices for the root of this wild plant. They paid as much as $3,000 for a forked root.”

“They paid what?” said Jim, sitting up and almost standing up.

“They paid,” I said, clearly, “as high as $3,000 for a good big forked root. Forked roots, which the Chinese thought looked like a man, have greater magical properties than plain roots. They restore youth. They lengthen life. They were the monkey glands of the Chinese, a thousand years ago.”

“Where did you get all this?” demanded Jim, actually rising.

“In the encyclopaedia,” I informed him. “Whenever I haven’t anything else to do and it’s raining. I go down and read the encyclopaedia. You’d be surprised at some of the things I’ve read.”

“But $3,000,” said Jim, grimly, gazing off into the leafy shadows of the woods around us.

“Ordinary ginseng,” I said, “sells at around $5 a pound for the roots. They’re sort of translucent, half-transparent, brittle. It takes years to grow a good root.”

“All the years,” muttered Jim, “that I lived right amongst all those fields full of jinsin.”

“Ah, but the cultivated stuff,” I explained, “doesn’t command the price of the wild root. The Chinese find a far greater power in the wild root.”

“Do you know what it looks like?” demanded Jim. “Would you know it if you saw it?”

“Jim,” I said stiffly, “perhaps you forget that I am something of a botanist.”

“Okay,” said Jim, throwing off his creel and other useless gear. “Let’s go look. What kind of ground does it grow on?”

So as we started to explore the woods, I explained to Jim in starts and fits of how ginseng grew in the deep woods, in shade and on high humus soil. I told him some of the legends of ginseng, and how the Chinese emperor, a thousand years ago, had to forbid the Chinese to search for it, because they were exterminating it from the whole of China, and it is a vast country. Ginseng hunters pushed back the borders of the Chinese empire. Into Manchuria and northern Siberia the ginseng hunters went, seeking the green treasure. I told him how it was discovered growing wild in America and how clever Americans began to cultivate it for the Chinese market. But how the Chinese were clever enough to know the cultivated from the wild root.

I explained that European doctors and pharmacologists had studied the root and found that it had no real virtues, but that it had a psychic value, since anything you believe in is as likely to help you as anything else. Far better than epsom salts, anyway.

And then we discovered, the ginseng. At least, I should say, I found it, because Jim’s boyhood memories were pretty vague. All he could recollect were shadowy green jungles under plank roofs which the local farmers guarded with violent jealousy.

“Are you sure this is it?” asked Jim.

“Am I sure?” I scorned. “I tell you this is the genuine article. Look. I’ll pull one up and show you the root.”

I pulled tenderly, digging around the root with my fingers, and drew up out of the earth a queer, transparent, brittle root, about two inches long. And it was forked!

“Forked!” cried Jim. “My gosh, man, maybe you’ve just yanked up $3,000 by the roots.”

He knelt and began digging furiously.

“Don’t waste time,” I explained, “taking the roots only. Take the whole plant and when we get an armful we can sit down and remove the roots.”

So did we ever dig? And did we ever get some forked roots, Jim getting one nearly four inches long? And did we ever have an armful each when a little dog suddenly appeared out of the underbrush and begin barking furiously at us?

And in a minute, did two little boys with fishing poles and freckles ever come out of the underbrush like groundhogs and stand staring speechless at us?

“Hey, mister,” said the forwardest little boy, “ain’t you scared?”

“Scared?” I inquired, from the kneeling position.

“Ain’t you scared of poison ivy?” asked the child.

Jim dropped his armload violently.

“This,” I said, leaping up, is not poison ivy, my son, this is ginseng.”

That ain’t ginseng,” said the little boy swallowing. “It’s plain poison ivy, mister. You’ll have spots all over you.”

“Poison ivy,” I stated firmly, has shiny leaves and the leaves have a reddish color at the base of the leaf.”

“Yeah, in the fall it has,” agreed the little boy, tenderly, “but when it’s young it hasn’t. You’ll have blisters everywhere, on your hands and arms and all over.”

“I thought it was poison ivy,” rasped Jim, his hands dangling far out for fear he would inadvertently touch his face. “I know ivy when I see it. That’s poison ivy.”

“Jim,” I said.

“Come on,” said Jim. “Let’s get to the nearest drug store, quick. We can bathe in soda or something.”

So without even thanking the little boys, we went plunging through the woods and got our tackle and hurried out the path to the car and, throwing everything in, started for town, the nearest town where there was a drug store being 11 miles.

The druggist was half asleep when we burst in but he came immediately to life when we explained that we had just submitted ourselves to serious infection from poison ivy.

“Look,” I said, pointing to my chest, where there was already a slight rash.

Too Far to Go Back

Jim examined his chest and neck, and there was not only a rash but some little red spots already showing.

“Gents,” said the druggist smartly, “step in to the back here; I’ve got a tub. I’ll fix up a bath of ferric chloride and stuff and we’ll see what can be done. But I’m afraid it’s too late to allay the infection if you actually touched the stuff.”

“Touched it?” groaned Jimmie.

And out in the back, while we peeled off to the waist, the druggist ran a tub of water in a wooden washtub and dumped ferric chloride and glycerine, and Jim and without ado plunged into the tub and slathered the stuff all over us. The druggist helped us, pouring additional little bottles of this and that into the tub as he recalled the various cures and antidotes to poison ivy. We sloshed and splashed and labored mightily, wasting no time for talk, until, as we had thoroughly saturated ourselves and had the water running down into our pants, the druggist inquired how we had got messed up with the poison ivy.

“It was ginseng we were looking for,” I explained humbly. “I thought I knew ginseng when I saw it. We picked armfuls of it.”

“There’s lots of ginseng through here,” admitted the druggist.

”Two kids came through the woods, with a little dog,” I elucidated, “or else we would have carried armfuls of the stuff up against our faces and everything.”

“Two little boys, with what color of a dog?” asked the druggist. “Whereabouts were you hunting?”

“Two concessions north and the sixth side road west,” I explained, also going into details as to the little dog and the little boys, gratefully.

“Were these kids,” asked the druggist, “freckled and did one of them do all the talking?”

“That’s them,” said Jim.

The druggist stepped forward and examined the rash on our chests and the red spots on Jimmie’s neck.

“That’s prickly heat,” he said, “and that’s mosquito bites. That’s from over-exertion in the heat.”

“Not poison ivy?” said Jim.

“No more poison ivy than I am,” said the druggist. “And that was ginseng you had. And those two kids are the biggest ginseng hounds in the whole county. And they interrupted you pulling up one of their favorite beds of it I suppose.”

“Nnnn, nnn, nnn,” said Jimmie and I.

But when we got dried up and everything, and paid the druggist for the bath, we decided it was too far to go back, and anyway the kids would be vanished by then, and besides, what could we do if we did find them?


Editor’s Notes: The “little storm” Jim mentions in the story is the Second Sino-Japanese War which began in 1937. It was the prelude to, and some say the real start of World War Two.

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

Bring May Flowers

By Greg Clark, April 16, 1938

Who says it takes no courage to go walking in this machine age?

“Let’s,” cried Jimmie Frise, “go for a drive in the country.”

“Let’s,” I corrected, “go for a walk in the country. You can’t see any country driving.”

“And how far,” retorted Jim, “would we have to walk before we reached the country? Don’t be silly. We’ll get in the car and go out the Centre Road and turn off some of the side roads and just dawdle along, stopping the car at the top of every rise, looking at groundhogs and the greening fields and the woods turning a tawny yellow…”

“To enjoy the earth,” I stated, “you have at least to have your feet on the earth. This sitting your way through the country is ridiculous.”

“Walking,” replied Jim. “is a thing of the past.”

“Unfortunately you’re right,” I agreed. “The more’s the pity. Walking is the contemplative recreation. The age of contemplation is dead.”

“Aw, who wants to contemplate?” snorted Jim.

“Walking,” I continued, uninterrupted, “is associated with all the finest activities of the human mind. Since walking gave way to riding, what can you show me of any greatness in the human mind?”

“Now, don’t get going on that again,” warned Jimmie.

“All right, show me,” I reiterated. “Since the human race took to riding everywhere on trains, on street cars and finally in motor cars and aeroplanes, I can show you a steady decline in human ideas. Draw a graph of the increase in riding, and I’ll draw you a graph showing the exact reverse in human brain and power.”

“Heh, heh,” laughed Jim.

“Look,” I said. “The railway came into general and widespread use about 1860, didn’t it? And about 1860 began all the mad and furious human concentration on wealth. With railways to carry its burdens, the human race started to spread out savagely in all directions, populating vast areas that to-day are destroyed by floods and sand storms; erecting giant cities, filled with tall chimney, under which to-day pallid millions lead lives of desperation and fear. From 1860 to 1900 this vast expansion went on, and then the motor car was invented. And the world simply went nuts. In 1914, the aeroplane was just dawning as a still newer and more effective way of moving fast and effortless and in 1914, the great war, the greatest disaster in human history, began.”

“Ah,” said Jim, “so trains, cars and aeroplanes caused the war?”

The Art of Walking

“The less we have walked,” I declared, “the deeper the trouble we have got into. The faster we could go without walking, the crazier the trouble. If men don’t walk, they don’t think.”

“You’re nuts,” agreed Jim.

“If we had had to walk across the continent,” I demanded, “would we have had vast annual floods? No, there wouldn’t have been enough of us in the Great West to denude it and cause floods and sand storms. If we had had to walk to the great war, would there have been a great war? Would there be 58,000 young Canadians dead, if we had had to swim the Atlantic to get to France?”

“Nuts,” decided Jim.

“No, sir,” I said, “walking demands reflection. You can’t walk down street to the corner drug store without your mind engaging in happy thought. But I defy you to think, sitting in your car and driving to the corner drug store.”

“That’s an idea,” grudged Jim.

“Picture all the great thinkers of the past,” I propounded. “Aristotle, Plato, Spinoza, and where do you see them? Walking, deep in thought, in their gardens and along the sea shore. You don’t picture them sitting in an ox-cart, jolting along. Picture the great heroes, Napoleon, Nelson. Napoleon, walking, hands behind his back in the night, planning, scheming. Nelson, pacing his quarter deck, envisioning his great battles. Not sitting in a sea flea, going 40 miles an hour. No, siree. I venture to say all the greatest thoughts that ever came into the human head, came to men as they walked. As they walked along the shores of Galilee, as they paced the ancient streets and courts of London, as they plodded with purpose and courage all the highways, the backroads, the fields and the forests of the world.”

“Still,” said Jim, “it’s a swell day, and I don’t fancy myself going walking. It is a good mile from here to the suburbs. Then we’d have to walk about two more miles through steadily declining suburbs, each more dismal than the one before, the houses getting smaller, and merging into shacks, and then the shacks giving way to the first dowdy run-down farms and market gardens of the city’s edge, and all the roads jammed with cars boiling along nose to tail, honking and snorting in Sunday mood.”

“Yeah,” I cried “Can you imagine anything more absurd than all those thousands of cars, in fury and anger, sputtering and grinding along the Sunday roads. Why do people go driving on Sunday? Don’t they know what it will be like before they start out?”

“Habit,” said Jim.

“Yes, sir,” I agreed. “Habit. The thing that has taken the place of thinking, since men gave up walking.”

“It’s funny, now you think of it,” confessed Jim.

“The Englishman,” I informed him, “is the only man left who has maintained the art of walking. Result: more thinking amongst Englishmen to-day than amongst any other race.”

“Their roads,” pointed out Jim, “are too narrow and twisty for driving. Remember all those tiny little windy lanes around Shorncliffe and Seaford?”

“The Englishman, whatever his reason,” I stated, “has kept alive the art of walking. He wears stout brogue shoes, strong, weatherproof tweed clothes. He carries a cane. He smokes a pipe. And he goes walking. And thinking.”

“He’s rather a decent figure, these days,” admitted Jim. “There is something sort of sound and earthy about him.”

“Naturally,” I agreed. “Because he touches the earth. But riding in cars, what do you get? Earthy? No, oily.”

“Cugh,” protested Jim.

Sporty and Outdoorsy

“Maybe the narrow, twisty lanes of England,” I admitted, “are responsible for the character of the Englishman. Maybe it is the earth that makes the man. But even so, I think an Englishman, in stout shoes, in a rough tweed suit, with a pipe in his jaws, a wool muffler tied, Ascot around his neck, and striding across the wold, deep in such thought as the wind and the sky and the earth inspires, is a more noble spectacle than you and me sitting in a wildcat of a car quarrelling our way up and down paved country roads at 50 miles an hour.”

“Ascot style, what’s that?” inquired Jim, standing up to display to better advantage his new tweed suit.

“You take the muffler,” I explained, and turn it once around your neck, see?” I explained. Then you half knot it once, see? And twist the scarf so that the upper or full end is on top Instead of a criss-cross muffler, the way Canadians usually wear it, you have a sort of square, all-set-with-the-world sort of muffler. It fills the neck of your coat as with a cravat.”

“Yeah, I’ve seen Englishmen like that,” admitted Jim. “It looks sporty, outdoorsy.”

“That’s it,” I said. “Now in that suit you’ve got on there, with a Scotch wool scarf, a tweed cap, stout brogue walking shoes, and a walking stick and wash leather gloves…”

“Wash leather?” said Jim

“Wash leathaw,” I said. “It’s English for shammy.”

“Ah,” said Jim elegantly.

“I tell you what we’ll do,” I cried. “I’ve got that red tweed of mine. Let’s dress up and go for a tramp in the country. What do you say, old chap?”

“Right-ho,” said Jim. “Right-ho.”

“We’ll get one of the kids to drive us out a few miles out of town,” I elaborated.

“One of the young ‘uns,” corrected Jim.

“Quaite,” I agreed. “Quaite. One of the youngstahs will run us a few miles out of town and drop us in some jolly little spot.”

“Quaite,” said Jim. “Some jolly little bit of terrain where we can stretch our legs and inhale a little breath of ay-yaw.”

“Aaaaiiiiaw,” I corrected, “Yaw. A breath of yaw.”

“You haven’t got it right,” protested Jim. “Not yaw. A breath of aw. That’s it. Aw.”

“No, no,” I insisted. “I know my English. I’ve got two brothers-in-law and they’re both English. It is yaw. A breath of yaw.”

“You can’t say a breath of fresh yaw,” argued Jim a little heatedly. “I served three years under an English sergeant-major, see? I tell you it’s a breath of fresh eeeaaaaaawwwwww. You sort of open your mouth just a little bit, draw your chin in, and say eeeaaaaawwwwww.”

“Aw, what the heck,” I protested. “You sound like a dying duck. Never mind the English language. Let us stick to English clothes and English habits. Let’s just go for a walk in the country, that’s all we had in mind.”

“Right-ho,” agreed Jim. “Right-HO!”

So Jim went home and put on his heavy shoes and a tweed cap and borrowed one of his small son’s wool mufflers and I got rigged out in my rusty tweed, with plus fours, and a tweed hat, and I loaned Jimmie a cane. One of Jim’s girls was glad to drop us somewhere in the country, and we drove out the Centre Road until we came to the groundhog country, where, on every knoll, a new-waked groundhog sat in stupid joy, sunning himself.

We went down a couple of side roads, twisting and turning until we came to one side road not unlike an English lane, narrow and wooded, and there we were dropped from the car.

“We’ll walk,” I explained to the young lady, “out to the highway and telephone from some wayside inn about six o’clock. You can run out and pick us up, what?”

“Right-ho,” agreed Jimmie and his family.

“Right, quaite,” we all agreed, waving our sticks jauntily, and lifting our tweed hats and gripping our new-lit pipes in our teeth. Rusty, the water spaniel, scrambled out to accompany us.

And the car vanished and the wide and lovely country stood before a couple of country gentlemen, welcoming.

The sky was soft with April. A gentle haze hung over the world. It was soft, damp, luscious. Fields of winter wheat made vivid quilts of green, flung wide. Darkly the woods stood, tinged with a rusty, russet, faded yellow.

“Yellow is the color of spring,” said Jim.

“In England,” I sighed, “there would be daffodils peeping along our path.”

Getting Down to Earth

We strode forth. The roads were muddy and bog holed, but along their sides were firm dry paths for the foot that sought them. Birds sang in the barren woods, visible and flighting with an ecstasy that would be unseen in another three weeks, when the buds break into leaf. On all the moist mounds, sleazy groundhogs, dark from their winter hiding, perched and slunk. From the farms, aloof, came the hankering of geese, the crow of fowls and the call of cows. We strode along.

“Ah,” breathed Jim, deep and slow.

“What peace,” I said, picking my steps with care amidst the bog. Rusty floundered along the fences, sniffing and exploring and full of vigor.

Not talking much, and not thinking much either, on account of the mud and the having to pick out footing, and all the nice soft lovely feeling of the air, we peregrinated up hill and down dale. We pointed out beauties, exclaiming; we halted and looked with earnest delight at things not really very beautiful, after all, because it is May showers that bring June flowers in Ontario. And it is a little early yet.

We halted, our ears tip-toe, to hear the first birds of spring, the meadowlark, that pied piper, calling forth all the singers, the bluebird calling okalee and the broad-winged hawks wheeling their love dance low over the trees, screeching their fierce love whistle, ignoring the tasty vesper sparrows tilted beak up on every post and stub; the robins with contralto voices, nervous so far from houses and juncos with the voice of tiny sleigh bells fluttering from thicket to thicket on their long way north, too gray and parsimonious, even on so long journey, to miss a single bet along the hedges.

We saw a gander, a farmyard gander, uplift his wings enormously and take a short, swift run and launch himself into the air for a wild and ludicrous flight across a little gulley, and the whole farmyard applauded, pigs, geese, horses, hens, and us. We saw young calves, with stiff tails going for sudden careens around their little pastures. Lambs bounced upon boulders. Sheep with nothing on their minds bleated with all the expression of a nervous breakdown from hill to hill. Horses with fiery airs whinnied from resounding bellies across fences. It was spring.

We had a lovely walk, and we could feel our tissues stretching pleasantly, and our lungs filling clean and full and the pipes smelled fragrantly, even though the earth did not; and it grew duller and mistier until, just at the highest hill we had encountered, and when we were thinking of turning our steps towards the highway, three miles distant, the first small drops of rain fell.

“One thing about English clothes,” I pointed out, as I turned my collar up, “is they are made for weather.”

“I guess we had better head for the highway,” agreed Jim.

And we started east. Rusty had ceased his gamboling and exploring some half hour earlier and had been following to heel. Now he got right under our feet.

The rain thickened. It enriched and enlarged and increased. From little Scotch misty drops it grew to large Canadian drops each about the size of a marble.

“Cugh,” said Jim.

“Get out of my way,” I said to Rusty, who was trying to shelter under me as we walked.

And the rain pounded, and the sky darkened to a dead slate gray, and we could not see the farm houses as we passed, so in sheets did the rain fall, and the road became just a series of great yellow puddles. The tweeds soaked it up, the brogues sponged it up, our hats sagged over our ears and eyes and began to steam mildly.

“What-ho,” said Jim, bitterly and suddenly.

“Quaite,” I responded, with equal bitterness.

“When an Englishman goes walking, explained Jim, wetly, “he knows the climate is lousy.”

“Quaite,” I sogged.

“But in this country,” said Jim, “we expect the weather always to be fine.”

“Quaite,” I squelched.

So we thumbed a truck and got a lift into the suburbs, and from a drug store, called home for them to pick us up.


Editor’s Notes: A sea flea is a type of small racing boat, also known as a Muskoka Seaflea.

I’m not entirely sure where “Centre Road” was located, but it might be referring to the current Hurontaio Street in Mississauga/Brampton. They would not have to travel this far for the countryside in 1938, but it is hard to tell.

Up Where the North Begins

By Greg Clark, January 8, 1938

“Do you realize,” said Jimmie Frise, more to make conversation than anything, “that right now, in the dead of winter, there are more than 40 different kind of birds living right around us here in Ontario?”

“Song birds?” I inquired.

“Yes, song birds,” stated Jim, “although they aren’t singing just now.”

“The silly things,” I said.

“Ah, they’re quite happy,” said Jim. “You see, a bird’s normal temperature is over 130 degree. They don’t feel the cold the way we do.”

“The silly things,” I repeated. “When they’ve got the means to go south. When all they’ve got to do is up and fly away, and in about a week’s easy going, be in Mexico or Yucatan.”

“Well, you see,” explained Jim, “these are northern birds. They nest up in the Arctic. They think this is real balmy to-day. They’ve come a thousand miles south already. They think this is down south.”

“Huh,” said I.

“It’s all a matter, “elucidated Jim, “of relativity. The birds that nest here go south. The birds that nest in the Arctic come down here.”

“And the ones that nest in the south?” I inquired.

“They go right into the tropics,” said Jim. “Birds are very discontented.”

“Discontented?” I scoffed. “You mean smart. They grew wings. And what did we grow? Just legs. Fat, slow, lumbering legs. And where can we go on legs?”

“Ah, but we grew brains,” pointed out Jim.

“Well,” I maintained, “a bird has brains too. All it needs. And when a bird thinks, with its little brain, that it wants to go to Mexico, all it does is get up and fly there. But when we, with our big, fat brains, think we want to go to Mexico, what do we do? Can we get up and go there? No, sir. We can just sit here and think about it. I think humans are saps, if you want to know.”

“We stay here,” argued Jim, because we’ve got the ability to build houses and be warm. A bird can’t protect itself against the winter, so it has to leave.”

“Still, the more I think of it,” I insisted, “the more I think humans are saps. If instead of wasting time learning how to build houses we had grown wings, we’d have been better off in the end. Now that we have chosen to remain in one place and dig ourselves in, what good does it do us? Are we any better off, sitting here like slugs in a cave, than if we were skittering hither and yon? I mean, use your common sense, Jimmie. Who decided for us that we would be better off stuck down in one spot, the way we are? That’s what I want to know. Who chose for us all this living and dying in one spot, like a lot of cabbages?”

“Good heavens,” said Jim, “you can’t rebel against human nature.”

“As a matter of fact,” said he, “it takes a long time to alter human nature or any kind of nature. It takes ages of time and countless generations. One thing is sure, we two can’t change. Each of us is like a coin stamped out in a mint. All that ever happens to us is that we grow a little worn and faded. But the imprint stays on us to the end.”

“It’s cruel,” I said.

“And the comical part of it is” went on Jim, “that for countless ages to come, there will be guys exactly like us, thinking the same silly things, yearning and dreaming, but never changing a whit.”

“It’s dreadful,” I muttered. “I’d like to meet up with those birds, about two million years ago, who decided to be us.”

“There is only one thing to do,” said Jim, a little importantly. “And that is, make the best of it. Instead of running away from life, attack it. Instead of cringing from cold and dark and fear, stand up and walk right into it.”

“Ah,” said I. “Hero stuff.”

“Not at all,” said Jim. “Life in the end is just one slow, steady defeat. Nobody ever wins. We lose our strength. We see all our works crumble. Our friends fall away. We die. We can’t possibly escape, so why run? Why always be cringing and whimpering and running like hell?”

“Who’s running?” I demanded.

“Why,” cried Jim, “you were even wanting to fly.”

“I was merely wanting,” I stated with dignity, “to be comfortable.”

“Comfort,” stated Jim, “is relative. Here we are sitting in a comfortable house, slouched down in a couple of easy chairs, with soft music coming from Los Angeles, across five thousand miles of blizzard, and there isn’t a thing we want, from a drink of water to a heated sixty-mile-an-hour vehicle out in our heated garage, that we can’t have. On a night of storm and tempest, here we are as snug as a couple of bugs in a buffalo rug. Yet in five minutes, without the slightest effort, we can be in a beautiful theatre looking at the greatest actors and most beautiful actresses culled from America, England, Germany, Sweden. Or, in ten minutes, we can be sitting at a silver cluttered table, in a swell cafe, eating chicken sandwiches made by a French chef.

“Mmmm,” said I, sitting up.

To Escape From Comfort

“Yet,” said Jim, “I am willing to bet you that there are men, at this very hour, lying in a little silk tent in a deep excavation in the snow, a thousand miles north of us, with their husky dogs snuggled around and a fire burning gaily: and those men, miles from any human habitation, lost in a wild blizzard raging, are more comfortable than we are.”

“What will they be eating?” I inquired.

“Bacon,” said Jim, “and flapjacks smothered in maple syrup.”

“Mmmm,” I repeated, sitting up higher and scratching my head

“You see?” said Jim. “The less comfort you have, the more you enjoy comfort. The trouble with us is, we never escape from comfort. To really enjoy life, we ought to expose ourselves to discomfort a little more than we do. We ought to take up skiing, or go for long tramps in the open. We ought to suffer our climate occasionally, so as to appreciate how cleverly we have skunked it.”

“To tell the truth, Jim,” I confessed, “I’ve often looked at those pictures of winter camping in the outdoor magazines with a curious impulse. I’ve darn near gone on winter camping trips.”

“Darn near isn’t near enough,” retorted Jim.

“Many’s the time,” I assured him, “I’ve thought of having a winter house party up at our cottage.”

And Jim, with a joyous glitter in his eye, slowly rose from amongst the cushions of the big chair, and looked at me with open mouth. And that is how it came about.

Our first idea, then and there talked out and elaborated for a lovely and enthusiastic hour, was to take all our families. We even got to the list of provisions. We even telephoned long distance for forty cents to the postmaster at the little village, seven miles from the summer resort, to ask how the roads were at this time of year. And he told us they were swell. Plowed every day.

But our families were all tied up. Jim’s had skiing party engagements and Sunday teas; mine had all promised themselves in various ways for at least three week-ends to come.

But those lists of provisions fairly burned in our pockets. And when Jimmie took me up to his attic closet and emptied out old dunnage bags full of mackinaw coats and hunting pants and oil-tanned moccasins that hadn’t been used for fifteen years, the family side of the enterprise began to fade anyway.

“They’d turn it,” said Jim, “into a taffy-pulling, dish-washing, community-singing sort of thing. We’ll make it stag. We’ll just go up and spend the week-end tramping over the hills and visiting the settlers in their snowed-in cabins. Will they be surprised?”

“And,” I said, “we can take along our guns in case we jump a cottontail.”

“And,” contributed Jim, “I’ll bring along that Bird Guide of mine and we can identify some winter birds.”

“Swell,” I agreed.

A White Vastness

Really, the drive up was beautiful. The highways are kept scraped as clean as the pavement. The vast white country, miles and miles, is utterly new, despite all the years we have passed through it in summer. A thousand interesting and old-fashioned interests attract the eye, the farmers in sleighs, the villages and towns so steamy and quaint-looking under their mantles of white. Except for Jim’s anti-freeze having got thin and a little boil-up we had south of Severn Bridge, we made as good time as we do in July. But the engine boiling halted us a good hour on the road and then we had to go by easy stages until we got to a garage; and in all a couple of hours were lost. But even the visits to garages were interesting in winter. Everybody up north has a different air, in the off season.

At last we reached the gravel road that goes east towards “the Lake,” as we call it, and here the plowing was not so governmental as on the highways. In fact, we slowed down to about 15. I think all those country drivers you see bumbling along at 15 in summer practice most of their driving in winter.

It was dusk when we passed through the village, the last outpost of civilization. We stopped in to see the postmaster and storekeeper and had a jovial chat. It was dark when we started the last seven miles in to the cottage. But the headlights threw a glorious beam on the fantastic and wholly unfamiliar scenery of the road we knew in summer. And when we reached the lane that leads down to the lake, by the cottage, the snow-clad boards pointed down two deep ruts between enormous lake-blown drifts, and we knew we could take the car no farther.

Shouldering our packs and provision boxes we left the car at the corner and walked down the ruts. Under the stars, a white vastness stretched afar where in summer the dark lake lay. With merry shouts and scrunching feet and not a little leaving of boxes of provisions to be come back for later, we followed the ruts past the last settler’s house its lights glimmering in the distance, and waded through drifts along the abandoned road, past strange shuttered cottages of neighbors, utterly foreign now and came with a feeling of Commander Peary, to our own cottage, memorable despite the masses of snow, crouched amidst its tapering firs.

We unlocked the door. It was bitter. I lit a match and fumbled up at the iron switch box that turns on the power. It clicked. But no light came.

“H’m,” I remembered. “They cut off the power into here at the end of the season.”

“There’ll be lamps?” said Jim.

With matches, I hunted lamps in remote back shelves of closets. But careful housewives had emptied lamps.

“Get the fire on the hearth,” I cried cheerily, “while I find the coal oil.”

So Jim, with matches went out and scratched up kindling at the woodpile against the house and I went seeking. All the tins rang hollow. In vain. I searched drawers for candles, looked along the mantel for colored candles in silly summer candlesticks. There were none. Jim was kneeling at the stone fireplace, and faint flames fluttered uncertainly.

“The kindling is wet,” he said. “Frozen. You never should pile wood against the house, on account of the autumn drip. It soaks it”

“Get her going,” I said. “This house is like a tomb. It’s colder than outside.”

Jim struggled and burned leaping flares of newspaper, and piled and repiled the kindling but got no fire.

“Here” I said, “You go and pick up those boxes of provisions we left and at the same time drop in at the settler’s. It’s only couple of hundred yards beyond, and borrow a bottle of coal oil. I’ll show you a fire.”

A Losing Battle

So Jim went out into the starry night and I got to work on the fire. But it was true. A woodpile that does fine against the house in hot summer is no good for winter. All the wood was frozen. I went out and floundered about breaking twigs off trees I got a little fire going but the larger wood refused to take hold. I went out and tore down the woodpile to get at some of the under sticks. But autumn’s drip had saturated them all. Jim was a long time coming home.

In the intervals of making the fire blaze a little, I pulled cots out of the adjoining rooms and set them in front of the fireplace. I put the dunnage bags on them. Spread out some of my stuff.

I heard Jim coming in. At the moment, the fire happened to be just failing for the tenth time

“I called at the settler’s,” said Jim, “but there was nobody home but a big black dog who wouldn’t let me look around the woodshed or anything.”

So we went out and floundered in the drifts and collected two or three large armfuls of twigs and what we hoped were dead branches, and I found a couple of pieces of loose board on the back veranda, and we got enough fire going to light the room enough to spread out our blankets. But the chunks of maple we leaned up so invitingly in the blaze would not take fire. They hissed. They sizzled. But they would not take fire.

“Let’s get into bed,” said Jim, “while we have enough light to see.”

Which we did. And it was good, with all our clothes on, to snuggle down amongst the blankets and lie watching the little fire fight and struggle and snap and crackle in its valiant battle for existence. But even as we drowsed, we knew it was a losing battle.

In the night, a moaning waked us, and on the window, we could hear the sound of snow. The room was dark, the fire was dead.

“Blizzard,” said Jim, heavily.

As host, I went into the adjoining room and brought out a couple of mattresses to lay on top of us.

In the morning, gray and terrible, the window was snowed up and a drift had blown in unseen cracks. The floor was inches deep in places and our boots lifted pathetic mouths up out of it, as though gasping. Jim crouched out of bed and hastily burned some more newspapers.

“We can go out,” he said, “and find some wood now. We’ll be eating in half an hour.”

“Jim,” I said, emptying my boot, “how about eating at that Chinese restaurant we had supper in last night?”

“That’s 30 miles,” stated Jim.

“Even so,” I suggested.

So we got dressed stiffly and packed up our stuff and carried it out to the car, which was all but drifted under; and, it being Sunday, no snow-plow came by this early, so it was a long, anxious drive the seven miles out to the postmaster’s, where we had breakfast and bought shovel and waited until the snow-plow came by, and enjoyed a long, pleasant conversation about the old pioneer days with plenty of extra cups of coffee.


Editor’s Notes: This story appeared in The Best of Greg Clark & Jimmie Frise (1977).

Coal Oil is a fuel not unlike kerosene, derived from coal rather than petroleum. Some would still refer to kerosene as “coal oil”.

Only Twenty Days

By Greg Clark, December 3, 1938

“What the dickens,” inquired Jimmie Frise, looking up from a list he was writing, “can a father give a daughter of 20?”

“Why ask me?” I retorted. “What can a father give a daughter of seven?”

“For you it’s easy,” said Jim. “Wait until your kids grow up.”

“The older they are, the more sensible they are,” I pointed out. “You can give a young man of 20 something not very spectacular, but full of value. But with young children, you have to make a splash.”

“You have to make a splash with a daughter of 20,” assured Jim.

“Give her a wrist watch,” I submitted.

“She’s got a wrist watch,” countered Jim.

“Give her a diamond-studded wrist watch,” I offered.

“Oh, yeah?” retorted Jim. “Listen, I’ve got a family.”

“Isn’t it the dickens,” I sympathized. “Jim, there ought to be a sort of upper-class social service bureau for Christmas advice. You ought to be able to send for a woman to come into your home, a trained Christmas expert, the same as a trained social service worker. She’d come and live right in your house for a day, studying the children, examining everything they possess and figuring out what they don’t possess and what they need or what they want. And then she’d draw up your Christmas list for each member of the family.”

“Both what they give,” said Jim, “and what they get.”

“That’s it,” I enthused. “It’s a real idea. Maybe we could sell the idea to the big stores. A Christmas advice bureau, with a staff of young women to come and sit in with the family for a day, and then give expert advice.”

“Most Christmas gifts,” said Jim, “are so silly. We think only in terms of Christmas. Of winter. Of December. Now, I’ve wanted a new shooting coat for the past five years. I never can afford one in October, because I’ve spent all my money during the summer. Yet my family usually spends $12 on me, and you can get a swell shooting coat for $12.”

“I’ll bet the total of a man’s Christmas presents,” I declared, “comes to far more than that. I’ve wanted a new canoe for the cottage for years. But who would give me a canoe for Christmas? There’s the fact that it couldn’t be used for six months. There’s the problem of storing it somewhere. There’s the fact that they couldn’t hang it on the Christmas tree. So they don’t get me a canoe. They get me ties and socks and a new pipe and books, and tins of hundreds of cigarettes, and a whole raft of stuff, all of which would equal the cost of a new canoe.”

“For instance,” interrupted Jim, “my wife has been pining for a Persian rug for years. Every time we pass a store with rugs in the window, she just stops and stands paralyzed. She only wants one around $67.50 or something like that. Yet would I consider giving her a Persian rug for Christmas?”

“Why not?” I demanded.

“Because it’s for the house,” mocked Jim. “It’s something for the house, therefore it’s barred from being a Christmas present. Christmas presents have got to be personal.”

To Reorganize Christmas

“Oh, no, they don’t,” I countered, “That’s just a habit of mind a lot of us have got into. I know plenty of people who give new radios for Christmas.”

“Yes,” said Jim. “Childless couples. They can give each other things of mutual interest and value. But the mother of a family deserves something personal. Years ago, she gave up all thought of herself. In fact, the day her first baby was born, she thought her last personal thought. From then on, she has worked and schemed and planned and thought her whole life for others. Christmas is about the only time of year you can sort of square accounts with a mother.”

“You’re right, Jim,” I agreed. “In fact, there’s a thought there. Why not have a Christmas day for giving gifts only to mothers? Nobody but mothers get any gifts. The pleasure everybody else gets is in giving to mothers.”

“That would be a good idea,” said Jim, “only it forgets mothers. Because one of the greatest thrills in a mother’s whole year is the giving at Christmas. Giving for the children, giving the children a whale of a day, giving them a feast… Why, when you come to think of it, Christmas is really mother’s day, because it is the mother’s most giving day in her whole year of giving.”

“Well,” I submitted, “Christmas ought to be different, somehow. It is too seasonable. Too Christmassy. If it is going to be commercialized, and it sure is, then it ought to be reorganized on a better commercial basis. If a woman wants a Persian rug, Christmas ought to give it to her. You can give her something that will make her happy on Christmas, or you can give her something that will make her happy in June and September and all the rest of the year as well.”

“What have you in mind, besides canoes?” asked Jim.

“Well, my wife,” I said, “is always going into trances in front of antique shops. She just loves old wood. Old walnut most of all. She loves chests and highboys and even whatnots. She loves old chairs and petit point and tables, all darkly gleaming.”

“Don’t you buy her any?” asked Jim.

“No, she’s of Scottish descent,” I explained, “and she always remembers the children. Children mar and smash and batter furniture. So we are saving antiques for when our children are all grown up.”

“I love that antique stuff, too,” confessed Jim. “When I think of the kind of furniture we have to live with, all because our kids are noisy and rambunctious.”

“It’s the radio,” I explained. “You can’t imagine a radio playing swing or giving us a new chapter in the daily career of Tough Burke, the boy detective, in a living room furnished in old walnut and lady chairs, such as our grandparents lived in.”

“The dignity of life,” sighed Jimmie, “is vanishing. Our lives have now to be furnished and equipped for sudden wild leaps of boys and sudden outbursts of dancing, and tommy guns firing from behind a barricade of chesterfield cushions piled on the floor, and parties springing up from nowhere, on account of the rapid transit of motor cars, with stains on the table and sandwiches crumbling and cigarette burns on the edges of the mantel.”

“It’s a heck of an age,” I admitted, thoughtfully. “But do you know, I have a hunch that what I’ll give my wife this Christmas will be her first nice little piece of antique walnut? A gateleg table or a chest of drawers.”

“Start in a small way,” agreed Jim. “And the older your children get, the more lovely old stuff you can acquire, so that by the time the kids are grown up you will be furnished throughout with stuff that is dignified and old and graceful and lovely.”

“Yes, sir,” I mused, and I think that instead of a canoe I’ll start dropping hints around about that pair of early American squirrel guns that I showed you. Remember?”

“They’re probably gone by now,” said Jim.

“No, sir,” I said, “I was in looking at them only the other day. Two genuine Kentucky squirrel rifles. Can you imagine how swell they would look, suspended over the fireplace in my den?”

“Fifty dollars, weren’t they?” asked Jim, doubtfully.

“Only forty-five,” I corrected. “And anyway, if I give my wife a walnut colonial table worth $50, shouldn’t she go out of her way a little in regard to my present? Anyway, I’ve worked pretty hard this year, and I’ve given a lot of thought to my children, even if I haven’t been with them much.”

“I saw some rugs in that shop, didn’t I?” asked Jim.

“Yes, you did,” I recollected. “I noticed a big pile of them the last time I was in looking at those Kentucky rifles.”

“Let’s drop over there at lunch,” suggested Jim.

Which we did. And I am unhappy to inform you that the Kentucky squirrel rifles, once in the collection of the famous Charles Noe Daly, were gone. The dealer had disposed of them to a man in exchange for a genuine Sheffield tray and $10.

“Why,” I told him, “I was prepared to go as high as $50 for them.”

“It’s too bad,” said the dealer. “But he took them and sold them to a collector in Chicago. I hear he got $150 for them.”

“Mm, m’m,” I retired.

As I started for the door, Jim hailed me.

“Here’s rugs,” he said. And I wandered back and watched him haul and lay rugs, many of them pretty seedy looking, the good ones being all around $675.

“Come along,” I muttered.

“You go and look at colonial walnut tables and things,” urged Jim, “while I go through these.”

“I think I’ll give my wife something more personal,” I replied. “Lingerie or a house coat or something.”

But Jim went on exploring in the pile of rugs and I wandered amidst the scattered treasures, looking at them without interest. They were the usual old, plain chests, wardrobes, tables, of all sizes; antique chairs, very uncomfortable looking.

Jim joined me.

“I didn’t see anything I liked there,” he said, “at any price I could afford. Do you see anything you like?”

“Those guns,” I muttered. “Did you ever hear of such rotten luck? Imagine the guy selling them for a sheffield tray and $10.”

“Look here,” said Jim, suddenly excited. “Look at that bed!”

It was a battered, dull, knobbly little old bed.

“Isn’t that a trundle bed?” cried Jim, excitedly. “Excuse me, mister.”

The dealer came lazily down the room, the way antique dealers do. Some of the timelessness of their wares seems to enter into the bones of antique dealers.

“Isn’t that a trundle bed?” cried Jimmie, pointing.

“That’s what we call a string bed,” said the dealer. “It is laced across with heavy cord for springs.”

“That’s it,” cried Jim. “At home we called it a trundle bed. See, there are little holes for threading the rope through.”

And holding up the pieces of the old walnut bed, Jimmie and the dealer explained the primitive method by which our great-grandfathers achieved a little comfort. The sturdy four posts of the bed were mortised for the inset of the four boards that comprised the sides and ends. Then a powerful cord or leather thong was laced through the holes in all four boards, back and forth, a few inches apart, making a sort of mesh of cord. Springs, in fact.

“On top of these cords,” explained Jim, enthusiastic and delighted, “you laid a thick feather tick. Boy, what a bed!”

“Did you ever sleep on one of them?” asked the dealer, very polite.

“We had one in the attic of the farm,” cried Jim, and it was my favorite bed. I slept my boyhood away on a bed like this. My, what memories it brings back. Isn’t it a tragedy that we have disposed of all this lovely old walnut stuff, for a lot of brass and cheap plyboard furniture… How much is this?”

“That one,” said the dealer, “not being in very good shape, I can let it go, just as it is, for $18.”

“Eighty?” said Jim.

“Eight-TEEN,” said the dealer, very honest.

The Trundle Bed

“I’ll take it,” said Jim, instantly. “I’ll take it. Of all the dear old things. Just look at it. Look at this old walnut…”

And I had to help him turn the various pieces this way and that and examine them up near the window, to see the lovely grain of the wood.

“Our great-grandfathers,” said Jim, “had no other furniture but this simple, stately, unpretentious colonial, perfect in its design, without ornamentation. Then came the late Victorian era, with everything stuffed and scrolly. They traded their old furniture for bird’s-eye maple and light oak. Then came fumed oak. And all this glorious old stuff was sent to the attic or the cellar or given away to our poor relations, while we went garish and light and ornamented and scrolly, and twisty and altogether ridiculous.”

“In other words, our great-grandfathers were right,” I submitted.

“Now we are paying fat prices to try and get back,” said Jim, “some of the stuff we threw away.”

So Jim paid his $18 for the trundle bed and arranged for it to be sent home. And we walked back to work, me thinking about old Kentucky squirrel rifles and peach-colored lingerie and new ski boots for growing boys and other seasonable thoughts.

After supper, Jimmie telephoned me. In a very low voice.

“Listen,” he muttered, “have you mentioned that bed I bought to anybody at your place? Anything about the price?”

“No,” I said, truly, for I hadn’t thought of it since.

“Well, I’m in a bit of a jam,” said Jim. “That bed I bought IS my bed. It’s been in our attic for about 20 years. My wife gave it away to some social service workers only a week ago.”

“Jim,” I said.

“She got tired of it being in the attic, so she gave it away with a lot of old baby carriages and stuff.” mumbled Jim. “So I told them I ran across it in an antique store and bought it for a dollar.”

“Jim,” I repeated.

“So you see, you’ve got to be pretty quiet about it,” he continued.

“But Jim,” I said, “it can’t be your very own bed.”

“It is,” said Jim. “These social service workers probably sold it to the antique dealer because no poor family would have a feather tick.”

“But it is probably just a coincidence,” I submitted. “There are likely dozens of them around.”

“No,” said Jim. “It has got my initials carved in it with another pair of initials set in a heart.”

“Oho!” I cried.

“Shhhh,” warned Jim, low. “Some boyhood love affair that I tried to carve into eternity. I don’t even remember who B.J. was.”

“What are you going to do with the bed?” I inquired.

“I was wondering.” asked Jim, “if you are still interested in giving your wife something antique for Christmas?”

“I was thinking I’d give her a Persian rug,” I replied.

“Okay,” whispered Jimmie, and hung up the receiver.


Editor’s Note: This story appeared in The Best of Greg Clark and Jimmie Frise (1977)

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