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.
Tag: 1938 Page 1 of 2
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.
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.
“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.
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).
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.
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”.
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)
By Greg Clark, May 28, 1938
“Heigh-ho, heigh-ho,” sang Jimmie Frise, “it’s off to eat we go!”
And he came swinging in the early evening along the water side, a stick with five nice trout on it dangling from his hand.
“Quitting already?” I called from midstream.
“This is all I can eat,” he replied, holding up the trout. They were about the size to fit neatly across a frying pan.
“Why, the evening rise is just about to begin,” I protested, waving my rod and flicking a net cast along the far bank.
“How many have you got?” called Jim.
“I too have five,” I informed him proudly.
“Well, then, let’s go out to the car and eat,” suggested Jim. “Before it gets dark. And we can be back at the cabin before midnight.”
“And miss the best of the evening rise?” I demanded.
“Look,” said Jim. “it’s a warm evening. These trout won’t keep and we’ve got all day tomorrow to catch trout to take home. Let’s go out to the car and have a feed on these.”
I waded ashore in order to consider the question without prejudice. Standing waist deep in a beautiful trout stream is no condition in which to be dispassionate.
“Jim,” I said, propping the fly rod and sinking down on the soft bank, “a man can eat any time. But only once in a while, and for only a little period of his life, can a man go fishing.”
“We’ve had a swell day,” countered Jim, also sagging down on the pleasant bank, “and I’d like to top it off with a nice mess of fried trout.”
“Until he is 30,” I stated, “a man is too young to fish for trout. After 50, a man is too old.”
“To old?” scoffed Jim.
“Yes,” I explained. “Until a man is 30, he has no real appreciation of the finer things of life. He is just a bundle of prime beef and energy. He goes, like a young bull, rampaging at life, with nary a moment’s pause to taste, to savor; to reflect upon the charm and beauty of life. About 30, man starts to be conscious of faint thrills and quivers within him, which are the first premonitions of the increasing beauty and the increasing sadness of life. All during his 30’s and 40’s a man lives in a kind of symphony of feeling, a sort of grand orchestral suite of sensation, with largos and adagios and scherzos …”
“English?” inquired Jim sweetly.
“What I mean,” I corrected, “in his 30’s and 40’s a man balances his energies with his powers of appreciation and gets a feeling of the fullness of life. Around 50, he begins to slow up and get working on a simple formula of life. He starts at 50, to cut his life down to some simple routine that he knows, from experience, will give him the most pleasure for the least effort – because he is beginning to fade.”
An Instant of Beauty
“Look at that river,” interrupted Jim.
And the little river was, indeed some thing more than a picture. It was a mood. An instant of beauty. A sort of living combination of earth rock, water and sky, of time and air and hour, of some subtle combination of all the forces of nature to make an instant of beauty, as though a bell had rung, a magic and mellow bell; and we sat, entranced, looking, hearing, feeling its swift and passing vibration.
“There you are, Jim,” I said quietly, when the mood that touched us both had passed. “When you were 30 you wouldn’t have noticed that instant of beauty. You would merely have seen a river, and charged into it, rod rampant, to bang at the fish.”
“O.K., then,” said Jim, “let us go now out to the car and have supper.”
“I would like merely to add.” I said, defeated, though the plops of trout in the smooth flowing little river were becoming more frequent as the evening rise began. “I would merely like to say that at 50 men reduce their appreciation of life the way great singers reduce their repertoire. Women who have sung the greatest operas, the greatest roles, Isolde, Mimi, who have stood in massive halls before uncounted thousands of ravished listeners, presently feel their powers declining, and at the last, they appear on farewell tours and sing Annie Laurie. It is the same with fishing. In a few years, Jimmie, you and I will not come away out here to fish. We will join fishing clubs and fish in puddles.”
“Let’s eat,” said Jim drily. He is a trifle nearer 50 than I am.
We stood for a little while, gratefully and reverently looking at the stream, its queer quiet purpose, its air of infinity, as though it had always run and always would run forever. And the trees and shrubs seemed to stand guard over it and lean down to embrace it, and the sky appeared to be coloring itself only to be mirrored in the dancing secret water.
“Come on,” said Jim; and we started out.
“As a matter of fact, Jim,” I said, batting mosquitoes, this is the poorest part of a fishing trip, this eating, this coming to the end of a perfect day with canned beans in a frying pan.
“Fried trout, you mean,” amended Jim, swinging up his catch to show me. They had dried somewhat, losing their bluish and jewelled lustre. They had lost their shape, too; lost that dynamic plumpness that so entrances the trout fisherman’s eye. “Ah, Jim.” I sighed. “even fried trout. We have dramatized fried trout, we anglers. It is in memory and in prospect that tried trout taste good. But as a matter of fact, the way we cook them, they either stick to the pan or are as dry as corrugated paper or else half raw.”
“Aw,” said Jim, walking abend on the trail. “Spoil everything, go ahead.”
“I’m sorry, Jim, but face the facts,” I pursued, hurrying to keep up with him. “These trout we’ve got, inside of an hour will be nothing but a brown, burned, crisp, tasteless …”
“Shut up,” said Jim fiercely over his shoulder, and he strode furiously ahead along the trail so that I didn’t bother trying to catch up. Trails are not for arguing, anyway, for at this hour of the day, the hermit thrushes are starting their arpeggios, and maybe if a man is lucky, a rose-breasted grosbeak will sing his baritone robin-song from a tree top in the evening sunlight. When we came out of the trail into the old abandoned field across which we could see our car by the road, Jim was standing waiting for me.
“What’s up?” he asked, pointing.
From beside our car, the smoke of a campfire was curling faint and blue. And beside our car moved the figure of a man, busy with the fire.
“That’s funny,” I said “No other car there.”
We walked together across the field and as we came nearer, we saw that the man beside our car was a most unprepossessing individual.
“A regular hobo,” muttered Jim.
The gent did not see us approaching, but was busily shifting stones, making some sort of a fireplace, and he had gathered quite a pile of dry wood.
“What’s all this?” said Jim, as we came within earshot.
“Ah,” cried the hobo, dramatically. “Here you are.”
“Yes, here we are,” I admitted sourly.
“You got some trout, I hope?” said the hobo, whose voice and manner seemed elaborately polite for such a dilapidated exterior.
“Yes, we got some trout,” agreed Jim, as if to inquire what business it was of his.
“I regret,” said the hobo ceremoniously, that I could not get into your car to extract the luncheon and the cooking utensils.”
He smiled so engagingly from his plump and stubbled face that, to tell the truth, we didn’t know what to say.
“Gentlemen,” he said, “this is nothing new to me but I fear it is new to you. I … am a chef.”
“Hmm,” said I looking at his hands, which were, I am happy to report, clean and trim.
“Yes, sir, a chef,” said the hobo, pulling at his jacket a little elegantly. “And it is my habit, in the summer, to travel roads where sportsmen are likely to be found. And whenever I come upon a car, such as yours, and realizing how hungry the sportsmen are likely to be when they come out, and so weary…”
He paused, lifting his eyebrows dramatically but with a slightly bizarre effect of elegance.
“Well, gentlemen, at any rate with your kind permission, may I prepare your supper? And in return, may I partake of a small portion of what is left?”
Jim nudged me. I nudged back.
“So you’re a chef?” said Jim.
“I have cooked for royalty,” said the hobo.
“I have held the highest rank in some of the greatest hotels in the world, both Europe and America. You may call me Pierre, if you wish.”
“Well, er, ah,” said Jimmie. “I’m afraid we haven’t much for you to go on here in the car…”
“Tttt, ttt, tttt,” cried Pierre, “you have some trout. What more is needed?”
“We’ve got a large can of beans,” said Jim, starting to unlock the car door, “and some bread and a small pickle bottle full of butter, if it hasn’t melted…”
“Ttttt, tttt,” cried Pierre, pinching his thumb and finger together in the ancient and approved gesture of chefs, “please, gentlemen, just give me the freedom of the car and leave all to me. I am accustomed to what is to be found in sportsmen’s cars.”
Jim started to hand out the carton and the packages and parcels, but Pierre politely elbowed Jim aside.
“Gentlemen,” he said, “may I suggest that there is a small brook crossing the road down about 50 yards. If you stroll down there, for a wash and a splash, and take your time …”
So we laid our rods aside and started off. I observing with some rising of the heart, that the fireplace Pierre had constructed with a few rocks, was a very workmanlike job, an improvement, as a matter of fact, on the classic campfire invented and detailed by the famous Nessmuk in his book “Woodcraft.” The stones were skilfully spaced, a large stone for a backlog had been rolled into place and between the sides a hot small fire of solid glowing embers hummed redly.
Golden and Blue
“Jim,” I said low, as we walked down the road, “I kind of like that guy.”
“Did you ever hear of such a trick to get free meal?” asked Jim.
“There’s nothing for him to go on,” I pointed out. “That can of beans, a loaf of bread, some sour pickles, tea, and sugar.”
“And a lemon,” added Jim, “for the tea.”
“Oh, well,” I pointed out, “he can’t cook them any worse than we would.”
With which thought, we reached the little brook passing under a small log bridge, and there in the gin-clear water we washed and splashed our faces, and Jim found a piece of comb in his pocket, which we shared.
“Give him time,” said Jim, as we started back up the road. So instead of turning in by the car, we paced side by side on up the road, while Pierre signalled us eagerly and appreciatively.
“That’s it, gentlemen,” he called, “Walk up and down that delightful road and I will call you when all is prepared.”
“I’ll be jiggered,” breathed Jim. “If this isn’t the strangest thing.”
We strolled slowly up the evening road, amid the tall trees, like two gentlemen strolling on the terrace outside some palace of the Riviera, though our ragged fishing clothes were hardly formal, and no stringed instruments beguiled us but only the reeds and woodwinds of the bush, the birds, the spring peepers and the tree toads. Three times we passed the car, and each time, bent above the fire in a fury, Pierre glanced anxiously up and shook a warning hand at us not to approach.
Then, just as we found a bittern down by that log bridge over the brook, and were listening with perennial astonishment to the “bittern with his bump,” that sound like a squeaky pump, we heard a far hail from Pierre, and all aglow we strode back up the road.
“Forty minutes,” said Jim. “That’s what he’s taken.”
But oh, my friends and oh, my foes, what else had he taken but our very hearts? From a piece of newspaper, Pierre had constructed himself a chef’s hat, or a passable replica thereof. All around him, as he stood proudly beaming, were spread dishes, our frying pan, a covered pot which Pierre had produced from his own dilapidated packsack; a birchbark platter of crisp water cress from the brook.
“Be seated, gentlemen,” said Pierre bowing to the running board of the car. “Or have you, perhaps a toast you wish to name before you sit.”
“Here,” said Jim, “is to … to everything!”
We sat. Pierre handed us each one of our own tin plates. From the frying pan, in which lay our trout, not crisp, not brown, but golden and blue, their native glory showing, all simmering in a sharp brown sauce … rose with an aroma that fairly made his gasp.
From the pot, he ladled out round white objects…
“Potatoes?” I remarked.
“No, sir,” cried Pierre, “the root of the common arrow-head that grows in shallow water along all our ponds and creeks. I make it my habit to gather such delicacies as the wild wood affords, in my travels.”
With glittering eyes, the eyes of the artist, Pierre watched us as we lifted the first bite.
Even his stubble seemed to vanish when we lifted our amazed eyes after that bite.
“Eh?” he asked, breathless. “That little tang is crinkle-root, that I picked right here by the road, and a faint dash of Indian turnip, that you call jack-in-the-pulpit. A little water cress was cooked in that sauce … eh?… and a dash of your lemon. It gives it a…”
“My Greatest Joy”
But even Pierre grew silent as he watched us. This was no occasion for haste. Each lift of the fork, each opening of the mouth, each closing of the jaws had to be done slowly, rhythmically, with rolling eyeballs and deep inhales.
“The last time,” I finally breathed, “was at the coronation, Pierre, at Scott’s, in Piccadilly, and it was Sole a la Scott.”
“This,” said Pierre, “is trout a la Pierre.”
“My dear man,” said Jim, huskily. “I know hotel managers, I know proprietors of summer hotels where I could get you a good job.”
“Tttt, tttt,” cried Pierre, “no, no, gentlemen, do not make that mistake. I was a chef for 30 years. I have been cribbed, cabined and confined most of my life; a happy life, too. But some years ago, deep in the copper-lined bowels of a great hotel, as I stood amidst my masterpieces, I suddenly thought, as Saul must have thought on the road to Damascus … ‘What am I doing here?’ So I just packed a small bag and walked away.”
“We could get you…” I began.
“Nobody,” said Pierre, “can get me anything. That is my greatest joy in the world. Nobody can get me anything. And I can get something for others.”
We resumed our eating. Pierre heaped bunches of crisp cress on our plates and laid fresh trout on top, and poured that indescribable sauce from the pan over them.
“Where will you be,” asked Jim. “a week from to-day, Pierre?”
“Please God,” said Pierre, “five hundred miles from here.”
“We’ll be back here,” I pleaded, “to-morrow.”
“Ah,” smiled Pierre, “to-morrow, a hundred miles from here. No, gentlemen, that is the essence of freedom. To make no plans nor enter into any agreements. It is my delight to walk the roads and find the cars of sportsmen and have a fire ready and their food laid out when they return from the woods. No men are hungrier. No men are more appreciative. What an artist craves is appreciation. You cannot know, gentlemen, what happiness you have given me by eating this food.”
He ladled out another lily root for each of us, and bathed it in the sauce, which he had mysteriously augmented with more butter and a squirt of lemon and tiny dash of mashed herb.
Instead of tea, he had made us coffee out of his own packsack. Coffee that was pure liquid aroma.
“Now, while I eat,” he said, “I suggest you go for another walk on the road.”
It was a command not a request, so we went, and hands behind, and minds bewildered with thoughts of freedom, and bodies all aglow from the power of beautiful food, we paced up and down the twilight road, until the whip-poor-wills began and we heard Pierre cleaning up the pans.
“Let us drive you,” we pleaded, “part of the way you’re going.”
“You can’t go,” said Pierre, gently, “the way I’m going.”
And we all shook hands and he went one way and we went the other.
Editor’s Notes: This story is reprinted in “Greg Clark & Jimmie Frise Outdoors” (1979).
Given that this was the Great Depression, hoboes were a common sight.
“Nessmuk” is the pen name of George W. Sears, an early outdoors writer. He wrote “Woodcraft”, a book on camping in 1884.