A “sock dollager” is slang for a something great or large. In this case, it is in reference to the size of the fish.
By Greg Clark, July 22, 1939.
“It’s little wonder,” declared Jimmie Frise, “that our generation is dying off in middle age.”
“Referring?” I inquired.
“Referring to you,” said Jim. “You’ve had the jitters now for three solid hours. Why don’t you relax?”
“Relax?” I cried. “Relax?” How can I relax when you said you’d be ready to leave at 12 noon. And now It is precisely 3.15 p.m.?”
“I have my work to do,” said Jim with dignity.
“You said you’d have it all finished last night,” I complained. “You said there would be nothing for you to do this morning but clean off your desk.”
“I miscalculated the job,” said Jim. “Anyway, what’s the difference? If we lose three hours on this end of the trip, let’s take three hours at the far end of it. Why this slavish devotion to plan?”
“Aw, for Pete’s sake,” I moaned.
“That’s what’s killing off the human race,” said Jim, working away industriously at his drawing board at a cartoon that should have been in last Tuesday. “Trying to be machines. Trying to work with the precision of a machine. Trying to make and keep schedules for everything. It’s unnatural. It’s killing us off.”
“You should live to a ripe old age,” I submitted.
“Now, look,” said Jim kindly. “Explain to me. What are you all in a lather about? Why are you acting slightly demented just because I am a couple of hours later than I expected to be?”
“Jim,” I pleaded, “we make arrangements to spend the week-end at Pat’s cabin. It’s 150 miles. We agree to leave at 12 noon sharp, so as to get there early enough to have part of the late afternoon and all evening. If we had got away on time, we would have been at the cabin by now. But where are we? Here. In Toronto. In your office. On a Saturday afternoon, in a deserted city. And you ask me, what am I fretting about?”
“But look,” said Jim calmly. “What real difference does it make? Next October, what difference will it make if we don’t go at all? Why get all in a foam over the fact that some trifling detail of a week-end trip away back here in midsummer was a little muddled? I can’t see it. Honestly I can’t. In a few hours today is yesterday. Next fall this hour is so far buried in the past you won’t even recall it. Then why in heaven’s name give this hour such tremendous importance?”
“Jim,” I began indignantly; but what could anybody say in reply to such outrageous thinking?
“The trouble with our generation,” went on Jim, “is it has no sense of the past or the future. It is aware only of the present. Nothing matters but now.”
“But, good heavens,” I argued.
“It’s machines that are to blame,” sighed Jim. “We invented machines about a hundred years ago. Now, instead of trying to be worthy of being God’s image, we are trying to make ourselves into the image of the new god, the machine.”
“That’s not bad, Jim,” I admired.
A Silly Human Mistake
“Human nature never was and never will be capable,” stated Jim in a platform manner, “of precision. There have been a lot of silly mistakes in human history. Men have tried to be a lot of things different from what they are. They have always paid for it. But the attempt to convert men into machines is the silliest and stupidest mistake of all. And we’ll pay for it heaviest. In fact, we are paying for it now. Paying for it in confusion and fear and anxiety and insecurity. Paying in world-wide bewilderment.”
“A man should still be capable of being on time,” I contributed.
“Absolutely not,” said Jim. “A man who presumes to be always on time is guilty of blasphemy. Not against God, but against human nature.”
“You can always think up remarkable excuses,” I said.
“Leave a man a man,” said Jim, “and he lasts 70, 80 years, hearty and happy. Try to make him a machine, and he wears out like a machine. Why is it, may I ask, that despite all the wonderful advances in medical science, the almost unbelievable surgical discoveries, the actually spooky revelations regarding glands, why is it that despite all this and all the improvements in every department of living, men do not only not live longer but live less long than they used to?”
“I admit we live shorter,” I said, “but we live better and more fully.”
“Puh,” said Jim. “Our whole social philosophy today is the philosophy of the libertine. Never mind tomorrow. Just live for today.”
“Life is ten times more interesting than it was in the Middle Ages,” I declared.
“Ask somebody who lived in the Middle Ages,” suggested Jim. “Life, my friend, is life. In proportion, life is just as dear to a bug as it is to a man. When you have it, it is all. When you lose it, you lose all. When you step on a bug, you have ended something that was, in its proportion, mysterious, beautiful, and never to be restored. You think nothing of stepping on a bug. But now, you are growing careless with your own life. You think only of now. You do not pause to look back over the past and remember all that was best in it. If you did, you would act in the present in such a way as to preserve in the future the most and the best of what you had in the past.”
“Hurry up with that cartoon,” I muttered.
“By George,” said Jim, “I just remember I haven’t had any lunch.”
“Let’s call the trip off,” I suggested bitterly. “I’ll go and ‘phone the village store to send a message in to Pat that we’ll be up some other time.”
“Five minutes, and I’m done,” said Jim. “And I can grab a sandwich or a chocolate bar in passing somewhere.”
“You’d better have some lunch,” I said reluctantly, “if you want to live to a ripe old age.”
But Jim set to and scratched the final pen strokes on his cartoon, studied the finished product wryly, rolled it up for the engravers, and we dashed for the corridor.
The lunch counter we usually snack at was closed. The downtown streets deserted except for a few underprivileged citizens in their best clothes slowly strolling in the desert of blank shop windows and pavement. So willy-nilly we hastened around to the parking lot, where our car stood all alone.
And in 15 minutes we had left the city behind and joined the ragged procession of the belated for the north.
“As a matter of fact,” pointed out Jimmie, “it is a lot pleasanter being late than getting caught up in the traffic fury of the early birds. The guys who are all trying to be first.”
And it was. Now and then a furious individual, all cramped up to his steering wheel, passed us madly. But most of us late-goers seemed to be a reconciled lot. A sense of our lateness imbued us. We just plodded along.
“Hot dogs, three hundred yards ahead,” sang out Jimmie, reading a sign.
“Okay, if you must,” I sighed, slackening for a gasoline station on the right hand side ahead. “I could do with one myself. If they’re any good.”
“Hot dogs are always good,” said Jim. “The mustard kills any bacilli, if any.”
“Ugh,” I stated.
When we ran off on to the gravel of the gas station we saw a little booth to one side labelled hot dogs. As we got out, a man came hurrying from inside the gas station, his hands and arms all smeared black with oil.
“Is it hot dogs, gents?” he asked anxiously. “I’m sorry. My wife has just run up to the village …”
“We’ll get to Pat’s some day next week,” I offered Jim.
“I’m right in the middle of a generator job,” said the service man, apologetically. “But if you like, help yourselves and leave the money in the cigar box behind.”
“Can we go right in?” exclaimed Jim, very pleased.
“The wieners are on a little gasoline heater,” said the garage man, pushing the side door of the booth open with his elbow, “and the buns are in that box there.”
“Okay,” cried Jim, heartily. “Go about your business, mister, and we’ll help ourselves.”
“You don’t mind?” smiled the garage man.
“This is swell,” assured Jim. “Self-serve hot dogs. The idea ought to go big.”
It was cosy in the booth. An old automobile sent served as a lazy bench. On a tiny gas burner a saucepan simmered, with three wieners in it, all plump and suntanned. I opened a large tin biscuit box, in which reposed dozens of hot dog buns.
“Nice and fresh,” I announced, pinching them.
“Okay, two up,” cried Jim.
Two Good Samaritans
And I slit the buns with the large knife lying on the shelf; Jim lifted the wieners and let them drip, laid them restfully in the buns. From the big jar of bright yellow mustard we ladled out the condiment in lush blobs.
“Yummmm,” said Jim, biting his.
And as we ate, conscious of the pleasantly sharp mustard, the soft bun and the gently bursting sausage between our teeth, another car whirled into the gas station yard and ran up in front of us.
“Five,” yelled the genial gentleman at the wheel. “Five fat ones and make it snappy, boys.”
The garage man came rushing out, all greasy and embarrassed.
“Sorry, sorry,” he said to the new arrivals. “My wife has had to run uptown. These gentlemen are just helping themselves…”
“Okay, brother,” Jim interrupted, “If you’ll appoint us your wife’s deputies we’ll gladly serve these folks.”
“That’s the spirit,” joined in the stranger.
“It’ll just be a minute,” said Jim, turning up the gas flame to make the water bubble. “I have to heat the weenies.”
In a basin on the lower back shelf lay a couple of dozen wieners, and from the pile Jim took six and popped them into the saucepan.
I dug out five buns and expertly slit them open.
“Gentlemen,” said the stranger, leaning outside on the counter, “I envy you. Gosh, how I envy you. Taking time off to do a decent little job like this for that garage man. And for me and my family. And for yourselves.”
“It’s a pleasure,” said Jim, standing back in the expert chef manner and shaking the saucepan on the flame.
“Now, you take me,” said the stranger. Those women in the car have been yelling at me for the past five hours to hurry, hurry, hurry. We’re late. It will be dark before we get to the cottage. The kids will be tired and cranky. It’s been an awful day. And here I stand, looking at two people who have all the time in the world to be a couple of good Samaritans along the highway.”
Jim stepped on my foot.
“Gosh, gentlemen,” said the stranger, “you’ve got the right slant on life.”
“Okay, brother,” said Jim, lifting the pan and seizing the fork to spike out the fatly gleaming sausages.
And with me holding the buns and the stranger ladling out the mustard, we did very expert job. And 50 cents went plunk very loud into the cigar box.
“There,” murmured Jim, as the stranger distributed the hot dogs, “that’s your answer. What could have happened to us up at Pat’s half as amusing as what has happened the past 10 minutes?”.
“Here’s some more,” I retorted, as another car, with four young people in it, whirled dustily on to our gravel.
“Okay,” said Jim, grabbing another handful of wieners from the basin and dumping them into the saucepan.
So I dived for the buns and slit them, and when the garage man came and grinned anxiously out the door of the gas station at us Jim yelled:
“We’ll carry on until your wife gets back!”
“She’ll be back any minute,” sang back the gas man. “She don’t like to miss any dimes.”
So we fed the four youngsters and before their hot dogs were assembled another car with two arrived; and a moment later a car with five; and by the time all these were served there were only three wieners left in the basin.
“Do we want another?” inquired Jim. “Before they all go?”
But before we could decide a final car hove in, with three customers. And the sausages now were all gone. We kept the pan stewing, the buns splitting and mustard flying, and when the last were served we hastily lifted the hooks and lowered the front of the booth as a sign that the hot dogs were run out.
“Well,” said Jim, “there’s eighteen hot dogs and $1.80 in the cigar box that wouldn’t have been there.”
“And we’re a good half hour later than we would have been,” I reminded.
And at that moment a car drew in and lady got out with a parcel. It was the garage man’s wife, sure enough, and he came out and explained to her what a fine job we had been doing for her. Which we blushingly took.
“Why, that’s lovely,” said she, coming in the booth and looking around, “but where did you get the wieners?”
“In the basin,” said Jim.
“Oh, mercy,” said the lady.
“Why, wha…” said Jimmie and I.
“Why, those,” cried the lady, “those were as stale as anything. I threw them out. I was up to the village for a new supply.”
A mucky kind of silence occurred.
“Were they bad?” I inquired hollowly.
“Not bad,” said the lady, “but stale. I wouldn’t have served them.”
“Nobody complained,” stated Jim. “Every body ate them very heartily.”
“Well, I suppose men feel differently,” murmured the lady, looking into the cigar box and ticking over the money with her finger tip.
“Anyway,” pursued Jim, “all hot dogs are good. The mustard fixes them.”
“And besides,” I added, “the human race is getting tougher all the time.”
Upon which, I stepped on Jim’s foot, and we shook hands and drove off and watched all the way along the highway for miles, but saw nobody dead.
Editor’s Note: Jim could be slow with his work, resulting in time where the presses had to be held up until he finished.
By Greg Clark, February 25, 1939
“I’d be willing to bet,” stated Jimmie Frise, “that in 25 years the whole world will be Nazi.”
“Never,” I declared.
“By Nazi,” said Jim, “I mean Fascist or Communist or some kind of gang control, like Nazi.”
“Never,” I repeated stoutly.
“Yes, sir,” insisted Jim, “the whole shooting match is moving that way. Slow but sure. You can actually see the trend now, the way you can see autumn coming.”
“I would rather see spring coming.” I put in.
“Well, it’s autumn we’re looking at, all over the world now,” said Jim. “For a hundred years we have had summer. Now comes the autumn of the world. Soon all the trees of a shady and comfortable life will be bare. Soon the fields of human endeavor will be bleak and gray. And all mankind will muffle up and hide away in their lonely shuttered houses against the winter of a stormy world.”
“You talk as if history went in seasons,” I protested.
“So it does,” said Jim.
“We’d never submit to any gang control.” I stated. “Not us. We’ve tasted freedom. We’ll never let go of it.”
“We’ve sold our freedom,” said Jim gently, “for something more comfortable. We sold our freedom for efficiency. We have gradually submitted to efficiency in all things. Electric light is more efficient than candles. Street cars are a more efficient way of going to work than walking, Shoe factories are a more efficient way of making shoes than cobbling.”
“Now, now,” I cut in; “all you want to do is kick against progress.”
“Not me,” disagreed Jim. “All I want to do is show you what progress is. And where it goes. You admit that the biggest effort of the past hundred years has certainly been in making the means of life more efficient in all things.”
“I sure do,” I agreed.
“Okay.” said Jim. “Then the best way to run a country is the best way to run a factory – hand it over to one man or a gang of men, called a board of directors, and let them run it with what they deem to be the maximum of efficiency.”
“Huh, for themselves,” I scoffed.
“Ah, no,” said Jim. “You can’t find a board of directors in the whole of North America, in the whole world, who will admit they are running their company in their own interests.”
“Sure they won’t,” I agreed.
“They are running it,” said Jim, “in the interests of the industry, of the public welfare.”
“Well, the public isn’t faring very well in most parts of the world,” I pointed out.
Life Can Never Be Easy
“It’s their own fault,” declared Jim. “They wanted life to be easy. And life can never be easy. If it comes easy one way, it becomes uneasy some other way. That is all history is – the story of men’s trading one thing for another thing, always in the hope of getting something for nothing.”
“Such as?” I challenged.
“Such as,” said Jim, “this: We grew our cattle and rendered our tallow and molded our candles and so had light. But that was uncomfortable and hard, so we traded that for a corporation that gave us electric light at the touch of a button. But now, when we lose our job because the factory we work for is run by a stupid or ruthless board of directors and we can’t pay our electric light bill, the power is turned off on us, and there we are, in darkness. A more terrible darkness than ordinary darkness because now we have forgotten how to grow cattle and render tallow and mold candles. That is a terrifying darkness. A much more terrifying darkness than any our ancestors knew, however poor and humble they were.”
“Pooh, Jimmie,” I protested; “those ancestors, living in hovels, were at the mercy of any roving robber baron that passed by their shack.”
“Today, how different?” said Jim; only he asked it as a question and raised his eyebrows and looked at me with a mocking expression.
“Well, anyway,” I retorted, even if we have robber barons among us today it is better than being bullied by a dictator and his gang.”
“Don’t be too sure,” said Jim. “Inefficient bullies surely can’t be as good as efficient bullies. Not if there is any virtue in efficiency.”
“You hate efficiency,” I sneered.
“I think it is overrated,” admitted Jim. “I’ve seen it destroy a great deal of human joy and happiness.”
“It made things cheaper,” I pointed out.
“But threw a lot of men out of jobs,” countered Jim.
“It organized a disorganized world,” I declared.
“Ready to the hand.” retorted Jim, “of the ultimate efficiency expert, the dictator.”
“Jim,” I admitted, “I begin to see what you’re driving at. It isn’t that the dictators have taken possession of men. It is only that men have cheerfully handed themselves over to dictators.”
“Now you’ve got it,” said Jim. “The last of all to submit to efficiency were the farmers. But the minute farmers began to organize into co-operatives and take on efficiency machines in trade for greater ease and security, they started to form battalions for some dictator – of their own choosing.”
“Then the only free man now,” I cried, “is the most backward man: the hillbilly, the tramp, the savage.”
“Everybody else,” decreed Jim, “is tossing his freedom away, lining up behind the glamorous banners of efficiency and preparing to march at the command of a dictator.”
“To heck with it,” I said.
“Too late,” said Jim.
“It is never too late,” I cried.
“It is always too late,” sighed Jim. “Look at history.”
“Jim,” I shouted, “we’re newspapermen. Let’s get going. Let us rouse the public. Let us write articles. Let us hold public meetings. Let us stage radio programs. Let us take up the fiery cross of freedom and warn the people of this country where we are headed.”
“They’d never listen,” said Jim.
“Let Us Fight Efficiency”
“Sure, they’ll listen,” I cried. “We’ll make them listen. We’ll stage a revival. We’ll employ the smartest talent. We’ll adopt the most modern and up-to-date methods of propaganda. I don’t mean any countrified little outburst. I mean, take the country by storm. Set it on fire.”
“We’ll be efficient,” said Jim slyly. “We’ll be a couple of dictators in no time.”
“There you go,” I said bitterly; “being cynical about the most sacred things of all, human freedom.”
“No,” said Jim, “I was just agreeing with you. Let us put on a whale of an efficient assault against efficiency.”
“I don’t believe you mean it,” I said cautiously.
“You’re right; I don’t,” said Jim. “Some things are deeper than words or even ideas. And biological trend is one of them. Purely biologically mankind has chosen to be more comfortable by means of efficiency. Efficiency is not a natural thing in men. By nature they are inefficient, happy-go-lucky, decent, amiable, hoping for the best. To adopt efficiency, mankind has to change its nature. One of the changes it has to make is to give up its sense of freedom in being happy-go-lucky, amiable, decent and hoping for the best. In all things, for generations past, we have chosen efficiency. Okay. It is almost complete. In 25 years we will have realized our dreams. We will be efficient. It will not be men who will be our despots. It will be the despot, efficiency.”
“Then,” I cried, “let us fight efficiency.”
“How?” laughed Jim.
“By turning back,” I pleaded eagerly. “By reviving the means of freedom, by refusing to buy factory-made goods.”
“Ha,” said Jim, “a sort of William Morris or Elbert Hubbard revival of the homely arts and crafts.”
“Let us encourage our wives and daughters to knit and weave,” I explained. “Our sons to take up metal hammering and wood working. Let us start a back-to-the-land movement, not amongst the unemployed, but amongst the rich and influential and well-to-do.”
“They’d love it,” agreed Jim.
“It’s the well-to-do we’ve got to rouse,” I cried. “If we show them where they are leading us and themselves they’ll draw back.”
“Most well-to-do people are dictators already in their own sphere,” said Jim.
“But they wouldn’t like to be under a Hitler,” I triumphed.
“They’ll have to like it,” smiled Jim, “because they themselves have proven – in their own field – that authority is efficiency and efficiency is success.”
“Which do we want most,” I demanded, “success or happiness?”
“Now you’ve divided mankind into the four classes,” said Jim. “Those who want happiness, those who want success, those who want both, and those who will sacrifice either for the other. There you’ve got them all.”
“Do you mean to say there are people who want only success?” I asked.
“The business and professional world is full of them,” replied Jim.
“And people who want only happiness?”
“The trades and labor world is full of them,” said Jim. “And the loan shark offices are packed with the people who want both. And the quiet places of the earth, the gentle farms, the little cottages on the edges of villages, are filled with people who have surrendered success for happiness; and the lobbies of hotels and the night clubs and the office lights burning high and late into the night, and all the other lonely places of the earth are filled with those who choose success at the price of happiness.”
“I hate the look of the future,” I muttered.
“There is nothing you can do about the future any more than you can do anything about the past,” said Jim. “It’s all buried deep in the nature of men.”
“Then,” I declared, leaping to my feet, “let’s do something about the nature of men.”
“What do you think,” demanded Jimmie, “the churches have been doing for a thousand years; and schools and ten thousand writers and philosophers and reformers and statesmen?”
I slapped my leg emphatically.
“But we’ve never been in such peril before,” I cried.
“We’ve always been in peril,” replied Jim, “hence churches, teachers, philosophers and statesmen.”
“Let’s take up the torch,” I pleaded.
Beclouding the Issue
And at that instant I smelled a curious smell.
“Phew,” I interrupted. “What’s that smell?”
Jim sat forward.
“H’m,” he said, “it smells like sulphur …”
“Ouch,” I yelled, leaping violently backwards.
My leg was stinging with a sharp bee-like sting, right on the thigh. I reached into my pocket. My fingers stung as if from fire.
“Your pants are afire,” commented Jim, pointing.
A faint cloud of smoke was emerging from my mid region.
“Jimmie,” I shouted, reaching frantically into my pants pocket and attempting to pull the pocket inside out.
“Matches on fire in your pocket,” said Jim, rising to his feet.
“Hyah,” I gasped, scrabbling with one hand to draw out the pocket and with the other holding the front of my pant leg free of my leg.
“You shouldn’t use old-fashioned matches …” commented Jim.
“Help me,” I bellowed, starting to skip around, because the fire was now beginning to scorch my tender leg. “Help.”
“Well, for heaven’s sake,” said Jim, “take your pants off.”
For now an evil-smelling cloud of smoke of scorched cloth and smothering matches was billowing from my pants and I was indeed in peril.
I tore my coat off faster than ever I removed it in all my life, Jim whipped my plaid pullover of me and in a thrice I had slipped my pants down, to reveal a completely charred pocket and a large hole, smoldering at the edges, in both my tweed trousers and my underwear. And on my leg a nasty red spot.
I beat the smoldering cloth out.
“What a silly thing…” I gasped.
“You shouldn’t carry those dangerous old-fashioned matches,” declared Jim firmly.
“They’re the only kind I like,” I stated indignantly. “Those safety ones just go fffff.”
“Then,” insisted Jim, “you shouldn’t slap your leg the way you do. Don’t be so vehement if you’re going to carry dynamite in your pants pocket.”
“I’ll slap my leg if I like,” I retorted, more in indignation than anything, because no man likes to be standing with his pants half off and his clothes on fire and listen to somebody lecturing him.
“Sure, sure,” said Jim bitterly. “And you’re the guy that wants to change human nature and set the world on fire for freedom and you can’t even keep your pants from catching fire.”
“Okay, okay.” I said, “but what do I do now? I can’t go around with a hole in the leg of my pants.”
“There’s a cleaning place across the road,” said Jim, “where they mend all kinds of burns and things.”
“I can’t go over and sit there with my pants off,” I informed him angrily.
“Okay, okay,” said Jim. “Take them off and I’ll take them over and have them patched up somehow and wait for them.”
“Suppose somebody comes in?” I asked.
“Lock the door,” said Jim, “and when I come back I’ll rap three short, quick raps so you’ll know it is me.”
So Jim took my pants and I locked the door, and just to be doubly sure I put my overcoat on and sat at my desk with my legs under it, and tried to think about the way the world is going. But by the time Jimmie got back I hadn’t thought up a single thing. Which goes to show that without his pants a man isn’t much of a thinker.
By Greg Clark, September 16, 1939
“You poor guy,” cried Jimmie Frise, “now what’s happened?”
“It’s the hay fever,” I replied sullenly.
“You look as though you’d been crying for a week,” said Jim.
I’ve been crying,” I informed him, “for nearly thirty years.”
Why don’t you do something for it?” demanded Jim. “You’ve no right to be going around in that condition, distressing all your friends. I bet even strangers shudder at the sight of you.”
“I don’t expect any sympathy,” I stated coldly.
“At first sight,” remarked Jim, scrutinizing my swollen and inflamed countenance “you would think you were agonized with grief.”
“I am,” I admitted.
“On second sight,” continued Jim, “you look like an alcohol-drinking hobo that had got dressed up in good clothes.
“I know what I look like,” I informed him bitterly. “If you don’t like the look of me, look some place else.”
“Why don’t you take some of the cures?” demanded Jim. “There are pills that are very helpful. And at any hospital they will test you out with forty or fifty vaccines and find what it is you are allergic to.”
“Yes, and make forty or fifty holes in my arms,” I retorted. “I know hay fever victims that have had over two hundred incisions. They have the tattoo marks of our affliction all over both arms, both legs and a new geometrical pattern started on their chests.
“And not cured yet?” inquired Jim.
“There is no limit,” I explained to the number of things a man might be allergic to. The ordinary things are pollen, dust, fur and things like that. But after a man had allowed himself to be cut to pieces and all the outrageous particles from horse dandruff to asbestos rubbed into his hide, he might die of acute asthma and find, in the great Beyond, where all things are made known, that what he suffered from was pork chops.”
“Yet,” argued Jim, “you might find your enemy on the fifth incision. And wouldn’t that be worth it?”
“I think everybody ought to have some sort of affliction,” I declared. “It makes us more kindly disposed towards our fellowmen. An annual affliction, like hay fever, is better than a case of appendicitis, because as the years go by you not only get over thinking about your appendix; you even stop talking about it. Whereas, hay fever is recurrent. It comes back every year, and every year it grows worse. It is not a fatal malady, but it is as miserable as any affliction you can imagine. Lots of us wish it were fatal.”
“Come, Come”, Laughs Jim
“Oh, come, come,” laughed Jimmie.
“Hay fever looks funny,” I admitted. “But it is far from funny. It isn’t an ache and it isn’t a pain. It isn’t a tickle and it isn’t an itch. But it is all those things combined into one complete agony.”
“Why don’t you do something about it, then?” asked Jim. “Why don’t you go away for a couple of weeks’ holidays?”
“Who wants to take holidays in September,” I demanded, “when all the resorts are deserted? Who wants to go up to a summer cottage in mid-September and see nothing but boarded-up and shuttered cottages staring deadly all around? A man who reaches my age wants a little human companionship.”
“There are plenty of little hotels run exclusively for hay fever sufferers,” said Jim. “Mighty cosy little places, too, and you would be amongst the company of your fellow victims. There would be a fellowship amongst you that would be a damn sight more amiable than the fellowship of a summer hotel.”
“I don’t fancy hospitals,” I stated, “or convalescent homes.”
“These aren’t hospitals,” cried Jim. “I know one little spot I ran into two years ago when I was lunge fishing. It’s the smartest little modern hotel you’d ever want to see. And it is packed full of hay fever victims right through to October. They have grand fishing, and September is the loveliest month of all, if we only realized it. The trees turning and fine winds and sunny days.”
“I’ve had my holidays,” I advised.
“But if you spoke to the editor,” cried Jim, “do you think he would want you to suffer like this? You could do your writing up at the hotel and mail it down.”
“It would just look like so much graft,” I protested. “Editors are hardened to hangings and murders and things. What do they care for hay fever?”
“I was thinking,” explained Jim, that if I were to sell the editor a real bad case of hay fever for you he might suggest that I go with you and do my drawing up there, too. We have to be together.”
Ah, He Knows ‘Em
“Pooh,” I said. “I know editors.”
“Anyway,” went on Jim with mounting excitement, “you couldn’t drive yourself, the condition you’re in. Somebody would have to take you. Just for a few days. Just for a week or so.”
“Pipe dreams, Jim,” I assured him, trying to get my typewriter clicking.
“And if a traffic cop were to see you driving,” said Jim, “with a boiled face and bleary eyes like yours, he’d pinch you for drunken driving and there would be a scandal.”
“Just let me be, Jim,” I requested wearily. “It lasts about another week. Then I’ll be okay.”
“You have no objections,” inquired Jim, “if I try a little sales talk on the editor?”
“Hm, hm,” I said, starting my typewriter clicking.
And a few minutes later, Jim having left the room, the editor strolled in to talk over a story about Hollywood with me, wondering if I would like to go down and skyhoot around with all the movie stars for a while. And all the time he sat on my desk he kept staring intently at me.
“Hay fever?” he inquired at last.
“Mfff,” said I, having known this editor since we were boys together.
And he walked out, and a few minutes later Jim walked in with a note to me from the editor.
“I think,” said the editor’s note, “you had better slip away for a few days to some hay fever resort. You can write your copy there and mail it. I think Jim might accompany you and take his drawing board with him. I do not think it is in the best interests of the office that strangers should see you hanging about in your present condition They would misunderstand and possibly get a wrong impression as to the principles this newspaper stands for.”
“Wheeeee,” yelled Jimmie.
“How did you manage it?” I cried, leaping up and joining hands for a little ring-around-a-rosey with Jim.
“I told him I had overheard a conversation in the elevator,” said Jim “between two ladies who said they wondered at The Star Weekly employing such dissipated-looking scoundrels. They meant you.”
“I don’t approve of the means,” I stated, “but the end is okay.”
They Get Away
And after cleaning up the odds and ends that infringe on all unexpected holidays, Jim and I got away the following noon and had not gone fifty miles through the fine breezy September countryside before I felt my head clearing, my eyes losing their itch: and Jim, looking at me, said that he could already see traces of my normal self appearing out from amidst the blotches and blobs.
September is a fine month. May has a quality of delight in it, after the long winter. But September is like a man of forty compared with the childish tantrums of April and the sulky fulness of July. September is the year in its maturity.
“Hoy,” I hailed the wide fields, the coloring trees. “Wheeee.”
“Whatever it is gives you hay fever,” said Jim, “it is in the city. It certainly isn’t in the country. You’re like a new man already.”
And over country highways with hardly any traffic we lifted and dipped and soared and came at last to the lake country and the gravel roads that led us just before supper time to the little hotel devoted to the victims of allergy.
It was, as Jim had promised, a dandy little hotel. Set in a grove of pines, on a hill, and well built and rugged, with fireplaces everywhere, and stuffed fish and paintings of sportsmen and big game animals. A decidedly pretty waitress showed us to the registration desk where a large lady welcomed us and gave us our rooms.
“My husband,” she said, introducing a large, shy gentleman who ambled up. “He was a terrible sufferer. So I made him give up the brokerage business and we just came out here and launched this sanctuary.”
“You’ve got a lovely little place,” I agreed. “Are there many muskies caught this season?”
“This hotel,” said the lady, ignoring my piscatorial query, “this hotel has never been desecrated with a sneeze. Oh, Mrs. McKay …”
Another elderly lady bounced over and we were introduced.
“Mrs. McKay is a tragic sufferer,” assured the hostess. “She’s one of our charter members. Been coming here for twenty years… Oh, Mr. McWhirtle …”
Not a Sneeze in Roomful
And a gentleman passing was haled over and introduced. Apparently, at hay fever resorts, one meets everyone. It’s a club.
“Any fishing, Mr. McWhirtle?” Jim enquired heartily.
“I don’t fish,” said Mr. McWhirtle. “I am happy just breathing.”
And he took a deep breath to show us. He swelled all up.
Before we got out of the lobby, we met six other people, Mr. and Mrs. Macdonald, Miss Andrews, Dr. and Mrs. McSlockery and a widow, Mrs. McDrummle …
“I notice,” I said “that you are all Scottish?”
“That’s a fact,” agreed Dr. McSlockery heartily. “I wonder if the Scotch aren’t a little more subject to hay fever…”
“Dinner, gentlemen,” said the hostess, “will be in twenty minutes.”
So the merry little gathering in the lobby broke up and through upstairs halls faintly smelling of the happy odor of log fires, two pretty maids escorted Jim and me to our rooms and laid out our bags and brought us jugs of steaming water.
“Some place,” I assured Jim when we visited each other.
“We’ll be very cosy here for a week,” gloated Jim. “I’ll set my drawing board right here by this north window.”
“In honor of all those Scotchmen,” I said, “I’m glad I brought this Scotch tweed.”
“Wear it to dinner,” said Jim. “It makes you look distinguished.”
So when the mellow dinner bell rang, we descended the stairs with the excitement that comes in strange houses, and we paraded into the dining-room where all the guests were eagerly seated and the menu cards being inspected hungrily.
“This September air sharpens the appetite,” said the proprietor very friendly as we passed him to our table, next.
The dining-room faced south and the hot evening sun had made the room warm. Behind me an electric fan hummed happily. We all glanced around at one another in the friendliest fashion.
“Aaaachooow!” sneezed the waitress standing nearest us.
I thought the hostess, who was at the next table, would fall off her chair.
“Gertie!” she gasped. “Gertie.”
But Gertie laid her head back and go another.
The room seemed to freeze. No wolf howl ever created a more deathly silence in the sheep-fold than did Gertie’s outrageous sneeze.
“Waaa,” began Jimmie, unexpectedly, “chooo.”
The proprietor, turning to look in consternation, suddenly coiled up his nose, writhed his lips in agony and let go a terrific cross between a sneeze and a cough.
And before you could say Mackenzie King, the whole room was in an uproar of sneezing. Little sneezes, like a cat, big sneezes, like a horse, ladies, gents, waitresses, all paralyzed in the most extraordinary fit of sneezing gasping, coughing, choking.
And the glory of it was, I felt not the slightest tickle.
One by one, couple by couple, the guests rose and staggered from the room, holding their serviettes to their faces. I could see the tragic telltale signs, the running eye, the flushed brow and that expression of dumb despair known only to the allergic.
Everybody fled but Jim and me, and when the second waitress ran out the kitchen swing door, even Jim, reaching his tenth whopper, stood up and walked unsteadily to join the others in the lobby and on the cool veranda. I was left alone, clear-headed, dry-eyed, to sit and listen to the hubbub of sneezes, and babbled conversation sharp with a note of consternation in it.
Then I got up, having satisfactorily demonstrated my superior resistance, and walked out to the lobby.
Mrs. McSlockery was standing in the door leading to the veranda. She was breathing deep, wiping her eyes, and had apparently got herself under control.
“What an extraordinary…” I began amiably to the lady.
“Aaaaa,” she sighed, “whooop …”
I backed away from her.
“It’s Hib, Hib”, She Shouts
“It’s hib, it’s hib,” shouted Mrs. McSlockery wildly; and when I turned, she was pointing a frenzied finger at me.
“It’s hib, the biddit he cabe dear, I wet off agaid,” she cried furiously.
Dr. McSlockery approached me menacingly and withdrew his serviette from his blotched face long enough to take a quick sniff in my direction.
“It’s his coat,” shouted the doctor. “It’s full of heather! It’s heather pollen! Get him out of here. Get him out of here.”
I will draw a veil over the next seven minutes. I have never left a hotel so hurriedly. Not even in Flanders. The proprietress practically gave Jim and me the bum’s rush. We were bundled out. Weeping maids no longer pretty, dashed up and slammed our bags shut and yanked them downstairs hiding their faces from us in their aprons. The guests gathered out on the screened veranda and stood stonily and did not even wave good-by.
“I can leave my coat hanging out in the ice house,” I shouted, before I shut the car door. No answer came from the veranda and its dark huddle of figures. “I can parcel it up and mail it back home.”
“Oh, well,” said Jim, “you can’t blame them, exactly. You should understand their feelings.”
“The coat doesn’t affect me,” I retorted.
“You’re not Scotch,” said Jim. “Heather pollen never drove your ancestors from their native glens.”
So we drove out to the nearest village and got the address of the next best hay fever resort and went there. I left the coat in my bag and wore pullovers instead. But it wasn’t one, two, three with the other hotel. Jim went home Wednesday and I’m bringing this home tonight.
By Greg Clark, May 13, 1939
Greg and Jim discover it’s often more than the house that gets painted when amateurs try the job
“Do you realize,” demanded Jimmie Frise, “that you can’t get a painter for love or money in this city.”
“You’ve left it too late,” I stated.
“Well,” protested Jim, “there was so much uncertainty. Some of the best guessers of my acquaintance were willing to bet a hundred to one their majesties wouldn’t be coming to Canada.”
“There was your chance,” I pointed out, “to get your house painted for nothing.”
“The main thing is,” said Jim, “How am I going to get it painted now?”
“The royal procession doesn’t come anywhere near your street,” I suggested.
“What has that to do with it?” demanded Jim indignantly.
“Well, after all,” I said, “if you were on the royal route, I could understand your anxiety. But away down a back street …”
“All my neighbors,” said Jim, “have redecorated their places, they’ve painted up and they’ve got their flower beds abloom and I saw one fellow across the street nailing those flag-staff holders on every window sill. I bet he hangs out 20 flags.”
“So it’s to keep up with the Joneses that you want to fix up your house?” I taunted.
“I’m just as loyal as anybody in this country,” declared Jim hotly.
“But you’re just a little procrastinating,” I submitted.
“I bet there are tens of thousands of Canadians in the same pickle I’m in,” complained Jim. “How about you? What have you done with your house?”
“I put it up to the landlord,” I explained sweetly. “I suggested that it was hardly patriotic of him to allow a loyal and true blue Britisher like me, a major on the reserve, all battle-scarred and full of army phrases, to live in a house not all dolled up for the royal visit. So he turned loose a gang of painters and it was all I could do to prevent them painting the house red, white and blue.”
“You people who rent have all the luck,” muttered Jim.
“But we have nothing to leave our widows,” I offered.
“The rest of us,” growled Jim, “leave mortgages to ours.”
“You could solve the problem,” I suggested a little uneasily, for I could already sense a purpose in Jim’s conversation, “with bunting.”
“A little rain,” countered Jim, “and where’s your bunting?”
“Put it up at the last minutes,” I offered. “Drapes over your porch and festoons above the windows.”
“It isn’t good enough,” declared Jim. “It would look tawdry in my street. One of my neighbors showed me a great big silk Union Jack he has bought. Bigger than a table cloth. It cost $40.”
Dizzy on Ladders
“Why don’t you go down to one of the government employment offices,” I asked, “and get a couple of men and turn them loose? Painting isn’t so mysterious a business.”
“Oh, isn’t it?” lured Jimmie.
“Pshaw, no,” I said, foolishly, “I’ve done painting as good as any professional. I painted our kitchen less than two months ago. And you saw the job I did on the annex up at our cottage?”
“Amateur jobs are all very well,” said Jim, cautiously, “in kitchens and on summer cottages, but you can’t do the front of a house. That takes professionals.”
“Get away with you,” I cried. “All it takes is patience and care. The difference between a professional house painter and you or me is simply that we are in a hurry, whereas the professional house painter does it for a living and therefore takes his time.”
“You mean,” inquired Jim, “that if you and I undertook to paint the front of my house, all we’d have to do is take our time and be careful and we could do it as well as a pro?”
Too late, I realized where I stood.
“Personally,” I said firmly. “I think you would be better advised to buy bunting. The bunting would cost you less than the paint. Why, for the cost of the paint, you could cover your house with bunting and get a big silk Union Jack besides.”
“My house needs a coat of paint anyway,” mused Jim.
“The great trouble with amateur painters,” I pointed out, “is, the average man gets dizzy on ladders. Now you take me, for instance. I daren’t climb a ladder. If I go up a ladder, I get so dizzy I have to hang on with both hands.”
“You could do the lower bits,” said Jim. “The window sills, doorways and things like that. I never get dizzy.”
“When I say the average man can do a job of painting as good as a professional,” I explained, “I should add that there are exceptions. Some people just have no knack for painting. You, no doubt, could do a perfect job. After all, you are an artist. And what’s the difference between painting a picture and painting a house? But I lack the delicate touch.”
“I’ve seen your kitchen,” said Jim. “I think it is a very creditable job.”
“Yes,” I agreed, “but I always say, one job, one man. You’ve got to get the paint on even. It wouldn’t look right, with part of the house done with your delicacy, your artistic touch; and the rest of it daubed on by me.”
“You mean,” said Jim, bitterly, “that you are trying to get out of lending me a hand with a little painting job. You mean, you begrudge me a couple of afternoons and evenings of your time and help.”
“What Have You Contributed?”
“That’s a fine accusation to make,” I cried, “after all the things I’ve helped you with, from sooty chimneys to making rockeries in your garden.”
“You were a big help there,” said Jim.
“Jim,” I said, “I hate painting.”
“All I really need you for,” said Jim, “is to hold the ladder and now and again stand back and tell me if I’m getting it on even.”
“Painting isn’t like that,” I insisted. “You can’t stand around when anybody is painting. Before you know it, you’ve got a brush in your hand.”
“You won’t even hold the ladder?” demanded Jim darkly.
“This is the worst season of the year for me, Jim,” I pleaded. “The trout season and the royal visit and my work is behind and one thing and another.”
“Well, I never would have believed it,” said Jim sadly. “It just goes to show the depth of your loyalty. What have you personally contributed to the royal visit? You call upon your landlord to decorate your house. You telephone for a little bunting and your wife puts it up. I should think you would welcome a chance to do something personal, to put some personal effort, however small, into expressing your loyalty. It’s easy enough to get somebody else to do the work. You’re like those patriots during the war who bought Victory bonds as their contributions to the great fight.”
“I didn’t buy any Victory bonds,” I assured him hotly. “I would like to remind you I was in the infantry and not the artillery.”
“Do you mean to insinuate that the artillery …” began Jim, and then thought better of it.
“You can’t measure loyalty,” I stated, “with bunting, flags and fresh paint.”
“No,” said Jim, “but you can measure loyalty by the willingness of a man to put himself out a little to celebrate momentous occasions.”
“It’s your house that needs painting,” I remarked.
“Okay, okay,” said Jim. “Okay. I hate to think what will happen to this country in the next war. The old spirit is gone.”
“What spirit is gone?” I demanded.
“Back in the old days,” said Jim, “when you saw one of your comrades in a jam, did you stop to figure it was his own fault and leave him to his fate, off on some exposed flank? No, sir. Without even pausing to think, you went like a wildcat to his aid.”
“He wasn’t painting any houses,” I snorted.
“Okay, okay, okay,” said Jim, conclusively.
“When were you figuring on doing the job?” I inquired.
“I’ve got the paint,” said Jim. “In fact, I’ve had it two weeks, trying to get a painter.”
“This is our night out, at home,” I submitted. “If I can get my wife to go to a movie with the kids I’ll drop around.”
“It’s more for company than anything,” said Jim kindly. “And you could hold the ladder and that sort of thing. I simply can’t tackle the job single-handed. You never saw painters working solo.”
“Okay, okay,” I said kindly, too.
So I put on some old clothes and after supper walked around to Jim’s. He was already on the job. He had a ladder up against the front and pails of paint set on the ground, one of which he was busily stirring when I arrived.
“Aha, gaudy, eh?” I remarked. For the pots of paint were red, blue and yellow.
“Well, I figure it this way,” said Jim, straightening up. “Paint is the salvation of a good house. I’m going to doll it up in royal colors and make a real celebration of it. Even if I don’t do a very slick job, the paint will be thoroughly plastered on. Then, in a few weeks, I can get some painter to put a second coat on, in conventional colors. All neat and tidy.”
“That’s an idea,” I concurred. “And you’ll certainly knock the hat off everybody else on the street.”
“I don’t think loyalty should be cautious,” declared Jim.
“Or finicky,” I agreed, stirring the red pot.
“The window sills,” said Jim, “light red with a blue line for trim. The door pillars yellow.”
“I’ve always maintained,” I agreed, “that we in Ontario are far too timid in the painting of our homes. You take some of those little towns and villages in Quebec.”
“I have them in mind,” said Jim. “Now if you’ll hold the ladder, I’ll start on that first window.”
“It’s a bit creaky,” I said, gripping the ladder, which looked as if it had been in the cellar for the past 10 years.
“Don’t worry,” said Jim, starting up it with a courage that I envied.
“Careful,” I called up, “not to spill any paint on the bricks. If you get a speck of paint on the bricks you’ll never get it off.”
“Just hold the ladder,” suggested Jim.
So I held the ladder and watched Jim brace himself with all the insouciance of a sailor.
“One little splash of paint on bricks,” I offered, so as to put his mind at ease, “and the more you try to get it off, the wider it smears. It makes an awful mess.”
“Just hold the ladder,” explained Jim.
“It’s the porousness of the bricks” I concluded. “The oil in the paint and the porousness of the bricks.”
“Hold it steady,” admonished Jim.
There really isn’t much to holding a ladder. In fact, all there is to it is just leaning against it and holding it. If you look up. you can’t see anything except the feet of the man above. And there is the feeling you are going to get a squirt of paint in the eye.
“The best painters,” I commented, don’t fill their brush very full. They just half dip it and then press it out against the inside of the pail…”
“When you talk,” said Jim, “it makes the ladder vibrate.”
“Sorry,” I said.
So Small a Thing
In fact, holding a ladder is about the least loyal thing I can imagine. It is so small a thing it is almost disloyal. I began casting my eye around the lower woodwork, the window sills and the door pillars. There was an extra brush lying by the paint pails, but it was old and stiff with gray paint.
“How about me,” I asked, “getting some turpentine and working up this extra brush? It wouldn’t take long to soften it.”
“We can do that after dark,” said Jim. “If you’ll just hold the ladder steady. It feels kind of creaky. It’s been dried out, all those years in the cellar. Just hold it firm.”
Rusty, Jim’s aged and slightly feeble-minded water spaniel, was snuffing about. His nose was buried in the new grass, and he was snuffing in deep, brief snorts.
“Gittim, Rusty.” I said, it being kind of dull just holding ladders.
“Oomph,” said Rusty, wagging his rear half.
“Atta boy, gittim,” I commended.
Rusty continued to follow his mysterious trail, stopping and snorting at the ground and then hurrying a couple of steps.
“Sickim,” I said, with no ill-intent.
“Owfff,” barked Rusty, and he dashed into the side drive.
“Hold steady,” said Jim above. “This rung I’m on just gave a kind of a crack.”
“Step down to the next rung,” I warned.
Down the side drive came a sudden loud baying and out on to the lawn came the cat that lives next door. After her came Rusty, in full cry.
“Pssst,” I warned, as the cat wheeled and dashed along the front of the house straight for me.
The cat went back of my legs. Rusty was too fat and tried to go in front. He bunted my knees and I made a grab for a firmer hold of the ladder. From aloft came a splintering sound.
“Whauppp,” roared Jim.
And down came he and his paint and the cans at my feet rolled various ways and a huge splash gulped and rolled down the bricks and there we sat in a royal puddle.
“God save the King!” I said.
“Now see what you’ve done,” said Jim grimly.
“It was that fool Rusty,” I protested.
“It was that damn cat next door,” declared Jim.
And we rose cautiously to our feet and stood legs ajar, regarding the horrible big smear on the brick wall.
“I warned you,” I said, “about getting any paint on the …”
“I think,” said Jim, “I’ll adopt bunting after all.”
Editor’s Notes: King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visited Canada in 1939, the first time reigning monarchs came. It was a very big deal, since it was also on the eve of World War Two.
Greg mentions in the story that he was a renter. In fact, he never owned a house in his life, and always remained a renter.
by Greg Clark, January 14, 1939
It will be a good three hours,” said Jimmie Frise, “before he can get the clutch relined.”
“Do you mean to say,” I demanded, “that the whole clutch is gone?”
“It just went all of a sudden,” explained Jim.
“Nothing in a motor car goes all of a sudden,” I stated hotly. “If we’d been in my car, this wouldn’t have happened. Here we are stuck for three hours in a peewee village, on a nasty stormy night…”
“Curl up in the back seat of the car,” suggested Jim, “and have a nap.”
“I don’t feel like a nap,” I informed him. “I feel like getting home to Toronto.”
“Okay,” proposed Jim, “you walk on and I’ll overtake you presently and pick you up.”
This absurd suggestion required no answer, because it was one of those nights of howling Arctic wind and snow drifting cold and wraithlike off the fields and across the bitter pavement of the highway.
“Maybe,” said Jim, “we could get a cup of coffee and a sandwich. Wait until I inquire.”
He went back into the gloomy garage where the garage owner was already disembowelling Jim’s car. In a village the size of this one, it takes five minutes even to ask a man if there is any place to get a cup of coffee and a sandwich.
“No restaurant in this village,” said Jim, finally coming out. “But there is a lady down the street a little way who runs a hot dog stand in the summer. He says maybe she would oblige us, unless she’s gone to bed.”
“It’s only 8 p.m.,” I protested, looking at my watch.
“Okay,” said Jim, “let’s go.”
“I don’t want a cup of coffee,” I declared.
“Well, for Pete’s sake,” cried Jim, “what do you want? Here we are stuck, through a little misfortune that might happen any time…”
“Jim,” I demanded, “why don’t you have us towed to Toronto? These village blacksmiths don’t know anything about clutches and things like that.”
“It would cost $6 to have us towed,” said Jim. “And this man can fix our clutch as good, maybe better than any city garage. In the city, my clutch would be only one of 17 clutches to be fixed at the same time. But here, it is the first clutch he has looked at since last September. I will get special attention.”
“Maybe he has never seen a clutch before,” I suggested.
“He says he has,” said Jim, “and if I had to choose between this fellow, and a lot of apprentices and high pressure workers in a city repair shop, with a dozen clutch jobs to do before closing time, why I’d prefer this village mechanic. Think of all the old cars around here that he has to keep in operation.”
“Then you brought that crate of yours to the right place,” I agreed bitterly.
“Sometimes,” sighed Jim, “I think you and I ought to always travel in separate cars.”
“From now on,” I retorted, “believe me, we will.”
Jim stepped out the door of the garage office into the bitter night and stood breathing deep of the air and gazing up and down the village street. I followed him.
It was a typical highway village. A church, a garage, a general store and about 10 houses, most of them one-storey frame cottages. Seven naked electric street lights served to illuminate the place. Through the branches of barren maples that in summer bower this little hamlet and make it a landmark for a million merry travellers, the winter wind moaned and blasted. Not a living soul was in sight. The only sign of habitation was a dim light glowing in the steamy windows of the general store.
“Let’s go for a little walk,” said Jim, very friendly.
So we turned up collars and stuck fists deep in pockets and bowed our heads and walked up past the store. We halted and looked in the windows, but nothing of merchandise was visible through the steam on the glass.
There seemed to be the usual array of pails, axes, harness and some boxes of groceries.
Inside, we could see a couple of figures that moved and the sounds of human voices came distantly to our ears.
“Let’s go in,” said Jim. “I crave human company.”
“Later,” I said. “Wait until we get cold. Preserve this as our sole entertainment.”
So we hunched up and walked briskly past three or four little dark houses and came to the end of the village. And we turned and walked back more slowly, past the store, the garage and so out to the farther end of the village.
“Isn’t it ghastly to think,” I said, “of these people living in self-imposed solitude? Look at it. Probably 50 people in this village. And it is as if they were dead and in their graves. Not a sound nor a sign. Only three, four, five lights burning. What on earth are they doing?”
“Oh, they’re happy,” said Jim. “They’re probably all busy in a quiet way. I bet there is a radio in every one of these homes. In what way does this village differ from Toronto?”
“Puh,” I scoffed.
“In Toronto,” said Jim, “they live in the front of their houses, that’s all. There is a little more light.”
“Oh, nonsense, Jim,” I cried. “Think of the streets, at this hour, the shopping streets, full of people; the movie crowds; even the residential streets full of cars and everything.”
“Nonsense to you,” retorted Jim. “In Toronto, everybody is a slave. Rich and poor, all are slaves. They get up in the morning and rush to their labor. They labor in fear and trembling all day, the rich, trying to safeguard and increase their riches, the poor in fear for their daily bread. But, for a little hour or two each evening, they are free, or imagine they are. So they walk about, in the streets, pitifully, in the bright shopping streets, and go to the movies to lose themselves in dreams of love and freedom; and drive gaily about in their cars, from house to house, visiting and pretending to one another about the wide and varied interests of their lives. But all of them, the rich, the poor, remembering tomorrow, and the fatal grind, and the long, anxious day.”
“It’s chilly out here, Jim,” I suggested.
A Social Centre
“But in this little village,” continued Jim, “and in a thousand thousand little villages like this all over the world, there is peace and quiet and security. Not in the front, but in the homely back of these houses, men and women and children are engrossed in happy things, in reading, knitting, talking gently. There is no fuss and no pretence, for they need not pretend. Each home has its job for tomorrow, a simple and honest job. And it waits for them. And they for it. And because everything is quiet, including their consciences and their hearts, they can go to bed any time. They can go to bed now, at 8.15 p.m., because they do not have to stay up late, trying to extract some desperate interest from their lives.”
“Huh, huh,” I argued, halting and turning to walk back into the village to which we were condemned for nearly three hours more.
“You’ve got to look at something else than the front of houses,” said Jim, getting in step. “In ninety-nine out of a hundred houses in cities, my friend, people are doing no more than these village people. But doing it hopelessly.”
“Ho, hum.” I concluded.
And we passed all the silent, dark little houses and came again past the garage, where we looked in and saw the mechanic darkly bent over the organs and entrails of Jim’s car, laid out on a bench; and once more to the general store.
“Let’s go in.” said Jim.
“What for?” I inquired.
“Just to look around,” said Jim. “You won’t find these village stores like city stores, with a clerk dashing at you full belt. This is a sort of gathering place. City stores are purely mercantile. Village stores are social centres.”
“Haw, ho,” I subsided.
So we knocked our boots against the step and pushed open the door with its jangling bell.
It was warm and foggy. Down at the back end of the store was a stove and around it sat or stood six men, all but one of them in their heavy winter coats and caps and mufflers. Temperature means nothing to the country, apparently. When you put on your winter clothes, you put them on, that’s all. This store, dim and crowded with merchandise, with its hot stove humming, was stifling. But everybody had his heavy coat on and his hands in his pockets.
The one man without coat was sitting at a little table around which everybody was grouped, and he rose, after Jim and I had stood for quite a moment in the gloom of the forward part of the store, and came towards us.
“Yes, gentleman,” he said, absently. “What can I do for you?”
“Do you keep cigarettes?” asked Jim.
“A few brands,” said the storekeeper, still absently. “What kind do you fancy?”
Jim named his brand.
The storekeeper opened a showcase and hunted thoughtfully amongst the four or five kinds he had, all clearly visible. He named them over. He drew out a couple of different packets and studied them intently.
“No, I don’t seem to have your kind,” he said.
You would think a storekeeper would know what kind of goods he had.
“I smoke a pipe myself,” he said, as if explaining.
“Well,” said Jim, looking about.
“Sorry,” said the storekeeper. “Is there anything else?”
“No, I guess not,” said Jim. “We were just stuck for time, having our engine fixed next door…”
“Oh, come right in,” said the storekeeper, with kindly understanding. “Make yourself at home. We’re just having a go at checkers here. Join up. By the fire.”
And he hurried back to the little table and the patiently waiting gathering, and Jim and I awkwardly followed after him.
Friendly faces looked at us, without too much interest, and everybody in silence concentrated his gaze on the battered checker board on which only a few pieces remained, three white crowns, three black crowns, three white pieces and two black pieces.
With nothing but the humming of the stove and an occasional sniffle from one or other of the silent watchers, the board was intently stared at, while the storekeeper made several false starts, changed his mind, and then finally moved one of the black kings.
Everybody sighed and stirred.
Opposite the storekeeper sat another elderly man, heavily coated and muffled. He instantly made a move with one of his white pieces.
An electric shock seemed to shake the room. Like a pouncing hawk, the storekeeper moved a king and in three more moves, the game was ended, the storekeeper the winner.
Everybody relaxed and there was a lot of laughing and going over of the plays.
“Anybody else?” cried the little storekeeper, gaily. “It’s cigars all round.”
Jim looked at me and I at Jim.
“That’s a sucker’s move,” murmured Jim. “That white piece.”
“Sit in,” I urged.
So Jim, after waiting a polite moment, piped up and asked if strangers were admitted.
“Delighted,” said the storekeeper.
“Is this game for money?” inquired Jim, jovially.
“No, sir,” said the storekeeper. “Just cigars all round. That’s the usual, hereabouts.”
Jim sat down and took his overcoat off. I stood behind him. Jim is a good checker player. He can see three moves ahead. In a moment, all was tense once more in this quiet place of business. Only the stove hummed and a couple of friends sniffled. Jim started his well-known wedge play, right up the centre.
The storekeeper, with becoming caution, paused and studied the board keenly. He began several false moves but snatched his hand back. Jim continued his aggressive drive up the centre. The little shopkeeper continued his cautious, countrified game, nearly making moves, then pausing to reflect.
Jim, coming to the end of his wedge, started up his rear guard.
With serpent-like suddenness, the little shopkeeper picked up one of his back men and jumped five of Jim’s. I saw it coming the instant he started, and loud exclamations and deep sniffles of delight came from the crowd and Jim, sitting violently back, saw the game over hardly before it had begun.
“Cigars all round,” cried Jim, merrily, while the storekeeper jumped up and passed the box: five-centers, fortunately.
“Seven cigars,” I counted aloud. “Make a note, Jim.”
Jim relayed out his men and a second game started. This time, Jim took a little time with his famous centre wedge play. He too started backing and filling and reconsidering his play.
“Get the sides up.” I said quietly.
Everybody looked at me, and three of them sniffled.
“Put two behind that forward one,” I suggested a moment later.
Jim gave me an impatient bunt with his elbow, and all the other watchers shifted their position a little and smiled briefly at me.
“Look out,” I cried, as Jim started to move one of his men.
“You don’t talk, during checkers,” said the shopkeeper, gently to me.
Jim moved. From a side position, the storekeeper shifted one checker, and there was Jim, cornered.
“Cigars all round,” I cried heartily, and again the box of five-centers were passed and all the lads opened their overcoats and slipped the cigars inside.
Three more visitors came noisily in the front door.
“May I?” I inquired, as Jim rose from the table.
“Certainly.” cried the shopkeeper
“You’re sure I’m not holding up any of you gentlemen?” I inquired graciously, around the group of watchers, standing and leaning.
So we set out the pieces. No wedge game for me. I play what you might call random checkers. A sort of guerrilla warfare. Devil take the hindmost, as it were. By assuming an air of concentration and mystery and moving any old piece, I often come out as good as the next fellow, and sometimes actually win.
At first, I had the shopkeeper buffaloed. In fact, I made two double jumps on him and could feel the tense air of the watchers around us. But then, quite suddenly, the storekeeper made a four jump and then got three kings out of nowhere and soon I was slaughtered.
“Cigars all round, nine cigars, make a note of it!” cried Jim, cheerily, and again they were passed and a new box opened. Two more strangers dropped in, stamping their feet.
“How about another game?” challenged the storekeeper.
“Okay,” I replied heartily.
So we had another game, and the cigars went around once more and then Jimmie said it was 10 o’clock and our car would be ready. So we thanked everybody for a pleasant evening and got the car and soon left the lonely little village far behind.
Editor’s Note: This is a common theme for some stories. Greg and Jim are stuck or lost and end up in some strange small town. They get into some mischief, and the story unfolds. This story also appears in the book “The Best of Greg Clark and Jimmie Frise” (1977)