“What life requires of us, now and then, is a feeling of sudden desperation.” Like climbing telephone poles after cats, for instance
By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, January 6, 1940
“Come for a walk,” said Jimmie Frise, appearing at my front door. “It’s a lovely Sunday afternoon.”
“A walk?” I said, being in the middle of a good book on trout fishing.
“A walk,” said Jim. “W-a-l-k. Look, you move your feet like this. Walk.”
“Okay,” I said. “Only you sort of surprised me.”
“The way you acted,” said Jim, as I threw on my overcoat, “you would think I had invited you to come for a fly or a creep or a hop-scotch or something.”
Rusty was with him, waiting on the steps, and I joined them and we stepped merrily out into the mellow winter sunshine. It was for a fact a lovely afternoon.
“Walking,” said Jim, as we started away, “is becoming an unusual act. Your surprise, at my invitation, was probably quite normal. It is probably far more unusual to receive an invitation to come for a walk than to receive an invitation to come for a fly in an airplane.”
“Walking,” I agreed, “is going out of fashion. The only walking we do any more is the little we have to do between vehicles. We walk to the garage. Then we walk from the parking lot to the office. Then we take the elevator.”
“At the office,” went on Jim, “everything is laid out on an economic plan that requires as little walking as possible between departments. The less walking done in a modern plant, the happier the management is.”
“And rather than walk three rooms to see a colleague,” I pointed out, “we telephone him on the private switchboard.”
“The whole scheme of modern life,” said Jimmie, “is to eliminate walking. I suppose the perfection towards which we are struggling is to have all mankind squatted on a soft pillow and carried from place to place by miraculous vehicles. A vehicle to lift us, on our pillow, out of bed in the morning, carry us all over the world, and then deposit us tenderly back in bed at nightfall, without having to set foot on the vulgar earth.”
“I wonder, Jim,” I submitted, “if all our troubles may not be due to our loss of touch with the earth? My grandmother would never let me wear rubber-soled running shoes when I was a boy because she said it would give me weak eyes. She held the opinion that it was necessary for human beings to touch the earth all day. If you cut yourself off from the earth by any unnatural substance like rubber, you were like a plant whose stem was cut.”
“Well, the less we walk,” said Jim, “the worse off we seem to become. The more we perfect our mechanization, the less human we grow. Never in the world’s history did we walk less. And never were we in a greater muddle, intellectual, spiritual and physical.”
“My grandmother may have been right,” I declared. “Maybe we are children of the earth after all. Maybe we have to keep touch with the soil. Maybe there is some divine elixir, like electricity, that exudes out of the earth into our bodies. And to have perfect strength and health of mind and body, we have to get our daily charging, through our feet.”
Contact With the Earth
“Well, I will say this,” submitted Jimmie. “Most of the craziness of the present world comes from cities rather than from the country. You don’t find many country people in the governments that lead the various nations to disaster. The more industrialized people grow, the crazier they grow. And living in cities, they rarely touch the earth with their feet.”
“We might have hold of something there, Jim,” I declared.
“Look at Rusty,” said Jim, pointing to his amiable Irish water spaniel. “See how he scorns the sidewalk. The sidewalk is dry and warmed by the sun. Yet Rusty prefers to adventure out on the icy and snowy lawns. Why? Because he is in contact with the true earth.”
“Maybe my grandmother was right,” I repeated. “Maybe there is some strength we get out of walking on the earth.”
“When people are ill,” said Jim, “we send them out into the country. We say it is the country air. With the wind blowing all day, how can country air be any different from the air in cities? No, it isn’t the air that heals people. It is something that comes out of the earth, some emanation, some rays, unseen, essential. And we can’t get them in cities of concrete and brick.”
“There is a blind need to put our feet on the earth,” I pointed out. “Look at golfers. Is there anything in the game of golf to justify the passion golfers develop for it? Biffing a silly little ball around the fields? But when you understand that the passion these men have for the game arises out of the soil, then all is clear. They think they love the game because of the club and ball. They really love it because, as slaves of the city, they are given the opportunity, in golf, to walk on the earth and absorb the life-giving rays, whatever they are.”
”That’s true of all outdoor sports,” said Jimmie. “What can there be in fishing trips which are always a fizzle, or shooting trips where you never see any game, yet which call us out, time after time?”
“You’re right,” I agreed. “As the bee is drawn to the flower we are drawn to the country. We think up a thousand excuses for going to the country. The simple fact is, we have to go to the country to get recharged out of the earth.”
“Walking,” asserted Jim, “should be enforced. The more our masters, the industrialists, eliminate walking as waste, the more we should make laws requiring so many miles of walking from all of us who are workers in cities. All city workers should work five days. And then, by law, have to go walking in the country for two days. Then the world would return to normal.”
“I’m glad you brought me on this walk, anyway,” I informed him. “I feel more normal already.”
Nothing Like Walking
There is a kind of winter’s afternoon that is not excelled by any other hour of all the year. May and early June at its loveliest always is lovelier by reason of contrast with the dreary March and April that preceded it. Star-scattered nights of August are incomparable, but there is the murmur of September in them. A mid-January afternoon, with a slight melting at the edges of roofs and crispness unsalted with wind or chill, is a jewel of time. Its vivid brightness, its purity, its hardness is like a diamond. It defies comparison with May or October. It has no sadness or envy in it. Every sound rings. No thought of sprouting flower or of vivid dying leaves creates that sense of time’s movement. Men close to 50 might choose to live in a perpetual afternoon of mid-January.
“Did you ever try to keep a record,” I asked Jimmie, “of the actually perfect hours of your life? There are not many of them.”
“Most of them,” said Jim, “have usually been associated with walking.”
“You’re quite right,” I agreed. “You don’t get into accidents or smashups while walking, Mischief never suggests itself to a man on his two feet.”
“Walking is the most peaceful of all things,” said Jim. “Let even two such peaceful men as we are sit down for five minutes, and trouble starts.”
“Atta boy, Rusty,” I said suddenly.
Because Rusty had come upon a cat sunning itself on a sidewalk. And with his tail wagging and a look of expectation, Rusty was moving in a stiff circle around the cat which slowly arched itself into a standing position and turned its head malevolently towards Rusty.
“Here, Rusty,” commanded Jim shortly.
“Atta, boy, Rusty,” I muttered.
And with a pounce and a hoarse bark, Rusty accepted the more agreeable of the two suggestions and made for the cat.
“Hyah,” roared Jim indignantly.
But Rusty was after the cat and chased it briefly to a telephone pole, up which it went, much to Rusty’s delight.
“Now, look,” accused Jim. “See what you did.”
“Good boy, Rusty,” I asserted.
Jim walked over and scolded Rusty away from the pole where he was barking,
“Okay, come on,” I suggested.
“You can’t leave a cat up a pole like that,” said Jim hotly.
“What are you talking about,” I retorted. “If a cat can run up a pole, can’t it run down?”
“No, it can’t,” said Jim. “The poor creature might be marooned up there all night. It might never come down. They might have to get the fire department to come and rescue it.”
“Oh, nonsense,” I protested. “You’ve another of those cat-conscious people. Don’t baby them.”
“Furthermore,” said Jim, “I don’t altogether like the way you interfere between me and my dog. When I speak to my dog. I don’t like people to countermand my orders.”
“Cats always excite me,” I apologized. “I’m sorry, Jim, but whenever I see a cat, something malicious springs to life in me.”
“There are people who love cats more than we love dogs,” stated Jim.
“A cat is not a normal human associate,” I stated. “It is purely a pet. You might just as reasonably love a crocodile. A dog is a natural friend of man, because it serves him, hunts for him, guards him. What does a cat do? Just creeps slyly about the house. And kills songbirds.”
A door opened in the house immediately beside us and a lady looked out.
“How,” she asked, “are you going to get it down?”
“Oh, it’ll come down as soon as we go away, madam,” I explained nicely.
“Oh, no it won’t,” said the lady. “We’ve had to have the fire department come more than once to rescue that cat.”
I looked up the pole, and hanged if the silly thing had not gone up right to the crosspiece.
“Why do people keep animals like that around?” I demanded.
“Why do people keep dogs,” retorted the lady, “that haven’t been sufficiently trained to leave cats alone?”
“The dog is perfectly all right,” Jimmie informed her, “if he weren’t sicked on by people who have no business to.”
“Do you suggest,” I asked, “that I climb up that pole and rescue that cat?”
“Well, you don’t suggest I do?” countered Jim.
“I’ll go up,” offered a small boy standing by, “for a quarter, mister.”
“No you won’t,” cried the lady. “We don’t want any children killed around here just because people keep savage dogs.”
“Lady,” said Jim. “this dog is no savage.”
“There are usually some young fellows hanging around that drug store Sunday afternoons, Jim,” I suggested. “Suppose we walk around by the corner and I get a couple of them to come and climb the pole?”
“Are you scared of a little climb like that?” demanded Jim. “With those rungs sticking out?”
“Certainly not,” I informed him. “But what do I do when I get the cat? I hate the feel of cats. So soft and limp.”
“Pshaw,” scoffed Jimmie. “Scared of a kitten. And I’ve seen you grab great big slimy muskellunge and haul them bodily into a canoe …”
“I don’t like soft, mushy things,” I stated firmly.
“Okay,” said Jim, unpleasantly, “okay, come on and hire some young hero hanging around the drugstore.”
“Just a minute,” called the lady on the veranda. “Are you going to leave that cat up there?”
“We are going to get somebody to bring it down,” I explained.
“Why can’t you get it down?” demanded the lady in one of those penetrating voices.
“Because,” called Jimmie, “he doesn’t like soft, mushy…”
Which caused me to leap to the pole and start up it before he even got the sentence finished. What life requires of us, now and then, is a feeling of sudden desperation.
But It Just Backed Up
Much as I dislike heights, even moderate ones, I clambered from spike to spike up the pole, and as I approached the top, the cat, with nasty spitting sounds, retreated farther out on the cross-beam.
“Come on, kitty,” I said, masking my natural instincts regarding cats in a gruff, kindly manner.
But cats have always been to me creatures that lacked any true human affinity. Even the most pampered cats act as if they didn’t really give a tinker’s rivet for their master or mistress or the fine home they share. True, they have a coy way of arching their backs and rubbing themselves against your leg. Or they will lie and purr on your lap. But that only goes to show how cheaply, with a little purring, you can wangle your way through life.
This cat eyed me with hard, glaring eyes. It bared its teeth in a soundless meow and arched its whiskers at me.
“Come on,” I said, not unkindly “Let’s both get down out of this.”
But it just backed up.
“Grab it,” called Jim. “Pick it up by the scruff of the neck. It won’t hurt you.”
In my boyhood, I have carried mice and even snakes in my pockets and all I can ask is, that those who dislike mice or snakes offer me the same respect I have for their fancies.
“Will you come down,” I hissed at the cat.
“Ffftt,” said the cat.
“He won’t come down,” I explained to Jim.
“For Pete’s sake,” said Jim disgusted.
So I reached quickly and caught the cat by the horribly loose fur on his neck, and pulled him clear of the cross-beam to which he stuck like a burr with all his nasty little claws. I lifted him and he curled around and clawed my wrist but I hung on and came down the rungs so slick and so quick Jim says I practically slid the whole way.
As I neared ground, I let go the cat and it lit as light as a ping pong ball and danced away for the veranda.
And even Rusty didn’t move. He just sat and looked eagerly at Jimmie and I never opened my mouth.
So we went to the drug store after all and I got a 15-cent bottle of iodine and carefully dabbed all my scratches. And for the remainder of the walk, we talked about the war, not about walking.
Editor’s Notes: More homespun wisdom from Greg’s Grandma Greig can be found in many of the stories Greg wrote that were collected in his solo books.
This was a nice example of Jim working a different angle, making the illustration long and thin, taking up the whole length of the newspaper page.