By Greg Clark, February 2, 1940
If you’re not wealthy, not beautiful and not outstanding in charm, what do you have to do to get into society? Greg and Jim try to become expert figure skaters
“Socially,” said Jimmie Frise, “we don’t amount to much, do we?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” I retorted. “I have a tuxedo hanging up in the attic in a pillow-slip to keep the moths out of it.”
“I mean,” said Jim, “you never see our names in the list of those present at things. You never see our pictures in the newspapers holding a horse’s head or standing with knee bent looking off into space at the hunt. We’re not in society.”
“Oh, we get about,” said I.
“What I mean is,” said Jim, “they had that big military ball a little while ago. Why weren’t we there? In kilometres marched, in cooties squashed, in socks worn out, in blisters on our heels, I bet you were more entitled to be at that military ball than three-quarters of the people who were there that got their names in the paper.”
“Military,” I said, “is used in a different sense in society. Society is a little hard to understand. For instance, you could no more crash society than you could crash the Masons. You have to have wealth or position or beauty or charm.”
“Well,” said Jim, feeling in his pants pockets, “we haven’t got wealth. I don’t believe we’ve got beauty, and if you’ve got charm I’ve got parrot’s disease. But just the same I think we ought to try and get into society. And the way you do it is by doing the things society does.
“What, for instance?”
“Something fashionable, like riding horses or flying airplanes or throwing big parties.”
“Count me out,” I said. “Horses give me hay fever, to put it mildly. And as for airplanes and parties– “
“I’ve got it!” cried Jimmie. “Figure skating! Everybody of any account can figure skate. It’s the loveliest form of exercise. It has grace, charm, style. It would transform us into creatures of fashion.”
“You mean that sort of whirling around,” I inquired, “On skates? I thought that was a sissy sort of thing.”
“Sissy!” exclaimed Jim. “So is riding a horse over a six-foot jump sissy! So is playing rugby. It takes more to be a good figure skater than it takes to be a good golfer.”
“Something tells me–” I began.
“Come on,” cried Jim. “Be a sport. Get somewhere. Don’t be content to let life slide by. I’ll arrange everything.”
“I don’t want to waste a lot of money finding out I’m not cut for society,” I warned him.
“Listen,” said Jim, “Arthur Donaldson of the advertising department is a member of the Skating Club. He’s an old-timer. Boy, can he figure skate! He can draw figures on the ice.”
“I bet he can’t do a figure five without slipping.”
“I bet he can draw Premier King on the ice.”
“I’ll show you.”
So Jimmie asked Arthur if we could investigate the art of figure skating a short distance, and Arthur very kindly took us up to the Skating Club.
The Skating Club has a lovely sheet of ice entirely surrounded by pleasant rooms and galleries and places to eat and sit about with soft cushions. I noticed the soft cushions especially. I noticed also the lovely mantels for leaning on, in case you can’t sit down.
Arthur borrowed a couple of pairs of skates for us and we put them on.
Personally, I never saw such skates. My recollection of skating is a little hazy, but I do recall that after a few staggers and several slithers and a little waving of the arms you could manage to scoot joyously around in circles.
These skates Arthur presented to Jim and me were shaped like new moons. They were curved. Little as ordinary skates give you to stand upon, these figure skates gave you about one mean little inch on the ice and the rest of them curved up to the front like a rocking chair.
Even on the wooden platform around the ice they caused my ankles to knuckle inward and Jim’s to knuckle out.
“Come along,” urged Arthur, giving a few little hops and then gliding beautifully out on to the ice. There were only two girls and an instructor up at the far end of the rink. “They’ll never notice you,” said Arthur quietly.
Remembering -as who does not?- the skill with which we used to skate, I slid on to the ice. It was a ghastly sensation. The skates started rocking, the little curved blades had no sense of direction, and without the slightest co-operation from me I found myself on my back. Good old Jimmie came instantly to my rescue, sliding boldly on to the ice. He fell on top of me.
Arthur curved graciously over to us, and with murmurs of sympathy stood there while Jimmie and I slowly crawled up him, like sailors going up a mast.
“Now, now,” said Arthur, “take it easy. Just stand steady and get your balance and take little strokes until you feel assured.”
“Let me take your arm, Arthur,” said I.
“You wouldn’t learn that way,” said Arthur. He withdrew his arm from my clutches. Jim and I stood steadily for an instant, his ankles out, mine in. Then his feet went from under him as if an unseen foe had kicked him. Whether I sat down for company or whether I was blown down by the wind of Jimmie’s fall I can’t say, but the next thing I did was to crawl on hands and knees for the wooden platform. And as I passed Jim I hissed in his face:
I removed my skates and watched Jim for a little while in my sock feet, until he was thoroughly convinced that he would have to reduce his leg length before entering society.
Arthur, as we sipped hot chocolate on soft-cushioned chairs in the club rooms, assured us that we had done splendidly.
“You made a better beginning than most,” said he.
“What do the average do?” asked Jim.
“Just lie down and refuse to get up?”
So we drove back to work.
“It only goes to show,” I said to him as we drove, “that people in society have got something special. What have we got?”
“We don’t give up yet,” said Jimmie. What we’ve got to do first is to recover our ice legs. I suggest that we do a little skating on public rinks on ordinary states first, and then try out those curvy ones.”
“I know already that I’m not cut out for society,” I assured him.
“Listen,” said Jim, “don’t be a quitter. To get on in life you’ve got to have determination. I’ll pick you up next Saturday afternoon at three o’clock. I’ll have the skates.”
“I’ll be out,” said I.
But Jim called at three in his car. You can’t refuse an old friend who comes honking at your door.
“I’ll watch you bust into society,” said I getting into his car. “But you use a funny part of your anatomy for busting, I’ll say.”
“We aren’t going to a public rink at all,” said Jim. “My kids skate on a kind of pond down in the Humber valley. It’s all isolated. Nobody will see us. We’ll just go down there and do an hour’s practice and it will make us feel like a million dollars.”
Down in the Humber valley below Lambton Jim led me to a pond about as big as a school yard. A dozen suburban kids had a bonfire by its side and were having a grand old game of shinny on the puddle.
“How deep is this pond?” I asked one of the suburban kids who stopped to watch me wobble on to the ice in my borrowed skates.
“How high is the sky?” retorted this radio-minded youth from York township and skidded away into his gang.
With wide and rather ungraceful strides, as if we had three or four knees in our legs instead of one, Jim and I stroked our way out into the middle of the pond.
“Hey!” came a half dozen shrill voices from the bonfire. “It’s soft out there!”
I grabbed for Jim and Jim grabbed for me.
Our feet went out from under us, backward, we fought frantically to hold our balance and then down we went as one man. One man with two large points of contact.
The ice gave way softly, without any drama at all.
We sat down in nine inches of cold water.
Jim struggled to his feet and helped me to mine. All the little York township boys stood in a circle and cheered us.
I tried to think of something to say but none of the things that came to my mind seemed fit for the occasion.
But as we waddled, with legs ajar, back to Jim’s car, we both came to the conclusion that society is for them as likes it.
Editor’s Notes: This story is shorter than the average one. Usual stories are about 2500 words, while this one is only 1500 words. This reduced story length seemed to only exist in early 1940, so it may have been initiated by concerns of newsprint restrictions early in the war.
Jimmie mentions Parrot Disease, also known as Psittacosis.
Premier King is William Lyon Mackenzie King. It was not uncommon at the time to refer to the Prime Minister as Premier.
Lambton is a neighborhood in Toronto, in an area then known as West York.
When asking how deep is the pond, he gets the smart-ass reply “How high is the sky”. This is the second line in the Irving Berlin song, “How Deep Is the Ocean?“, written in 1932. It was a popular ballad from this time period covered by many Jazz musicians.