Here, Herman is giving up his haircut money to the Red Cross, and the volunteer is willing to give him one in return.
By Greg Clark, November 24, 1945
“I’ve got two ducats,” announced Jimmie Frise, “to the wrestling match.”
“Ducats?” I inquired.
“Free tickets,” explained Jim. “Dead heads. Passes.”
“Jim,” I enunciated, “I have made it a lifelong principle never to accept free tickets to anything. They are free for either of two reasons. Either they are trying to pad the house, because they can’t attract a paying crowd, or else they are trying to interest you in the show for ulterior purposes.”
“Does it occur to you,” demanded Jim bitterly, that there may be good guys in the world who are just good guys? Is it possible for your small suspicious brain to conceive that maybe somebody just wanted to do a friendly thing?”
“Who gave you the tickets?” I asked.
“Bill Tooke,” replied Jim.
“Aaaaah,” I leered. “The promoter of the wrestling bouts!
“Bill has been a friend of mine for years,” cried Jimmie indignantly. “I’ve known him long before he ever was a promoter. He and I have played hundreds of games of snooker pool together. What is there more natural than that Bill should drop in and hand me a couple of ducats to the bouts? Haven’t I sent him a platterful of trout in the spring? Haven’t I given him the odd bass…?”
“I wouldn’t object,” I replied, “to a fight promoter sending you the hind leg of a moose in return for a platterful of trout. But it looks fishy to me when he drops in and hands you a couple of tickets to a wrestling bout he’s interested in.”
“And what,” gritted Jim, “do you suspect he has in mind?”
“He has in mind,” I informed him, “that you will persuade me to come to the wrestling bout with you, and we’ll do a story on it.”
“Did I,” shouted Jim, “invite you to come with me? I had no earthly intention of inviting you to come with me! I merely announced that I had a couple of ducats to the wrestling match, if I remember right.”
“Your intention,” I asserted, “was to interest me.”
“I hadn’t the least intention of asking you to come with me,” declared Jim hotly. “I know your attitude towards wrestling. I know your attitude towards all manly sports. Do you think I want to spend a whole evening beside you, listening to you sneering at the contenders, at the referee, at the very crowd around you?”
“Backside sports!” I sneered obligingly. “Five thousand sportsmen sitting on their backsides watching two fake sports fighting in a ring for money!”
“See what I mean?” muttered Jim to the office walls.
“Rugby,” I scoffed. “Fifteen thousand sportsmen and sportswomen sitting muffled in rugs athletically watching 15 guys rolling in the mud!”
“Aw, go ahead,” groaned Jim, starting to work furiously at his drawing board.
“Racing!” I pursued caustically. “Twenty thousand sportsmen clutching gambling tickets in their sweaty fists, watching eight little sportsmen on horses racing around a circle.”
“Okay, okay,” breathed Jim deeply.
“The only sport in the world,” I stated, “is that in which people participate. Fishing, shooting, tennis, golf – they’re sport. But all these so-called sports events, which consist of 10 guys doing something and 10,000 guys sitting watching them, are the reverse of sport. They’re evil. They’re destructive. When the great Roman Empire first began to totter, they built their first arena.”
“What bunk!” protested Jim. “Can you imagine a rugby team going out and playing another rugby team without an audience, just for the sheer sport of it?”
“If they did, they would really be sportsmen,” I pointed out, “and not young gentlemen exerting themselves for gain.”
“Gain!” Jim yelled in fury. “Do you mean to insinuate …”
“To stand forth,” I cut in, “before all his fellow students as an outstanding rugby player is a form of gain to a young man going to Varsity.”
“Well, the whole of life then,” insisted Jim, “is a form of gain. Everybody tries to stand forth. The housewife tries to cook well, in order to stand forth as a good housewife. The good mechanic tries to excel at his machine, not merely to male wages, but to stand forth among his fellow workers as an outstanding man. You think you’re so smart! All you’ve done is bring to light the true character of sport. Sport in its widest and best sense is the contending between men to show who is the better and the best man. Or the best team of men.”
“Heh, heh, heh,” was all I could think of.
“From babyhood,” pursued Jim hotly, “right through life to the grave, the best feature of the struggle of life is the contending to bring out the best in us. What do they have baby shows for? To give people, at the very beginning, a chance to show that they are the best.
Why do young expectant mothers knit, knit, knit? Is it only to prepare warm clothes? Not if you look at what they are knitting. It is to get ready to try and show the prettiest baby on the whole street. Why do they have reports cards in school? To show who’s the smartest. If life was without these contests, if life consisted of nothing more than a dull routine in which nobody was expected to try and get ahead of the other fellow, how long do you think it would be before the world would slip back into the native thatched villages from which we have risen?”
“We’re already half way back to the native thatched village,” I retorted, “when 15,000 of us are content to sit back in easy chairs and watch two gross, bulging gladiators from the caveman age squash each other to death.”
“It’s all part of the competitive system,” explained Jim. “I admit it isn’t the best form of sport.”
“You’d rather go fishing?” I taunted.
“Certainly,” replied Jim. “But don’t put any sanctimonious airs on about fishing. You talk very unctuously about going fishing in order to enjoy nature. You are always sounding off about the non-competitive character of fishing. It is for itself alone that you go fishing. But I never saw anybody come so pompously up the village road as you do when you are carrying a creel full of trout. And I must say I know nobody who has had his picture taken oftener holding up a big pike or a big bass …”
“Now just a minute,” I protested.
“I have often noticed,” went on Jim strongly, “that guys who aren’t much good at competitive games are always ardent followers of sports in which they can take their wives or young sons with them, such as fishing”
“Now, look here,” I insisted.
“In fishing,” proceeded Jimmie, “there is no referee. In shooting, there is no umpire. That kind of sport appeals strongly to a man who is trying to excel but who prefers to excel in his own opinion rather than under the scrutiny of his fellow men. If he uses worms, nobody is looking, and he invariably has a trout fly on his line by the time he emerges from the stream to meet his fellow sportsmen. If he shoots a partridge sitting on the ground, who is to see him? It was always ‘racing across, at 40 yards, on the wing,’ by the time he meets up with his fellow hunters …”
“Speak for yourself,” I said bitterly.
“In all men,” rounded off Jim, “there is a desire to excel at something. When the time comes in a man’s life that he realizes he can no longer excel anybody – that is the tragic hour. Life itself, business, industry, the home, the school, the church, all our institutions are based on that desire to excel that is the very spark of our existence. And sport is that spark applied for fun, for relaxation, for leisure. It is the one field in which we can watch others excel without personal pain.”
“It’s sadistic,” I submitted. “We like to see others suffer.”
Jim hit the drawing board a violent bang.
“Okay,” he shouted. “DON’T come to the wrestling!”
But I did.
After all, there is much to be said for Jim’s point of view. If thousands and tens of thousands of people, young and old, go to hockey games and race-tracks and prize-fights and other activities in which a tiny fraction of one per cent of those gathered does anything more than sit and yell, there must be something in it. A man of my age can’t be right all the time. It would be bad for him. So I went.
It was worse than I thought. In the nasty wet November night, we parked our car and walked with a throng into a cold, large, damp arena already blue with fog of cigar and cigarette smoke. We were a little late getting there, Jim being always late, and the first bout was already under way, so that the shadowy arena was full of the deep wolf-like baying of humanity calling for a kill. We were shown to our seats, which were hard benches. If I ever take a free seat, I like it padded.
Not only were the benches hard, but the people sitting in the gloom all around me impressed me as a very hard lot, too. The only lights were the spotlights centered on the ring where the wrestlers were lying down together in the most grotesque attitude. In the dim reflected light, swirling with smoke, I took time to glance around at my fellow sportsmen.
Now, I do not mean to insinuate that these were underworld types. In fact, I was astonished to see, sitting four places to my right, an old and respected friend of mine who is sidesman in a church and a great leader in the social life of Toronto. But in this dim and smoky setting a strange change had come over him. He was smoking a cigar and was leaning forward with an expression of fury on his face.
Amid the baying. I heard him distinctly yell: “Break his neck! Twist his head off!”
I sat up as high as I could and looked at the ring. Just in time, too. In the livid glare, I saw the two contenders, heavy, gross men, stager heavily to their feet, back up and then charge each other like bulls. You could positively feel the collision of them. It thudded on the thick air. One got a strangle-hold on the other, walked him slowly, terribly backwards and bending him back, started to saw his victim’s neck in short, savage strokes, along the ropes of the ring… The arena went mad. But instead of them charging the ring and putting an end to this monstrous thing, they were standing on their benches, cheering!
It was all over. The cheering died. I stood I on my bench. I supposed the victim was dead, his head rolling on the mat. But in a moment, as the roars died away and everybody turned their attention from the ring to one another, I saw the two contenders jump down and walk up the aisle past us. The man who had had his head sawed off was grinning and waving to friends in the audience.
“Fake!” I yelled shrilly.
Jim pulled me down by my coat.
But my yell had attracted notice, and my friend the sidesman and social worker leaned over and shook hands with me.
“Well, heh, heh,” he cried above the din. “I’d never expect to see you here! I thought you’d be away deer hunting…”
“It’s over,” I said.
“Have a cigar,” he cried, holding out a fat one.
Now, I never smoke cigars. But there was something in the air, something in the shrewd, excited faces around me that upset my normal attitudes. I took the cigar.
There is something also about a cigar that is very disturbing. Grip a cigar in the corner of your mouth, and it gives you a very curious feeling. A feeling of importance of mastery. Jutting out of your jaw, its rich aroma bathing your face, a cigar does something to your ego. It fortifies it. Take a modest, self-conscious little man and put a big cigar in his teeth, and he begins to swell.
And by the time the cigar has burned down to a butt, and the butt is firmly clenched in the side molars, jutting rakishly out of the corner of his mouth, a man has masculine feeling impossible to inspire with a cigarette or even a big pipe.
I lighted up the cigar during the intermission between bouts. The next item on the card was between a pair of local palookas of some fame, but a long way off from being headliners. After sizing them up through my cigar smoke, I selected the one in blue trunks for my money. And he received the benefit of my voice for about 15 minutes of agony, during which his opponent, a vicious type if ever I saw one, bent him, corkscrewed him, butted him, gave him the elbow in the wind pipe and one thing and another, until he lay limp and beaten.
It was in the intermission after this bout, by which time my cigar was a butt and I had it clamped in masterly fashion in my left molars, that Bill Tooke the promoter, passing up the aisle to get the headliners, spotted Jimmie.
“Hi, Jim,” he yelled. “What are you doing back here? I’ve got seats up front for you. HEL-lo, Mr. Clark! How are you enjoying it?”
“So-so,” I said between clenched teeth and the cigar butt. “So-so.”
“Aw, come up front,” pleaded Bill. “You’ll enjoy it better.”
And under his personal ushering, Jim and I went to the front where the seats were the sort you should give away free. Good comfortable ones.
By now, the chill had been driven out of the arena by the heat of the crowd, and we took off our coats and relaxed. Past my cigar butt, I nodded in that casual sporty fashion, to several prominent people lounging around the ringside. I jutted my jaw out und gazed up at the ring as if wrestling bouts were just a dab of salted almonds to an old sportsman like me.
When the two behemoths for the headline bout came swaying and thudding down the aisle to the ring, I nearly swallowed my cigar butt. The last of such men, I had always thought, had been painted on the walls of caves 10,000 years ago. Only in cartoons, I imagined, could such human mammoths be conjured up. They were hot merely colossal. They were prehistoric. Their arms were bigger than my legs. Their torsos were as wide as my torso, from Adam’s apple to the seat of my pants, turned sideways. They were hairy, their chins were granite blue, their heads were mere knobs and their eyes were sunken in the bone that you could not see them. They moved slowly, ponderously. To the rising storm of cheers and boos, they grinned, and their grin would chill your blood.
They hoisted themselves up over the ropes with all the grace of steam shovels hoisting two tons of rock out of a hole. Under the garish lights, they turned and stared contemptuously out over the throngs, now hysterical with roars and yells. The worst looking of the two threw off his bath robe and came over and leaned on the ropes right above us. He stared down gloomily and bared his teeth at us in a prehistoric snarl.
Gripping the cigar butt firmly, I bared my teeth back at him in a snarl and felt butterflies flying around in my stomach.
“Quite a boy,” said Jim.
“Glrp,” I replied, biting hard.
“My money on him,” said Jim.
“Was he looking at me,” I asked, “or at you?”
“He was just looking around,” explained Jim easily. “They always do that.”
The announcer stood forth and bellowed the formal chant, e-nouncing Bolo the Executioner in this corner; and in that corner, Przffst, the Head Hunter, champion of the World.
Przffst, the Head Hunter, was the big gorilla that had snarled at me.
I threw my cigar butt away.
The two stood up and acknowledged the formless roar of cheers and boos and a sort of frenzy settled over the vast arena, the way the sound of machines fills a factory when the power is turned on.
The referee skedaddled back into a corner. The two human rhinoceri pulled their heads in like turtles and bent their arms wide from their sides and began circling. There was no dancing or prancing, as in boxing. It was more like two Mark VI tanks preparing to kiss each other. Quite softly, they clutched. The crowd went berserk.
Up went Przffst, the Head Hunter, as though he were light as a feather, as though he were made of celluloid, hollow. Bolo the Executioner had lifted him as a child might be lifted, made three slow rotations of himself and his awful burden held high over head, and then, bracing himself so that his fat body seemed suddenly to corrugate from neck to knee with a thousand cords of muscle, hurled the Head Hunter to the mat with a thud that made my chair jump.
I went mad.
“Kill him, kill him,” I screeched above the tornado, trying to pierce my lone voice like a knitting needle into the ears of Bolo the Executioner. “The big stuffed sofa! Jump on him. Break all his four legs. He’s full of horse hair … he’s stuffed …”
“Don’t Get Excited”
But before Bolo could land – though he jumped into the air, folded his knees and tried to land with his 300 pounds on Przffst’s stomach, knees first – Przffst, with an incredible agility, rolled and bounded to his feet, crouching.
In the fraction of an instant’s silence that befell, my voice jabbed: “The Head Hunter! He needs a head!”
And as he closed with Bolo, his head appeared over Bolo’s shoulder, as though he had his teeth buried in it. And though his eyes wore sunk about an inch into his cheek bones, I swear they were looking straight at me.
They twisted and fell and rose and fell, all in one massive ball of about half a ton of human flesh while I kept silence. Then Bolo, by some means invisible to my eye, though the crowd must have seen it for they roared, got a foothold on Przffst; and his mouth as wide as a lard pail in agony. Przffst threw up his arms and went face down on to the mat, his giant frame shuddering like that of a hippopotamus pierced by Zulu spears.
“Kill him,” I roared, jumping up, “break his leg off, the big mattress! He’s stuffed! He’s full of hay …”
“Don’t get excited,” said Jim, pulling my arm. “It’s only starting. They’re just warming up …”
For in truth, the hateful Head Hunter, despite his agony, got some kind of a foul hold on Bolo, that splendid specimen, that friend of man, that St. George, that killer of dragons; and over went Bolo in one vast shudder of agony, letting go Przffst’s foot. And Przffst was on top of Bolo, smashing his face on the mat, thump, thump, thump. I could feel my chair jolting.
On and on it went, under these vicious lights. On and on went the tornado of sound. Time and again, Bolo, whose unpleasant features slowly evaporated every time he got the splits on Przffst or sawed his neck on the ropes, almost had the world champion killed. But always that dreadful monster, appearing more dreadful each time, by some fiendish and foul trick, broke the magnificent Bolo’s grip and sent him shuddering to the floor.
And each time the Head Hunter nearly died of strangulation, my plaudits for Bolo rang and pierced the typhoon. Turtle head, upholstered hogshead, stuffed dummy, gorilla, I called him. But Jim shouted cheerfully to take it easy. “They can’t hear you,” he said.
So phony, fake, fraud, I called him, humbug, lead-swinger, forger, window-dresser, gold-bricker, dope, mudcat, slug.
I looked around. How I would like another cigar!
And then it ended, I didn’t see it actually. All that happened was that Bolo the Executioner was on his broad back. And the Head Hunter was tossing his dressing-gown on lightly and vaulting over the ropes like ballet dancer.
He wore that terrible grin. He paused and looked down at me. I had no cigar butt.
“Hey,” he snarled, “cut me off at de knees and call me Shorty.”
He reached down lightly.
“Git up in dere wit your friend,” he chuckled. And he tossed me up there.
When Jimmie and Bill Tooke got me back down in my chair, Jimmie said: “He couldn’t have heard you.”
And Bill Tooke said: “I wouldn’t have had this happen for worlds. He didn’t know who you were.”
“But he knew what I was,” I said, before I thought.
By Greg Clark, June 30, 1945
“Don’t forget,” reminded Jimmie Frise, “overalls.”
“I’ve got them down,” I replied, checking the list. “And how about nails. Three-inch nails?”
“Aw, there’s a whole pailful of nails underneath the cottage veranda,” said Jim.
“Those old rusty things?” I snorted.
“We don’t want to be too finicky about this job,” reasoned Jimmie. “First thing you know, we’ll be spending our whole holiday building that summer kitchen.”
“Look,” I asserted. “We’ve been planning this back kitchen on the cottage for nearly six years. We’ve had the lumber under the cottage for five years. It’ll be getting mouldy. We’ve drawn and redrawn the plans dozens of times. We’ve gone up to the cottage every year with the fullest intentions of getting to work and building the kitchen. But every time, we’ve put it off.”
“For good reason,” said Jim.
“Aw two days would do the job,” I insisted. “Yet we’re so excited when we arrive at the cottage, we’ve got to drag the skiff out of the boathouse and go fishing even before we get the screen doors on.”
“Well, you remember 1939,” reminded Jim. “We went up fully prepared to build the kitchen. But what happened? The first three days it rained steadily. Now, rain is no good for building. But it is swell for fishing.”
“Yes, and then it turned hot, you remember,” I recollected. “And it was no good for fishing. But too hot for building. So we just snoozed on the veranda. Before we realized it, our holiday was over. And no kitchen.”
“Nineteen-forty,” recalled Jim, “you were overseas.”
“That was your chance,” I inserted.
“I didn’t like to do it without you being there,” explained Jim. “After all, this is a joint effort, this kitchen.”
“I think we drew our first plans about 1936,” I said. “We bought the lumber in forty-one.”
“Well, you were overseas in forty-two, forty-three and forty-four,” counted Jim lamely. “I thought of starting it each year. But I didn’t like to take advantage of you.”
“Hm,” I sniffed. “I’d have been glad to come back and find it done. But this time, my boy, there will be no ifs or buts. We’re going to get that kitchen annex built. It is going to be first consideration. In fact, what do you say if we make a pact right now that we don’t even hitch up a fishing rod until the last nail had been driven and the last brushful of paint has been applied?”
“Do we have to paint it the first year?” protested Jim. “Isn’t it a bad policy to paint newly built wooden structures right away? Shouldn’t we let the wood set at least one year?”
“We paint it,” I informed him. “The paint is up there. In the boat-house.”
“I bet that paint has perished, after all these years,” said Jim.
“How about it? How about a pact?” I demanded. “Not one cast, not even a fishing rod rigged up, until the kitchen is done.”
“Suppose a great big lunker,” submitted Jimmie, “were to come and start jumping right off the end of the dock? Suppose we arrive in the middle of the swellest fishing weather we’ve ever seen in our lives? With a soft little fitful southwest wind, and overcast sky, kind of warm and humid…”
“Kitchen first,” I stated firmly.
“Well, I’ll trust to your common sense,” concluded Jim. “Or I should say, I’ll count on your weakness of character. Let’s agree to put the building job first. Priority Number One. And then see how strong we are at withstanding old and familiar temptations.”
“I’m determined,” I said, returning to the list. “Let’s see. Ten pounds of three-inch nails. A pound of assorted screws for making shelves, etc. A couple of new paint brushes. How about the saw?”
“The last time I saw it,” said Jim, “It was hanging on the usual nail in the boat-house.”
That Cottage Feeling
I gazed into space, picturing in my mind’s eye the old crowded boat-house with the skiff and the canoes turned upside down on the floor, the rough shelves sagging with old paint, cans, bottles, old rusty screen door springs. I could see the paddles hanging from their double nails. The oars laid across the rafters. The cartons full of badly neglected decoys. The canoe carriers on the wall and, hung from nails, the rusty old saw, the rake and sundry other tools.
How is it that a summer cottage seems so much dearer to our hearts than any city home? It may be that while we shift and change from house to house in the city, the summer cottage was the one we went to as children; that we grew up in as boys and young men; where we took our young sweethearts and did our courting. For a great many thousands of us, the summer cottage is more really our home than any other.
“What’s the matter?” inquired Jim, noting my expression.
“I was just thinking of the cottage, and the boat-house,” I said. “I go all weak inside when I think of them. Jim, it’s a queer thing, but I’ve been all over the world, visited every country in Europe, spent months on end in the great cities of the world, seen all the famous sights like the Bay of Naples, the Highlands of Scotland, the Alps and the Rockies. But I wouldn’t trade a little area of about four miles square, up on Georgian Bay, with that cottage in the middle of it, for all the rest of the earth put together.”
“That sentiment,” agreed Jim, “costs human nature billions of dollars every year. Rather than get up and go and conquer the world, people prefer to snuggle down in their own little old familiar spot.”
“Travelling is a great mistake, Jim,” I assured him. “Nobody should travel. It is the greatest disillusionment of all.”
“I’d love to travel,” said Jim. “To see the world.”
“The world as you imagine it,” I informed him, “is far more beautiful and wonderful than it really is. Wait till the boys get home from Italy. They’ll tell you. When you think of Rome, what do you imagine? You imagine what the poets and painters and great writers have done. You imagine a very ancient, historical city, filled with magnificent churches and buildings, with bridges heavy with story, glorious classic fountains hundreds of years old, made by the hands of artists whose names are remembered with the names of kings and heroes. Keats, Shelley, Browning – all our greatest poets lived in Italy and sang its beauty and its splendor. Keep that, Jimmie! Stay right here in Toronto and cling to the beauty those poets created for you. Because of all the dowdy, ramshackle, junky old cities on earth, Rome is the champion.”
“No!” cried Jim.
“It stinks,” I said, “It is huddled and muddled. In the same city block will be all that is left, a few jagged scraps of untidy wall, of some historic ancient building, along with enormous bright pink stucco apartment blocks in the latest Mussolini tradition.”
“But,” protested Jimmie, “I’ve seen photographs! Not just paintings. But photographs of Rome!”
And Texas, Too
“And to get that photograph,” I assured him, “the photographer working for the highly capitalized tourist industry, the railways of the world, the great shipping companies, had to crawl all over Rome to get that one decent shot. He had to scramble up over quaking roofs of smelly tenements, he had to wiggle and wangle and scheme and get ladders. He had to get that picture from just certain angle that would show none of the incongruities all around. That’s part of the disillusionment. Not only did the photographers take trick pictures that show only the one perfect angle of some noble building or ancient relic, but the painters and the poets all stood in a special spot in which to behold the beauty they have made imperishable. But when you go travelling, you have no time to climb tenement roofs or to get step-ladders or wait until a special sort of moonlight comes to soften and spiritualize the view. No. You go to see the Colosseum, and it looks like the back end of the Exhibition Grand Stand in Toronto. You seek out the palace of some ancient duke on one of the seven hills of Rome. You find the hill all right. It has a lot of those pines of Rome and plenty of those skinny black cypress trees that remind you of cemeteries. And there, half hidden amid the brush-wood of the noble garden, with a lot of rather weather-eaten statues standing stupidly about in frozen attitudes, is a house about the same as the house of any well-known biscuit manufacturer or cough syrup patentee up in Forest Hill Village here in Toronto.”
“Aw, no,” protested Jimmie.
“Italy!” I snorted. “It’s a fleabitten, shaggy, grisly gray country, about the same as Texas.”
“Texas!” cried Jimmie. “Why, what’s the matter with Texas? It’s one of the greatest states in the union and the biggest.”
“Texas,” I submitted, “is the biggest lot of nothing I’ve ever flown over. Parched, bitter, greenish gray, a sort of mouldy color. Mile upon mile, hundreds of miles, as far as the eye can reach, of moon-like desert, stuck with oil derricks, pocked with dry concrete cisterns, the poor Texans try to catch rainwater in, if ever it rains …”
“Say,” Interrupted Jim. “You’re attacking some of the most touted scenes on this earth.”
“And California!” I cried. “The droopiest, shoddiest, beaverboard civilization I’ve ever seen. Everything droops. The palms droop, the poor, stiff, enslaved palms that stand like pitiful servants just wherever some silly property owner wanted them – and no place else! The palms droop, the people droop. Their houses all look like temporary movie sets they built for one show, a long while ago. But they’re living in them yet. Shoddy, gimcrack, fake …”
“But how do you explain the worldwide reputation of California?” demanded Jim.
“The poor guys that found themselves stranded there,” I explained, “had to make up a lot of stuff to tell each other, in order to keep sane. They made up this imaginary stuff and finally began to believe it themselves. Then they started spreading it. It’s the same as with the poets and painters who wrote about Rome and the Alps and Paris – in the spring! They got stranded. And had to make some money to get back home. Or – they made it up to escape, in their own imaginations, from something pretty grim. Or – best of all, perhaps, they followed the old human custom of telling fabulous tales about some place they’d seen which the home folks had never seen. Everybody loves to impress the neighbors. The poet Browning, as you know, got in wrong at home in London. So he and his wife spent a lot of time in Italy, writing beautiful poems about Italy in order to make their friends and enemies back in poor old frowsy London feel sore …”
“Now, you’ll admit London…” began Jimmie, who has been there.
“Aw,” I scoffed, “what is Piccadilly Circus but a wide intersection with a bunch of retail stores around it? What has Piccadilly Circus got that Queen St. and University Ave. hasn’t got?”
“Well…” said Jimmie, scandalized.
“Three days in New York is enough for anybody,” I assured him. “Paris is just a lot of self-conscious wide streets full of foreigners who seem to all have their beady eyes on you. Algiers? About like Winnipeg with a Shriners’ convention on. Madrid…”
“What’s the matter with you?” cut in Jimmie hotly.
“I’m just thinking about Georgian Bay,” I confessed softly.
Well – we got the nails, the paint brushes, the screws and a lot of little odds and ends like coat hangers, shelf brackets and stuff. And the great day came. And we drove to Midland and got the livery launch that takes us 30 miles up the shore amid the myriad islands. And we hove in off the wider spaces of the open bay into the channels that led us through ever more familiar scenes until, rounding a lonely bend, there, snuggled down on its rocky promontory was our well beloved cottage.
Its screens were all on.
“Jim,” I cried, “who could have put up the screens?”
We stared. The cottage had a specially happy look.
“Why,” I exclaimed, “Jim, you old rascal, you’ve painted the steps!”
“Not me!” assured Jim, staring.
Something Had Happened
The livery launch wheeled wide to pass a shoal that stands in front of our landing. And as it did so, we caught a glimpse of the rear of the cottage.
It was decidedly unfamiliar.
The kitchen had been built!
There, where the back door had formerly opened out on to a flat bare rock, stood a fine lattice-sided kitchen, painted the very green we had always planned. It was exactly the kitchen we had sketched and planned and drawn amateur blueprints of for the past six years.
“Why, Jim,” I shouted above the engine, “you old scallywag! Letting me believe, all this time …”
“I swear,” declared Jimmie with astonished eyes, “I know nothing whatever about it…”
“The dock!” I yelled.
Instead of the old dock, high at one end from the passing of many a winter’s ice, was a level one, with a massive new pine log bolted across its fore edge.
In complete amazement, we drew in, tied the launch and while the driver unloaded our luggage, we hastened up the slope to see the marvel.
There was the kitchen, perfect in every detail. With shelves, exactly as we had sketched them. Painted our own shingle green. The lattice strips expertly laid on, to allow the breeze to blow through. A professional, a workmanlike job.
“Did you speak to anybody in Midland,” I inquired, “about going ahead with this… maybe …”
“To nobody!” assured Jim.
The woodpile was higher and straighter than I had ever seen it. It had one section of almost all birch wood. Then another section, beautifully piled, of nice shiny pine cut into neat little sticks. Kindling.
We unlocked the back door and went into the main kitchen. It was spotless. All the pots and pans were hung more neatly than we had ever left them.
We went into the living-room.
“The fireplace!” gasped Jim.
Our old fireplace, with a lot of the mortar gone from between the rocks, with a couple of the end stones, in fact, in danger of falling out, had been transfigured. It was re-mortared throughout, a fresh set of fine stones had been fitted along the top.
We stood speechless before our beloved fireplace, and gazed around the shining room.
“The note,” said Jim.
For from the mantel hung a large notice.
“The five undersigned are members of a bomber crew that had to bail out due to engine trouble on Feb. 23. We all landed in sight of your cottage and took the liberty of breaking in as it was extremely cold and we did not know where we were. We trust we have done you no injury. We are extremely grateful for all the things you left, the firewood in the fire, the canned food in the cupboard, the tea, sugar, and the big tin of flour. We caught some rabbits in the stamp and all in all were very comfortable for five weeks until discovered last night by a passing party of lumber scalers. To pay for the supplies, we have done a few odd jobs for you. We found several different sketches and plans of the summer kitchen, so combined the best features of all. We hope you like it. And we left a fire ready for you too in the fireplace.
Very gratefully yours…”
And then followed their five young names, each with his trade and calling: Student of architecture, carpenter’s apprentice, stone mason, investment broker and student of theology.
“Jim,” I said huskily, “what kind of an afternoon is it outside?”
“Soft,” said Jim, “a southwest breeze, kind of fitful, humid, and a little overcast!”
By Greg Clark, February 10, 1945
“What on earth,” demanded Jimmie Frise, is an afghan?”
“It’s a kind of hand-knitted rug,” I explained.
“I thought it was some kind of a dog,” said Jim. “What the dickens do you want with an afghan?”
“Every man, on reaching his fiftieth birthday,” I set forth, “should be presented with an afghan by his fond and doting womenfolk. His very own private, personal afghan, in his favorite colors. Mine are autumn colors. I want my afghan in dark red, dark green, gold and orangey brown.”
“Neat,” suggested Jim, “and gaudy.”
“An afghan,” I explained, “is made up of a whole lot of six-inch knitted squares sewn together into a rug. All your womenfolk arrange to knit these squares. For example, one does the brown squares, another does the red, another the gold, and so on. Then when they have the necessary number knitted, they get together and sew it up into a rug. And put a fringe on it.”
“Okay,” said Jimmie, “so you get a rug. Then what? Do you take to your bed for the rest of your life? At 50?”
“It isn’t for bed,” I protested. “Maybe you can keep it folded on the foot of your bed, as a constant reminder of the affection in which you are held by your womenfolk. But it is really used as a car rug, a rug to take to hockey games or rugby. You take it with you when you travel, to wear around your legs in trains or on boats.
“I thought you had decided to settle down,” said Jim.
“But the final, supreme value of an afghan,” I enunciated, “is for fishing and hunting and camping. You can wear it as a shawl around your shoulders sitting in the boat in the cool of the evening when the guide is rowing you back to camp. Folded up, it makes a wonderful cushion to sit on in the canoe, during those first chilly weeks of the trout season.”
“Knitted?” inquired Jim. “Isn’t that a fragile kind of a rug for sporting purposes?”
“That’s why I said 50 years old,” I explained. “By that age, a man is old enough to be finicky and take care of his things. Lots of men are too rowdy and careless, even at 70, to be trusted with an afghan. But as for me, I am getting tidier every year. And anyway, I want an afghan. And I want this afghan. Wait till I read it again.”
I took from my pocket the clipping from the Pine Corners Argus, the little country weekly newspaper I had picked up in The Star’s exchange room.
“Listen to this,” I said, reading: “Bingo. Bingo. Bingo. The Ladies’ Frantic Endeavor is holding a bingo at the Community Hall, Thursday night at 8 p.m. in aid of the Pine Corners Veterans’ band. This worthy enterprise on the part of the ladies to equip the local veterans with the necessary instruments with which to welcome home the boys from overseas deserves the support of one and all. Prizes are exceptional. First prize is an afghan, worked by the ladies, in beautiful autumn tints of red, gold, brown …”.
“Just a minute,” cut in Jimmie. “You don’t keep those afghans if you do win them. You send them to the war victims in England or Holland.”
“Er …” I said.
“I Want an Afghan”
“The idea of those bingo games,” explained Jimmie, “is to raise funds for worthy causes. They also bring the community together for innocent amusement during the long winter nights. They give you the satisfaction of winning. But you aren’t supposed to win for keeps.”
“That isn’t the way I’ve heard it,” I said, very disappointed.
“Why,” cried Jim, “if you won that afghan and took it away, I bet you’d ruin the whole community of Pine Corners. I bet that afghan has been put up for first prize for two or three winters past. It goes from winner to winner, and each one re-donates it to the next bingo …”
I read the little notice over again for the twentieth time. Beautiful autumn tints of red, gold, brown.
“Besides,” said Jim, “how would you get out to Pine Corners at this season of the year? It’s 22 miles from the city limits. And you know what the highways are like right now.”
“I’d drive my car,” I suggested.
“Why, you haven’t had it out all winter!” scoffed Jim. “Now, don’t let this afghan business turn your head.”
“I want that afghan,” I asserted firmly.
“But bingo!” sorted Jim. “You can go to 50 bingo games and never win anything.”
“I’d buy it from the winner,” I stated.
“How about the affection in which you are held by your womenfolk?” inquired Jim craftily.
“Well,” I said rather crestfallen.” I’m 52 now, and I haven’t got an afghan yet.”
“Wait till the war’s over,” persuaded Jim. “Don’t deprive some poor bombed-out British family of an afghan. Or some homeless refugee Dutch family. Every afghan this country can produce, out of the spare time of Canadian women, belongs to benighted Europe. This is no time for you to be suddenly consumed by an unholy passion for an afghan. Think of when the war ends, and Canada is filled with hundreds of thousands of women with nothing to knit for. Think of the stores with huge bins of knitting wool for sale again. You can’t get wool for love or money now. But the minute the war ends, there will be a regular avalanche of wool on the market. And thousands of women, trained for five years at knitting, suddenly finding themselves idle. Boy, you can get afghans by the dozen then.”
I read the little clipping from the Pine Corners Argus again. Tints of red, gold, brown.
I reached for the telephone on Jim’s desk. I asked The Star switchboard girl to get me Pine Corners, Ont., the postmistress preferred, or else the general storekeeper.
“What’s the idea?” asked Jim.
“I’m going to find out,” I said, “if what you say is right about not keeping the afghan. If the winner doesn’t keep the afghan, okay. I don’t go. If the winner keeps it, I go.”
“You’re a determined little guy.” said Jim.
“I want an afghan,” I stated.
“How about the bombed out victims …?” began Jim.
But the telephone rang. And it was the general storekeeper, who was also the postmaster of Pine Corners, Ont. And I explained my situation to him.
“Why,” cried the postmaster, loud enough for even Jim to overhear, “of course you keep the afghan. The ladies have knit hundreds of them in the past three or four years. They’ve sent most of them overseas, but these they use in the bingo games are for keeps. They’ve got four of them up for prizes tonight …”
“Four?” I exclaimed. “What colors?”
“All rich autumn tints of red, gold and brown …”
“Thank you, thank you,” I hung up excitedly.
“Jim” I cried, “there are four afghans, for keeps ..”
“I heard,” said Jimmie, getting up and looking out the window.
“Very well,” I cried eagerly. “Will we take your car? Or mine?”
“I wouldn’t take my car outside the city limits,” declared Jim. “And as for trying to get in those side roads off the highway, into Pine Corners …”
“Very well,” I said, “I’ll take mine, even if it hasn’t been out of the garage since the big blizzard in December.”
“I don’t think I’ll go,” demurred Jim. “It will only mean a lot of pushing and shoving in drifts and digging with shovels.”
“I’ll let you drive,” I offered.
“Look at the weather,” persisted Jim. “Another blizzard brewing.”
Comes the Snow
We left in good time. In fact, I offered to buy Jimmie’s supper at Pine Corners or anywhere along the highway, so as to be sure of getting through in plenty of time for the bingo. And to keep the peace, I let Jim drive my car.
“Three miles beyond the city limits, the first snowflakes whirled off the windshield.
“There you are!” cried Jimmie grimly.
“Just blowing off the fields,” I reassured him heartily, and jingling the pocketful of quarters and half-dollars I had changed my four dollars into.
“Faint heart ne’er won an afghan. I feel lucky today.”
“Aw, you low blood pressure types always feel good when the barometer is falling,” retorted Jim.
In another two miles, we couldn’t see 50 feet ahead. In two miles more, we pulled into a service station to make sure we were still on the highway. Ontario’s winter climate, especially in what are called the settled regions, may be as responsible as anything else for the complex character of Ontario people.
“We turn back?” demanded Jim firmly.
“Why, we’re nearly there!” I cried.
“We’re just nicely outside the city limits,” Jim warned me, “and 15 miles still to go, five of them on a side road.”
“Aw, we can take our time,” I said. “It’s still two hours of daylight.”
“Yeah,” growled Jim, “and we’ll be marooned in Pine Corners for a week!”
So we drove on up the highway, both of us watching alertly through the blizzard for the road to the right that goes to Pine Corners.
“This is crazy,” protested Jimmie. “An afghan!
“Jim, you’re getting old,” I cheered. “The love of adventure is cooling in you.”
“Is this it?” suddenly shouted Jim, stamping on the brakes and half turning the wheel.
“Just a minute,” I exclaimed, peering out the window for signs.
But Jim had made the turn and we slowly entered a very forbidding side road.
“Wait till I look for a sign.” I commanded.
“This’ll be it,” said Jim firmly. “The guy at the service station said about eight miles up.”
“Well…” I said, uneasily.
And we drove slow and steady into the teeth of the blizzard.
A few hundred yards in, we entered a swamp and then a heavy bush lot. It grew lonelier and lonelier. I told Jim it didn’t look like a road leading into a fine village like Pine Corners. It was more like a …
Over a rise we came out of the bush into vast deserted meadows and off these open spaces, the snow had drifted. Jim gave the car the gun. We charged. Wumfff. We stuck.
“Aaah,” said Jim, as if pleased.
“Why did you charge like that?” I cried.
“I tried to lift her over,” smiled Jim cheerfully, “but she wouldn’t take off.”
I got out and inspected. The drift was apparently miles ahead solid. I got in and took the wheel. I backed. But she was stuck fast.
“Where’s your shovel?” inquired Jim, very jolly.
“I don’t carry a shovel,” I stated.
“Then,” said Jim, “since we have come about four miles on this road, we must be about a mile from Pine Corners. Shall we walk?”
It was a pretty dismal prospect. The blizzard was really corkscrewing by now. I sat thinking.
“Well?” inquired Jimmie outside. “You can’t back up. You can’t go ahead. So come on.”
“We could get the next farmer to pull us through with a team,” I suggested.
“How much do you figure that might cost?” asked Jim.
I felt in my pocket and slid the quarters and half-dollars around.
So we tucked our collars up and pulled our hats down and headed into it. We plowed through the first drift which was about 40 feet. Then there was a hundred yards of hard road; then another drift. About the fourth drift, I began scanning the dim countryside for a farmhouse. But there was none.
“We’ve gone a mile,” I breathed heavily.
“Afghan,” said Jim.
So we did another quarter mile of alternate drift and frigid windy packed snow road. And still no farmhouse did we see.
“Look, Jim,” I said a little anxiously. “This isn’t funny.”
In a House on Wheels
As if in response, a train whistle hooted mournfully out of the blizzard only a few hundred yards ahead.
“Aha,” I cried, taking heart. “Pine Corners!”
But it wasn’t. For when we plowed and plunged and ankled our way 200 yards farther, we came to a little cluster of houses and a freight train halted at the crossing. The caboose was right even with the road.
“Orphans of the storm?” called out the brakeman on the back of the caboose.
“Is this Pine Corners?” Jim hailed.
“No, Pine Corners is the next village north,” said the brakeman.
“Well, we’re stranded down the road a mile or so,” I said. “Do you think anybody here could haul us out?”
“Better come up to Pine Corners,” said the brakeman, “and get a tow car. There isn’t even a garage in this place.”
“Can we ride with you?” Jim called.
“Sure,” said the brakeman. “In a blizzard, we’re all brothers.”
So we waded through the drifts and climbed aboard the caboose and the brakeman invited us in and made us welcome to the cutest little house on wheels you ever saw.
A little stove was humming cheerily. There were bunks and a table and chairs. Books on the table, tea cups and teapot in the racks. It was cosy.
“Conductor’s up ahead,” said the brakeman, “but he won’t mind you getting a lift to Pine Corners. It’s only three miles. Sit down and take the weight off your feet.”
So we sat down in the tidy warmth and unbuttoned our coats and took off our gloves while we explained how we had turned in the wrong side road.
Then the engine ahead started whistling and the brakeman jumped up to go out to the back, saying:
“He’s signalling to back up a little ways.”
There was a shunt. And we started slowly backing.
And we backed. And we backed. And we gained speed, backing. And we continued backing, the tracks going giddley-did, giddley-da underneath us and Jimmie and I looked at each other in the gloaming.
“H’m,” said Jim.
In a whirl of wind and blizzard, the brakeman came in the door, stamping the snow off.
“I don’t get this,” he said cheerfully, “We’re backing quite a ways.”
“Pine Corners is the other way?” I inquired.
“Yeah, there must be new orders,” said he. “It’s too stormy to go forward and find out. When she slows, I’ll inquire for you.”
He went out on the back again to watch into the blizzard, while the engine continued its mournful warning.
The freight began to slow. We heard voices outside. We went to the door and the brakeman had gone. In the swirling blizzard we could see another handful of houses and a siding,
After several violent shunts, which made the cups rattle and the chairs jolt, we came to a stop. And the brakeman hove in, with the conductor.
“Gentlemen,” said the brakie, “we’re on a siding for a little while to make way for a snow-plow. If you are in a hurry to get to Pine Corners the highway is only about mile west of here, and maybe you could get somebody …”
But we preferred to wait. They made a pot of tea. An hour passed. Night fell. I got out and telephoned from one of the isolated houses to Pine Corners and had the postmaster arrange to send the local garage man with a tow car to pull my car out of the drift and keep it at Pine Corners until I called for it.
“Anyway,” said the postmaster, “the bingo is cancelled on account of the storm.”
At 9:30 p.m., the freight got orders to be up to the West Toronto freight yards.
And we stayed in the caboose and returned with it.
We got home by street car about midnight and I telephoned the general storekeeper at Pine Corners to have some of the local people drive my car back to the city if they were coming in anyway, whenever the roads got plowed.
“The whole thing,” declared Jimmie, “was an omen for you not to try and get any afghans while the war is on.”
“I think I’ll wait for my womenfolk,” I confessed.
Editor’s Note: Though Greg calls it a kind of rug, an “afghan” is a crocheted blanket. You can also get an idea of some of the money raising charity events done during World War Two in Canada.