Jim provided this illustration to a story on horse racing by Ernest Hemingway. The famous author worked as a freelance journalist for the Toronto Star and Star Weekly in the early 1920s as he was starting out. Because he was fond of the outdoors (hunting and fishing), he became good friends with Greg and Jim. During his time in Paris, Hemingway still filed stories with the Toronto Star. When his third son was born in 1931, he named him Gregory after Greg Clark.
Tag: December Page 1 of 4
It is encouraging to see that very early in Jim’s career (when he drew his comic in a realistic style), that he did not resort to physical stereotypes, as was common in comics of the era. See my post on About Stereotypes for more information. Though Jim did not use a physical stereotype in this comic, the speech of the Black man still is.
By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, December 30, 1944
Greg and Jim agree the auto and street car put the walking stick out of business, so they decide to revive the ancient and gentlemanly art of carrying a cane, but…
“Haw,” snorted Jimmie Frise, “a walking stick!”
“What about it?” I demanded indignantly.
“Have you sprained your ankle?” inquired Jim. “Or is it a bunion? Or have you just gone uppish?”
“Anything else to say?” I gritted.
“Or is it just old age?” concluded Jim.
“Do you know the difference between you and me, Jim?” I asked acidly. “If I feel like carrying a walking stick, I carry one. But even if you felt like carrying a stick, you wouldn’t for fear some silly yap like you would comment on it.”
“It looks conspicuous,” protested Jim. “Walking sticks have gone out of style long ago.”
“They’ll be coming back into style any day, Jim,” I suggested, “as soon as about 15,000 of the boys come back home who have leg wounds.”
“Aw, that’s different,” said Jimmie.
“I fail to see it,” I submitted. “If it is conspicuous to carry a stick, then we ought to cheer up the boys who have to carry them by a lot of us old fogeys carrying them, too. The boys won’t feel quite so conscious of their lameness if they see a lot of men carrying sticks.”
“I should say a stick was a badge of honor now,” put in Jim, “and only those entitled to it by wounds should be allowed by fashion to carry them.”
“I can’t understand how walking sticks ever went out of fashion,” I said. “I admit a very young man looks a little self-conscious carrying a cane. And maybe a man carrying a lunch pail and also a stick might look a little out of place. But it seems to me about half the men in the world would look a lot more comfortable if they were swinging a stick in their hands as they move about the streets.”
“The motor car killed canes,” said Jim. “Back in the days before street cars and motor cars it was all very well for men to use sticks. They were an actual help. When all the world walked, sticks were a real lift to a man’s legs.”
“What do you know about it?” I demanded. “You never carried a stick in your life.”
“I just sense it,” said Jim. “I can just imagine how a good stout stick in your hand would sort of inspire you to walk; it would sort of give you a swing and a lilt.”
“My boy,” I admitted, “your imagination does you credit. As an old stick swinger I can assure you that a stick gives you just that lilt and swing you imagine. And that is why I am an advocate of the return of the walking stick. I admit the street car and then the motor car put the cane out of business. But you will agree that it would be a good thing for all mankind if they would do more walking than they have done in the past 20 years or so. For the public health.”
“And you think walking sticks would inspire men to walk?” smiled Jim.
Precisely,” I asserted. “There is something familiar and cosy about a stick. Once you find a stick the right size and weight and shape, once you have felt the comfort and strength of a stick that has the right lilt and swing to it, you will find yourself, every now and then, with a hankering to just go for a walk somewhere.”
“H’m,” said Jim thoughtfully. “How do you mean the right size and shape?
A Stick to Fit
“Well,” I said, warming up. “you never see a man dawdling along when he carries a stick, do you? He is always striding out – that is, unless he is using it because he is hurt or lame. A stick gives you the impulse to stride and walk with pleasure.”
“But not any stick?” persisted Jim.
“Not at all,” I said. “A stick has to fit you the same as your collar or your boots. Anybody who has ever bought a stick at random – just walked into a store and picked one out, embarrassed and self-conscious, without giving the subject a little time and study, would naturally never fall in love with such a stick. It has to fit you.”
“How?” insisted Jim.
“First,” I stated, “it has to be just the length to reach to that round knob bone of your hip that you can feel jut out when you thrust your hip sideways a little. That is the exact height it should be, and you should have the stick shop cut it to that exact length.”
“What else?” inquired Jim, standing up and feeling the knob of his hip bone.
“Well, you don’t want too light a stick,” I pursued. “You want a stick with a little weight and balance to it. You can tell that best by just hefting it, in comparison with others. If you are the kind of man who is always fiddling with his hands, such as filling a pipe or putting his glasses on and off, you will want a curved handle, so you can hang the stick on your arm.”
“Don’t all canes have curved handles?” asked Jimmie.
“You’re thinking of umbrellas,” I said. “They always have to hang on your arm while you feel for car tickets and such. The best stick of all has a straight crook handle. A handle jutting out at right angles to the stick. That gives you exactly the right, comfortable, joyous grip to shove you along as you stride. Real connoisseurs of sticks spend years and years hunting the stick shops of the world for beautiful natural crooks – not artificially bent ones. Then there is the straight stick, with a knob on it, no curve or crook.”
“That wouldn’t be very comfortable,” surmised Jim.
“You’re wrong,” I informed him. “Soldiers prefer a good ash plant stick with a comfortable knob to all others. Half the time you don’t want to use the stick tapping on the ground. You like to swing along, holding the slick by the middle and using it as a sort of weight or pendulum to pace with. A knobbed stick is maybe the second best to a straight crook one.”
“You talk as if there was a science of sticks,” remarked Jimmie.
“There is,” I said. “Sticks have a history older than any other human implement. The first thing prehistoric man ever picked up was a stick. Long before he developed the idea of throwing things, man naturally picked up sticks to defend himself, to assault his game and to assist himself when he was tired or hurt. For ages sticks were associated with pilgrims. With all men who had to travel the weary world on foot. It is true that sticks became the fashion with gentlemen of leisure in the past century or so, but that was only when we got the law on gentlemen of leisure and forbade them to carry swords. Until the last 100 years or so, gentlemen were never very popular and they all felt uneasy when walking around on foot, unless armed with something to defend themselves against the vulgar masses.”
“Yah,” said Jim. “Socialism again.”
“Every sportsman should carry a walking stick,” I enumerated, “in between seasons, to keep his fly casting wrist limber, to exercise his shooting wrist or his golf wrist.”
“H’m,” mused Jimmie, looking at his wintry wrist.
“In fact,” I wound up, “a stick is the greatest invitation to a man to get up and do something there is. It is, you might say, an essential limb of the human body. Because all your ancestors, hundreds of them, straight back through the middle ages, back to the dark ages, right through to the cave man from whom you personally descended, used sticks as part of their daily life. I wouldn’t be surprised if men learned to walk upright, instead of on all fours, by reason of the instinctive and natural love of a man for a stick.”
“What about women?” countered Jim.
“Women just imitated men,” I explained.
This Motorized Age
“I’d never carry a stick,” declared Jim, sitting down again after having located his hip knob.
“You’ve probably given up walking anyway, Jim,” I suggested. “You’ve quit. You are baggage from now on. Your walking days are over.”
“Oh, yeah?” said Jim sharply.
“Yes,” I sighed. “After about 45 years of age a man’s dominant instinct is to avoid change. That is the heck of this motorized age. It accustoms a man to being baggage. That is all very well when a man is young and energetic. He will get out and play a little golf or something. But once he passes his naturally energetic years he comes under control of his basic instinct – which is to change nothing to go through the rest of his life by routine, by memory, by habit. So, in this motorized age, he becomes what? Just baggage!”
“He’s following nature, anyway,” declared Jim.
“Far from it,” I cried. “Up until just 100 years ago, the older a man got the harder he had to struggle to keep alive. The older a man got, the wiser, the shrewder he grew. That was why the world progressed. Old men could guide us. But ever since the industrial age began old men have been pensioned off and relegated to the corner. Result? All our old men are soft and ignorant. They have a mental age of about 40. All cunning. No wisdom. Hence the past century has been the most confused, bloodiest and most savage in human history.”
“Such bilge!” exploded Jimmie.
“Okay,” I said, “what’s your explanation of the Bloody Twentieth Century?”
“Well, it isn’t walking sticks,” crowed Jim,
“It might well be,” I replied. “It might indeed well be. If men would only return to walking sticks and go forth on their feet among their fellow men instead of whizzing past one another with steering wheels in their hands; if they would give up their awful isolationism of staying locked up in motor cars, locked up in offices, locked up in their homes beside their radios, cutting themselves off at every possible point from contact with their fellow-men, and get out with a stick and peregrinate around seeking the company of their fellow-men, looking at their fellow-men, talking with them and going on little pilgrimages with such fellow-pilgrims as they might find along the way – the world might be better.”
“I wouldn’t own a walking stick,” muttered Jim.
“I’ll buy you one,” I asserted. “I’ll go with you to one of the few shops where sticks can still be bought and get you a stick of exactly the right fit, the right heft, not a sissy polished walking stick such as men carry so awkwardly to church on Sundays, but a real, striding stick…”
“Not me,” laughed Jimmie scornfully.
But at noon I had no trouble guiding his steps free of the habitual course our short lunch hour stroll took us – that dreadful, same old stroll which hundreds of thousands of us take every day of our lives without realizing we are as helpless as squirrels in our cage – and got him off on a side street to a tiny shop I know which has a small but choice selection of real walkers’ sticks for sale.
Jim was quite interested in the limited display.
“Ah,” said the old stick man, “there is not many sticks being made nowadays. One of the biggest stick factories in Britain has just simply folded up, so changed is the fashion. Why, the gipsies in Britain and Ireland used to cut 1,000,000 sticks a year for the British home and export trade. In the Pyrenees they used to harvest tens of thousands of those beautiful light golden Pyrenees hazels. And from the East shiploads of whole-bark Malaccas used to be a great import business. Now all gone.”
But Jimmie was hefting a good plain curve handled oak with a faraway expression on his face. He tried it to his hip. It just fitted to the knob of his hip. He tapped it. Swung it a few times and tried a few paces. Then he lifted it by the middle and swung it. Finally tucked it under his arm jauntily.
He laughed a little awkwardly.
“Do you know,” he exclaimed, “it does have an old-fashioned feeling, somehow. A sort of … sort of …”
The old stick man smiled at me and I reached in my pocket for the two dollars.
“We’ll just take a turn around a couple of these less populated city blocks,” I said as we stepped out into the street. “A couple of gents out for an airing.”
We strode east on Adelaide to Jarvis and jogged down and along a couple of blocks of factory and warehouse areas. I showed Jim how to swing the stick in walking, the rhythm of the stick, that is, tap it down on the fall of the left foot, follow through, swing up and forward, then tap down again on the third fall of the left foot.
He dropped his cane a couple of times, due to its slippery newness, and at one crossing, as he stepped down off the curb the stick got in between his feet and threw him. Still another time, as he swung jauntily along, he gave the stick a particularly airy swing and hit a little boy on the head with it. The little boy’s mother was sweeping off the steps of a small frame cottage sandwiched in between two big factories. She was probably a descendant of a long line of proletariat who hated gentlemen with either swords or sticks, and when the little boy roared that the man had hit him with the stick she chased us half a block with the broom and caused quite number of heads to appear at factory and warehouse windows with her shouting. Just like the French Revolution.
“There you go,” said Jim bitterly as hastened around a corner and tried to resume the role of two gentlemen out for an airing. “The silly damn thing.”
And he tucked the stick under his arm, as though to hide it.
“Come on, come on,” I coaxed, swinging mine heartily. “Give it a chance. Wait till you feel the natural, old-fashioned lilt of it. You can’t expect to be a stick swinger in 10 minutes.”
“It doesn’t come natural to me,” complained Jimmie, tucking the stick still deeper up under his armpit and trying to hide its length with his sleeve.
Some Nasty Remarks
At one of the corners we passed, a group of the lads from a factory, all in their dirty overalls, were out taking a breath of air for the noontime recess, and as we approached one of them cheerily sang out –
“Ah, look at this, would you!”
And we strode by, pretending not to notice. But the gang gave us a pretty trades uniony sort of survey as we passed.
“Mm, mm, mm,” murmured one of them admiringly and fairly loudly.
As we got out of earshot Jimmie said:
“I’m going to chuck it into the first vacant lot we come to.”
“Nonsense, Jim,” I cried. “That is my gift to you. That cost two bucks.”
“Do you want it back?” he demanded, offering it to me.
“I’d look silly carrying two sticks,” I protested.
“I look silly carrying one,” retorted Jim.
We had now walked about nine or 10 blocks.
“We’ll take the street car back,” growled Jim.
Which we did. And Jim held his stick half under his coat as we boarded the car and fumbled for our tickets. I held my stick out boldly and dared any of the casual glances of the other passengers. After all, they’d glance at a briefcase or a bundle if you had one. There is a sort of natural automatic curiosity about most folk, thank goodness.
When we reached Bay St. I led for the door and, glancing back, saw that Jim had so completely concealed his stick that I couldn’t see it at all. I was looking forward, a little, to seeing Jim carry it into The Star building.
“Your stick?” I exclaimed, struck by a sudden suspicion.
“Oh,” said Jim guiltily, and went back three seats and picked it up where he had left it.
Jim shoved past me, the better to get the whole business over with. In doing so he bumped against a lady a little rudely, and I stood back elegantly to let her pass. As I stepped to the pavement I stuck my stick under my arm, to let this same lady have all the room she seemed to want.
At which instant the street car doors slid to and the rubber lips or edges of the door grasped the handle of my stick firmly. And the car started.
I need not describe what followed. No gentleman likes to be jostled about in public, especially by a street car. And especially a gentleman with a walking stick.
Suffice to say, the car took my stick, at a smart speed, right out of sight, solemnly projecting from the rubber-lipped doors.
And there was Jim with his stick on the curb awaiting me.
“Here,” he said, “take this one. You need a stick. “
“Not at all,” I said, thrusting it away. “It is too long. Much too long. Nothing looks worse than a man with a stick too long for him.”
“Take it,” hissed Jimmie, casting anxious glances at the windows of The Star building looming above us.
I walked away. Jimmie looked desperately around. There was a dilapidated motor car handy, nobody in it and its window open. Jim thrust the stick in and dusted off his hands.
“Somebody,” he said as he overtook me, “will be glad of it.”
Editor’s Note: Greg would be a life-long stick carrier (he picked up the habit in the First World War). He would later write that it came in handy for a short man like himself, for reaching.
These illustrations by Jim accompanied an article by Ephraim Acres (the pen name of Hugh Templin). He wrote many stories about “Glenlivit”, a fictional small town, for the Star Weekly in the late 1920s and early 1930s. “Glenlivit” was also a pseudonym for the town of Fergus Ontario, where he was the newspaper editor of the Fergus New Record. According to the article linked, he even explored the idea of a comic strip with Frise based on his writings.
By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, December 18, 1937
“So help me,” said Jimmie Frise devoutly, “I’ll never get caught in this last-minute Christmas rush again. So help me.”
“Millions and millions of people all over the world,” I informed him, “are saying the same thing, this same minute, in a hundred different languages.”
“So help me,” declared Jimmie firmly.
“You said it last year,” I stated. “You will say it next year. And so will all the other millions and millions.”
“Never again, so help me,” reiterated Jim, fiercely.
“There wouldn’t be any Christmas,” I said, “if there were no Christmas rush. That is what Christmas has come to mean. A time of crowding and gathering and jostling. A time of joy and weariness, of feasting and visiting. Of buying and selling.”
“Yeah, commercialized,” accused Jim.
“No, not commercialized,” I corrected. “That’s an easy sneer at Christmas. But suppose Christmas were nothing more than a holy day on the calendar, can you imagine how it would go by? Just as unremembered as any other holy day. Do you recall what you did on Good Friday three years ago? Certainly not. But you can remember what you did three, five, ten Christmases ago; who was at your house; how the children acted, especially the youngest one. You can count back. You can count back ten Christmases, when your youngest girl was three. And close your eyes, and there you can see it, as clear as if it were yesterday. Why? Because that was the year she crashed the Christmas tree in her new scooter, or something. And then, bit by bit, the whole dear, tender picture returns to you, and you’ve got something. A memory.”
“That’s all very well,” protested Jim, “anybody can get sentimental over Christmas and try to gloss over the evils of it. But I say, this Christmas crush is getting tougher all the time. And believe me, I’m through with it.”
“Tougher?” I cried. “My dear boy, nowadays it’s nothing compared to what it was a couple of thousand years ago, the day all this is supposed to commemorate. Don’t you remember that it was so crowded there wasn’t any room at the inn, and Joseph and Mary had to find a manger, in a stable?”
“Aw,” said Jim.
“Crowded?” I continued. “The streets jammed with people from miles around, and donkeys and camels, their bells tinkling and their drivers shouting and complaining and the inns roaring with trade and all the little shops filled with fighting people, trying to get waited on. Crowded? And detachments of Roman soldiers down from Jerusalem to help the tax enumerators do their work, and them in all the best billets in the little town. And the government men turning the front rooms of the inn into offices to work on their tax rolls, and outside, all the lineage of David lined up in queues and wanting to be away home again about their business. Crowded? Jimmie, Christmas has to be a kind of panjandrum, in memory of that day.”
“What Have You to Get?”
“Well, we’ve succeeded,” agreed Jim. “And Christmas has become the worst-tempered season of the whole year. Everybody tired and worried over money, and shopgirls so gaunt and white looking, and delivery men sloshing through the night, and factory girls working overtime, and store keepers dizzy for want of rest, and everybody’s nerves on edge and ready to crack any minute.”
“Fine,” I exulted. “Glorious. Instead of camel drivers shouting, we have car horns yelling impatiently, and instead of Roman soldiers lounging around keeping the crowds moving, we have extra police on duty. It’s a perfect representation.”
“Have you finished your shopping yet?” demanded Jim, grimly.
“No, siree,” I assured him. “I’ve still got a few things to get. And I’m proceeding with it in the spirit of the season. I’m going to be shoved and pushed and tramped on, and camel drivers are going to shout me out of the path, and Roman soldiers are going to thumb me on my way imperiously. I will rub shoulders with all my brethren, poor and rich. I will see, thrust close to mine, faces I have never seen before, thousands of them, my brothers in life. I will be full of pride and contempt and anger, all of them warm, healthy feelings. I will be conscious of my own importance, as I am pushed around by people far beneath me in money and clothes. That too is a nice sensation. There will be a great hum and roar of low sound, the sound of a multitude, and to men, so afraid of being alone, that great sound is always curiously comforting. There will be buying, selling, choosing, selecting, deciding. There will be possessing.”
“What have you to get?” inquired Jim.
“I haven’t the faintest idea,” I assured him, “which is another grand part of the whole business. That glorious aimlessness with which the multitude wander through the stores and along the streets, undecided, indecisive, at a loss, bewildered. That’s the true spirit of Christmas, too.”
“That’s what makes me so mad,” disagreed Jim. “Me trying to go direct to the ladies’ glove counter and having to fight my way through a solid scrimmage of people who don’t want to go anywhere, or else don’t know where they want to go. That vacant stare, mixed with weariness and crankiness, that’s the expression of Christmas.”
“Wouldn’t it be dreadful,” I argued, “if at Christmas, everybody went trimly and smugly and smartly direct to what they wanted? How cold, practical, chilly, the whole business would be. No, Jim, it’s that complete breakdown of everything sensible and reasonable that makes Christmas what it is, the pinnacle of the year.”
“Well, if you don’t know what you want,” said Jim.
“Oh, I know roughly,” I explained, “that I want something for a boy of thirteen something for an elderly lady and something for a man, a tie or a cigarette tray or something casual.”
Everything Seems to Bulge
“We may as well go together,” said Jim, wanly. “I’ve got to get something for two of my girls and some other odds and ends. When you have somebody with you, it doesn’t seem so bad.”
“Come along,” I said.
And we entered the downtown streets which, even at nine a.m. are already congested and which, by four p.m. are just a hopeless slow tangle. Where do they come from? Are all the offices and desks and work benches abandoned, these last few days before Christmas? Is everybody shopping? The pedestrian traffic is trebled and the wheel traffic at least doubled.
Everything seems to bulge. The streets are congested, the windows are congested. Doorways are not wide enough and from the wagons and trucks parcels project perilously. People cannot pass one another, even in straight walking, but have to pause and bunt and wriggle around. At every doorway, there is confusion.
Nobody seems to have his mind on what he is doing, a general uncertainty prevails. People are all looking up, looking left, right or down. Their mouths are slightly open, as if listening to something inside them. They halt suddenly, turn around and return the way they had come. They burst into little trots. At the intersections, they impatiently attempt to cross against a red light, change their mind, stand dreaming, and then, when the green light comes on the people behind have to push them to get them started.
Jim and I got into the tide and drifted with it, storewards.
“How about an air rifle for that boy of 13?” said Jim, helpfully.
“No,” I said, “he got one two years ago. How about one of those nice needlepoint vanity cases for your girls?”
“No, they’ve got all that stuff,” said Jim. “Could you get your boy one of those metal hammering outfits?”
“He’s got one,” I replied. “Say, I saw some of the swellest ski outfits the other day for girls. Little helmet things….”
“No, no,” cried Jim. “They’ve got so much ski stuff. I think that’s what keeps the snow away. I wish I had boys to buy for. They’re so much easier to choose for than girls.”
“Don’t kid yourself,” I assured him. “I can go right through a department store without seeing a single thing fit for a boy, and every place I look, I see something a girl would just love.”
“You wouldn’t think so,” said Jim, “if you had girls to look after. It’s just the other way round, as a matter of fact. The stores are simply bursting with stuff for boys, but there hasn’t been a new idea in the line of Christmas presents for girls in the last ten years.”
Going With the Current
“You certainly are cockeyed, Jim,” I assured him, as we joined a great herd and charged across an intersection, bunting and shoving.
We arrived at the big stores. What had been the Niagara rapids of traffic here became Niagara Falls. Clinging together like mariners wrecked, we went with the raging currents, timidly daring to steer a course, whenever an eddy permitted, towards the elevators but ending up at the escalators instead. Trying to catch the up one, we were inexorably forced on to the down one, which took us to the basement, and there, by skillfully pretending not to want to reach the elevators, we succeeded in arriving there and caught one almost empty which took us to the seventh floor before we could battle our way free. By putting on an expression of joy as if the seventh floor were really seventh heaven, where we had been trying to get for years, we had hardly any trouble getting to the stairs, and we walked down three flights to the sporting goods department. Jimmie and I find one thing about the sporting goods department. In case we do get marooned there, we have something to look at.
“Roller skates,” cried Jimmie. “The very thing for your boy.”
“The very thing for your girl, you mean,” I corrected. “Anyway, they can’t roller skate in winter.”
One of the young temporary salesmen they have at Christmas, one of those boys with the expression of a mischievous wire-haired fox terrier in his eyes, overheard my remark.
“Let me show you, sir,” he said, “the latest thing. Here’s a floating power skate, a ball-bearing, knee-action roller skate that is so pleasant to use, a boy will ride on it winter, summer, in the rain, at night, all the time.”
Very skillfully, like a cowpuncher herding steers, he manipulated us out of the swarming traffic into a kind of pocket. And he handed us each a very fancy looking roller skate.
“A kid,” said the enthusiastic young salesman, “will be asking you for messages to go, if he has these skates, see? He’ll be out in the fresh air, taking easy, natural exercise all day long. They’re like velvet. They’re soundless, smooth, like floating in a canoe. Like blowing along on the wind. In fact, I’m saving my money to own a pair of those skates myself. sir.”
We examined them. They just looked like roller skates to me.
“I’d be having,” I said, “to buy new rollers, new wrenches, all the time. They’d leave marks all over the hardwood floors.”
“Just sit down here, sir,” said the young man. “Just sit here one second.”
I am always glad to sit. So is Jim. We sat. The young man squatted down and skillfully snapped a skate on to my foot.
“See?” he cried. “Modernized. A patent device. It just snaps on. Nothing to fall off or work loose. Just a second.”
He snapped the mate on.
“Now, sir,” he said, “just stand up on those.”
I stood up, cautiously, the young chap holding my elbows to steady me. He rolled me a foot or two.
“Did you ever,” he demanded, “feel anything so airy, so smooth, as the action of those skates?”
I took a couple of cautious slides, holding to the counter edge. It was certainly an eerie sensation. Floating is the word. I shoved myself pleasurably along the counter. When I turned, also cautiously, I saw that Jim had been outfitted with them and, being more leggy than I was trying a few slow curvy strokes with them, amidst the crowd swerving past.
“Slick, eh?” said Jim, whirling over to me and doing one of those skating carnival halts.
“How much are they?” I asked.
“I didn’t ask,” said Jim, and we looked for our young man, who, in the true spirit of Christmas, was already waiting on somebody else, letting us soak, as it were, on our skates.
“I think I’ll get a pair,” said Jim.
“I’d imagine they’re pretty high,” I said, “Did you ever feel anything so smooth?”
Watching for a Break
Holding each other, we took a couple of slides along the counter. We came to the main aisle. Jim was being a little too expert and his weight carried us out into the driving storm of doggedly moving humanity.
“Hey,” I said, missing my grab for the counter. “Hey.”
But how was anybody to know we were on wheels? We held fast to each other, as the thick, packed throng moved us pleasantly away, waiting for an opening or else a chance to seize hold of a pillar.
We had become involved, however, in one of those solid swarms that slowly shuffle, hour by hour, through the great stores these final festive days, and, since we were so tightly packed neither Jim nor I could stoop down to undo the skates from our feet, and since it would have been ridiculous to try to explain to the uninterested people pushing from behind or leaning back against us in front, we just let matters ride, until we got a break.
“Don’t struggle,” warned Jim quietly. “If we upset, we might start some kind of a panic. Take it easy.”
We took it easy. The ones behind shoved, the ones ahead laid back, and there, as snug as steers in a cattle car, we moved effortlessly along.
“Jim,” I confided, “this is an idea. I bet we could sell this idea to the big stores. Roller skates for rent, to make Christmas shopping easy.”
We rolled once around the sporting goods and twice around the toys. A couple of times, I thought I saw the chance to climb over small children and get a grip on a counter edge, but Jim’s grasp on my sleeve prevented me.
“Jim,” I said, “try to signal that young brat that is waiting on us.”
But the tide set out to sea and we started leaving the sporting goods.
“Jim,” I muttered, “turn your toes a little to the right, and try to steer us to the side. We’re getting out of the sporting goods into the hardware.”
We both turned our toes right, but it made no difference. We were just lightly and easily rolled along, at the pace of the throng.
“One thing,” said Jim, “we can’t fall down and be trampled to death.”
“Hardware passing,” I said. “Linoleums next.”
We slowly rolled through the linoleums, past the coconut matting into the hooked rugs.
“Watch for a break,” I advised, “and see if you can make a grab. Once we get out of the crowd, we can fall down and take them off.”
But through the hooked rugs we slowly floated, and suddenly a dreadful presentiment assailed me.
“Pssst,” I hissed, “the escalator!”
“I’m afraid,” said Jim, “we’re for it.”
We could hear the dull rumble of the escalator. We tried to thrust out of the throng, but with nothing to grip with but our hands, all we succeeded in doing was irritating people whose arms we clutched, and they glared at us haughtily. Slowly the throng thickened, packed, pressed together and leaned hard over, in the general determination to get to the escalator. It was hopeless. When your turn comes to the escalator, you take it, willy nilly. We took ours.
Clinging to the fat rubber rails, we kept upright. I tried to raise one leg in order to unfasten one of the skates, but my knee bunted the lady ahead of me in an undignified fashion and she turned and hissed–
“Don’t get fresh!”
So, swiftly, inevitably, we reached the bottom of the escalator without having any time to plan or organize our arrival. And on the shining steel plate which bottoms all escalators our feet rolled forth and our helpless hands had to let go the fat rolling rubber railing and, ingloriously we skidded forth before the astonished eyes of the attendant and such shoppers as had enough interest left in life to bother looking.
The attendant helped us take the skates off. He did not, as I suggested to him, suppose we were trying to steal the skates.
“Not a tall, not a tall,” he assured us. “Things like this are happening all the time during the Christmas rush.”
So we took the skates slowly back to the young temporary salesman, who had not noticed our absence, and told him we would think the matter over.
Editor’s Notes: This story serves as a reminder to anyone who bemoans that Christmas has become commercialized. Long before Charlie Brown complained about the commercialization of Christmas in 1965, people were complaining about it even earlier.
Old roller skates were metal and had to be strapped to your shoes. Since “one size fits all”, you needed a skate “key” to adjust the length to fit to your feet, and tighten and lock it.
By Gregory Clark, December 19, 1931
The rumor was abroad in the regiment that the new Lieutenant Maybee Basset still believed in Santa Claus.
And, with some humor, everybody waited to learn what Sixteen platoon was going to do about it. For Sixteen platoon being the tail-end of any regiment, and marching next to the sick, lame and lazy, was always a collection of rogues and rascals that could be depended upon to do something about anything.
Mr. Basset was the newly-arrived officer of Sixteen. And the Weasel was his batman.
“I seen him,” said the Weasel, in his soft, sly voice, “saying his prayers. In his kit I found two suits of silk underwear. It was pink.”
Sixteen platoon, sitting, lying and lounging in the hay of its billet barn, received this juicy morsel of news with suitable uproar.
Nifty Smith, the prize fighter, who always lay back on his elbows like a boxer in his corner, said:
“I don’t mind that. That pink stuff. I think it’s time they was somebody different in Sixteen. The last two lieutenants we have had has been loud and yellow. I like this big guy Basset.”
“He writes letters,” said the Weasel, “all the time. To his mamma, I think.”
“I think he’s going to do all right,” said Schwartz, the cheese-eater, “but the regiment says he still believes in Santa Claus and I guess we got to do something about it.”
“We’ll be in the line for Christmas,” croaked Tobacca-chewin’ Martin hoarsely. “We ought to have a Christmas party for him. Maybe a Christmas tree. Or a little stocking hung on the parapet or something.”
“He’s soft lookin’, but I like him,” said Nifty Smith.
The Wessel, who had been batman for longer than anybody could remember, whom nobody loved because of his tattling ways, and whose sly voice always seemed to pick silences into which to creep, now said:
“I know a padre I can get a Santa Claus suit from. I’ll take it up the line and we can put on some kind of a razz for him.”
“We could take him,” said Tobacca-chewin’, eagerly, “out on patrol and he could capture Santa Claus!”
“There’s a swell idea,” said the Weasel, amid a chorus of agreement.
“You be Santa Claus,” said Schwartz, the cheese-eater, to the Weasel.
“Sure, if you birds will undertake that his gat hasn’t got any bullets in it!”
“That won’t be hard!”
So, on the eve of Christmas, when the regiment marched up the line, Lieutenant Basset walked at the head of the swaggering line of Sixteen platoon, little dreaming that he was to be the hero of another of that notorious platoon’s exploits.
The Weasel had the Santa Claus suit in his pack-sack. He had been unable to get one from any padre, but a French family a few miles back – so he said – which had been interested in theatricals before the war, had gladly fixed him up.
In secret, the platoon had all inspected the outfit, and the Weasel had put some of it on. It was old St. Nick himself.
We went in on the Loos-Hill Seventy front; and at Hulluch, where our front was, the No Man’s Land was barely fifty yards across.
“I wonder,” said Nifty Smith, who studied the ground, “if they is enough room for our little Christmas show?”
“Sure, there’s room,” said the Weasel, who had put himself heart and soul into the drama. “I got it all figured out. Christmas Eve, we can do some singing. You remember last Christmas? You could hear Fritz singing all over the line. Well, I know a German song. It goes like this: ‘Stille nacht, heilige nacht! I’ll teach it to you. Well, while we are singing this, and Fritz is singing it back at us, I can sneak out just a little way and lie there. Then you birds crawl out with Basset and just when you get close to where I’ll be, you leave him. I’ll make some sound and he can capture me. And in the dark he won’t know until he gets me back into the trench that I’m Santa Claus.”
“He’ll Be Scared Stiff”
“It sounds swell,” said Schwartz. “We ought to have somebody there, the colonel or somebody, to congratulate him.”
“As soon as we go out,” said Nifty Smith, “we could send word to the other officers that there was something funny on our front. And ask them to come and wait until Basset comes in.”
It was all settled.
And Lieutenant Basset, the day before Christmas, stood innocently in his trench, his kind, friendly face beaming as he listened to the talk of his men. He was a large, shy fellow. Dreamy and far away. One of those good-natured big clumsy men who never could be made into soldiers.
“And tonight,” said Nifty Smith, the prize-fighter, “we can hear them singing. And we can sing back at them.”
“Doesn’t it seem absurd,” said Lieutenant Basset, “sitting a hundred yards apart singing Christmas hymns and killing each other.”
“My idea,” said Tabacca-chewin’ Martin, “would be to sneak out into No Man’s Land about the time their singing is at its best and lob a few bombs into them.”
Lieutenant Basset looked horrified.
“Sure,” said Schwartz. “The colonel would be tickled pink.”
“Would he really?” asked the lieutenant. “He spoke to me rather sharply a couple of days ago about my word of command. If I went out and bombed them while they are singing, he would be pleased, eh?”
“Sure,” chorused the elite of Sixteen platoon, who should have been sleeping at midday instead of gossiping with their new and inquisitive officer.
“And would some of you go with me?” asked Basset.
“We’d all go,” said they.
And like a large, happy child, Lieutenant Basset left them smiling amongst themselves.
It was dark shortly after five o’clock Christmas Eve. And a few lazy flakes of snow were falling to create a little atmosphere of Christmas. But to the shadowy figures who stood-to-arms in that little bit of Hill 70, part of the long line of millions of men who stood facing each other unseen across a wide and unhappy nation, there was little thought of Christmas it was just the same old thing.
In a disused and battered dugout the conspirators of Sixteen were gathered quietly. The Weasel was putting on his Santa Claus suit. A quartet under the leadership of Bunson, the stretcher bearer, were softly practising “Stille nacht, heilige nacht,” which was only the old hymn, “Silent night, holy night,” only with a lot of funny words which the sly and widely travelled Weasel taught them.
“I got two bombs,” said Nifty Smith to the Weasel, “with the detonators took out of them. They’re for Basset. Then, I got hall a dozen pistol shells that I drew the bullets out of, and took out the powder. I’m going to tell him, just before we set out, that I got some new stuff for my pistol and I’ll change these for what is in his gun.”
“Don’t make any mistake about that,” said the Weasel, rather breathlessly. “I don’t want my head blown off by no Basset.”
The Weasel, it was arranged, was to go out at ten o’clock while the quartet lustily sang “Stille nacht” into the still air. He was to be given full hour to get set in a shell hole straight out from the place he went through our wire.
“The reason I want a whole hour,” said the Weasel, “is so there won’t be too much activity. If we all go out within a few minutes of each other, Fritz might notice it and start shooting up our little Christmas pantomime.”
“And at eleven,” said Tobacca-chewin’ Martin, “we’ll come out, crawl straight ahead about twenty yards, until we hear you say Psst! Then we let Basset go on an attack you. Suppose he beats you up?”
“He won’t. I’ll surrender,” said the Weasel. “He’ll be scared stiff and it’ll be me who will lead him back into the trench. But make dead sure his pistol’s a dud.”
Sixteen platoon thought ten o’clock would never come. Every time Lieutenant Basset came through the trench, they held their breath. But about nine-thirty the lieutenant and to Corporal Perry:
“The colonel has sent for me. I won’t be back until ten-thirty or eleven.”
And Sixteen breathed easy.
“His nibs,” said Tobacca-chewin’ Martin to the Weasel where he was concealed in the old ruined dugout, “has been called down to B. H. Q. He won’t be back until half-past ten.”
“I’ll be waiting for you straight out twenty-five yards whenever you come out after eleven,” said the Weasel. He was stiff with excitement.
The Boys are Speechless
At ten o’clock, Sixteen platoon spread itself out to see that no strangers should be in its trench while a comic spectacle appeared: Santa Claus himself, in whiskers and crimson bathrobe and pink fur cap, was hustled through the trench and out over the parapet at the little lane in the wire through which patrols pass into No Man’s Land.
“Start singing,” said Santa Claus breathlessly, “in about five minutes.”
And the quartet drew themselves together and started taking deep breaths.
As Santa Claus faded into the dark there was silence for a moment, broken only by the soft and sudden appearance in their midst of Lieutenant Basset.
“Keep still,” he whispered sharply.
He stepped smoothly on to the firestep and stared after Santa Claus.
Tobacca chewin’ Martin was close to him.
“All right,” said Lieutenant Basset in low whisper. A curiously changed lieutenant; a big, lithe strong lieutenant, from whom all innocence and goofiness had been wiped away as with a rag.
“Take this watch,” said Lieutenant Basset to the stretcher bearer and song leader, Bunson. “In three minutes from the time we go over here, start to sing. Understand? And sing until we come back. Don’t fail!”
His voice was like a Vickers gun.
“Come on, Martin,” said the lieutenant. And with Tobacca-chewin’ right on his heels, the lieutenant pulled himself out of sight over the parapet.
The boy’s stood speechless. But Nifty Smith was the first to swallow.
“Look at that watch,” he warned.
And in moment, the quartet was harmonizing in the finest barber shop manner, “Stille nacht, heilige nacht.”
The music rose as softly into the night as the snow flakes drifted down
At the end of the first verse, there came, faintly and full, from the German trenches, the sound of men’s voices repeating the same tune.
Nifty Smith, Schwartz and the corporal were on the firestep staring tensely into the night.
“Start again!” hissed Nifty, as the far away song ended.
The quartet repeated the verse. “Louder,” said Nifty.
Once again, the Germans repeated the tune back to them, and once more the Bunsen quartet soulfully roared the tune into the night.
But half way through the verse, the watching figures on the firestep flattened to their rifle butts. And then through the gap in the wire came Tobacca chewin’ Martin bent low as he dragged a heavy thing behind him.
The heavy thing was the Weasel. His Santa Claus disguise was gone, and around the Weasel’s mouth was bound white bandage.
Tobacca-chewin’ slid the limp body into the trench and snarled everybody to silence. In silence, he frantically unwound his puttee and with it, he trussed the Weasel from head to foot, and then knelt low to listen to the Wessel’s breathing.
“What’s going on?” demanded Schwartz, at last, out of the gang of silent and startled men.
“Watch out there!” commanded Tobacca-chewin’ fiercely. “We gotta go back, Nifty and you and me, and help Mr. Basset when he comes. Keep up that singing. And see nobody fires, whatever happens. Corporal, Mr. Basset’s orders, see nobody on the flank does any firing. All companies on both rides of us are warned. Just look after our own company.”
“What’s happened to the Wessel?” asked the corporal.
“Detail somebody to watch him. Don’t let him move,” said Tobacca-chewin’. And with a gesture, he led Nifty and Schwartz over the top and out into that still, music-filled darkness that was more terrifying than if it were filled with fire.
Suddenly, into the quiet little twisty trench that was Sixteen’s piece, there arrived a squad, a mob, a regular guard of officers. Below their steel helmets glowed the red and gold gorget patches of the mighty staff. The regimental colonel was with them. One very small, aged officer led them. And they stood looking down at the Weasel.
The harmonious quartet faltered and prepared to vacate this part of the earth for more lowly regions. But the little old man with the snow-white moustache rasped :
“Sing damn it!”
And they sang.
The Big Surprise
The little old man stepped up on the firestep and watched into the night.
Four, five, six times, the quartet repeated their Christmas carol across No Man’s Land, and as many times, it was sung back to them, faintly, by the Germans.
And suddenly, the little old general dropped off the firestep and said: “Here they come!”
Lieutenant Basset came first, low and swift like a great hound. Behind him came Nifty and Schwartz, gripping between them a helpless figure over the head of which had been pulled a sandbag. And his feet dragged like those of one sorely hurt. Last of all came old Tobacca-chewin’ Martin, and they slid into the trench all of a heap.
Lieutenant Basset whipped the sandbag off. And there, bare-headed and speechless with fright and fury, stood a German officer.
“Herr Major Rupprecht,” said Lieutenant Basset. “I beg to introduce number of the general staff of the First Army.”
Herr Major Rupprecht staggered back against the trench wall and raid his hand to the back of his head.
“I — I — gentlemen –” he said, and sat down with a bump on the firestep.
“How did you get him, Basset?” asked the old general.
“Just the way you planned it, sir,” said the lieutenant. “I followed the Weasel, as they call him here, and when he called to the trench where the Germans were singing and got an answer, I slugged him, changed into his Santa Claus costume, went in and met Rupprecht, who was actually waiting in the front line trench, good chap.”
“I gave him the Weasel’s package. We will presently see what is in it. Then we had a very jolly drink. And I then informed Rupprecht that perhaps he would like, personally, to bring in complete new Stokes mortar of the latest pattern, complete with sample shell, and a couple of other things he would like to have, which I had secreted just outside the wire. For a moment, I feared he was going to send someone else with me. But all at once, visioning, perhaps, a special order pour le Merite, he slapped me on the back and said I was a capital fellow. And like two schoolboys we slipped out of the trench, into No Man’s Land. And then, shaking him by the hand and wishing him good luck until we met again, I clubbed him on the head and here he is.”
“Has he the stuff the Weasel, as you call him, had written for him?” asked the old general.
“I got it out of his pocket, sir. It’s quite a good sized package. Maps in it, too.”
“Who brought the Weasel in?” and the old man.
“This good man, Martin,” said Mr. Basset. “Martin has been in my confidence from the first day I joined this platoon.”
“We shall let Martin hear from us later,” said the old man.
And with Rupprecht walking amongst them, as though he were one of them, the squad of brass hats filed out of the trench. Mr. Basset, before following, shook hands with Martin, Nifty and the others.
“I had only short visit with you, men,” said he, “but I enjoyed it. Good luck to you.”
Behind remained one cold, black-jawed officer.
“Put this man,” said he to Corporal Perry, “on a stretcher and detail a party to carry him out with me.”
They lifted the mummy shape of the Weasel on to a stretcher, hoisted him and followed after the staff.
“Do you know that last guy?” asked Schwartz, as the little remnant of Sixteen stood dazed in their no longer dreary trench. “That’s the provost marshal. I seen him once at a wall party down at Doullens. One of those early morning wall parties.”
The first German shell of the alarm screamed over the trench.
The night across No Man’s Land, the still, holy night, leaped suddenly and frantically to life with flares, Maxims, shells.
And Sixteen, save for Nifty on the Lewis gun, ducked into the earth.
Editor’s Notes: In case it was not clear, Lieutenant Basset (as Provost marshal and in charge of military police), was undercover to catch the Weasel. Jimmie Frise provided the illustrations.
A batman in the military is a soldier assigned to a commissioned officer as a personal servant. This position was much less common after World War One.
A firestep is a built into each trench, cut into its wall some two or three feet from the trench floor. The purpose of the firestep was to enable each occupant of the trench to peer over the side of the trench through the parapet into No Man’s Land in the direction of the enemy trench line.
A puttee is a covering for the lower part of the leg from the ankle to the knee, wrapped like a bandage. This was standard in British and Canadian troops in World War One.
The German officer was perhaps expecting a Pour le Mérite, a German medal or order of merit (despite the French name).
By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, December 12, 1942
“To heck with it,” muttered Jimmie Frise, slamming down the telephone receiver roughly.
“Easy, easy,” I counselled. “That telephone isn’t your property.”
“Oh, yeah?” growled Jim, giving the instrument another shove.
“What’s eating you?” I demanded.
“I’ve been calling my house,” said Jimmie loudly, “for the last 15 minutes. And it’s busy, busy, busy!”
He reached over and gave the phone another shove, until it was almost off his desk.
“Well,” I scoffed, “is that the telephone’s fault? Why don’t you use a little reason, Jim?”
“Sometimes,” said Jim, “I wish the telephone had never been invented. It is the cause of more high blood pressure than all the rest of our so-called modern improvements put together. Oh, if there only were no telephones what a lovely, simple, happy world this would be!”
“Jim,” I calmed him, “without the telephone our world would be impossible. Why, our industry, our domestic life, our whole modern economy, you might say, is founded on the telephone. The shape of our cities, the size and length of our streets, the location of our business districts as compared with our industrial or factory districts is entirely based on the existence of the telephone.”
“Wait a minute,” muttered Jimmie, picking up the phone and dialing slowly and deliberately.
He listened intently. And then flung the receiver down more violently than before.
“Still busy!” he rasped.
“Our fire protection system,” I went on calmly, “our police organization, the medical profession – all the security of the modern community is organized on the telephone.”
“We’d be better off,” growled Jimmie, “with a big bell hung at every street corner, to ring in case of fire.”
“And a fire station, I suppose,” I submitted, “every two blocks? Jim, if we didn’t have telephones the cost of fire protection alone would double our taxes.”
“Just a second,” said Jimmie, picking up the telephone again.
He dialed deliberately as usual, with the utmost care, sticking his finger in the right hole; and then, after one brief listen, laid the telephone down again with the greatest politeness.
“Still busy?” I inquired brightly.
“Mmmmmmm,” said Jimmie ominously.
“Why is it,” I inquired, “that when an enemy attacks a city the very first objective of the bombers or the artillery is to knock out the telephone buildings, the exchanges? So as to throw the city into complete and hopeless confusion.”
“Well, if the telephones were all busy as usual,” said Jim bitterly, with the idle chatter of young ladies, it wouldn’t make much difference. I bet if you could in some way make a Gallup Poll of the telephone conversations in one 24-hour day in Toronto, you would discover that about 23 of the 24 hours of talk was all sheer piffle.”
“Oh, hold on, Jim,” I protested. “Think of the business that is done over the telephone.”
“One hour of the 24 would be business,” declared Jim grimly. “The rest would be sheer social twaddle. People have no right to use the telephone as a means of social intercourse. People have no right to go visiting on the telephone. If they want to spend a social hour with somebody why the blazes don’t they go and see them?
“After all,” I pointed out, “it’s their own telephone.”
“No, it isn’t,” announced Jim emphatically. “No telephone belongs to anybody, even in the degree that it is in their home. I realize the telephone instruments belong to the company and we only rent the service of them. But over and above that, no telephone belongs to any one person or any two persons. The telephone belongs to all the people who might want to call in. For example, take an old spinster living in an apartment. She has a telephone. Now, nobody could believe that the telephone is hers more than that spinster.”
“I see that,” I agreed.
“She talks on the phone all the time,” said Jim. “She is a busy church worker and belongs to the Ladies’ Frantic Endeavor of her church, we’ll say.”
“Okay,” I encouraged.
“So she holds committee meetings over the telephone, see?” went on Jim. “Instead of going to all the trouble of gathering the Ladies’ Frantic Endeavor together, either at the church or at somebody’s home, with all the nuisance of having to bring their own tea and sugar, why, she, as the chairman of the committee, simply calls each of the seven other ladies on the telephone. And after a nice long conversation with each one she sums up their opinions, adds up their votes, and then calls each one back again and informs them of the way the vote went and just how the committee feels.”
“It’s a common practice in business,” I pointed out, that very system.”
“Ah, yes, but wait a minute,” said Jim. “This lady is a spinster. Forty years ago she had a prospect. He was a young man of promise who was snatched from under this spinster’s nose by a local blonde.”
“This is getting interesting,” I urged.
But Jimmie, seeing through my false interest, suddenly remembered the phone and picked it up. He dialed rapidly. He listened acutely. Then he slammed the receiver down again as hard as ever.
The Lost Opportunity
“Still busy,” he said, this time without any blood pressure. “Well, sir. The very day that this spinster is holding a committee meeting on her telephone, that boyhood sweetheart of hers, now a widower, is passing through Toronto on his way from New York to Winnipeg. He is a widower now, the blonde having died of premature old age, as blondes so often do. He is rich. He is powerful. But he is lonely. He is returning to his great empty house in Winnipeg. And as he waits between trains in Toronto, just one hour, he remembers his old sweetheart and the thought occurs to him to look in the Toronto telephone book – at which he hasn’t looked in 30 years. And he sentimentally looks up his old sweetheart’s name. And there it is. Miss Julie Bonbon!”
“Very romantic,” I admit.
“So all slightly perspiring,” says Jim, “this rich old widower, who is an elder and manager in one of the biggest churches in Winnipeg, by the way, calls the number, in the remote chance that this Miss Julie Bonbon is the same Julie Bonbon he knew and loved 40 years before.”
“As indeed she was,” I remarked.
“He calls, his heart in his mouth,” pursues Jimmie, “and the line is busy. Good, he says, trying desperately to think up what he will say if it is indeed she. And he tries again. Line busy. He looks at his watch. Only 15 minutes before his train is called. He tries again. Until three minutes to train time that rich old widower tries that blasted telephone every minute. And all the time it is busy. Because of the committee meeting.”
“Why didn’t he make a note of her address,” I demanded, “and he could have written her from Winnipeg?”
“Nothing doing,” said Jim. “A telephone call is one thing. A letter is quite another. And, anyway, he was so mad by the time he called for the last time that he went and boarded the train for Winnipeg, saying to himself that he was a lucky man to have married the blonde instead of this awful blatherskite. At least the blonde was dead. And on the train home he sat smiling to himself and thinking what a silly fool he was to have even tried to telephone.”
“So the moral?” I queried.
“This tale needs no moral,” said Jimmie, picking up the telephone and preparing to dial his home again. “All you need is the spectacle of that spinster, sitting in her apartment, holding a meeting of the Ladies’ Frantic Endeavor on what she foolishly imagines to be her own private telephone. In view of the great mystery and all the possibilities of this life, no telephone belongs to anybody. You never know but what opportunity, which knocks only once, may only ring once on the telephone instead.”
Then Jimmie dialed slowly and carefully and a bright smile wreathed his face.
“It’s ringing,” he said, with great satisfaction.
And it rang and rang. And Jimmie rattled the hook and broke connections. And dialed again. And again it rang and rang.
Blathering On and On
“Well,” sighed Jimmie, setting the receiver down very politely. “Whoever was in has apparently gone out.”
What did you want to get your house for?” I inquired.
And Jimmie looked blankly at me for a moment and said:
“By gosh, that story I made up has chased it entirely out of my head!”
“What I dropped in to see you about,” I stated, “was that newsreel that shows Sam Doakes. I’ve located it. It’s at the Valley theatre.”
“Away out there?” cried Jim.
“It’s only half an hour on the street car,” I protested. “And after all the time we’ve talked about going to see old Sam’s face, it is time we went.”
“It’s only a glimpse,” said Jim. “One second. And we can’t be sure it is Sam.”
“His wife says it’s him,” I assured. “She’s seen it 30 times. It shows Sam standing beside an anti-aircraft gun with a pair of field-glasses and the gun is actually firing at the Huns.”
“Wait till it comes to some neighborhood theatre near home,” said Jim. “I was intending to stay in tonight and loaf. The family is out and I can get a lot of things done tonight that I have been putting off.”
“I even got the time the newsreel comes on,” I pleaded. “Look. What would Sam Doakes, a lifelong friend, think of us two if he knew his picture had been in the newsreels and neither of us had gone even to the trouble of going to see it?”
“What time does it come on?” Jim asked.
“Twenty to nine,” I said, “Allowing half an hour to get there by street car, we can leave your house at 8 and be in our seats in plenty of time…”
So Jimmie agreed that he would be ready if I called at his house a minute or two before 8.
And at five to 8 I was in his front hall and Jimmie came downstairs with his hunting boots in his hands, having been upstairs greasing them. It took him a few minutes to wash up and get his coat on. And we were just passing out the door at five minutes past when the telephone rang.
“Drat the thing,” said Jimmie, snatching up the receiver. “Why, hello, Andy!”
“Tell him you’ll ring him back tomorrow,” I said loudly, and pointed to the hall clock.
But Jim sat down on the hall chair. “You don’t say?” he said eagerly. “How many? Seven. Boy, that’s some litter. How many males?”
I walked over and stuck my watch under his nose. It was seven past 8.
“Mm-hmmm,” said Jimmie delightedly. “What color are the three males? All blue ticked, eh?”
And as the grandfather’s clock tocked and ticked the minutes away. Jimmie sat slouched deeper and deeper in the chair, an air of complete coziness and social ease engulfing him, his eyes shut, smiles brightening his countenance, his eyebrows lifting, as he blathered on and on to his old friend, Andy Perkins, breeder of beagle hounds.
Somebody Else’s Selfishness
His conversation consisted mostly of “Mmm-hmmm” and “Well, well” and “Think of that.” Just when you would think it was about to end he would ask some fool question, such as “Who was the grandsire of the dam. did you say, Andy?” and I could hear Andy’s voice scratching and droning endlessly away on the receiver.
Eleven past 8, 14 past 8, while I stood, watch in hand, coldly waiting for this social engagement to come to an end and recalling, vividly, the Jimmie I had seen a few hours earlier at the office slamming telephone receivers down and vainly dialing his home.
At 8.15 I walked over and held my watch down under his nose and made him open his eyes as he lounged there, drowsily “Mm-hmmm-ing.”
“Well, Andy,” he said, straightening up “it swell to hear from you. I’ll be coming over as soon as I can to have a look at the litter.”
And then it took him, another good five minutes to wind up. He stood up. He buttoned his coat with one hand. Straightened his hat. Smiled. Nodded his head. Bowed. Handed me the cigarette butt that was now burning his gloves. And at 23 minutes past 8 made his final “So long” and hung up reluctantly.
“Okay,” he said briskly.
“Jim,” ‘I stated bitterly, it is too late. We never can make it now.”
“Nonsense,” he cried. “I wasn’t three minutes.”
“Jim,” I stated, “you were 15 minutes on that phone. Longer than you were trying to get your house this afternoon, remember?”
“But I haven’t seen Andy for five months,” Jim said indignantly. “And, besides, it was a more or less of a business conversation …”
“It’s a queer thing,” I informed him levelly, “how we can always justify our own misuse of the telephone, even while our blood pressure is still up 100 over somebody else’s selfishness.”
“If we step on it,” said Jim, nudging me out the door, “we can still make it to the theatre by 20 to 9.”
But just off Jim’s front steps I saw my small daughter coming full pelt around the corner and when she saw me she cried out:
“Hurry, Daddy, hurry. Long distance!”
And up the street like a terrier I legged it to my house to hear across 1,000 miles from his camp in Nova Scotia the voice of my son.
Editor’s Note: In the early days of the phone network, the phone company would own the telephones as well. So when they were discussing the ownership of telephones, there was that aspect as well.
This illustration by Jim came with an article on how race tracks are run.