By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, November 23, 1935.
“There are, say, about fifty guys in the world,” said Jimmie Frise, “who know whether there is going to be war and who’s to be in it. Fifty guys. A few politicians, a few big bankers and generals. The rest of us three or four hundred millions in Europe and America just sit back and wait.”
“I’m sorry, Jim,” I confessed. “But the people chose them.”
“So they just leave things to them,” went on Jim. “They chose them, of course, because of their great interest in their welfare, didn’t they? They elected all those big international financiers and statesmen and generals, didn’t they? They went through the highways and by-ways of the world, seeking the most upright, gentle, kindly and humane of all men. And these they set up at their head, and said, brother, lead us in green pastures, beside the still waters.1“
“Not exactly that way.” I agreed.
“No,” cried Jim. “Not exactly. But by reason of their brain-power, their hunger for wealth and influence, their incentive, as they call it; by reason of the drive and fury and cleverness, they chose themselves, rose up, fighting, scheming, battling, manoeuvring, gathering, amassing and hoarding, until they became the leaders, whether they were politicians or generals or super business men.”
“Aw, Jimmie,” I complained, “you’re bitter.”
“Bitter?” asked Jim. “Bitter? Oh, no. I’m just so happy that all over the world. there are such unselfish, humanitarian gentlemen at the controls of the human race.”
“How can people get a more tender type of man to be their rulers?” I demanded.
“If I knew,” said Jim, “I would tell you.”
“Well, then,” I shouted, “what do you suppose people can do about it? I don’t want a war any more than anybody else. But how can you stop them?”
“If I knew,” said Jim, “I would tell you.”
“It gives me an awful pessimistic feeling,” I submitted.
“You are a student of Nature,” began Jimmie, sitting back. “You spend all the time you can out on the good earth, looking at the birds, the trees, the flowers. I have seen you, almost like a simpleton, standing watching just the seasons coming and going. You love the good earth. It is a religion to you.”
“Yes,” I breathed.
“Very well,” said Jim. “In your interest and devotion to Nature, are you one of those who thinks we humans are outside Nature. Do you think we are something separate from Nature, and that Nature is only a sort of picture, at which we, from the outside, gaze?”
“Nature is God,” I said.
“Or do you think we humans are part of Nature itself,” questioned Jim; “that we are right inside the frame of that picture, part with the animals, the birds, the trees, the good earth itself?””
“That is the way I try to feel,” I admitted. “That is why I stand, if you like, like a simpleton, just feeling, feeling the seasons come and go. Come and go.”
Fighting Off the Facts
“I’ve got that feeling lately,” said Jim, gently. “This last while, with all the wars and confusions and muddles we humans are in, I have developed the notion within my own heart, that after all, we are only an item in Nature, and that now Nature’s laws are in process of working on us.”
“How?” I asked.
“Except in us humans,” said Jim, “the law of life is the law of the jungle. But we shouldn’t call it the law of the jungle. Because the law of the jungle also applies to the song birds in Muskoka and the mice in York county; we deceive ourselves when we talk, solemnly, about the law of the jungle, because that makes it seem far away. It is right here. In our gardens. The terrible, basic, stark law of Nature, the survival of the fittest.”
“And how do we come into it?” I inquired.
Because we humans,” said Jim, “are in the picture of Nature, too. And Nature’s laws govern us before any other laws. For some two or three thousand years, we have been artificially fighting off the facts by endlessly, struggling to prove that we are better than beasts, that there is something higher and nobler in us, that we are, after all, outside the grim grip of Nature.”
“And we aren’t?” I asked.
“We aren’t,” said Jim. “I show you the whole round world to prove it. In this age of grace, here we are looting and destroying and enslaving. Despite all the ruins of beauty two thousand years old, we are smashing and destroying again just like the Goths and Vandals who made those ruins, two thousand years ago. You can’t beat Nature. Nature has us in her grip.”
“This is terribly pessimistic, Jim,” I groaned.
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Jimmie. “Maybe we weren’t ever intended to be civilized. Maybe all this war and international confusion is just Nature’s patient way of sending us back to the good earth again, to dwell in caves and rude huts again, and to take our place in the good old natural struggle against bears and sabre-tooth tigers, and to hunt the mammoth.”
“The bees live in communities, Jim,” I pointed out, “and they have no wars.”
“And no politics, either,” explained Jimmie. “And they don’t elect their queen bee, either. She doesn’t rise up to enslave all her fellow bees. She’s born. God creates her. She hatches from the egg a different shape and size, bigger, more beautifully colored. She is queen by Nature’s decree, not the bees’.”
“Then it is not a case of going back to the land,” I suggested.
“Not at all,” said Jim. “It is going back to the jungle. Give us another great big slaughter of a war, another completely smashing and exhausting war, and about ninety-nine per cent. of us will be glad to throw together a valise full of blankets, pails and frying pans and beat it forever from so-called civilization to live alone, in isolated families, in some secret, safe forest. That is where Nature raised us. We left it of our own free will. We worked out a scheme called civilization. It wasn’t Nature’s idea. If Nature had that idea, she would have worked it out with some of her other creatures. So now we are headed back to where we belong.”
To Abandon Civilization
“Will you come and see me sometimes, Jimmie?” I asked. “Maybe we could get a couple of forests not too far apart. Let’s arrange a series of whistles and signals so that we can find one another once in a while. We could pass our signals down to our children so that a Clark would never fling a spear into a Frise, as they lurk through the jungle.”
“Maybe we could both go to the same. forest.” thought Jimmie. “You and your kids take one end of it, and I and my kids. would take the other.”
“It would never do, Jim,” I explained. “Sooner or later, it would come to a blood feud, and your great grandchildren would slay mine, or vice versa. The way it is now, the birds in Muskoka arrive on their ancestral nesting grounds, and they fight, even the tiny little white-throated sparrows that sing ‘Poor old Canada, Canada, Canada’, even these bright, tiny birds fight like demons amongst themselves until, by the time the nests are to be built, no two birds occupy the same feeding range of so many acres of bush. I have seen deadly battles between wrens, tiny brown wrens. All because they could not both nest in the same section of bush. There wasn’t enough feed in that one area of bush to support two families of wrens. Now Nature knows just how much woods a wren needs for its bailiwick. And Nature decrees that these wrens shall fight to the death, if necessary, until only one wren remains to nest. That’s Nature. And it isn’t in any jungle, either. It’s in every beautiful glade in Muskoka and all over the great big world.”
“Well,” said Jim sadly, “when the time comes for us to abandon civilization and head back for the bush, we can at least go part way together. We might go up Yonge St. as far as Orillia together.”
So we sat, brooding on the imminent end of a life-long friendship.
“Speaking of war,” said Jim, at length, “I have to lay a new concrete floor in my cellar. I was out getting the cement and stuff last night. And I was just thinking, hadn’t I better build a sort of concrete pill box in my cellar while I am at it? For air raids, and so forth.”
“And earthquakes, too,” I pointed out. “A good concrete vault in the cellar might prove a very handy item if these earthquakes become a habit around here.”
“War and earthquakes,” mused Jim. “The two things we can’t control. In the face of these two great manifestations of Nature, man can do nothing but fall back wholly on himself. What good are communities, cities, states, when an earthquake or a war strikes? Nothing. It is each poor little man for himself, just the same as in the jungle.”
“My dear boy, in war,” I protested, “men are in mass.”
“Yet every man is all alone,” stated Jim. “When you die, it is a solitary business. There is little or no satisfaction that ten other men are dying with you.”
“I fail to see it,” I declared. “It was just to defeat these disasters of war and earth- quake and what not that man invented the social idea and formed communities, instead of facing life lonely and alone, each in his separate den, like bears, in the jungle.”
“The deadliest feature of society,” propounded Jimmie, “is that masses of innocent men are swept away in the passion of war; and as far as earthquakes go I imagine you could survive it by yourself, but think of the dreadful battle in a great city to secure food and drinking water, just the simple essentials, after a real good earthquake? No, sir, either for war or earthquake, I would rather have a concrete pill box in the back areas of Muskoka than live on the finest avenue in Toronto. I think I’ll build me a pill box.”
“It might almost pay you,” I agreed. “About the safest place I ever was in in the war was a German pill box at Passchendaele. It was sunk in the ground almost to ceiling level. Its walls were five feet solid concrete and its roof was seven feet solid concrete. No shell could ever smash it.”
“Did any shells hit it while you were in it?” asked Jim.
“Several,” I said. “They sounded like somebody dropping a boot upstairs, that’s all.”
“What were you doing in the pill box?” asked Jim idly.
“Well, it sounds silly, but I had a typewriter,” I said, “and I was typing out the recommendation for Tommie Holmes’ V.C.”
“How quaint,” said Jim. “In a war, sitting in a pill box, with a typewriter, typing out a recommendation.”
“In septuplicate, too,” I added. “Six carbon copies and one original. In a pill box. In the mud. With shells landing on the top and sounding like a boot dropped upstairs.”
Nice Concrete Porridge
“War,” said Jimmie, “is silly.”
“Yes,” I agreed, “but now that my memory recaptures that scene, twenty years ago, I was just figuring how you would build that heavy concrete pill box. We ought to remember things like that, Jim. We might need them some day again.”
“How would you like to come over tonight,” asked Jim, “and help me mix concrete for my cellar floor?”
“Nothing,” I said, “would please me better.”
So I got out my muskie fishing overalls and old boots and went over to Jim’s after supper where he had suspended the start of operations until I should arrive.
Jim had built a concrete mixing box in the yard. It was like a mortar mixing box, of planks, about six feet square and a foot high. I explained to Jim that the way concrete was really mixed was in a machine. But Jim solved that by showing me he had bought a new quick-drying cement that dried in a very short while, and you mixed fine sand with it to make it the consistency you required.
So Jim arranged that, while I mixed and stirred the concrete, he would hod2 it down to the cellar and spread it.
It was a fine starry night. We flung in bags of sand and bags of cement, and stirred in water with the hose. We made a nice porridge of concrete, and colored it with red powder from another bag. Jim had a little cup to test the proper thickness of the mixture.
“If it stands up, it is too thick,” said Jim. “If it smears down, it is too thin, but if it just sags a little, it is just right.”
So while Jim tested, I stirred, and finally we got just the right mixture of cement, sand and water, and Jim proceeded to carry the hod down into his brightly lighted cellar.
Up and down he trotted, while I stirred and stirred. In between hod trips, I tried, under the stars, a few little designs of pill boxes and bombproof shelters of one kind and another. I scooped out small handfuls of the concrete and moulded the little fortifications on Jimmie’s lawn.
About the tenth trip Jim made down the cellar, I was stooping down with a sort of ultra-modern design of a pill box, for dealing with poison gas as well as bombs and shells, when I inadvertently backed up against the board wall of the concrete mixing box.
And in a second, I had toppled backwards into the soggy cement. I sank a foot. I rolled over, keeping my chin above the heavy, boggy mixture, and got my elbows on the bottom and heaved.
But in rolling over. I had gathered my overalls a heavy load of the cement and it weighed me down.
“Jimmie,” I shouted loudly. “Jimmie.”
Jim came up the cellar steps.
“Quick, Jim,” I shouted. “It’s drying.”
And Jim rushed and took a grip my head and dragged me out of the box.
“What the heck?” he asked.
“I tripped, and fell in,” I explained.
“Well, it seems to be pretty dry, why haven’t you been stirring it?” demanded Jim. “Quick, come down cellar till we get your clothes off.”
Like a knight in heavy armor, I waddled to the cellar stairs and eased myself down. I was carrying about six inches of concrete all over me, except my head. My feet were the heaviest.
“Snappy,” said Jim. “It’s drying. And the heat of your body is helping it. This new-fangled concrete dries fast.”
I felt no panic. I reached the cellar and took my time selecting a good spot to undress, off Jim’s freshly laid floor.
“O.k.,” I said. “Unbutton the top button of my overalls, Jim.”
Jim shoved his hands into the concrete and I felt him fumbling for the button. My own hands were useless, encased in huge boxing gloves of the stuff.
Then I felt Jim starting to grab and fumble faster and faster and I looked at his face. It was white.
“It’s hardened,” he gasped. “Wait till I get a hammer or something.”
But by the time Jimmie had failed to find his hammer and had called at two neighbors until he borrowed one, I was encased in solid concrete from head to foot.
“My dear chap,” Jim groaned, as he beheld me, solidly rooted into the fresh concrete of his new floor.
“Jim,” I said, “get busy. Get a chisel. Get some stone masons. Phone the Labor Temple3. Get a bomb.”
Jim was hammering at me. It was vain. It was idle. His blows did not sound even like a little girl’s slipper falling to the floor in the room above.
“Jim,” I said, “on second thought, I tell you what you do. Go and get a hod of that concrete upstairs and pour it over my head. Encase me. Mummify me. Seal me up forever, and then at last I will be safe against all bombs and shells and poison gas and everything.”
“I wish,” said Jim, “I had never talked the way I did. Can you stand it until I go and get help?”
“I feel a great peace,” I stated.
And as I stood there, waiting for Jim to return with a squad of concrete workers and masons with mallets and roadworkers with those automatic machines for chopping up pavement. I thought how wonderful was my discovery!
“All we need,” I mused, “is a bag of this rapid-drying cement in the cellar of every house, one bag per member of a family. And a gas mask each. And the instant the alarm is sounded, everybody dive for the cellar, mix up a batch of concrete, bathe in it, adjust the nozzle of the gas mask in the mouth, pour the last hodful over the head and, presto – a personal pill box, a private, intimate fortress. And let the enemy do his worst, he cannot reach us in our final and complete individuality.”
But Jim just brought one man with him, a little old man in an old frayed sweater coat: and he, with a little electric buzzer sort of thing, cut a few cuts in the concrete and peeled it off me like peeling an orange.
“Jim,” I said, “our fortunes are made.”
But I didn’t tell him about it yet, because I want to have it patented.