VISITORS' DAY AT THE JOKE FARM
From Pluck and Luck
, Henry Holt, 1925 by Robert Benchley
The wind blew gently along the porch of the Home for Aged
Jokes. It was a pleasant time for sitting about and recalling the old days, the
days when Puck and Judge were championing Grover Cleveland and the Full
Dinner-pail respectively, and when Life had the same cover-design every week.
"I remember," said the heavy tragedian, who wore a
shabby fur-trimmed ulster with one hand thrust in at the breast, and whose name
was Junius Brutus Ham fat, "I remember the time when I was held to be one
of the leading features of the magazine and was placed in a preferred position
on the right-hand page following the poem of Cupid. It was the rather absurd
pleasure to depict me walking along the railroad ties by a mile-post reading, 'New York—2ooM,' but I
"Say, dat don't go wid me," said Dusty Rhodes, the
tramp with a tomato can tied around his waist. "Me and my pardner Weary
Wttlie seen you practically every day hittin' de ties when we wus cookin' our
meals down in de hollow by de tracks. An' you was aluss in de same place, two
hundred miles from Noo York. A fine walker, you wus. Nit!"
"Aw weally, you chaps make me vewwy ill," came a
voice from behind the back of a large rocker where Cholly Sapleigh was sitting
with the end of his cane in his mouth. "I was
considered—aw-weally-don-cherknow—to be the-aw-best thing in the whole bloomin'
field. A gweat many times they wan me in colors, with a weal yellow
chrysanthemum in my button-hole of my box-coat, doncherknow. I have that
box-coat upstairs in my trunk now. Shall I go up and put it on? Just for fun,
"If you do that," said Dr. Goodbody, the
missionary, "I shall go out into the barn and get my old cauldron which I
haven't been cooked in for twenty-five years. I understand that the cannibal
chief who used to work with me in the pictures (by the way, he never returned
that silk hat of mine that he used to wear) has a job over in town at a
restaurant and we might persuade him to come over for an afternoon when he has
his day off. He was really a good chap at heart, and in spite of the skulls and
things scattered around his place, I don't remember his ever really eating
"It would have been all right with me if he had,"
muttered an angry man who came in from the street rubbing his toe. "That's
the five thousandth time I've kicked that old hat out on the side-walk without
guessing that the boys might have put a brick under it. You'd think that I'd
have learned by this time not to give in to my impulses like that. It used to
be only on April Fools' Day that the boys did it, back in the old funny-paper
days, but the town boys here have got wind of my failing and never let a chance
slip by to humiliate me."
"I used to be like that, heedless. I used to skate, day
after day, just as near as I could come to the sign marked 'Danger.' But here I
am to tell the tale." The fact seemed hardly worth boasting of, however,
as the speaker hadn't even a name. He was just The Man Who Used to Skate Near
the Danger Sign, and was sitting with The Man Who Used to Turn His Back to a
Charging Bull and Say, "I Have a Feeling That I Ant Going to be Raised
Today." Nameless heroes both, and soon forgotten.
As the sun grew hotter, the talk fell off. From the field in
back of the house came the sound of pistol shots. Little Willie Bostonbeans,
seated on a large volume of Browning, became philosophical. "Isn't it incongruous,"
he said, "that, deprived of a means of obtaining sustenance, we should be
thrown thus on an eleemosynary institution, while those ordnance vibrations in
the back yard would indicate that Alkali Ike the cow-boy is out there
practicing shots at Willie Tenderfoot to make him dance, hoping that some day
they may be called into service again. When one reflects, there is a bitterness
about it all which—"
hasn't that young man gone yet?" called the Irate Father from the top of
the stairs. "It's past eleven o'clock."
But there being no Lydia to answer, and no Young Man
to go, the rest of the characters looked at each other silently and tapped
their heads, indicating that the Irate Father was having another one of his
Suddenly there came the sound of tiny feet pattering down
the hall-way and across the porch and down the steps tripped a little girl
holding onto her mother's hand. As she swept by with the cruel aloofness of
youth, the pensioners heard her ask:
"Muvver, what did Daddy mean when he said—"
The rest was lost in the slamming of the door of the
limousine into which the ever-young joke had flung herself.
"Where is she going, like that?" asked the
"They are making up the first February number,"
said Dr. Goodbody, "and the editors have sent for her to come over and
help them out."
This is the Life!
Chapter Two -- The Bending of a Twig (Part 1)
A great surgical
career sidetracked … Tried in fire … Cultivating a two-cylinder mind … Religion’s
rise and fall … A memorial preserved … The Great Diamond Mystery … The dive
into Variety … Meeting Buffalo Bill again … Two strikes in oil … Truth about a
scandalous crime … P.T. Barnum shows sympathy
The fact that a boy possessing natural mechanical or
creative ability could develop his talent by learning a trade and thereby be
fairly sure of making a living at least, no doubt prevented millions of clever
lads from becoming ministers, lawyers and doctors fifty years ago. Today the
labor unions look with jealous and apprehensive eyes upon youths with too
manifest ability or enthusiasm, rightly comprehending that such are not of
Muddling around with feeble but ambitious imitations of
whatever thing artistic or curious that my elders were practicing, etching,
wood-carving or modeling, painting, miniature theaters, drawing, shadowgraphs,
or postage-stamp-collecting, it was, of course, natural that I should rapidly
develop an inherent ability along certain lines. More than once have I been lambasted
warmly for drawing on the flyleaves of precious books, yet once I came upon one
of my father's most cherished first editions to find upon a back page a
masterly pencil sketch of a child seated on the floor engaged in thus defacing
a large book. I recognized the original of the portrait instantly, and when I
showed it to father with the suggestion that the fault was probably an
inherited one, he tried to evade the question by descanting upon the very
admirable likeness. I would give much to reproduce that charming sketch as the
frontispiece of this work, as my recollection tells me that it was a good
picture of a beautiful and amiable child unconscious of guile, and thus, I
think, symbolical of my whole life.
Since the advent of the automobile, mechanical aptitude has
found its opportunity; too, the radio has made an opening for the mental and
mechanical development of several hundred thousand boys who otherwise would never
have known the unctuous joy of greasy pants or horny hands nor heard the cheery
inspiring whine of a new file. These mechanics of the gas engine will eventually
breed artists and sculptors instead of stock salesmen and jazz musicians, just
as the cabinetmakers, cuckoo-clock carvers and ironworkers of the Eighteenth Century
bred the painters who limned the ravishing landscapes on the old Broadway
omnibuses, the sculptors who created the striking and awful groups on the New Haven
Railroad depot, the Worth
statues, and the architect who designed the nondescript Post
in City Hall Park, creations that filled the souls of all
beholders with awe and pride in my infancy. In those days parents watched
anxiously for indications of genius in their offspring; if a boy revealed
aptitude and industry in the whitewashing of a chicken coop, he was, ere long,
apprenticed to a paper-hanger or a billposter, if he sawed wood with accuracy and
dispatch he became a carpenter, and if he were partial to stones and brickbats
he might be a mason. Certain vocations, such as the cobbler's or the butcher's,
seemed always to run in a family, and mighty few were the avenues outside of a
long apprenticeship whereby a precocious boy could worm into a shop and learn
the "art and mystery" of a good trade.
There had been great times and high financial jinks in our
land since the Civil War. Everybody had plunged into the nice warm water of
business opportunity in the golden days of Drew
, in the fond
belief that this prosperous condition would last forever—just as they are doing
now. To owe money seems to have been a certificate of credit, and only rarely
did the burden of debt embarrass anybody. There was extant a tale of old Addis,
the Market Street grocer, who was alleged to be a notorious miser, although
many a time he has handed me a big old-fashioned ginger snap or butter
cracker—they don't make such any more—who used to lend money at the prevailing
high rate of interest. He loaned a man named Canfield eight hundred dollars,
and one night he was awakened by the ringing of his doorbell. Addis put his
head out of the window and asked who was there.
"It's me, Canfield," replied a voice. "I came
up about that note, Mr. Addis."
"Well, what about it?" demanded the grocer.
"Why, it's due tomorrow and I can't pay it! I've been
to all my friends, and even my enemies—can't raise a cent—I couldn't sleep for
worrying about it, so I came up to see you."
"Damn it! Why couldn't you have stayed at home?"
wailed Addis, as he closed the window. "Now I can't sleep!"
When finally the panic of '73
came like a
consuming flame to destroy much worthless paper and wither many flourishing
enterprises on every hand, it found my father's name on the back of many notes
upon which many friends and relations had perhaps made a profit but which took
most of his meager cash to help meet; yet he would have been completely ruined
had not mother intuitively discerned the approach of calamity and worried him
into precautionary actions such as refusal to sign renewed notes and the
collecting of many long-outstanding bills for portraits and photographs. It was
the period of the beginning of ready-made clothing that gradually brought about
the standardization of attire and made it impossible to distinguish between a prosperous
workingman and a millionaire, of which latter there must have been two dozen in
the country. Thereafter, in school and elsewhere, the hitherto uncommon sight
of patched seats and knees of trousers became common enough, and the paper
collar sprang into being.
1872 was the year of my introduction to big things. Our
next-door neighbor was an affluent shoe manufacturer, named Tichener, who that
Winter took me with him on a business trip to Boston. While we were there, the great
that destroyed some eight or nine hundred buildings broke out. I was
sitting idly in an office beside him, when a man rushed and frantically yelled
to us to flee, as the fire was only two blocks distant. I don't recall that it
had been mentioned before this. I beat them all to the door, for I was always a
fire fiend, and saw a wall of black smoke topped with two enormous columns of
red flame moving rapidly toward us. Mr. Tichener grasped my hand and we
departed promptly without any ceremony. Two or three blocks away we encountered
a solid mass of yelling men fleeing from the flames that closed the end of the
street, and in the resultant confusion I lost my companion. The rushing crowd
carried me into safety, but before that happened I had repeatedly beheld
immediately overhead, for whole blocks, the top floors of buildings aflame.
Once I saw in the mid-distance, as we turned up a street, the actual melting of
the stones of a large structure. The molten mass flowed down its front like lava.
I do not recall that I received the least assistance from
anybody during this adventure—each panting, excited man about me was far too
busy with his own salvation to notice a small boy—but I am willing to bet that
my record for sprinting was better than any of them. After what seemed hours, I
found myself behind the fire and smoke, and, somehow or other, I finally made
my way to the railroad station. The first man I espied was Mr. Tichener, but I
was so blackened with smoke and perspiration mixed that he did not recognize me
until I spoke; then, although he was a very excitable little man, he simply
clutched me with both hands and began to cry softly but copiously down the back
of my neck. Within two minutes he had bought our return tickets. There was a
woman, young but fire-begrimed, in the station, who was a most pathetic figure
because she had lost her bustle in her flight from the flames and was
dreadfully mortified at appearing in public without this most essential
fashionable deformity. I had seen lying in the gutter a few blocks away a
shapeless mass of silk or whatever the fabric was, and conjecturing that it
might be her lost appendage, I ran out and in a few minutes salvaged the wreck.
It proved to match her costume, although it was badly bent, and in her delight
she pressed a dollar bill into my hands and hurried into the ladies' waiting
A boy without a sister would never have been sophisticated
enough to have appraised her distress, but I knew much of the secrets of
feminine attire, as many of my sister's friends infested an otherwise pleasant abode.
was only one of the inscrutable manifestations of feminine idiocy that came
under my eye. Today these monstrosities seem like hideous nightmares, but the
petticoats made of material resembling rubberoid roofing, and the quince-juice
glue that plastered down their "spit curls," the bags of hair real
and false, enclosed in nets of two-peck capacity, more or less, and their
sickening pretense of birdlike appetites and a disgusting affectation of terror
at sight of a mouse or a cockroach, made them, one and all, for a few brief
years, objects of detestation and much study.
However, that was the period when men wore on their faces
all the hair they could possibly raise, put bear's grease and other lubricants
into their whiskers, made New Year's calls until they were pickled, and spittoons
of alabaster, near-jade and gem-studded gold-plate were to be seen in every
parlor. Now and then on the street was still to be seen an ancient dandy with rubicund
countenance that told of many bottles of old port and Madeira, attired in a
blue coat with brass or silver buttons and tight trousers strapped under the
instep, like old Jerry Garthwaite, which reminded me of Leech's and
Cruikshank's pictures in the annual volume of Punch, which was so big that it
had to be studied spread out on the floor.
It might be proper to suggest here that a slight incident
occurring about this time will shed light upon a certain faculty which I think
almost every good cartoonist possesses; I mean an ability to see two sides, or
even more, to a question, a curious elasticity of mind that permits him to make
cartoons for either party without doing violence to his own private opinions.
It is rather a rare gift, after all, and in business matters an inconvenient one.
One day father came upon me devouring eagerly Abbott
history of Napoleon, and asked me what I was reading. I told him, adding that
two or three pages would finish my study, whereupon he directed me to go down
to the library and get Scott
history of Napoleon and read it.
"Why?" I bleated, for I felt that I had had enough
of Napoleon. "Here I've just finished a big book on him! Isn't one
"You do as you are told!" he commanded, and I obeyed
him reluctantly, but after experiencing a few spasms of indignation and revolt
I began to sense his purpose. Abbott made of Napoleon a godlike, heroic figure,
and Scott wrote him down all that is vile, reprehensible and mean. I flopped
from one extreme to another, but the net result was as my sagacious parent anticipated.
I imbibed a little of the knowledge of perspective. I perceived how the prejudiced
historian colors his picture and distorts his figures, and learned to be wary
of both the Scotts and the Abbotts. Later I was to apply this lesson to all of
my reading, and when I grew older I gained a sort of distinction among my
fellow jewelers as a freak who bought and read both Republican and Democratic
newspapers. By the time I came of age, it had become a delightful diversion to
subject the editorials of party journals to a sort of spectrum analysis and
record the lines of truth and falsehood revealed in each, but my ardently
Republican mother never could be reconciled to my unnatural practices.
At a very early age, with several other insurgents, I left
the Episcopal Church Sunday school and we attached ourselves to the
Presbyterian church a few blocks south. My misty recollection is that this
secession was caused by some inadequacy in the apportionment of Christmas
presents. How an extra orange or popcorn-ball may affect one's whole life! I
really suspect that the stately Episcopalian service would never have operated
upon my emotions sufficiently to have brought me to Salvation. The Lord only
knows what might have happened had we selected the Methodist fold. For some
years I was deeply and strenuously religious, yet never had the blessed assurance
of salvation, for my backslidings, side-steppings and real knock-outs were
frequent enough to keep me humble. I recall with a sort of shameful, hot
feeling how often I have desperately implored God to save my father from hell, my
poor father who had no more use for a church than he had for a roulette wheel,
and of whom my mother, on their Fiftieth Anniversary, proudly affirmed that he had
not been absent from her side one night in all that time!
This pious condition might have endured, for I avoided all
such proscribed authors as Paine, Voltaire and Volney, while swimming in Huxley
and Darwin! One Sabbath morning, while Doctor Mcllvaine's voice was droning out
that "God made the sun and the moon on the fourth day," the strange,
new thought suddenly came to me to ask how there could be a fourth day before
there was a sun to make day and night distinguishable. As was my habit and
training, I consulted the aged pastor, who vainly endeavored to explain the anomalous
I do not know how the ministers manage to overcome the
difficulty of computing time on a tiny planet belonging to the familiar solar
system without the aid of the sun itself, but I well remember how suddenly and plainly
there came to me the really comical conception of the Bible Jehovah as a sort
of modeler-magician juggling the little whirling, whizzing planet the while he
shaped its mountains and valleys, filled its seas, created all the animals and
man to name them in the Hebrew tongue, of course, all the time never missing a stroke
until he flung it off to circle around the fourth-day afterthought, the sun, a
million times larger. Comical, whether you conceive Jehovah as cosmically enormous
with a tiny world between thumb and finger or approximately man's size, so that
Moses could talk with him and behold his backside.
I must have possessed a curious facility for making friends
with men, old men, for I recall many instances of such friendships. I was the
special pet of the tannery foreman, an old shad-fisher used to give me monstrous
fish, the cider-mill proprietor, a hard-faced old Turk, let me sample the new
juice, I used to ride to New York and back in the cab of a locomotive, and to
this knack I imagine I owe the fact that, while still at school, Doctor Burnett
allowed me to read medical books in his office, which was the method of making
a physician in those dark days.
Among these friends was a man who made an afternoon balloon
ascension every day from Crump's Garden on Broad Street. This balloon was a hot-air
affair, captive, of course, and he took up two passengers at a time for a
moderate fee. Few persons, however, dared the perilous venture, I think. One
day he told me that he meditated making a real ascent and would take me with
him if my mother consented. Needless to say, I did not trouble mother about
such a trifle, but I allowed him to think that she had given me permission.
I have made five other balloon ascensions since—not one
without unpleasing or disastrous features—but of this one I remember only one
incident. The heated bag rose to perhaps two hundred feet and then, swept by a
good breeze, it swung south along Halsey
Street, followed by a crowd of yelling men and
boys who resembled ants from this awful altitude. Then the big sphere swooped
down toward the housetops. The aeronaut, promptly opening a bag of sand, began
to pour it overboard. I can realize now from my recollection of his nervous
haste that we were in peril from the tall trees and chimneys. Nothing worried
me at the time. Gazing in ecstasy downward, I suddenly saw the gray head of an
aged, sharp-faced woman pop out of a small window just under the eaves of her
house. She was plainly startled at the outcry on the street and looking for its
cause. I noted her wondering expression as she stared wide-eyed and
open-mouthed up at the monster swooping down on her home; then the rolling
avalanche of sand and pebbles hit the roof, swept down into her gaping mouth,
and she vanished from my sight.
We landed in Roseville, a Newark suburb, and a farmer
carted us back with the gas bag, but I avoided that old lady's neighborhood for
several weeks, convinced that my grinning face had made sufficient impression upon
her to enable her to identify me as the balloonist's accomplice in her
Among my brothers, John, near two decades my elder, who was
for thirty-five years the head of the Life Class at Cooper Union
and the City College, William,
who was designer for the firm of Durand and Company which made all of Tiffany's
costliest gauds, and Harry, working in a sporting-goods store and reporting for
a newspaper as a side line, the opinion prevailed that my artistic bent ought
to be encouraged by sending me to Paris; mother was noncommittal, but father
and I agreed that there were enough artists in the family. My sister Louise
also had this bug.
Long-continued discussion of financial matters made it plain
that my contemplated college career must be abandoned, and with this decision
departed my ambition to be a great surgeon. Nevertheless, my desultory reading
in Doctor Burnett's office had given me a knowledge of anatomy and skeletal
structure that has been invaluable, and it engendered a habit of keeping up with
medical progress as well as qualified me for doing illustrations for scientific
works and, notably, for Alexander Glass's great "Diseases
that superb textbook on canine pathology.
I asked Will to get me into his shop as an apprentice to the
engraving trade, but, his suggestion not meeting with approval, he loaned me
some tools and I began practicing on old silvered daguerreotype plates. In the course
of a few months every boy in our ward had been supplied with a gorgeous badge
grading from Chief of Police down to Chicken Inspector, according to price. Then
I engraved an elaborate replica of Bewick
woodcut of "The Ram," which must have shown promise, for when Will
showed it to his firm they told him to bring me to the shop.
I lasted a year. I soon tired of the
"sand-picking" and "scrolling" with which all flat surfaces
of fine jewelry were adorned, so to speak, and, boylike, tried my hand at every
form of engraving, chasing and modeling practiced by the old hands about me.
Half of these were foreigners; I sat between an old German and a Frenchman who
had formerly been an opera singer and who was often called "a cracked
tenor" to his face without perceiving the joke, and as the Franco-Prussian War
was recent enough to keep the two at enmity, I was the buffer between them. I
learned a species of French and German that has hampered me all my life, but
each of them taught me trade secrets that were beyond price. I was as happy as
any lively boy could be who was imprisoned for ten hours daily; but as a paying
addition to the engraving staff I think I must have been a total loss.
After a short but snappy fight with the office boy, a
white-livered, lazy scoundrel who tried to make me carry the mail to the post
office during my dinner hour, I was fired with a few appropriate remarks that I
would be loath to place on record, as they would reveal how lacking in
perception were my employers. In those days the social status of an American
engraver was almost equal to that of a doctor or lawyer, and I felt the
dreadful conviction, as did my afflicted mother, that the disgrace of this
summary discharge would cling to me all my life. Unquestionably, I would have
taken up the profession of pugilism had it then been as remunerative as it
later became, for in that direction I possessed real talent. My esteemed
, has demonstrated that by sobriety, clean living and good judgment
a boy may rise from a humble bank clerkship to become a valued contributor to
the greatest of American weeklies.
*** END OF CHAPTER TWO PART ONE ***
Labels: McDougall's This Is The Life