Friday, May 13, 2016


Walt McDougall's This is the Life: Chapter 15 Part 2

This is the Life!


Walt McDougall

Chapter Fifteen (Part 2) - Along the Cool Sequestered Vale of Life

[McDougall is talking about his World War I service, and the cartoons about camp life he was syndicating]

I had some moments of indecision; I knew that if I wished, I could go abroad with the 314th [Infantry Regiment], but I could not see how the cartoons could continue to be produced or, if made, how they could be shipped regularly from the battle front. I decided to remain and accompany the next regiment, for we all thought the war would last for some years and that boys now at school would eventually occupy our places in camp.

When Col. Darrah, who had been made a brigadier general in May, informed me that the camp would entrain next day, I felt a sudden repentance but it was too late now. I began to be showered with souvenirs; everything that could not be taken as luggage was presented to me, desks, chairs, clocks, electric fans, boots, shoes, window curtains, rugs, hot-water bags, riding pants, coats, hats, pipes, until I had to set a room apart for my collection.

On July 14th I saw the camp empty, regiment by regiment, with feelings unlike any I had ever experienced. I said good-by to the 314th with the emotions of a father, ashamed to permit the tears to show, yet loath to desert my post. I had come to know hundreds of the boys in every part of the camp, from addressing them in the huts and sketching among them, umpiring ball games and the like, and I was constantly hailed by cheery voices as the lines filed past burdened with their packs. Even at the last minute I weakened and jumped on the train and went to Philadelphia with the regiment.

Returning, I found the camp deserted, a new M. P. sentry held me up as I unlocked my door, and I made him bring his sergeant, who then brought a new colonel, who had that afternoon marched in.

Although I lived with the boys of this regiment five months and became intimate with many of them, I can recall no more than, say, twenty names of those rooming immediately about me. They differed in many ways from the lads of the 314th; some of them had, in fact, been in France for months, and were marked by army influences. They were all of them tougher and more profane, played stud poker all night, many of them, and attended petting parties en masse in the Baltimore hotels, aye, even invited the austere and highly moral cartoonist to accompany them! The majority of them were Southerners, with a sprinkling of Pennsylvanians and Jerseymen. I am ashamed to confess that I have even forgotten the number of this regiment, the colonel of which was named Boyd.

Several weeks in the hospital with the gout was part of my midsummer experience when the thermometer went up to 106 and remained there for a few days. It was my first experience in a hospital. I was tested, gauged, analyzed, X-rayed, tapped and assayed before I graduated and received a certificate of 96 per cent healthfulness, and at that they overlooked my dandruff!

Having evolved a scheme whereby the camp could raise pigs and consume the enormous quantities of waste food which contractors removed daily by the trainload, I laid it before General Kuhn, who was now commanding. It made a great impression upon him. I then presented a plan for obtaining the pigs by means of an extensive publicity campaign with the slogan "Buy a Pig for the Army!" as the motive power. This also he found highly acceptable and forthwith we began to plan, but while we were preparing the campaign the War Department renewed all the contracts for garbage and left us disconsolate.

Another scheme, to widen the little creek running through the camp, for which I went so far as to persuade John Wanamaker to contribute the cement for a swimming pool, was also acceptable to everybody except the medical officers, and the boys were obliged to continue bathing in a narrow creek on the outskirts.

In September I wrote a song called "The Kitchen Cop," which had the elements of popularity, and a band-leader named Bogolski composed the music for it. We did everything leisurely in those days, for we thought the war would last for years and there was no need of hurry. When we talked to New York music publishers about it after the Armistice, they only wanted to know why we had not brought it in July.

In that chill September we first began to perceive that the Germans were on the run, by October we were convinced that the days of the World War were numbered. Then came a horror that put all thought of battle, conquest, drill or furloughs out of mind. The influenza was known to be prevalent in many of the big cities, but it excited little alarm among our medicos until it fell upon us with fury. I caught it at once, but mildly, and being a devout acetanilid addict, I conquered it in a day, but it seems the medical men fancied aspirin as a cure! In a few days it was raging.

Men died with amazing suddenness, the disease turning into pneumonia in seventy-five per cent of the cases in a day or two, the heating plants of the hospital were not perfected, the supply of nurses deficient and the quality mediocre, while the weather was unseasonably cold.

Only two men in our house died, those being the only two who went to the hospital, none of the others being seriously inconvenienced. One of our captains, whom I found with a temperature at 6 o'clock and dosed, was sleeping and perspiring at midnight, and when I went to see him at eight next morning I found that he had taken a cold bath and gone out riding!

For days little was done except combat the plague. My typewriter, one of two in the regiment, was constantly in use recording the names of the stricken. Dead men were carried to the mortuary section at the rate of one every eight minutes. Here four or five embalmers labored desperately to cope with the situation. The bodies were dressed in new uniforms and laid out in tents, a new tent going up at intervals; one structure with shelves about its sides was used as a sort of mortuary, and here the bodies, black and white, were laid on the shelves like marble statues. It was an especially pitiable spectacle because all of these men were young, athletic and well-built, and with not a mark of disease upon them. Now and then there hurried up two bearers gruffly crying "Gangway!" youngsters who a few days before had never seen a corpse, bringing another silent form, already accustomed to their grim burdens.

Even the rollicking all-night poker-players and our student-officers who had been abroad and known the ardent touch of the cootie, the misery of the trenches, the grisly horrors of the hospitals, lost their devil-may-care jauntiness in the presence of the unseen specter. The camp was quarantined, no visitors were permitted, and but a few were allowed to leave. Our mess officer, Stoops, having died, I was asked to do the purchasing for the officer's mess, and here my trolley park experience came in handy. I found so many delectable bargains in the Baltimore market that I was unanimously elected Regimental Buyer and continued to serve in that capacity until the Armistice.

Had the Armistice Day demonstration been left out of my experience of a lifetime, I would have missed a phase of public feeling and expression that becomes visible only at very rare intervals. I dimly recall the rejoicings on the night of the victory at Gettysburg, since which time much foreign blood has been poured into the national veins, which blood is not of the cold Puritan strain but a fluid far more susceptible to emotion. Yet, under the influence of such a mingling of relief, exultation and alcoholic stimulant as prevailed for a few hours that day, perhaps the most Nordic of circulations would have been fired to a sort of frenzy.

I happened to be in Baltimore when the city went wild and for a time was the center of one of those maelstrom-like manifestations of regard for any man in uniform which was the principal characteristic of the outbreak. I am willing to certify that I was hugged and kissed in more ways, at more varied angles and at more varied temperatures than in the whole course of a life by no means devoid of osculation. I lost all my buttons and my hat in the melee and, oddest of all, on the train back to camp, I found in my coat pocket a woman's bead purse containing nine dollars and twenty-six cents and a wedding ring! I advertised for the owner, and in a day or two she turned up, proved ownership, and went away rejoicing. She was a young colored woman!

She claimed that her pocket had been picked and professed no knowledge of the manner in which her purse had been transferred to my pocket, but a remark she made was enlightening. "Land's sake!" she exclaimed. "Anything kin happen any time in Baltimo', but that day people suah was silly!"

After the Armistice I was appointed on a commission to go to Russia, but while preparing for the journey, received word that the Soviet government had declared war on the United States. I know not what has become of this declaration; I have never heard it referred to since. Everything was off and I packed up my numerous belongings and went to Goshen, N.Y., for Thanksgiving Day. Here I discovered very quickly that my recent experiences had prepared me for the serenity and comfort of a form of existence which I had caricatured and ridiculed all my days. I now had no gout but I harbored three kinds of insomnia, my appetite was a mere phantom, I was becoming deaf, was smoking too much, and addiction to the army flapjack had at last developed symptoms of indigestion which indicated that the time for reform had arrived.

I contemplated with real relief the rest of my days occupied in the study of the habits of the land tortoise, the woodchuck and the potato bug, the painting of watercolors and the breeding of Rhode Island Reds. Yet even here I was not safe; I encountered an old chum, once a World reporter, who had started a paper, the Herald, in Middletown, a few miles distant, and I listened to his siren song. This was Thomas Pendell, now of Washingtonville, N.Y., whose faith in country newspapers is literally unbounded, having owned some two dozens of them; and having certain untested theories regarding such publications myself, it was not long before I was interested in the enterprise. Ere many days I was publishing a daily column called "The Observation Car," which was proving a godsend to the editors of papers throughout the State and from which they were freely borrowing without credit, and I had projected a comic series to be centered in Middletown, when another turn of the wheel occurred.

I received a telegram from Judge Linn Arnold, the proprietor of the Knickerbocker Press, Albany, informing me that there would be a page at my service or cartoons and comments in his projected weekly, the Constitution, at a handsome salary. I had already seen an advertisement and some fulsome compliments, in the Editor and Publisher, of this periodical, which contemplated an attack upon "Invisible Government" and the rectification of State politics generally, and it seemed to me an opening that was not to be neglected. Arnold told me that he had just bought the Utica Globe and asked me to meet him there next noon.

Arriving in Utica, I met the owner of the Globe, an old acquaintance for whom I had made pictures thirty-five years ago, and he informed me that the Judge had suggested buying the paper but that was as far as he had progressed.

I hastened to Albany to find Arnold was absent making speeches advocating his own election to the U.S. Senate! The circulation manager, Belden Crowe, who had been brought from an inland town two weeks before, knew little of the Judge's intentions beyond what a few hurried consultations had produced, but he was busy getting ready to produce a big paper. I was charged with organizing an art department.

Two weeks later Arnold showed up, nervous and excited. He announced that he had bought a well-known Broadway hotel to use as the Constitution's office, and he promptly installed me in the bridal chamber thereof, the room which Tim Sullivan had always occupied when in Albany, and before we had concluded our talk he informed me that he, Linn Arnold, would unquestionably be the Republican candidate for President within three years!

I guessed that the stress of his speech-making had caused the Judge to yield to alcohol, but within a week it became evident to those who saw him frequently that something far more serious ailed him. He took Judge Woodward and myself to Troy in his car, left us at a club there and returned without us, bought automobiles indiscriminately and then quarreled bitterly with me on State Street, accusing me of aiding his enemies and following him about the country taking notes. Then he sued some two hundred well-known men throughout the State and a number of newspapers for criminal libel.

This would have been a master stroke of advertising because it created nationwide comment, but it was merely a phase of the dementia which had finally brought low a fairly able intellect. In another week he was dead and the bubble had burst.

During the subsequent proceedings I came often in contact with Ex.-Gov. Martin Glynn of the Albany Times-Union. He was a little, fat and extremely vain man, greatly inflated over the financial success his sheet was enjoying, due to the general decay of the other older papers in town and the remarkable ability of two or three exceptionally capable managers and editors. He never for an instant forgot that he had been for a time, owing to the indictment of Bill Sulzer, the governor of the state, and he never permitted anybody else to forget it. He had attained much notoriety by the speech he delivered in the Democratic National Convention of 1916, the refrain of which was "He kept us out of war."

I made a number of cartoons for the Times-Union during my stay in Albany, boarding the while with the wholly delightful Crowe family, Mrs. Crowe being one of those amiable housewives, rare and precious, who believe in satisfying an appetite for pies and doughnuts when it manifests itself.

My stay was prolonged by the discovery, made in the wonderful State Library, that there is no history extant of Major General Alexander McDougall of Revolutionary fame. He was the "First man to suffer in the cause of American Liberty," foremost of the Liberty Boys, author of the "Call to Liberty" which opened the Revolutionary era, first New York general, succeeded Arnold at West Point when Washington asked in despair: "Whom can we trust now?" first Secretary of the Navy, first President of New York Society of the Cincinnati and the first president of the first bank of New York.

A pretty good record, yet only brief notices in the encyclopedias are all that the scholar can turn to, to learn his history! Researches disclosed an amount of historical material, original documents and letters from Washington, Clinton, Hamilton, Lafayette, Putnam and others, besides 1300 letters in the N.Y. Historical Society's possession, all unedited with the exception of Hugh Hastings's "Clinton Letters," that made the temptation to try to write such a history irresistible. It actually seemed that it would be easy!

I spent more than eight months at the task. Summer came and went, and another winter. I became acquainted with a large number of delightful persons in Albany, the very home of home-brew and old Dutch cooking—if you know where to seek for it. It was spring when I returned to Goshen with a mass of notes, maps and pictures for the history, and also much material for an Indian romance. As yet, neither of these works is completed. I am afraid Brisbane's airy prediction that "my versatility would be my ruin" was based upon a weakness discernible to the sharp-eyed. Time was when keeping two or three jobs aloft like a juggler was sport —now each one seems to be a life work that needs scrupulous care.

There are certain cities to which I go periodically to participate pictorially in stirring municipal elections; each of these melees, instead of being the little ruckus of yore, now assumes genuine importance; last autumn, when, in New Bedford, our upright and impeccable party was beaten to a pulp, it seemed to me that I was losing my grip and ought to retire to the Home for Senile Cartoonists. Yet, after all, if a man of sixty-seven persists in doing the things he did at forty-seven, he must be content to take a few knock-outs, and I fancy those which I have taken within the last few years have hurt me less than if I had received them in early life.

I do not know why we are here nor where we go from here, nor has my experience equipped me with wisdom enough to guide others. I find that every one of my old friends refuses to confess that he has been in various ways just as weak and selfish, as blind and obstinate, as I have been and has made as many mistakes, but all confess to minor errors.

The one quite common error of sacrificing Health and Strength for money or a boss I have not committed, for I have lost no opportunity for play as I went along instead of waiting until I had leisure for it, and because I played diligently I am still virile and joyous and so much ahead of the game.

I behold in Nature, in Science, in men and women, beauties that formerly were invisible to me, and it is probable that with this growth of insight a decade or two more will refine and mellow me into a worthwhile citizen of Connecticut.

I own a shingled cottage on the Niantic River at Waterford, Conn. There is a labyrinth of ideal woodland, about five acres, and a white sand-beach, through which the sea scents wind day and night; much of it is a tangle of tall ferns, sumac, and wild grape massed and draped about great oaks, hickories and walnuts, in which pheasants and rabbits dwell secure; kingfishers and fish hawks ply freely along my water front, where the long clam breeds almost unmolested of man; pallid birches gleam against the ruddy brown of cedars and ancient apple trees planted perhaps two centuries since by the Niantic Indians, giant gray boulders are scattered in the meadow rue and goldenrod like woodland altars. Repose and Beauty abide here at Fern Lane, working miracles; only the cool salt breeze and the myriad birds know the secret of this home of laziness, levity and sleep where the collar is taboo and Etiquette is ignored. Sensations, emotions, thrills, passions, even tragedies may enter into the wild woodland life about me, but they touch me not. Only the iceman, the grocer and the bootlegger ever penetrate to the gray shingled house barely visible from the road.

Only Memory, now and then, stirred by a lovely sunset, an unwonted fragrance or faint far-away music, touches the heartstrings gently betimes, but at sixty-seven one is indurated; a sense of beauty remains, even of humor or pity, but no longer do the passions rule the mind. A touch of stiffness following a five-mile row or ride hints at approaching senility, but what of it? I have lived, played, feasted, adventured, worked and loved. Now, with nothing of moment accomplished in an extremely busy lifetime, I take my ease with paints and books and plan a wildwood garden to shelter every kind of rare shy growth that my botanist friends can bring me.

If a man cannot reform here, he is past reforming.

T H E   E N D 

Walt McDougall took his own life at age 80, on or about March 4 1938. His AP-distributed obituary, short and inaccurate, is reproduced here.


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