Walt McDougall’s This is the Life: Chapter Two, Part One

This is the Life!


Walt McDougall

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 union caliber.
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 Worthand Sunset Cox statues, and the architect who designed the nondescript Post Office building 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, Fisk, Gould and Tweed, 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 fire 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 room.
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. The bustlewas 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‘s 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‘s 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 enough?”
“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 statement.
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 sandbagging.
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 of Dogs,” 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‘s 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 Warwas 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 friend, Jim Corbett, 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.

2 comments on “Walt McDougall’s This is the Life: Chapter Two, Part One

  1. I will probably comment on this feature at greater length in the near future, but for now I just want to say that running it is a WONDERFUL feat of editorial taste and crowd-pleasing panache. It's a great close-up look at life long ago. I'm very much looking forward to the later years, when he started to be a published cartoonist. (I was born too late!)

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