This is the Life by Walt McDougall Chapter 9 Part 1

This is the Life!


Walt McDougall


Thrills were frequent enough too, God knows, and oddly enough, they multiplied with the years in a direct ratio. Perhaps the Charleston Earthquake looms up clearest. I arrived in the shaken town the day after the quake with a telegraph operator named Fisher, to find all its affrighted inhabitants crowded into the parks and other open spaces, agitated over the fear of a tidal wave, and when I tried to calm the fears of some of the wealthy Battery residents by telling them how much more severe was the earthquake I had seen in Acapulco, I only made matters worse. Fisher secured the only wire left intact for the World, and I persuaded two half-benumbed photographers to get out and take all the pictures possible while fires were blazing and walls falling here and there. I rushed to and fro, making sketches and gathering news, sending the pictures out by mule express to the point where railroad trackage was still available, and slept, out of bravado, for I considered this little earthquake rather a flivver, in the badly wrenched Charleston Hotel, all by myself. Everywhere, when my rumbling carriage turned a corner, I found terrified Negroes beating the earth with sticks in the true African manner and calling on the Savior. I printed a little seismic theorizing and got into an argument with the U.S. Army’s alleged expert who had been sent down to show Terra Firma that the Government would stand no fooling. Nobody then knew any more about earthquakes than they now do about the sun’s corona or where campaign contributions go. The most significant fact which I garnered was that every single-shafted monument in the graveyards was speared into the ground for a foot or two by the sudden jerk of the earth. A similar sharp push would send the tip of the Woolworth Building into the North River.
I remained there five days, or until near-starvation forced me out, but I made a thousand dollars on the side, supplying out-of-town papers with sketches which my partner syndicated. The day before I left, I was busily sketching beside a building that had been gutted by fire, when the entire wall crashed down upon me without warning. Luckily, where I sat on a box, there was an open, burned-out window and I remained untouched, but in my excitement I went hastily away from there in a dense cloud of dust. Observers who had seen me sketching there promptly began to dig out my remains, while I, unthinking, occupied myself in another quarter of the city.
Just before midnight I called at the telegraph office, as was my custom, and learned from Fisher that he had wired in a story that I had been buried beneath a building but my body had not yet been found. I had him inform the Worldoffice that the report of my death was premature, and gave the facts as they had occurred, which was nearly as good a story and would not annoy my creditors as much, but I later had the delicious pleasure of reading some really nice obituaries in the Sun, Herald, Star and Tribune, which pleasure I’ve never enjoyed since, and never expect to.
Curiously enough, this was the second time I had gone through such an unusual experience. When a small boy, a near-by brewery burned and the next day the firemen came to pull down the tall walls that menaced public safety. An old cart was parked against the opposite curb, and I took my station in this to observe the proceedings. As the street was narrow, the firemen had to pull from well up the street, and it was only when the blackened walls were slowly curving outward that I was noticed by the firemen. It was, of course, too late to rescue me. The mass was darkening the sky when I realized my danger, but I sat staring upward, petrified with fright. The cart was filled with a ton or two of bricks, but not one touched me! There was a yell from the firemen, who pounced upon me, dragged me from the cart, and with hearty unanimity kicked me clear down to the corner of High Street. It will be readily guessed that after the second experience at Charleston I have been chary of lingering in the shade of burned-out buildings.
In a bird’s-eye view of a lifetime, it is remarkable what insignificant objects assume prominence and how noble features of the landscape melt into the mists to become shifting, formless blurs. It is as if, in a survey of the awful Canon of the Colorado, with its cloud-wrapped domes and mile-long mauve shadows, one discerned only the hairpins, lipsticks and razor blades left by generations of tourists. There was Grant’s funeral, the first of the great public demonstrations here since the Civil War, which, for one thing, revealed what an enormous number of foreigners had invaded New York.

Of all its solemn pomp, its military display and vast silent crowds, I recall only two or three silly details; one was the great, somber catafalque overloaded with burlesque plumes, another was the audacious feat of Morrell {nee Muriel) Goddard, our city editor, who climbed into the first mourner’s carriage, occupied by Mrs. Grant, and got away with a free ride to the place of temporary interment, being taken by everybody for the undertaker and thus achieving a notable beat, and the third, the bringing of the ex-President’s body from William R. Arkell’s home at Mt. McGregor, where he died, to lie in state in New York. I had gone to Arkell’s home a day or so before the end and returned on the funeral train, which was filled with Senators, Congressmen, editors and other notables, the Grant family being in the first car. It was a slow and solemn progress, crowds thronging the stations at each town. There was a goodly supply of alcoholic stimulant aboard, as there always was at official ceremonies in those days, and it was needed, as few of us had slept for two or three days. It was a somber trip but it had its compensations.

I sketched everything and everybody, and among my subjects was Senator Harrisonof Indiana, a fussy, important little man with a pointed gray beard. He was sound asleep on the car lounge with his face to the wall, and he wore loose trousers that draped very amply, the seat wrinkling in folds in such wise that I could distort the whole comic ensemble of that rear view into a caricature of him. I showed it to somebody, who passed it along, and I did not recover the sketch, which I had been told had gone even into the mourners’ car, and it had long passed out of my memory when the Senator became President.
One day, long afterward, I was in the White House with Congressman McKinley, who had not yet become a distinctive personality outside of his own State. He presented me to President Harrison and told him how he and I had met on the day of our first visit to Washington, and added that my only real fault was that I was a Democrat.
“Working for a Democratic paper doesn’t make me a Democrat!” I asserted. “Cartoonists have no politics.”
“And no mercy!” said the President with a serious face but with a twinkle in his frosty face. “I have a sample of your work to prove my assertion.”
I supposed he referred to some of the World‘s political cartoons, and was embarrassed when he asked:
“Do you remember the picture you made of me on the Grant funeral train?”
I think he enjoyed seeing me squirm and redden in horrified discomfort that turned to amazement when he laughed and added:
“It wasn’t a bad portrait. I have it yet. Somebody on the train showed it to me and I attached it as libelous, malicious and a reflection on my tailor.”
“But, Mr. President, it was never intended for publication!” I earnestly protested.
“Of course not,” he pleasantly assented, then added: “But I was in fear and trembling for a long time afterward, even if I did have the original.”
After Harrison left the White House and was practicing law in New York, I frequently walked up Broadway with him of an afternoon. He was usually genial and talkative, but most persons thought him cold and self-centered. Several times we dropped in upon old General Sherman in his Seventy-first Street “office,” as he called his basement room, but there the ex-President did seem, to me, to be rather stiff and formal. He was not what one would call a “mixer,” unlike Sherman, who was almost always jovial and quite unpretentious. I do not remember that one out of thousands of passers-by on Broadway ever recognized the ex-President during our walks, but everybody knew General Sherman and many, especially old soldiers, saluted him. Tom Reed and John G. Carlisle were very often recognized, but very few persons knew Cleveland by sight.
Sherman was of the kind who grow mellow and lovable with age. Unlike most old men, he was not averse to meeting and making new acquaintances. He gathered around him and frequented the society of lively, cheerful men and women. His avid enjoyment and relish for company and good cheer, at a period when most men become listless and bored, made me fancy that his early life had been, perhaps, largely devoid of pleasure and gayety. He once said that he knew he would have made a successful bank president. As I then thought a bank president’s qualifications combined those of a pope, a weather-prophet, a chess-master and a baseball umpire, I felt that a great military genius was exposing a weakness, but now that I am sophisticated and intimate with many bankers, both national and faro, I am confident that I would have made a capable banker myself. The General, however, was a fairly good water-color painter, but few knew it.
He was the champion banqueteer of the day. At the great dinner given to HenryM. Stanley, in Madison Square Garden, at which Col. John A. Cockerill was toastmaster, Sherman sat at Stanley’s left hand. I had made for the menu cover a portrait of the great African explorer, which was poorly engraved and printed, as well as, very likely, badly drawn. I sat directly opposite the General, and during the dinner, which was too grandiose to be anything but dull and formal, Cockerill indicated me and said to Stanley: “That’s the boy who made this picture of you.”
“If I looked as bad as that, I’d wish that I’d died in Africa!” growled Stanley, fixing me with a frown.
I supposed I showed my discomfiture, for General Sherman grinned his wintry-warm smile and said: “Don’t worry, boy! It’s a good picture of him.”
He enjoyed having Gunn or myself bring a bevy of our young actress or chorus-girl friends to his office. It must have been a relief from the interminable war talk of most of his visitors. One day when Charley Hoyt the playwright was present, he said:
“War, four years of it, gives a man plenty to think and talk about, but there is nothing cheerful or comforting about it. That’s why I like to go to the theater.”
Sometimes I would come into possession of a bottle of twenty-five or thirty-year-old whiskey and take it to the General, begging him to save it for an emergency. “The emergency reached here just in advance of you!” he would invariably declare, and he would open it at once. Then, likely enough, he would share the venerable juice with a couple of windy old veterans for whom age or aroma meant nothing at all. Like my own father, who did not know a nickel Cinco from a Flor de Cabalero, all l00-proof brands were alike.
He was full of good stories that often started off tamely but usually had a lively snapper. One that I recall was to the effect that an old Apache chief had begged for a useless cannon at Fort Bayard until the General consented to his possession of it. But the permission was not granted until Sherman could extract a little humor from the situation. He gravely demanded to know whether the chief did not secretly contemplate using the old rusty weapon against the United States troops.
“No1? No!” earnestly protested the Indian. “Use cannon to kill buffalo-hunters. Kill soldiers with clubs!”
He died five years after Grant, and the city saw another funeral pageant. He had told, it seems, several persons that he felt the approach of the end. One evening I called his attention to a gorgeous winter sunset, and after looking at it in silence for a few minutes, with his rugged face bronzed by the glare, he turned with a sigh and said: “Ah, I hate to leave it all!”
“Don’t you feel as well as usual?” I asked.
“Better than I ever felt, but I’ll be seventy years old this month and I won’t see many sunsets, I guess,” he answered.
I went to Florida for a winter vacation on my own birthday, and four days afterward, I think, I heard of his death. I returned to town at once, as I knew I would be needed in the office.
At the Seventy-first Street house on the day of the funeral were to be seen Presidents, ex-Presidents, Governors, ambassadors, Cabinet officers, generals, admirals, Senators and all manner of men, and on almost every face I could detect that indefinable expression of personal grief and regret so rarely seen on such occasions. I have never seen it since. His funeral was very imposing and brought out an enormous crowd. For the first time the packing box was utilized as a personal grand stand. Perhaps it indicated the passing of the barrel for ordinary packing, for at the great Dewey parade the piles of boxes were a feature. I was sketching an imposing pyramid of such boxes, when a stout and bearded old gentleman tapped me gently on the shoulder and asked me what I was making the picture for.
When I informed him that it was the World, he whispered:
“I’ll gif you twenty-five dollars if you’ll put my store in the background of the picture mit my sign showing.” I turned and saw the name “Maillard” over the door. I coldly refused the ignoble offer. I never did have the least sense of business. There was not the slightest reason why I should not have made that twenty-five with a few strokes of the pencil, and I will bet there was not such another dumb-bell in the newspaper business.

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