Walt McDougall’s This is the Life: Chapter 15 Part 1

This is the Life!


Walt McDougall

Chapter Fifteen (Part 1) – Along the Cool Sequestered Vale of Life

I had been appointed two or three years before, under the Migratory Bird Act, Game Protector of Florida, an office then having no particular powers or duties and practically nothing to do except make a monthly report about nothing at all, although, of course, it has grown in dignity and importance since. Much of my spare time was spent each winter in observing the increase of the protected birds. White egrets, hitherto approaching extinction, rapidly increased until they were to be seen frequently in our most urban sections, and also the sea cows became quite common, in fact more plentiful than the real cow, which is rather rare in Florida. Shortly after hostilities began in France, I encountered some badly wounded Canadian officers who had been sent South to recuperate, and often took them out boating. From them one day I learned about “camouflage” as practiced in the European armies. The prospect of this novel application of paint to warfare excited me immensely; I seemed to glimpse an opening whereby many aged artists could be of service to their country.

When the United States went into the conflict, McClure’s Syndicate announced in a sudden panic that it was evident that the newspapers were likely to be compelled to shut down on all colored pages and similar forms of extravagance. Such rumors were flying in every direction. I wrote suggesting that we close down for a period. Really, there was no suppression of such features, and the consumption of paper greatly increased.

However, I was idle, and compulsory idleness soon became a burden unbearable. In July I went to Washington instead of to Greenport, L.I., as usual, to preach camouflage to an incredulous and derisive lot of official dumb-bells who thought I was trying to introduce a new brand of French cheese. I was dubbed “Camouflage Walt” in the Press Club. I wrote a couple of page stories for the Post that helped to make the word familiar, but alas, the reputation for humor is ruinous to any serious purpose; I got a few laughs but no consideration, although seven hundred French and English artists were even then engaged in developing the new defensive art. General Joe Kuhn, head of the War College, assured me it “was mere frills and piffle.”

General Joe Kuhn, head of the War College, assured me it “was mere frills and piffle.”

Incidentally, while thus engaged, I wrote an illustrated page entitled the “Seven Sutherland Sisters of the Senate,” of which I have always been proud, an expose of the Prohibition Senators, who, singularly enough, were all of a type and all ludicrous, not to mention their other weaknesses. This story was extensively syndicated, I learned later, by the Wet interests. Had they retained me earlier, I am persuaded that a few more similar bombs would have beaten off the Anti-Saloon League and so strengthened the rum-soaked vertebra of Congress that life would be a far different thing in this country today.

I went up to New York, having sold a poster and a magazine cover and feeling opulent, and with my usual luck was returning from a nocturnal sail with some friends when the “Black Tom” explosion went off. A low-lying mist along the western shore of the North River made it impossible to see just where the disaster had occurred, but we turned and ran for Jersey City. We spent nearly two hours, warned off now and then by police boats, but we procured much valuable news and about twenty cans of even more valuable gasoline that came floating along. At one time we were passing a drifting burning ship loaded with such cans and, it appeared, ammunition also, when our engine stalled. Simultaneously the ship began a barrage that was perilous but picturesque; two or three missiles—rivets or bullets—struck the engine with ringing reverberations, and burning cans of gasoline or oil described arcs of fire over us before we induced the engine to respond to our feverish coaxing. It was no place for a valuable motor boat.

It was a very enjoyable experience and did much to dispel a feeling that had lately affected me that I was past all the milestones of excitement, but when I was safe in my hotel chamber at three a.m. and discovered a couple of holes burned in the back of my Palm Beach suit, my elation vanished.

I spent the summer in Barnegat Bay, fishing and trying to write a novel, although Freddie Duneka had assured me that for one of my disposition that was an impossible task, but Fred knew only the kind of novels Harper’s made, not my kind.

That winter in Florida was filled with spasmodic preparations for an old-fashioned war, with red pants and blue coats, gilt shoulder straps, gilt swords and ostrich feathers. Having received a military education, as per the advertisement of the Newark Military Academy, I was in the foreground for a brigadier general’s stars but I waved them away. However, I was active in the promotion of a local artillery company, with a rapid-firing gun, and induced one millionaire to promise to pay for it. It was soon learned that the Government had discarded Civil War methods for some of the simpler tricks which the War College had picked up, so while we waited for developments we harried suspected German sympathizers until it became unhealthy for them to express their feelings.

I went back to Washington again in May. Within two weeks I was listening to suggestions that I was just the kind of an old fox that was needed in the Department of Justice to cope with my vast experience and erudition against the horde of Prussian, Austrian, Bulgarian, Rumanian and Hungarian barons, baronesses, counts and the like who, it was alleged, infested all our best hotels and watering places looking for plans of forts, warships and defenses, blowing up bridges and docks and destroying the morale of workmen. In truth, the worst of these were in the foreign embassies and, in many cases, probably, in the Department of Justice itself.

It seemed to me that here was a chance to gain an insight into Romance that was not to be neglected. Adventure was here if it existed at all; every aspect lured me. In a week I received notice from one Bruce Bielaski, Chief Investigator, an ex-baseball-player, and one of Ring Lardner’s most precious types, to consult him. This gentleman, not being a conversationalist, whatever else he was, had little to say to me and soon informed me that the custom was to place a proposed agent on trial for three months, as it were, but he confessed that he thought that, being a well-known cartoonist and above suspicion, I might be useful. He then told me to go to Philadelphia at once and report.

“To whom?” I asked, startled by the lack of ceremony. “To whoever is in charge at the office in the Federal Building.” I had no other instructions. No cub reporter ever had a briefer send-off from a crusty editor. There was something intriguing in its informality and vacuity.

At the Federal Building in Philadelphia I met the agent in charge, a dark, surly-looking man named Garbagino, of Italian descent, about 32 years old, who, when I introduced myself, regarded me with evident disfavor but who grunted out that he had been advised by wire of my coming. He gave me his private telephone number but not a word of instruction beyond advising me to put up at the old Colonnade Hotel on Chestnut Street. All the instruction which I and another man just appointed, Hendricks, also an old newspaper man, ever received in the art and mystery of investigating came from hints picked up in the office from two well-disposed agents.

Little need be said about this degrading and disappointing experience. Having gone through it, I am glad that I added it to my fund, but had I been warned, nothing would have tempted me to risk it. I was promptly disillusionized. There was not enough Romance in the repellent task to brighten its sordid and depressing details or blind one to its degrading humiliations. No one, of course, was aware of my sinister occupation, but I was haunted by a conviction that my countenance revealed my constant sense of disgrace. I was, we all were, merely policemen without the uniform and club.

The other men, with the exception of Hendricks, were very ardent, prone to make arrests on the least suspicion, unable to exercise restraint or reflection, mostly engaged in the pursuit of smuggled Chinese or Mann Law evaders up to the time of the war; several had a slight smattering of law, but mostly they had extreme difficulty in putting their daily reports into English. There was an Austrian, soon proved to be aiding the enemy, two wops, and all but one were backwoods boys and looked it. They one and all affected a lofty scorn of “Secret Service Men.” These are attached to the Treasury Department and have nothing to do but hunt up counterfeiters and guard the President.

I became intimate with two of the old hands, so to speak, and it was long after most of them had, in another administration, walked the plank that I learned my unexplained sudden advent had aroused the suspicion of Garbagino and two of his closest friends that I had been sent up from Washington to spy upon the office. And, in fact, one of these intimates was there for that very purpose.

Adventures I had, of course, some comical, others pathetic, and it must be confessed that I gained an insight into this mysterious and powerful branch of our democratic form of government that the ordinary citizen cannot gain, but it was not worth gaining at the expense of a feeling that all humanity is crooked and venal. It was an experience that taught me more of the despicable side of humanity than all my newspaper life had done.

It was essentially a political institution. No real investigation was ever done to my knowledge apart from that brought about my informants’ letters; even an anonymous letter was acted upon if sufficiently virulent. Now and then a slinking creature crept in to confide something to Garbagino or one of the others, and the atmosphere of the office was always one of blended mystery and bunk that was amusing to an old observer. No matter how puerile or ridiculous, every investigation had to be reported, three copies made, and mailed to Washington nightly. What tons of these half-baked transcriptions must be stored away in Washington may be imagined!

I was aware of Garbagino’s antipathy from the outset by a quite obvious endeavor to disgust me with the work. When I came upon anything of genuine importance, as I did once or twice, he promptly took it to himself, and he chose the most unpleasant and painful of the tasks for Hendricks and myself, and the riskiest, for he was a good deal of a rabbit. I am not aware that he ever participated in anything that held the least risk. Yet one night he was set upon and badly beaten up by unknown miscreants, to everybody’s unbounded delight.

There was no system, nor ability to create one, in the Department when the war came to immensely extend its work. When the draft began, that occupied most of our endeavors. I had, among other things, a list of 765 names of draft evaders whom I was supposed to find! Our pay was always nearly a month in arrears. I had to lend money to several fellow agents a day or two before Christmas because their $8 per diem and expenses was not forthcoming.

Congress, in its wisdom, assuming that all Department men are crooks, has so tied them up with checks and regulations that not a cent can be spent unless certified, yet we were permitted by the same sapient regulations to pay out any sum we pleased “for confidential information” without stating what it was!

My probationary period had passed and I was contemplating, with some uneasiness, certain means of extricating myself from the unpleasing dilemma, when my commission, duly signed and photographed, arrived. That very day, by some queer and never explained mix-up, I received by wire a notice from Chief Bielaski that the Philadelphia agent in charge had decided that I would not make a good investigator. For once in my life I had, it seems, been really fired, at one end, yet I had just been confirmed in my office!

I did not seek to solve the mystery, but I kept the signed commission as a souvenir. I said farewell to the boys and went over to the office of the Philadelphia Press, then edited by Alden March, and suggested to him an idea that had been forming for some weeks. This was a daily humorous cartoon on camp life based on actual observation. He approved it and agreed to do the cuts and the syndicating. The next task was to gain the approval of the Government for this novelty, but when I took the scheme to George Creel, in charge of the National Bureau of Information, he quickly convinced me that I had thought of something that would go through. Creel was an old-time comrade dating back almost to the Bohemians about whom I have had so much to say, hence he had no difficulty in recognizing a new idea. I then went and saw Secretary Tumulty in order to gain the approbation of the President. A minute’s talk with him, although the President was absent, led me to believe that Creel had already explained my plan, for Tumulty called up the War Department and then sent me over to see the Assistant Secretary. Doors opened before me as if by magic, and in less than a half-hour all had been arranged. It was arranged that I should go to Camp Meade or any other camp, occupy officer’s quarters, and mess with some regiment to be selected by the general in charge.

I went out and bought a rug, blankets and other essentials, and next day went to Camp Meade with a note to General Nicholson, a man of about my own age, who escorted me to the 314th Infantry Regiment. Here he turned me over to Col. Thomas W. Darrah, a charming, cultured and able officer without any nonsense, who selected a room for me in the quarters and then took me in to mess.

I have always, I suppose, been a little hard-boiled and callous, but as I sat studying the faces of the hundred and twenty-eight young men down both sides of the long table, something within me which hitherto had been quiescent stirred. Here I saw visible the true unalloyed patriotism, moved by ideals alone, altogether untouched and unconscious of the thousand motives that actually had brought us into the conflict. Clean, earnest, capable, devoted and cheerful, singing “Put your head down, Fritzie Boy,” at every chance, not yet hardened or seared by the poisonous breath of army life, I felt a sickening revulsion at the thought of such cannon fodder.

I was the only old man within sight except General Nicholson, who was learning to smoke cigarettes because he would not concede, he said, that the girls could do what he couldn’t. In a week I was “Pop” to the whole regiment, but I was secretly exultant when I discovered that I was able to teach dozens of those dapper lads how to sit a horse or shoot a pistol. I induced Annie Oakley to come down with old Frank Butler, her husband, and show the entire camp how to shoot coins in the air, and she gave a wonderful exhibition. I have only seen one other person do it.

Little by little I receded, as all in the camp were receding, from the outer world; at first frequent visits to Baltimore or Washington seemed necessary, but within two weeks I began to feel myself a part of the forty thousand youngsters surrounding me, and as I became intimate with one after the other of the boys of the 314th, not only officers but the men, I found my connection with the outside world weakening. The winter had been very severe, the thermometer often below zero, the whole plain a foot under ice at times, and not a man knew how the furnace worked or how to subdue its occasional rebellions. This problem solved, we were cozy enough. The matter of rising at 6 a.m., equally painful to officers and men, in my own case was not compulsory if I were willing to forego my breakfast, which I usually was. A lifelong habit of working at night had practically made sleep impossible before two in the morning, but it was not long before I had won the heart of our genial cook, late a coal miner from Pennsylvania, and thereafter there was food for the cartoonist, secreted from the ravening maws of the K. P. against my belated rising.

Terrific sand storms swept the camp occasionally, magnificent reproductions of the best the Sahara ever supplied; we ate sand, smoked sand, slept in it; as the weather warmed, gay flocks of Baltimore girls pervaded the entire area every Sunday and gave the camp the aspect of a city, grass grew in spots, and trees overlooked by the original desecraters burst into bloom. The summer was as hot as the winter had been cold, and the mosquitoes came ravenous; here, again, red tape had delayed action and there were no mosquito screens. In violation of the regulations I went to Baltimore, bought yards of netting, and screened the entire building. Three weeks later came the official screens. We designed and erected a log-cabin regimental clubhouse, with a great chimney and a dance-floor that would have cost a civilian perhaps twenty thousand dollars, of wood so green that it sprouted like potatoes.

I wrote a novel of camp life entitled “Soldier Blood” but showed it only to two publishers before I learned that war stuff was taboo, and I consigned it to cold storage.

In July came stirring rumors that soon grew into certainty as swell tailors descended on the camp to outfit the officers for real warfare abroad. Some of the prices almost killed the boys who were unused to the Fifth Avenue hold-up game, two hundred dollars for an alleged waterproofed trench overcoat, fifty for a pair of riding trousers, but exquisitely made garments all and splendid for the parade and the military ball.

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