The spring of 1924—possibly it was 1925, but I think not—was enlivened for the small boys of Franklin, Pa. by three events: a philanthropist advertised in my father's newspaper that he would pay a penny each for toads delivered to him alive and happy (they were to be used in medical experiments, but we didn't know that at the time); the good ladies of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, flushed with the success of their victory five years before over Demon Rum, began a national war to the death with Devil Nicotine; and a silent adventure movie starring either Doug Fairbanks or Richard Talmadge came to town.
These three seemingly unrelated events became intertwined in my life in a manner I've never forgotten, especially when cold weather sends twinges into my football knee, my baseball elbow, my golfer's hip and my whipster's rump. I acquired the rump in 1924 at age eight.
The toad fancier turned out to be a veritable mother lode for a couple of hundred boys. He also caused something of a crisis at the Franklin Hotel. Small boys didn't usually receive a warm welcome at the hotel. But when they came in hordes, clutching shoeboxes loaded with squirming, warty hoptoads, they inspired a frenzy in the hotel manager. He took to rushing at the boys, waving his arms and screaming, "Get out, out." Inevitably, shoeboxes were dropped, and months later unsuspecting guests still were waking in the middle of the night to find bulbous-eyed toads sharing their pillows. The manager vanished from the hotel. When the toad man left town, he had enriched me by 28¢. The amount of energy expended in catching and delivering 28 toads would have mowed our lawn a dozen times over. But I had 28¢. And with that huge sum, I intended to buy 28 feet of quarter-inch rawhide.
That spring, the WCTU had launched its widespread anti-tobacco crusade in the public schools. Speakers went from classroom to classroom, telling horror stories and showing pictures of ravaged victims of the filthy cigarette habit. One of their statistics made a big impression on me and my schoolmates: "A drop of nicotine placed on the tongue will kill a cat in seven seconds."
November 8, 1982
As a result, thousands of boy-hours were spent swiping various forms of tobacco, from Mail Pouch to cigars and cigarettes, boiling it down in a primitive attempt to manufacture pure nicotine and trying to capture cats. Anyone who never has tried to run down a terrified cat and get it to stick out its tongue has missed an edifying experience. To the best of my memory no cats suffered serious injury, and Franklin's feline population more than made up for any discomfort its members underwent by clawing large chunks of skin from its tormentors.
Paradoxically, at the same time we were reacting unfavorably to the anti-nicotine drive where cats were concerned, most of us were developing a Puritanical determination to stamp out smoking among our adult acquaintances and family members. My father enjoyed his pipe and an occasional cigar, and I conceived it my duty to hide these objects of the devil, until one night a pointed hint at dinner persuaded me that safety lay in the cessation of such activities.
Toad hunting and anti-tobacco crusading swept through Franklin's preteen society like wind-driven flame, but their fires were superficial compared to the social conflagration caused by the Fairbanks (or Talmadge) movie.
In this epic, the hero performed miraculous feats with a 30-foot rawhide whip that had us youngsters gasping with awe and envy. He could wrap the tip around a branch near the top of a tree in such a way that it held until he could climb up the whip's length and disengage it. With his whip he could pluck a revolver from one villain's hip holster and a knife from a second villain's hand, and then, without changing stance, snatch a girl from the back of a runaway horse and bring her undamaged into his arms. If he wanted a smoke, he could snake the whip clear across a busy street, take a cigar from the fingers of a man about to light up and bring the trophy back to his own lips.
One scene in the movie remains crystal-clear in my memory: Fairbanks/Talmadge is clinging to a windowsill near the top of a castle, while far, far below a mountain stream foams around jagged rocks. The hero, peering through the window, sees the villain clutching the heroine and about to—horrors!—kiss her. But wait! Fairbanks/Talmadge had his trusty whip! Holding to the sill with one hand, he drew his other arm back and then brought it swiftly forward. While the small fry in the nickel seats shouted their delight, the whip wrapped itself around the villain's neck. The hero pulled, the bad guy staggered across the room to the window and through it, and we yelled with joy as we watched his body spinning down to death on the rocks below.
Every small boy in town saw that movie at least once, and predictably therafter, we had to have whips! And thanks to the toad man, we got them: lengths of rawhide attached to foot-long pieces of wood sawed from broom handles. The movie captions had said the hero's whip was 30 feet long. Mine was 28 feet, which was close enough. For the most part, the whips were shorter, depending on how many toads the whipster had sold. Regardless, the Spring of the Whip was a time of pain and fear for some, including dogs and any cats who had not learned to avoid boys during the anti-smoking crusade, and a time of arrogant fulfillment for those who became masters of the rawhide.
Mastering the whip, which had seemed so simple in the movie, turned out to be very difficult. The beginner was far more apt to lash his face or ankles than send the strip of rawhide uncoiling toward a target 25 or 30 feet away. Compared with controlling a rawhide whip, dry-fly casting is child's play.
Still, most of us did learn to be at least modestly adept with the whip. Some of us were pretty good, and a few became expert. One of the best features of the whip was that it was easy to hide. The rolled-up rawhide fit into the right-hand hip pocket, with the handle sticking out but invisible to anyone approaching the whipster from the front.
The standard whipster's tactic was to walk a dozen steps past the passerby and then whirl, draw whip from pocket and make an overhand cast. If the victim had gone blithely on his way, the first he would know of the whip would come when a searing pain bit deep into his body right where his corduroy knickers were tightest. To the whipster it was hilarious to hear the target let out a screech and leap a foot into the air, back arched, grabbing frantically at the seat of his trousers. It reached the point where no boy knowingly would turn his back on any other boy. If we wanted the fun of snapping the whip at an unwary friend, we had to crouch behind the corners of school buildings. Make no mistake, those whips were dangerous. It was a miracle that no one lost an eye or sustained other serious injury, but the worst that happened were two-or three-inch-long welts and a little blood when the skin was broken.
It took what seemed like hundreds of hours of practice before I dared adopt the swaggering strut affected by the movie hero and which, by unspoken agreement, we boys allowed only experts with the whip to use. My practice target was the utility pole in front of our house on Elk Street. At first I was content to hit the pole with the tip of the whip, or, in another exercise, wrap six feet of whip around it. The next step was to chalk circles on the pole to hit with the tip or to roll up pieces of paper and stick them in cracks in the wood to be flicked out and brought back to me by skillful whippery.
I became good enough so that I could snatch from the pole a cigarette-sized roll of paper from as far away as my 28-foot whip would reach—the length of my arms, the whip handle and the rawhide, perhaps 31 feet. I never did become as good as Bobby Moyar, who could stick a kitchen match in the pole, retreat 30 feet or so, flick out his whip and light the match. To us that was a greater feat than the one performed by the movie hero, who had used his whip to snuff out a sputtering fuse and forestall an explosion that would have blown up the heroine.
The school year was drawing to a close, and the evenings were long and hot. The college boys were home, and a pop-eyed banjo player was making a nuisance of himself cluttering up our front porch and singing off-key to my sister who swung in the hammock. Arid she, for heaven's sake, encouraged him! He wore a college blazer, a straw hat, a bow tie, white flannel trousers and black patent-leather shoes. He parted his hair in the middle and smoked Fatima cigarettes held in a white holder. He tried to disguise his loathing of me by showing lots of teeth and affecting a hearty joviality in my presence. He made me cringe.
As the school year ended, the WCTU campaign against tobacco reached its climax with a deluge of literature flooding every home. Speaker after speaker hounded schoolchildren to pledge themselves not to smoke or drink—I believe those of us who took the pledge were allowed to wear a white ribbon—and anti-nicotine meetings were scheduled all over town. I regret to say that I took it all in and became as sanctimonious a little pup as there was in Franklin.
I was sitting behind the lilac bushes at the end of the front porch when my sister and the banjo player got back from one of the meetings. I remember thinking that now he wouldn't be poisoning the air with his cigarettes and that he would probably live to a ripe old age, which didn't create any enthusiasm in me, but made me feel very pious and righteous.
A few moments later my smug feeling of forgiveness changed to outrage. The banjo player reached into his blazer and took out a cigarette case. From another pocket he took out his cigarette holder. He took a cigarette from the case, put it in the holder and put the holder in his mouth. From yet another pocket he took a box of safety matches, picked out a match and struck it. He was sitting on the top step of the porch, in profile to me. As match approached cigarette....
The whip fiend struck.
My hand went to my hip pocket. With a quick shake I uncoiled the rawhide, and without consciously aiming, I let all the practice I'd put in do its stuff.
The whip snaked around the side of the lilac bushes and over the steps. Its tip circled the white tube of paper just as though it were sticking from a crack in the utility pole. I gave the "come-back" wrist flick, and the un-lighted cigarette flew across the yard to me. The banjo player was left, holder in mouth, lighted match in hand, but with no cigarette to light. Talk about commotion....
The banjo player let out a squawk, my sister gave a shriek, I muttered, "Oh, golly," and started to run. They never caught me, but eventually I had to come home.
My father, who had been forced by prohibition to give up his customary hock and port with his meals, blamed it on the WCTU. My mother blamed it on the evil influence of the movies.
After the banjo player had taken his disgruntled departure, my sister staggered into the house and everyone thought she was having hysterics; it turned out that the whoops, screams and tears were whoops, screams and tears of laughter. When at last she could talk, she gasped that never had she seen anything so funny as the expression on the banjo player's face when the cigarette was snatched from him and he was left with the holder in his mouth and the lighted match in his hand.
Dad confiscated my whip for a week and then gave it back on my promise never to use it against any living thing. After that I lost interest in it, and when the next movie I saw showed the hero performing dizzying feats around the rigging of a ship, I decided to become an acrobat and started learning to walk on my hands and do back flips.