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Friday, May 03, 2019

Stranded on a Davenport

Guest Blogger Dept.: We deserve a visit from H. Allen Smith. He was a newspaperman in the 1920s, a Mark Twain devotee who won his own fame as a humorist in the 1940s thanks to his best-selling memoir Low Man on a Totem Pole and the many wonderful books that followed. I wrote about him here, when I went searching for his Alpine, Texas home. Here’s one of his Low Man stories.


NEWSPAPER SHOPS, LARGE AND SMALL, accumulate fantastic personalities and weird behavior patterns. I once knew a Washington newspaperman who suffered from the delusion that Herbert Hoover had bladders on his feet. The first time I met him we were fellow passengers aboard the ill-starred Morro Castle in its maiden run from Newport News to New York. He kept calling me aside, telling me he had an important piece of inside information to give me if I’d promise not to print it. Then he would reconsider and decide to nurse his great secret for a while longer.

At last he came to my stateroom and after looking up and down the corridor to see that he had not been followed he stepped quickly inside, closed and locked the door and announced that he was ready to spill it.

“Herbert Hoover has bladders on his feet,” he said, spacing the words out for emphasis.

“No!” I exclaimed.

“It’s the God’s truth,” he said.

“How do you know he has bladders on his feet?” I demanded, pretending to be skeptical in the face of such a staggering statement.

“I saw ‘em,” he said with finality.

He extracted a promise from me that I would neither print this intelligence nor speak of it to a living soul, then he went his way. Subsequently his friends on the ship told me that he had recurrent spells of this nature and that the delusion was always the same – Herbert Hoover had bladders on his feet – and you could take it or leave it. Beyond this little eccentricity, the man was a very capable Washington correspondent, able, no doubt, to forecast electoral votes with an error margin of only 60 per cent.

Small aberrations, as I said, are commonplace in the profession. A few years ago one of New York’s best-known feature writers developed an obsession over turtle eggs. He always carried a small box of the rubbery eggs in his pocket and almost any evening he could be found at his favorite bar solemnly bouncing a turtle egg beside his highball.

Occasionally he would pick up a turtle egg between thumb and forefinger as if it were a priceless pearl, hold it aloft for all to see and cry out:

“Here lies the last hope of the human race!”

He now writes for the radio.

When I worked on the Denver Post one of the reporters was a former instructor in Greek at Harvard. Periodically he would walk into the office of the publisher, Frederick G. Bonfils, and demand a ten-dollar pay cut. Bonfils, who was world’s champion pincher of pennies, reacted in a peculiar manner to these requests. A man who would demand a cut in salary, to his way of thinking, was openly flouting one of Nature’s first laws. He refused to consider the pay cut.

“Hell, then, Mr. Bonfils,” the reporter would plead, “if you can’t do that please give me a five-dollar cut.”

Bonfils would not hear of it. Finally the reporter wrote a bitter note to the publisher, declaring that he could no longer hold his head up in public while drawing a greater salary than he was worth, and left town.

One evening I threw a chili party at my home and invited this same ex-professor. He spent the entire evening waltzing with a straight-back chair which he called Xanthippe. Whenever the phonograph stopped he’d go to it and feed it chili.

“The little thing needs sustenance,” he would say. He jammed it full of chili, and it was never of any use after that. And when the evening was over I took him to the door. He was a dignified man, and there was dignity in the arch of his neck as he glanced back into the room for a final affectionate look at Xanthippe. In parting, he said:

“I want you to know that I have had the finest time of my life tonight. And I want to compliment you on your chili. It was better than Childs’.”

Because the business is crowded with unpredictable people rational men sometimes get a reputation for madness. Some years ago there was an elderly rewrite man who worked in New York and lived in Jersey City. Two or three times a week he arrived at his office carrying a suitcase. He would always evade any explanation of why he carried the bag back and forth, and a consuming curiosity seized his coworkers. Investigation revealed that the bag, reposing in the locker room, was always empty. Finally one of the reporters was assigned to follow the rewrite man when he left work. The old gent proceeded to West Street, in the neighborhood of the ferry slip he used to get to Jersey, and began scanning the pavement. Soon he found what he was after. He opened his suitcase and brought out an old sugar scoop. Before long he had the bag filled with horse manure. As he resumed his walk toward the ferry slip the baffled reporter stopped him and demanded an explanation. It was simple enough. The old man encouraged a small garden at his home in Jersey, and this was his method of procuring fine fertilizer. He wasn’t mad.

Almost everyone employed by the Huntington Press was slightly daft. There was Zip Mason, the circulation manager, a man with flashing gold teeth who loved to shock the farmers when they came to the business office to renew their subscriptions. Zip would stride up and down the office, calling on God to strike all women dead in their tracks, and occasionally he would confront the cash register, press a key to open the drawer, spit emphatically into the penny compartment, then slam it shut.

After that he would approach the startled customer, glare malevolently at him and demand: “How’s your Uncle Bill?”

It appears that almost everyone had an Uncle Bill, and those who didn’t would usually say, “Oh, you mean my Uncle Ed.”

Zip would listen to a long exposition of Uncle Bill’s ailments, throughout which he would cock his head around, studying the narrator from different angles. Then he would say: “Pardon me for taking the liberty of mentioning it, but you’ve got the makin’s of an ugly old man.”

Huntington was a churchly community, fighting proud of its moral elevation. It was the boast of the office-holding deacons that a drop of liquor could not be purchased within the city limits. I know, of my own personal knowledge, that this belief was a hallucination, though the stuff available at two dollars a pint resembled the liquid poured off a keg of nails rather than whisky. It was nose-holding liquor.

I had been employed on the Press for about a year. The Press was a morning daily, and the Herald came out in the afternoon. The publishers quarreled bitterly in their editorial columns, but the fighting was always about Indiana polities and made no sense whatever to me.

The Press did not publish on Monday mornings, for that would involve desecrating the Sabbath by working on it – wherefore, the two-story building which housed the paper was closed tight on Sundays.

All employees carried keys to the shop, however, and it was a Sunday night that Rome Brading and I wandered into the deserted newsroom with no thought in mind of offending the peace and dignity of the people. Brading was my best friend. He attended the public high school, whereas I had abandoned education on completing the eighth grade at St Mary’s. Brading’s father owned a barbershop on Jefferson Street, and sometimes we would go there late at night, tilt the chairs back and lie in them, talking about the anatomy of girls and other matters.

On this summer Sunday night Brading sat down at a typewriter and began pecking out a special-delivery letter to his girl (who lived a block and a half from him). Having nothing better to do, I went to work at one of the old side-wheeling Olivers and in about thirty minutes, I knocked out the bawdy screed that was to send me forth into the world, a disgrace to heaven, home and mother.

I titled it “Stranded on a Davenport,” and in length it ran, I should say, close to one thousand words. It was in the first person, written supposedly by a young woman with swivel hips and animal appetites. It described in luxuriant detail the inception, progress and conclusion of an extremely amorous adventure. It was one of those things – well, as Mart O’Malley told the jury: “I’ll venture to say, gentlemen, that there’s not a man among you who never has had such a piece of literature in his possession.”

I pasted the sheets together and tossed the completed essay over to Brading. He read it and as he read he giggled and guffawed and slapped his lean thighs in the manner of prurient youth. After that we adjourned to Tommy Ellis’ restaurant for coffee.

By the next day I had forgotten it. Not so Rome Brading. He took “Stranded on a Davenport” to school Monday morning. Somehow it got into the hands of his girl friend, who was studying typing. She made half a dozen copies and distributed them among her female friends, and they made copies, and by the end of the week the thing had snowballed into a circulation of astounding proportions. All this time I was blithely going from undertaker to feed store to interurban station in pursuit of little news items, oblivious of the terrible storm soon to break.

It was said that every teacher in high school had her personal copy of “Stranded on a Davenport” before two weeks had gone by, but the explosion came when the principal – a male creature – got his hands on it.

Phil Baker, the chief of police, walked into the Press office one afternoon and had a talk with Homer Ormsby, the publisher. Then they called me in. Chief Baker had come to Huntington from Defiance, Ohio, where I formerly lived, and this geographical kinship had made us friends from the start. He questioned me about the odious opus, and I told him that I didn’t know what he was talking about. He reminded me that he was my pal, that the school authorities were raising merry hell with him, that he had to clear things up, that he knew I wrote it. He knew I wrote it because the original copy had been traced to my crony, Rome Brading, because it was written on newspaper copy paper and because it had been written on an Oliver typewriter, an instrument as rare in Indiana as the barracuda.

The chief said he would see to it that nothing painful should happen to me if I’d only be a man and own up. He got sentimental about how we both came from Defiance and how he was in a tight spot, and at last I said: “All right, I wrote it.” He slapped me on the back, told me not to worry and walked out.

I have never trusted a cop from that day to this.

The next day a crippled marshal thumped up the stairs to the second floor of the Press building and served a warrant which ordered me to appear three days later before Justice of the Peace Stults to answer a charge of “authorship and circulation of lewd, licentious, obscene and lascivious literature.” A half-hour later Rome Brading received a similar invitation, though he was charged only with circulation of the same.

I was as nervous as a pregnant fox in a forest fire until I located Brading. To be truthful, we both were frightened, and two things were obvious: we had to see a lawyer, and we needed some money. I managed to borrow ten dollars against my wages, and we took ourselves into the presence of Martin J. O’Malley. He was a young lawyer, tall and dark and with a commanding presence, and he was something of a courtroom orator. We surrendered our destinies into his hands, and when he had finished laughing he said he’d do it. I handed him the ten dollars and said we’d have to pay him the rest later.

“The rest!” he roared. “There’ll be no rest. The ten will cover immediate expenses, and I’ll have five hundred dollars’ worth of fun out of it.”

The Huntington Herald seized upon the story of my arrest and went to work with laudable malice. Without putting it in so many words, the evening paper informed the pious citizens of Huntington that this was the caliber of writer hired to produce the drivel they read in the Press. Further than that, the Herald men handled Huntington news for the Fort Wayne papers, and the “Stranded on a Davenport” ease immediately became page-one stuff in both the Journal-Gazette and News-Sentinel.

As for my own paper, the publisher was surprisingly tolerant and, I think, secretly amused. He lectured me on the sin of indiscretion but he didn’t fire me. Instead, he assigned me to write the stories about my own case from day to day.

On the appointed morning Rome Brading and I were in O’Malley’s office at eight-thirty, due to appear before Squire Stults at nine. We walked across the public square behind our counselor to the office building where the squire had his musty tribunal. It was all we could manage to push our way up the rickety stairs and into this habitation of Hoosier justice. The crowd overflowed the gloomy little room, packed the stairway and extended across the sidewalk to the curb. Women of all ages were predominant in the crowd, and I was doubly embarrassed when I saw my mother, who told me at breakfast that morning that she wouldn’t believe I had written IT – that she knew I was protecting some older person.

Squire Stults was a little old man straight out of a Keystone comedy. He was skinny, bald, and wore white chin whiskers which fanned the air when he talked in precisely the manner of a rube comic. He had a habit of spitting tobacco juice over his right shoulder just before speaking and especially before delivering a vehement “Over-r-r-ruled!”

Inside the railing, which was verging on collapse beneath the press of the crowd, stood the county prosecutor and his assistant, the crippled marshal, a desk and four cuspidors. The prosecutor, Wilbur Branyan, was tall and hard of hearing, with a pronounced clerical look about him. Cato Hurd, his assistant, was short and broad, with the carriage and pugnacity of a football linesman.

Prosecutor Branyan, intoning with vast solemnity, announced himself ready for trial the moment we had crossed the dirty floor and taken our places before the squire’s desk. O’Malley asked that the defendants be tried separately and that Brading go to trial first. They agreed to this procedure without quibble, and the prosecutor, calling the Court’s attention to the size of the crowd, suggested that if a larger room could not be found for the trial the building would likely collapse, with great loss of life. Squire Stults said nothing, picked up the telephone, spat fiercely and called someone at the county courthouse across the street in the center of the square. He explained the circumstances and was given permission to use the facilities of the Superior Court for, no doubt, the greatest case of his entire juridical career.

The crowd scurried across the street to the square, and in its wake came the defense, followed by the prosecution, followed by his honor, followed by the hobbling marshal.

The Superior courtroom was jammed, and the audience was 80 per cent female. The jury was selected by the simple democratic process of sending the marshal out in front of the courthouse to round up the needed men, all of whom loafed around the square awaiting just such a summons to sovereign duty.

It was not a long trial. Several high-school girls squirmed and blushed their way through admissions that they had received copies of the contaminating document. Each admitted that she had read it, volunteering the information that she had no idea of what it meant. Chief Baker told of Brading’s confession that he had taken the original copy into the school.

Then Cato Hurd, who always looked as though someone had just jabbed a thumb into his eye, picked up a paper from the counsel table.

“If the Court please,” he addressed Squire Stubs, “I would now like to read this – this article – this ‘Stranded on a Davenport’ – to the jury. May I ask that all women be excluded from the Courtroom?”

The squire leaned forward, eying Cato Hurd balefully.

“This,” he wagged out with his whiskers, “is a public court of law. Them that wants to go can go. Them that wants to stay can stay. Over-r-r-ruled!”

I thought he was going to jerk his head off when he spat. Not a woman, not a girl stirred from her seat.

Cato Hurd then and there did read “Stranded on a Davenport” to the jury. I had been sitting at the defense table, and, though my name had never once been mentioned in the proceedings, this was too ignominious. My face was flushed as I hurried to a side door. I waited outside in a corridor, bouncing a golf ball against the stone floor, until the case was given into the hands of the courthouse loafers about ten minutes later. I was relieved to learn that the assistant prosecutor read the “lewd, licentious, obscene and lascivious literature” in almost a whisper and that it was impossible to distinguish his words ten feet away. I mean, my words.

Mart O’Malley put in no defense, and the oratory was brief. Cato Hurd summed up for the prosecution. He denounced Brading and “the author” as corrupters of maidenhood, sin-sodden wolves bent on sullying the fair name of Huntington before the world. (I have no hesitancy in saying that at this time I was a virgin. I think the fact stands as a tribute to my literary skill.) As for O’Malley, he narrowed the issue to a single point – every man has had such a thing in his possession at one time or another.

After about fifteen minutes of weighing that issue the jury concluded that Brading was not guilty. The defendant, on advice of counsel, ran up and shook hands with each of the jurors, who grinned suggestively at him and wisecracked in undertones. With this touching ceremony out of the way, Squire Stults set my trial for a week later.

There was no holding us back that week. The verdict stifled any fears Brading and I may have entertained before. For seven days we were celebrities of a sort. People in the town who had never noticed us before now pointed us out and whispered things. The young blades who had lately taken to corduroy pants, flared at the cuff with red flannel insets, suddenly took an interest in us. Men we had barely known by name came to us pleading for copies of IT.

At the Press I continued with my work, wrote the story of the Brading trial and typed out with overweening cockiness an account of my own forthcoming ordeal at the bar.

Then came the day. I found that I had to go it alone, that Brading’s father had ordered him to school under pain of corporal punishment. But I was in high spirits when I reached Mart O’Malley’s office.

“Well,” I asked, “are we all set?”


“How long do you think it will take?”

“Five minutes,” said Mart O’Malley.

“I mean the trial.”

He looked at me and grinned.

“Son,” he said, “there’s not going to be any trial. You’re going to plead guilty.”

I couldn’t speak for a moment. Then I demanded things. I wanted to have a trial. I insisted on it. But he shook his head. Brading had merely circulated the thing. I was the author of it. I couldn’t afford to take a chance with a jury. The plea that had won for Brading wouldn’t apply in my case. At last I had to surrender.

We pushed again through the crowd on the sidewalk, up the stairs and into the little room. The setting was the same, but the proceedings were brief. Squire Stults took my plea, looked in a book, fined me twenty-two dollars and fifty cents, spat, looked at me and added that I could have ninety days in which to pay. It was the first time I ever heard of installment-plan justice.
On the ninetieth day I delivered the money to the squire, who chuckled as he counted the bills. On the ninety-first day the city attorney, a pious gentleman who took an interest in the morals of his neighbors, came around and told me I was going to spend two hours with him each week studying the Scriptures, and, since I had discovered that I could no longer get a date with a decent girl in town (no indecent ones were to be had), and because certain news sources, notably the sanctimonious undertakers, no longer regarded me with favor, on the ninety-second day I went forth into the world.

I’ve been back to Huntington for two brief visits since then. The great “Stranded on a Davenport” case has been forgotten. And so, I found, have I.

– H. Allen Smith, from Low Man on a Totem Pole, 1941, Doubleday, Doran & Co., Garden City, NY.

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