I can't tell you what time the bomb went off but I will guess it was shortly after daybreak. Otherwise I'd probably have been standing, and shrapnel most likely would have severely wounded me, either directly or as I tiptoed across the floor getting the hell out of my bedroom. The laughter came later, and lasted much longer—to this day, in fact. I was 9 or 10 when it happened.
Ordinarily I probably would have had to put the blame where it belonged—partly on me but mostly on my buddies, the colorful and wily members of the Lower Forty Shooting, Angling and Inside Straight Club. Had I been truthful, though, no doubt my parents would have post-haste canceled my subscription to Field & Stream, the only magazine I subscribed to in those days. I visited my Lower Forty friends every month when the magazine arrived. I read each issue thoroughly, but the feature I always went to first was Corey Ford's column, “Minutes of the Lower Forty,” bringing a new episode of the “respectable” members of Ford's imaginary Hardscrabble, USA, who met most frequently at Uncle Perk's Sporting Goods Store to swap lies and plot escapades that mostly backfired or came embarrassingly to naught.
For the most part these country gents were well-meaning—except for their hatred of cats. I would not tolerate this today, but back then I held a bit of a grudge against one of our first cats for peeing on my treasured Shooter's Bible, leaving me without prime fantasy grist until the next annual edition came out. Basically I learned about sportsmanship and fellowship and the meaning of “inside straight.” I also developed a hankering for “Old Stump Blower,” the mysterious elixir Uncle Perk kept in a jug in the lower left drawer of his desk and passed around liberally to quench club members' thirsts and calm their occasionally unsettled nerves.
I imagine by now you are starting to catch the drift of circumstances that led to the explosion in my bedroom that acquainted me inadvertently with the process that went into the making of the “real” fictional Old Stump Blower. If nothing else I learned the importance of the cork plug rather than the screw-on metal cap for glass jugs of certain beverages.
I also got older. Other interests supplanted those of my pre-adolescent years. I let my Field & Stream subscription lapse. My membership in the Lower Forty went with it. And then, sometime back before the advent of online bookstores, I came across an ad for The Corey Ford Sporting Treasury.
BOOM!! It all came back to me—Uncle Perk, Cousin Sid, Judge Parker, Angus McNab, Doc Hall, Dexter Smeed, Colonel Cobb, and...drumroll here...Old Stump Blower itself! I mailed in the check, the book came back, and I soon discovered a fountain of youth of the imagination. And I found out finally who Corey Ford really was.
I learned about Corey Ford from James W. Hall III, M.D., who wrote the introduction to this collection of Lower Forty columns and other Ford stories. Hall and Ford became good friends. In fact, Hall reveals he was the inspiration for one of the Lower Forty members (you may guess which one). When they met, Ford was author-in-residence at Dartmouth College. You may also guess which Lower Forty member was inspired by the college's secretary, Sidney Hayward. (See, they weren't so imaginary after all!)
Ford was a prolific author and sportsman. Known primarily as a humorist, in the twenties he was a member of a club perhaps even more coveted than the Lower Forty: New York City's famous Algonquin Round Table, hangout of celebrity literati, actors, and wits.
Reading the Lower Forty Minutes today I see much more in them than I did as a callow youth. His humor was subtle and sly, and, as satire, could be as biting as anything Dorothy Parker quipped at her Algonquin fellows. Here's an example from one of the minutes (Read it closely or it'll slip right past your nose):
All the members of the Lower Forty Shooting, Angling and Inside Straight Club nodded in approval as Judge Parker offered his motion. “Only way to combat juvenile delinquency,” he insisted, “and that's to inculcate in the younger generation the principles of sportsmanship and honesty for which our club stands.” He helped himself to another slab of rat-trap cheese when Uncle Perk wasn't looking.
Okay, there's that. Scalawags, the lot of them, in little ways. Good examples for the youngsters, no? But then there's this. It's opening day of trout season, when every year the members all head to Aldo Libbey's farm at his invitation to fish his brook. Not this morning, though. Day before, at the club's April meeting, every last member had what sounded like a pretty good excuse for skipping the annual event. We soon learn from Doc Hall the elderly, failing Aldo is at death's door. This morning, instead of heading to the convention he'd used as his excuse, Doc slips out before daylight and drives to Aldo's house on Hardscrabble Hill.
“Just happened to be driving by, Aldo,” Doc said lamely, “and wondered if there was anything I could do for you.”
“Ain't nothin' nobody can do for me.” His eyes met Doc's. “You know it, an' I know it, too.”
Doc hesitated, and then nodded.
Soon, one by one, the other members arrive and file into the bedroom. Just happened to be driving past, each one says. They chat. Aldo assures them he's okay. “I got my memories. That's all a man needs to content him when he comes to the end of the long day.” He tells them to head to the brook. “Them flies will be landin' on the water, and mebbe that old sockdollager will be sitting there under the bank. Go see if one o' you can take him. It will be a nice thing to look back on someday.” And so they do:
The sun was high overhead as Doc straightened his line across the pool, and dropped his fly beside the far bank. There was a swirl, a square tail thrashed the water once, and his reel screamed. The other members gathered to watch him as he led the big trout to shore, and knelt beside it. He wet his hand, held the trout behind the gills, and removed the fly. He released his grip; it flicked its tail once, and darted out of sight.
"What have ye done, mon?" Mister. McNab gasped. "It's gone."
Doc was looking at the house on the hill. He said to himself slowly: "It isn't gone. I've got it to look back on some day."
I haven't fished, hunted, or played poker in years, but by jingo I love this book!
[For more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]