THERE is a common belief these days to the effect that our civilization makes men soft and timid. The breed of heroes is no more. Only yesterday an elderly friend of mine, T. Warrington Hunt, became so perturbed on seeing a WPA worker light a cigarette during working hours that he upset his Scotch and soda. While his valet was mopping him off, Mr. Hunt explained his views. However, as similar ideas have been expressed almost daily in newspaper accounts of hundredth-birthday interviews with persons who invariably prove to have been pioneers, I shall simply develop some of the points I made in rebuttal to Mr. Hunt’s talk, for during our conversation he gave me little chance to explain my views fully.
Take the matter of courage. Time was when a man could go about his work blissfully ignorant of the existence of a Fascist point of view or of microbes. Europe could conduct its cherished quarrels without threatening to explode in his face. The advertisers had not told him of the perils of rancid coffee or bleeding gums. Even a pioneer had to face Indians only occasionally; he had not the daily prospect of meeting streptococci in the kitchen. Yet the modern American faces meals with equanimity, even pleasure, and then dashes off to a rendezvous with the pneumococcus at the movies.
These are the heroisms of common, everyday people. I wish to speak more particularly of a selected breed of heroes many thousands in number. They face not merely the perils of the average man, but in addition a host of dangers he knows nothing of. I refer to the subscribers to the publications of the various organizations whose function it is to give consumer advice. To these hardy folk a thousand perils walk where before there were but few. Having for years been a member of one or another of these fraternities, I hereby make a modest claim for recognition of what we go through.
Grandmother had two comforting theories about life. One was ‘What you don’t know won’t hurt you ‘; the other, ’Everybody must eat a peck of dirt in a lifetime.’ The very first reading of one of these consumer bulletins will shatter forever this humble faith. The old creeds gone, the subscriber must face a perilous world.
For instance, I have always been fond of ketchup. For me it brings back something of my boyhood: my grandmother’s kitchen, a place redolent of spices and heated vinegar while she peeled the great red tomatoes which were to become ketchup. Later, when gardens became too small for tomato growing and kitchens for preserving, I had to content myself with store ketchup. In my innocence I supposed that, by avoiding brands containing benzoate of soda, I was taking all necessary precautions. Now I discover that one laboratory has revealed as many as sixtythree worm fragments in 200 cubic centimetres of one kind of ketchup. Fortunately the one I used contained only forty-six worm fragments. My rugged grandfather would have given up ketchup; yet in the face of the recent report I have continued to put it on my hamburger — perhaps a bit less lavishly, but still ketchup.
I have seen oldsters of T. Warrington Hunt’s generation refuse to eat preserves unless they were homemade; yet we who know what is really in commercial preserves still eat them. And T. Warrington Hunt calls us soft! I wonder what he would do if one evening, after eating peas, he sat down to read a bulletin which reported deadly nightshade buds in a can of the brand he had just consumed. Let him picture the torment of the waiting when every gas pain might be the warning herald of excruciating cramps. (The article described the cramps fully.) Could he have gone to bed knowing that he might wake in agony? Could he have waited a whole month until the next month’s bulletin appeared saying it was all a mistake, that the nightshade was of a harmless variety?
Lest I appear too much of a hero, and appropriate laurels belonging to persons of sterner stuff, let me admit here that I did give up my subscription to one service which seemed to revel in harrowing detail. The one I now follow allows me at least a few foods I can eat with the blissful thought that they are not composed exclusively of ‘putrid animal substance.’
My real admiration is reserved, however, for persons like my friend Pennington Jones. Never robust, and reared by a widowed mother, Pennington is by nature a highly sensitive individual. To one like myself, who went fishing in boyhood, a worm, even in ketchup, is not a fearsome object. To Pennington the personality of a worm is as much a mystery as that of the giant panda.
One can therefore imagine the state of Mr. Jones’s mind on the occasion when he found in his bureau drawer only shirts of a kind reported to be skimpily cut and to shrink badly. To make it worse, every one had been laundered. A cowardly man would have remained at home, but not my friend. He donned one of the proscribed garments, and attended a faculty dinner at the risk of having his shirttail creep up and out, or even of having some other subscriber to the same bulletin recognize the shirt as one rated ‘not acceptable.’
I remember the pitiful state of one of my colleagues, a man whose painstaking scholarship had formed in him the habit of weighing every argument and looking at all sides of every question. A characteristic saying of his was ‘A fair-minded man could never vote; there are good and bad in both parties.’ Characteristically, he subscribed not merely to one set of consumer reports, but to two. Once when he needed a new fountain pen he postponed the purchase until he had full information. This worked a considerable hardship, for he needed the pen at once. At last the reports came. Picture his distress upon discovering that the pen he wanted was given an ‘A’ rating by one service, and by the other was classed as ‘not. acceptable.’
I must in all fairness report a moment of weakness on the part of Pennington Jones. On one terribly foggy night he was forced to motor back to the city to be on hand for classes in the morning. As the road was unfamiliar to him, he was becoming completely bewildered when a huge intercity bus came hurtling along, heading toward his destination. Joyfully he fell in behind it, bravely keeping up the forty-five-mile-an-hour pace which this entailed.
Suddenly the fumes from the bus warned him of his peril. From advertisements he knew that the bus company used a certain brand of gasoline, a brand which the bulletins had warned him was heavily treated with a lead compound. Lead poisoning was cumulative, the bulletin had often assured him. Only that morning he had eaten fruit — almost certainly sprayed with a lead insecticide. Now he was every moment inhaling the fumes of leaded gasoline. In France such a product was forbidden by law; the consumers’ laboratory had looked hopefully to a similar law in America. His present dilemma would, however, not wait for legislative solution. A lesser man would have dropped behind and tried to find his way through the fog unaided; would perhaps have given up, and missed his class the next morning. Not my friend — he followed the bus.
It was only at home that his courage failed. When he came to brush his teeth, he discovered that in packing he had mislaid his toothpaste. Picking up a tube of his wife’s, he was about to use it when through habit he glanced at its maker’s name. It was a brand rated ‘not acceptable,’ for it was packed in a lead tube. Pennington Jones had taken all the risks he dared that day. He put down the tube of paste, and went to bed without brushing his teeth.