THE SWAPPER'S EXCHANGE
In a certain fiction magazine redolent of the Far West, where red corpuscles, silver dollars, and tales of adventure circulate freely, there is a monthly feature more intriguing to me than all the pages given over to fiction. It is a "swapper's exchange" conducted for the readers of the magazine, some of whom hail from the authentic Wilds of Wyoming and Saskatchewan, but who mostly are addressed at such frontier points as Brooklyn and Bayonne, New Jersey. To this page, for a small charge, readers contribute notices of swaps which they would like to make with other readers. As would be expected in such a virile journal, most of the swapping seems to be done in firearms. The standard variety of notice is represented by the appeal of Mr. Mahaffy of New Straitsville, Ohio, for a .32 or .38 revolver in place of his l2-guage, single-barreled shotgun. Mr. Mahaffy and his like are men of iron, and must always be shooting something. But the firearm-swaps form the routine prose of the exchange. For its poetry we turn to the suggested swaps in which musical instruments figure. Listen to this revelation of the deeper nature of Mr. Bracebridge of Chicago:
"Course in electricity, including books and motor parts, electrical testing outfit; good set of tools, including a blow-torch. Will swap for thirty dollars or a clarionet."
Such is Mr. Bracebridge's fervid appeal. Reading it, you and I realize that we are witnessing a man, at one of the turning points of his career. Mr. Bracebridge has come to that moment in his life when mechanical satisfactions fail. He wants something more truly expressive of his spirit. Electricity gives him now no pleasurable shock; his motor parts seem but senseless baubles; even his blow-torch palls. He would play the clarionet. True, he still gropes but feebly for the light; he suggests that he could also find a use for thirty dollars.
But the process of aesthetic regeneration has begun. And meanwhile, Mr. Kurtz, owner of a Kodak, Savage rifle, English-made Hammer gun, and Winchester rifle, is ready to swap the lot, so eager is he, for a good saxophone, with which he may charm magic casements opening on the foam of Irricana, Alberta, Canada. Surely, we say to ourselves as we read. the words of Mr. Kurtz, civilization is on the march. The saxophone has reached Irricana. But we read on, and we are unstrung. There are those who have tried music, and found it wanting. On the very same page Mr. Farrington of Big Prairie, Alberta, confesses that his accordion with twenty-one treble keys and eight bass keys is to him a dull thing. He will swap it for a long-range telescope with which to scan the prairie; and he adds plaintively, "What else have you?" Mr. Stevens of Milton, Wisconsin, possesses a violin with bow, case, chin rest, mute, pitch pipes, and three exercise books, a piano-cornet duet book and a violin duet book, but he will give them up for a typewriter. Possibly he aspires to a literary career, but we are doubtful; we fear that Mr. Stevens is done with the arts. And Mr. Jones is still more surely lost. Writing from Cleveland, Ohio, he says tersely:
"Xylophone, three octaves, demountable, with four sets of assorted tone mallets and complete course of instruction. Will swap for Colt or S. & W. revolver, .45, or a 1917 Springfield .30-.30 rifle."
The wheel has come full circle. While music wins its victories in Chicago and Irricana, elsewhere it goes down to defeat. Mr. Jones played the xylophone and Cleveland was not impressed. Now he would cut a dash with a revolver.
This is discouraging enough for the proponents of cultural progress, but the swappers leave worse in store for us. Mr. Miller of Bellaire, Ohio, touches the depths of disillusion. "Course in hypnotism to swap for fishing tackle." That is all. And yet picture to yourself what lies behind those eight simple words. It is the old, old story of the idealist grown old and turning conservative. Once Mr. Miller thought he could hypnotize the fish. "What," he used to say as he set out for the river, "use tackle? My dear sir, such methods are barbaric and outworn. There is good in the worst fish, if we can only learn to appeal to it. Psychology is revolutionizing fishing."
But now everything is changed. Many a bitter hour has Mr. Miller spent by the brookside. And to-day he joins the conservatives and argues that you can't change fish nature. He would have tackle and yet more tackle. Let us leave him with the reactionaries and read on.
Mr. Sturgis of Duluth was ever a huntsman. "Rod, fishing, nine feet, of split bamboo, in three pieces," reads his notice; "small reel; tambourine; set of boxing gloves; pair of woolen spiral puttees; 2 pocket pieces; small hunting knife with sheath; nickel-plated folding drinking cup; leather cartridge belt for .32 cartridges; 36 foreign coins, some dated back to 1708; canvas shotgun or rifle case; many other articles. I want firearms."
It may be argued that Mr. Sturgis belongs with Mr. Miller, that he used to play the tambourine to the wild creatures of Minnesota and lure them with the intellectual appeal of foreign coins of 1708; but his case is less simple. Mr. Sturgis, it appears, always went into the forest armed. Sometimes, perhaps, a pair of boxing gloves sufficed and he met the animals man to man in equal combat; yet he mentions cartridge belts and rifle cases also. Probably, like your more cautious liberal, he was willing to fall back upon armed force if the safety of the community demanded it. I for one refuse to be discouraged by Mr. Sturgis's words. Rather would I regard him as the defender of Duluth, ready to sacrifice even his nickel-plated folding drinking cup and to go thirsty if only by so doing he may bring to Minnesota peace with honor. The women and children are in danger. Does Mr. Sturgis cringe? No. Stepping forward to the edge of the forest he lays down coins, pocket pieces, and puttees, and says quietly yet in a voice ringing with determination, "I want firearms."
I would willingly close the magazine at this tremendous climax, but the last word remains to be said. Mr. Lewis has not yet spoken. His little message from Rochester, New York, may be less heroic, but it is more refreshing. Man, he reminds us, is the romantic animal. His preferences in recreation may change with the passing years, but always the open spaces and the untrammeled life call to him. Read with me Mr. Lewis's declaration of faith:
"Guitar, Hawaiian, with steels and picks; bicycle; male hound, 3/4 beagle, 1/4 fox hound, 3 1/2 years old. Will swap for canoe, wall tent, guns-or what have you?"
Here again is one of life's milestones passed. In the old days Mr. Lewis followed the friendly road on his bicycle, playing his guitar, his faithful hound trotting at his side. A charming picture, is it not? The hound may be a little difficult for us to visualize, as Mr. Lewis does not specify how the quarters were distributed, but let us risk inaccuracy and picture the beagle three-quarters as leading, the long ears of a beagle flapping to the rhythmic sound of the Hawaiian guitar as this modern troubadour went trundling along the country lanes; while the tail of a fox-hound, securely attached to his hindmost quarter, wagged pleasantly at the rustics who gathered by the way. Mr. Lewis confesses that he has now had enough of bicycle, guitar, and hound. Perhaps one day the hound, angered at some dissonance (for the ear of a beagle, as you know, is sensitive) bit his master and the troop is now at odds with itself. We may never know. But Mr. Lewis will not return to a humdrum life. He cries for a canoe, wall tent, guns. Romance in him would enter another phase. And if this new turn in his career seems to you more prosaic, remember that the decision has not been unalterably made. Turn back and read again Mr. Lewis's closing words: "Or what have you?"
There is your true romantic. For the moment Mr. Lewis's whim is to paddle a canoe by day and sleep in a wall tent by night, dreaming, perhaps, that his hound is there to guard the door, the beagle part inside for comradeship, the fox-hound quarter outside for protection against the wild things of the woodland. But Mr. Lewis is not wedded to any such idea. He will take the fortunes of life as they come to him. While you and I are yet reading his words, a swap proposed by some other reader may be on its way to change everything for him. To-day he writes, "What have you?" To-morrow he may be playing Mr. Stevens's violin, and seeking a helpmate to dust the bow, case, chin rest, mute, and pitch pipes and to play duets with him out of the violin duet book; or he may have gladdened the sad heart of Mr. Miller and be opening hopefully at Lesson 1 the course-book in hypnotism.
Original publication: HARPER'S MAGAZINE for November, 1922.
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