Words That Men Live By
Irvin S. Cobb (1941)
NEW YORK, N. Y., 1941 – For almost 50 of is rollicking 67 years, Irvin S. Cobb has delighted world-wide readers with a display of wit in written and spoken word. Like Mark Twain, his humor is notable for its humanity, and more apparent in his anecdotes than in his more formal speeches.
Now at the rounding out of his career, his family, his boyhood recollections and his own fantastic memory comprise the soil in which his humor flowers. The following anecdote, told perhaps a thousand times by the speaker on his feet, is here given as written in his autobiography.
It was on a circus day – I was probably 10 or 12 years old – that a thing happened, which still abides in my memory, as about the first example of spontaneous humor I can think of. That year, at the last moment, two old ladies unexplainedly joined Capt. John Cobb’s personally conducted caravan. One of them lived across the street from us and the other just around the corner. Mrs. Lawson, the senior of the pair, was extremely deaf. She used one of those old-fashioned flexible ear trumpets with a tip at one end and a bell-like aperture at the other. Her crony, Mrs. Rohm, had a high-pitched, far carrying voice.Printable version
On a blue-painted seat, with the old ladies at one end, my father and mother at the other, and the customary rows of youngsters in between, we watched the unfolding pageant. The time came for the crowning feature of a circus of those times. Perhaps the reader is of sufficient age to remember what that was.
Elephants and camels and horses would be close-ranges at the foot of a springboard. Along a steep runway, which slanted down this springboard, would flash in order, one behind the other, the full strength of the troupe. The acrobats would tumble over the backs of the animals to alight gracefully upon a thick padded mattress. The clowns would sprawl on the backs of the living obstacles. Always there was a clown who, dashing down the runway, would suddenly halt and fling his peaked cap across. There was another dressed as a country woman, who, as he somersaulted, lost a pair of bifurcated white garments while the audience whooped with delightThis season, a culminating treat had been provided by the management. The lesser gymnasts had done their stunts. Now, to the head of the runway mounted the premier tumbler. He stood there, grand in his rose-colored fleshings, his arms folded across his swelling breast and his head almost touching the sagging canvas of the roof. The band stopped playing, the ringmaster mounted the ringback and proclaimed that Johnnie O’Brien, foremost athlete of the world, would now perform his death-defying and unparalleled feat of turning a triple somersault over two elephants, three camels and four horses.
For many this announcement had a special interest; they knew Johnnie O’Brien as a native-born son of our town, as was Cal Wagner, an equally famous kinker. An expectant hush fell upon the assemblage. Mrs. Lawson turned to Mrs. Rohm and in the silence her voice rose as she asked: “What did he say?”
Mrs. Rohm brought the blunderbuss end of Mrs. Lawson’s ear tumpet to her lips, and, through its sinuous black length, in a voice so shrill that instantly every head was turned toward the pair of them, she answered: “He says that the pretty man up there with the pink clothes on is going to jump over all those critters yonder without hurtin’ himself.”
On the sawdust, in his baggy white clothes, squatted one of the clowns. On the instant he leaped to his feet, ran to the head of a larger elephant, and in both hands caught that creature’s long black dangling trunk which now, as everyone saw, looked so amazingly like Mrs. Lawson’s ear trumpet, and raising it to his mouth, he shrieked out in a magnificent imitation of Mrs. Rohm’s falsetto: “He says that the pretty man up there, with the pink clothes…”
If he finished the sentence, none there heard him. From every mouth there arose a tremendous gasp of joyous appreciation and, overtopping and engulfing this, a roar of laughter which billowed the tent. Strong men dropped through the seats like ripened plums from the bough and lay upon the earth shaking with laughter. The performers rolled about in the ring. The band members laid aside their instruments and whooped.
And through it all Mrs. Lawson and Mrs. Rohm sat there wondering why the band did not play and why the pretty man in the pink clothes up at the top of the runway didn’t go ahead and do his death-defying feat, but instead seemed to be having a convulsion.