I’VE JUST FINISHED looking over the Guinness Book of Records, a 350-page collection of odd bits of information, much of which deals with such things as the duration record for face-slapping (30 hours) and the fastest anyone has ever eaten a 19-ounce haggis (65 seconds, in Waterloo Station, London, January 1, 1967). It reminded me, in an awful way, of the world in which my generation grew up, when such things as flagpole-sitting, intense individual competitiveness and a mania to excel were as popular as today’s love-ins.
We kids tried to triumph over one another in small personal accomplishments. There was one kid on our block who could belch at will, and often belched the whole alphabet in little croaks to a circle of envious admirers. We wrestled continually with fixed smiles and our hair in our eyes and knelt on the backs of one another’s biceps until our victims gave muffled cries: “Me give up. Tarzan king.” There wasn’t an ounce of love for our fellow man among the lot of us.
Girls were just as bad, or worse. They arm-wrestled with the boys across school desks, the veins sticking out on their foreheads, and were fiendish at what they called “staring you down.” A girl would lock eyes unblinkingly with some grinning kid until the tears were pouring down his cheeks and he felt as if the top of his head were coming off.
Sunday school didn’t help. There were ways there to beat everyone else. I remember one time I found that I was rather good at praying, and infuriated my class for weeks by giving a prayer any time I was asked, until God must have noticed it, because my Sundayschool teacher, deciding that anybody who could pray like that was a born winner, made me captain of the hockey
team, ignoring my protests that I couldn’t skate, which he mistook for Christian modesty. I let in 17 goals in 10 minutes, lying flat on my face and cursing. But it didn’t discourage me. Nothing stopped us from trying to excel.
I’ll say one thing for the competitive instinct, it came in handy during the Depression, when some kind of frantic demonstration of one’s superior qualities was needed to get a job. We wrote and memorized long speeches that began, “Sir, I am convinced that I have something to offer that you need,” and recited them, staring straight ahead at any employer whose receptionist slipped up long enough to let us past her desk. This kind of thing seemed to have some kind of momentum. Even after we got jobs, we broke out every now and then in ways you don’t see now in offices where the delivery boys have BAs. I remember one young fellow I worked with at Eaton’s going down a parcel chute from the sixth floor to the basement. I can see him yet, a youth with a narrow face and permanent blush, sitting in a dark opening, poised above the unknown, giving a kind of royal wave, and disappearing with a receding rumbling sound. He came out on a steel slab in the basement at what he estimated to be 50 miles an hour.
As a result of this background, I still find myself unconsciously trying to set records. A few years ago, while swimming in a motor-court pool with my daughters, I nearly drowned in four feet of water. We were turning somersaults under water and I remember saying to myself when I was upside down, “One more time and I’ll be the champion of the world.” Right after that I lost all sense of direction, ran out of air, and started down to get it. Somehow I managed to get my feet on the bottom of the pool and came out like a sea-to-air missile, but it was a while before I was breathing properly again. A woman sitting beside the pool watching me said calmly, “I thought you were having a heart attack.” On a trip to Greece last year, I decided to race a 23-year-old girl, who was a member of our group, at the old stadium at Delphi. It was the first time I’d raced anyone in 40 years, and when it was over I thought they’d have to carry me down Mount Parnassus. (It’s an interesting reflection on my era that I wasn’t trying to catch the girl : I was just trying to run faster than she was.) Another time when the urge to excel came over me, I was doing a story on a small circus. I had a sudden vision of myself sitting on top of an elephant’s head, which, unfortunately, I didn’t fight off. An attendant said he guessed it would be all right, and gave a command: “Trunk! Maud.” An elephant lowered her trunk and I put my foot on it. When he called, “Hup! Maud,” I went up, turned over in midair, and came down on my head among five elephants. The elephant that had hoisted me, apparently trying to figure out what she was supposed to do, decided to kneel on me. I was saved from being flattened permanently by Maud when the attendant jabbed something sharp into her and got her up. Sometimes I find myself tending to relate this kind of experience at publishers’ cocktail parties. “Have you ever been knelt on by an elephant?” I’ll say to some woman as she looks around desperately for another author, or, “You ever run out of wind?” and it all makes me realize that some of the ideas of my generation aren’t dying out any too soon. It’s true that today people are throwing more things at one another than at any time since man picked up his first rock, but the going idea, in theory at any rate, is subordination of the individual to the general good, not trying to forge personally ahead of mankind, and I think the publishers of the Guinness Book of Records, now in its 16th edition, should recognize this.
continued on page 42d
I saw a TV show the other day in which a group of young people were asked to demonstrate how they honestly felt about one another and a girl walked up to a boy and put her head gently on his chest. That’s the new kind of human achievement — not the kind of thing performed, according to the Guinness Book of Records, by Lindell Bowden of Australia who, in the spirit of the girls of my generation, threw a rolling pin 137 feet six inches for a new world’s record, which is beginning to take on the archaic tone of one of those weird hobbies some people go in for, like collecting old steam engines, □
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.