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The spring of 1924—possibly it was 1925, but I think not—was enlivened for the small boys of Franklin, Pa. by three events: a philanthropist advertised in my father's newspaper that he would pay a penny each for toads delivered to him alive and happy (they were to be used in medical experiments, but we didn't know that at the time); the good ladies of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, flushed with the success of their victory five years before over Demon Rum, began a national war to the death with Devil Nicotine; and a silent adventure movie starring either Doug Fairbanks or Richard Talmadge came to town.
These three seemingly unrelated events became intertwined in my life in a manner I've never forgotten, especially when cold weather sends twinges into my football knee, my baseball elbow, my golfer's hip and my whipster's rump. I acquired the rump in 1924 at age eight.
The toad fancier turned out to be a veritable mother lode for a couple of hundred boys. He also caused something of a crisis at the Franklin Hotel. Small boys didn't usually receive a warm welcome at the hotel. But when they came in hordes, clutching shoeboxes loaded with squirming, warty hoptoads, they inspired a frenzy in the hotel manager. He took to rushing at the boys, waving his arms and screaming, "Get out, out." Inevitably, shoeboxes were dropped, and months later unsuspecting guests still were waking in the middle of the night to find bulbous-eyed toads sharing their pillows. The manager vanished from the hotel. When the toad man left town, he had enriched me by 28�. The amount of energy expended in catching and delivering 28 toads would have mowed our lawn a dozen times over. But I had 28�. And with that huge sum, I intended to buy 28 feet of quarter-inch rawhide.
That spring, the WCTU had launched its widespread anti-tobacco crusade in the public schools. Speakers went from classroom to classroom, telling horror stories and showing pictures of ravaged victims of the filthy cigarette habit. One of their statistics made a big impression on me and my schoolmates: "A drop of nicotine placed on the tongue will kill a cat in seven seconds."
As a result, thousands of boy-hours were spent swiping various forms of tobacco, from Mail Pouch to cigars and cigarettes, boiling it down in a primitive attempt to manufacture pure nicotine and trying to capture cats. Anyone who never has tried to run down a terrified cat and get it to stick out its tongue has missed an edifying experience. To the best of my memory no cats suffered serious injury, and Franklin's feline population more than made up for any discomfort its members underwent by clawing large chunks of skin from its tormentors.
Paradoxically, at the same time we were reacting unfavorably to the anti-nicotine drive where cats were concerned, most of us were developing a Puritanical determination to stamp out smoking among our adult acquaintances and family members. My father enjoyed his pipe and an occasional cigar, and I conceived it my duty to hide these objects of the devil, until one night a pointed hint at dinner persuaded me that safety lay in the cessation of such activities.
Toad hunting and anti-tobacco crusading swept through Franklin's preteen society like wind-driven flame, but their fires were superficial compared to the social conflagration caused by the Fairbanks (or Talmadge) movie.
In this epic, the hero performed miraculous feats with a 30-foot rawhide whip that had us youngsters gasping with awe and envy. He could wrap the tip around a branch near the top of a tree in such a way that it held until he could climb up the whip's length and disengage it. With his whip he could pluck a revolver from one villain's hip holster and a knife from a second villain's hand, and then, without changing stance, snatch a girl from the back of a runaway horse and bring her undamaged into his arms. If he wanted a smoke, he could snake the whip clear across a busy street, take a cigar from the fingers of a man about to light up and bring the trophy back to his own lips.
One scene in the movie remains crystal-clear in my memory: Fairbanks/Talmadge is clinging to a windowsill near the top of a castle, while far, far below a mountain stream foams around jagged rocks. The hero, peering through the window, sees the villain clutching the heroine and about to—horrors!—kiss her. But wait! Fairbanks/Talmadge had his trusty whip! Holding to the sill with one hand, he drew his other arm back and then brought it swiftly forward. While the small fry in the nickel seats shouted their delight, the whip wrapped itself around the villain's neck. The hero pulled, the bad guy staggered across the room to the window and through it, and we yelled with joy as we watched his body spinning down to death on the rocks below.
Every small boy in town saw that movie at least once, and predictably therafter, we had to have whips! And thanks to the toad man, we got them: lengths of rawhide attached to foot-long pieces of wood sawed from broom handles. The movie captions had said the hero's whip was 30 feet long. Mine was 28 feet, which was close enough. For the most part, the whips were shorter, depending on how many toads the whipster had sold. Regardless, the Spring of the Whip was a time of pain and fear for some, including dogs and any cats who had not learned to avoid boys during the anti-smoking crusade, and a time of arrogant fulfillment for those who became masters of the rawhide.