The Little Tin Godlets
by Ellis Parker Butler
I knew an author once -- he is dead now -- who changed his name and went over to England and wrote a whole string of entirely different books because he was ashamed of the books that had made him famous and hated to have folks talk to him about them. I am not ashamed of anything I have written, although people seem to think I ought to be and are always saying, "I suppose you just hate to have folks always reminding you that you wrote Pigs is Pigs"; but someday -- when I have five or ten years off duty -- I am going to write a work that will amount to something! It will be in ten volumes, red leather bindings and gold lettering, and the title will be "The Modern Pantheon, a Complete Encyclopedia of the Little Tin Godlets." It will have to be in mighty small print in order to get it all in ten volumes, too.
In preparing to write this magnificent work I have had to give considerable study to the mythologies of ancient Greece and Rome, to get a line on the way the demigod business is generally conducted, and I have taken side trips into the mythologies of other peoples, from the Assyrians to the Zanzibarbarians (if that is what they are called), and I know all the gods and goddesses and demigods and godlets from Aa to Zeus well enough to go right up and shake hands with them and say, "It looks as if we would have a fine day if it don't rain, don't it?"
One result of this deep study of the old demigods -- especially of what you might call the No. 2 grades or second-best godlets -- is that I have come to the conclusion that most of us have an entirely wrong idea of them, and of ourselves. We think of the Greeks and Romans as having about as many demigods and semi-demigods as a shad has bones -- and that is true enough -- but we have come to believe that back in those days all the little godlets were mighty important to everybody, and that is not so. You paid your money and you took your choice, as you might say. There were a few big bugs among the deities that everyone thought a lot of, just as we think a lot of One Million Dollars or A Skin You Love to Touch or Six-Cylinder Limousine or An Easy Job With Big Pay -- deities like Jupiter and Diana of Ephesus and Apollo -- but the most of them were little one-horse personal godlets that a fellow carried around in his pocket for his own use, like a fountain-pen nowadays.
It was a handy custom, too. There were no restrictions. Whenever a man thought of anything he would like to have as a tin godlet he simply went and had it. It could be anything from a peanut to a sunset, as long as it suited him, and nobody cared. If old Bill Aristides got in with a swift crowd of Athenians and got so fond of red wine that he just simply thought he had to drink all there was, it did not mean that he had to be a godless man. He merely made booze his godlet and hunted around for some classy name for it, such as Bacchus, and there you were! And then Mrs. Aristides, who loved Bill in spite of his faults, and knew he would never come home until morning, would come to think sunrise the best time of the day and she would make the dawn her one best bet, and tag a fancy name to it, such as Aurora, and there she was!
It was a convenient system, too. If, for example, old Bill Aristides had lived in Kentucky and favored a certain brand, he might start in by calling it Bacchus, but that would not bother old Colonel Pythagoras, down in Georgia, who favored mint juleps, or Rastus Washington Diomedes, in Alabama, who preferred to gather his next morning headache in gin. All that was easily arranged. The first thing you would hear would be that out in Kentucky they were strong for the Lexingtonian Bacchus, and that down in Georgia they were building a temple to the Atlantan Bacchus, and that down in Alabama a new jazz had been invented to enliven the worship of the Mobilian Bacchus.
Our mistake is in thinking we don't have our own lot of modern godlets of the personal sort. We have, but we don't go to the trouble of having them registered and given pedigrees. We don't hunt up fancy names for them. Back in Greece they were strong for names -- fancy names. We are, too, but we work it off on package breakfast foods and hair removers and washing powders. In those days if a man thought of a classy name like Pepmusto he did not tag it onto a bottled condiment or a painless mustard plaster -- he gave it to his personal demigod. Those were the boom days of the demigod business. It was "easy come -- easy go." If a young fellow of 936 B. C. wandered down to the seashore with his best girl, and, as they sat on a rock and watched the sea, she said, "Oh, Agamemnon, dear! The moon is rising! I could just worship the moon!" he would put his arm around her and say, "You're on! And anything that is good enough for you is good enough for your little Aggy-gaggy! Little Zenobyboby and her Aggy-gaggy will worship the same old moony-spoony all their lives long." Then, the next morning, he would hurry down to the city hall or somewhere and peer in at the window of the second assistant clerk of the god and goddess department.
"Say, sport!" he would say briskly. "Give us a little attention here, can't you? I'm in a bit of a hurry. Say, last night I was down on the beach with my girl and the moon came up. Some moon! And, say, she said she would like to worship the moon. How about it -- is the moon on the list?"
"Moon?" the clerk would say, thoughtfully. "Moon? Wait a minute until I take a look."
Then the clerk would take down a volume as big as an atlas, with the letter "M" on the cover, and he would run his finger up and down the columns, mumbling M-M-May -- Mill-Turning-Breezes -- Medicines -- Mixed Drinks. "No, I guess the moon hasn't been registered yet. Sit down over there a minute and I'll fill out a license blank for you. Um! 'Agamemnon and his best girl are hereby authorized --' um! -- 'and all the sundry are hereby notified that on and after said date the moon is a legal and fully certified goddess of the --' Say, do you want a first or second class license?"
"Ask me! Nothing is too good for that little girl, mister. Make it a first class."
"Um! '-- fully certified goddess of the first class.' There you are. Now, what about a name?"
"How about Juno?"
"Venus? Vesta? Hebe? Luna?"
"Wait a minute, I can't remember that anyone has registered 'Luna.' No, that's all right. There you are -- now you can worship the moon and call it Luna and have a grand old time. Two sestercii, please, and five kopeks extra for the stamp. Thanks. Next!"
Of course, now and then a fellow made a bad mistake. The Bacchus worship might call for more strength and endurance than old Bill Aristides had, for example, and get the upper hand of him, and by the time old Bill began seeing purple snakes with green spots he would wish he had chosen Aurora or Luna or Ham-and-Eggs or any other deity, but it would be too lute. The widow would be pricing faggots for the funeral pyre and some coarse person would be saying, "Faggots! I don't see why she thinks she needs any faggots; if she touched a match to old Bill he would burn with a blue flame."
And that is the trouble with these modern, up-to-date tin godlets I mentioned a while ago. We make 'em and they boss us. We make 'em and they drive us.
I know a man who has one, and it just about makes his life miserable for him when it is absent. If he had lived in the olden days he would probably have hunted up a fancy name for it, such as Hammicus Eggicus, and started a subscription paper for funds to build a temple to it, but I never heard him call it anything but Ham-and-Eggs, with the eggs turned over and cooked just right on both sides.
I went on a long trip with that man one year -- an automobile trip -- and every day, along about three o'clock in the afternoon, he began to fidget and get nervous and worry for fear he was not going to be able to get his ham and eggs the next morning for breakfast. He might have sat in his seat as silent as a clam all day, only arousing himself now and then to say, "By gracious! I don't believe those eggs were strictly fresh this morning!" or "I can't understand why any hotel will keep a cook that ruins ham the way that ham was ruined day before yesterday!" but about three o'clock he would get out the road book and begin to look up the towns ahead and guess about the hotels that were mentioned and start asking questions of the natives we met along the way.
"Say, friend," he would ask, "what do you know about the hotel at Muggville? Did you ever have breakfast there? Did you have ham and eggs? How were the ham and eggs?" and then, as we drove on: "The idiot! I don't wonder this section is so backward, nobody knows a thing. If these natives know enough to come in out of the rain I'll give my last dollar to -- Wait! Stop the car. Say, friend, what do you know about the hotel at Muggville? Did you ever have breakfast -- Go ahead! Drive on! He don't know anything. He's another of these miserable uneducated half-wits that --"
If that man reached eight o'clock in the morning and did not see a plate of ham and eggs in front of him he was ruined for life. If the ham was too brown he was ruined for life. If the ham was not brown enough he was ruined for life. If the eggs were too fresh-laid his life was a wreck. If the eggs were too old his life was a wreck. One morning a waitress -- a mighty pretty waitress, too -- brought him his eggs without having had them turned over and we thought that -- after having torn her limb from limb -- he would go out and end an existence that had become too cruel to bear.
Sometimes we would get into a town about 4 o'clock In the afternoon and draw up at one of those tasty little red monuments a grateful garage-owning public has erected to the memory of the little prehistoric bugs they say gasoline comes from. All we wanted was ten gallons of gas and maybe a quart of oil to carry us the sixty more miles we had planned to cover before putting up for the night. We would all get out of the car to stretch, but our friend would walk off up the street and presently he would come back rubbing his hands and looking as if he had found seven million dollars.
"Now, men," he would say in the most loving manner, "here's where we stay tonight. Fine town. There's no sense in going another inch."
"My cats!" our driver would say. "Stop here? At four o'clock? Why, we've got to do sixty, maybe eighty miles more today. How in thunder would we ever put in the time between now and dark in a place like this? Nothing doing. We go on!"
"No; wait a minute. There's a picture house here, we can take in --"
"Is that it across there?"
"Well, it says 'Wednesdays and Saturdays Only' and this is Tuesday."
"Well, never mind that, then. The roads ahead are terrible -- simply impassable -- bridge washed out --"
"Nothing of the sort. There's a brand new state road all the way to --"
"I don't know anything about that, but I do know about the weather; we're going to have a storm -- a terrific storm --"
Well, it was no use trying to say anything even if the sky was the bluest blue that the world has seen since Noah stepped out of the ark. He had asked somebody and somebody had told him that the hotel in that town had good ham and eggs. But sometimes it was the other way. We would get into a town in a pouring rain after miles of the worst roads in America and stop at a garage, along about nine at night. Instantly our friend would jump out of the automobile and hurry up the street. When he came back he would rub his hands briskly.
"All right, everybody pile into the car," he would exclaim. "Next town is only forty-seven miles ahead and we can make it easy. There's not a hotel in this hole fit to put a dog in. Fine hotel only forty-seven miles --"
"Roads any better than we've been having?"
"Well, no!" he would have to admit reluctantly. "They say they're not quite so good -- not quite."
"But, great eats! if this cloudburst keeps on we'll be mired sure as fate!"
"Oh, pshaw! You don't mind a little sprinkle of rain like this."
"We don't, hey? Well, we don't go another mile, I tell you! The rear spring of the car has come loose and is jammed through the spokes of the rear wheels. We've got to put the car in this garage. She's not safe. We'll all be killed."
"Nonsense! That spring is all right."
"But I tell you the car won't go two miles farther without falling into a heap of junk."
"No, it won't; Get in, I tell you. Let's be moving. I won't stop here. If you won't go with me I'll walk it alone!"
So we would go on, through the storm and the night and the mud with the hind wheels jamming and sloshing sideways, to the ham and eggs he had been told about and that he thought he had to have, and in the morning he would take a look at the ham and eggs when they were set before him and groan. And groan all that day. And all because the eggs were not up to specifications.
Now, I hold that no little tin godlet of any Greek or Roman ever made such a difference in his life, or occupied such a prominent position in it as Hammicus Eggicus did in the life of that friend of mine. It would have wrung your heart to see the woe of the man if he could not get ham and eggs -- if he had to eat bacon and eggs, or pork chops and eggs, or a miserable breakfast of coffee with new cream, golden-brown wheat cakes with genuine maple syrup, choice of eighteen varieties of breakfast food, fresh brook trout, soda biscuits with honey, huckleberries with fresh milk, little finger sausages and -- another cup of coffee, thank you! When that happened his whole day was ruined. For the next twenty-four hours he would talk about nothing but how the country was surely on the verge of ruin and that probably in 1924 we would see William Jennings Debs, or somebody, elected on the Bolshevist ticket and Liberty bonds down to seven Russian rubles a bale, unless -- after a long and gloomy silence -- he would sigh and say he did not doubt that by this time his wife had run off with the crosseyed Polak that cuts his grass, and that if he married again his next wife would probably not know a ham from an egg. Then he would put his head down on the back of the front seat and weep. If the tonneau of the car had been watertight we would all have had wet feet.
Back there in Greece or Rome this thing would have been managed better. The man would not have let his ham and egg troubles spoil his day. He would have built a neat little temple to Hammicus Eggicus in his back yard and once a week or so he would have offered up a ham or an egg to his godlet, and that would have been the end of it. Once or twice a year, when the Feast of Hammicus Eggicus came around, he would have rigged himself up in a red bordered table cloth and a few paper flowers and done one of those bare leg dances in honor of the demigod, but he would not have gone around in the sulks, looking down his nose for a week.
We surely do pick out some strange godlets. I knew a man -- an important business man -- who had one he had made of a pen, a pencil, an inkstand, and a piece of blotting paper. You would not believe a civilized being could make a demigod of that; you might expect a Maori or a native of Uganda to do it, but not a civilized person. But this man did. The pen and the pencil had to be laid just so on his desk, and the blotter just so, and the inkstand had to be just so full of just the right kind of ink. The pen had to have a new steel nib in it every morning, and the nib had to be exactly the right kind -- No. 666, or some other cabalistic number.
About nine o'clock in the morning this man would come into the office, greet everyone cheerfully and go into his private office. The next minute no one breathed. Either the man began to whistle, "Oh! I have longed for thee-ee-ee!" or he let out a howl that made the elevator cables vibrate like the strings of an Aeolian harp. If the pen nib had not been renewed, or the blotter had a spot of ink on it, or the pencil point was too long or too short, there was more swearing than you would believe a respectable business man could work up in a year. All that day he was hardly good for anything at all. He let himself get so roiled up and mad that he could not do business, and it took him all day to settle down again.
I've always been surprised that the Bible has not paid more attention to this business of the little tin godlets we permit to get a bulldog grip on us. Perhaps it does somewhere and I missed it when I was skipping over the solid print to get to the important part of the story. I think Job would have been the man to use; I can imagine a few verses like these:
87. And Job spoke unto his maidservant Aminta, she who had been highly recommended by Mrs. Hamma-Ra, she who was in authority over many maidservants, saying: For the land's sake! How many times do I have to tell you that when I put my boil ointment anywhere I want it left there? And Aminta wisteth not where it was.
88. And Job spoke unto his wife, and unto his wife's mother, and unto his father and his grandfather, and unto his sons and daughters, saying: Where didst thou remove my boil ointment to?
89. And they wot not where it was, for they said they had not removed it thence.
90. And the impatience of Job was passing great. And he tore his hair and rent his garments and put ashes upon his head and sat in sackcloth among the swine, saying: Woe is me! For if there is one thing in the world I have told those folks a thousand times it is to leave my ointment alone! Things have come to a nice pass if a man cannot put a thing down and find it again when he wants it.
91. And one came to Job and spoke unto him, saying: Thy boils must be bad today.
92. And Job arose up in wrath, and Job slew him, and Job spoke these words: Verily, no! What careth a man for a few dozen boils? But I can't see, when everybody knows I want my ointment left just where I put it, why everybody has to go moving it to some place where a man couldn't find it in a thousand years --
93. And thereafter the days of Job were many, but he would not be comforted, for lo! when he found his ointment not he was miserable, and when he found it he was miserable lest he find it not the next time.
Last summer I spent the hot weeks with my family in a cottage at the seashore and we had a grand time down there among the sand dunes and the wild waves and the poison ivy and the ticks and all the other things that make beach life glad and joyful, but there was one lady within thirty or forty miles of us who just did not seem to have any fun at all. I don't know what little tin godlet she worshipped when at home, but for seaside use she had one that seemed to be named "No Bathing-Suits on the Kitchen Floor." Along about five o'clock in the afternoon, when the bathers were returning from the beach, she began the formal ceremonies of her worship with a chant that somewhat resembled an ancient Celtic wail for the dead, but that was louder and had different words. The words of the first verse began, "My god! How often do I have to tell you I won't have No Bathing-Suits on the Kitchen Floor?" This was responded to by the chorus in these words: "Aw! I didn't put No Bathing-Suit on the Kitchen Floor!" The lady then worked herself into a finer fury and chanted, "You're a liar! I seen the Bathing Suit on the Kitchen Floor. The next one that puts a Bathing-Suit on the Kitchen Floor is going to get skinned alive. Get out of here! Get th' h -- -- -- out of here!" To this the chorus replied: "Aw! I didn't put No Bathing-Suit on the Kitchen Floor!" The lady then sang an aria announcing to everyone in Eastern New York and Connecticut and the northerly portions of New Jersey and Delaware that there was nothing but work from morning to night and that nobody ever did anything and that she'd be something'd if she would have No Bathing-Suit on the Kitchen Floor.
She then announced that everyone was a liar and that the man who wrote that earth hath no sorrows that heaven cannot heal was another, and that somebody would be skinned alive in a minute. By that time she would be in the proper spirit for worshiping a tin godlet, and doors would begin to slam and youngsters to yowl and tin pans to clatter, and everybody would have a grand old time and weep and wail and shout and swear. The happiness of that whole family's day would go to pot in about five minutes. Nobody got any fun out of it, but the neighbors. We did enjoy it.
Now, I cannot understand why any reasonable human being can set up a silly tin godlet like that and let it become such an obsession that it spoils one day or one hour. No matter which of your neighbors you study you'll find he -- or she -- has dug out and set up some one tin godlet of this sort, such as "I'd Like to Know Why None of My Undershirts Ever Has a Blessed Button on It" or "Look Here, How Many Times Do I Have to Tell You Not to File 'American Prune Company' Under 'P?'" I don't know how many years Frank P. Adams has been throwing fits because his shirts come home from the laundry with pins in them. I don't know how many years my friend has been making his life miserable over Hammicus Eggicus, or how many summers the lady within thirty miles of us has been getting angry over No Bathing-Suits on the Kitchen Floor. I can't understand it, these things are so petty and unimportant. If it was anything big -- anything really important, like Matches -- I could see some sense in it.
I hold that a man who stays at home all day and who cannot do any real work unless he is smoking a pipe is entitled to have Matches in the house at any and all times. I maintain that he is perfectly justified -- when he goes down to the kitchen and finds no Matches, not a single Match! -- in kicking a hole in the side of the refrigerator and throwing the ironing board into the sink. He should not submit to this thing tamely; he should show that when he says "Matches" he means "Matches!" He should teach his wife to understand this, and impress upon her that if she does not want to ruin his entire life she must keep Matches on hand, and plenty of them, too! I am a patient man and there are only a few things that make me angry and sulky -- only seven or eight hundred -- but not one of them is in the same class with such miserable little demigods and and tin godlets as Hammicus Eggicus or Diana or the Collar Button That Rolls Under the Dresser or Aurora. The tin godlets I have set up are reasonable and common sense ones. A man must have Matches or he cannot light his pipe, can he? In the Modern Pantheon I claim a place of honor, not in a draft, for my pet demigod Plenty of Matches.
I had a perfectly miserable time during the war. I resented the war. You may not know it, but I discovered almost immediately why the fiends in human form brought on the war -- it was to annoy me. Not a decent Match for years! Half the time there wasn't a spare box of Matches in the kitchen, and when there were any they were nothing but bits of cross-grained petrified teakwood, or some other incombustible material, dipped in brown-paint -- fireproof paint. You picked up a box of the infernal things and took out one of the so-called Matches and rubbed its head on the side of the box -- and the stick broke across the grain. Nothing else happened -- nothing else ever happened!
I estimate that the sacrilegious work done to Matches during the war sent my blood pressure to 106 in the shade, 7,598 times per month, and cost me $37,560. A man can't do any work when he is that mad. And anyone can see that, considering these things, Matches is not a cheap godlet like the one you, for instance, think such a lot of.
Nevertheless, I am willing to be fair. I am willing to adopt the attitude of the ancient Greeks and Romans -- "You let me have my godlets and I'll let you have yours." You go right ahead letting your pet tin demigod fuss you up and get your goat, and I'll go right, ahead letting Matches give me the sulks. And we'll get together and start the Great Modern Pantheon, up in Central Park or somewhere, and have statues of our godlets, and altars, and all the trimmings. I can't quite figure out what a statue of Ham-and-Eggs would be like, and it may drive two or three sculptors crazy to create a really classical and tony representation of No Bathing-Suits on the Kitchen Floor, but on the days when I go down to the kitchen and discover that there are no extra Matches, and I get mad and hate myself, and let it ruin my day, I'll put on my best hat and go over to Central Park and there, in spotless marble with, perhaps, a strip of sandpaper on the seat of his trousers, will stand the immortal figure representing Eighty Million Boxes of Matches Always Within Reach. Before the noble statue will be an altar, and on the altar will be a taper in the form of a solid gold cigar lighter, an eternal flame, never to be permitted to go out.
And I'll bet a dollar that every time I go there the flame will be out! I'll look at that taper and at the altar attendant and I'll be so angry and disgusted and upset I won't be able to say a word. I'll just stand there and sulk.
And that will spoil another day.
And be another little tin godlet in the Great Modern Pantheon.
Ellis Parker Butler Wants Your Help
A Prize Contest Open to All Readers of This Magazine
A magazine's letter contest is always something like the famous little girl with the celebrated curl. When it's good, it is very good, and when it's bad it is ghastly. This story by Ellis Parker Butler suggested a chance for a particularly good contest. To make it still better, cash prizes are being offered.
Ellis Parker Butler proposes to write a magnificent work (bound in red leather with gold lettering!) describing the Modern Pantheon -- the Valhalla of the Little Tin Godlets. To assist this most worthy cause we want your suggestions, your nominations, if you please, for his encyclopaedia of the Modern Pantheon -- a sort of an international collection of pet prejudices, personal prides, and foolish foibles. Without wishing to divide any households we would indicate the possibilities of describing the idiosyncrasies of wife or husband; without planning to disrupt any offices we would hint that the stenographer's idea of the boss is not necessarily always the same as his idea of himself. Just imagine the potentialities of such candidates as "I-am-the-Boss," "Save-the-string," "I'm-no-artist-but-I-know-what-I-like," and "Somebody's-always-got-my-paper."
The scientists say that everybody is a bit crazy in some special way. If you can testify to the particular "tin god" of some friend or relative -- or even if you feel moved to confession -- send us your letter. The sources of letters, of course, will not be divulged, and those selected for publication will be printed over the initials, or a pseudonym, of the writer.
The contest is open to all readers of this magazine. Letters should not exceed 500 words. The contest will close on August 10th, with the exception that letters from readers outside the United Slates and Canada will be received and considered until September 10th. Three prizes of $50, $25 and $15, respectively, will be awarded for the three best letters. The three prize-winning letters and those selected for honorable mention will be published in the November Number.