From Cobb’s Bill of Fare, by Irvin S. Cobb, Illustrated by Peter Newell and James Preston; New York: George H. Doran Company, 1913; pp. 111-148.



Cobb’s Bill-of-Fare


Black and white drawing of a slight policeman, trying to grab a tall woman, probably a suffragette.



Cobb’s Bill-of-Fare


AS I UNDERSTAND it, sport is hard work for which you do not get paid. If, for hire, you should consent to go forth and spend eight hours a day slamming a large and heavy hammer at a mark, that would be manual toil, and you would belong to the union and carry a card, and have political speeches made to you by persons out for the labor vote. But if you do this without pay, and keep it up for more than eight hours on a stretch, it then becomes sport of a very high order — and if you can continue it for a considerable period of time, at more or less expense to yourself, you are eventually given a neat German-silver badge, costing about two dollars, which you treasure devotedly ever after. A man who walks twenty-five miles a day for a month without getting anything for it — except two 11 lines on the sporting page — is a devotee of pedestrianism, and thereby acquires great merit among his fellow athletes. A man who walks twenty-five miles a day for a month and gets paid for it is a letter-carrier.

Also sport is largely a point of view. A skinny youth who flits forth from a gymnasium attired in the scenario of a union suit, with a design of a winged Welsh rarebit on his chest, and runs many miles at top speed through the crowded marts of trade, is highly spoken of and has medals hung on him. If he flits forth from a hospital somewhat similarly attired, and does the same thing, the case is diagnosed as temporary insanity — and we drape a strait-jacket on him and send for his folks. Such is the narrow margin that divides Marathon and mania; and it helps to prove that sport is mainly a state of mind.

I am speaking now with reference to our own country. Different nations have different conceptions of this subject. Golf and eating haggis in a state of original sin are the national pastimes of the Scotch, a hardy race. At submarine boating and military 115 ballooning the French acknowledge no superiors. Their balloons go up and never come down, and their submarines go down and never come up. The Irish are born club swingers, as witness any police force; and the Swiss, as is well known, have no equals at Alpine mountain climbing, chasing cuckoos into wooden clocks, and running hotels. I’ve always believed that, if the truth were only known, the reason why the Swiss Family Robinson did so well in that desert clime was because they opened a hotel and took in the natives to board.

Among certain branches of the Teutonic races the favorite indoor sport is suicide by gas, and the favorite outdoor sport is going to a schutzenfest and singing Ach du lieber Augustin! coming home. To Italy the rest of us are indebted for unparalleled skill in eating spaghetti with one tool — they use the putting iron all the way round. Our cousins, the English, excel at archery, tea-drinking and putting the fifty-six pound protest. Thus we lead the world at contesting Olympian games and winning them, and they lead the world at losing them first and then 116 contesting them. In catch-as-catch-can wrestling between Suffragettes and policemen the English also hold the present championship at all weights. And so it goes.

We in America have a range of sports and pastimes that is as wide as our continent, which is fairly wide as continents go. In using the editorial we here I do not mean, however, to include myself. At sport I am no more than an inoffensive onlooker. One time or another I have tried many of our national diversions and have found that those which are not strenuous enough are entirely too strenuous for a person of fairly settled habits. It is much easier to look on and less fatiguing to the system. I find the best results along sporting lines are attained by taking a comfortable seat up in the grandstand, lighting a good cigar and leaning back and letting somebody else do the heavy work. Reading about it is also a very good way.

Take fishing, now, for example. What can be more delightful on a bright, pleasant afternoon, when the wind is in exactly the right quarter, than to take up a standard 117 work on fishing, written by some gifted traveling passenger agent, and with him to snatch the elusive finny tribe out of their native element, while the reel whirs deliriously and the hooked trophy leaps high in air, struggling against the feathered barb of the deceptive lure, and a waiter is handy if you press the button? I have forgotten the rest of the description; but any railroad line making a specialty of summer-resort business will be glad to send you the full details by mail, prepaid. In literature, fishing is indeed an exhilarating sport; but, so far as my experience goes, it does not pan out when you carry the idea farther.

To begin with, there is the matter of tackle. Some people think collecting orchids is expensive — and I guess it is, the way the orchid market is at present; and some say matching up pearls costs money. They should try buying fishing tackle once. If J. Pierpont Morgan had gone in for fishing tackle instead of works of art he would have died in the hands of a receiver. Any self-respecting dealer in sporting goods would be ashamed to look his dependant 118 family in the face afterward if he suffered you to escape from his lair equipped for even the simplest fishing expedition unless he had sawed off about ninety dollars’ worth of fishing knickknacks on you.

Let us say, then, that you have mortgaged the old home and have acquired enough fishing tackle to last you for a whole day. Then you go forth, always conceding that you are an amateur fisherman who fishes for fun as distinguished from a professional fisherman who fishes for fish — and you get into a rowboat that you undertake to pull yourself and that starts out by weighing half a ton and gets half a ton heavier at each stroke. You pull and pull until your spine begins to unravel at both ends, and your palms get so full of water blisters you feel as though you were carrying a bunch of hothouse grapes in each hand.[119] And after going about nine miles you unwittingly [120]
anchor off the mouth of a popular garbage dump and everything you catch is secondhand. The sun beats down upon you with unabated fervor and the back of your neck colors up like a meerschaum pipe; and after 121 about ten minutes you begin to yearn with a great, passionate yearning for a stiff collar and some dry clothes, and other delights of civilization.

Black and white drawing by Peter Newell, of a fisherman seated in a rowboat staring at his line, he has just caught a tin can.


If, on the other hand, I am being guided by an experienced angler it has been my observation that he invariably takes me to a spot where the fish bit greedily yesterday and will bite avariciously tomorrow, but, owing to a series of unavoidable circumstances, are doing very little in the biting line today. Or if by any chance they should be biting they at once contract an intense aversion for my goods. Others may catch them as freely as the measles, but toward me fish are never what you would call infectious. I’m one of those immunes. Or else the person in charge forgets to bring any bait along. This frequently happens when I am in the party.

One day last summer I went fishing in the Savannah River, and we traveled miles and miles to reach the fishing-ground. We found the water there alive with fish, and anchored where they were thickest; and then the person who was guiding the expedition discovered 122 that he had left the bait on the wharf. He is the most absent-minded man south of the Ohio anyhow. In the old days before Georgia went dry he had to give up carrying a crook-handled umbrella. He would invariably leave it hanging on the rail. So I should have kept the bait in mind myself — but I didn’t, being engaged at the time in sun-burning a deep, radiant magenta. However it was not a fast color — long before night it was peeling off in long, painful strips.

Suppose you do catch something? You cast and cast, sometimes burying your hook in submerged débris and sometimes in tender portions of your own person. After a while you land a fish; but a fish in a boat is rarely so attractive as he was in a book. One of the drawbacks about a fish is that he becomes dead so soon — and so thoroughly.

I have been speaking thus far of river fishing. I would not undertake to describe at length the joys of brook fishing, because I tried it only once. Once was indeed sufficient, not to say ample. On this occasion I was chaperoned by an old, experienced 123 brook fisherman. I was astonished when I got my first view of the stream. It seemed to me no more than a trickle of moisture over a bed of boulders — a gentle perspiration coursing down the face of Nature, as it were. Any time they tapped a patient for dropsy up that creek there would be a destructive freshet, I judged; but, as it developed, this brook was deceptive — it was full of deep, cold holes. I found all these holes.

I didn’t miss a single one. While I was finding them and then crawling out of them, my companion was catching fish. He caught quite a number, some of them being nearly three inches long. They were speckled and had rudimentary gills and suggestions of fins, and he said they were brook trout — and I presume they were; but if they had been larger they would have been sardines. You cannot deceive me regarding the varieties of fish that come in cans. I would say that the best way to land a brook trout is to go to a restaurant and order one from a waiter in whom you have confidence. In that way you will avoid those deep holes.


Nor have I ever shone as a huntsman. If the shadowy roeshad is not for me neither is her cousin, the buxom roebuck. Nor do I think I will ever go in for mountain-climbing as a steady thing, having tried it. Poets are fond of dwelling upon the beauties of the everlasting hills, swimming in purple and gold — but no poet ever climbed one. If he ever did he would quit boosting and start knocking. I was induced to scale a large mountain in the northern part of New York. It belonged to the state; and, like so many other things the state undertakes to run, it was neglected. No effort whatever had been made to make it cozy and comfortable for the citizen.[125] It was one of those mountains that from a distance look smooth and gentle of ascent, but turn out to be rugged and seamy and full of rocks with sharp corners on them at about the height of the average human knee or shin.[126]
The lady for whom that mountain in Mexico, Chapultepec, is named — oh, yes, Miss Anna Peck — would have had a perfectly lovely time scaling that mountain; but I didn’t.

After we had climbed upward at an acute 127 angle for several hundred miles — my companion said yards, but I know better; it was miles — I threw myself prone upon the softer surfaces of a large granite slab, feeling that I could go no farther. I also wished to have plenty of room in which to pant. He could beat me climbing, but at panting I had him licked to a whisper. He was a person without sympathy. In his bosom the milk of human kindness had clabbered and turned to a brick-cheese. He stood there and laughed. There are times to laugh, but this was not one of those times. Anyway I always did despise those people who are built like sounding boards and have fine acoustic qualities inside their heads — and not much of anything else; but never did I despise them more than at that moment. He sent his grating, raucous, discordant, ill-timed guffaws reverberating off among the precipitous crags, and then he turned from me and went forging ahead.

Black and white drawing of a thin man, in sporting attire, leaning against a rock and laughing at a stout man lying panting on the ground.


He was almost out of sight when I remembered about there being bears on that mountain; so I rose and undertook to forge ahead too. I was not a great success at it 128 however. I know now that if ever I should turn to a life of crime forgery would not be my forte. I do not forge readily. Eventually, though, I reached the summit, he being already there. We had come up for the view, but I seemed to have lost my interest in views; so, while he looked at the view, I reclined in a prostrate position and resumed panting. That was three years ago and I am still somewhat behind with my pants. I am going to take a week off sometime and pant steadily and try to catch up; but the outing taught me one thing — I learned a simple way of descending a steep mountain. If one is of a circular style of construction it is very simple. One rolls.

Camping is highly spoken of, and I have tried camping a number of times. When I go camping it rains. It begins to rain when I start and it keeps on raining until I come back. It never fails. I have often thought that drought-sufferers in various parts of the country who seek to attract rain in dry spells make a mistake. They try the old-fashioned Methodist way of praying for it, or the new scientific way of shooting dynamite bombs 129 off and trying to blast it out of the heavens; when, as a matter of fact, the best plan would be to send for me and get me to go camping in the arid district. It would then rain heavily and without cessation.

It is a fine thing to talk about the perfumed and restful bed of balsam boughs, and the crackle of the campfire at dusk, and the dip in the mirrored bosom of the pellucid lake at dawn — old Emerson Hough does all that to perfection; but these things assume a different aspect when it rains. There are three conditions in life when any latent selfishness in a man’s being, however far down it may be buried ordinarily, will come surging to the surface — when he is courting a girl against strong opposition; when he is playing a gentleman’s game of poker, purely for sociability; and when he is camping out and it rains. Before a man makes up his mind that he will take a girl to be his wife he should induce her to go in surf bathing and see how she looks when she comes out; and before he makes up his mind that he will take a man to be his best friend he should go camping with him in the rainy 130 season — the answer in both cases being that then he won’t do either one.

I remember going camping once with a man who before that had appeared to be all that one could ask in the way of a chosen comrade; but after we had spent four days cooped up together in an eight-by-ten tent that was built with sloping shoulders, like an Englishman’s overcoat, listening to the sough of the wind through the wet pine trees without, and dodging the streams of water that percolated through the dripping roof within, I could think of more than seven thousand things about that man that I cordially disliked.

His whiskers gradually became the most distasteful of all to me. Either he hadn’t brought a razor along or it was too wet for shaving — or something; and his whiskers grew out, and they were bristly and red in color, which was something I had not suspected before. As I sat there with the little rivulets running down the back of my neck and the rust forming on my amalgam fillings and mold on my shoes and mushrooms sprouting under my hatband, it seemed to 131 me that he had taken an unfair advantage of me by having red whiskers. Viewed through the drizzle they appeared to be the reddest, the most inflammatory, the most poisonous-looking whiskers I ever saw! They were too red to be natural.

I decided finally that he must have been scared by a Jersey bull so that his whiskers turned red in a single night — and I was getting ready to twit him about it; but he beat me to it. It seemed that all this time he had been feeling more and more deeply offended at the way in which my ears were adjusted to my head. He couldn’t make up his mind, he said, which way he would hate me more — with my ears or without them; but he was willing to take a butcher knife and experiment. He also said that, as an expert bookkeeper, he wouldn’t know whether to enter my ears as outstanding losses or amounts brought forward. Going into those woods we were just the same as Damon and Pythias; but coming out his bite would have been instant death, and I felt toward him exactly as the tarantula does 132 toward the centipede. We were the original Blue-Gum Twins.

Coming now to aquatic sports as distinguished from pastimes ashore, I feel that I am better qualified to speak authoritatively, having had more experience in that direction. Let us start with canoeing. Canoeing is a sport fraught with constant surprises. A canoeing trip is rarely the same thing twice in succession; and particularly is this true in streams where the temperature of the water is subject to change. It is comparatively easy to paddle a canoe if you only remember to scoop toward you. You merely reverse the process by which truly refined people imbibe soup. Even if you never master the art of paddling you may still get along fairly well if you now how to swim. On the whole I would say that one is liable to enjoy a longer career as a canoeist where one swims but can’t paddle, than where one paddles but can’t swim.

Approaching the subject of motor-boating as compared with sailboating, we find the situation becoming complicated and growing technical. In sailing, as is generally 133 known, you depend upon the wind; and there are only two things the wind does — one is to blow and the other is not to blow. But when you begin to figure up the things that a motor boat will do when you don’t want it to, and won’t do when you do want it to, you are face to face with one of the most complicated mathematical jobs known to the realm of mechanical science.

A motor boat undoubtedly has a larger and fancier repertoire of cute tricks and unexpected ways than anything in the nature of machinery. I know this to be true, because I have a relative who suffers from motor-boatitis in an advanced form. He has owned many different brands of motor boats — that is one reason, I think, why he is not wealthier; in fact he has had about all the kinds there are except a kind that will start when you wish it to and stop when you expect it to. His motor boats do nearly everything — backfire, and fail to spark, and clog up, and blow up, and break down, and smash up and drift ashore, and drift out from shore, and have the asthma and the heaves and the impediments of speech; but he 134 has never yet owned one that could be depended upon to do the two things I have just mentioned.

After trying various models and discarding them, he now has one of the most complete motor boats made. It has what is known as a hunting cabin, it being so called, I think, because the moment anybody gets into it he has to get out again while the owner crawls in and takes up all the seats and hunts for something. It is the theory that one could live afloat in this hunting cabin — and so one could if one were only a dachshund and inured to exposure. It is plenty wide enough for the average dachshund and plenty high enough, too, but not more than about two-thirds long enough. If one were a dachshund one would either have to coil up or else remain partly outdoors. Also, on board is a galley, which would be a success in every way if you could find a style of cook who could get used to sitting on one hole of the stove while he cooked on the other. One of those talented parlor magicians who does light housekeeping in a borrowed high hat by breaking raw 135 eggs into it and then taking out omelet souffles, might fill the bill — only I never have chanced to see a parlor magician yet who could crowd himself and his feet into that galley at the same time.

The principal feature of this motor boat, however, is the engine, which is a very complicated and beautiful thing, with coils and plugs and brakes strewed about over it here and there, and a big flywheel superimposed right in front. It is the theory that, by opening several cocks and closing several others, and adjusting about fifteen or twenty little duflickers just so, and then revolving this wheel briskly with a crank provided for that purpose, the engine can be started. It is supposed to say chug-chug a couple of times impatiently, and then go scooting away, chug-chugging like an inspired slide-trombone.

Such is the theory, but such is not the fact. I’ve seen the owner crank her until his backbone comes unjointed, without getting any response whatsoever. And then, just when he is about to succumb to hate and overexertion, the thing says tut-tut reprovingly — and 136 then gives one tired pish and a low mournful tush and coughs about a pint of warm gasoline into his face and dies as dead as Jesse James. I’ve seen her do that time and time again; but if she ever does start, the only way to stop her is to steer into some solid immovable object, such as the Western Hemisphere.

At that, motor-boating for an amateur such as I am has certain advantages over sailboating. A motor-boatist — even the most reckless kind — knows enough to stay ashore when a West Indian hurricane is romping along the coast, playfully chasing its own tail like a young puppy; but that kind of a situation is just pie for your seasoned sail-boatist.

Only last summer I had a very distressing experience in connection with a sailboat, which was owned by a friend of mine —[137] or perhaps I should say he was a friend of mine until this mater came up. From the[138]
clubhouse porch I had often admired his boat skimming gracefully over the bay, with its sail making a white gore against the blue background; and one day he invited 139 me to go out with him for a sail. Before I had time for that second thought which is so desirable under such circumstances, I found myself committed to the venture.

Right here, though, I wish to state that if anybody every gets me out in a small sailboat again it will be over my dead body.

Well, anyway, we cast off, as he called it. I did not like that phrase — cast off — it sounded too much as though one were bidding farewell to all earthly ties — and almost immediately I was struck by other disconcerting facts. The first one was that his boat, which had looked roomy and commodious when viewed from shore, appeared to shrink up so when you were aboard her. Really, she was not much larger than a soapdish and not nearly so reliable. And another thing I noticed was a lot of the angriest-looking clouds that anybody ever saw, piling up on the horizon. And the waves were slopping up and down, and giving to the water that dark, forbidding appearance that is so inspiring in a marine painting, but so depressing when you are thrown into personal contact with it.

Black and white drawing, by Peter Newell, of a thin man and a very horrified-looking stout man seated and completely filling an under-sized sailboat.



I made a suggestion. As I recall now, I said something about waiting until the typhoon was over; but my friend grinned in an annoying, superior kind of way and said he doubted whether the wind would blow more than half a gale. He was right there — but it was the last half. Anyhow he swung her round and she heeled away over in an alarming fashion, and we headed right into the center of the vortex. He gave me the end of a rope to hold and told me to swing on to it, which I was very glad to do, because there are times and places when it gives you a slight sense of comfort to have anything at all to hold to, even if it is only a rope. On and on we careened madly. I was so occupied with harkening to the howl of the mad winds in the rigging and watching the mad waves that, when he suddenly called out something which sounded like Hard Ah Lee, I paid no attention. If his fancy led him in a moment of dire peril like this to be yelling for somebody with a name like a Chinese laundryman, it was no concern of mine.

Then he bellowed: “Leggo that sheet!”


Now I know there was something about a sailboat called a sheet, but I naturally assumed it was the sail. I leave it to any disinterested person if a sail, being white and more or less square in shape, doesn’t look more like a sheet than a mere rope does. So, as I wasn’t near the sail, but was merely holding on to my rope, I started to tell him I wasn’t touching his blamed old sheet. But the words were never spoken.

The boat tried to shy out from under me and came very nearly succeeding. At the same time, she buckjumped and stood right up on one edge, like a demented gravy dish. At the same moment, also, a considerable portion of the Atlantic Ocean came aboard and lit in my lap, and something struck me alongside the head with frightful force; and something else scraped me off the place where I was sitting and hurled me headlong.

When I came to, the man who owned the boat was scrambling round, stepping on me and my clothes, and grabbing at loose ends, and swearing; but as soon as he had a moment to spare from these other duties he 142 called me a derned idiot! I was his guest, mind you, and he used that language toward me.

“You derned idiot!” he said. “Didn’t you see she was about to jibe?”

I told him in a dignified manner that I certainly did not; that had I known she was about to jibe I would most certainly have jobe with her; that personally I preferred any amount of jibbing, however painful, to being drowned first and then beaten to death. I demanded to know why he had assaulted me upon the head and what he did it with.

It developed, though, that he had not struck me at all. The boom swung round and hit me. This is a heavy section of lumber, and I think it is called a boom from the hollow, ringing sound it makes when dashing out the brains of amateur sailors.[143] In my judgment these booms are dangerous and their presence should not be permitted aboard a sailing craft[144]
— or, at least, they should be towed a safe distance aft.

But I digress. Referring to the devastating and angry elements that encompassed us, 145 the owner of the boat said there was now a nice, fresh breeze blowing, and that he hated to miss the fun; but if I preferred to he would run back in and hug the shore. Hug it! I was ready to kiss it! What I wanted to do was to take that dear shore in both arms and press my throbbing cheeks against her mossy breast, and swear that nothing should ever again come between me and the solid part of the continent of North America.

So, by a sheer miracle escaping death on the way, we returned, and I betook myself off of that craft and headed straight for the clubhouse. I wish to take advantage of this opportunity, however, to deny the report subsequently circulated by certain malicious persons to the effect that I was scared. Any passing agitation I may have betrayed was due to my relief at finding that the cyclone, despite its fury, had not swept the North Atlantic Coast bare. I also wish to deny the story that I was pale. I have one of those complexions that come and go. Anybody who knows me will tell you that.


However, I have decided to give up sail boating; and, to a person of my shape and conservative tendencies, this leaves the field of outdoor sport considerably circumscribed. I am too peaceful for baseball and not warlike enough for foot ball. I had thought some of taking up tennis, but have been deterred by the fact that so many young women excel at tennis. I could stand being licked by another man, but the idea of facing one of those sinewy young-lady champions whose stalwart face looks out at you from the sporting page is repellent to me.

I can understand why so very few of these ultra-athletic college girls marry off early. A man instinctively is drawn to the clinging-vine type of female. If there is any sturdy oak round the place he wants to be it. But what I cannot understand is how these brawny young persons can be the granddaughters and the great granddaughters of those fragile creatures, with wasp waists and tiny feet, who lived back in the Early Victorian period and suffered from megrims and vapors. I’ll venture that none of this generation ever had a vapor in 147 her life; and as for megrims, she wouldn’t know one if she met it in the big road. She may be muscle-bound and throw a splint sometimes, or get the Charley horse; but megrims are not for her — believe me!

Oh, I’ve seen them often — the adorable yet brawny creatures, leaping six feet into the air and smacking a defenseless tennis ball with such vigor that it started right off in the general direction of Sioux Falls at the rate of upwards of ninety miles an hour, and coming down flat-footed without having jostled so much as a hairpin out of place. You may worship them, all right enough, but it is safer to do so at long distance.

Suppose you were hooked up for life to a lady champion and you happened to displease her? She’d spank you! Think of being laid face downward firmly across a sinewy knee and beaten forty-love with one of those hard catgut rackets! The very suggestion is intolerable to a believer in the supremacy of the formerly sterner sex.

Black and white drawing of a frowning woman, in tennis dress of the Edwardian era, taking a tennis racket to a slender man in checked pants sprawled prone on her lap..


So I have decided not to take up tennis; but the doctor says I need exercise, and I 148 think I will go in for golf, which is a young man’s vice and an old man’s penance. I have already taken the preliminary steps. I have joined a country club; I have also chosen my caddie. He is a deaf-and-dumb caddie, who has never been known to laugh at anything.

That is why I chose him.

[The End]