Forceful Remarks

Damon Runyon

I am disappointed to learn that Joseph Stalin did not pat Marshal Semën Timoshenko on the pimple or head, with a vodka bottle.

To tell you the truth, I did not even know Stalin was supposed to have done the patting until I read a denial.

The story had been going the rounds that Tim O’Shenko, as the Irish called him, arising to make a speech after many toasts had been drunk at a banquet at Teheran, gabbed so much that Stalin let him have it over the onion, or head, with a vodka bottle.

My disappointment is not in the fact that Tim was not beaned in the manner described. Not at all. If any generals are to be beaned at all, I know of several I would prefer seeing used for that purpose. But the idea of saluting a windy speaker in this manner appeals to me greatly and I feel that it is a pity Stalin did not set the fashion, as reported.

It would be a wonderful innovation if the toastmaster at every banquet was supplied with a vodka bottle and given carte blanche by law to pass among the orators and belt them bow-legged at his discretion. It would make for shorter and perhaps more interesting banquet speeches.

The thing could be given a sporting aspect by having bookmakers present to lay prices on the vodka bottle versus the skulls. In many cases the skull would probably be a top-heavy favorite as clearly a guy who does not know when to close out a speech must be very thick-headed, indeed. I do not suppose the vodka bottle would be absolutely necessary. I merely specify it because it would have been the vogue had Stalin really boffed Timoshenko. I think almost any heavy bottle could be made to answer. I would recommend champagne bottles for use on banquet orators as such bottles have good sound bottoms and could be relied upon to do their duty thoroughly.

For the nominators of favorite sons in our national conventions, I would suggest bourbon bottles of the larger size, and for excessively windy members of the House and Senate, I believe old-fashioned beer kegs should be used instead of just bottles. Of course, all these various containers should be empty before being converted into blackjacks as it would be a criminal waste of contents if any full bottles broke over the sconce-pieces, or heads.

It is plain that the implication of the story denied was that Timoshenko may have been kicking the vodka around a bit himself and that it loosened his tongue, which makes the denial even more regrettable as it deprives us of the opportunity of recalling the remark alleged to have been made by Abraham Lincoln when some tattle-tale informed him that General Grant was drinking.

If you remember the tale, Lincoln is supposed to have said he wanted to know the brand Grant fancied so he could send some of the same to his other generals. Lincoln probably never said it, but it has been a great anecdote for editorialists for many years and the vodka business could have been worked over almost as effectively. However, it seems Timoshenko was not even present at the banquet where he was supposed to be beaned and the whole yarn becomes a washout, though I still say if even the thought of abating wind in the manner mentioned occurred to Stalin, he had a marvelous idea.

Incidentally, the passing of the old-time punch-in-the-nose as a means of settling arguments and differences of opinion, and of avenging personal insults and injuries, and of straightening out rumpled social relations generally, is to be regretted. It used to be a great atmosphere clearer.

I suppose some of my readers will deplore my attitude as inciting to violence and perhaps elaborate it into global terms and claim it is a reflection of what is the matter with the whole world, but you know very well I am talking about communities, about neighborhoods, and that anyway when the punch-in-the-nose flourished there was less strife in the world than there is today.

So kindly do not try to make me out an exponent of big violence. As a matter of fact the good old punch-in-the-nose was a great sedative for violence. It often quieted down a tendency toward violence and made a regular little lamb out of guys who thought for a minute or two that they were lions.

Nowadays when two guys have a difference, they go around verbally knocking one another. In the old days, one would have beckoned the other into a convenient nook, there would have been a removal of coats and a brisk exchange of punches in (or at) the nose, the wind-up a handshake and a renewal of friendship that rarely again suffered a fracture. The punch-in-the-nose was a wonderful cement and a great spreader of mutual respect.

In these days if you punch a fellow citizen in the nose he is apt to run screaming to his lawbooks demanding that suit for damages be filed against you forthwith, a new procedure that undoubtedly restrains the delivery of many a punch-in-the-nose by gentlemen who are not judgment proof. In my old home town of Pueblo years ago, a citizen who sued another over a punch-in-the-nose would have been ostracized socially and also in the Schwer Brothers beer hall.

If you said something against a man, if you infringed in any way upon his rights and dignity, if you disparaged his wife or any member of his family, you could be sure that he would be in to see you and to punch you in the nose unless you were the better man and punched him in the nose first and there was no shrieking for the cops. Under certain circumstances the punch-in-the-nose was imperative or a man forfeited public respect.

Yes, I know about a soft answer turning away wrath and about presenting the other cheek, but that is not the way it was done back in my old home town of Pueblo and that is not the way it was done in the old days on Broadway when dapper Harry Pollok, the big fight promoter of the period—the Mike Jacobs of his time—and John McGraw, the manager of the Giants, counted a day lost that they did not deliver or receive a punch-in-the-nose.

I fear that a recapitulation on the two would show heavier receipts than deliveries but that has nothing to do with my argument. Pollok and McGraw did not stand around complaining of wrongs or waste time calling up their lawbooks. They just punched somebody in the nose (as I say) or vice versa, and as reflecting the spirit of the times, the newspapers published far less about the matter than they do about a bit of shadow boxing in a night club in which nothing is exchanged but gestures.

A newspaperman today may not state in the public prints that a citizen is a no-gooder without almost surely incurring a lovely suit, even though the statement may be known to one and all, and far and wide, as the gospel truth; whereas in the old days the worst that could have happened to the newspaperman was a punch-in-the-nose. No one sued for libel. An aggrieved party simply sauntered into the bar where the newspaperman hung out and—biff! One or the other got flattened. It might easily be the aggrieved.

In those days the type of newspaperman who called a citizen a no-gooder in print was unlikely to be a popover. He was apt to be able and eager with his dukes. I have never ceased to marvel at the way newspapermen used to be willing to engage in fisticuffs in the name of the honor of their newspaper, though the publisher might not stake them to the price of a beefsteak for a black eye by way of reward.

The late Jack Miley, veteran of the United States Marines of two wars and one of the most entertaining sports writers that ever lived, was thoroughly representative of the spirit of the old school. Jack was a fat and jovial chap who stood four square behind anything he said in the paper and he figured in a number of historic punches-in-the-nose including one for Dizzy Dean, the baseball pitcher.

Bill Farnsworth, the former sports editor who died not long ago, was of the same type when he was active in the newspaper game, but he calmed down in his later years and one day he remarked to me:

“I have reached the stage where if I start a punch-in-the-nose I simultaneously holler for a cop—the cop for the other guy if I connect, and the cop for me if I miss.”