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The Magpie Sings the Great Depression:
Selections from DeWitt Clinton High School's Literary Magazine, 1929-1942

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Lester Bernstein '36

The Magpie, June 1936, v. 20, n. 2., p. 13.

Devastation and panic rule over a flood-swept East. Angry rivers overflow their banks to deluge scores of communities, quenching hundreds of lives, wreaking property losses of untold millions.

Gilmanton, a small city on an eastern river, lies helpless in the heart of the stricken area. Its streets, safe and dry a scant twenty-four hours ago, are now the beds of swirling torrents, eighteen feet high. Most of its inhabitants who were not lucky enough to have fled northward to higher ground before the flood set in, are now cringing in second stories, desperately praying for the ravaging waters to subside. A meagre Red Cross force, manning a small fleet of nondescript rowboats, is attempting feverish but inadequate rescue work.

On the third floor of the Farrar Building, a twenty story structure that is the center of the city's normal activity, we find the editorial offices of the Gilmanton Merger. Its presses, located in the cellar, are obviously useless. The office itself, where our scene is laid, is a fairly large, high ceilinged room, its entrance upstage center. Upstage left is another door, leading to the "morgue" or newspaper library. The managing editor's desk is at the right. It is covered with papers, pencils, a small structure of wire baskets, a pastepot, two telephones, ruler, scissors, etc. A small stand along side holds a typewriter. The center of the stage is occupied by four desks arranged in square formation. The typical paraphernalia of a newspaper office, outlined above, is strewn upon these desks. At the left, lies a crescent-shaped copy table. There is no thing on it. Smoky reflections of a blaze nearby may be seen in the overcast sky through two large windows at the left.

It is late in the afternoon. During the course of the play, the sky assumes the deeper tones of twilight and finally, of darkness. Throughout the action, one can hear the sibilant swish of the waters outside.

Three men are in the office. Managing Editor Gaddis, stocky. florid, his temples iron-gray, is seated at his desk, idly scribbling patterns on a piece of paper. Steffan, a reporter, is desperately jiggling the hook of a telephone on Gaddis' desk. He is of medium stature, blond, quite young, his delicate features scowling worriedly. There is a hint of frailty about his frame. Bresler, the third man, is the chaff of the newspaper business. His hair is scarce and white, his tall, lean figure, slightly stooped from years over a typewriter.

Steffan (hanging up disconsolately): Not even a buzz!

Gaddis: It's no use. The phone's only good for incoming calls. Don't look so glum, kid. She's probably all right. You live up at the north end of town, don't you? Why, thousands must've lit out up there before the flood reached them.

Steffan: I know, I know—but if only I could check somehow to find out if she got away in time!

Gaddis: All we can do is hope. My wife is out there, too. And three kids.

Bresler (who has been musing at the window): What a story this is making!

Gaddis: Say, how does that fire look out there?

Bresler: It's nearly down to the water's edge. It looks as if Winston is going to have a nice job of rebuilding on his hands.

Steffan (sarcastically): Poor Winston! Why, that joint has enough fire insurance to rebuild Boulder Dam. And even if he didn't get a cent from the fire, don't think he couldn't apply for a loan to the Winston Trust Company? And the honorable J. F. Farrar is always ready to rally 'round to help his old cohort. Yes, our dear publisher and Mr. Winston are old chums. They're the mayors of Gilmanton—without benefit of election!

Gaddis: Talk is cheap, Steffan. Forget it.

Bresler: Say, where are the rest of the boys?

Gaddis: Oh, Edwards is at North Dam. Barnes is covering the river at the junction five miles up. It hasn't overflowed there yet, and they're building dikes. Evans and Dougherty are upstairs at that radio. Y'know, it's . . .

Bresler (interrupting): Wait a minute! Steffan, come here! What do you see out there? (Steffan rushes over to look where Bresler is pointing excitedly.) There!

Steffan: There's someone swimming over here! Look, it's Bronn!

Gaddis (he has come to the window): He was out covering the fire! C'mon, get down by that second story window, you two, and pull him in. (Steffan and Bresler run out of the room. Gaddis opens the window) Keep going, Bronn! (splashes are heard offstage) Attaboy! That's right, Steffan, get him in! (Gaddis goes to the door and out, to reappear a second later with Steffan and Bresler, who are assisting Bronn. Bronn, wet and gasping, is barefooted and wearing only trousers and a shirt. He is tall, dark-haired, of pale complexion and fervid eyes. )

Gaddis: Sit down, boy. Take it easy. (Bronn sinks to a chair.)

Bronn: I'm all right. My canoe capsized a block away. I was coming back from the fire.

Gaddis: Listen, you'd better . . .

Bronn: Never mind what I'd better. I've got the biggest story this town ever saw.

Steffan: What do you mean?

Bronn: I've got the low-down on that fire out there. I'm going to tell the world all about Winston and his Century Oil Refineries. I'll stick Century Oil into history books and immortalize it. I'm not going to let that fire die here. It's going to go on burning—forever!

Gaddis: Stop raving. What's it all about?

Bronn: That fire is no accident.

Steffan: The hell you say!

Bresler: What d'ya mean?

Bronn (tersely): Winston himself set the building on fire.

Gaddis: Say, do you know what you're saying?

Bronn: Sure I do. And I can prove it. The flood ruined the refineries, the building, everything. Winston hasn't got any flood insurance. But he's got plenty of fire insurance. Well, what do you think he did? Just a match in a tank of oil— that's all. And then he took the boat he came in, his secretary, a couple of general managers, and beat it. But there were at least twenty men cooped up in that building by the flood. The whole place flared up before you had time to take a second look. I had to keep fifty yards away, it was so hot. There were a few who never even had a chance to jump into the water. I could hear them screeching like tortured beasts. Most of them dived in, but I didn't see any come out alive. There was one poor devil who managed—heaven knows how! —to swim up to my canoe. I tried to help him in. (Then, quietly, his voice breaking in a sob) But his flesh seemed to come off in my hands.

Steffan (grimacing): Good Lord!

Gaddis (gently): How did you find out what happened?

Bronn: Winston's secretary told me the whole thing. On my way from the fire, I saw him stranded in the second story of a dinky old tenement that looked like it would go any minute. I offered to help him.

Gaddis: Well?

Bronn: He told me he had made Winston let him off there. He was disgusted with the whole damned thing. Before the fire broke out, he had learned that his home had been swept away, his family drowned. He told me just what I told you. He refused to come into my canoe; stayed in that dump. He said he wanted to die. The flood'll take it soon if it hasn't already. (pause) Is there any way of getting my story out?

Steffan: There's an amateur radio station upstairs. We're in touch with the U.P. on it.

Bronn: Good! This is one story I'll relish.

Gaddis: You've got plenty of time for that, Bronn. Right now, you're soaking. Red Cross headquarters is down the hall. They'll give you something dry to wear.

Steffan: Sure, Bronn. You'll get pneumonia like this.

Bronn: I don't care. I want to get this done.

Steffan: Don't be a fool. C'mon, I'll go with you. (Bronn reluctantly submits. Both men leave)

Bresler: What do you think Farrar will say to that story?

Gaddis: I've been thinking of that. The kid wants to send his story awfully bad.

Bresler: Don't blame him. He's loamy. He has no sense. (grimly) Well, if I know the Farrar Winston combination at all, you can be sure that this story'll never get any further. (saunters to window) Hell, I'm going nuts doing nothing.

Gaddis: Okay; then get into the morgue and dig up a feature on the flood of '89. That'll keep you busy.

Bresler: Oke. (goes into morgue. Door closes behind him) (J. F. Farrar enters. He is tall, stout, dignified, slightly bald. He must be about sixty.)

Gaddis: Oh, hello Mr. Farrar! How'd you get down?

Farrar: How do you think? I got a boat. What's doing here?

Gaddis: Well, you know we can't reach the presses. But we're in contact with the U.P. over an amateur radio set upstairs.

Farrar: Well, that's good for now. But tomorrow, we're going to use the Newfield Ledger's presses. I made a deal this morning.

Gaddis: That's fine.

Farrar: I think I'll have a look at that radio apparatus. Where'd you say it was?

Gaddis: One flight up. (Farrar starts to leave) Mr. Farrar. (Farrar stops, turns)

Farrar: Yes?

Gaddis: Young Bronn, one of our men, brought in a story a few minutes ago. It's about the Century Oil fire.

Farrar: What about if?

Gaddis: Bronn says it was deliberately started for the insurance money.

Farrar: Is that true?

Gaddis (apologetically): Looks like it is, Mr. Farrar.

Farrar: Well, you don't have to ask me about a thing like that. If it's detrimental to Century, we've got to squelch it. You know that's one of our cardinal policies.

Gaddis: Yes sir.

Farrar: That story must not be sent. You're responsible for seeing that it isn't, and don't forget it. I'll be back soon. I'm going upstairs. (he leaves)

Gaddis (sidles over to window): I might have known it. Poor Bronn. (Bronn and Steffan enter. Bronn is wearing an ill. fitting, shabby suit of gray)

Steffan: Any calls come through, Gaddis?

Gaddis (going back to desk): Nope.

(Bronn has seated himself at a typewriter and is busily banging out his story. Gaddis watches him intently)

Gaddis: You want to send that story badly, don't you, Bronn?

Bronn: Huh? You said it! It's the juciest bit I ever expect to do.

Gaddis (furrows his brow, turns away): Suppose . . . you couldn't send it?

Bronn (laughing): What d'ya mean "couldn't send it?"

Gaddis: Well...

Bronn (stops typing and wheels about): Just what are you driving at?

Gaddis: Well, I suppose you know our policy by now.

Bronn: Do you mean the fact that Winston and Farrar are in cahoots? Yeah, I was afraid of that.

Gaddis: It's my job to carry out that policy. And if I don't . . . it means my job.

Bronn: So you won't send my story?

Gaddis: I can't, Bronn. But why don't you take a calmer out look? Why don't—

Bronn: Calmer outlook, eh? I'm sick of groveling! I've got Winston where I want him. Calm, huh? How can I be calm when I think of those trapped men and their wives and kids? I don't care a damn for consequences. I'll see Winston suffer for this.

Gaddis: You're young, Bronn. And you've got to learn to play ball if you want to get ahead.

Bronn: I don't care about getting ahead! I want to expose that lousy murderer!

Gaddis: I can sympathize with your feelings, Bronn. But I'm afraid your story won't get through here.

Bronn: All right, then. I don't have to send it here and now. Wait till I get out of here! I'll go to another paper. I'll shout it in the streets. I'll get it to the world somehow.

Gaddis: You damned fool. If you let that story go, you'll never work on another newspaper as long as you live. Farrar will have you blacklisted on every paper in the country! (Bronn looks to Steffan, as if for support)

Steffan (quietly, hesitantly): I . . . I think he's right, Bronn. You'll just succeed in wrecking your future.

Bronn: Future? My immediate future is that story.

Steffan: Better use your head, Bronn. (Bresler enters from the morgue)

Bresler: Where are those candles we got? It's getting dark. (Gaddis reaches into drawer and hands Bresler a candle)

Bronn: Bresler, they won't send my story.

Bresler: Too bad, Bronn.

Bronn: Don't worry, I'll get it through.

Bresler (smiling tolerantly): Take it from an oldtimer, kid. This idealistic stuff is the bunk. In this business, or in any other for that matter, you've got to be cold and practical. You've got to take orders from the top if you want to get there yourself someday. (lights candle and returns to morgue)

Bronn: Well, you're all against me, aren't you? I thought you had more guts than to back down like that, Steffan. (Steffan averts his gaze) I'm going to finish writing this. ( The others are silent while he continues typing. Finally, he finishes, rips the paper out of the machine, and rises)

Steffan: What are you going to do now?

Bronn (glumly): I don't know.

Steffan: Look, you must be starved. Why don't you go down the hall and get a bite from the Red Cross workers? Go on. (Bronn goes out, taking his story with him. The phone rings. Steffan grabs it)

Steffan: Hello! . . . Yes . . . Hello Barnes . . . one minute (he reaches for a pencil and paper) Okay . . . yeah . . uh-huh . . . I got you . . . oh, everything is okay here. Say, you don't know anything about rescues up at the north end of town, do you? . . . well, so long. Barnes says the river's rising four inches an hour. It's nineteen feet higher than normal. That's a record. (While talking, Steffan goes to a drawer, gets a couple of candles, lights them, puts them on his desk. He types his item) I'm going upstairs to send this. (goes out, as Farrar comes in)

Gaddis: Mr. Farrar, I spoke to Bronn.

Farrar: Yes?

Gaddis: He's got a bad case of ideals. I told him we wouldn't send his story, but he swore he'd get it to public attention anyway.

Farrar: Hhmm . . . this is bad. Who else knows about this story?

Gaddis: Bresler and Steffan both know it, but they won't say anything. They advised Bronn not to.

Farrar: Then the only one we have to fear is Bronn. That story must not reach the public! Are you sure we can't bargain with the man?

Gaddis: Absolutely. He's determined. (phone rings)

Gaddis: Hello! . . . hello Edwards . . . is that so? . . . yeah. Okay . . . call me when it goes . . . so long. That was Edwards at North Dam. It's weak. He's leaving for higher ground now. He'll call when the dam goes. It'll stay up fifteen minutes more at the longest.

Farrar (whistles): And then?

Gaddis: When that dam goes, it'll unleash a tidal wave as high as a house that'll rip through this town and level off everything that's not solidly built. We're lucky to be here. They've called in all rescue workers. It's not safe out on the water anymore.

Farrar: Say!—

(Bronn enters, sees Farrar, glowers at him. and goes to the window)

Farrar (slowly approaching Bronn): Bronn . . .

Bronn (truculently): Yeah?

Farrar: Mr. Gaddis has been speaking to me about that Century story.

Bronn: I thought so.

Farrar: Come now, boy, don't be so ugly. I know how you feel.

Bronn: So what?

Farrar: Just this. You know that site uptown that I've wanted for a steel foundry, don't you? (Bronn is silent) Well, Winston is after the same piece of land for his refineries. It's municipal property. We've been battling for that land for over a week. You think Winston and I are pretty close, don't you? Well, not anymore. That property split us.

Bronn: Then...

Farrar: Then if the news gets out that Winston set his place on fire, he won't be able to collect insurance and he'll be in a tight spot. That's what I want. I'll be able to get that foundry site at my own price.

Bronn (musing, with a trace of conviction and contempt): Say . . . d'ya know, you'd do that.

Farrar: You said it, son. That's business.

Bronn: But I can't believe you'd go back on Winston.

Farrar: I stick with a man only as long as I can use him—and until he gets in my way.

Bronn: I can believe that. But why did Gaddis refuse to send my story?

Farrar: When Mr. Gaddis did that, he was merely following an old policy without having consulted me. But right now, there's nothing that would give me greater pleasure than spreading that story.

Bronn: Do you mean that?

Farrar: You have my word as a publisher and a gentleman. I'll send your story right off. You did a marvelous job of reporting.

Bronn: Mr. Farrar, your motives are just as despicable to me as Winston's, but I don't care as long as the story is sent.

Farrar (clearing his throat): Well, let's forget all about it. I want you to do a job for me, Bronn.

Bronn: What is it?

Farrar: I think you're the only man here who can handle this special assignment the way I want it.

Bronn: Yes? (Gaddis buries his head in his hands)

Farrar: I want you to take the boat I have downstairs and get up to North Dam. In a hurry. Take a camera with you. Get pictures of the men working to strengthen the dam. Write a fast-moving human interest angle on the work. Now look, I want you to start immediately. There's a powerful flash. light in the boat. Give me your story on the fire, and I'll see that it gets off myself.

Bronn (gives him the story): Okay. I'll do my best. (he gets a camera and flashbulbs from a desk. Gaddis' head is still in his hands. Bronn glances curiously at him for a moment, nods to Farrar, then leaves. Bresler comes out of the morgue, candle in hand) Bresler: Hello, Mr. Farrar.

Farrar (looking out of window): Hello Bresler. It's getting dark. Better light some more candles. (Bresler lights six or seven more candles and sets them up on various desks about the Room. Farrar opens the window. Bresler comes over and looks out)

Bresler: Where's Bronn going?

Farrar: Special assignment to North Dam.

Bresler (sticking his head out the window and yelling): So long, kid. Good luck!

Bronn's voice from offstage: So long, Bresler. I'll be seeing you in a couple of hours. (Steffan enters. Evans and Dougherty, who were upstairs at the radio, are with him)

Steffan (excited): Where is Bro— (seeing Farrar) Oh, hello, Mr. Farrar.

Farrar: He's gone on a special assignment to the dam.

(Steffan and Bresler exchange glances. Gaddis is staring dully ahead of him. It is nearly dark. The flames of the candles wrinkle, sending shimmering, grotesque shadows to play on the walls. The group is uneasy. Some smoke cigarettes. Farrar slowly rips up Bronn's story, which he has been holding all this time. He paces up and down. It is dark outside.

Everyone is tense. The phone suddenly rings. They all start. Steffan springs to answer)

Steffan: Hello! . . . It's Edwards . . . God! The dam just busted wide open!!

There is heard the rushing of tumultuous waters as

The Curtain Falls

The Magpie Sings the Great Depression

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