A dozen years ago, illness left me with a slightly gimpy left leg. Not hobble-on-crutches, but a minor limp. "It's with you for life," my surgeon said. "You might want to begin carrying a cane."
I let that pass then, because I knew no better. Now, when people say with a hint of commiseration, "Oh, you carry a cane," I correct them gently but firmly. "No, I wear a stick." There's a distinction.
Cane is any plant that forms a modular branch or trunk: bamboo, rattan, or even sugar. Most walking sticks are made of wood: ebony, walnut, ash, cherry. They're sticks .
As for wear verus carry, a properly used walking stick is an item of apparel, as is a coat or a pair of shoes. You don't carry those.
"Wear" and "stick" may seem quibbles, but to a writer who battles the quicksand of usage, quibbles matter.
Until about the 1930s in this country, gentlemen wore sticks routinely. Since then, they have fallen from fashion. Why? I suspect at least three reasons.
One is that a stick, unless you understand how to wear it, may seem an encumbrance, one more thing to lug around. It isn't.
It is a reassurance to normal pedestrian progress; a grace note that enhances an otherwise complete composition; much as a fine Cognac rounds out a satisfying meal. You can gesture with a stick, point with it, and in a subtle way orchestrate your surroundings as though you were conducting a minor symphony.
A second reason sticks fell from fashion is that in their heyday they sometimes were regarded as authoritarian, aristocratic symbols. As Thorsten Veblan put it, a person wearing a stick was advertising "that his hands were not otherwise employed in useful effort." Our society pays more attention to the likes of Veblan than it realizes, and for no good reason. What's antisocial about a touch of leisured elegance?
A final reason sticks fell from fashion is that they reverted to their only true utility. They became minor crutches for those who really needed them: the halt, the lame, the aged (none of which, thankfully, I am). People who truly need a stick often pick one up at a drugstore, from a rack, back among the wheelchairs for rent, elastic bandages, trusses and crutches. Specialty shops sell slightly more elegant sticks, as do some antique stores.
Still buyers, so far as I can tell, generally are people who need them, not those who merely enjoy them. Thus wearing a stick has come to have an orthopedic connotation. Who wants to proclaim age or impairment?
There are stick collectors, to be sure, but wearing one intersts them hardly at all, any more than people who collect coins use them in pay phones. Collectors seek the historic, the valuable, the exotic.
I did buy my first stick at a drug stores, but none since. All the rest were given to me. A surprising number of attics have grandfather's or great-grandfather's stick tucked away, and nobody in the family has much use for it. Friends who travel abroad, to places like Great Britain or France, where sticks have not gone as completely out of fashion, often bring me one as a gift.
And because sticks are necessary, uselful companions in rural places, I have been given a good many of those. This despite the fact that I find long walks, whether in city or country, a boring waste of time. Because of my gimpy leg, long walks are tiresome, and I can't jog at all. No matter. Jogging is one of the least likely things I would ever do on this earth, just this side of sumo wrestling or skydiving.
"Whenever I feel the urge to exercise," the late Robert Benchley once said, "I lie down quietly until the urge goes away." That prescience is not truely appreciated today.
But back to sticks. When you have some 50, as I have, many people call you a collector. I'm not. Mine are tokens of friendships, and rated strictly according to their wearing qualities. Some, nevertheless, are curiosities:
The rosewood, with the 2 1/2-foot-long Toledo steel rapier in it. The one with a relief of snakes and lizards running down the shaft. (I was told it was worn by Sidney Greenstreet during the filming of "Casablanca." Two visits to rerun motion picture houses failed to confirm the report.)
The gold-headed ebony, doubtless of considerable value, presented to William E. Niblack, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives during the mid-1800s, and later a member of the Indiana Supreme Court.
At least two historic events in Washington involved sticks. U.S. Sen. Charles Summer was nearly caned to death at his desk on the floor in 1856 by Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina after the Yankee abolitionist made a speech that outraged the South.
Why does the Treasure Department building spoil L'Enfant's carefully planned vista from the Capitol to the White House?
Because Andrew Jackson, weary of a government commission's procrastination in deciding the location, dragged the members from the White House one morning, paced the grounds, planted his stick, and barked, "Right here is where I want the cornerstone."
I don't expect to cane anyone or locate any cornerstones, but I would like to see sticks return to fashion. I don't really need to wear one, but I always will. They're graceful, elegant and fulfilling.