Bless My Collar Button, If It Isn’t Tom Swift

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Because of his race Rad never became a chum, but he was fiercely loyal to Tom and once rescued the young inventor by stepping between him and the murderous Anson Morse and dousing the villain with a bucket of whitewash. This was pretty strong stuff for 1910, considering that Morse was a white man. Only a few years earlier Gilbert Patten had written of how Frank Merriwell was booed by a crowd because he shook hands with a Negro jockey. But this did not deter Tom Swift. After the whitewash incident he gave Rad a warm handclasp. Then he offered the old handyman fifty cents. After a token refusal, Rad accepted it.

In 1912 Stratemeyer allowed Tom to add a new member to the Swift official family. This was Koku, a friendly South American aborigine between eight and ten feet tall who weighed about four hundred pounds. Koku could lift five hundred pounds, and for this reason was very welcome in the shops. He was an alert guard but a slow runner. His tribe was “almost white” and resembled the “old Norsemen.”

 

Rad was jealous of the giant, and their quarrels inconvenienced Tom greatly in the later books. Koku would lift Rad by the seat of his pants and shake him and call him “black coon.” In spite of it all, the readers knew they were pals, and when Rad was almost blinded in an accident at the lab, Koku sat by his bedside and nursed him like a baby.

By 1915 Koku had demonstrated linguistic talent.

“Is the alarm ringing, Koku?” “Yes, master,” replied the giant, in correct but stilted English. “I have set the indicator to signal the alarm in every shop on the premises.”

Oddly enough, in the following year Koku (or Stratemeyer or Garis) seems to have backslid.

“If me break, me fix,” said Koku, who, from his … imperfect command of English, was evidently a foreigner.

No Stratemeyer book was complete without a retinue of chums. The heroes, or heroines, needed subcharacters, straight men, or an occasional stereotypical fat boy with an enormous appetite for apple pie and ham sandwiches. Of all the chums in Stratemeyer’s various series, Tom Swift’s were the oddest, if you discount the fact that Bomba’s were all animals. Ned Newton, Tom’s contemporary and sidekick, was a rising young banker, and Mr. Wakefield Damon was a middle-age eccentric.

Ned was a personable chap and a “natty dresser,” successful with the ladies, and a source of wonderment to Tom, who observed that Ned had a “smooth line of talk” and could probably “sell chloride of sodium to some of the fishes in the Great Salt Lake.” He first appeared as a clerk in the Shopton Bank, although he was still in his teens. His promotion to assistant cashier at so early an age was the result of Tom’s insistence that Mr. Swift deposit $3000,000 (a treasure recovered on Tom’s 1910 undersea adventure) in the bank. Tom “asked his father to speak to the president, Mr. Pendergast, in Ned’s behalf … for the request of a man who controlled a three hundred thousand dollar deposit was not to be despised.” Such barefaced nepotism was surprising from the man who had written eleven Horatio Alger books.

Later on, Mr. Damon, who had “some mortgages falling due pretty soon,” deposited the money from them in the bank and had a further word with the long-suffering Pendergast, to “see what we can do about Ned.” The result was a step up to cashier. In 1917 Ned resigned to become “general finance man” for the Swifts, because they “could not look after the inventing and experimental end, and money matters too.” His duties were now “much less irksome” than those at the bank, to which he would return in 1919 as an “important bank official.” Ned spent the war (as did Tom) in civilian status, working for the Red Cross and selling Liberty bonds. In 1920 Ned left the bank again to return to the Swift Construction Company as financial manager and also as a stockholder.

 

Ned’s major function in the books was as a tease, especially with respect to Tom’s association with Mary Nestor. “Oh you get out!” Tom would shout, blushing furiously as Ned would twit him mercilessly about “a certain person.”

Mr. Damon flew into Tom’s life on the same motorcycle that gave its name to the first book of the series. A lifelong lover of mechanical devices, the “middle-age” Mr. Damon was totally incapable of controlling them. The motorcycle ended up wrapped around a tree in the Swift’s front yard. Tom bought it for $50, repaired it, and the series was on its way. In the following years Mr. Damon would crash his monoplane into the Swift roof three times, fly into Tom’s dirigible mooring mast, drive his automobile into the Swift front porch, and even collide with the house in a horse and buggy. His entrances were always announced by crashing metal and wood, the tinkle of broken glass, and loud cries of dismay.