EVER SINCE I was old enough to draw on a wall I've wanted to be a cartoonist. The desire consumed me and held my interest as other childhood hobbies came and went. No textbook margin, from kindergarten through high school, escaped my pen.
Ancient, yellowing report cards, issued by ancient, yellowing teachers, implored my parents to counsel their son and discourage such dreamings. If any counseling took place, I don't recall it. I continued to draw, often at the expense of superfluous studies . . . math comes to mind. I was headed for art school, and algebra, whatever that was, had no place there.
My formal art training began at the Maryland Institute in the summer of 1978 and by the new year any interest in drawing had been pretty well destroyed.
As I look back, the combination of a narrow-minded drawing instructor and a remarkable photography instructor easily outweighed a lifetime of defacing school property. My family watched in silent disbelief as I put my drawing tools away and turned my attention to photography.
My long-dormant drawing skills enjoyed a brief resurrection several years ago when a kindly editor allowed me to illustrate his pieces. I turned to the other cartoonists for guidance. Like guild masters, they cautiously shared their secrets. One week, types of paper. Another week, the advantages of the brush over the brass nib. I rose through the ranks of cartoonist apprenticeship. Eventually, the newspaper closed and I laid down my pens.
Recently though, I've begun to wonder if perhaps I'm really a cartoonist in photographer's clothing. And if so, am I being manipulated by unseen forces? I know it sounds crazy, but how else does one explain that of all the houses in Baltimore, my girlfriend and I just bought the one once owned by the great Richard Q. Yardley?
Yardley was one of the finest cartoonists this newspaper has ever known. His career spanned half a century, but began modestly in 1923, when he was diagramming sewer locations. Later, he was allowed to do tiny drawings for features and by the 1930s had his own Sunday cartoon.
Moco and cat
Soon he gained national fame. His friends called him "Moco" after a comic-strip Eskimo popular in the '20s and '30s. He was a big, tall man, but drew himself as a small character in his cartoons. Nearby was his sidekick, a little cat. Sometimes lurking in the shadows of his drawings was his editor, always clutching his trademark whip.
So thorough was his knowledge of the history of art that often his works transcended the typical single-panel box. Readers were treated to cartoons rendered to look like woodcuts, prehistoric cave drawings or, his favorite, old-time maps.
Today, even to the most casual viewer, it is obvious that Yardley worked in an era long before the words politically and correct were linked. In a map of Anne Arundel County, a bare-chested Indian maiden frolics. A clever diagram of the Johns Hopkins Hospital shows a young African-American patient still smarting from surgery and exclaiming "Dat razor was sho sharp!" Elsewhere, a physician leers at a female patient through an x-ray scope. "Oh, Doctor!" she purrs. Even a cookbook he illustrated is dedicated "For the Busy Maryland Housewife."
But unlike many of today's caustic political cartoonists, Yardley's views were tempered by a love of Baltimore and Maryland and the good life they provided. Beer and seafood were recurring themes.
Those who knew him often describe him as Falstaffian, and fun to be around. The drawings he left behind are his legacy. When he retired from The Sun in 1972 he went home and said to his wife, "Peggy, the little cat died today." Seven years later he joined the cat.
Perhaps, indeed, Yardley's ghost walks the halls of our house on Sedgewick Road.
The other night I sat alone at my drawing table in my studio. My girlfriend's cat entered the room and sat next to me. That, in itself, qualifies as a supernatural phenomenon: her affections for me are usually reserved for those times when I eat tuna.
I reached for a pen and began to sketch her. First sitting, then lying down, then licking her paws. The drawings became more outrageous. The cat surfing. The cat throwing a baseball. She posed patiently.
Behind me I heard a sound. I didn't imagine it, the cat heard it, too. But when we both turned, the doorway was empty.
Moco? Was that you?
Jim Burger sketches life through a camera for The Sun.
Pub Date: 8/20/96