TONTO HAS ALWAYS HAD TIRED BLOOD: Stuff That Every American Knew–Once Upon a Time!

by Tom McBride

Here’s Another Item from the Honor Roll of America’s Nearly Forgotten:

Singing Telegram…

 Inspired Guess by the Young and Restless: Probably some sort of phone app that that gives you text messages set to music…

The Ancient Truth: Singing telegrams go back long before smart phones, but it was another type of phone—a regular old telephone (even with low-tech dial-up mechanisms)–that put the singing telegram out of business. The first singing telegram occurred in the early 1930s when a Western Union public relations guy—Western Union was the nation’s major telegram company—got the idea of having a telegram operator sing a message (over the phone) to the then famous entertainer Rudy Valle. At first everyone snickered at Western Union, but soon enough the idea caught on and became funny in a laughing with (not at) you sort of way. By the 1970s, however, telegrams themselves had become requested so infrequently that Western Union pulled the singing service. Now FAX machines, email, and text messages have put telegrams out of business completely—well, almost completely.

It is still barely possible that today’s Millennials will know what a singing telegram is. Private firms, mostly in our largest cities, offer singing telegram services, such as a babygram (the delivery guy is dressed up like a baby), or an Austin Powers or Barbara Streisand telegram, delivered by someone imitating these two luminary talents. You can get a message delivered by a belly dancer or (of course) a clown. In the past men and women in gorilla suits would do it. Pretty women and good-looking guys would also hand you the message and give you a kiss (a kissogram). There is no evidence of singing gorillas, but Western Union is still going somehow—mostly with money orders—and offers an online service in which you can get in touch with your cousin Margaret via a digitally composed (by you!) version of a Snoop Dog song. You’d better hope that Margaret hasn’t changed her preferences to Ice T.

Still, all this is esoteric and a far leap from the heyday of the singing telegram, when either the operator or the delivery boy would ring your doorbell and sing “Jenny and the kids do say today/Happy Birthday to Uncle Ray.” Even as late as the 60s there were cruelty jokes about singing telegrams, such as the one about the woman so lonely she insisted that a telegram be sung to her, only to learn, to the tune of Stephen Foster’s “Camptown Races,” that her son had been killed in Vietnam. Doo-Dah.

What really killed the singing telegram, though, was the same thing that killed the non-singing telegram: the telephone. Before everybody had a phone, the telegram was the only way to get a quick message to anyone far away. There was an infallible inverse proportion between the availability of the telephone and the frequency of demand for the telegram. As the former went up, the latter went down. Unlike that new miracle of communications, digital emails and text messages, the technology of the telegram was not mysterious to most folks. They knew all about the Morse Code of long and short beeps sent through wires and decoded at the other end by the operator into the country’s native tongue. If text messages have their own argot—lol (lots of laughs, not love, as some think)—then so did telegrams, with their truncated, punchy discourse and elaborate STOPS for periods: ARRIVE DETROIT 12/02 STOP NEED MONEY STOP SELL CHICKEN FARM STOP COUSIN RENNIE Try singing that to the tune of, say, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” or “Climb Every Mountain.”

Today’s singing telegrams provide jobs for struggling actors and singers. Not just everyone can go the door in Toledo and belt out “Happy Anniversary” in a Burt Bacharach or Stephen Lloyd Weber melody. But in the glory days of the singing telegram, the job was trusted to ordinary delivery persons. The point wasn’t to do it well but to do it at all, as Dr. Samuel Johnson said about dogs walking on their hind legs or women preaching sermons.

What would today’s young people make of Singing Telegrams? They might see them as an older, pathetic form of “apps,” those links on a smart phone that let you do some sort of clever thing. Today there are apps that let you play games, tell you whether you’re paying too much for a mattress or water bed, give you the present time in Tokyo, or find out how to get to Panino’s Café’ and whether or not it’s cheaper than the nearby Purple Tiger Restaurant. Apps are really not new. Once upon a time you could call a phone number and get an instant Biblical devotional, or you could call another and get the weather forecast or a quick summary of today’s news. A singing telegram is an old-fashioned app: a clever, specialized thing that you can order up. The only problem is that you can’t pay a one-time fee of two dollars and have it for a lifetime on your smart phone. It’s a labor-intensive, clumsy, delayed app. No one uses it much any more. It involves too much direct reality: actual bodies and vocal cords and all that.

It’s far better to have a digital singing telegram. Someone needs to design one, with an electronic Justin Bieber singing Happy Birthday to your fifteen year-old sister on her I-Phone. She’ll be as thrilled as Rudy Valle was in 1933 when he got the very first, low-tech singing telegram.

Usage in a Sentence by the Old and Settled: “Let’s send Uncle Arlis one of those new singing telegrams for his 70th birthday; he’ll just hate it.” –Your great grandmother speaking about a certain mean and miserly relative, 1936

ABBOT AND COSTELLO…

Inspired Guess by the Young and Restless: famous double play combination, though can’t recall whether it was for the Red Sox or Cubs; inventors of the American pizza; radicals executed a long time ago for a bank robbery they might not have done…

The Ancient Truth: Bud Abbot and Lou Costello were the number one comedy team in the United States in the 1940s. Even as late as the early 50s they were in both radio and film’s Top 10. They were enormously popular, perennially famous, and extremely profitable. Pretty funny they most certainly were.  They started off as a couple of New Jersey vaudevillians—performers on the live variety show stage that marked American life during the Gilded Age—and Costello was an amateur boxer to boot. Vaudeville was displaced by movies and radio, but it was also the gift that kept on giving, as nearly all the great performers in the new media came out of vaudeville, where they developed their talent, honed their acts, and sharpened their timing. This was especially true for comedians. Abbot and Costello were poster kids.

The angular Abbott was always the straight man, and chubby Costello was ever the bumbling dimwit with the high-pitched voice of the incompetent and frightened child. The more earnest Abbott put up with Costello not because he thought a little humor made life whole but because the laughs made the dough, piles of it. Although they made nearly 40 films and had an addictively popular radio show, bad health, alcoholism, family tragedy, and even a near split ravaged them—for a whole the two only spoke to one another when performing. They did a little early television, but then Lou died young and Bud was never good going solo. Who knows how their hot repartee would have fared in the more icy medium of TV?

They were best known for a single routine, called “Who’s On First,” which started with the premise that baseball players were developing weird nicknames (such as Dizzy and Daffy Dean of the St. Louis Cardinals). Thus why not have a Who on first base, a What on second, and an I Don’t Know on third? The mayhem and confusion of such a premise produced a frenzied hilarity, and Abbott and Costello could do the banter speedier than a 100 mile per hour fastball in the sport they spoofed.

Vaudeville was never far from their ambience. Their films were mostly outsized variety shows, with the boys’ comedy acts spliced with performances by the great singers and orchestras of their day. And then there were their “meet” films, as in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, Abbott and Costello Meet The Invisible Man, and Abbott and Costello Meet The Mummy. In these vehicles these monsters (played by the actors who original made them famous) predictably horrify Lou, and Frankenstein even wants to use Lou’s brain to produce another creature. Not until the zombies were seeking “brains” on The Simpsons and therefore gave the dumb Homer a pass has such a dunce met such a traumatic fate. Today’s generation knows nothing of Abbott and Costello, but they may have picked up a reference or two. Buffy the Vampire Slayer once mentioned the boys, and Montclair State University has a residential wing named after them. Jerry Seinfeld did a special on them, but that was nearly twenty years ago.

There is nothing especially alien about Abbott and Costello to the present generation of young people. The aforementioned Homer Simpson is at least as stupid as Lou Costello pretended to be. But Lou’s Italian last name might draw protests today from those who are ethnically sensitive and proud. No one in the 1940s worried about stereotyping Italian Americans as dumb. Homer, on the other hand, seems to be stupid in an All-American way; no specific ethnic heritage seems to attach to him. Perhaps only when America is mostly non-white will there be Caucasian Pride Parades. Meanwhile, Bud and Lou gave us easier questions to occupy us–such as “Was the right fielder named Why or Where?”—if only we could remember to ask them.

Usage in a Sentence by the Old and Settled: “Getting home at midnight and finding that the electricity was off in the house suddenly made me think Abbot and Costello’s meeting the Mummy wasn’t so funny after all.” –Anonymous, around 1950

LIBERACE….

Inspired Guess by the Young and Restless: a minor European painter during the Renaissance; perhaps a contemporary of Botticelli…..

The Ancient Truth: Liberace was one of America’s greatest entertainers, peaking between about 1950 and 1970, when he was also one of the best-paid performers. It is equally wrong to call him a “showman” as to call him a “pianist.” He was both. He was an odd hybrid. He was a freak—call him a “showanist,” perhaps—but people loved him. He was grand fun. He was good on TV, in supper clubs, in stadiums, on records, in films, and in  concert halls. He never ceased in public to be himself, though the extent to which he was just a persona or a totally different person in private, or maybe an invented person for whom the mask became real, will never be known. But once he got his brand of effeminate and showy schmaltz, he never let it go.

He was born in a Milwaukee suburb as Wladdziu Valentino Liberace, of a Polish mother and Italian father who played the French horn when he wasn’t a laborer. Friends called him “Lee”; family called him “Walter.” He became known to the world as “Liberace,” a single name like that of one of the gods, such as Zeus or Mars, though he was anything but war-like. But the gods live on a different plane and become part of the cultural weather. Liberace aimed for both goals and at least managed to achieve the first. He was indeed transcendental in an uber-florid sort of way.

His musician father saw that Lee/Walter was a piano prodigy and made him practice feverishly. Though ridiculed for his lack of interest in sports, he soon began to earn a decent living, even as a teen during the Great Depression, by playing all over Milwaukee at weddings, funerals, clubs, dance classes, and on radio. (He played for strip clubs, a practice his conservative Catholic family hated.) In time his high school classmates accepted him as an eccentric source of comedy. When he was just a kid he met the great Polish pianist Ignancy Paderewski back stage at a Milwaukee theater; the encounter made him more determined than ever to become accomplished in his own right. He did, but perhaps not in the way that Paderewski might have wished for his young groupie.

Liberace’s whole career was a matter of two intertwining themes: an evolution in his pattern of presentation, and a Faustian rise and fall. As for the first, he slowly realized that he was a better showman than pianist—not that he was a slouch at the latter. He saw that he could play jazz and ragtime, show tunes and folk songs. He saw that he had both a natural flamboyance and a natural public affection: both gave him a super connection with audiences, to whom he both a good time as sentimental as it was spectacular, as well as a tender, caressing love. He became known for blending Chopin and “Home on the Range.” He could play simple tunes in the styles of Beethoven, Mozart, and Bizet. He became interested in design and eventually meticulous about the lighting of his performances and his white tails and trousers, which made him eminently visible from the balcony of concert halls. In time he started wearing mink capes and ostrich feathers. He was taken onto stage in gaudy cars—he’d have had them gold laminated if he could (and maybe he did!)—or lowered onto stage like Peter Pan. His finger and handwork on the ivories became increasing dexterous and daring. He learned to sing in a rather effeminate voice, especially his theme song of “I’ll Be Seeing You.” When serious music critics said he ruined perfectly fine classical music, he said he cried all the way to the bank: a phrase he often repeated until later, when he said he bought the bank. He had a smile so gleaming that Bob Hope said the richest man in Hollywood was Liberace’s dentist.

He became an industry, appearing in one film as a great pianist who goes deaf and in another as a creepy casket salesman in Los Angeles. He played twins—a concert pianist and a crook—on the campy Batman of the 1960s and also showed up on The Muppet Show later, and after that on Saturday Night Live. He endorsed banks and morticians. He published cookbooks and established a motel chain. He earned millions. His TV show of the early 50s, pioneering with such techniques as a split screen, earned him more millions in syndication. He developed, even, a logo: a candelabrum on the piano, at once corny and classical. In some ways he became an ill-educated person’s version of a classical pianist, though he always said he put on shows, not concerts. He performed for another piano player, Harry Truman, in the White House. He played before a young Queen Elizabeth.

Though he continued to be a favorite in Las Vegas, his career slowly declined in the 1970s. And this is where the other theme—the Faustian one—of his career began to emerge, for Liberace was always a problematical figure. He seemed to be a genuine Midwestern Catholic conservative yet he was obviously to conventional eyes a rather strange, sissy-like man. He put his mother and his brothers on his show to indicate he was a family man of sorts. Yet he sued both a London newspaper and an American magazine who said he was homosexual. He denied this and was even featured in a women’s magazine as saying he preferred a more “mature” woman. In the early 1950s he told TV interviewer Ed Murrow that he was not rushing into marriage but would slowly look for the “right girl.” By then he was in his mid-30s. And like the Dr. Faustus of the great play by Christopher Marlowe, he was at once a powerful god-like figure and just a clown who was amusing at the behest of others. He also rose high and fell low, though he was not downed so much by career failure as by lung failure. After all, even has was perishing he played at Radio City and answered questions for Oprah.

The right girl never came. He was sued by his chauffer for a portion of his property on the grounds that they had been long time lovers. Although there was a brief, unsuccessful cover-up, Liberace died at 67 of pneumatic complications from AIDS. In 2011 Betty White said publicly what everyone had long known: that Lee was gay. She had often gone out with him in her younger years as his “beard.”

In 2010 the museum named after him in Vegas closed its doors, but his foundation for encouraging talented youth continues. Today’s young people would have no room for Liberace. They would find his over the top demeanor as inappropriate for today’s understated, ironic cool. They would find his gushing love of people embarrassing. And they would find his once-tantalizing mystery—is he or isn’t he—just boring. Who cares any more? Liberace’s best-known film is called Sincerely Yours. What would Stephen Colbert make of “sincerely”? It would occasion a good laugh. But there may be an HBO movie with Michael Douglas playing Liberace, who, were he alive, might still laugh all the way to the bank, if there is one wherever he is now.

Hypothetical Usage by the Old and Settled: “You’ll never be the next Liberace unless you practice eight hours a day and earn enough to buy yourself a gold inlaid grand piano.” –a more witty-than-usual mother, speaking to her nine year old son in New York City, about 1970

Eight Track……

Inspired Guess by the Young and Restless: A large railroad complex—with eight tracks…….

The Ancient Truth: An “8 Track” is the nickname for an electromagnetic tape with eight “tracks” or songs on it, or the name for the tape player itself. Millions once referred to either or both as an “8 track.” An 8-track tape was equivalent to a long play record, or (in today’s terms) equal to the compact discs you can purchase at what are still called “record” stores. Thus you can listen to the Beatles’ White Album on a record (if you can find one), an eight-track tape (if you can find one) or a compact disc (easily found and purchased or borrowed). But the Eight Track is far more important than just being a bridge between records and discs.

It was a seminal development in the history of automobile audio. Here’s the background.

The first milestone occurred in about 1930, when two brothers named Galvin managed to concoct a radio that ran off the car’s electrical system. These could be installed as part of the vehicle’s equipment. Hence, the Galvins founded a company most decorously called “Motorola.” It took many years for the radio to become standard equipment on cars. Some drivers didn’t want it while others might have liked it but didn’t want to pay extra. Nonetheless, a car door had been opened, and once the radio strolled in, it stayed. It is no longer a guest rider. How many crashes its distractions have caused will never be known. Let’s just say that many a worried parent warned many a careless child driver about fiddling with the dial in heavy traffic. Some of those children died young; perhaps Del Shannon was the last thing they ever heard. And then there were other children who asked their parents, while everyone else was visiting Grandma, if they could listen to “The Lone Ranger” in the car, only to be told that their doing so would run down the battery. So the answer was No.

The car radio was otherwise a great boon. In fact, it launched the first significant multi-tasking, as people could drive while listening to the news. It supplied music to go with the miles. But it was a limited convenience. You had to listen to the music they selected, not the music you would have chosen. With phonographs, on the happy other hand, you got to choose the music you wanted to hear. No wonder, then, that Chrysler briefly tried car phonographs, but the whole apparatus was too big, and there was no place for it, really, in the interior of the vehicle. A passenger would have been required to regulate it, as changing records while steering an eight cylinder Buick is exceedingly difficult and not a little dangerous. Car phonographs bombed. They were unwelcome guests. They still are.

Yet the answer to this dilemma between phonographs and radio lurked in the technology of tape recordings, except that tape recorders were heavy, the reels were large (and hard to load), and the audio quality was poor. They worked for voice but not for music. So somehow the tape recorder had to be reduced in size, and the recording fidelity enhanced, if it were ever to find an honored place in the automobiles of the land.

Above all, electromagnetic tapes had to be fitted to “tracks” of music, with each track, as with records, corresponding to a three or four minute song so that listeners could do with tapes what they could do with records: listen to all the songs or just the ones that that fit their whims. Every seller of recorded music knows that will buy an entire eight or sixteen track album (whether on vinyl records of two sides or electromagnetic tapes or digital discs) just to hear two or three favorite songs. A compact, vivid-sounding tape player able to handle eight tracks would give householders access to music without the clumsy records and phonographs; above all, it would give drivers the music they wanted without having to listen to the radio and hoping against hope that their favorite Patti Page or Perry Como song somehow came along for the ride. The Eight Track would liberate Americans from the slavery engendered by the car radio.

All this was easier stated than accomplished. But research and development naturally ensued, sponsored by (among others) car companies such as Ford. It was slow. There were drawbacks. Sound hissed and fluttered. Spools wore down easily. The tape itself easily got twisted or wrinkled. The disadvantage of tape is the number of moving parts, something largely avoided with the radio. Even when tapes with music got better, it was still hard to adjust the length of the tape to the “tracks” of music. Thus some taped music had long silences or extra tunes or other bothersome features that revealed the misfit between tape and tracks. And then it was devilishly hard to skip over this song or that in order to find the one you especially wanted to hear. But in due course there emerged both eight-track tape players and tapes for them to play. These could be set into the dashboard of the car. Consumer choice reigned; the tyranny of the radio, however enlightened, was spurned. Edward Lear, of Lear Jet fame, is given credit for the fullest invention of the Eight Track. Lear is the George Washington and Thomas Jefferson of this Declaration of Independence from the car radio. This all came about in the mid-1960s.

By the mid 1970s Eight Tracks accounted for about a quarter of “record” sales. But their true significance was in the vehicle, as, for instance, when truckers in the Deep South could listen to Red Sovine do his maudlin narration “Teddy Bear,” about a crippled child on the Citizens Band radio, over and over again. Ian Hunter sang the following: “Sitting in the car park/In my old Buick Skylark/Getting high…on an 8-track.” And it’s no wonder he was high, being able to listen to the music he wanted, for the first time ever in his Skylark! Today in Dallas there is an eight-track museum. Some Luddites refuse to go “CD” and insist upon listening to nada but 8-tracks. They are proud of themselves, rather like South Carolinians who refused to give up their Confederate money or Japanese soldiers who declined to surrender caves to the Allies as late as the 1950s.

For today’s young people freedom from the radio has become complete. Most of them don’t own a radio. What with file sharing and their laptops and I-Pods, they don’t need it for music. In the automobile itself they have CDs or (even better) I-Pods that play over the car’s speaker system. There is no need for a car radio at all unless you want to listen to voices (such as the news) instead of music. We might even wonder how much longer the car radio will even be a feature of new cars. If it goes away—though this is doubtful since drivers do want to listen to news and talk—then by 2030 we may have reverted to a car radio-less world–such as that of a century before. The more things change, they more they don’t.

Hypothetical Usage in a Sentence by the Old and Settled: “You may have an 8 track tape, but you have a one track mind.” –Mrs. Deborah Kovacs, speaking in 1973 (context unknown)

Betamax…..

Inspired Guess by the Young and Restless: Just short of the maximum feasible in any competition or measure, with alphamax being the maximum it is possible to achieve…..

The Ancient Truth: Beatmax is a technology, now mostly obsolete, for playing, recording and shooting videos. In Japan, where it was first developed, young people will be more familiar with Betamax because the technology there persisted until the early 2000s, but it was gone in the United States by the late 80s. Today’s college students may be aware of the videotape format known as VHS, but they will consider it a relic of a time before the advent of digital video. At their colleges or universities they may occasionally spy an old VHS player or perhaps find one in the attic or basement of their homes.

Yet if VHS is an old format, Betamax, once VHS’s spirited competitor, is an ancient one. If it were still alive today in the sense of vast commercial usage, it would be all of thirty-five years old! But it died a tragically early death as a young teen. By the way, the “beta” part comes from a Japanese word for signal transmission and the similarity in shape between the way the tape was transported through the machine and the Greek letter “beta.” It has nothing to do with coming in second (although Betamax did come in second, to VHS—and “second” meant dead last and dead).

Both VHS and Betamax were pioneering ways of using videotape, as opposed to film, to create and present moving images. American consumers had a dilemma back in the 80s: Betamax or VHS? Which one should they buy? American purchasers consulted clerks at Sears stores for advice as though they were in touch with the Oracle at Delphi. (Sears carried Sony Betamax players and camcorders.) If the clerks said “Beta,” then they would have been wrong, but they had good reasons to believe that they were right. Betamax involved a lighter machine and a sharper image. Beta machines didn’t waste as much tape space as VHS did. But inventors were slow to develop it into a single unit camcorder, for which customers yearned, and it was more expensive to mass-produce. Finally, one could transfer Beta onto VHS but not vice-versa.

The days of video recorders and players, whether VHS or Beta, seem retrospectively prehistoric. Imagine having to worry about keeping low-tech dust covers on the machines so that their inner parts didn’t become damaged, and conceive, if you can, of having to monitor with eternal vigilance the tracking of videotapes so that they were watchable. Yet these were also revolutionary times. You could tape Oprah in the afternoon and watch her after you got home—it was just a matter of getting the latchkey kids to set the machine when they got home from school. Camcorders made the shooting of home movies a convenient labor of love for family members who would never have thought of it before. Soon children would begin correcting their parents who suggested that the whole family watch a “film” on VHS, and oldsters had to learn to say “tape.”

Today there is a cult of Betamax lovers. They continue to use the format for highly specialized purposes and remain devoted to the idea that it was the superior technology. The term “Luddite” used to refer to those who abhorred all machines of any sort: who would never send a telegram or ride in an automobile. Now we have so surrendered to advanced technology that “Luddite” has become a relative term. It is someone who still sticks to Beta! Causes that used apply to other types of bitter enders—such as Japanese warriors who continued to fight World War II or Virginians who saved their Confederate money sure that the South would rise again—have now become the focus of geeks.

Usage by the Old and Settled: “After I retire, I hope you will at least treat me as VHS—old but still on occasion reliable—and not as Betamax: utterly obsolete.” –A man of about 63, speaking pleadingly to his children, in about 1995

Mimeograph…..

Inspired Guess by the Young and Restless: the name for old photocopying machines…..

The Ancient Truth: The guess by the young and restless is reasonably close, except for one small difficulty: the mimeograph machine, though a copying device, did not use photos. That came later, starting in about 1970, with Xerox. The mimeograph was pre-Xerox, and it was Xerox that drove the “mimeo” out of existence. But the mimeo was the primary means of mechanical reproduction in offices and schools during the second third of the 20th century. Nearly everyone over the age of sixty will remember them.

The odd thing about the Xerox revolution is that the technology of the older copying machine is far more interesting than that of the newer. The Xerox was merely the latest chapter in a technology we had been following for years. We who are of a certain age have seen advances in photography, from flash bulbs, for instance, to quickly developing Polaroid film. We have seen photography emerge from being something only pros did to something that anyone with a “Brownie” camera could do: hence the “snapshots” that filled family scrapbooks and albums. So the evolution of photography to the point where it could snap a photo of a typewritten sheet of paper was but a matter of time.

But the technology of the old mimeograph machine seems in retrospect far more amazing. All of us have known how Xerox machines worked: we saw the flashing light exposure by which the camera was enabled to take a picture of the original. We were never sure how the mimeo worked. You typed or drew on the original: a white sheet of paper stuck to a blue ink second sheet, which we all referred to as the stencil. Once we finished with the original we attached the blue inked stencil to a drum, rolled it over and over again, and voila! In a matter of seconds our original somehow came tumbling through in multiple copies.

Here’s how it worked: the stencil was coated with waxed mulberry; as your typewriter or pen made indentions in the blank page, it was cutting little holes in the stencil. The drum forced ink through the holes in a manner that corresponded to your typewritten patterns. Amazing! You lucky dog: you got the blue-inked copies. Of course every stencil had only a certain amount of waxed mulberry, so in time the copies got fainter to the point of non-existence. It was always vital not to expect too many copies. Waxed mulberry is not to be taken for granted! An energy crisis might be nothing compared to a waxed mulberry crisis.

(All mechanical explanations in this entry are approximate!)

This was also an inconvenient process by today’s standards. You got ink on your hands. If you made a mistake on the original—typos could abound—you sometimes had to take a small razor blade in order to correct them. This involved, say, cutting a “t” or two away in order to make them an “r,” usually with a pen. But it was the difference between “curing a disease” and “cutting” it. This seemed vital. Still, it was possible to knick your fingers or thumb with the razor blade. Thus red blood co-mingled with the waxen mulberry: a sickening prospect. In time there were eraser liquids that did the job of copyediting much more safely.

The mimeograph machine was invented by Edison and patented by one A.B. Dick, who also coined the term. It had its competitors, of which one was the spirit duplicator or ditto machine. Once again, you drew or typed or wrote in longhand on a first sheet, which was attached to a second one. The second sheet had a layer of wax on it, from which was transferred your hen scratching and typos onto the back of the first sheet. When this back was put onto the drum and the drum turned, an absorbent wick “released” your indentions onto blank pages. Once more you are one fortunate kangaroo, for you got all these lovely copies. Once more, there was a limit to the number that could be plausibly produced. And by the way, it was called a “spirit” duplicator because the absorbent wick was made of alcohol. This could also be dangerous, as you might be tempted to lick the second sheet in order to calm your nerves.

Then there was the Thermofax. This copying technology had the advantage of involving no chemicals. There was instead a carbon original that, once exposed to infrared heat energy, deposits your indentations onto carbon sensitive paper. Heat, then, can transform carbon into letters and words. The great disadvantage of this technology was that the copies were extremely hot to the touch until they had cooled. If the razor blades of the mimeograph process were perilous, so was the precariousness of absorbing eighth degree burns with the Thermofax.

Hundreds of years before the mimeograph, the spirit duplicator or the Thermofax, the French philosopher Descartes had theorized that the world really runs on the mechanics of tiny particles doing their thing: bumping into each other, being the building blocks of everything from rocks to butterflies, and even attracting one another. Descartes turned out to the right, and all these early copying machines, which fostered cheap duplication without a full-fledged printing press, were based on his great insight. All these technologies involved the transfer of something onto something: mulberry wax or carbon particles onto sheets of paper in the form of paragraphs and words or maybe even drawings. Descartes also speculated famously that “I think, therefore I am.” He meant that he could be sure of one thing: that if he could observe himself thinking, then he knew he was a being, for only a being could think. And even if he doubted that he was thinking, he had to think in order to doubt. So there was no doubt about it: he existed—or something like that.

Today we have a very different idea of our existence. It might be formulated, “I copy; therefore I am.” Today we prove our existence by showing that we can do as others do, whether that be to shake hands or wear grunge blue jeans. Videos go viral. Everything can be copied now, it seems. Originality and “authenticity” seem to be in danger. I can see the Mona Lisa any time I want if I don’t mind seeing a copy of it. (And I don’t.) The scientific theories of Descrates, applied practically, have overturned his original idea of how we confirm that we exist. And you can see a strong hint of that in his indirect influence on the technology of…early copying machines.

Today’s young people would find the old mimeos and Thermofaxes unbearably inconvenient. They would be like having to write a check or take notes in longhand or have to wait for a real person in order to get cash. Generation Y would find all the waste of paper abhorrent. We might think the mimeograph helped launch a revolution in which our very existence depends upon our becoming reliable carbon copies of whatever is fashionable. Gen Y, secure in their skinny jeans and sipping their ecologically correct lattes, would see the mimeo as a killer of redwoods.

Hypothetical Usage in a Sentence by the Old and Settled: “Mimeo that, would you? And don’t cut yourself this time!” –the boss to his secretary at the Acme Office Supply Company in about 1959

“Um, That Right, Kemosabe”…..

Inspired Guess by the Young and Restless: A direction given by one drunken camp counselor to another that Camp Kemosabe is on the next right turn…..

The Ancient Truth: “Um, that right, Kemosabe” is a typical pidgin English response given by an Apache named Tonto, also known as “faithful Indian companion,” to his partner John Reid, also known as “The Lone Ranger.” The two of them, entirely fictional, inspired two generations of youngsters (from the early 30s to the late 50s) to do right and eat Cheerios, which also happened to be the sponsor of “The Lone Ranger” show. The concept was a creation of Fran Striker and George Trendle, who worked out of a Detroit radio station. The Lone Ranger, highly skilled at shooting, horse riding and fisticuffs, was  a former Texas Ranger; no wonder he was so good. A sadistic outlaw gang headed by one Butch Cavendish had tried to murder six rangers, of which John Reid, the “lone” ranger, was the only survivor. Tonto the Apache (though some say he was Potawatomie) found Reid, nursed him to recovery, and said to him, “You the only one left; you the lone ranger now.” The grateful Reid could only agree.

To make sure neither Cavendish nor anyone else knew he was still alive, he donned a mask (using, in a touch of pathos and decorum, material from his slain brother’s vest). He made sure that he was never seen without it, nor ever seen without Tonto (unless they had some necessary division of labor), as the two of them fought to bring “law and order to the early West.”  The Young and Restless were partially correct in their inspired guess about the camp: the endearing name Tonto reserved for the Long Ranger (Kemo-sah-bee, which means “trusty scout”) was taken by the original creators from a camp in northern Michigan. Soon The Lone Ranger (henceforth TLR) acquired a dashing white stallion named “Silver,” whom he urged on his way with a hearty “Hi-yo!” The command to gallop was necessary on radio in order to show listeners that TLR was off across the rocks and cacti. It wasn’t needed on TV, but by this time all the little viewers expected it, so it was retained. Tonto rode a more pedestrian, spotted horse named “Scout,” so in effect Tonto had two trusty scouts: the horse he wore and the masked man he followed. He was a credulous fellow, Tonto, but then in the early West, on radio and TV, it’s pretty easy to separate friend from foe.

It was the premise of The Long Ranger more than anything else that accounted for its widespread popularity. There is a masked man who isn’t an outlaw but a deadly enemy of outlaws. That paradox alone is worth price of admission or  several Cheerio box tops. And then there is Tonto: here is another paradox, for Indians weren’t generally on the side of law and order in the West. Weren’t they the ones who butchered General Custer? So TLR and Tonto make up an odd pair. This made them all the more exotic, and all that’s needed are a few decent scripts with a hearty “Hi-yo, Dollars!” a series is off.

Five years after it had become a radio hit, Hollywood put on a Saturday serial version of The Lone Ranger. It used a typical formula of kids’ serials in those days: a villain or hero who is disguised and whose identity is not revealed until the serial’s end (after about 10 episodes) and a cliff-hanging ending every Saturday that seems to spell certain doom for the hero, until the following week when upon further review he escapes after all. Both these devices were part of The Lone Ranger serial, but this time it had a special edge because any number of characters could have been the “real” Lone Ranger behind that black mask. This could lead the ingenious student of popular culture, with too much time on his hands, to the conclusion that there might in fact have been many Lone Rangers: that the whole enterprise was a franchise of different LRs hired locally to clean up the villainy of the American West, so that the Dodge City LR and the Cheyenne LR were two different agents, just as the Dodge City Wal-Mart is not totally identical to the Cheyenne one. This is an idle speculation, which the mere existence of Tonto—no, not all Indians look alike—dispels immediately. With the mask there could have been many Lone Rangers but surely only one Tonto, whose own uniqueness proves that of his masked man companion.

On the contrary, the founding principle of the show called for only one LR and only one Tonto. They were distinctive, and singularly qualified to do what they did. Besides giving kids a lot of thrills (the show’s announcer referred to “those thrilling days of yesteryear”), the duo also taught kids the value of rules. A crucial part of growing up is learning rules so that one can learn how to operate in an interdependent group. Any social scientist or school principal will tell you that. Among the rules touted by TLR and Tonto were that while God may have put out the firewood, it’s up to you to gather it and burn it; that we must give back what we take from the world; that Cheerios are little “golden o’s” that will make you strong; and that truth, and only truth, lives forever. Among less transcendent rules were these: never get held by bad guys for any length of time, lest you have your mask removed; use silver bullets as a reminder that bullets are expensive and should never be used carelessly; always speak perfect English, even if Tonto, lacking a good English as a second language course, can’t; and never forget that while it’s gratifying to defeat bad guys, it’s not about you but about the development of the Western United States and thus ultimately about the United States itself and its eventual showdown with such future villains as The Kaiser of Germany in 1917, General Tojo, and Adolf Hitler—all of whom made the Cavendish Gang seem like Sunday School teachers. Although TLR had every reason to seek revenge against those who killed his brother, he always resisted the temptation. It was always about justice. He never stopped being grateful to Tonto for saving him, and Tonto never stopped being grateful to TLR for letting him be part of such a noble Caucasian endeavor.

The writers and producers of the show understood their obligations to put on wholesome and even educational entertainment. In the early radio days they used classical music for background and transition, but it must be admitted that they were motivated by that music’s being in the public domain and therefore free. Later they bought, on the cheap, some boilerplate music from Republic Pictures cowboy serials and used that. Nonetheless, they never gave up using as the major theme music Rossini’s “March of the Swiss Soldiers” from his William Tell Overture. For years it was the only classical music that a nine year old from Cedar Rapids would ever know. Rossini was lucky in his choice of posthumous publicity agents.

The Lone Ranger on radio also inspired a spin-off series called The Green Hornet. TGH’s real identity was that of Dan Reid, who happened to be the great nephew of John Reid. That two such fabulous adversaries of the criminal class should be so closely related is an amazing coincidence. But in time The Lone Ranger began to dwindle in number of young devotees. Its “silver bullet” rings, complete with flint and striking wheel for making sparks, stopped selling. Kids were less interested in collecting Frontier Town cut outs from Cheerios in order to construct their own at-home cardboard versions of where the masked man and the devoted Native American lay their heads when not chasing the Cavendish gang. In time the show left both radio and television, and the Lone Ranger was lonesome again, deserted not by Tonto but by his fans.

A variety of voice actors played the two on radio, but on TV there were only two: Clayton Moore as TLR and Jay Silverheels as Tonto. In 1981 Hollywood got the brilliant idea of a serious Lone Ranger movie. Moore, who had a propriety approach to the role, was deeply offended (as were many fans) that he was not asked to play the lead. (At 67 his athletic skills may have deteriorated, but neither he nor his aging fans wanted to admit that.) He instituted lawsuits insisting that the character was really his property, to do with it what he wished and to enjoin others from doing what they wished with it. In the counter-suits the producers enjoined Moore from appearing as The Lone Ranger in public, with or without profit.

Moore responded by continuing to do so—but with wrap around sunglasses rather than the mask. This was a way to get around the law and pocket a few pennies besides. Moore looked absurd in his Western outfit and wraparounds. Thus did the whole business devolve into the parody that it always had the potential of becoming once a more cynical epoch began. Soon there were jokes: “The Lone Ranger: Tonto, we’re surrounded by Indians on all sides. What are we going to do? Tonto: What do you mean we, Kemosabe?” Tonto’s pidgin servitude could not be taken seriously by an age increasingly skeptical, not to mention downright multi-cultural.

This is a fairly good description of Gen Y, which does not know TLR, Tonto, Silver, or Scout and would scoff at Tonto’s obsequy to the white man. Thanks to better musical appreciation classes, however, Gen Y might know The William Tell Overture, even if they never link the Swiss Soldiers’ March to the war against anarchy in Montana. Who knew?

Hypothetical Usage in a Sentence by the Old and Settled: “Um, that right, Kemosabe.” –George Fenton, 50, speaking to his wife Clara, who reminds him that Camp Weni-ha-ha, where their son George, Jr., has been staying for the past two weeks, is coming up on the left….this exchange occurred in 1954

Dum-Dee-Dum-Dum….

Inspired Guess by the Young and Restless: Some sort of all phrase about a stupid person, one that says he is really dumb….

The Ancient Truth: “Dum-Dee-Dum-Dum” was the opening musical phrase (courtesy of trumpets and timpani) for the most famous cop show that’s ever been on television: Dragnet. A “dragnet” is a coordinated police search for the solution of a crime. But Dragnet, though it always paid homage to the idea that crime solving is a large group effort, featured just two cops: Sergeant Joe Friday and Officer Frank Smith (in the first TV series) and Sergeant Joe Friday and Officer Bill Gannon (in the second one). The show was a great radio favorite starting in the late 40s and lasted there long after most radio shows had surrendered to disc jockeys, easy listening, and local chatter. But its true greatness occurred on TV, where it played from 1951 to 1959 and then again from 1967 to 1970. It might well have been on television without interruption for twenty years, except that Jack Webb, the show’s star, creator, and producer,  wanted to do other things. The show has never entirely gone away. It lived in syndication for many years, came back to TV in the late 1980s, and even came back around, in an entirely new format, in 2003 (it bombed and was soon cancelled). During its heyday there was a Dragnet comic strip and three feature length Dragnet movies. In 1987 Dan Ackroyd and Tom Hanks did a parody film based on Dragnet. That was twenty-five years ago, when there were a lot more people on earth who remembered the old Dragnet but who were not reverential about it and could laugh at the spoof. Now a new generation hath grown up that knoweth not Dum-Dee-Dum-Dum.

The musical phrase was composed of the most famous four notes in history, excepting the first four of Beethoven’s Symphony #5. Just as the great symphony is a variation on its four notes, so is the Dragnet theme a march based on Dum-Dee-Dum-Dum.  Earnest and menacing at once, these four notes introduced every episode. Its staccato rhythm was of a piece with the laconic, quick-fire dialogue, which was almost like a catechism in its rapid Q & A patterns about facts. The four notes set an aesthetic rhythm every week.  An announcer would intone that “the story you are about to see (or hear if on the radio) is true; the names have been changed to protect the innocent.” Soon the voice of Jack Webb, as Sergeant Joe Friday, would take over with his standard opening: “This is the city. Los Angeles, California. I work here. I’m a cop.”  (Occasionally he would add a panoramic description of the size and complexity of Los Angeles.)

And then Webb intoned the boring bureaucratic details of that particular day down at the sprawling, cavernous L.A. police station. It was, for instance, March 18, unusually warm in the city. Friday would identify his partner, generally Officer Frank Smith, and the boss, Captain What’s-His-Name (Webb always tried to use the actual names of L.A. cops). And then: “My name’s Friday,” with the modesty of a working class stiff. Friday would say what division they were working out of—armed robbery, kidnapping, grand larceny, missing kids, etc.—and viewers would be off on the docudrama of that particular night’s episode.

The opening line, “the names have been changed to protect the innocent,” suggested that this was the only thing that had been changed in the recounting of a story that is otherwise “true–with “true” meaning factual detail and grinding investigation of every last lead. “All we want are the facts, m’am,” said Friday famously, but the “facts” also signaled a realistic style of portrayal that seemed studiously unvarnished even as it was extremely well scripted. The program was a police procedural that held, always, to the most understated documentary style. There was rarely any prolonged violence (sometimes fisticuffs but almost never gun fire). Still, there was an unmistakable whiff of danger and dread.

Dragnet was incidentally one of the few television shows that the blind could enjoy. It was really a radio show with moving pictures. While Jack Webb was a capable actor, he had little visual range of emotions. That was the point: cops aren’t supposed to let their highs get too high or their lows too low. That is what makes them heroic in the most important way: unassumingly so. But whatever Webb may have lacked by way of physical grace or facial expression, he was a master of speech: a monotone that could occasionally get a bit scornful but just as often could be droll or even tender.

When the series resumed in the late 60s, when the conservative upholding of the police seemed at odds with a counterculture that was calling them “pigs,” Friday and Gannon lectured some hippies (with very short hair, however) who had tried to disrupt a meeting. They urged them not to lose their ideals, but they were withering in their critique. Friday and Gannon told the hippies they knew little of life: almost nothing about child neglect or real poverty in the world, and next-to-zero, as well, about how much better the country was now that the Great Depression was over. At the time many had attacked the show for being anachronistically right wing. But it was far from being fascistic. Joe and Bill just wanted to give the lads a little context. The lads listened respectfully.

The array of crimes on Dragnet was varied: anything from murder of a rich man to a hit-and-run to the return of a lost kid to teens hooked on drugs. The point was to show how cops did their work. On radio Webb used the real telephones ringing in the Los Angeles police department. When on radio blood was being taken in a backyard, you could hear the vials clinking together and a dog barking faintly in the distance. God was in the details, and they had to be, always, authentic. The show never lapsed into melodrama, for that would be an insult to cops whose jobs are routine and underwhelming most of the time. The show even recorded the down time and dead ends that police must endure, albeit quickly in order to keep the pace moving. It showed cops that do rough jobs in humdrum circumstances. But the greatest danger was how they put their souls on the line. In many respects the struggle for Friday and Smith and Gannon is the subtle one of keeping their humanity from going out with the tide of weekday filth. When Friday’s partners, such as Smith and Gannon, talk cheerfully about their hobbies and fad diets, they demonstrate that the mean streets have not yet taken away their hearts.

The strength of Dragnet was in the scripts. Each episode consisted of several discrete parts, each one ending with an accumulating sense of peril. Two girls have gone missing, but Friday and Smith are sure they’ve just wandered off. Yet then they find out that an ice cream man saw them getting in a truck with a man. Dum-Dee-Dum-Dum! When, lost and molested, they finally return, their mother is so happy to get them back that she is prepared to forget the whole matter, until Friday and Smith remind her that the guy is still on the loose. Dum-Dee-Dum-Dum!  They visit a realtor who keeps them waiting with a phone call to a client (their faces are impassive, but you can’t help note the little glimmer of impatience) until she reveals, finally, that she has taken down the license number of a red truck driven by a man who was talking smut to kids. Dum-De-Dum-Dum! Finally they catch up with the guy, who is a wino and tells them they have no right to question him in his own kitchen. He blends bravado and pathos—at once despicable and sad. Friday and Smith don’t give him the fifth degree. They just tell him it’s time for him to come clean. They reach out, insistently, to his humanity. He keeps drinking his wine until the bottle is empty and admits that, yeah, maybe he likes kids a little too much. Then he tries to cut Smith with the broken wine bottle even as Friday hits him a couple of times and gets the cuffs on him. Just when we think it’s over, the guy mentions casually that he had forgotten his pocketknife the day of snatching: he had planned to kill the girls. Dum-Dee-Dum-Dum indeed! The last thing we see is the guy’s knife on the kitchen floor where he’s misplaced it. The audience is left with horror and relief.

The announcer says that the suspect went to trial in a particular court in the county and city of Los Angeles. “In a moment, the results of that trial.” After the last commercial break, we see the suspect–swarthy, twitching but better dressed than he was at his table drinking rot gut Burgundy–while a caption reports that he was found guilty, got X number of years and is now serving his time in the San Quentin slammer. The program ends with the Dum-Dee-Dum-Dum march.

Although Dragnet was a product of Hollywood, it went out of its way to disown it. If Hollywood were a part of Los Angeles, that was just a coincidence. Cops were the same everywhere, whether in Chicago, Milwaukee, Boston or Pittsburgh. It appealed to viewers’ fascination with the alien world of cops and robbers, yes, but that wasn’t its main business. It was finally a celebration of quiet, pedestrian courage. Many of the villains were banal figures who had gotten in wrong. When we finally meet them, we are surprised anew at how little they resemble any heroic notions of evil. But if they illustrate the banality of evil, Friday and Smith and Gannon demonstrate the small braveries every day in the lives of ordinary people.

The Boomers would come to dislike Dragnet as a right-wing cop show. Their view, in the countercultural sense, was that if we’d just abolish private property or all go to a commune in Vermont or withdraw from Vietnam, we wouldn’t need the police, which are in the meantime working for The Man and form part of His repressive apparatus. Generation Y, on the other hand, wouldn’t oppose Dragnet ideologically, but they would notice its spare production values and find it, in this day of visual plentitude and blockbuster movies, uninteresting. They would find the Dum-Dee-Dum-Dum motif laughable. (NBC’s Law and Order uses a similarly foreboding two note version of timpani and trumpet, but its Dum-dum is far less dominating and subject to parody than is Dragnet’s four.)  Gen Y would not get the show’s underlying message of thanking the hard-working Joes and Franks who make the world go round. They think the Internet makes the world go round. Still, Gen Y would see in Dragnet a premonition of the deadpan cops on all the reality TV crime shows, such as 48 Hours, who speak professional deadpan on an island of sanity in an otherwise vicious sea.

Hypothetical Usage in a Sentence by the Old and Settled: “Dum-Dee-Dum-Dum!” –your father, 14, in 1958 as he observed his own father arriving home late (again) from the bar and enthusiastically anticipated his angry and frustrated mother’s impending reaction

“IN LIKE FLYNN”….

Inspired Guess by the Young and Restless: A hip-hop album by rap artist Flynn Adam….

The Ancient Truth: “In Like Flynn,” a popular American expression from the 1940s until the 1970s, was almost surely based on the sexual exploits of a Hollywood star of the 30s and 40s named Errol Flynn. There are those who deny this allegation and insist that the expression was never based on the libertine Errol Flynn but on the political boss of the Bronx, Ed Flynn, as anyone endorsed by Flynn was “in” when it came to elections or appointments. This is likely a dodge and a denial; some don’t wish to believe that a popular American expression could or should have been based on the facile and frequent sexual intercourse of a well-known debaucher. A variation on the swerve is, “Well, OK, it is based on Errol Flynn but not on his erotic adventures off screen. It’s based on the facility with which he escapes danger on screen.” The expression likely dates from 1942, when Flynn was accused of having sex with underage Hollywood girls. He was acquitted, but the episode sealed his repute as a man who got “in” easily. During dangerous World War II, when something went well, soldiers would say we’re “in like Flynn,” and while they may have meant that they have escaped peril as Flynn did in his movie swashbuckling roles, it’s far more likely that they were expressing the libidinal kick they got out of outwitting or killing the Germans or Japanese before the Germans or Japanese killed them. Or maybe they also meant that the sooner this war is over, they will indeed be “in like Flynn” in various foreign ports.

The phrase that has succeeded “In Like Flynn” for younger generations is “no problem.” The former expresses the happy ingenuity of a generation at war, while the latter reflects a generation at peace for whom there was never much of a difficulty in the first place. There’s a difference between “We can sneak up on that kraut regiment from the rear, and we’ll be in like Flynn” and “Hey, no problem: I can skateboard over that little pond in a New York minute.”

Flynn himself was born in Tasmania but claimed to be Irish, not Australian. He was kicked out of school for bedding a laundress and finally found his way to acting in England and then to Hollywood. His athletic sidestepping, especially with dazzling swordplay, made him a star in “swashbuckling” films—named for the way the buckle of a sword “swooshed” the air when it was out of its scabbard and attempting to cut an equally swashbuckling villain. That Flynn was thin and handsome and mustachioed also helped his erotic cause on the silvery screen. He could act, too, as he showed towards the end of his flashing stardom, when he played washed-up drunks like the old actor John Barrymore. Millions of women from Walla Walla to Wellesley would have liked to sleep with him. But only a small fraction of these actually got to.

This tiny proportion was more than enough. Flynn designed his Mulholland House in Hollywood so that he could bug the ladies’ bathrooms. He was an addicted voyeur who was declared unfit for military service because of, among other maladies, the damage venereal disease had done to his system (though, to be sure, it was a heart murmur that mostly kept him out). It seems that a screwdriver for breakfast and a prostitute for lunch were often on the menu. He adored cockfighting and cricket. He married thrice and bedded now unrecalled Hollywood beauties such as Delores del Rio. He was a nightmare for his studio, Warner Brothers, because they did not wish to reveal his poor health (‘t would ruin his swashbuckling image) and thus had to let slide all those charges of cowardice when he was unable to enlist for war service. But his films remained popular even after the underage sex scandal. A national organization called ABCDEF (American Boys Club for the Defense of Errol Flynn) shamelessly supported him, both during and after.

Towards the end of his life he wrote, with a ghostwriter, a still in print and highly acclaimed autobiography called My Wicked, Wicked Ways (he wanted to call it In Like Me, but the publisher wisely declined the notion). In it he confessed a great many of his sins but managed to justify most of them on the grounds that knowledge (carnal, sensual outer limits) is what Man is made for, and that in the end he had managed to destroy himself anyhow. To paraphrase, the argument was, “Think of me as a knowledge seeker, and if that doesn’t get you to approve of me, then consider (and be happy) that I’ll pay for my wickedness with a foreshortened life.” He wrote that few men have “taken into their maw more of life than I” and that while he had a great rage to live he had “twice the urge to die.” It seems that while he may have been Robin Hood on screen he was Dorian Gray off it. He reported that he hated to be known for merely having followed a phallic life but admitted that he had done just about everything he could to cling to it.

Thus Flynn got “in” all the time, but it didn’t seem to make him contented. He died at 50. Yet that is consistent with the meaning of the phrase, for all our “in like Flynn” moments are fairly short-lived and we know it. The good news won’t last. In time there will be something from which we shall be banished—left on the outside to adjust to the shortage and frustration. Are most of our triumphs in life like the fleeting joy of sexual intercourse? It seems to be an un-American idea—it lacks earnestness–but then there’s no good reason to think that the phrase “in like Flynn” had anything to do with the power, however wholesome, of a long-ago Bronx politician.

As time went by, and Errol Flynn got more and more lost to history, the phrase mutated to the point that many repeated it as “in like flint.” But this makes little logical and pictorial sense, as going “in” is not the way flint works. Why this copying error occurred is anyone’s guess. Perhaps the young misunderstood what their parents said, or perhaps the parents, not wishing to be associated with the Bad and Daring Errol, decided to use “flint” instead of “Flynn.” A satirical film in 1967 featured an agent named Flint who had to “save” the world from an international feminist takeover. He finally got entrée to the feminists’ secret headquarters in the Caribbean. The name of the film was In Like Flint. It flopped.

Hypothetical Usage in a Sentence by the Old and Settled: “Ah, the right key at last: we’re in like Flynn.” –Bobby Gusher, 15, speaking to Dwight Dunne, 14, in 1948, as they began to unlock into Bobby’s father’s liquor cabinet…..

A Mad Man’s Mindset List®

In both The Mindset Lists of American History and The Annual Mindset List, Tom McBride and Ron Nief offer an “indispensable” (Brian Williams) and “mesmerizing” (Associated Press) way of tracing the American past. Here McBride and Nief offer their unique perspective on one of America’s favorite TV characters.

As AMC’s Mad Men begins its latest season, it is time to take historical stock of its leading character: the outwardly handsome but subtly tortured Don Draper. A brilliantly successful man in the sexist, alcohol-soaked early 1960s, Don’s personal life remains a mess from which we viewers do not wish walk away.

 A Little Background

Don Draper (real name: Richard Whitman) was born in the American South in 1924 and is thirty-six (36) when he begins to work as an account executive for Sterling Cooper, a small but prosperous advertising firm in New York City. (Coincidentally, an actor named Jon Hamm, born 1971, is also 36 when a new series called Mad Men began in 2007 on the American Movie Channel.)

When Don Draper was born, President Woodrow Wilson and Louis Sullivan had always been dead.

Woodrow Wilson’s dream of an internationally activist America also seemed dead, but in the end Wilson’s vision would flourish in such ventures as the war in Korea, where young Dick Whitman, then 29, changed identities with his dead lieutenant so that he could get out of the war.

Louis Sullivan died broke and disgraced, but his vision of skyscrapers survived and flourished. Don would work in a high-rise in New York City. His boss Bert Cooper, said of an elderly secretary, “She was born in a barn and died on the 39th floor. She was an astronaut.” It’s also a tribute to Sullivan.

Born the same year as Don were

Lee Marvin (like Don, a future well-spun macho man);

Gloria Vanderbilt (like Don, a marketing genius, with her specialty of cosmetics);

Marlon Brando (who played famous movie roles seeking emotional truth, from which Don always tries to escape);

Doris Day, an actress whose identity was so well-spun that Oscar Levant would quip that he knew her before she was a virgin);

Rod Serling (who, like Don, had a fertile imagination about how to shape reality); and

Elizabeth Short, the infamous Black Dahlia murder victim in Los Angeles (like Don, she was looking for a new and more glamorous identity).

 Here’s Don’s (Dick’s) Personal Mindset List

(based on the year he was born: 1924)

1. The author Bruce Barton has always written that Christ (not Don) was the world’s first successful ad man.

2. No one has ever gone broke buying IBM, a brand new company.

3. There’s always been a media company and dream factory called Metro Goldwyn Mayer.

4. The coolest man was not the debonair Don but silent President Calvin Coolidge, as Republicans drank a new “Keep Cool With Coolidge” cocktail, consisting of raw eggs and various fruit juices.

5. Smoking ads have always been directed at women, with celebrities such as aviatrix Amelia Earhart endorsing Lucky Strikes (later spun as “toasted” by Don at Sterling Cooper) and with slogans such as “reach for a cigarette, not a sweet.”

6. A brand-new cigarette was Marlboro, touted to women as being as “mild as May” and sold complete with an ivory tip.

7. Foreshadowing the presence of talented Peggy Olson and canny Joan Holloway at Sterling Cooper, a top national issue while Don (Dick) was in his crib was whether or not women should work outside the home.

8. Anticipating the later work of Sterling Cooper and other ad agencies, there have always been national fads sold and spun by mass media, such as books of cross word puzzles, complete with attached pencils (the B&O Railroad even put dictionaries in their passenger cars for crossword aficionados).

8. The fleet football player Red Grange has always been known as “The Galloping Ghost,” another example of the new power of mass-communicated slogans and catch phrases.

9. Texas Guinan, a racy and colorful nightclub owner in New York, has always greeted her customers with “Hello, suckers”—a line that the cynical and image-selling Don would have appreciated.

10. Methodists have always lifted their ban on dancing and theatergoing—though not necessarily in the American South where Don (Dick) was born.

11. As Don was part of the last generation of American men to wear hats, he might have been amused to learn that the most fashionable hat during the year he was born was the bowler.

12. Nearly forty years before Don was decisively against Peggy’s idea that Harry Belafonte should become the spokesman for Fillmore Auto, both major political parties struggled with whether or not to condemn the powerful Ku Klux Klan, which had major influence as far north as Indiana.

13. A popular opinion was that Henry Ford had saved America by giving men a tension relieving substitute for prohibited booze: the Model T (banned liquor would not become a problem for Don, however; maybe that’s why we rarely see him in a car).

14. With a sign that sexism didn’t begin with Don Draper, a popular ad slogan said, “Thousands of men are denying their wives Packard Six cars.”

15. In an early sign of the information revolution on which Sterling Cooper and other ad agencies would later seize, news has always been overtaking dance music as the principal content on radio.

16. There has always been a Macy’s Parade on Thanksgiving: great advertising.

17. The Toastmasters’ Club has always been promoting better public speaking and impression management in men.

18. Foreshadowing Don’s later problems with the FBI’s inadvertently finding out who he really is, J. Edgar Hoover has always been the bureau’s director.

19. In a sign that image and do-overs didn’t start with Don, singer and model Fanny Brice has always been willing to vouch for the nose job her plastic surgeon did on her.

20. Cigarettes, which boosted morale between battles in World War I, have always been endorsed by everyone from Santa Claus to doctors to generals and have always been more popular than pipes and cigars. (By the time Don came to Sterling Cooper every adult American would smoke an average of 4,000 of them yearly.)

HOW TO PREVENT HARDENING OF THE REFERENCES! 

Moldy-Oldy Things You Should Never Mention to Young Folks

(Unless They’ve Read This Blog)….

Today’s Topic: SINGING TELEGRAMS…..

Inspired Guess by the Young and Restless: Probably some sort of phone app that that gives you text messages set to music….

The Ancient Truth: Singing telegrams go back long before smart phones, but it was another type of phone—a regular old telephone (even with low-tech dial-up mechanisms)–that put the singing telegram out of business. The first singing telegram occurred in the early 1930s when a Western Union public relations guy—Western Union was the nation’s major telegram company—got the idea of having a telegram operator sing a message (over the phone) to the then famous entertainer Rudy Valle. At first everyone snickered at Western Union, but soon enough the idea caught on and became funny in a laughing with (not at) you sort of way. By the 1970s, however, telegrams themselves had become requested so infrequently that Western Union pulled the singing service. Now FAX machines, email, and text messages have put telegrams out of business completely—well, almost completely.

It is still barely possible that today’s Millennials will know what a singing telegram is. Private firms, mostly in our largest cities, offer singing telegram services, such as a babygram (the delivery guy is dressed up like a baby), or an Austin Powers or Barbara Streisand telegram, delivered by someone imitating these two luminary talents. You can get a message delivered by a belly dancer or (of course) a clown. In the past men and women in gorilla suits would do it. Pretty women and good-looking guys would also hand you the message and give you a kiss (a kissogram). There is no evidence of singing gorillas, but Western Union is still going somehow—mostly with money orders—and offers an online service in which you can get in touch with your cousin Margaret via a digitally composed (by you!) version of a Snoop Dog song. You’d better hope that Margaret hasn’t changed her preferences to Ice T.

Still, all this is esoteric and a far leap from the heyday of the singing telegram, when either the operator or the delivery boy would ring your doorbell and sing “Jenny and the kids do say today/Happy Birthday to Uncle Ray.” Even as late as the 60s there were cruelty jokes about singing telegrams, such as the one about the woman so lonely she insisted that a telegram be sung to her, only to learn, to the tune of Stephen Foster’s “Camptown Races,” that her son had been killed in Vietnam. Doo-Dah.

What really killed the singing telegram, though, was the same thing that killed the non-singing telegram: the telephone. Before everybody had a phone, the telegram was the only way to get a quick message to anyone far away. There was an infallible inverse proportion between the availability of the telephone and the frequency of demand for the telegram. As the former went up, the latter went down. Unlike that new miracle of communications, digital emails and text messages, the technology of the telegram was not mysterious to most folks. They knew all about the Morse Code of long and short beeps sent through wires and decoded at the other end by the operator into the country’s native tongue. If text messages have their own argot—lol (lots of laughs, not love, as some think)—then so did telegrams, with their truncated, punchy discourse and elaborate STOPS for periods: ARRIVE DETROIT 12/02 STOP NEED MONEY STOP SELL CHICKEN FARM STOP COUSIN RENNIE Try singing that to the tune of, say, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” or “Climb Every Mountain.”

Today’s singing telegrams provide jobs for struggling actors and singers. Not just everyone can go the door in Toledo and belt out “Happy Anniversary” in a Burt Bacharach or Stephen Lloyd Weber melody. But in the glory days of the singing telegram, the job was trusted to ordinary delivery persons. The point wasn’t to do it well but to do it at all, as Dr. Samuel Johnson said about dogs walking on their hind legs or women preaching sermons.

What would today’s young people make of Singing Telegrams? They might see them as an older, pathetic form of “apps,” those links on a smart phone that let you do some sort of clever thing. Today there are apps that let you play games, tell you whether you’re paying too much for a mattress or water bed, give you the present time in Tokyo, or find out how to get to Panino’s Café’ and whether or not it’s cheaper than the nearby Purple Tiger Restaurant. Apps are really not new. Once upon a time you could call a phone number and get an instant Biblical devotional, or you could call another and get the weather forecast or a quick summary of today’s news. A singing telegram is an old-fashioned app: a clever, specialized thing that you can order up. The only problem is that you can’t pay a one-time fee of two dollars and have it for a lifetime on your smart phone. It’s a labor-intensive, clumsy, delayed app. No one uses it much any more. It involves too much direct reality: actual bodies and vocal cords and all that.

It’s far better to have a digital singing telegram. Someone needs to design one, with an electronic Justin Bieber singing Happy Birthday to your fifteen year-old sister on her I-Phone. She’ll be as thrilled as Rudy Valle was in 1933 when he got the very first, low-tech singing telegram.

Usage in a Sentence by the Old and Settled: “Let’s send Uncle Arlis one of those new singing telegrams for his 70th birthday; he’ll just hate it.” –Your great grandmother speaking about a certain mean and miserly relative, 1936

Rabbit Ears 

Inspired Guess by the Young and Restless: The ears of a rabbit of course—what else?…

The Ancient Truth:  “Rabbit Ears” was the popular name for dipole antennas, the simplest of all antennas for receiving electromagnetic signals. Atop the TV sets of the 50s and 60s was the dipole known as “rabbit ears,” for the v-shape made by the two antenna wires as they stuck into the air of the living room or den. The two wires fed into a “driven element,” an electrically connected receiver, equipped with what engineers uncannily called a “parasite,” designed to make sure you got the signals of proper frequency and length from the broadcasting station. The dipole wires were generally at about a forty-five degree angle to each other. But on occasion the desperate TV watcher–eager for better reception so that he could watch comedian Groucho Marx insult guests on You Bet Your Life or see pianist Liberace coo with his brother George over what a great Polish mother they had–might try putting the wires closer together or even at 180 degrees from each other. This was radical, but despairing times called for extreme measures.

Behind these machinations was the bitterest truth, though few back in those prehistoric days wished to admit it: TV reception was often not good at all. Only with the application of the coaxial cable came the possibility of transmitting audio and visual images with crystalline clarity, through electrical wires, into your home. There was still an antenna, but it was so large, so powerful and so sophisticated—and its signals so organized through the cable system—that you did not need to worry about it. In fact, you never saw it. You had no idea where it was, and your relationship with it was on a relaxing, “need to know” basis. Only when your TV or radio (or later your desktop computer) lost its signal and went dark, did you realize the antenna (or satellite) was even present somewhere (or absent, as it were, until your cable company got its signal straight). Your company asked for your patience; you could barely bring yourself to give it. You still can’t. Back in the old days, though, burdened with the primitivism of the TV antenna, we learned the art of serenity.

If today’s receipt of electromagnetic signals is a matter of cable or satellite socialism, back then it was a matter of rugged individualism. Until the 1970s you had to fight this one alone. You had to buy some sort of antenna—and “rabbit ears” were the poor man’s version of such a thing. All over America the size of your outside antenna was a great status indicator. Some middle class people were finally able to move up from rabbit ears to simple, low-flying concatenations of skinny wires on their single-story roofs. Upper class persons either had high and billowing silver antennae on the third stories of their mansions or (even better) a tall latticed steel stand suck into their green lawns (which always looked as though they’d just returned from an elite beauty parlor), on top of which was a soaring, magnificent and hubristic TV antenna.  Icarus, the first man in flight, had nothing on these giant receivers. They were even better than Icarus, because only a tornado or hurricane, and not simply the rays of the sun, would bring them down.

One could rotate these antennas via a box on top of the set. Rotate to the left for stations to the south or west, to the right for stations to the north or east. You could hear the antenna with its whirring on the roof as it switched directions, like the pleasant sound of a robot doing precisely what you wished. You wished your cat or kid were as obedient. No sound offered so much reassurance that life was good. Rich people would gather at cocktail parties and compare notes. Those in far western Massachusetts might boast that they could now get Boston stations, while those in Waco, Texas (where liquor was only sold by the bottle) would brag that on a clear day they could even bring Houston in. It was something new for Texans to crow about.

Those with the lowly rabbit ears were left behind. Only the most local stations could be “got,” and even those might fade on a cloudy or stormy day. Everyone cursed “snow,” the interference on the screen that ruined many an evening of Dragnet.  Some poor souls even put tin foil on the tops of the wires in hopes that reception might be both augmented and snowless. Others, with a bit more money, bought loopy UHF (Ultra High Frequency) receivers, for in those days there were UHF television stations, until engineers realized that UHF was simply too easily prey to moisture and that VHF (Very High Frequency) was much more efficacious for “the tube.”

The coaxial cable killed the individual antenna, just as broadband killed dial-up for computers. Oh, and optical fiber cables killed coaxial, and are now themselves on their way to dusky death thanks to broadband. What, if anything, will kill broadband? For that matter, will they think of next: barium foil to wrap your hummus in?

Usage in a Sentence by the Old and Settled: “Put some extra Reynolds wrap on those rabbit ears: I want to see if the shoemaker’s going to go for the $32,000 question on opera.” –your grandfather, ordering your father around, in 1955

VOLKSWAGEN JOKES…

Inspired Guess by the Young and Restless: Jokes about Volkswagens, I guess, but why that car and not an SUV?….

The Ancient Truth: No one tells VW jokes any longer. Their heyday was the 1960s—ancient history indeed to today’s Generation Y—and if you told them today, they wouldn’t be funny. But they were funny a half century ago. They were always about the Volkswagen Beetle. So in the following examples, when we say “Volkswagen,” we mean “Beetle.” No one made the distinction back then because those were the days when the VW and the Beetle were synonymous: pre-Golf, pre-Passat, and so on.

How do you get two elephants into a Volkswagen? You put one in the front and one in the back.

How do you get four elephants into a Volkswagen? You put two in the front and two in the back.

How do you get six elephants into a Volkswagen? You put two in the front, two in the back, one in the trunk, and one in the glove compartment.

How are an elephant and a Volkswagen alike? They both have trunks in the front.

The Volkswagen was, in the Germany from which it came, the “people’s car.” Hitler wanted mass production of them for the denizens of the Third Reich: a car that could hold two adults and three children (in the mind of der Fuhrer future goose-steppers and Aryan housekeepers); could do up to 62 miles per hour; and could be bought on time via an official savings book. Because of the war and its privations Germans were never able to produce the car other than in the form of prototypes used by high Nazi officials alone. After the war neither the British nor the Americans were interested in getting the spoils of the Volkswagen plants. In fact, some Americans, eager to turn Germany into a de-industrialized pasture, were positively repelled by the very idea of Germany car manufacture.

In time, however, it became apparent that a strong West Germany was needed as a buffer against the Soviets. Soon the Germans were making cars again. In 1946 two percent of that production in Europe was made up in Volkswagens. By 1956 that figure had increased ten fold. By the 1960s the VW Beetle had become a discernable share of the auto market in the United States, Britain, Ireland, Brazil, and several other countries. And as sales began to multiply, so did the jokes. But just as the sales were behind the jokes, behind the sales was a movement.

It was a movement that set its face against conventional preferences. The Beetle would seem to be a terrible fit for American auto consuming tastes. Especially in the 1950s, as the United States was the richest, most powerful, most victorious nation on earth, its people wanted big, flashy, swept-winged cars to match. This was the style of the American “people’s wagon.” This was the era when cars were as big as Sherman Tanks and as long as Killer Whales. But then came the Beetle, with its boxy yet hump-backed shape; its air-cooled engine in the back; its split rear windows; its pressurized windshield washers that were hooked up to the overinflated spare tire; and (in time) its hard-to-find and hard-to-attach seat belts (“Hitler’s Revenge,” they were called, in yet another joke). If American eight cylinder cars could do a hundred, the Beetle topped out at seventy or so on a good day. But—and this is one of the first things Beetle owners would tell you—it gets 36 miles on a gallon of gas, and if you live in the Snow Belt, you don’t need to put bags of sand in the back of your car (as you had to do with those rear-wheel drive gas gluttons) because the weight of the Beetle engine already did that for you. If you had had an accident in a Beetle and survived, you could dine out free for months. Everyone, perhaps considering a purchase, wanted to know how Beetles took the big hits. And you could say, “They roll with the punches. I’m here, aren’t I?” And then you’d take another bite of your host’s free food.

The term “Early Adapter,” now a staple of marketing discourse, applied in earnest to purchasers of Beetles. In many a leaf-lined Elm Street in Americana, where all the big Impalas were gathered, someone would take a chance and buy a Beetle. And then, in time, someone else would. The Joneses would. Then the Smiths would. And then the Kadiddlehoppers would buy one. And while Impalas would always be in the majority, the Beetle was common enough to be noted around town.

The point of the jokes was that while you couldn’t get a single elephant into a Beetle, you couldn’t get a single one into an Impala either. Do you want a car or a zoo caravan? If you want the former, then the Beetle is eminently reliable, quite functional, and superlatively economical. The whole thing became a movement for those who went against the proverbial American downriver: who wanted to think small instead of big; who liked the idea of being witty enough to paint your Beetle in psychedelic colors (you’d never do that to a Chrysler Imperial: its grand feelings would be hurt); and who adored those clever Beetles ads, such as the one with the seven foot tall basketball player standing by the Beetle with the caption, “They said it couldn’t be done; it couldn’t.” The advertising was frank but clever. It used a lot of white space and eschewed glorious sunsets and spuriously smiling twenty five year olds. Given that these Beetles were German made and small, they were surely “un-American.” And that was the point. If you were in the Beetles club—there were no dues—you “got it.” If not, you did not get it.

In time the Japanese started doing the sub-compact car better. There was no need for an engine in the back because there was front-wheel drive, which pulled the car through the snow and ice rather than, with less safety, pushing it. American car makers realized what was coming—the Beetle had started it—and started making Vegas and Corvairs. They weren’t as reliable as the Beetle. By the time of the 1970s OPEC oil embargo, the demand for smaller, more gas-efficient cars became enormous. But by then the Datsun and Toyota and Mazda was giving the Beetle a run for its market moolah.

That, however, was the 70s. In the 60s it wasn’t a matter of saving on gas, which was cheap already. It was a matter of being different. While today’s young people wouldn’t get the full significance of the old VW jokes, they are glued in to the long reach of the fifty year old Beetles movement. The new generation, too, thinks small is beautiful (smart phones, laptops, tablets). And many of them like the multi-cultural notion of non-American (to more conservative citizens, un-American) products, ideas and trends. It would be perverse to lay today’s liberal cultural diversity at the feet of Adolf Hitler.  Nonetheless, he dreamt of a Beetle, and the Beetle was an early expression of those Americans who wanted to drive to the spark of a different engine, placed in a different place.

Usage in a Sentence by the Old and Settled: “How do you get seven elephants into a Volkswagen? Come on! Everyone knows you can’t get seven elephants into a Volkswagen!” –Bob Wilson, then 17 in 1964….now 65 and driving an SUV

THE CRIME OF THE CENTURY….

Inspired Guess by the Young and Restless: Probably a reference to the 9/11 attacks, though I’ve never heard them called that before…..

The Ancient Truth: Although the various attacks on September 11, 2011—especially those on the World Trade Center—were surely gigantic crimes, “Crime of the Century” was a reference that well predated 9/11. It’s a term confined to the twentieth century. The phrase “Crime of the Century” has not been lost to history, at least not yet, but it has surely been misplaced. Today’s young, imbued with the new century, aren’t familiar with this reference that arose from the old one.

So between 1900 and 1999 what was the “Crime of the Century” and why did the term arise?

There were probably only four crimes in twentieth century America that might have qualified, and of these, only two seem truly plausible candidates. The four are the Leopold-Loeb “Thrill” Killings in Chicago, 1924; the kidnapping and murder of the “The Lone Eaglet,” Charles Lindbergh’s infant son, in Hopewell, New Jersey, 1932; the assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas 1963; and the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, allegedly by O.J. Simpson in Los Angeles, 1994. The mass murders of Jews and others by Hitler, the purges of Stalin, and the frenzied killings of ideologically incorrect Chinese under Mao, and the Rawandan massacres were all great crimes, but ideological killing on a massive scale seems not to fit the rubric for “Crime of the Century.”

A “Crime of the Century” needs the following: the outrageous slaughter of either a very innocent person or a very great and famous one, or of both; the most blaring of headlines and the most sponge-like of coverage; and theories of endless duration about who really done it. This is why, although the Thrill Killing involved international and incessant reportage and a blameless victim (a school child on the South Side of Chicago picked for slaughter at random by the nihilistic and wealthy college students Leopold and Loeb), it does not truly qualify, for there is no mystery about who did the murder and thus no need for infinite theorizing. Nicole Brown Simpson seems to have been guilty of nothing more than antagonizing her famous ex-football player/actor/commercial spokesman husband, and Ronald Goldman was probably not guilty of anything more than trying to come to the aid of Nicole; and there is no shortage of speculation about who “really” did the crime (though most people think O.J. did). Still, neither Nicole nor Ronald was truly famous or great.

So while the term “Crime of the Century” has been applied to the Leopold-Loeb/Simpson crimes, the only two cases really deserving of the label are the Lindbergh Kidnapping and the Kennedy Assassination. Both these cases have an outrageous act performed against someone really innocent or great or famous or all of the preceding; saturating media attention; and constant theorizing. They are tied in terms of eligibility for the COTC label. Charles August Lindbergh, Jr., was far more innocent than either his famous aviation father or the American president. In fact, he tragically came to be a stand-in for his famed father, for to strike at Little Charles, the Lone Eaglet, was to strike at Big Charles, the Lone Eagle. The outrage was deafening. One wag called it the greatest story since the crucifixion of Christ.  Numerous books have alleged that Bruno Richard Hauptmann did commit the crime or that he did not. The satisfaction of the three criteria—greatness/innocence, coverage, and speculation—by the Kennedy murder requires no further explanation here. If the young do not know this story, they should be ashamed of themselves. It is better not to ask a young person if he does; you might find out something about his cultural illiteracy better left unknown.

The killing of President Kennedy probably qualifies as “The Crime of the Century, “ by a hair, more than the Lindbergh Kidnapping does. The Lone Eagle, for all his accomplishments, cannot compare finally to the young Cold War prince, with the tousled hair and WASP-Irish charm, whose murder made the whole word numb. But why did the twentieth century, as opposed so far to the twenty-first, insist upon “The Crime of the Century”?

The answer is what one scholar called “twentieth centricity.” For all that went wrong between 1900 and 1999, so much went right: cars, airplanes, telephones, radio, television, penicillin, cure for polio, and computers. Take these inventions out of the mix and you have only a century of two mass slaughters that book end a great economic calamity. But there is no way to understand or experience the twentieth century without taking account of these technological “miracles.” So there was a celebratory quality to the century, as though journalists decided to celebrate their new media of radio and TV by obliquely praising even the magnitude of the century’s crimes. “The Crime of the Century” is journalese, and both reporters and their readers love a good “story.” “Get the story” is always the first rule of reportage, of whatever medium.

The world of journalism has always had difficulty with mass murders. The endless roll call of nameless victims does not fit well with the non-fiction narrative of daily reporting. When was the last time you read a great short story about the slaughter of even a thousand innocents? So The Holocaust cannot possibly have been “The Crime of the Twentieth Century.” Stalin, no stranger to these dark issues, said that a single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistics. Journalists don’t “do” statistics very well. So “The Crime of the Century” is a single crime inflicted upon a single individual: the sort of story that used to sell “papers.”

Will today’s young people, as they grow older, revive the term? It is doubtful. Outrageous crimes seem less fateful, dramatic, and rare than they used to be. Consumers of media have become a bit bored with them. You can watch accounts of them twenty-four hours a day on some cable channels. And so far the self-congratulatory quality of the twentieth century has not yet found its way to the twenty-first:  the technological wonders that enthralled the old century have come to seem routine in the new one. Everyone nowadays expects technological glory—whether it brings unprecedented power or unprecedented convenience. “The Crime of the Century,” now lost on most youngsters today, was really, always, “The Crime of That Century.”

Usage in a Sentence by the Old and Settled: “OK, I admit it: I ate the rest of the pound cake—the crime of the century, right?” –Anonymous, speaking defensively to his parents, in about 1946

Today’s Topic….BETAMAX….

Betamax…

Inspired Guess by the Young and Restless: Just short of the maximum feasible in any competition or measure, with alphamax being the maximum it is possible to achieve…

The Ancient Truth: Beatmax is a technology, now mostly obsolete, for playing, recording and shooting videos. In Japan, where it was first developed, young people will be more familiar with Betamax because the technology there persisted until the early 2000s, but it was gone in the United States by the late 80s. Today’s college students may be aware of the videotape format known as VHS, but they will consider it a relic of a time before the advent of digital video. At their colleges or universities they may occasionally spy an old VHS player or perhaps find one in the attic or basement of their homes.

Yet if VHS is an old format, Betamax, once VHS’s spirited competitor, is an ancient one. If it were still alive today in the sense of vast commercial usage, it would be all of thirty-five years old! But it died a tragically early death as a young teen. By the way, the “beta” part comes from a Japanese word for signal transmission and the similarity in shape between the way the tape was transported through the machine and the Greek letter “beta.” It has nothing to do with coming in second (although Betamax did come in second, to VHS—and “second” mean dead last and dead).

Both VHS and Betamax were pioneering ways of using videotape, as opposed to film, to create and present moving images. American consumers had a dilemma back in the 80s: Betamax or VHS? Which one should they buy? American purchasers consulted clerks at Sears stores for advice as though they were in touch with the Oracle at Delphi. (Sears carried Sony Betamax players and camcorders.) If the clerks said “Beta,” then they would have been wrong, but they had good reasons to believe that they were right. Betamax involved a lighter machine and a sharper image. They didn’t waste as much tape space as VHS did. But inventors were slow to develop it into a single unit camcorder, for which customers yearned, and it was more expensive to mass-produce. Finally, one could transfer Beta onto VHS but not vice-versa.

The days of video recorders and players, whether VHS or Beta, seem retrospectively prehistoric. Imagine having to worry about keeping low-tech dust covers on the machines so that their inner parts didn’t become damaged, and conceive, if you can, of having to monitor with eternal vigilance the tracking of videotapes so that they were watchable. Yet these were also revolutionary times. You could tape Oprah in the afternoon and watch her after you got home—it was just a matter of getting the kids to set the machine when they got home from school. Camcorders made the shooting of home movies a convenient labor of love for family members who would never have thought of it before. Soon children would begin correcting their parents who suggested that the whole family watch a “film” on VHS, and oldsters had to learn to say “tape.”

Today there is a cult of Betamax lovers. They continue to use the format for highly specialized purposes and remain devoted to the idea that it was the superior technology. The term “Luddite” used to refer to those who abhorred all machines of any sort: who would never send a telegram or ride in an automobile. Now we have so surrendered to advanced technology that “Luddite” has become a relative term. It is someone who still sticks to Beta! Causes that used apply to other types of bitter enders—such as Japanese warriors who continued to fight World War II or Virginians who saved their Confederate money sure that the South would rise again—have now become the focus of geeks.

Usage by the Old and Settled: “After I retire, I hope you will at least treat me as VHS—old but still on occasion reliable—and not as Betamax: utterly obsolete.” –A man of about 63, speaking pleadingly to his children, in about 1995

 

CHARLIE CHAN….

Inspired Guess by the Young and Restless: the nickname of Charles Winston Chan, an entrepreneur, graduate student or physicist in Palo Alto, California

The Ancient Truth: Charlie Chan was a popular Chinese American fictional detective, well featured in books, movies, radio, and comic strips, especially in the 1930s and 40s. Charlie even got some television work, but that is a very small portion of his activity and success He appeared in a film as late as 1980, but by this time ethnic sensitivities were rife so it was opposed by a group with the most decorous acronym CAN (Coalition of Asians to Nix); the film bombed.

An author with the unlikely name of Earl Derr Bigggers went to Hawaii in 1919 and eventually met a skillful Chinese-American detective named Chang Apala, on whom he based Charlie Chan. The Chan series worked very well in the pulp mystery novels Biggers wrote, but not until the 1930s did the series become internationally famous with films starring the Swedish actor Warner Oland (who also claimed some Mongolian heritage) playing Chan. After Oland’s death there came an American actor named Sidney Tolar and after that–late in the film series–yet a third actor in the lead. He was Roland Winters. There were also Spanish-language and Chinese-language Chan films.

It was the Scandinavian/Mongolian Oland who truly put his mark on the character, and scholars of cultural studies since the 1960s have found, especially in Oland’s Chan, a happy hunting ground. Is Charlie Chan an admirable character? Well, yes: he is polite and smart, observant and courtly. But he is also exceedingly deferential (even to the murderers when he exposes them, whether in London or Paris or Egypt or on Broadway or at the circus or opera) and speaks pigeon English. He was the anti-Yellow Peril, the name for a stereotype of the demonic Chinese villain most embodied by one sinister Fu Man Chu, with his minatory and enigmatic mustache. This was the image of yellow men most feared by whites. Chan was reassuringly benevolent and bland.  Still, scholars of cultural studies are suspicious of ethnic stereotypes that deny the full complexity and humanity of the characters. They are wary of representations that render ethnic groups harmless. Having to behave–whether as a black, a Serbian, a Mongolian or a North Dakota–in order to make sure you don’t frighten anyone is a repressive and false way to live. So for many observers Charlie Chan’s courtesy and brilliance are far less important than his obsequiousness. He seems to exist, above all, not to threaten his nervous Caucasian masters!

This is an oversimplification. Chan’s pigeon English is set off by the much more fluent American English of his number one son, often played by actor Keye Luke. Charlie’s more halting English is just the product of his being a first, as opposed to second, generation Chinese American. (Here it should be added that Charlie’s Americanized sons are much more gung-ho, but also less intelligent, than their father for whom English is a second language.) And his courtly deference is part of an act to confuse the crooks, just as Officer Columbo’s apparent stupidity was, in a TV series some forty years later. Smart-alecky and wealthy bad guys thought the Italian American Columbo was dumb. Columbo was happy to let them think so, for their overconfidence usually tripped them up. Chan, too, seems to lack any threatening qualities—no need to be scared of him–so villains would seem to have little reason to fear him. In this they were wrong. Thus: Game, Set, Match: Charlie! This is mostly a clever plot, not a cultural stereotype. Chan is so smart that he can untangle the most fiendishly brilliant murder schemes around. He never catches anyone with yellow skin; the killers always wear white.

His chauffer is one Birmingham Brown, played by the comic black actor Mantan Moreland. Birmingham Brown is extremely stereotypical: quite bumbling, easily frightened, and extremely servile. However skillful Moreland may have been as an actor, he reinforced racist stereotypes unambiguously. The character of Chan is much more complex. The presence of the Brown character tells us that in Hollywood America there was much more potential for intelligent Chinese characters than for intelligent black ones. The contest isn’t even close.

What would today’s young folks think of Chan? They’d find the films creakingly slow. A generation impatient with getting a laptop booted up would grind its teeth waiting for Charlie and Company to do anything. Today’s youngsters would see in Chan an Asian character they would not recognize. They would see his politeness, intelligence and seeming obedience, but having no experience and little background in the Yellow Peril or its opposite–being a generation for whom neither Pearl Harbor nor Red China means much of anything–they wouldn’t be able to decode the meaning of Chan for the 30s and 40s. They’d mostly just be bored. They’re more likely to visit Beijing itself than to find Charlie Chan exciting.  On the other hand, if they studied Chan in a college cultural studies course, they’d become enlightened, if still bored.

Usage in a Sentence by the Old and Settled: “That waiter reminds me of Charlie Chan so much I wonder if there’s a killer in the house.” –Your grandfather talking to your grandmother in a Chinese restaurant in Colorado Springs, Colorado, around 1940

 

BUCKY BEAVER….

Inspired Guess by the Young and Restless: probably some cartoon character, maybe the predecessor to Donald Duck—at any rate some figure the Disney Studios got tired of….

The Ancient Truth: Bucky Beaver was the 1950s commercial icon for Ipana toothpaste, which was popular in the United States—a leading brand—from the 1920s to the 1970s. By the 70s Bristol-Myers was making so much money in pharmaceuticals that it stopped supporting Ipana, which nonetheless remained popular in places such as Turkey and even came back as a retro brand not long ago in Canada. In the United States, however, it is a forgotten remedy for the cavities that may ail ye. It has no cultural currency at all.  The fact that spell-checkers on computers flag “Ipana” as some misspelling or as some unknown word is ample testament to its present obscurity.

The young and restless are right that Bucky was a creation of Disney, but he never appeared in a Disney movie cartoon. His presence was strictly commercial and focused on selling Iapana, with its wintergreen taste and the requisite sodium fluoride to prevent cavities. In a typical commercial Bucky, with his prominent two front teeth, would be engineering a train with cars shaped like tubes of Ipana. He would run into the nasty and villainous “Mr. Tooth Decay,” who would try to sabotage the train. Bucky would ward him off with a tube of Ipana, to which the mustachioed Mr. Tooth Decay would respond much as Dracula responds to the cross of Jesus or to garlic. Then Bucky would sing his patented and triumphant “Brusha, brusha, brusha/With the new Ipana/With the brand new flavor/It’s dandy for your teeth.”

Ipana never made any quasi-scientific claims about its effectiveness. It depended on the wintergreen taste, the appeal of Bucky to children of all ages, and to the gratitude of older Americans who were just happy to have toothpaste at all after generations when it was standard operating procedure to get all your teeth pulled by 60 so that you could put in the false ones and never have to worry about fast-rotting teeth again. In time, however, good taste, toothy beavers, and servile thankfulness were not enough. Americans, now better educated, became more scientific-minded and wanted proof of effectiveness. Thus Proctor and Gamble’s Crest maintained that it had a special ingredient called “Fluroistan,” as though it were some sort of research breakthrough. In fact, Fluroistan was just stannous fluoride, a derivation of  just what Ipana had. But Crest wasn’t done. It also elicited an anodyne statement from the American Dental Association that Crest could prevent tooth decay, as indeed it can (so could Ipana, but it didn’t bother to use the jargon of science but rather depended on the goofy charms of an animated beaver.) In time, Ipana too could have fought back by making scientific claims of its own—“Ipanide,” anyone?—but Bristol-Myers, pioneering drugs for chemotherapy and relief of anxiety, just let it drop.

Meanwhile, however, the history of Ipana suggests that its place in American culture is both more heterogeneous and dark than the affable silliness of Bucky might suggest. Jimmie Dodd, the head Mousketeer on the Mickey Mouse Club was the voice of Buckey; while Allen Ginsburg, the once-scandalous Beat poet, did market research for Ipana. No commercial product can be all bad if it can claim, as part of its lineage, both a man who as an adult donned mouse’s ears and a man who wrote “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,/dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix…..”

Usage by the Old and Settled: “I no longer consider Bucky Beaver the best mind of my generation.” –what Allen Ginsberg should have said  when he decided to quite working for Ipana in order to become the great Beat bard of New York and San Francisco

(Scroll further down for more

“Forgotten Things You Should Never Mention to Young Folks”)

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How are today’s freshmen different from those in the past? Who was the great Native American who was hero in two wars? Here are URLs for some recent media moments with Tom and Ron that will inform, inspire and amuse you…..

http://www.prx.org/pieces/78363-the-mindset-list-of-american-wars

PLUS Some Items from 101 Things Your Offspring Will Never Know

(Unless They Read This Blog) 

TODAY’S ITEM: THE BEARDED LADY….

Bearded Lady….

Inspired Guess by the Young and Restless: Name of a rock band from some recent era or other; alternate name for the witches in Macbeth; parody of Mona Lisa, complete with whiskers (didn’t some French artist do something like this?)….

The Ancient Truth: The “Bearded Lady” was a top attraction in the popular circus sideshows or carnivals of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Bearded Ladies sometimes had considerable facial hair, generally as a result of an imbalance of the hormone androgen. In more recent times anabolic steroid intake has produced bearded ladies, but this has been a matter of choice for those women who perhaps need to get a life, or some other life.

Associated with the Bearded Lady was a whole history of sideshow characters, including the Human Torso (no limbs), Conjoined (or Siamese) Twins, Human Skeletons (abnormally thin), The Giant (abnormally large) and the Tattooed Lady (self-explanatory). Others include The Geek (not a computer expert but one who bites off the heads of live chickens), the Fire Eater, and the Sword Swallower. Lunatic savages were presented as The Wild Man of Borneo. Other sideshow attractions included Hitler’s staff car (so claimed after World War II) and semi-nude women doing the “hootchie-kootchie.” Four-headed goats and two-headed pigs were not excluded.

As kids, Boomers did not attend these sideshows, but they grew up hearing about them. They were part of the American lore that Boomers inherited. But today’s young people have no idea about it. What sort of America would both tolerate and be drawn to this sort of thing? And what would today’s Generation Y possibly make of it?

The circus sideshow was a product of the premise that modern transportation had been revolutionized. Just as today we know that communications is such that we can talk in real time to someone even in Antarctica, so in the nineteenth century was it possible to sail to places unreachable before. Thus the cultural and natural offerings of exotic places became available, and they were displayed in freak shows in order to communicate the triumph. In sum, today we can email Borneo; then it was possible to reach it and capture its savages. Only in the most atavistic and forbidding places could one find Bearded Ladies and Siamese Twins, but modern America and Europe had discovered them, and it was time for such a victory to be celebrated, even at the expense of those seeming monsters on display. The public flocked to envisage them.

This was also an entertainment for a society burdened by what, to us, would be an amazingly low excitement threshold. We inhabit a planet of high thresholds. A major magazine, Newsweek, displays each week those cultural events that seem truly shocking, such as a late middle-aged conservative ex-Congressman excelling on a national dance show. But the effort is strained. We are not much shocked by anything these days. We are overly mediated by a world of constant sensationalism. Even when we are in the check out line with the cucumbers we are confronted with the latest Hollywood stars’ divorce shocker. We don’t need sideshow freaks that come to our towns once a year; we can get a similar effect even in our grocery store lines, and we are likely at most to sigh, even if we give in once or twice a year and buy the Enquirer and hope the checkout clerk doesn’t know us. An older America was shocked more easily: a neighbor’s adultery was the biggest thrill in town, especially if the Bearded Lady hadn’t visited the town for a year or two.

Finally, these sideshow freaks affirmed the age-old American principle of the division of labor. Anyone, people believed in those feverishly capitalistic times, could make a living if they just use whatever assets they have. Even the Giant Rat (another featured entity) illustrated this principle. Today our sensitivity to difference, and to the presumably constant victimization of it, would prohibit our putting up with this sort of thing.

Yet, even if the current group of college students has never heard of The Tattooed Lady or Groucho Marx’s famed song about her, fascination with the freakish won’t quite go away. Superheroes, for instance, are freaks of a sort. Indeed, for all his straightforward beginnings as an orphan raised by Aunt May and Uncle Ben, Spider Man has a monstrous ability to cling to surfaces and shoot webs at his foes. Yet we manage to ignore that aspect of him and other superheroes because they are so perilously effective in fighting for virtue. The physically challenged participants in the Special Olympics gladden our hearts with their winnings over adversity. A recent popular touring show called Bodies features graphic displays of human skeletal and body parts—but it’s OK because it’s all in the name of science. And in the hit HBO series The Sopranos, young Meadow Soprano has a college roommate who is upset by a 1932 film called Freaks, which she’s seen in a class at Columbia. In the film the sideshow freaks get revenge on the burlesque artist Cleopatra and the strong man Hercules because the evil duo tries to poison their friend Hans The Dwarf. Cleopatra’s hands and feet are burned away so that she becomes The Human Duck, and Hercules is castrated into becoming The Falsetto Giant. (This is vengeance worthy of Meadow’s father, Tony!) No wonder Meadow’s roommate was upset. But then what was this film doing in a college class in the first place? No doubt it was a Cultural Studies course trying to study—and affirm—the power of those who are marginalized, such as blacks, gays and the height-challenged.

In 1932 and before, The Bearded Lady was the awesome and derided Freak. Today she would be the pitied multi-cultural Other. The first Bearded Lady was the product of a lustier America; the second is the product of a more sensitive one.

Usage in a Sentence by the Old and Settled: “You’re so dumb and selfish that the only way you’d ever appreciate what a good wife I’ve really been is to wed The Bearded Lady and have to keep her in Burma Shave.” –your grandmother, talking to her second husband, in about 1923

ABBOTT AND COSTELLO….

Abbott and Costello….

Inspired Guess by the Young and Restless: famous double play combination, though can’t recall whether it was for the Red Sox or Cubs; inventors of the American pizza; radicals executed a long time ago for a bank robbery they might not have done….

 

The Ancient Truth: Bud Abbot and Lou Costello were the number one comedy team in the United States in the 1940s. Even as late as the early 50s they were in both radio and film’s Top 10. They were enormously popular, perennially famous, and extremely profitable. Pretty funny they most certainly were.  They started off as a couple of New Jersey vaudevillians—performers on the live variety show stage that marked American life during the Gilded Age—and Costello was an amateur boxer to boot. Vaudeville was displaced by movies and radio, but it was also the gift that kept on giving, as nearly all the great performers in the new media came out of vaudeville, where they developed their talent, honed their acts, and sharpened their timing. This was especially true for comedians. Abbot and Costello were poster kids.

 

The angular Abbott was always the straight man, and chubby Costello was ever the bumbling dimwit with the high-pitched voice of the incompetent and frightened child. The more earnest Abbott put up with Costello not because he thought a little humor made life whole but because the laughs made the dough, piles of it. Although they made nearly 40 films and had an addictively popular radio show, bad health, alcoholism, family tragedy, and even a near split ravaged them—for a whole the two only spoke to one another when performing. They did a little early television, but then Lou died young and Bud was never good going solo. Who knows how their hot repartee would have fared in the more icy medium of TV?

 

They were best known for a single routine, called “Who’s On First,” which started with the premise that baseball players were developing weird nicknames (such as Dizzy and Daffy Dean of the St. Louis Cardinals). Thus why not have a Who on first base, a What on second, and an I Don’t Know on third? The mayhem and confusion of such a premise produced a frenzied hilarity, and Abbott and Costello could do the banter speedier than a 100 mile per hour fastball in the sport they spoofed.

 

Vaudeville was never far from their ambience. Their films were mostly outsized variety shows, with the boys’ comedy acts spliced with performances by the great singers and orchestras of their day. And then there were their “meet” films, as in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, Abbott and Costello Meet The Invisible Man, and Abbott and Costello Meet The Mummy. In these vehicles these monsters (played by the actors who original made them famous) predictably horrify Lou, and Frankenstein even wants to use Lou’s brain to produce another creature. Not until the zombies were seeking “brains” on The Simpsons and therefore gave the dumb Homer a pass has such a dunce met such a traumatic fate. Today’s generation knows nothing of Abbott and Costello, but they may have picked up a reference or two. Buffy the Vampire Slayer once mentioned the boys, and Montclair State University has a residential wing named after them. Jerry Seinfeld did a special on them, but that was nearly twenty years ago.

 

There is nothing especially alien about Abbott and Costello to the present generation of young people. The aforementioned Homer Simpson is at least as stupid as Lou Costello pretended to be. But Lou’s Italian last name might draw protests today from those who are ethnically sensitive and proud. No one in the 1940s worried about stereotyping Italian Americans as dumb. Homer, on the other hand, seems to be stupid in an All-American way; no specific ethnic heritage seems to attach to him. Perhaps only when America is mostly non-white will there be Caucasian Pride Parades. Meanwhile, Bud and Lou gave us easier questions to occupy us–such as “Was the right fielder named Why or Where?”—if only we could remember to ask them.

As American As Apple Pie…..

Inspired Guess By the Young and Restless: An old expression once used to describe what’s wonderful about America, before people discovered quiche….

The Ancient Truth: It’s not clear how apple pie came to be associated with all good things American, to the point where the phrase “as American as apple pie was once the leading simile of American speech. Colonists were more likely to eat meat pies than fruit pies, and the early usage of apples involved cider much more than pie. Meat pie (“pasties”) and apple cider evidently made for a nourishing and not-too-costly meal in the wilderness. But for some reason apples and then apple pie (not meat pie and apple cider) became linked with what is wholly good and wholly wholesome about America. Maybe it’s because the taste of apples is distinctly American: sweet but also tart, as though the greatness of the United States is that its people reward themselves after hard work but leave just enough sourness in the reward to remind them that they have to do it all over again tomorrow. Or perhaps it is alliteration: America and apple trip lovingly as sounds off the taste buds. There was also some idea about how pie eating produces manliness, as though a nation of pie eaters can never be conquered. Somehow lemon meringue just doesn’t confer the same degree of hardiness. Finally, there is the theory that during Prohibition, when cider was banned because, after all, it could be fermented, the apple industry kept its sales alive by promoting its product as indistinguishable from what is uniquely American.

Whatever the reason, once upon a time nearly everyone knew this expression, and many of these people imagined Currier and Ives (who?) scenes of Mom in the kitchen, spotless apron proudly worn, putting the freshly baked apple pie in the window to cool.  This would have been just an hour or so before the entire family sat down at the picnic table to celebrate the Fourth of July with streamers, bunting, fireworks (no sparklers allowed during supper), and hot dogs. Anything else would have seemed un-American, perhaps even anarchistic and certainly “immigrant.” In those days most Americans did not consider guacamole on the 4th.  But they thought of apple pie a lot, and not just on holidays.

It was a time of a decisive majority culture. In a movie, The Good Shepherd, a poor Italian-American in the 1950s asks White Anglo-Saxon Protestant spymaster what his people, the WASPs, really have. The Italians, he says, have the family; the Irish have the booze; the blacks have the blues. “What do you guys have?” The WASP replies, “The United States of America.” And so it was. The WASPs had the apple pie; a people composed of presidents, merchants, bank presidents, and lawyers, they were the nation of pie-eaters that could never be destroyed. Every druggist or mayor named Jones or Smith had apple pie regularly. There was even an expression about apples keeping the doctor away, and apples nestled in baked pie dough would do that job just as well. Only un-American sissies spent too much time down at the clinic. There was, after all, a country to be run.

But a glut of competing information (think cable TV, for instance) and a surfeit of multiculturalism have renovated the country. If you ask a young person today to finish “as America as,” they might reply with anything from “couscous” to “Bart Simpson” to “rap.” Or maybe they’d just reply “Apple,” as in Steve Jobs. Will Apple someday perfect a virtual apple pie, so that you can taste and smell the thing via digital magic? Will there be an I-Pie someday? Will Americans answer the “As American as” question, in fifty years, with “Apple I-Pie”?

Usage in a Sentence by the Old and Stable: “Honey, you’re as American as apple pie—and very easy to make, too.” –Your great aunt speaking to your great uncle just after the he agreed to buy her a brand new chinchilla wrap—probably around 1955

TODAY’S ITEM: A&P 

A&P

Inspired Guess by the Young and Restless: The two letters most often featured on Sesame Street….

The Ancient Truth: A&P is the name of a grocery store chain once as famous as MacDonald’s or Target. It was, as the Wall Street Journal once said, “Wal-Mart before Wal-Mart.” It began in the nineteenth century in New York City and specialized in teas and coffee; eventually, as it expanded into sugar, baking soda, and lots of other products (mostly foodstuffs) it termed itself “The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company.” And great it was: in the 1930s one out of every ten Americans got their groceries at an A&P store. Some of them had chandeliers to help you find the green beans (fresh or canned but not yet frozen) and a Chinese pagoda for checking them out. Hardly ever undersold, A&P offered giant discounts based on business of huge volume. A&P was gigantic, its “integrated” tentacles not only into the stores that sold food but also the warehouses that stored it and the trucks that distributed it. Long before the monster food chains did so in a later era, A&P drove many a Mom and Pop store out of business. Mom and Pop were politically powerless, but many a big food distributor knew that Mom and Pop would have to pay them higher prices than A&P would. And the big foodies were not politically powerless. They went to Congress and called A&P a monopoly. But A&P countered that Congress shouldn’t want Americans to pay higher food prices, and with that argument A&P won the political battle.

But then came something that even A&P could not fight: it was called prosperity.

Post World War II America was richer. It demanded bigger, cleaner stores with national brands, advertised on TV by the basso ho-ho-ho of the Jolly Green Giant and the wise-guy fish Charlie, who hawked StarKist Tuna. For a Depression era America, A&P with its cheap and private brands was a boon; for Eisenhower’s America the cost cutting of A&P was needless and second-rate. A&P tried to respond with bigger and easy-to-recognize stores, featuring cupolas and weather vanes. It was too late. Soon a bunch of Germans bought this great but now struggling Atlantic and Pacific icon. Now there are still A&P stores in various parts of the United States. But no one says, any longer, “I’m going to the A&P.” The word is no longer interchangeable with “grocery store,” as “tissue” and “Kleenex” were (and still are: some things never change).

For anyone who laments the current younger generation not recognizing the phrase “A&P,” there is an indelible sliver of hope: college kids are often assigned a 1961 story by John Updike called “A&P.” It’s about a teenager named Sammy who abruptly quits his job as a sack boy in an A&P because the Puritanical sales manager, Lengel, admonishes three upper class girls who come into the store wearing nothing but their bathing suits. Lengel tells them they’re not “decent” and warns them not to come back without their shoulders covered. Sammy, in a futile fit of chivalry, quits on the spot, despite Lengel’s begging him not to “do this to your Mother and Father.” Sammy never sees the three girls again; they never recognize, much less appreciate, his pointless gallantry. Sammy even admits that life will be harder for him from now on, but he has crossed an aisle in his life that’s much wider than the aisle that separates the carrots from the tea at the local A&P. He walks out of the store altogether. He doesn’t want to face a life of turning out to be like Lengel, his face “dark gray and his back stiff, as if he’d just had an injection of iron.” Sammy will no doubt become a hippie of the 1960s. The druggy future belongs to Sammy, and not to the staid Lengel and his floundering A&P.  Earlier in the story, Sammy says the A&P may become “The Great Alexandrov and Petrooshki Tea Company” if the Russians win the Cold war. But the Soviet Commies didn’t get the A&P; German capitalists did.

Usage in a Sentence by the Old and Settled: “I’m going to the drug store; do you want me to stop by the A&P to see if they still have kidney beans, six cans for a dollar?” –Uncle Arthur speaking to Aunt Bea, on or around April 29,1946

ARBUCKLE, ROSCOE (FATTY) 

Today we begin a series on stuff your kids and grandkids will never know unless they read this blog. These are once famous but now forgotten items of “information” (cultural references) that anyone would have known 40 or 50 years ago. We present them here in alphabetical order (one item at a time). Each item comes in three parts: an inspired guess by Generation Y, which really has no idea what these items really mean; the ancient truth, or the true facts that form the meaning of the item; and the usage of the item in a sentence back in the days when everyone knew what it meant.

Here now, temporarily rescued from oblivion, is the first of over one hundred items: stuff your kids and grandkids will never know unless they read this blog–or talk to you! (If you are a kid or grandkid, you can show your parents and grandparents how smart you are.)

Arbuckle, Fatty (Fatty Arbuckle)

 

Inspired Guess by the Young and Restless: A condition of the knee, involving the growth of excess fatty tissue, which causes difficulties with the buckling of knee between the thigh and calf.

 

The Ancient Truth: Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle was involved in Hollywood’s first great sex scandal, back in the days when it was actually possible for anyone to care much about sex in Hollywood. Nowadays we might say, “We are shocked—shocked—to learn that sex is going on in Hollywood.” But in the still Puritanical 1920s there was a lot of shock to go around—it was well distributed but powerful in an era when nearly every American, it seems, knew the words of “Jesus Saves.” Arbuckle was a great silent film talent: a big fat man who could dance as lightly as Fred Astaire (who?) and who could do back-slips with alacrity. He was also a generous sponsor of others and once helped a fellow comedian, young Bob Hope, get his big Hollywood break. So when Hope died not long ago at the age of a hundred years or so, he was a super old man who actually remembered Fatty Arbuckle. That’s some living!

 

In 1921 Arbuckle was accused of raping and murdering a Hollywood big player named Virginia Rappe, herself no seraphim, given that she had had multiple affairs and abortions. Addicted to alcohol and likely poisoned by the poor quality of booze in those days (thank you, Prohibition), she was also afflicted with venereal disease. She is said to have muttered, as she died, “Arbuckle hurt me.” This, along with the accusations of a notorious San Francisco madam, was enough to get Fatty indicted for manslaughter. He was tried three times, the third time acquitted with a profuse apology from the jury that he had ever been charged at all. For over a year, headlines had been lurid. It was a good time to invest in the newspaper business.

 

One theory is that during the raucous party in San Francisco that led to Ms. Rappe’s death, Fatty might have accidentally damaged her already disintegrating insides with his oversized knee (so a knee was involved after all: see above). This is what she meant when she said, “Arbuckle hurt me.” Whatever she meant, the whole imbroglio ruined Fatty’s career until a decade later.  In the early 30s a by then alcohol-soaked Arbuckle finally got back into movies (under a pseudonym) as a director. He was even signed by Warner Brothers to do a feature-length film, but it was on the very day he died of a heart attack. Once upon a time, to say the words “Fatty Arbuckle” was to recall a torrid scandal rather than a great comic, just as the words “O.J. Simpson” were to recall a homicidal scandal rather than long runs on the Sunday afternoon gridiron. After the Arbuckle scandal, Hollywood took further steps to monitor its stars and its films, so that the movie going public could be reassured of Hollywood’s official wholesomeness even as that same public could salivate in private about the sort of things that really went on there, as opposed to the more even tenor of life in such places as Salina, Kansas, and Kokomo, Indiana.

 

Usage in a Sentence By the Old and Settled: “I’m as innocent as Fatty Arbuckle—and much thinner, too.” –Someone’s great grandfather after his wife accused him of infidelity with the church organist in about 1940

***

 

An episode of Mad Men has ad man Don Draper hiring an elderly secretary who died at her desk. Bert Cooper, the curmudgeonly head of the ad firm in the show, knew her well; and when she passed away, he said, “She was born in a barn in the 1880s and died on the 59th floor. She was an astronaut.”

 

Bert’s mini-obituary tells us why teachers are finding The Mindset Lists of American History useful in the classroom. Recently we visited one of those classrooms, where the professor asked, “If I had asked you thirty years ago who won the 1955 Oscar for Best Picture, how would you find out?” Students rustled with some excitement and a little bewilderment. They’d never thought about that! Then one of them said, “I guess I might call my grandmother. She was a movie buff.” Another said, “What about a bound encyclopedia?” Another: “Wasn’t there some sort of book called Information, Please that came out back then?”

 

Now imagine your being an older person in that classroom. You could say of yourself, “I first attended college when it would take you half an hour to find a book to tell you who won the Oscar in 1955. Now I can find out on my smart phone in thirty seconds. I am an astronaut!” This is why history is so riveting—and also why it’s criminal not to teach it that way. The Mindset Lists of American History, which traces American social history through ten generations of eighteen year olds, can’t help but tell an amazing story about what was “unimaginably normal” to those of us today.

 

It was normal in the late 19th century for twilight to come a little earlier every year in Pittsburgh (industrial pollution). It was normal in the 1930s for the family radio to be bigger than your toddler brother or sister. It was normal in the Depression for women to pain their calves with nail polish in order to give the impression they were wearing stockings. It was normal in the 1950s for families who made more than twelve grand a year to think they were rich. And if you lived through all that—few did—you were a super-astronaut indeed!

 

There are lots of reasons to study history, including the acquisition of perspective on the past. Those who can’t remember history must repeat it, as the old line goes. But the main reason for exploring history is to expand one’s imagination. “The past is a foreign country,” said L.P. Hartley in the epigraph to The Mindset Lists of American History. “They do things differently there.”

 

Everyone talks about how travel broadens the mind. Well, so does time travel. And that’s what The Mindset Lists of American History is: time travel. No wonder teachers are happy that their students are discovering that the past is….actually fun. Buckle up, ye astronauts; we’re about to blast off again……….

***

While there’s little probability that he is weeping in his cavernous bank vaults, Justin Bieber can’t catch a break from some quarters of the planet. A young friend of mine worries that the “whinny, lesbian looking” Bieber will permanently replace the “badass” tradition of the great rock stars of the past. She says that with Bieber it’s all about teen-aged girls who want lots of suburban “stuff” and not much real grunge. And then the other day a much older friend told me that her problem with Mr. Bieber is precisely his lack of earnest masculinity. She sees him as an icon of how these days men are no longer men and women no longer care. She thinks him as far removed from the “greatest generation” of hard men who beat Hitler and the Japanese Emperor. Men and boys alike are spoiled and soft. It’s good thing the Nazis aren’t around now. Or so my friend opines.

 

But I think we should give JB a break. He’s Canadian, and there’s little point in measuring him by American standards (I’m joking)! Besides, his appeal is his teeny pure good looks. Even ten years of aging may be fatal. Look how quickly Fabian (who?), the JB of his day, went into that good (or bad) night once he got a wrinkle or two. Above all, however, Mr. Bieber is a product of his times—our times, as it turns out. No, we can’t imagine him fighting the Nazis (the Canadians did that, too, with great valor). But then he doesn’t have to. The great totalitarian nationalisms are gone. Yes, there is Iran and there is North Korea, but in a nuclear age you don’t go invading those countries. There is no need for a valorous Justin Bieber. There is only the need for the other JB—the one we have now.

 

We often make a serious mistake when we try to fit a current character on the scene into a past era. (It’s a mistake Ron Nief and I try hard to correct in our book THE MINDSET LISTS OF AMERICAN HISTORY). Had Justin been eighteen in 1940 he’d have gone to war like all the rest of the lads from London, Ontario. We often think of past practices in history as heroic when they were mostly just daily routine. We read about how people traveled on foot and by covered wagon and on slow-moving canals and took weeks to get five hundred miles and we think: “What heroics.” But they weren’t heroics. They were the way things were. No one in 1850 ever said, “If only we had a 1928 Model T to ride in.” Justin, like all of us, would have done what he had to do in 1940. We are a lot more defined by the necessity of our own times than we like to admit. Someday we will preach to our grandchildren that when we were younger we had to switch on a light in order to illuminate a room (none of this decadent voice activation). And when we so preach to them about our past heroics (even a much older Justin may be tempted to do so), we will be wrong.

***

By now (April) millions of brand new babies have been born in the United States. So we thought we’d speculate a little about the sorts of questions they’d be asking their parents as they (the babies, not the parents!) grow up. In The Mindset Lists of American History (Wiley, 2011), we speculate in the last chapter about what will be on The Mindset List® for kids born in 2008. We predict that they’ll be watching the PBS News Hour with Jon Stewart, getting genetic surgery to change their hair color, and watching the San Jose Chips play baseball in the ultimate high-tech stadium in Silicon Valley. We also, alas, predicted that the Cubs will have never won the World Series.

Continuing with this tradition of undaunted predictions, here are 20 questions new parents had better be ready to answer over the next 18 years. Remember the words of Arthur C. Clarke that some high tech is no different from magic.

THE 2012 PARENTS’ MINDSET ADVISORY:

20 QUESTIONS TO BE PREPARED FOR WHEN YOUR BABY TURNS 18. 

  1. What was “software” and what was soft about it?  
  2. Why do some universities fund minor-league football and basketball teams now instead of regular student athlete programs?    
  3. What were “websites” and why did people visit them?  
  4. What are those small metallic disks I keep finding in the attic?  
  5. Did you ever actually change a light bulb?  
  6. Where did all those European countries get the dumb idea of having just one currency?
  7. Is it true that once upon a time you actually had to type instructions into smart phones?
  8. Wasn’t it pretty weird when you had to wear nerdy dark glasses in order to watch 3-D television?
  9. Have those old people with salt and pepper ponytails occupying Wall Street always been there? 
  10. How did people learn to play the guitar before their fingers were computer programmed?
  11. Do you remember when you first felt virtual wet or cold on your computer screen?  
  12. What do you mean, our house was “under water” the year I was born?            
  13. How did people remember the sketches on the backs of napkins without smart pens to plug into their e-pads?  
  14. When are we going to put solar siding on the house?  
  15. Did you actually communicate on Facebook when you were my age?  
  16. Don’t white males want to become president any more?  
  17. What did people in Qatar do about the heat before they put up all those artificial clouds?
  18. How did folks find their stray pets before insertion of GPS microchips became a part of getting them neutered?  
  19. Do you think I’ll live long enough to ride in a space elevator?  
  20. If we stop burning coal do you think they will stop building that sea wall around New York City? 

***

 

Recently we discovered a wonderful opportunity for young and old alike to put aside their differences and experience a common event that they will both enjoy. It’s also something that’s very instructive about the generation gap. We refer to the Oscar-winning silent film known as The Artist.

The Artist is about how new technologies leave previous generations in the dust. In the film the advent of sound in motion pictures is something an older actor can’t adjust to. He falls into oblivion. He admits to a rising new star in the talkies—a young woman—that the old always have to move aside for the young. The film ought to be a superb conversation starter for septuagenarians and twenty-somethings. They could discuss how inevitable new technology is but how hurtful it can be to those older persons who just can’t adapt.

Women who couldn’t learn to type could no longer be secretaries. People who couldn’t read on a screen couldn’t use computers. Unattractive people with wonderful deep voices couldn’t leave the radio and be on television. And actors like John Gilbert, with good looks and even better movement, couldn’t be in talking pictures because his voice squeaked. No one wanted to see him talk!

So far we’ve not been able to convince any younger people to see The Artist with us. That’s too bad, because we’d love to discuss new technology’s role in widening the chasm between generations. We can tell them about our own struggles, as children, when the hula hoop came out, and we failed disgracefully in swiveling our hips well enough to adjust to this new technology. Thanks to our lack of success with the hula hoop, we went from being the most popular kids in the neighborhood to the most shunned. We just know today’s young people would love to hear this story about how we were old before our times.

Well, OK, maybe they wouldn’t like to hear our story. But we still urge all of our listeners, whether young or old alike, to grab someone in a different generation and buy them a ticket to see The Artist, for remember: Generation Gaps Have Always Needed Glue. 

 

***

 

In 1999, during yet another Today Show appearance, I met the famous law professor (and member of the O.J. Simpson “Dream Team”) Alan Dershowitz. He and I began chatting about The Mindset List®: his contribution was to report that even Harvard Law students were not aware of who Sacco and Vanzetti were. The students asked, “What team did they play for?” They, of course, were the subjects of one of the country’s most controversial legal and political cases: two self-styled anarchists executed for a robbery and murder they may not have committed. The proposition advanced by millions was that they were killed only because they were Italian and radically left wing.

 

But however much Sacco and Vanzetti continue to fascinate scholars today, they are no longer the household words they were for many years after their execution in the early twentieth century. Yet if you don’t know about them, at least a little bit, you are what another Professor, Bernard Hirsch, would call “culturally illiterate.” In other words, if you think Sacco and Vanzetti must be local pizza parlor operators, you are culturally illiterate. The same would presumably be true if you don’t understand what Jean-Paul Sartre meant by “Hell is other people” or even if you don’t know about the magisterial authority of newscaster Walter Cronkite, who used to say, “So that’s the way it is.”

 

Illiteracy, oddly enough, has largely disappeared from the United States. Nearly everyone can read and write. But by Professor Hirsch’s standards, many of us are culturally illiterate. Ron Nief and I, co-creators of The Mindset List® and authors of The Mindset Lists of American History, have dined out on this trend. Our culturally illiterate young people can’t quite say who Muhammad Ali was, and some of them think George Foreman is a barbecue grill salesman and Paul Newman the guy on the salad dressing bottle in the store. Paul Newman? Wasn’t he some sort of businessman?

 

Illiteracy and cultural illiteracy are not the same thing. They both stem from ignorance, yes, but surely the former is a much greater drawback than the latter. Everyone knows how to read and write, even if not everyone knows who Yogi Berra was and why he is celebrated for saying all those goofy and uncannily wise things. We suffer from information overload these days: knowledge of the Beatles is driving out knowledge of Berlioz and knowledge of Snoop Dog is driving out knowledge of the Beatles. But at least all this knowledge is being stored. So even if today’s young people—and others of us—are culturally illiterate we can still, as Casey Stengel used to say, “look it up.” But who was Casey Stengel???????

***

A Mad Men Mindset List

 

In both The Mindset Lists of American History and The Annual Mindset List, Tom McBride and Ron Nief offer an “indispensable” (Brian Williams) and “mesmerizing” (Associated Press) way of tracing the American past. Here McBride and Nief offer their unique perspective on one of America’s favorite TV characters.

 

As AMC’s Mad Men begins its latest season, it is time to take historical stock of its leading character: the outwardly handsome but subtly tortured Don Draper. A brilliantly successful man in the sexist, alcohol-soaked early 1960s, Don’s personal life remains a mess from which we viewers do not wish walk away.

 

A Little Background

 

Don Draper (real name: Richard Whitman) was born in the American South in 1924 and is thirty-six (36) when he begins to work as an account executive for Sterling Cooper, a small but prosperous advertising firm in New York City. (Coincidentally, an actor named Jon Hamm, born 1971, is also 36 when a new series called Mad Men began in 2007 on the American Movie Channel.)

 

When Don Draper was born, President Woodrow Wilson and Louis Sullivan had always been dead.

 

Woodrow Wilson’s dream of an internationally activist America also seemed dead, but in the end Wilson’s vision would flourish in such ventures as the war in Korea, where young Dick Whitman, then 29, changed identities with his dead lieutenant so that he could get out of the war.

 

Louis Sullivan died broke and disgraced, but his vision of skyscrapers survived and flourished. Don would work in a high-rise in New York City. His boss Bert Cooper, said of an elderly secretary, “She was born in a barn and died on the 39th floor. She was an astronaut.” It’s also a tribute to Sullivan.

 

Born the same year as Don were

 

Lee Marvin (like Don, a future well-spun macho man);

 

Gloria Vanderbilt (like Don, a marketing genius, with her specialty of cosmetics);

 

Marlon Brando (who played famous movie roles seeking emotional truth, from which Don always tries to escape);

 

Doris Day, an actress whose identity was so well-spun that Oscar Levant would quip that he knew her before she was a virgin);

 

Rod Serling (who, like Don, had a fertile imagination about how to shape reality); and

 

Elizabeth Short, the infamous Black Dahlia murder victim in Los Angeles (like Don, she was looking for a new and more glamorous identity).

 

Here’s Don’s (Dick’s) Personal Mindset List

(based on the year he was born: 1924)

 

1. The author Bruce Barton has always written that Christ (not Don) was the world’s first successful ad man.

 

2. No one has ever gone broke buying IBM, a brand new company.

 

3. There’s always been a media company and dream factory called Metro Goldwyn Mayer.

 

4. The coolest man was not the debonair Don but silent President Calvin Coolidge, as Republicans drank a new “Keep Cool With Coolidge” cocktail, consisting of raw eggs and various fruit juices.

 

5. Smoking ads have always been directed at women, with celebrities such as aviatrix Amelia Earhart endorsing Lucky Strikes (later spun as “toasted” by Don at Sterling Cooper) and with slogans such as “reach for a cigarette, not a sweet.”

 

6. A brand-new cigarette was Marlboro, touted to women as being as “mild as May” and sold complete with an ivory tip.

 

7. Foreshadowing the presence of talented Peggy Olson and canny Joan Holloway at Sterling Cooper, a top national issue while Don (Dick) was in his crib was whether or not women should work outside the home.

 

8. Anticipating the later work of Sterling Cooper and other ad agencies, there have always been national fads sold and spun by mass media, such as books of cross word puzzles, complete with attached pencils (the B&O Railroad even put dictionaries in their passenger cars for crossword aficionados).

 

8. The fleet football player Red Grange has always been known as “The Galloping Ghost,” another example of the new power of mass-communicated slogans and catch phrases.

 

9. Texas Guinan, a racy and colorful nightclub owner in New York, has always greeted her customers with “Hello, suckers”—a line that the cynical and image-selling Don would have appreciated.

 

10. Methodists have always lifted their ban on dancing and theatergoing—though not necessarily in the American South where Don (Dick) was born.

 

11. As Don was part of the last generation of American men to wear hats, he might have been amused to learn that the most fashionable hat during the year he was born was the bowler.

 

12. Nearly forty years before Don was decisively against Peggy’s idea that Harry Belafonte should become the spokesman for Fillmore Auto, both major political parties struggled with whether or not to condemn the powerful Ku Klux Klan, which had major influence as far north as Indiana.

 

13. A popular opinion was that Henry Ford had saved America by giving men a tension relieving substitute for prohibited booze: the Model T (banned liquor would not become a problem for Don, however; maybe that’s why we rarely see him in a car).

 

14. With a sign that sexism didn’t begin with Don Draper, a popular ad slogan said, “Thousands of men are denying their wives Packard Six cars.”

 

15. In an early sign of the information revolution on which Sterling Cooper and other ad agencies would later seize, news has always been overtaking dance music as the principal content on radio.

 

16. There has always been a Macy’s Parade on Thanksgiving: great advertising.

 

17. The Toastmasters’ Club has always been promoting better public speaking and impression management in men.

 

18. Foreshadowing Don’s later problems with the FBI’s inadvertently finding out who he really is, J. Edgar Hoover has always been the bureau’s director.

 

19. In a sign that image and do-overs didn’t start with Don, singer and model Fanny Brice has always been willing to vouch for the nose job her plastic surgeon did on her.

 

20. Cigarettes, which boosted morale between battles in World War I, have always been endorsed by everyone from Santa Claus to doctors to generals and have always been more popular than pipes and cigars. (By the time Don came to Sterling Cooper every adult American would smoke an average of 4,000 of them yearly.)

***

 

In 2000 I was invited to the Today Show in order to discuss The Mindset List® that had just come out that August. Backstage–in the Green Room as it’s called (yes, I seem to recall the walls really were green), I met a charming and articulate woman who asked me what I was doing on the show. I told her I was there to discuss the generation gap of information between college students and their elders. She agreed that there was such a gap: in fact, she said, her nephew told her with amazement that he’d just learned “Paul McCartney once played a band with three other guys.” I felt that our Mindset List® project was more than confirmed by this information.

But, I then asked, what are you doing on the show?  Now it was my turn to suffer from an information gap, for she told me she was Dawn Wells, who used to play “Mary Ann” on Gilligan’s Island. I stammered something about how I knew about that show but had been in college when it was on. “I didn’t watch much TV then.” She smiled and said that was OK. She told me she was on the show to discuss the subject of “island psychology,” as another network was airing a reality show soon that would reveal who was being “voted off the island.” Her starring in Gilligan’s Island seemed to be a natural transition to this question. She might be called an expert!

Each of us having enlightened the other–though I think I got more education than she did–we proceeded to the pancake make-up room…..each of us leaving the enclosed island of the Green Room.

6 Responses to TONTO HAS ALWAYS HAD TIRED BLOOD: Stuff That Every American Knew–Once Upon a Time!

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April 27, 2012 at 8:26 am

I’ve seen pictures of a KKK ralley to keep the Catholics out of Ellsworth, Maine in the Twenties. Further north than Indiana.

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