Wednesday, June 30, 2010

***An Atlantic Summer's Day, Circa 1960-For Frank, Class Of 1964

Click on the headline to link to a YouTube film clip of the Capris performing their doo-wop classic, There's A Moon Out Tonight. This is sent out by request to Frankie, from the old neighborhood.

Al Johnson, Class Of 1964, comment:

An Atlantic Summer's Day, Circa 1960-For Frank, Class Of 1964

This is the way Frank told me the story, mainly, so it’s really a Frank story that I want to tell you about but around the edges it could be my story, or your story for that matter:

Frank, long, winter-weight black-panted, long sleeve plaid flannel-shirted, thick-soled work boot-shod, de rigueur pseudo-beatnik posing attire, summer or winter, that he thought made him “cool”, at least for the be-bop, look-at-me-I'm-a-real-gone daddy, bear-baiting of the public (and not just the public) that he relished anguished over the job ahead the details of which will concern us later, not now. Melted by the late August sun like some Woolworth’s grilled cheese sandwich, he stood almost immobile, on the Sagamore Street side, looking toward the early morning vacant Welcome Young Field in front of him, as he slowly and methodically pulled out, for about the eighteenth time, or maybe about the eighteen thousandth, a now sweat-soaked, salt-stained, red railroad man’s handkerchief (also de rigueur) to wipe off the new wave of venial sin-producing (at least), swear-to-the-high-heavens-inducing sweat that had formed on his brow.

Frank had, after leaving his own house, already crossed the long-abandoned, rusty-steeled, wooden-tie worn Old Colony railroad tracks that separated the almost sociologically proverbial well-worn, well-trodden “good” from “bad” side of our town, his the “bad”, and mind too (that track, now used as part of the Red Line subway extension system, still stands guardian to that dividing line). He faced, and he knew he faced, even this early in the morning, another day in hell, Frank-ish hell, or so it seemed to him like that was where the day was heading, no question. Another one of those endless, furnace-blasting, dirt-kicking, hard-breathing, nerve-fraying, gates of hell, “dogs days”, August days. Worst, worst for old weather-beaten, you might as well say world-beaten Frank, a fiendish, fierce, frantic, frenzied 1960 teenage August day.

And, like I said, it was not just the weather either, although that was bad enough for anybody whose body metabolism cried out, and cried out loud and clear, for temperate climates, for low humidities, or just the cool, sweet hum of an ocean breeze now and again. But also, plain truth, it was just being a befuddled, beleaguered, bewildered, benighted, be-jesused kid that gummed up the works as well. Frank had it bad. I want to say, if memory does not fail me, that there aren’t double “dog days” like that now, heat-driven, sweltering, suffocating, got-to-break-out-or-bust teenage days, not August days anyway.

But, no, now that I think about it, that’s just not right, not at least if you believe, and you should, all the information about climate change and the rip-roaring way we, meaning you and me, and Frank too, have torn up old Mother Earth without thinking twice about it. Or even once, if you really look around. And about the 21st century angst-filled Franks that you see on those heat-swept streets now, except now the Franks are buried beneath some techno-gadgetry or other, and are not worrying about being be-bop, or real gone daddies, or being “beat”, or about bear-baiting the public or anything like that. But that’s a screed for another day; at least I want to put it off until then. Even writing about this day, this Frank-ish day, right now makes me reach for my own sweaty, dampish handkerchief. Let’s just call it a hot, dusty, uncomfortable, and dirty day and leave it at that.

What’s not “not right” though is that, Frank, a by now finely-tuned, professional quality sullen and also an award-worthy, very finely-tuned sulky teenage boy, usually, waited this kind of day out, impatiently, in his book-strewn, airless, sunless room, or what passed for his room if you don’t count his shared room brother’s stuff. And, maybe, the way Frank told it to me, he might have been beyond waiting impatiently, for he was ready, more than ready, for school to go back into session if for no other reason than, almost automatically come the “dog days”, to get cooled-out from this blazing, never-ending inferno of a heat wave that never failed to drain him of any human juices, creative or not.

And nothing, nothing, in this good, green world, seemingly, could get this black chino-panted, plaid flannel-shirted, salty sweat-dabbled, humidity-destroyed teenage boy out of his funk. Or it would, and I think you would have to agree, have to be something real good, almost a miracle, to break such a devilishly-imposed spell. In any case, as we catch up to him, he is not in his stuffy old bookcase of a room now but there he is walking, in defiance of all good, cool, common sense, long-panted, long-shirted, and long-faced, as I said was his fashionista statement to this wicked old world in those days, across Welcome Young Field on to Hancock Street. On a mission, no less. That is as good a place, the field that is, as any to start this saga.

Now come late August this quirky, almost primitively home-made-like softball field (with adjoining, little used asphalt tennis courts, little used in those days, anyway) was a ghost town during the day. The city provided and funded kids recreation programs were over, the balls and bats, paddles and playground things are now put away for another season, probably also, like Frank, just waiting for that first ring of the school bell come merciful September. The dust this day is thick and unsettled, forming atomic bomb-like powder puffs in the air at the slightest disturbance, like when an odd kid or two makes a short-cut across the field leaving a trail of such baby atomic bomb blasts behind them.

At this early hour the usually game-time firm white lines of the base paths are now broken, hither and yon, to hell from last night's combat, the battle for bragging rights at the old Red Feather gin mill, or something. They await some precious manicure from the Parks Department employees, if those public servants can fight their own lassitude in this heat. And while they are at it they should put some time, some serious patchwork time, fixing the ever-sagging, splintered, termited, or so it seemed on close inspection, but in any case rotted out wooden bleachers that served to corral a crowd on a hot summer’s night. Good luck, men. And if the work is not done, not to worry, the guys who play their damned, loud-noised, argue, argue loudly, over every play with the ever blind umpire, softball under the artificial night lights, if I know them and I do just like Frank does, know the grooves and ridges of the surfaces of the base paths like the backs of their hands, so don’t fret about them.

This field, this Welcome Young Field, by the way, is not just any field, but a field overflowing, torrentially overflowing, with all kinds of August memories, and June and July memories too. Maybe other months as well but those months come readily to mind, hot, sticky, sultry summer mind. Need I remind anyone, at least any Atlantic denizen of a certain age, of the annual Fourth of July celebrations that took place center stage there as far back as misty memory recalled. The mad, frenetic, survival-of-the-fittest dashes for ice cream, the crushed-up lines (boys and girls, separately ) for tonic (aka soda, with names like Nehi, grape and orange, and Hires Root Beer for good measure, for those too young to remember that New Englandism and those brand names), the foot races won by the swift and sure-footed (Frank said he almost won one once but “ran out of gas” just before the finish), the baby carriage parade, and the tired old, but much anticipated, ride on a real pony, and other foolery and frolic as we paid homage to those who fought, and bled, for the Republic. Maybe, maybe paid homage that is. A lot of that part gets mixed up with the ice cream and tonic. (Remember: that’s soda, you can look it up, but I’m telling you all the truth.).

Hell, even that little-used, like I said before little-used in those days, usually glass-strewn but now Parks Department cleaned up asphalt-floored tennis court got a workout as a dance/talent show venue, jerrybuilt stage platform and all. Every 1960 local American Idol wanna-be, misty Rosemary Clooney/McGuire Sisters-like 1940s Come On To My House, Paper Dolls torch singer jumped, literally, on stage to grab the mike and "fifteen minutes (or less)of fame." Needless to say every smoky-voiced male crooner who could make that jump got up there as well, fighting, fighting like a demon for that five dollar first prize, or whatever the payoff was. Later as it got dark, tunes, misty tunes of course, some of them already heard from those "rising stars" like some ill-fated encore, wafted in the night time air from some local band when the Fourth of July turned to adult desires come sundown after we kids had gorged, completely gorged, and feverishly exhausted, ourselves. That story, the dark night, stars are out, moony-faced, he looking for she, she looking for he, and the rest of it, (I don’t have to draw you a diagram, do I?), awaits its own chronicler. I’m just here to tell Frank’s story and that ain’t part of it.

This next thing is part of the story, though. In this field, this bedlam field, as Frank just reminded me, later, after Fourth Of July celebrations became just kids stuff for us, and kind of lame kids stuff at that, we had our first, not so serious, crushes on those glamorous-seeming, fresh-faced, shapely-figured, sweetly-smiling and icily-remote college girls, or at least older girls, who were employed by the Parks Department to teach us kids crafts and stuff in those summer programs that I mentioned before. Or had our first serious crushes on the so serious, so very serious, girls, our school classmates no less, determined to show Frank, Frank of all people, up in the craft-creating (spiffy gimp wrist band-making, pot-holder-for-Ma-making, copper-etching, etc.) department when everyone knew, or should have known, Frank was just letting them win for his own “evil” designs. (And maybe me, maybe I let them "win" too, although I will plead amnesia on this one.) Now that I think of it I might have tried that ruse on the girls myself, there was nothing to it then.

But enough of old, old time flights of fancies. I have to get moving, and moving a little more quickly, if I am ever going to accomplish “my mission”, or ever get Frank out of that blessed, memory-blessed, sanctified, dusty old ball field, sweaty flaming red railroad man’s handkerchief and all. I‘ll let you know about the mission, Frank's mission that is, as I go along like I told you I would before but it means, in the first place, that Frank has to go on this “dog day” August day to Norfolk Downs, or the “Downs” as I heard someone call it once and I didn’t know what they were talking about. We always called it just plain, ordinary, vanilla-tinged, one-horse Norfolk Downs. And Frank had to walk. He, hot as he was and as hot as it was, was certainly not going to wait for an eternity, or more, for that never-coming Eastern Mass. bus from Fields Corner to meander up Hancock Street. Not that Frank was any stranger to that mode of transportation, to that walking. Frank, as I know for certain and have no need to plead amnesia on, had worn down many a pair of heel-broken, sole-thinned shoes (and maybe sneakers too)on the pavements and pathways of this old planet walking out of some forlorn place (or, for that matter, walking into such places). Just take my word for that, okay.

You can take my word for this too. Frank is now officially (my officially) out of the softball field and walking, walking slowly as befits the day, past the now also long gone little bus shelter hut as you get up onto Hancock Street. You know that old grey, shingled, always needed painting, smelly from some old wino's bottle or something, beat-up, beat-down thing that was suppose to protect you against the weathers while you waited for that never-coming Eastern Mass. bus. He, Frank that is, insists that his observation of that hut be put in here despite the fact that he had no intention of taking the bus as I already told you. He is not even going to step into its shade for a minute to cool off. But get this. We have to go through this hut business because, if you can believe this, that lean-to has "symbolic" meaning. Apparently every time this know-it-all pseudo-“beatnik”, long pants, heavy shirt and all, had a beef with his mother (and, you know, let’s not kid each other, when the deal went down, the beef was ALWAYS with Ma in those pre-“parenting-sharing” days) he sought shelter against life’s storms there, before caving into whatever non-negotiable demands Ma insisted on. Sound familiar? But enough, already.

Well, if you get, or rather, if back then if you got on to Hancock Street, (and you actually made it past that historic Eastern Mass. hut, oops, "symbolic" hut) down at the far end of the Welcome Young Field and were heading for Norfolk Downs you have to pass the old high school just a few blocks up on your journey. Just past the old Merit gas station, remember. That gas station (now Hess at that location) had been the scene of memories, Frank memories and mine too. But those are later gas-fumed, oil-drenched, tire-changed, under-the hood-fixated, car-crazy dreams; looking out at the (hopefully) starless be-bop ocean night; looking out for the highway of no return to the same old, same old mean streets of beat town; looking for some "high white note" heart of Saturday night or, better, the dreams accumulated from such a night; and, looking, and looking hard, desperately hard for the cloudless, sun-dried, sun-moaning under the weight of the day, low-slung blue pink Western-driven be-bop, bop-bop, sun-devouring sky and need not detain us here.

Don’t be scared by the thought of approaching the old school though, we all did it and most of us survived, I guess. Frank included. What makes this particular journey on this particular day past the old beige-bricked building “special” is that Frank (and I) had, just a couple of months before, graduated from Atlantic Junior High School (now Atlantic Middle School, as everyone who wants to show how smart and up-to-date they are keeps telling me) and so along with the sweat on his brow from the heat a little bit of anxiety is starting to form in Frank’s head about being a “little fish in a big pond” freshman come September as he passed by. Especially, a pseudo-beatnik “little fish”. See, he had cultivated a certain, well, let’s call it "style" over there at Atlantic. That “style” involved a total disdain for everything, everything except trying to impress girls with his long-panted, flannel-shirted, work boot-shod, thick book-carrying knowledge of every arcane fact known to humankind. Like that really is the way to impress teenage girls, then or now. In any case he was worried, worried sick at times, that in such a big school his “style” needed upgrading. Let’s not even get into that story now, or maybe, ever. Like I said we survived.

Frank nevertheless pulled himself together enough to push on until he came to the old medieval-inspired Sacred Heart Catholic Church further up Hancock Street, the church he went to, his church (and mine) in sunnier times. Frank need have no fear this day as he passed the church quickly, looking furtively to the other side of the street. Whatever demons were to be pushed away that day, or in his life, were looking the other way as well. The boy is on a mission after all, a trusted mission from his grandmother. Fearing some god, fearing some forgotten confession non-confessed venial sin like disobeying your parents, was child’s play compared to facing Gramma’s wrath when things weren’t done, and done right, on the very infrequent special occasions in his clan’s existence. I knew Frank's grandmother and I knew, and everyone else did too, that she was a “saint” but on these matters even god obeyed, or else. This special occasion, by the way, the reason Frank felt compelled to tell me this story, and to have me write it, or else, was the family Labor Day picnic to take place down at Treasure Island. (That’s what we called it in those days; today it is named after a fallen Marine, Cady Park, or something like that.) This occasion required a food order; make that a special food order, from Kennedy’s Deli.

And there it is as Frank makes the turn from Hancock Street to Billings Road. You knew Kennedy’s, right? The one right next to the big A&P grocery store back in those days. As Frank turned on Billings, went down a couple of storefronts and entered that store he had to, literally, walk in through the piled sawdust and occasional peanut shell husks on the gnarled hardwood floor. At once his senses were attacked by the smells of freshly ground coffee, a faint whiff of peanut butter being ground up, and of strong cheeses aging. He noticed a couple of other customers ahead of him and that he will have to wait, impatiently.

He also noticed that the single employee, a friendly clerk, was weighing a tub of butter for a matronly housewife, while a young mother, a couple of kids in tow, was trying, desperately, to keep them away from the cracker barrel or the massive dill pickle jar. The butter weighed and packaged the matronly women spoke out the rest of her order; half pound of cheese, thinly sliced, a pound of bologna, not too thin; a third of a pound of precious ham, very thinly sliced; and, the thing that made our boy pay attention, a pound of the famous house homemade potato salad, Kennedy's potato salad.

Frank winced, hoping that there will be enough of that manna left so that he could fill his order. That, above all else, is why he is a man on a mission on this day. Something about the almost paper thin-sliced, crunchy potatoes, the added vinegar or whatever elixir was put in the mix that made any picnic for him, whatever other treats might surface. Hey, I was crazy over it too. Who do you think got Frank "hip" to it, anyway? Not to worry though, there was plenty left and our boy carried his bundled order triumphantly out of the door, noticing the bigger crowds going in and out of the A&P with their plastic sheathed, pre-packaged deli meats, their tinny-tasting canned goods, their sullen potato salad, probably yesterday’s, and their expressionless fast exit faces. Obviously they had not been on any mission, not any special mission anyway, just another shopping trip. No, thank you, not today to all of that. Today Frank’s got real stuff.

“Wait a minute,” I can hear patient readers, impatiently moaning. This madman of a Frank story-teller has taken us, hither and yon, on some seemingly cryptic mission on behalf of an old friend, under threat or otherwise, through the sweat-drenched heat of summer, through the really best forgotten miseries of teenage-hood, and through the timeless dust and grime of vacant ball fields. He has regaled us with talk of ancient misty Fourth of July celebrations, the sexual longings of male teenagers, the anxieties of fitting in at a new school, and some off-hand remarks about religion. And for what, just to give us some twisted Proustian culinary odyssey about getting a pound of potato salad, famous or not, for grandmother. Well, yes. But hear me out. You don’t know the end. I swear Frank said this to me, shaking off the heat of the day on which he told me the story with a clean white handkerchief from the breast pocket of his light-weight suit jacket. After the purposeful journey the heat of that day didn’t seem so bad after all. That, my friends, made it all worth the telling, right?


Theres A Moon Out Tonight -The Capris Lyrics

There's a (moon out tonight) whoa-oh-oh ooh
Let's go strollin'
There's a (girl in my heart) whoa-oh-oh ooh
Whose heart I've stolen
There's a moon out tonight (whoa-oh-oh ooh)
Let's go strollin' through the park (ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh)

There's a (glow in my heart) whoa-oh-oh ooh
I never felt before
There's a (girl at my side) whoa-oh-oh ooh
That I adore
There's a glow in my heart I never felt before (ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh)

Oh darlin'
Where have you been?
I've been longin' for you all my life

Whoa-uh-oh baby I never felt this way before
I guess it's because there's a moon out tonight

There's a (glow in my heart) whoa-oh-oh ooh
I never felt before
There's a (girl at my side) whoa-oh-oh ooh
That I adore
There's glow in my heart
I guess it's because

There's a moon out tonight
Moon out tonight
Moon out tonight
Moon out tonight
There's a moon out tonight

Saturday, June 19, 2010

***A Dream Fragment On Looking For A Few Good…Mystics -In The Matter Of Tom Wolfe’s “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test”

Click on the headline to link to a Wikipedia entry for Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

Al Johnson, Class Of 1964, comment:

Okay, blame this foam-flecked entry totally on old wanna-be “gonzo” journalist/novelist Tom Wolfe and his infernal 1960s classic countercultural expose The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. I’ll explain the ‘wanna-be’ part in some book review, or in some of other place where talking about and discussing the "new journalism (1960s-style, including the likes of Hunter Thompson and Joan Didion) is called for. But, at least for now, I want to explain the why of that ‘where the blame should be placed’.

And why does Brother Wolfe (or is it really Brother Wolf?) earn this blame? Well, frankly, merely by telling this acid-etched (literally) story about the late author Ken Kesey (most famous for One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes A Great Notion), his California-gathered (naturally, right?) tribe of Merry Pranksters, their then rural California coastal communal arrangements (or non-arrangements, or dis-arrangements, as the case may be), and their antics, including a collectively produced and massively-filmed cross-country “bus” ride that cemented their zany experiences. No kidding- you were truly either on the “bus” or off the “bus” if you got entangled with this crowd.

Oh, did I mention, as well, their deep-end “edge city” drug experiences, especially the then little known acid (LSD) trips? Those drug experiments, important as they were to the story line of the book, are, however, not what have me up in arms though. Hey, experimenting with drugs, or experimenting with sometime (sex, the karma sutra, Zen, zen, sex, abstract primitivist painting, free-form verse, sex, hitchhiking the universe, sex, etc.) was de rigueur in those halcyon days. I wouldn’t waste my breathe, and your time, recounting those kinds of stories. Everybody did drugs back then, or was….unhip. And almost no one, hip, unhip, cloven-footed devil, or haloed angel wanted to be thought of as unhip.

The others, those who today claim memory loses on the subject, or some story along those lines, just lie. Or were cloistered somewhere, and such circumstances are better left untold. Or, and here is my favorite, didn’t inhale. The number of guys (and gals) who NOW say that they didn’t inhale exceeds the total youth tribe members of the 1960s. Unless, of course, my numbers are off, slightly. I, in any case, need not go through that scene again. Read Wolfe’s book or watch Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider, or ask your parents or…ouch, grandparents.

Today, however, I am excised on another point. Wolfe mentioned, repeatedly, the quasi-religious, mystical nature of the Kesey-gathered Merry Prankster tribal experience. And central to that, as to all such mystical communal experiences, is the emergence of some kind of “messiah” figure, or at least a chief mystic who guides the group’s actions, including the inevitable breakout into the real wide world when that time comes. Then, the breakout time, is when the power struggle really begins as the increased number of acolytes gather round and begin the long process of the selection of the “ins” and “outs”. To speak nothing of the very serious question of who is to “guard” the wisdom tablet (maybe, literally, a tablet in this case). Or who conducts the ceremonials to adhere the devotees. This is well-trodden ground, in any case.

And what in hell am I mad about that little quirky business for? Kesey was hardly the first guy or gal, and will hardly be the last either, to come down off the mountain to spread the “good news”, if only among the elect-at first. Hear me out though. I am sick and tired, utterly sick and tired, after a life time of listening, or really, half-listening to the latest screeds of the “god-seekers”, secular or religious. And of the side show carnival guys claiming for the umpteenth time they have the “new message” about human redemption. And of the about the 287th, or so, rendition of the story line of those who succumbed to some “conversion” religious experience. Enough, right? Well, perhaps, but what I want to blurt out is that, damn, I think Wolfe, and through him, Kesey were basically right that this was a time, the 1960s that is , when we, and I include myself in this as well, were looking for the “new messiah.”

For starters though, just in case the reader is caught short on the term “new messiah”, forget all the rough and tumble organized traditional religious stuff. That was a non-contender, then anyway. Hell, that was what we were running away from, and running as hard as our wobbly, drug-filled heads would force our legs to take us. (The three of us who have "confessed" to such activity in those days, excuse me. I don’t know in what condition the others were in during their runs.) No, any “church” had to be in some freshly-mown meadow, or among the squirrel-infested pines, or at the edge of the earth on some place where ‘our homeland’ the ocean, the sand and our sense of the vastness of space met. And any “preacher”, of the “good book” or, for that matter, of the virtues of demonology had to wear multi-colored, flowing home-spun robes, or some discarded army& navy store uniform, or some sheepskin vest, or maybe nothing. But, please, no collars around your neck, or ours. There were plenty of candidates looking for the job, looking to be heard, looking to be listened to and looking for those who were looking, for awhile anyway, until they ran out of steam, ran off with their sweeties, or with the cash box.

What we were looking for, at least what I think we were looking for was someone, once the traditional politicians proved to have feet of clay, or were mired in mud and blood up to their necks, or were blown away, to lead us to the “Promised Land.” That’s right the “Promised Land”, not some old quirky, queasy, hard scrabble, no air place that we all knew, or all of us that were “hip” knew, was not where we were at then. You know sometimes it was as simple as finding someone who had an answer or two. If they had a plan, or had the whole thing mapped out, so much the better. Mainly they just didn’t have to shout about it to the whole square world and bring the squares in to corner it, corral it, organize it, and make it a thing that not even your square, square parents could love.

And that, my friends, is where someone like Ken Kesey got some play, got his edge. His simple Western- bred (American Western-bred) ways, his obvious literary talents that acted as a magnet for those who saw no real difference between mad scientist Kesey and ‘mad scientist’ McMurphy (in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest), and his strong branding personality held the Prankster commune together. For a while. Until he too proved to have feet of clay, and fled. But here is the main point in the end it required just too much of a leap of faith to sail into the mystic with the mystics. For those like me, and there were many others like me, we had our mystical moment but when the deal went down we had to look elsewhere to other names to “seek the newer world.” World historic names no one, except, maybe, those now professed non-inhalers and vanguard neo-con cultural dead-enders, would confuse with mysticism.

Friday, June 18, 2010

***Poet's Corner- Bertolt Brecht's "To Those Born After"-In Honor Of Those Who Fought To "Seek A Newer World"

To Those Born After


To the cities I came in a time of disorder
That was ruled by hunger.
I sheltered with the people in a time of uproar
And then I joined in their rebellion.
That's how I passed my time that was given to me on this Earth.

I ate my dinners between the battles,
I lay down to sleep among the murderers,
I didn't care for much for love
And for nature's beauties I had little patience.
That's how I passed my time that was given to me on this Earth.

The city streets all led to foul swamps in my time,
My speech betrayed me to the butchers.
I could do only little
But without me those that ruled could not sleep so easily:
That's what I hoped.
That's how I passed my time that was given to me on this Earth.

Our forces were slight and small,
Our goal lay in the far distance
Clearly in our sights,
If for me myself beyond my reaching.
That's how I passed my time that was given to me on this Earth.


You who will come to the surface
From the flood that's overwhelmed us and drowned us all
Must think, when you speak of our weakness in times of darkness
That you've not had to face:

Days when we were used to changing countries
More often than shoes,
Through the war of the classes despairing
That there was only injustice and no outrage.

Even so we realised
Hatred of oppression still distorts the features,
Anger at injustice still makes voices raised and ugly.
Oh we, who wished to lay for the foundations for peace and friendliness,
Could never be friendly ourselves.

And in the future when no longer
Do human beings still treat themselves as animals,
Look back on us with indulgence.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

***Fragment Of A Fragment Of A Teenage Dream-In Honor Of The “Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flaked Streamline Baby” World -The 1950s

Click on the headline to link to a YouTube film clip from the movie American Graffiti to set the mood for the piece below.

Al Johnson, Class Of 1964, comment:

A Fragment Of A Fragment Of A Teenage Dream-In Honor Of Tom Wolfe's “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flaked Streamline Baby.”

There was a madness in this country in the 1950s. No, not the hoary Cold War the- atomic-bomb-is-going-to-get-us-and-we-are-all-going-to-be-dead-next-week or “better dead than red” kind of madness although there was plenty of that around. Some people, mostly older, whom I knew along the way in my life, while I was doing one thing or another, got caught up in that dragnet, that “red scare” dragnet, and took a beating over it, sometimes a physically beating but definitely a beating of their psyche, with or without the physical part. All for the simple proposition, when you think about it, that working people, and the people I am talking about to a person were working people not the high-flown intellectuals who abandoned ship when things got too hot, that those who make the goods of this sad old world, I mean really make the stuff, should make the rules. I’ll tell you more on that some other time but today I want to about cars, just about cars, about guys crazy about them and the girls crazy about the guys crazy about them, and about what they meant, no, what they really meant back then.

Like I say there was a madness for the automobile, the sleeker, the more aerodynamically-refined, more powerfully-engined, especially the powerfully-engined part but also with a classy chassis, the better. Some people who ought to know, like wannabe “gonzo” journalist Tom Wolfe who got me started on this screed from an old article that I have used as part of the title here that he wrote in “Esquire” magazine in 1963 or a real “gonzo” journalist like Hunter Thompson, except it was motorcycles too, or maybe James Dean himself who knows, say the madness started even before then, the fifties that is, back at the tail end of the Second World War. Their idea is that there was so much money around, war boom production government dough, especially so much dough around for Depression-raised “no dough” kids that the kids, if you can believe this, started going after cars and, as kids will, taking the old-fashioned ones like Hudsons, Studebakers and old time Fords and “souping” them up. That is once cars started being produced again, instead of tanks, lots of tanks, in Detroit.

Not only that, according to the stories, the kids started to get a little whacky about it. Like spending all their time hammering down heavy chrome fender and bopping to get it just right, eternally , oil-drenched, grease-monkeyed engine-tweaking, forever high-end rear axle-lifting, and, don’t forget, applying rainbow color-coded flash-painting (and, maybe, decaling). And trying to look cool while doing it and…well, and trying to impress the be-bop, short shorts wearing, slinky, saucy, sultry (did I leave anything out) tweeny-teeny girls who just happened to be walking by.

And once you start trying to impress girls, or once you actually did impress them, then the only thing left was how you were going to feed them. I mean the girls not the cars, although come to think of it maybe I am thinking of the cars. Nah. Well, sure what else is a guy to do but run down to the ubiquitous now slice-of-nostalgic- Americana, save it for “American Graffiti” drive-in food shack, complete with short-skirted bunny hoppers waiting on you and your cravings natch. And then you were up against how you were going to excite them with all that power, car power that is, natch again, on those barely asphalt ,one lane, lonesome road Saturday night “chicken” runs out on the edge of the universe, at least it seemed like that on star-studded nights. So, the long and short of it is that a little cult kind of thing got going, or maybe it was just teenagers being teenagers. I don’t know but it sounds real good, doesn’t it.

Still I don’t really know about that story, good as it sounds, because it was suppose to be kind of a West Coast kid thing. Figures, right? You know, all those guys who couldn’t get close enough, or want to get close enough, to the water to be surfer guys, or just didn’t know what the heck “hanging ten” was all about, or didn’t care. Or, maybe, from another angle, because I have heard these kinds of stories too, just Southern good old boys running white liquor through the hollows and back roads of some woe begotten mountain valley beating hell out of the revenue agents. The easy part is beating those revenue guys but you need serious wheels to beat through muddy-encrusted back roads and hollows down Appalachia way and you had better have that big old V-8 “souped-up”, I don’t think a Super 6 would do it, to beat the band if you did not want to spent your sweet roll, high-kicking young life in some old jail, state or federal, take your pick. I am closer to the nut on that story seeing as my father came from there, down in those hollows and those winding roads and those mountain mists and breezes, but still it just ain’t my madness story.

Really, I want to tell you about what I know about the madness and so I have to go from the 1950s. Like I say I don’t know, first hand anyway, about those other locales, their ethos, their humors or their quirks. I just don’t. See I think, for one thing, that those guys telling those earlier stories are just piecing us off by making it a cult thing or a small sub-set of a subset of a cult, or maybe just trying to tell colorful stories to make up for that “red scare” stuff that doesn’t sound right about America. You know democracy and all that stuff while you are running people out of town on a rail for just talking “red talk”, or trying to.

Besides, this story wasn’t just about, deafeningly mad as they were, those guys in the now almost sepia-faded photographic images of tight T-shirt wearing, rolled sleeve cigarette-packed, greased Pompadour-haired, long side-burned, dangling-combed , engineer-booted, chain-wielding, side of the mouth butt-puffing , didn’t care if school kept or not types bent over the hood of some souped-up ’57 Chevy working, no sweating pools of sweat, sweating to get even more power out of that ferocious V-8 engine for the Saturday night “ chicken" run. No way, it wasn’t.

And it wasn’t even just those mad faux James Dean-sneered, "rebel without a cause"-posed, cooled-out, maybe hop-headed guys either. And it was always guys, who you swore you would beat down if they ever even looked at your sister, if you had a sister, and if you liked her enough to beat a guy down to defend her honor, or whatever drove your sense of right. And, of course she, your sister no less, is looking for all she is worth at this “James Dean” soda jerk (hey, what else could he be) because this guy is “cute”. Go figure, right? , Aw, maybe I don’t like her all that much anyway, and we all have to fend for ourselves when the deal goes down. Jesus, a monosyllabic (uh) soda jerk. Come on, sis.

No, and, by the way, forget all those stereotypes that they, the writers and film guys, like to roll out when they want to bring a little “color”, or tap into “baby-boomer” nostalgia, to the desperately color-craving 1950s. With their monotonous line-up of blond, slick-haired, California sun-drenched, devil may care, second generation “Okie” car jockeys. This car madness really was driven, driven hard, driven white-knuckled hard right to the edge, by East Coast non-blond, non-slick, non-“Okie” guys like Stu who lived down the end of my growing up street. Down the car-wreck-filled, oil-slick splashed, gas-fume-smelling dead-end of my run down old working class, edge of the working class getting poorer not richer, neighborhood ready for the bulldozer anytime street.

And Stu was the “king” there. If such a place could have a king he was it, no question, and nobody, not us kids anyway, questioned his lordship. Stu, kind of non-descript, pimply-faced, deceptively Saturday afternoon television wrestler overweight although we swore, or we would swear, that he was just big. Hands so permanently oil-stained, so deeply gritted, that no Borax could ever penetrate. Wearing some kind of grease-ladened denims to accompany those hands too, when denim meant Farmer Brown more than fashionista. Mussed–up hair unfurled at odd angles like maybe he had just enough time for a “bowl cut” from some younger brother or maybe his mother before he got back under the hood or under the body where he “breathed’ the rarified air that kept him going. And always, always a “what the hell” smirk like he knew, and knew for certain, about the nature of the universe, as the smoke from his ever-present cigarette wrapped around in rings his (and your) head, and seemed to tell of new techniques learned and just a little more power gotten out of that old ’57 Chevy primo boss wagon that had all us neighborhood kids on the prowl for a ride (that we never ever got, but that’s a different story and you can figure out why after what I tell you next).

Ya, but that is not all, no, not by a long shot. Here is where you got to figure something is awry in the universe, or at least you’ve got to think of that possibility. “Stew-ball” Stu (that’s what we called him, although not to his face, for there was always the faint smell, and sometimes not so faint, of liquor, hard liquor like whiskey or scotch or who knows, maybe, Southern Comfort, it was cheap enough then, coming out of that tobacco-infested mouth of his) always had “babes” around. Hell, there were always a ton of them fussing over him and I swear I am not exaggerating because I would have been happy, very happy, to have one of his cast-offs, if I had been just a little older, and a lot wiser. And these were not just some old mirror-image Stu babes. These girls were “hot”, 1950s “hot”, ya, but still hot. A more mysterious, secretive, selective, “I wonder what she really looks like underneath” hot than today when you know, and know for certain, who is hot without having to ask that question.

I can still picture those oceans of flowing hair, that sea of tight jeans and stretch pants and those cashmere sweaters and who knows what else underneath, and what do I know what else, or care, because all I know is that to a supposedly oblivious young buck that I still was back then they smelled nice and a boy/man can dream, can’t he? And high school dropout, couldn’t care if school kept or not, getting grease all over him, and maybe all over them Stu just kind of ignoring them. Ignoring them! Can you beat that?

Ya, but see here is what I didn’t know. I didn’t know about the late night beach Stu. The Stu watching the “submarine” races down by the now tepid ocean shore, with the waves apologizing to the beach sand for splashing it, with some quick choice girl. And they, the girls that is, were standing to line, just to get in line. And who is to say, and at least who am I too say, that they were wrong. It was a ’57 Chevy, after all. Did you hear me? I said it was a ’57 Chevy that had all the girls trembling like Stu was Elvis or something. But here is what burns me up even today. Those girls weren’t interested, weren’t interested in the least, in what old Stu had read lately, or whether he even read anything at all, like I tried to use as my calling card back then to wow the girls, unsuccessfully. Hell, and you wonder why I speak of madness. Let me out of this place.