Sunday, August 25, 2019

The Big Stretch

Note: A version of this piece first appeared in STYLE Weekly as a Back Page in 2002.

The prototype was assembled during a lull in seventh grade shop class. After tying some 15 rubber bands together to make a chain, a collaborator held one end of the silly looking contraption as I stepped back to stretch it out for a test. Aiming as best I could, looking along the taut line of connected rubber bands, I let go.

The whole thing gathered itself and shot past the holder. The released tip struck a target, or maybe it was near it, several feet beyond the holder. It worked! While the satisfaction I felt was a rush, the encouragement from the boys who witnessed that launching was glorious.

Through a pleasant sequence of trial-and-error experiments, it wasn't long before I figured out how to best maximize distance and accuracy. Once guys across the schoolroom were getting popped with the bitter end of my brainchild, dubbed the Stretch, the spitballs that routinely flew around such rooms in 1961 at Albert H. Hill Junior High were strictly old news. The next two days of playing with the new sensation of the seventh grade had the effect of transforming me into the leader of a crew, of a sort.

A couple of days later, uncharacteristically, I appeared on the schoolyard an hour before the first bell. Inside a brown paper bag I had was an updated version of my invention. This one was some 60 links long. Of course, it's name was the Big Stretch.

Only trusted henchmen had seen it in its test runs. No one else at school had seen it and naturally, I was only too happy to change that. Once the mind-boggling range of the Big Stretch was demonstrated on the schoolyard, boys were shoving one another, trying to be next in line to act as the holder.

With this new version, early on, most of the time I did the shooting. As the rubber-band wonder whizzed by the holder, it made such a splendid noise that just standing close by was something to talk about. On the asphalt playground, adjacent to the yellow brick school building, each flight was a crowd-pleaser.

The Big Stretch went on to make an appearance at an afternoon football game, where its experienced operators established to the delight of the crowd that cheerleaders doing their routines on the sideline could be zapped on their bouncing butts from 25 yards away with impunity. In my junior high school in 1961 not much could have been cooler than that.

After a couple of days of demonstrations around the neighborhood and at Willow Lawn shopping center, I decided to significantly lengthen the chain of rubber bands. However, the new version, about 100 rubber bands long, was neither as accurate or powerful as the previous model had been. My theory was that it was just too damn heavy for its own good.

A day or so later came the morning a couple of beefy ninth-grade football players insisted on taking a single turn as shooter and holder of the new Big Stretch. OK. Then they demanded a second turn. I said, "No."

Surrounded by seventh-grade devotees of the Big Stretch, I stood my ground, "No!"

But my fair-weather entourage proved to be useless in a pinch. Faced with no good options, I fled with my claim-to-fame in hand. In short order I was cornered and pounded until the determined thieves got the loot they wanted.

The bullies fooled around for a while trying to hit their buddies with it. Eventually, several rubber bands broke and the Big Stretch was literally pulled to pieces and scattered. By then my nose had stopped bleeding, so I gathered what remained of my dignity and decided to shrug off the whole affair, as best I could.

For whatever reasons, I chose not to make another version of the Big Stretch. I don't remember thinking about it. A few days later a couple of other kids copied it, and showed it off, but nobody seemed to care. Just as abruptly as it had gotten underway, the connected-rubber-band craze simply ran out of gas at Hill School. It wasn't cool, anymore.

So, it was over. At that same time, 1961, the slang meaning of “cool” still had an underground cachet. I thought beatniks were cool. The same went for certain musicians and baseball players. Still, I would hardly have known how to convincingly say why.  

Since then I've come to understand that the concept of cool is said to have seeped out of the early bebop scene in Manhattan in the ‘40s. Well, that may be so, but to me the same delightful sense of spontaneity and understated defiance seems abundantly evident in forms of expression that predate the Dizzy Gillespie/Thelonious Monk era at Minton’s, on 118th Street.

Anyway, wasn’t that Round Table scene at the Algonquin Hotel, back in the ‘20s, something akin to cool? If Dorothy Parker's word-smithing wasn’t cool, what the hell was? And, in the decades that preceded the advent of bebop jazz, surely modern art -- with its cubism, surrealism, suprematism and so forth -- was laying down some of the rules for what became known as cool.

Cool’s zenith as a style had probably been passed by 1961, about the time I was becoming enamored with the Beats, via national magazines. Looking back on that time now I have to think that widespread exposure and cool didn't mix. Significantly, cool -- with its ability to be flippant and profound in the same gesture -- rose and fell without the encouragement of the ruling class.

Underdogs invented cool out of thin air. It was a style that was beyond what money could buy. The artful grasping of a moment’s unique truth was cool every time.

However, just as the one-time-only perfect notes blown in a jam session can’t be duplicated, authentic cool was difficult to harness; even more difficult to mass-produce. By the ‘70s, the mobs of hippies attuned to stadium rock ‘n’ roll shrugged nothing off. Cool was probably too subtle for them to appreciate. The expression subsequently lost its moorings and dissolved into the soup of mainstream vernacular.

Eventually, in targeting self-absorbed baby boomers as a market, Madison Avenue promoted everything under the sun -- including schmaltz, and worse -- as cool. The Disco craze ignored cool. Punk Rockers searched for it in all the wrong places, then caught a mean buzz and gave up. By the mid-'80s nihilism was masquerading as cool ... then it just stopped mattering. 

Since then, when people say, “ku-wul,” usually it's to express their ordinary approval of routine things. Which underlines the lesson that time tends to stretch slang expressions thin, as they are assimilated. 

At Hill School, the process of becoming cool, then popular, then routine, literally pulled the Big Stretch to pieces. Once the edgy, experimental aspect of it was over, it had become just another gimmick. Its coolness was kaput.

If Dorothy Parker's word-smithing wasn’t 
cool, what the hell was?

-- Photo of Albert H. Hill Middle School from RVA Schools 
My Dorothy Parker illustration was done in 2013. 

Friday, August 16, 2019

Living in a Movie: The Walk

Although Susan was quite attractive she wasn't the sort of heavenly brunette likely to stare at a viewer from the cover of a glossy fashion magazine. On the other hand, when she walked across a room, all eyes tended to follow her. Susan had a great walk. Her gait wasn't particularly fast or slow, it didn't seem affected. Her slender limbs were long. The sway of her body was natural, not exaggerated. Her steps had a graceful light-on-her-feet confidence and her head was held high. Her wrists were loose. Susan glided.

Susan was a part-time cashier at the Biograph Theatre (in Richmond) for some five months during the Biograph's first year of operation (1972). She was a full-time VCU student. Although I can't recall anything unusual happening to mark the occasion, for some reason I clearly remember a scene in which I noticed that everyone in the lobby seemed mesmerized, watching her walk across the room. It was like living in a movie. 

Actually, I know that sort of thing happened other times during Susan's stint at the Biograph, but for some reason I still only picture the few seconds I just mentioned. In those days I tended to collect scenes for my imaginary movie. When something caught my eye sometimes I would think it should be remembered, so I could put a scene like it in a film I would someday make. While the movie was never made, some of the saved memories linger.

In a lot of moving pictures that show people watching an attractive woman walking it's about her projected sex appeal and frequently it's played as campy. Think Fellini.

Which is not at all like the scene I'm remembering in the Biograph's lobby. In my scene the woman is smooth and aloof. Think “The Girl From Ipanema” … ahh.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Forced Reverence

The controversy began with quarterback Colin Kaepernick's quite gesture in 2016. Here we are now three years later and the arguments for and against athletes taking a knee during the playing of the National Anthem haven't changed much. 

When I see threads on Facebook about it the comments are basically the same each time. It's almost like those commenting are reciting them. Frequently that thought reminds me of an odd episode about recitation rituals from my own childhood.

When I was in elementary school there was a start-the-day ritual that was done each day. First the teacher called the roll. Then one student was summonsed to the front of the class to lead in the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance and the Lord's Prayer. We kids took turns.

Like some of my peers, I didn't like doing that job. It made me nervous. But in the second grade I hadn't gotten to the point in my career as a student that I would have protested, or flatly refused to do what was expected.

The Pledge came first. So I faced the flag, as required, and started saying the spiel with my hand over my heart. Except, I was reciting the Lord's Prayer – “Our Father, which art in heaven...”

Naturally, the kids laughed ... a lot. 

Of course, I must have changed gears to say the proper speech, but I don't remember that part. The embarrassment and laughter I remember all too well. 

Later some kids were said they were sure I'd done it on purpose, perhaps because I was already somewhat of a class clown type. At some point later on it must have occurred to me that the Pledge of Allegiance was sort of like a prayer.

Gradually, over the years, I grew to be more and more uncomfortable with any kind of prayer/chant that is forced onto people. Maybe WWII movies about Nazis were influencing me.

Consequently, it has been a long time since I've put my hand over my heart during the National Anthem at games. I always stand, quietly, hands clapped together in front of me, but I don't sing along. Yes, I've been glared at more than a few times, but there's never been a scene.

Sometimes I do flash back onto that time in the second grade when I was first made to feel uncomfortable about forced patriotism or forced prayer.

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

Shooters Shoot


Don't tell me most of America’s mass-murdering shooters were just crazy killers who would simply have switched over to bombs or poison, if they couldn't have gotten a hold of their favorite tools. I believe those massacre-makers craved the raw thrill of shooting rapid-fire weapons at living people so much the urge finally became irresistible.

Killers they were, but they weren't bombers or poisoners. They weren't knife-wielders or stranglers. They were shooters. Shooters shoot.

Shooters project their will over a distance with instant results they can see. While Wayne LaPierre and the rest of the shills for the firearms industry talk about protecting constitutional rights, the angle they don't want to discuss is protecting thrills. Truth be told: Possessors of assault rifles adore the thrill of shooting those weapons of war.

As we've seen too often, for the most evil of rapid-fire gun lovers, the thrill of shooting at their selected human targets, even terrified children, can become irresistible.