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?