Trick Or Treating In The ’60s

We’re getting ready for Beggars’ Night in Columbus, but that’s just part of what has become an increasingly big, and prolonged, celebration of Halloween in America.

In German Village, we’ve already had an adult trick or treat night that gave “grown-ups” a chance to don costumes, act like kids, and go to designated locations where they could have special drinks and eat Halloween food.  If you turn on your TV, you’ll see lots of commercials about preparing special Halloween-themed foods, decorating your house with spiders, fake cobwebs, and other scary stuff, and making or buying elaborate get-ups for your kids.  It all reflects the reality that, every year, Americans spend more and more on Halloween.   

f22c4ef1e347c837bc8f82d4dbf0581aIt was . . . different during the ’60s.  Halloween was almost exclusively a kid’s holiday in those days; I don’t remember adults being very involved or all that interested in participating themselves.   Most of us kids came up with our own costume ideas and made them ourselves, because there weren’t a lot of other options — you could buy a cheap costume from the local store, but it was impossible to see or even breathe in the hard plastic mask with a slit for the mouth and little holes for the eyes that was always of the package, and the flimsy bodysuit part of the costume was ripped to shreds almost immediately unless you stood perfectly still, like the unfortunate kids in the photo above.  After one year where I, too, went as Batman and wandered around with a sweating face, unable to see or make myself heard clearly, I decided that the homemade costume route was definitely the way to go.

I don’t remember much about the costumes I made, except that they were pretty simple.  One year UJ, Cath and I went as three of the four Monkees — I think I was Mickey Dolenz, my favorite Monkee — but our costumes didn’t matter much because it was unseasonably cold for trick or treating that year and Mom made us bundle up to the point you couldn’t see our Monkee outfits, anyway.  One year I was a pirate, one year I donned a jersey and went as a generic “football player,” and another year — I’m embarrassed to admit — I went as a “bum,” putting on some beat-up clothing, a battered hat, and smearing some of Mom’s mascara on my chin to give the appearance of unshaven beard stubble.  The hobo outfit was common in that pre-PC era and was an easy costume to make and blessedly mask-free, but I’m guessing that nobody goes trick or treating as a “bum” these days.

That’s one of the many ways in which Halloween has changed since I was a kid.  One thing that hasn’t changed:  kids still want chocolate to put into their trick or treat sack.  No apples or popcorn balls, please!

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First Man

Last night we went to see First Man at the Gateway Film Center. The movie tells the story of Neil Armstrong, from his days as a test pilot flying the X-15 over the California high desert to his work as a NASA astronaut and, ultimately, to his step onto the Moon that indelibly wrote his name into the history books.

It’s a riveting tale, and the movie leaves a powerful impression as it follows two narrative threads — the arc of the lunar space program and the equally compelling story of the impact on families. The film presents the life of the astronauts with intense realism, as they wedge themselves into cramped spaces atop enormous rockets, are routinely shaken to bits even in a successful launch, and have to deal with technical malfunctions that, in Armstrong’s case, left him in a Gemini capsule spinning out of control above the Earth and on the verge of passing out before he discovered a fix. Tragedy and death are an accepted part of the job, and above it all is the sense that the astronauts were playing a key role in an essential national mission. You can’t watch the film without acquiring a new appreciation for the brave and resolute men who were part of the astronaut program.

But the home front tale is just as powerful. There, too, untimely death has a huge impact, and families struggle as husbands and fathers become increasingly absorbed in the mission and are frequently away. The wives shoulder the burden of keeping their families together and moving forward, listening worriedly to the mission control feeds in their suburban homes as TV crews and photographers and reporters jostle on the front lawns, and living with the oppressive reality that, at any moment, their husbands might be killed and there is absolutely nothing they can do about it. The grit and fortitude of wives and mothers were just as crucial to the success of the mission as the courage of the astronauts.

Ryan Gosling is terrific as Neil Armstrong, the buttoned-up and buttoned-down engineer who immerses himself in the mission and strives to keep his emotions in check, and Claire Foy is equally terrific as Janet Armstrong, the pillar of the family who holds it all together. The film is beautifully photographed and the sense of realism is total — from the buttons and switches and configuration of the spacecrafts to the shuddering rocket launches to the desolate lunar surface . . . and to the cans of Budweiser, the TV sets with rabbit ears, and the clothing that were part and parcel of suburban life in the ’60s.

First Man is the best film I’ve seen in a long time; I give it five stars. And as we left the theatre I was struck by the thought that once, this country could come together to try to do great things — and then actually accomplish the mission. I wish we could capture more of that spirit these days.

Hippie Trippie

It’s not often you see a vintage VW minibus these days. I always associate them with the hippies of the late ’60s, when the little VW buses — chronically underpowered and always limping up hills — were covered with painted psychedelic designs, peace symbol stickers, and other forms of folk art.

This bus didn’t have psychedelic designs — although that minty green color is pretty cool — but it did have virtually ever square inch of bumper and top covered with stickers.

If the stickers are any indication, the owner of this nifty rig is not a Trump supporter.

Adam West And The Age Of Innocence

I was sorry to read about the death of Adam West — known to everyone over a certain age as Batman — this past weekend.  West, who was 88, died after battling leukemia.

adam-west-and-burt-ward-i-010Hearing about West’s death made me think, of course, about the Batman TV show that was enormously popular when I was a little kid.  The word that inevitably is used now to describe the show is “campy,” but really it was more about innocence.  Batman was just like a comic book of those days brought to life, with every punch marked by a Pow! or Whammo!, with characters who weren’t dealing with any “real-world” problems, and with a hero who constantly lectured Robin, the Boy Wonder, in an avuncular way, instructing him all on the platitudes about brushing your teeth and eating your vegetables and being a patriotic citizen that we kids were hearing all the time at home from our parents and grandparents.

Sure, the show was played with a wink, and usually Batman gave Robin the benefit of his wisdom as they were using a rope to walk up the side of the wall in an obviously fake way, just before some famous person put their head out of a window in a silly cameo appearance — but the fact is that the platitudes still got stated on network TV by a hero who apparently meant every word, the hero always escaped from whatever devilish contrivance the Joker or the Penguin or the Riddler put him into, and in the end truth and justice and the hero prevailed . . . and nobody really got hurt beyond taking a few punches to the jaw, either.

The show worked because the theme song was cool, the Batmobile was cooler, and Adam West played Batman right down the line, delivering his homilies and interacting with Commissioner Gordon and even the Catwoman with straight-faced earnestness — presaging the career of Leslie Nielsen playing hilarious deadpan characters in Airplane! and the Naked Gun movies.  West was perfect for the Batman role, and that West was able to impassively act the part was particularly impressive when you consider that he was romping around in an embarrassingly tight superhero costume and cape.  It couldn’t have been easy being Batman, but West pulled it off — and even more remarkable, when you think about celebrities of the modern era who will do just about anything to get attention, he never dissed the show or made fun of it, even after the show had long since ended.  To the contrary, West seemed legitimately appreciative, at least publicly, that he had a chance to be a star and a hero to little kids during those long-ago days.

It’s unimaginable that a show like Batman would ever get made these days, because network executives would insist on complex characters struggling with inner demons and the violence would be much bloodier, and scarier, and deadlier, and Batman would never give Robin the kind of lectures that the Boy Wonder got back in the ’60s.  It’s understandable, I guess, but it’s too bad, too.  There’s something to be said for innocence, and a hero who thinks it’s important to mention dental hygiene now and then.

Still Astronaut Wannabes

This year, NASA set a new record for the number of applicants to its astronaut program.  18,300 people applied to join NASA’s 2017 astronaut class.  Unfortunately, the vast majority of those hopefuls will be disappointed, because NASA expects to actually select only between 8 and 14 astronauts.

When I was a kid growing up in the ’60s, every kid wanted to grow up to be an astronaut.  Of course we did!  Every time there was a rocket launch we trooped into the school auditorium to watch it, and when the rocket cleared the launchpad we cheered in support of those brave men riding in the capsule at the very tip of that pillar of flame.  In my third grade class our science project involved a life-size mock up of the Gemini capsule, covered in aluminum foil, that sat in one corner of the classroom.  From watching Walter Cronkite on TV, we knew all of the steps in the launching and recovery processes.

worldmostexpensivesuit-americanastronautcostumeSo obviously we dreamed of one day being astronauts.  Astronauts were celebrities.  Astronauts were cool — like the Beatles, except clean-cut.  Astronauts were the future.  Astronauts were leading the great national effort for America to win the “space race,” and they got to go to the White House and meet the President, too.

The days of intense national interest in rocket launches and sending a man to the moon are long behind us.  We don’t even have a space shuttle program anymore, and space flight opportunities are limited to occasional trips to the International Space Station.  But NASA is hopeful that a new era in space flight is just around the corner.  It is talking about sending a manned mission to Mars in the 2030s, private companies are increasingly getting into the space business, and the movie The Martian was a big hit that made astronauts world-wide heroes again.  Maybe the manned space program will once again come to the forefront.

I think it says something positive that more than 18,000 people applied for the astronaut program.  People still want to be part of a great effort, still want to move the frontiers forward, still want to explore.  In short, they still want to be astronauts.  Why not?  Heck, I still think it would be cool to be an astronaut.

 

On That Dallas Day

President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed 50 years ago today.  Fifty years is a long time, but in some ways the Kennedy assassination seems even more distant and remote.  So much has happened since, and so much of it has been bad.  The world is such a different place now, it is almost as if the shooting in Dallas occurred in another reality altogether.

I was a first-grader when it happened.  I remember a scratchy voice coming out of the polished wooden PA system box above the blackboard and announcing that the President had died, and our teacher shocked and sobbing.  But, of course, I was just a little kid, not quite sure who the President was, even, or what this would mean for me or my family.  Everything I know about President Kennedy — the romance of “Camelot,” the inspiring speeches, the successes, the failures, and the details of his personal life — I’ve learned since his death, with the information, always, shaped and colored by the terrible senselessness of his assassination.  The impact of his death on how his legacy was viewed in the years after his death shouldn’t surprise anyone; America lost a vigorous young President and the promise he brought with him, and the country was profoundly shaken.  Even now, half a century later, it is hard to view things with the abstract objectivity of historians.

Students of popular culture tend to put things into neat packages.  For many, the story is of a boring, stodgy America during the 1950s, followed by the short sunburst of the Kennedy years, and then a country that lost its way after bullets rained down on that Dallas motorcade.  That story, I think, is a bit too tidy and, perhaps, confuses a timeline with causation.  The ’50s were not a Norman Rockwell painting, and the Kennedy presidency was not the golden era that it was once depicted to be.  To be sure, the years after the shooting were tumultuous, with race riots, the Vietnam War, anti-war protests, more assassinations, Apollo moon landings, and profound social changes, but did the Kennedy assassination cause, or even contribute significantly, to those events?  We can safely conclude that the Apollo moon landings would not have happened but for the challenge issued by a newly elected President in 1961, and we know from that lesson and others that individual people can alter and shape the future — but how many of the signature events of the ’60s were the inevitable result of historical forces long since set in motion, bound to happen no matter who was President?

Historians will comb the record of the 1000 days of the Kennedy presidency to try to determine whether his assassination should be viewed like that of President Lincoln, whose death clearly affected the course of Reconstruction after the Civil War, or like that of Presidents Garfield and McKinley, whose killings are treated like mere eddies in the onrushing current of history.  For average Americans, the question is much more basic:  If President Kennedy had survived, would our world now be a better place?  Unfortunately, we’ll never know the answer.

The Day Schultzie Got Stuck In A Drainpipe

We were messing around in our yard on a summer Saturday when we saw it happen.  Schultzie, the McCormick’s ferocious black dachshund, had spotted a skunk and raced after it as fast as his stubby legs could carry him.

The skunk ran into a small drainpipe that ran under the road between our yard and the field beyond, and Schultzie followed without hesitation.  The skunk came out and waddled into the weeds of the field, never to be seen again.  Schultzie did not.  Keith called for him, but he didn’t come out.  We looked in one end of the drainpipe, then in the other, to see if Schultzie was close enough to grab.  He wasn’t.  We was back in the pipe, his stout weiner dog body firmly lodged back somewhere in the gloom.  We heard him, barking furiously.

We all went home to tell our parents.  Soon a crowd gathered.  The adults discussed and attempted various forms of rescue, but they all failed.  So, the adults did what adults did in the ’60s when something weird happened and there was no other apparent solution:  they called the fire department.

The fire department!  They’d never come to our neighborhood before!  That was exciting news, so the crowd clustered around one end of the drainpipe grew steadily.  The Dads decided it would be a good idea to bring over a cooler of cold beer, and maybe a bag of chips or two.  By the time the fire department got there an impromptu party had broken out, with the adults chatting happily and savoring their beers on a hot summer day and kids racing around for a better look at the fire crew and their equipment.  The trapped Schultzie, on the other hand, was largely forgotten.

The fire crew decided to try to flush Schultzie out using some kind of foam concoction.  As they prepared to do so and more beers were drained, the tension built.  The flushing went forward, the foam shot into the drainpipe . . . and soon Schultzie came jetting out the other side in a gout of foam and water, soaking wet and a bit scraped but otherwise none the worse for wear.  The mob of kids and Moms were happy that Schultzie had survived all the excitement.  The Dads, on the other hand, decided they may as well crack open another beer and discuss the fire department’s rescue technique, so they did.

It was a red-letter day on the Circle, and it was tough to sleep that night for all the excitement.  That day has always been vivid in my memory.  I thought then, and still think now:  this is what a neighborhood should be like.