The Haircut Bell Curve

My mother says I came into this world hairless and remained so for months.

When hair first sprouted on my head, choices had to be made.  At first, they weren’t made by me.  Dad cut my hair using a home barber kit with electronic clippers.  He specialized in crew cuts that required no barbering skills.  UJ and I sat in a chair, squirming and worried about our ears getting snagged by those buzzing clippers, and all hair was taken off a quarter-inch from the scalp.

This continued until I was about 13.  It was the late ’60s, and suddenly I realized that no other boy in my grade had a crew cut.  Obviously, this meant that crew cuts weren’t very cool, and the march up the slope of the haircut bell curve began.  I first experimented with a bang cut that resembled that of Moe of the Three Stooges.  It looked ridiculous, of course, but I was intoxicated by freedom from the high and tight.

My haircuts got progressively longer and eventually became “stylings.”  By the time I graduated from high school, I had a kind of hair helmet look  that covered my ears and hung over the collar.  I reached the pinnacle of the haircut bell curve in college, when my hair was shoulder-length and constantly had to be pushed out of my eyes in front.  It also looked silly, but every young guy — except Elvis Costello and the members of Devo — had long hair.  In short, I had no choice.

After I graduated and started working, I moved onto the downward slope.  At first my haircuts got shorter because I thought it looked more professional, then I realized that I looked a little less ridiculous with shorter hair.  When my hair started to go gray, I decided I didn’t want the grizzled, kinky-hair-at-the-temples look, which meant even shorter hair was in order.

So, my haircut bell curve is coming full circle, and I’m progressively moving closer to the buzz cut from whence I started.  I’m not sure I’ll ever quite get there — but if Dad somehow reappeared with those old clippers, I promise I’d sit still this time.

Davy Jones, R.I.P.

I was saddened to read today of the death of Davy Jones, one of the Monkees.  Jones died of a heart attack at age 66.

When The Monkees TV show first began airing and their songs dominated the airwaves, Davy Jones became the heartthrob of millions of adolescent girls.  He was one of the first post-Beatles teen idols.  At that time, at least, the role of teen idol carried a certain responsibility — you had to be squeaky clean in your public persona, give mindless interviews about your pet peeves and favorite foods to magazines like Tiger Beat, and pose in the most ridiculous publicity photos imaginable.  Jones carried it off with elan, and then he handed off the baton to Bobby Sherman, who handed it off to David Cassidy, who handed it off to some other fresh-faced, inoffensive object of the platonic affections of millions of teenage American girls.

Who cares if Davy Jones wasn’t the world’s greatest singer or the world’s greatest actor?  He brought joy and excitement to the lives of many, he was part of a TV show that a lot of us liked at the time, and he managed to be part of some pretty darned good music that helped to define the ’60s.  I think Daydream Believer was one his best Monkees tunes, and it seems like a fitting point of remembrance.

Davy Jones, R.I.P.

The Occupy Protests Turn Weird

We seem to have reached a kind of turning point with the “Occupy” protests.  Last night’s violence in Oakland, among other incidents, raises more general questions about the “Occupy” protests.  Who are these folks, really, and what do they want?

Some mayors have lost patience with protests that disrupt neighborhoods and interfere with commerce.  In other areas the “Occupy” protests appear to have attracted the attention of criminal elements who sense the presence of trusting souls who are ripe for the picking. In still other places the protesters look to be lashing out indiscriminately, and doing curious things like deciding to occupy random buildings

The protests seems to be searching for a common theme — and I predict that the lack of a common theme ultimately will be fatal.  This isn’t like the ’60s, when protesters of all stripes — from the Weathermen to the Black Panthers to guys who just didn’t want to fight in some faraway country for some ill-defined cause — were unified in their opposition to the Vietnam War.  Economic issues, in contrast, are much more diffuse.   It’s one thing to say, in effect:  “The economy sucks!”  Most people would agree with that sentiment.  But after you get past the general, and start to focus on the specific, the fractures appear.  For every “Occupy” protester who wants to tear down our current capitalistic system and replace it with a New World Order, how many of the protesters would be perfectly happy to just have a job in the field that they studied in college?

The Cricket In The Room

The other day I was walking through a parking garage when I heard a cricket.  I thought it was weird to hear a cricket in a downtown parking garage, and almost immediately thought how irritating the sound of a cricket is — and suddenly I remembered something I hadn’t thought about for years.

It was the summer of 1968.  Mom and Dad had loaded the five kids in the Webner clan into our Ford Country Squire station wagon to drive from Akron, Ohio to Fullerton, California, where Uncle Gilbert and Aunt Barbara and their kids lived in excitingly close proximity to Disneyland.  (To get a sense of what the trip was like, think of the Griswold clan making their cross country trek in the Family Truckster in National Lampoon’s Vacation.)

We had stopped in Las Vegas, Nevada, where Dad wanted to do a little gambling and get blissfully away from his five brawling, bawling brats.  We were staying at a strip motel with a swimming pool.  With seven people in our family, there was no way we could stay in one room, so UJ, Cath and I were in our own room.

Of course, we stayed up much later than we should have — what self-respecting kid wouldn’t take advantage of that opportunity? — but when we finally decided to go to bed we heard the cricket.  It was chirping away, somewhere in our room.  At first we tried to go to sleep anyway.  It was just a tiny cricket, after all.  But we couldn’t sleep.  The chirping was like a rusty saw scraping against the brain.  Even though we were exhausted, with eyes that felt like they were coated with sand and brains that yearned to lapse into slumber, we couldn’t fall asleep with that insistent noise.  And the cricket seemed to taunt us.  It would stop chirping for a beat or two, and we would think that maybe it had stopped.  And then it would start up again.

Finally, giddy with fatigue at about 3 a.m., we decided we had to find that cricket and shut it up.  It was us, or him.  UJ and I scoured the room and finally found the cricket behind the dresser in the room.  We moved the heavy dresser, exposed the cricket . . . and then killed it with a shoe.  I am ashamed to admit that I was ridiculously happy to have killed a living creature, because I knew it would finally let me get some sleep.  And that is exactly what happened.

The Unheralded Defeat Of “Ring Around The Collar”

To a young boy growing up during the ’60s, the life of a housewife as shown on TV seemed full of curious challenges and potential disasters.  So many crucial product decisions to be made!  Which floor wax was most likely to seal against black heel marks?  How could you keep that “fresh as a daisy” scent in your home, even with smelly husbands and children around?  And, perhaps most importantly, which detergent could avoid the dreaded cry of “ring around the collar”?

Of the awful humiliations that could befall a loving wife, “ring around the collar” was the worst.  She could be packing a suitcase, or happily enjoying a cruise with her husband, when the suitcase, or the cruise director, or countless other buttinskys would bray “ring around the collar!”  And then all attention would focus on the grimy markings on the inside of the husband’s white shirt collar, and the wife would shrivel with embarrassment.  She’d tried soaking them out and scrubbing them out — but nothing worked!  You couldn’t help but identify with her feelings of horror, shame, and frustration.

Why wasn’t this the husband’s fault?  After all, he must have been a sweaty slob who couldn’t keep his neck clean, even while working a cushy white-collar job.  Such questions were not even acknowledged, much less answered, for boys trying to understand the mysterious ways of grown-ups.  What was clear, instead, was that “ring around the collar” was to be avoided at all costs — and Wisk could help.

Eventually I started wearing white-collared shirts, and at some point, I realized that I was not experiencing ring around the collar.  In fact, the insides of my collars didn’t seem to get dirty at all.  Collar buttons occasionally fell off, and ties could get stained during lunch — but the collars remained pristine.  And apparently I wasn’t alone in that experience.  You just didn’t see “ring around the collar” commercials anymore, either.

Did Wisk finally prevail in its life-and-death battle, and eradicate “ring around the collar” just as surely as the Salk vaccine eradicated polio?  Why was there no public acknowledgment of this great triumph?  Isn’t the final defeat of “ring around the collar” at least as deserving of attention as, say, the results of the Iowa straw poll?

Don-Can-De-Mar

When we were kids in the suburban wilds of Bath Township, Ohio, a family living nearby did something weird:  they gave their standard-issue ’60s house a name.  And not just any name, either.  They called it “Don-Can-De-Mar,” the combination of the first few letters of the first names of each family member.

I was about 10, and I thought naming your house was the coolest idea ever.  Why live in a plain, boring house, when you could live in a house with a name that sounded grand and exotic at the same time, like a foreign word?

It made me want to name our equally standard-issue ’60s suburban house, too.  But the first name approach that led to the fabulous “Don-Can-De-Mar” wouldn’t work in our seven-member family.  “Jim-Ag-Jim-Bob-Cat-Mar-Je” didn’t exactly roll easily off the tongue.  So I tried to think of other approaches.  We had an enormous rock in our front yard that Dad had tried to dig out but only managed to uncover, so I thought “Renbew Rock” might be a candidate.  It had alliteration going for it, and a secret back story (with “Renbew” being Webner in reverse, of course).  But it sounded too fake, like a name created using pig Latin, and I couldn’t think of anything else.  Eventually I gave up, as kids usually do.

I don’t have any recollection of what “Don-Can-De-Mar” looked like, but I will never forget that near-mythical name.  It’s a good example of the power of words.

Whistling, In The Graveyard

When was the last time you hear someone whistle a tune? Doesn’t it seem like whistling has become much less common than it used to be?

I’m a whistler.  When I walk the halls at work, I often unconsciously whistle an off-key rendition of a snippet from Swan Lake.  It’s something I’ve done for years, and I’m not sure why.  The whistling is rare enough, apparently, that people at work comment on it.  It’s been a long time since I’ve heard someone else — a co-worker, or a kid in the neighborhood — whistle something.

Why does whistling seem to have one foot in the grave?  Is it because you have to practice to become a halfway decent whistler?  Or is it because there is no point in learning to whistle a tune when you can walk around all day listening to an iPod?

The heyday of whistling probably was the ’50s and ’60s.  In those days, there were popular TV shows where the theme song was whistled, like the jaunty intro to The Andy Griffith Show or the lonesome-sounding intro to Lassie.  And why was the intro to Lassie so sad-sounding, anyway?  You’d think a show about a kid and his dog would be more upbeat.  Of course, the fact that Lassie was constantly saving Timmy from an abandoned well or catching some escaped convict lurking in the neighborhood may have affected the theme-whistler’s mood.  Perhaps another reason people have stopped whistling is that it brings back disturbing memories of June Lockhart trying to interpret the precise meaning of Lassie’s barks so that she could promptly solve the latest crisis.

Who Was Ghoulardi, And Why Should Anyone Care?

The ’50s and early ’60s were a pretty standardized time.  There were three TV networks, and they offered similar programming: morning news shows, soap operas and game shows during the day, the evening news, and variety shows, westerns, crime shows, and silly sitcoms at night.  There were good shows, and bad shows — but mostly, the shows seemed to be cut from the same cloth.  Late at night, however, some differences emerged.  In Cleveland, in the early ’60s, the most significant of those differences was Ghoulardi.

Ghoulardi was a TV character invented by Ernie Anderson.  He was the coolest, weirdest TV host we’d ever seen.  He was supposed to be the host of a show that showed movies, but the movies sucked and Ghoulardi made fun of them.  Nobody cared about the movies, anyway, because Ghoulardi really was the show.  He wore a fake moustache and goatee, fake glasses that usually were missing a lens, a white lab coat, and a cheap wig.  His show looked dark and creepy.  He played great music that you didn’t hear on the radio.  He blew up car models on the air.  He showed weird drawings.  He had bizarre skits and in jokes, he regularly made fun of Parma, and he created catch phrases.  You weren’t sure you got all of Ghoulardi’s jokes — in fact, you were pretty sure that you didn’t — but you also thought that the powers that be probably weren’t getting all the jokes, either, which just made Ghoulardi cooler. (The “poker” joke in the YouTube clip below is an example, I think.)

Ghoulardi wasn’t for everyone.  I’m sure the Greater Cleveland Decency League or the Daughters of the American Revolution or some other “pro-decency” organization regularly protested his show.  But, if you were a kid who lived in the Cleveland area you just had to watch him and then talk about him with your friends the next day.

Why should anyone care about a local TV personality who was on the air a few years more than four decades ago?  Because Ghoulardi, and similarly unique local TV personalities from other areas, helped to light the way for the current state of TV in modern America.  Ghoulardi showed that bold and strange TV shows could develop a devoted following, even if the show didn’t broadly appeal to the masses like the standardized pablum that was broadcast on the networks.  Ghoulardi was a niche show before there were niche shows or niche networks.  In that sense, shows like Man vs. Food, Robot Chicken, and Space Ghost Coast To Coast, among many others, owe a debt to Ernie Anderson and his curious, non-conformist character.  He helped to blaze a trail that the entertainment industry is still following, 45 years later.

Cappy Dick And The Power Of Trying

You are a kid on a Sunday morning in the 1960s.  It is winter and brutally cold outside, and doing something inside seems like a good idea.  You flip through the brilliantly colored comics section of the Sunday paper, and there you find your perfect companion — Cappy Dick.  Cappy Dick, the chuckling, patient, pipe-smoking sea captain who every week urged kids to “try for these great prizes!” and proposed all manner of odd games and activities for bored rug rats.

Cappy Dick was all about the art of the apparently possible.  It suggested different things that you could try.  They looked like they could be done — hey, it wouldn’t be in the paper if it was fake, would it? — and in any case it looked like it would be fun to try.

Never were egg cartons put to so many different uses!  You could take the carton, paint each egg-holding indention a different color, and toss bottle caps or pennies into them, with each successful throw generating different points depending on color.  You could learn how to make a successful flip book, or convert a shoe box into a crude castle, or make puppets out of clothes pins.  When Cappy Dick spurred your imagination, the blunt-edged scissors, Crayola crayons, and construction paper got a serious workout, and the smell of Elmer’s glue was intoxicating.  And when you were done, your hands crusty with Elmer’s glue residue and the kitchen table littered with scraps of paper and other odds and ends, you realized that trying to make something had been fun, even if the results didn’t quite look like Cappy Dick showed.

I’m sure parents of that era rolled their eyes from time to time as an excited youngster charged up, babbling about needing an empty round Quaker’s Oats container to try to make a gaily colored Polynesian drum.  But surely Moms across the land appreciated anything that would keep the kids occupied in some kind of quiet creative exercise for a few hours on a Sunday afternoon, even if a bit of clean-up would eventually be required.

No doubt video games, elaborate plastic Barbie houses, and other ready-made modern toys spur some kind of creative impulse as kids play.  I wonder, however, whether the creative opportunities are not quite as rich as when kids gathered around the kitchen table and worked hard to make that Indian headdress or Pilgrim bonnet, laughing all the while.  Cappy Dick helped to fill many a dull afternoon, and it may have made kids of that generation just a bit more willing to at least try.  After all, you could win Great Prizes!

Walter Cronkite and “Go, Baby, Go!”

Walter Cronkite

Walter Cronkite

Walter Cronkite was the news broadcaster of choice when I was a kid.  Really, there was no choice, because it was no competition.  Cronkite had all of the qualities that you would want in a television anchorman.  He was avuncular, trustworthy, deep-voiced, and unflappable.  Even bad news — and it seemed like there was a lot of that during the ’60s and ’70s — was a bit more palatable when you heard it from the mouth of Walter Cronkite.

Cronkite ruled during an era when the way people got their news started to transition from newspapers to television, and he was hugely popular.  When it was time for the CBS Evening News With Walter Cronkite, people would finish their dinner and watch a half hour of news, knowing that it would close with Cronkite saying “and that’s the way it was.”  He had enormous credibility and seemed like a living, walking barometer of American public opinion.  Some historians, for example, trace the change in American public opinion about the Vietnam War to Cronkite’s personal change of opinion about the value of continuing that conflict.

As important as Cronkite was to calming jangled nerves during the Cuban Missile Crisis, in the aftermath of the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy, the Watts riots, or the 1968 Democratic convention, I remember him best for another role he played.  When I was young, the “space Race” between the United States and the Soviet Union seemed enormously important.  If there was a rocket launch during school hours, we all would troop into the auditorium and watch to see whether America could successfully take the next step toward reaching the Moon.  Cronkite anchored all of the rocket launches and coverage of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo manned space activities.  He seemed to be an enthusiastic supporter of our space exploration efforts who enjoyed the science and wonder of the effort.

I remember him rooting the rockets along, urging “Go, Baby, Go!”   I’m not sure an anchorperson would say such a thing in this more jaded era, but during the early 1960s it was a more innocent time, and Walter Cronkite helped to capture it.