Thankful Thursday XXXI – Talking About My Generation

This Thankful Thursday I’m thankful for my generation. Not the Who song – that was representative of the generation before me – but Gen X, as we’ve come to be known. Or more precisely, to be a part of it.

Of course, each generation probably thinks it’s the best. I, perhaps typical of this generation, don’t necessarily claim that ours was the best. But I’m glad I grew up when I did.

To me, my generation got the best of music, the best of TV and, more importantly, the best conditions to grow up in. Notice I don’t say “easiest” however. I love that I grew up listening to Top 40 radio on transistor radios in the ’70s that exposed me to a bit of everything ranging from Motown to country to early heavy metal to disco. Sure, we didn’t really see The Beatles in real time, but I heard them plenty on radio and courtesy my older brother. By the ’80s as adulthood came a-knockin’, college classes were bookended by a new music that was actually exciting. Young kids these days won’t know the High Fidelity-like experience of hanging out at a grubby, crowded record shop looking for import Depeche Mode singles and hearing the music snobs behind the counter going on about the Pixies and Marshall Crenshaw. We were a generation that wanted to change the world. Well, don’t they all, I suppose. But it seems to me that outside of the tail-end of the Baby Boom, young people before were too conventional to challenge the status quo. The youth of today want to change the world too, but I’m not sure that that extends too far beyond the right for young women to call themselves”men” and vice versa for most of them. Some of my happiest times were summers during my university years, working for a conservation agency, with dozens of similarly-involved people around my age. We sure knew how to party at night… but by day, we were all about working on environmental projects and educating people about the need for conservation. Whether it amounted to a lot or not, we were doing something that we felt was bigger than ourselves, that was going to make the world a better place.

Moreover, I think I’m lucky because I straddle the digital and analog age. I grew up spending lots of time in libraries. At school, at the city ones, looking through stacks of books, going through card catalogs to find a title. It seemed like there wasn’t a question that couldn’t be answered by the Encyclopedia Britannica, all fifteen feet of shelving of it. I took typing classes at school, banging away on old manual machines, periodically getting my hands dirty changing the ribbons. It was good experience. But thankfully I was just young enough to see the value of computers by some time in the ’90s, and pick up the skills I needed to write articles, fix photos, design posters or search the internet for wacky kitten videos quickly. My brother, about six years older than me, got through school long before “cyber” was a word and hates computers to this day. Our dad, bless him, tried hard to adapt, but never got beyond playing Solitaire or checking, with extreme difficulty, his e-mail on his laptop. My mom never even got that far along in the process. I feel lucky I am reasonably tech-savvy, but have the background in old, analog ways. I wonder if anyone under 18 today could find an answer any question about science, history or pretty much anything else besides BTS if Siri stopped answering or Google went on holiday.

We didn’t have it easy, but then again, it wasn’t a battle. My parents both were youth in Europe during WWII. That’s hardship and stress. We on the other hand, had to live with the sword of Reagan and Gorbachev’s missiles hanging over us, which was stressful but there was always food to be had, electricity for the lights and despite the fears, no big wars materialized to worry about. We were however, the first generation of “latchkey kids.” For the first time, most women were working and one-parent households were common, so I wasn’t unusual in often coming home to an empty house after school. Like so many others of my peers, that was OK. It gave us a bit of freedom to grow, and more importantly, let us learn real quickly how to make a dinner, or wash our clothes. We walked or rode our bikes to school…yes, yes, you know, in the snow, uphill both ways!… and had our own legs and our friends to rely on. We got part-time jobs as soon as we could to buy our own records and snacks and if we were real lucky and smooth, use the funds to go on dates with. It astonishes me to go by a neighborhood school these days and see cars backed up around the block waiting to get their ten and twelve year olds and drive them immediately home, where they will stay, playing video games, until it’s time to drive them back to class the next morning. Where will their sense of adventure or independence arise from? Will it ever arise, for that matter?

Well that’s my grumpy old, thankful rant for this day, now that we Gen X-ers are getting up there … tomorrow marks the 30th anniversary of the release of Nirvana’s “Smells like Teen Spirit” in case you’re keeping track. So how about you? Are you happy you were born when you were? What is your generation’s best feature? Whatever it is, I hope you’re thankful to be you.

From Bugspray Pitch Man To Shaper Of Minds In 430 Pages Or Less

Good is good, bad is bad, black is black and white is white,

But the lines are not that clear to see, try as we might!

So people refuse the gray, and of the good lose sight…

And miss the ways grays bring light and do what is right!

With apologies to the late Theodor Geisel…my latest read is a bio of an American hero who’s fallen on hard-times, image-wise of late – that same Geisel, better known and loved as Dr. Seuss. Becoming Dr. Seuss, by Brian Jay Jones looks at him in detail, in the good, the bad and the ugly. Actually, like good journalists are often going to do, I daresay Jones does so in a manner that may end up annoying both the left-wing and right-wing segments of his readership. Based on his author photo, he’s young enough to be of the modern politically correct revisionist opinions of history, but he also is evidently full of respect for his subject’s better achievements. His well over 400 pages give us readers an ample understanding of the acclaimed children’s author, warts and all.

Geisel is beloved for creating children’s classics like The Grinch and The Cat in the Hat. But he didn’t start out trying to change the world – or how kids learned. He grew up in early-20th Century New England, the son of a German immigrant who was a successful brewer, the family running one of Massachusetts most popular beer companies. Which led to two pivotal events in his early life. First, when WWI happened, he felt the sting of discrimination and prejudice, as locals suddenly turned on anyone vaguely German, no matter how well-loved and respected they may have been until then. Secondly, prohibition shortly thereafter caused his family hardship and devestated his family business, embedding in him a deep resentment of government meddling and the sanctimonious types among us.

For a man so intrinsically tied into educating in our minds, Seuss wasn’t all that good a student, although he did earn a degree. He didn’t care much for studying and preferred doodling. This led to his first career, as a successful ad man, back when many newspaper and magazine ads were hand-drawn. At the height of the Great Depression, he got a contract from Flit, a bug-spray company, to do a dozen ads for them at $100 a pop – good money for the age, and for a young man with a new wife. Not very much changed for him, in fact, until WWII came along, and he was drafted… but sent to California to work on films for the troops working under the guidance of Frank Capra. There he began to really understand the power of his cartoons and effective wordplay. Eventually, as we know, he found his way into writing and illustrating children’s books, full of his interesting make-believe characters who seemed every bit as real as, if not more so, than many people, and his clever rhyming prose. Even though he and his first wife Helen never had children, he became more and more impassioned about them being the future and more and more convinced that the conventional reading material for kids turned them off reading rather than encouraged it. He particularly hated the drab, boring “Dick and Jane” readers that most schools used extensively in the junior grades, with their simple but boring as mud sentences like “See Dick run. See Spot. See Dick run with Spot.” It became his passion – obsession even – to write books kids would like to read, learn from and that at their best, make adults stop and think a little too. How The Grinch Stole Christmas. The Lorax. Horton Hears a Who. After a few semi-popular titles, he finally hit paydirt in the late-’50s with the Cat in the Hat (written with a highly restricted list of words the publisher felt kids could understand) , soon becoming one of America’s best-loved writers, going on to sell over 600 million copies of his 60 or so titles.

Ah yes, but there was the negative to him as well, as many are quick to point out. As most men from his age, he loved his cocktails and nearly chain-smoked, despite a few attempts to quit. Some of his early works depict what now seem like “racist” portrayals of people of foreign cultures and even use words like “Chinamen” which seem less than tactful these days. Jones rakes him over the coals for these offences, but does at least put it in context of the times he grew up in; when the “Orient” was exotic and strange and Black people at home were the subject of many jokes and now-offensive portrayals by Whites in blackface on stage were considered high comedy. He does point out that as time went on, Theodor’s sensibilites changed as well, and notes that while he seemed suspicious of his own German people after the war, he was horrified by the bombing of Japan and went out of his way to get to know Japanese people and befriend them.

Many of my happy memories as a very small child involve having Seuss books read to me. They made me laugh every time, and want to pick up books, want to read them myself. Christmas to this day isn’t really Christmas for this 50-something until I’ve seen the animated TV version of his Grinch. It’s not a far stretch to say that I might not have liked school nearly as much or have been writing books (albeit entirely less successful than Geisel’s) as an adult had I been restricted to the merry adventures of Dick and Jane as a small child. For that, Seuss/Geisel seemed a friend to me. And after 430 pages of his life in print, when we arrive at his passing in 1991, it seemed again like saying goodbye not just to a creative sort, but to someone very close.

Thankful Thursday XVI – Vacations

Yesterday was a busy day for me, so I took a break from Thankful Thursdays. Not quite a holiday but a wee break from one thing that’s part of my routine, even though it’s one I quite enjoy. It got me to thinking that this “thankful Thursday – redux” I’m thankful for vacations. Both little ones and grand ones, ones I’ve enjoyed, ones others have taken and just the concept itself… one that resonates, I’m sure coming onto the unofficial first long weekend of the summer.

My dad loved to travel; my mother not quite as much but she still enjoyed getting away from it all – not to mention staying in a hotel and having the cooking done for her – from time to time. My family wasn’t poor but neither were we rich, so our holidays when I was a kid were somewhat modest. When I was young, we had a camper trailer – a modest one mind you, nothing like the behemoths we see being towed along our highways today with their own satellite dish and front and back doors – so we’d often get away for a week or so and go camping. Exploring the eastern half of our Canada, and adjacent areas of the States; cooking some dinners over a camp fire, going to town for the local restaurant other days, sleeping in a trailer with screen windows, hearing the hooting owls and cacophony of bugs in the woods around us. By day we’d explore the forest trails, take some pictures, or maybe visit the nearby towns and explore the local shops and attractions.

A few years later, when I got to be of double-digit age, we found a fondness for Florida. For several years we took a summer holiday in southern Florida. That seemed crazy to some, but we liked it just fine. The prices were cheaper, the beaches less crowded and we had all the time in the world. Well, a few weeks anyway, given that it was school break and my mom was by then working as a teacher. Sometimes we’d head down there by bus and my Dad would drive down a week or two later when his holiday kicked in, all driving back home together. We made friends there, found that the 90 degree days there in July were quite tolerable with the sea breezes absent in the 90 degree days back home and enjoyed dips in the Gulf water.

They were good times, generally relaxing times. It was driving back from Florida I got to marvel at the vibrancy of American cities like Atlanta and the beauty of the Appalachians. I don’t remember a lot from when I was about four years old, but I remember standing under “The Big Nickel”, as the name suggests a statue of a very big five cent coin – in Sudbury on one of our camping trips. I recall vividly the excitement I had a few years later when I, as a young baseball fan, looked out the window and saw the magnificent home of Pete Rose, Johnny Bench and Ken Griffey and all those great Big Red Machine teams – Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium – go by as we crossed the Ohio River. I remember stepping into a patch of long coarse grass one time in Florida near our hotel and hearing a loud, distinctive buzzing set in right away , and quietly backing away, not in fear but rather awe knowing that I must have awoken a sleeping rattlesnake. Still wish I’d been able to see the critter, from a safe distance.

When I grew up and became an adult, budgets usually didn’t allow for a lot of exotic holidays, but I have equally fond memories of camping in some of the provincial parks along Lake Erie during the bird migration; of the sights of New York when I went for a long drive, and experiencing that vibrant Atlanta as an adult. My dad meanwhile, with his equally fond-of-travel new wife, took many trips back to his homeland in Switzerland and hers in Britain before they sadly became too old and unsure of their health to do so any more. They’d regale me with the stories of their trips, photos of the landscapes and tales of the best food they got in the foreign restaurants. That was mostly my dad’s thing.

The travel industry took a beating in the last year with Covid. There are pros and cons to that; obviously it’s bad because it effects so many people’s livelihood but the reduced air pollution from the fewer jets and cars on the road has done a wee bit of good to the environment and enabled people to find interesting things to do at home that might have eluded them previously. Still, it would seem that the more people get to travel, the more we might hope to understand each other. It’s easier to have empathy for others when we’ve actually met them and seen their lives a little rather than just the Hollywood sterotype depictions of them.

So, vacations. They can be big or small, far or near, but here’s to them. Hope you can treat yourself to one, no matter how humble, sometime soon.

Movie Extra 11 – Dead Poet’s Society

As I get to the penultimate category for this fun and informative event (Hanspostcard’s Movie Draft), I tackle a biggie – Drama. There are no shortages of great candidates for this, so I rather randomly picked 1989’s biggest drama – Dead Poet’s Society. It may not be my all-time favorite in the genre, but then again, there are so many good ones it would be difficult to really narrow it down to one. This is a film I’ve consistently liked in the 30-plus years since it came out and which holds its own still.

The irony of Dead Poet’s Society is that it took one of America’s favorite zany comics to elevate it to greatness, in a role decidedly short on over-the-top comic bits (although there are one or two points where Robin Williams adds his own brand of manic fun to an otherwise serious role.) The movie also returns Ethan Hawke to my list; he was the co-star of the “Before” trilogy I picked. In this one, his first significant film role, he has a supporting part.

The overview of the film is that its set in a private boys boarding school in Vermont during the 1950s. It’s the type of school that is designed to prepare young teenage boys and turn them into mature Ivy League business and med students, undoubtedly due to arrive in the pages of “Who’s Who” approximately a decade after their arrival there. Conformity and adherance to the rules is not only expected, it’s a given. Headmaster Nolan (Norman Lloyd) makes sure that is achieved, ruling with an iron fist and wooden paddle.

Enter John Keating, played by Williams. He’s the new English teacher, an alumni of the school, full of pep and excitement and seemingly set on alienating everyone in the school’s organization. He sets out to teach his class (including Todd, played by Ethan Hawke) poetry. Initially not the favorite subject for most of the lads. Keating however teaches it with verve and stresses the passion, the freedom of well-used words. “No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world,” he tells them. He also points out that the real purpose of poetry is “Wooing women.” This catches their attention.

His enthusiasm is unusual at that institution, and his methods even more unorthodox. He has the students stand up on their desks.. to see the world differently. He coaxes the boys – terrified of breaking rules – to rip out pages from their text book that teaches a scientific formula for measuring the “greatness” of a poem. He teaches that the greatness of a poem is in how it makes you feel, how alive it makes you, not some mathematical formula. They quickly take to the teacher and start to break out of their shells; writing poetry of their own, persuing seemingly unobtainable young women of the town, and in the case of Neil, a shy boy with few friends, to take up acting. He finds not only does he love to act, he has a talent for it. This however, doesn’t please his 1950’s meatloaf-and-potato father who has him lined up for med school already. It all boils over when the lad takes on the role of Puck in a Shakespearean play, infuriating the father who pulls him out of school and enrols him in a military academy. Neil never makes it there.

In the aftermath, the school blame Keating for corrupting the kids and show him the door…but not before one of the most moving moments in contemporary film (spoiler alert for those who haven’t seen it), with Todd, then the others in the class all jumping up on their desks to salute the departing teacher, to the utter enragement of the headmaster. One by one they offer him their allegiance and respect.

It’s a touching moment and a great movie which highlights the shortfalls of the educational system , particularly in the past, and showcases the wonders that can happen if kids’ interests and talents are nurtured. It reminds us how much difference even one fine teacher can make in so many lives. It runs over two hours, but seems to end too soon. If you’re prone to teariness, it might be the type of film you want a box of Kleenex nearby for.

I loved it, which perhaps surprised no one more than myself, as I half to admit, I’m not a big fan of the manic, out-of-control, he’s so wacky, comedian Williams. But the man had the acting chops to pull off deep and even at times dark roles, as we see in Good Will Hunting as well. That man, as well as the decent, caring family man and baseball fan – those are the Robin Williams I miss.

The movie took in over $200M at the box office, making it one of that year’s top five films, and it was accorded generally good reviews, although Siskel and Ebert notably disliked it and called it “pious platitudes” with poor acting. To each his own. Dead Poet’s Society won an Academy Award for best original screenplay for writer Tom Shulman, while Williams was nominated for the Best Actor one.

“Poetry, beauty, romance, love – those are what we stay alive for ,” in the words of John Keating. And maybe for well made movies as well. I give Dead Poet’s Society four Neruda sonnets out of five.

Thankful Thursday X – 70s Boy!

This Thankful Thursday, I’m thankful for my age. Well, not exactly for being in my 50s… although there’s a certain clarity of mind that perhaps was absent in younger me, there also is an increasing creakiness and aching of the knees and back to remind me I’m not all that young anymore. Not to mention the unfortunate but inevitable shrinking of the family ranks that I spoke of last week. But what I am thankful for is growing up in the 1970s.

It occurs to me because this week, two older guys talked about growing up when they did, and the kids today. Fellow blogger Phil talked of how wild it was in the ’60s. I bet. Everything changing and living with the constant threat of being drafted and sent over to a distant continent to fight a jungle war for who knows what end. Likewise, my brother-in-law of about that same age was talking of what was wrong with the kids today. I couldn’t help but agree with much of what he was saying. Too many of today’s kids are sheltered and afraid, destined to seemingly be big-bodied children even as their hair turns gray. It was different for me, and I think most of us born in the tail end of the ’60s, growing up in the ’70s and early-’80s.

I used to think my parents were overly protective when I was young. Compared to many, they probably were. But I count myself lucky I’m not one of the “bubblewrap kids” that have been raised in the past couple of decades. When I was a kid, if the weather was good, a Saturday or a day during the summer holiday meant getting out. Seeing my friends. Riding bikes came about as naturally to all of us as walking or knowing the lyrics to “More than a Feeling.” We’d get together, ride around, shoot the breeze. Maybe go to the plaza and get some pop. Maybe ride to the lake, three or four miles distant. When I got to be about ten or eleven, a couple of friends built a rough little treehouse down in the creek ravine near us. We’d climb up, sit there looking down on the town from all of about seven feet up, gossip and laugh and maybe get into a few youthful hijinx. Gawking at a copy of Playboy someone managed to sneak away from a dad or older brother was about the most daring of those. Or smoking a cigarette similarly obtained. I was much more into the pictures than the smoking I must admit. Or maybe we’d just go to the park behind my house and kick around the soccer ball. Play on the fort. Ah yes, the fort. If there was a clear description of the difference between generations, that was it.

The “fort” was a big wooden play structure the town had built in the park which sat between two halves of a subdivision, directly down from a public school. (Oh yes… we all walked or cycled to school ourselves too. Any parent would have laughed in our face, if we were lucky, if we’d asked them to drive us three blocks. We got our exercise even if it wasn’t a “gym” day.) Anyway, the structure had three wooden turrets for lack of a better word, connected by elevated walkways, one of them a swinging one. There were ladders leading up, tire swings hanging,some sort of rope ladder up one side, a slide down from the tallest one, to the giant sandy area below. It was lots of fun. Running around it, climbing, maybe jumping off the walkway all the three feet to the ground. Burning off energy, inventing silly games. We had fun and kept busy.

You probably guessed, that fort is now ancient history. A good two decades back the town tore it down. They had seemingly had complaints galore from a new breed of parent who fretted and were worried of a million-dollar lawsuit should any kid burn their behind sliding down a hot metal slide in summer in shorts or twist an ankle jumping off it. Besides the kids probably had little interest in it. Now they had the internet to keep them entertained and meet people presumably far more interesting than their peers from around the neighborhood.

Sure at times I fell off my bike and scuffed up my knee. I took it as a life lesson, a little tip on how not to take a corner too fast or ride across loose gravel. My parents, if they even noticed would tell me to wash it, put a bandage on it and be more careful next time. They didn’t see it as a chance to sue the city or bicycle company for a king’s ransom nor as a reason to keep me from ever going outside the confines of our yard again. I turned out fine.

At least I think so. I think at least I turned out better than kids born 30 years later who’ve never traveled more than a block from their home without being driven and whose only recreational activity involves a video game console will be when they reach their 50s. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m thankful theirs wasn’t my childhood.

Thankful Thursday IV – That Controversial “Doctor”

Well I’ll wander into the fray today, because this Thursday I’m thankful for Dr. Seuss. Or, the works of Theodore Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, during this week in which his birthday fell.

The children’s author and illustrator has been much in the news of late, yet another example of how badly divided this country is. In case you hadn’t noticed, the publisher in charge of his body of work recently announced it was going to stop printing six of his titles, including the popular And To Think I Saw It On Mulberry Street, because some of his illustrations seemed a little racist and out of step with today’s norms. Predictably, many Republicans are frothing at the mouth and yelling “censorship”, failing to note that it was a commercial decision made by a publisher rather than an act of government restriction. Likewise, some of the far-left faction of the Democrats say that doesn’t go nearly far enough and wouldn’t be happy until every reference to Seuss is obliterated from our culture. Which I suppose is a convenient way for both to distract from the fact that Iran seems to be taunting the U.S. in the Middle East at risk of provoking a war and that over 1000 people are still dying from Covid every day in our land.

Geisel fashioned a long and very successful career penning books written for kids through the middle part of the last century. Some, like Green Eggs and Ham and How the Grinch Stole Christmas became cultural cornerstones as well as rites of passage for new parents teaching their young ones. Something over half a billion copies of his works have been printed through the years.

It’s said that Geisel wasn’t that fond of having little children around in real life. But he exhibited a brilliance unsurpassed at knowing what would appeal to them and he delivered that time and time again with his stories. A cat in a hat? Green eggs and ham, Sam? There’s not a three year old in existence who doesn’t giggle at the thought – especially if its accompanied by the zany cartoon illustrations the “Doctor” was known for.

For me, Seuss was “the man” when I was that age. I was lucky to have parents who surrounded me and my brother with a lot of books as kids, but none delighted me quite like the rhyming, goofy stories about Sam-I-Am, the Cat in the Hat, The Grinch and little Cindy Lou Who, or Horton who heard a Who. I looked at the books time and time again, and soon with a little help could read them all by myself. From there, I never looked back…unless it was Christmas time and time to watch the TV version of The Grinch, a beloved holiday tradition I try to keep to this day even as my hair gets grayer. In later years, I went on to work briefly in the conservation field and was able to at times delight campers young and old alike by playing the film of The Lorax, another Seuss story telling of the little creature who tried to save the truffula trees from the industrialist Onceler. Like many of his best works it delivered a strong and worthwhile moral in the guise of a children’s cartoon.

So, yes, Dr. Seuss may not have been perfect and his books were products of his time (as any work of art is ultimately.) But few things made me happier as a kid and now, as I sit by a bookcase full of titles of all sorts, including a couple of ones I wrote myself, I thank him for getting me to know the magic of reading. I don’t know what I’d be doing if not for him… but I doubt I’d be here writing my thoughts for you, dear readers.

Cabooses To Cabovers – Missin’ The 70s!

I needed a new heel for my shoe, so I decided to go to Morganville, which is what they called Shelbyville in those days. So I tied an onion to my belt which was the style at the time…” – Grandpa Simpson.

…and we liked it! Getting another year older makes one think back, and when I think back I think of random things that were better when I was a kid. Like tying onions on one’s belt. And I’m not talking about obvious things, like pop hit radio or being able to call a girl a girl without risking a long lecture about gender fluidity, I’m talking about the inobvious things that have faded away with time. Three examples…

Cabovers. When I was a little kid, I loved big trucks. And most tractor-trailers were headed up by a type of diesel truck that was called a “cabover”. They were called that because the cab sat over the engine. Big, square, flat-fronted trucks. Peterbilt, Kenworth, GM, International, you name it. These rigs moved everything everywhere. When I was about five, my dad and I went to a car show and they had a Chevy one on display… a Titan 90, I think it was called (much like the one illustrated above). I got to go up – way up – and sit in the cab. Cool, what! 10-4 good buddy, what could be cooler than driving around the country in one of these, I thought, looking down – way down – on the crowd below. Well, turns out many things could be, but the design still looks cool. But makes one turn around and stare these days on rare occasions you see one. Kind of like a Hummer with a Biden sticker on it.

As much as little guys like me thought they looked cool, and you got a good look at the road ahead with one, they lost their other advantages soon after my hop up into one. First, riding right over the engine apparently made for a real rough ride, even with the driver’s seat on shock absorbers. And, to access the engine… well, that was a bit of a chore. You had to flip the entire cab up at a 90-degree angle to get at it. This doubtlessly took some effort to do and wasn’t good for the cup of coffee you might have beside the seat in that cab. And, in a crash, there was no buffer between driver and wreck. The type of truck you see today has it all over the cabover design, with the long hood hosting the engine and keeping the driver a good ten feet away from danger. The real reason the trucks changed though was not so much safety or comfort as government red tape.

For many years, the U.S. and Canada had strict regulations on the maximum length of a truck they’d allow on highways. Many of those regulations were set in the growth period immediately following WWII, when 24-foot trailers were common. When the truck back suddenly grew to 40′, freight companies were strapped to get clearance to run them. Cabovers shaved a good few feet off the total length, and allowed them to use the new, more efficient longer-trailers. But by the Reagan era, many of those restrictions were relaxed or removed altogether. Witness today’s commonplace, behemoth 54′ trailers. Witness the chaos they cause trying to get around a tight corner designed in the 1940s when a 30′ long Sears delivery van was the biggest vehicle. With the lack of size limitations, there was no longer a need to sacrifice driver comfort and maintenance ease and the long hood style took over. Peterbilt last built a cabover design in 2009. Japan and much of the EU still have tight regulations on truck length mind you, so foreign markets still boast quite a few new models of the old cabover design.

If the stuff wasn’t being moved on the roads, it was on the rails. And a train had a caboose. Another thing I miss.

I always loved trains as a kid. I grew up near a very busy CP Rail line that took cars from a huge GM factory nearby to everywhere, and brought in the parts they needed, as well as moved along everything else that was on the go between Detroit and Montreal, via Toronto. I spent many an idle hour in the park near us watching trains scoot by. The caboose went by and it was the end of the train. Simple. Most across North America were painted red, but the CP painted theirs a bright yellow-orange (a few other companies used different colors too; Union Pacific had yellow ones, Burlington Northern green, for example.) There’d be people inside the caboose, and as one local columnist put it recently, it seemed like their only function was to look out and wave at kids.

They actually had other jobs too of course. As Trains magazine point out, at one time many trains had crews of upto five people. They couldn’t all fit in the locomotive cab, besides which there was an advantage to having people bringing up the rear. They could look out and watch for problems ahead in the train – potential derailing cars, hobos jumping aboard – and there’d be people to change a switch back once the train had passed. To change from one track to another, the train goes over a switch, which moves the wheels smoothly to an adjacent track. Much of the time, it needs to go back to its original position to let the next train sail on through. Having a guy (for seldom were the workers women) back there to do so saved time over having one walk all the way back from the engine up front, do it, then walk back. The cabooses often even had a bed and kitchenette, because it wasn’t uncommon for the crew to make the run from say St. Louis to Denver by themselves.

Technology and economics took over and by the ’80s, were making the caboose irrelevant. Many switches became remote-controlled. Electronics were able to detect problems with the brakes or slipping wheels better than a man looking hundreds of yards ahead could. More trains were unit trains, meaning they ran straight through with a long load, not stopping at individual industries to pick up one car here, drop off a boxcar there. That required less manpower. Unions got shorter shifts and more crew changes, reducing need for overnight accommodations. A little device called an EOT – End of Train device – became available that would take electronic readings and flash a tail light in place of a whole 40-foot long, metal caboose with staff inside. By the ’90s, cabooses were largely a thing of nostalgia films and toys… remarkably most children still seem to know what they are somehow and like them attached to their toy trains.

Toy trains perhaps played with in the living room. And that brings me to the third thing this Granpa Simpson is nagging about – mid-century modern, ’60s and ’70s furniture! Like the era, it was a mix of the old and the new; wood and velvet, metal and velour. Straight lines were fine for stereo cabinets or end tables but, I presume they figured, people weren’t rigid (except for ‘the man!’) so why should they sit on square furniture? When I was growing up, we had a great big plush yellow sofa, with rounded arms, and a rounded back. But the piece de resistance was “the lounge.” The lounge was the fave of my dad and I, a contoured, velour-covered mustard yellow soft chaise lounge with a built in pillow for one’s head. Yellow was big in furniture when I was a kid. I wish we had photos of us enjoying it; more I wish we still had it to enjoy!

This chair was the way to watch TV in comfort, not quite as lazy-seeming as lying around in bed, but all the comfort of a sunny day at poolside and then some! It was the perfect place to park one’s own “caboose” at the end of a long day carting an onion around on one’s belt!

Recent explorations by me have suggested the lounge was a product of a company called Pearsall which specialized in things of that sort. Unfortunately, recent explorations also suggest no one in the family know whatever happened to ours. Used ones still abound online… and cost an amount similar to the price of a new pickup that would be required to bring it home!

May Hooray 3

I’ve been reading through actress Ellie Kemper’s book My Squirrel Days this week. Considering the heroine in my novel Grace…fully living is a perky redhead and the network show that appeals to me most among the new crop features carrot-topped Zoey, .I think I might have a bit of a “thing” for redheads. Or books about squirrels.

Anyway, one story The Office actress relates is of Waldo, a plush walrus toy who “wears a small white sailor’s cap that suggests he is not opposed to a good time!” While other bits of her childhood fell away, Waldo stayed with her until one fateful weekend in Vegas, when she was in her 30s, that he disappeared. (Spoiler alert: the hotel found him and returned him to Ellie! Yay!)

I understand. I live in a household of two things. People who are allergic to, well pretty much everything, and a house of plush critters.

I never had a pet as a child; my allergies wouldn’t allow for a dog or cat, and I was probably the only one in the house who saw appeal in reptiles. (“Hi Fido”, I’d dream of saying to someone with their pet schnauzer, “this is my Timmy. He’s a timber rattlesnake. Aren’t those golden and brown scales beautiful…”) . When I was on my own and in my late 20s, I got a hamster named Henley. I got him a nice terrarium with a wheel and a ladder thingy for him to climb, and changed the wood chips regularly. Unfortunately, Henley taught me two things. One, that hamsters slept all the livelong day and then got up to run on squeaky wheels all night long. And two, that when freed from the confines of their home terrarium, they’d enjoy biting me, and disappearing into the ductwork in about equal parts. I was sad when one day after I’d shared my apartment with him for about two years that I noticed Henley hadn’t been up for a night or two and wasn’t eating the food I gave him… but not sad enough to think of bringing in a Henley Jr. Henley was a good little dude though, and I think made a wonderful Christmas card insert one year, posing in front of some yule lights.

I always liked cats, but not sneezing, let alone having trouble breathing. As luck would have it, the first lady I ended up close enough to to actually live with for a year had three cats. Remarkably, the one which had a reputation for hating people took to me. After a few months, Daphne would wait for me by the door like a puppy and seem to be as happy as a pup when I came in. More remarkably, I sneezed very little in that year. Unfortunately, her owner didn’t respond as eagerly to me when I got in, after awhile.  Go figure. As soon as Daphne was dragged off with her owner and I returned to my homeland, pretty much every cat I’ve met leaves me wheezy and short of breath within minutes. Which is better than the reaction my sweetie has to them. Dogs? Pretty much the same. We had to dog-sit a black lab called Allie for over a year, and Allie was a good dog! Good doggie!! My walk with her was a daily highlight for both of us. But Allie was largely an outside dog, and when indoors, she usually bedded down in the little pseudo-home we made for her in the garage. When it got real cold, she was invited into the living room, to lie on a sheet which would be washed every day afterwards… while we all sneezed, sniffled and wheezed.

But we do have some “furry” friends to keep us company, like Ellie does. No walruses but some classy “friends” nevertheless. My sweetie has her big bear, Diva, who wears a leopard-print jacket. And her doting bear boyfriend Cocoa, who inexplicably is a white bear. But he has panache as we see in this photo:

cmas bear

Her daughter, the Kiddo loves sheep. So she has a collection of stuffed lambs. Prominent among those are Fluffers and Luke. Fluffers, the fluffiest of sheep, originated in Canada, where “someone” found him one Easter and sent him down to Texas to be with her about eight or nine years back, when Kiddo was much smaller. He’s sweet and quiet, like a Canadian, and fluffy like a …well, something! Then there’s little rambunctious Luke the ram, always getting into things, and tipping over due to the size of his nose. We see him riding Fluffers here:

fluffer

For years, I didn’t have such accompaniment,but this year, going through a local department store I came across this little fellow.

EB bear

It was just after Valentine’s Day and no one had taken him home, and I feared his future was to end up on the Island of Misfit Toys. So I adopted “EB”. Which stands for Edward Bear. The name of a fine Canadian band, and the real name of Winnie the Pooh, the gold standard of friendly bears. Or possibly it stands for “Evidently Brown.” Or perhaps “Everybody’s Buddy.”  Or even “Exceedingly Bugged (by a lack of pizza.)” EB likes pizza. He obviously has style,, since he wears a snazzy bow tie. And likes pizza. He’s happy now that he has a home, watching TV with sweetie and me…and Diva and Coco Bear too!

You Can Toy With This Museum

Disney likes to say that Disneyland is the “happiest place on Earth.” If indeed the happiest place is in Anaheim, the runner-up may be in Rochester, NY… The National Museum of Play, which includes the Toy Hall of Fame.

Many of us probably had no idea there was a Toy Hall of Fame, but hey…if everything from bowling to darts to aviation having their own, why not something that “play” such an important part of most of our childhoods?

The Toy Hall of Fame is a part of the Museum of Play, which began in the 1960s as “The Strong” – the Margaret Woodbury Strong Museum of Fascination. The 156 000 square foot building has added exhibits and wings since and in 1998, someone had the idea for the Toy Hall. They aim to recognize toys which are icons, being widely recognized and remembered; exhibit longevity and promote learning or discovery. They give bonus points for those which are seen as “innovative.”

The first year, they inducted 11 toys which are about as classic as they come: baby dolls, Barbie dolls, Crayola crayons, erector sets, Etch-a-sketch, Frisbees, Lego, marbles, Monopoly, Playdoh and teddy bears. Since then they’ve added in some 57 more including Atari game systems, Big Wheels, checkers, Dungeons and Dragons, GI Joe dolls, Gameboys, rubber ducks, and View Master. A handful of more “out of the box thinking” toys have made it in too, like blankets and sticks!

The newest additions last year were the Magic 8-ball (it could’ve told you it’d be in if you asked it!), Uno and pinball machines. This year they’ll add two or three more from a list of nominees including Jenga, Care Bears, coloring books, Risk, Matchbox cars (which you might recall, if of a certain age, actually were sold in “matchboxes” at one time), the Fisher Price corn popper, and most controversially, Smart phones. I’d never heard of the corn popper, but recognized it as soon as I saw it, the little push-along on wheels developed in 1957, which the Hall says was not only fun but promoted motor skills and curiosity.

I’ll be pulling for the coloring books and Matchboxes (the racier Hot Wheels already made it in), parts of my childhood memories to be sure. I think back to my childhood and the toys I remember mostly, that I spent the most time with and got the most out of were toy cars like Hot Wheels and Matchboxes and Lego. Sometimes they’d go together, with me building buildings and driving the little cars between them. I loved the futuristic designs and bright metallic paints on the Hot Wheels , which could be raced on their trademark orange tracks as well, but also loved the realism and attention to detail of the Matchboxes. Although it bothered me immensely that they weren’t all to scale. A giant dumptruck or Greyhound bus Matchbox were the same length as a Volkswagen or Ford Capri. I rationalized that the Greyhound should have been about three times as long, because… well that’s the type of four year old I was!

I particularly liked Lego. Lego back in the ’70s was a bit different than most of it today. I mean, sure the bricks snapped together and came in bright colors as they still do but back then, they just came in big assorted boxes. I loved using my imagination to put together houses of my dreams, with the windows and doors where I wanted, the architecture my choice. Many a cold winter afternoon was spent building up houses, towers or cities of the future on the living room floor.

There weren’t any Batman or other cartoon character Lego people and there were basically no blueprints. No rules or limits. When I pass by the kdis sections of stores these days, the Lego kits are all very detailed and specific. build this car or this spaceship or that home with the bricks in this box. Not one brick too many or too few, just follow the instructions. It bothers me that today’s kids, if they actually step away from the electronic screens long enough to pick up a Lego set, will have so little incentive to use their imagination.

Now, learning to follow instructions is important, no doubt. But so too is thinking independently and creatively. Using one’s imagination. Flights of fancy. I learned to follow rules and instructions just fine through school, family life, even toys which required careful attention to detail, like plastic models of trucks. Would be silly to have had the transmission on the cab roof or headlights on the back of the frame, after all. But I’m convinced toys like Lego helped me imagine things and create, tear down what didn’t work and feel proud of what did. those skills have made me a part of the person I am, the writer part, the photographer part. Probably the “interesting” part actually!

What about you, dear readers? What toys were important to you when you were a kid? How did they help you become who you are today.

I can only wonder if today’s youth will look back as fondly on Fortnite or Vine videos four decades from now.