Editor’s Note: While The Rant rehabilitates at H.L. Mencken’s Sanitorium for the Chronically Cynical and Infirm, Calliope will be pondering those seminal moments that shaped our pop culture sensibilities. Think of it as a prosaic sorbet between courses at Chez Rant. We have titled the diversion the Wednesday Pop Culture Recall so we don’t have to send back any of the t-shirts or coffee mugs.
My father and uncle ran businesses together throughout my childhood. Our families often lived next door to each other, so my cousins became like siblings. Both my uncle and aunt worked outside the home, nearly unheard of in the Baptist world I inhabited. They would often call my aunt at work to settle disputes. “Shelley took the tv knob so we can only watch what she wants!”;1 “Tell Kim to say out of my room!” These calls seemed constant when I was at their house; I’m not sure how my aunt accomplished anything at the office.
The impact of two incomes on my cousins’ lives never really registered except around Christmas. In my eyes, that extra disposable cash produced bacchanalian excess and the spoiling of my otherwise virtuous cousins. God, I was jealous. I could barely stand it as they cataloged all their gifts, sometimes forgetting (forgetting!) where they stashed everything, the bounty proved so plentiful. Returning home, I felt like Laura Ingalls Wilder out on the prairie trying to enjoy some lame plaything in my room that Pa had fashioned from a corn cob.
Now I know both our families struggled to remain on the fringes of the middle class. My dad and uncle took enormous risks in their ventures to improve our economic situation and gain control over their lives. Later they would succeed in ways that still benefit me today, but at age eight all I could fathom was the endless packages stacked around my cousins while I lamented my meager haul.Why didn’t my parents have one of the vaunted Christmas Club accounts always being touted in the bank lobby? The literature seemed to indicate that for mere dollars a week, you received a wheelbarrow of cash from the vault in December to lavish you children with the toys they so clearly deserved.
Instinctively I understood that I would never catch up to the cousins in volume; my only hope was finding the perfect gift, spectacular yet still attainable, followed by the subtle wiles of the nine year-old. Endless whining. The choice that year had no real competition: The Flying Aces Attack Carrier promised endless hours of enjoyment and death from above.
Measuring three feet in length, your carrier cruised the murky waters of the Shag Carpet Sea and dispatched aircraft for bombing runs on Lincoln Log villages and Tinker Toy metropolises. Two foam planes soared around the living room, launched from a catapult just like a real carrier. My cousins would look on in disbelief as I unwrapped a present of Guinness-shattering dimensions. Operation Flying Aces commenced as I begged and pleaded all through the fall.
Would the mission succeed? Costing an astounding $13.88, I had never had the audacity to request something so expensive. That amount could provide two pairs of jeans, a shirt, and a pair of shoes with change left over. The cajoling proceeded, but my faith wavered.
Frantically scanning the tree on Christmas morning, I spotted a box nearly as big as I was at the back of the tree and knew evil would have no place to hide from my foam squadron of justice. After a hasty assembly and the application of decals (I adored decals), I queued up my first plane for her maiden flight. Pulling the lever, the mighty rubber band hurled the plane two inches off the nose of the ship and directly into the frigid waves of the Shag Carpet Sea. No need to panic. Mattel informed me (I also adored instruction manuals) that a gentle manipulation of the foam wings would remedy all such problems. For the rest of the morning I watched my foam fighter beauties crash like a North Korean missile test on an endless loop.
Normally we would transition to the Cautionary Tale portion of the essay. How I learned not to believe the claims of advertising; how I became a little wiser that day; how I appreciated all the things money could not buy; how my innocence nearly found itself devoured in the maw of the beast Capitalism.
Here’s what actually happened. I operated under the assumption that a ramp could fix anything. Ramps made your Hot Wheels crash in marvelous ways. Ramps made the roller skates that attached to your ordinary shoes into rockets. Ramps relieved you of any boredom you might experience on your Schwinn Stingray, especially when you jumped over your Radio Flyer wagon like Evel Knievel, and then you jumped over your brother in a stunt not even Evel would consider until your mother shut the whole enterprise down.2
So I found the box the carrier arrived in and wedged it under the front of the Flying Aces. Away the foam plane soared just like the illustration promised. Problem solved, I made the house safe for democracy and spent many happy hours, weeks, and months with my present. I wish I still had it.
Pop culture dazzles us with its hype and noise. I enjoy every absurd moment of it. When the latest and greatest pop culture object or event arrives, I jump right on that bandwagon until it crashes. Then I fashion a ramp from the wreckage and soar into the future, content in the knowledge I can always find a way into the stratosphere.
- Yes, children, we once walked over to the enormous television, square and encased in genuine imitation walnut, to change the channel. We only had four channels, so taking it around the horn took all of thirty seconds. My dad and uncle ran a television repair shop for a while, so we got to operate one of the first remotes: a metal box roughly the size of a Ford Fiesta had three slender buttons. One changed the channel via a signal that physically rotated the knob, ca-chunk, ca-chunk, ca-chunk, and the other two controlled the volume. Later, Shelley would hide the remote and the knob to control viewing
- In the interest of full disclosure, we put the Radio Flyer closest to the ramp and my brother the farthest away. That was wrong, and my mother was right to step in