Thursday, August 24, 2017

The Next Big Thing


When we were kids, nobody thought much about The Next Big Thing.  Our parents had battled through the dispiriting Great Depression and a scary World War II and had flipped the switch into Settling Down Mode.  Our schedules were fixed months in advance, our expectations were modest, our plans were carefully crafted.  Nobody expected to grow up to be president.  If we were smart enough and the family could rustle up the money, a few of us might go to college, the Holy Grail of nineteen-forties achievement.  The prevailing philosophy was Slow And Steady Wins The Race.

If our days were predictable, they were not uneventful.  Every other morning the milkman delivered the daily necessities—two milks, one cream—to the metal receptacle outside the door, retrieving yesterday’s empties.  The iceman cometh later in the morning, a large block hoisted on his shoulder to refill the iceboxes of pre-refrigerator days.  It was a special occasion when Joe the Ragman would make a semi-annual appearance in his horse-drawn wagon, bellowing “Haa-deee!” at the top of his lungs to announce his presence.  We didn’t grasp the meaning of the announcement but we knew it was a signal to rush down to the cellar and bring up all the tightly bound newspaper packets our parents had been tucking away for months.  The payments were minuscule but we were nonetheless astounded that someone would pay good money for yesterday’s newspapers.

Our mothers went shopping Saturdays on South Union Street, just blocks away, and we often went with them.  There were compulsory visits to the butcher, the fish market, the bakery and the First National Store, the closest thing we had to a supermarket.  People who lived a little further away could ride in on the Belt Line buses, which stopped in front of the First National.  If a kid was lucky, he might be allowed a ten-cent comic book from Phil’s on the northwest corner of Andover Street.  Sometimes, our mother would stop at the new Nash dealership and look at the shiny new cars through the window.  Automobiles, of course, were barely necessary extravagances.  My grandmother owned a sturdy old Chevrolet, but it spent most of its life parked in the driveway.  Automobiles were reserved for the requisite summer trips to visit relatives since my grandmother’s quotient for fun was markedly low.  A Salisbury Beach visit or a trip to the nearby Canobie Lake amusement park was a Hallelujah Day.

The boys were happy to have a bat, a ball and a glove.  There were no organized leagues, we just played pickup ball with whoever was available at the B&M railroad field down at the end of Boxford Street.  The treat of the day was a post-game soft drink from Leo Gervais’ ice-filled tonic box.  I’m sure Leo’s store contained products other than soda and candy but I honestly can’t tell you what they might have been.

In the early evening, after dinner, the ice-cream man would come tinkling down the street, greeted by swarms of rabid admirers, nickels in hand.  The most popular offerings were popsicles, fudgsicles and creamsicles, in that order.  You could also buy a Hoodsie (named for the dairy which created them), a small container of ice cream, almost always an uninspiring vanilla.  It was, surprisingly, the unlikely ice-cream man who delivered the first Next Big Thing in the experience of most of the kids.  One day, he showed up with a bi-flavored popsicle, orange on one stick, raspberry on the other.  My best friend, Jackie Mercier, stood there astounded.  “This is like….IMPOSSIBLE!” he exulted, almost swooning.  Jackie’s favorite things in life were Tarzan movies, which celebrated austerity.  When the local fire brigade (his hoped-for future calling) obtained a more flexible hose material, he almost fell over in disbelief.  You’d think someone had up and invented the Time Machine.  Jackie practically went into a stupor when the ice-cream man told him his suppliers were on the verge of an even greater advance---popsicles with different flavored tops and bottoms.  “It’s like…like…a MIRACLE!” he finally sputtered, trying to contemplate the enormity of it all.  He moved away before the arrival of later concepts in ice-cream, like soft-serve with sprinkles, so all the old neighborhood kids are hoping that wherever he wound up, Jackie was not reduced to long-term catatonia by The Next Big Thing.


Radio Days

Growing up, the radio was our minor god.  We listened to it for Red Sox games, for the latest news, for no-school reports.  We gathered ‘round the big box to hear of the latest heroics of The Lone Ranger, The Green Hornet or Jack Armstrong, All-American Boy.  On Sunday nights, we listened with our parents to Jack Benny, and maybe Phil Harris.  Nobody ever got more mileage from being a tightwad than Jack Benny, who invented perfect comic timing.  Phil Harris, a rare wise-guy nonconformist and Confederate sympathizer, sang zippy songs like Smoke That Cigarette! and That’s What I Like About The South, while frustrating his glamorous wife, Alice Faye with his zany notions.  In the afternoons when Red Sox games were rained out, local announcers read telegraphic accounts of out-of-town games (you could hear the machines in the background) often broadcasting as if they were present.  Many times, the games were long over by the time the information was passed on, but nobody seemed to mind.

We heard rumors, of course, of a new thing called “television,” a viewing box where live pictures would accompany the audio broadcast.  This seemed laughably impossible and not just to Jackie Mercier.  Everyone had seen movie theater newsreels, but those always contained accounts of previous action.  Now, they were telling us a picture of current activities could be transmitted live to our homes.  If this turned out to be The Next Big Thing it would obviously be monstrously expensive, unaffordable to the masses.  When the phenomenon finally arrived, just a home or two on the average block had the wherewithal to partake.  You could discern the neighborhood elite by the clumsy antennas on their roofs and they instantly became the most popular of neighbors.  By the time televisions had seeped into every home in the country, people were talking about the possibility of “living color.”  Color TV?  You’ve got to be kidding.  It was an incredible fantasy, almost too much to believe.  The Next Big Thing always is.

Children Watching TV in the Past (23)

Breaking The Color Barrier

One afternoon, Jim St. Hilaire and I were sitting on his porch on Winthrop Avenue, a major thoroughfare through South Lawrence, and we began to take note of a recent phenomenon: a sprinkling of the cars passing by were not black.  Since our earliest recollection of automobiles, all of them were decidedly black, owing to Henry Ford’s discovery that black paint was cheapest and it was easier to daub all cars the same color.  Jim and I decided to count the passing vehicles, black vs. non-black.  Black won by about 10-1, but the tide was slowly turning.  In the fifties, automobiles burst forth in a riot of colors, two- and three-tone cars included, and in all shapes and sizes.  The celebrated extended fins on many Cadillacs could skewer a careless man with the crisp efficiency of a knight’s lance.  The decade became the high point in auto pizzaz, nifty coloration, dramatic design, during which even the average Joe could identify most brands and models.  Cars with convertible tops appeared, followed by glass T-Tops in later decades.  The Next Big Thing in automobiles, perhaps flying cars, was just around the corner.  Then, sadly, everything went into reverse.  It was as if God had thrust the auto industry out of a rollicking Eden and into the depths of a colorless Hell.  The jazzy aerodynamic designs disappeared and boxy, unexciting vehicles, all apparently sired by the same father and born to the same mother, began to appear.  Instead of a full spectrum of colors, most cars arrived in a shade that could be found somewhere on the grayscale  chart.  This dulling down of the automobile was a colossal downer, a reversal of form.  Where have all the flowers gone, long time passing?  What happened to the flying cars?  Would there ever be a Next Big Thing?

Maybe.  Whiz-kid Elon Musk eventually showed up with his Tesla, an electric car which eschews gasoline, motivating solely on battery power.  The batteries are recharged every two hundred miles or so at roadside charging stations, a span which should elongate as technologies improve.  The Next Really Big Thing, however, is the driverless car, a vehicle which picks its own way through the underbrush without the guidance of a pilot, sniffing out hidden driveways, impulsive granny-drivers and preoccupied road buzzards along the way.  Google and others are spending billions on the prospect, but even the most optimistic citizens have visions of hundred-car interstate pileups.  It’s such a preposterous notion, we’re not even telling Jackie Mercier about it.  But then again, who had the audacity to foresee those bi-colored popsicles?


Hymie, Toss Me A Kidney, Please

When we were kids, people didn’t hang around as long.  In 1945, the average age of death for men was 63.6 years, just about my father’s lifespan.  People had ugly diseases then, like polio and tuberculosis and yaws.  Nearly everyone smoked cigarettes and adhered to a yummy meat and potatoes diet.  If you cut your finger off in a thresher, too bad, you were Nine-Digit Charlie for life.  Nobody got hip or knee replacement surgery.  If your heart gave out, they zipped you up in plastic and tossed you on the woodpile.   If you were foolish enough to get cancer, the doctor gave your wife an advisory note which read “Wad tightly and heave.”  The song “Here Comes the Dead Man With A Lily In His Hand” made the Top Ten.  Just in the nick of time for us, someone came up with The Next Big Thing. 

People used to carelessly advise others to keep their noses to the grindstone.  But what if a person were overly diligent and got too close?  These days, it would be no problem---just pop that sucker into a candy wrapper and rush to your local clinic.  If the honker is no longer viable, no worries, we’ll find you a new one.  In addition to the world’s fastest-growing cottage industry, organ farms, there are now booming outlets like Regeneration Technologies in Alachua which will sell you bones and tissue, maybe even an occasional eyeball or undeviated septum.  Pretty soon, everyone will be 100% replaceable, barring ugly bus accidents and sword-swallowing mishaps.  The key is to make sure you live within an hour of a progressive hospital.  Oh, and it always pays to check the quality of the surgeons.  Hardly anybody wants a backwards thumb or an upside-down ear.  And whatever you do, don’t let them take away your Medicare.  Practically nobody can pay cash for those critical testicle transplants.

Ah, progress!  One day The Next Big Thing is a spiffy new popsicle, the next it’s a pancreas-enhancing vial of newly-minted Islets of Langerhans.  And right now, scientists are plugging away at the fixit shop, looking for ways to improve the children of the future.  A little gene tweak here, a tiny adjustment there and voila!—you’ve got a left-handed pitcher who can go eight innings maintaining a 2.21 ERA, or a brilliant defensive catcher capable of a lifetime .280 batting average.  Hey, it’s not only possible, it’s The Next Big Thing.  Jackie Mercier, bless his soul, would be proud.


That’s all, folks….