Monthly Archives: April 2013

Let’s Talk About Racism

Brad Paisley and LL Cool J have a new song out called Accidental Racist. I don’t know that the song is getting much airplay, but it is heating up the news channels. Race has been a hot button topic for a long time, but looking back to my youth there was one big difference to my mind. When I was a kid the “N word” was just another word. Most people wouldn’t think twice about saying it. The word was used extensively in Blazing Saddles. Richard Pryor used the word in several of his album titles and activist/author Dick Gregory used the word in the title of at least two of his books. You could even use the word freely on television. Yes, the word wasn’t supposed to be said by white people in racially mixed company, but even that happened from time to time. Sometimes there were fights because of this, but it just led to some fists flying and a whole lot more uses of the word in question. No one seemed to fear the word.

The word people tended to fear at least to my young eyes was one that started with an “F”. When someone said that word, you knew they meant business. It was never heard on television (at least until HBO came around). It was not used as frequently in the movies. It was never used as the title of a book or movie or record album to my knowledge. It was the Voldemort of words. Everyone knew the word, but most of us didn’t say it. Soldiers and sailors said the word, but mostly when fighting or surrounded by other soldiers and sailors. I was in second grade when I first came in contact with the word. It was written on the wall in one of my classrooms by a fellow student along with the word “ass”. Now I knew what “ass” meant, but this other word? I had no idea. One of the students said it was when two people “bumped their butts together”. Being an inquiring young boy thirsty for knowledge, I simply asked the teacher. She told me that it was a word only a very dirty person would know and didn’t provide me any sort of definition. I asked my mom when I got home and even she wouldn’t tell me what the word was supposed to mean.

Since the word was not used in Disney movies of the time, I was left to ponder the meaning of the strange word for several years before I finally got clued in as to its meaning. Or at least one of its meanings. The word had power back in the day. The other word, the one that started with an “N”… not so much. Over time the “N word” and the “F word” started changing places. HBO gave comedians, who apparently had been using the word quite successfully in their nightclub shows, a national stage on which to yell this little four lettered word at the top of their lungs. Films began using it more frequently (of course this might also be because I started seeing films like Animal House instead of 101 Dalmatians). The world didn’t end upon repeated utterances, but the word did start to lose its power. Once George Burns said it in Going In Style there was no fear left in the word. And yes, the scene where George Burns said the curse word to end all curse words did end up getting cut from the film, but just knowing that the man who played God had said this word was all it seemed to take. These days we don’t even call this word the “F word”. We call it the “F bomb”, even if it’s more like the “F firecracker” or “F sparkler” than an actual “F bomb”.

Songs started using the word. I remember the first time I heard Harry Nilson sing it in “You’re Breaking My Heart” I lost it. It was the early 80s by then and the “F” word was free. One of the highlights of going to the Roaring Twenties nightclub to dance was that point in the night when they would break out “The Rodeo Song” and watch the crowd go wild. But as this four letter term for fornication shed its trench coat and sunglasses, the “N word” picked them up and put them on. Social consciousness was sweeping the land; slowly in some places and not in all areas or interactions. And while activists would have a long road to travel before they would see a black man in certain neighborhoods in America, much less in the White House, one simple step that they all seemed to silently agree upon was that they would stop using the “N word”. White guilt or shame or perhaps just peer pressure slowly made the word less accessible. While the “F word” was starring in hit movies and waiting for the birth of the Internet where it would truly shine, the “N word” was becoming persona non gratis. White people were expected to have stopped using the word cold turkey. When we want to ask for one of those early Richard Pryor albums on CD our heads nearly explode. Even words that are close to the offending word give us trouble. Many of us listen as black people tell us that we are no longer allowed to use this word. Richard Roundtree’s blaxploitation western is now simply “Boss”. The last word in the title is missing and it won’t even show up on the side of a milk carton. (Do they still put missing children’s pictures on milk cartons?)

So the next step in the life of this word is for the black community to “take it back”. All of a sudden after a few years of the word being underground or in witness protection, it shows up as a term of affection used from one black person to another. Usually the last two letters have been replaced by a single letter “a”, but this is the equivalent of putting Groucho glasses on the Batman. You still know it’s the Batman, and if you say the wrong thing to Batman or about Batman, Batman is going to kick your ass. Now we have a word that is off-limits to a large segment of the population while simultaneously becoming heavily used by another segment. This creates a covetous attitude in many white people. Why can’t we say the word? Why is it okay if they say the word? I don’t like being denied my opportunity to sing along to Jay Z songs if I want to. Now the word has enormous power. If a white person says the word, he is almost always immediately branded as a racist (except for Quentin Tarantino, he seems to get a pass from much of the black community). The idea that a white person must never be allowed to utter this six letter word seems almost codified as national law which makes people who would normally never want to use the word, want to use it all the more. It’s like not smoking pot or obeying the speed limit. Even those that follow the law have thoughts about breaking it, and a lot of them will if they think no one is watching (or in this case listening).

Of course with blacks having their “off-limits to all but us” word, other groups hopped on board. Women despise the “C word” and gay people have fought to get their least favorite “F word” treated the same way that the “N word” is treated. They can say it. We can’t. So far they haven’t tried removing the last two letters and replacing them with the letter “A”. I really hadn’t noticed how much they had done to eradicate the use of this term until I was re-listening to an old Eddie Murphy stand up act and I realized how jarring it now seemed when he used the word in question. I couldn’t concentrate on the jokes any longer because I was trying to process how a comedian could get by with using this particular word these days. It couldn’t be done, but then this was an album from the early 80s.

What’s the answer? I don’t know. I just write a blog because I enjoy sharing my thoughts in a printed format albeit an electronic one. I do know that we need to start talking to each other and explain the linguistic problems that we have. For example, to keep from offending the currently preferred racial label is African-American. Many don’t like to be called black and they certainly don’t like negro or colored, both of which conjure up more images of a less enlightened time. But America is not the only country with black people. Is Lenny Henry, the British comedian, an African-American? No. So is he an African Brit? What about Nelson Mandela? Is he an African-African? Black just feels like the most accurate and least racially insensitive term that can be used, but I’m open to ideas and enlightenment myself.

How Did We Know What Was Going On Back Then?

My wife and I were driving down the road today talking about various things when we got to discussing making a “junk journal” for the kids. I have a lot of crazy stuff that I have held onto through the years. Some of it looks like nothing to the untrained eye, but to those in the know, there are stories and history in these various items. I have an old pill tin that my dad carried around with him. I have a pocket knife that he won for my mom and that she carried around with her from then on. To my kids these items are just a small green tin and a pocket knife. They don’t understand the family history attached to these pieces. I also have books and toys that have a special place in my life or DVDs that are out of print and worth a pretty penny. These are things the kids need to know before boxing all this stuff up and taking it to Goodwill after they put me six feet under.

The fact of the matter is that none of them have the attention span to remember everything about all of this mess. There’s also the problem with me forgetting lots of details as well. For example, I can’t remember what it was that Dad used to carry in that tiny pill tin. I remember Mom telling me about it, but I can’t remember the full story. Since Mom passed away several years ago I can’t ask her any longer. My sister or my cousin might remember, but I need to get the facts down where the kids can find it when my time finally comes to an end. Of course they will also have to wait for my wife to pass before they truly get to run free with my things but never the less.

So in the midst of this conversation I mentioned to my wife about how certain toys were special to me growing up. The Mego Planet of the Apes action figures were some of my favorites. I had the full set of them and their accessories. Most of the expensive pieces were Christmas gifts left under the tree by Santa or given to me by my Aunt EI. The actual figures however were ones that I got at Kmart and Murphy’s Mart and Hecks department stores. There were two waves of the action figures as I recall. The first batch was based on the movie. The second batch was based on the television series. I still remember playing at my Aunt Tress’ one day as a kid, and it just came to me that the new figures should be out. One of my cousins might have seen them and mentioned it or it might just have been a psychic premonition, but I begged me mom to stop on the way home. She agreed to stop and sure enough there they were.

When the Kenner Star Wars action figures actually came out (my mom refused to buy me the Early Bird IOU that was offered) we just ran into them in the store. I think the first ones we bought might have actually come from Krogers grocery store in Saint Albans. The thing was, I didn’t have the Internet to tell me these things were coming out. We didn’t have toy magazines to prepare us for new toys and toy lines. We found out the old-fashioned way; we bumped into them.

Sometimes I learned about new toys by ads in my comic books. I remember the big two page spread for the Haunted Mansion action model kids or the Strange Change models. I recall ads for Evel Knievel, the Six Million Dollar Man, and lots of different cars and bikes like Hot Wheels and Matchbox. Today kids and collectors know exactly when each wave of the new action figures are going to start shipping. They know which figures are going to be hard to locate and eBay helps make that search easier as well. Some how this just doesn’t seem as exciting as going into the toy department and finding the new additions to the Aurora Prehistoric Scenes model kit line. Silly as it sounds, I think I liked our way best.

Peanut Butter and Karo Syrup

When I was a kid growing up, money was tight. We weren’t as bad off as some kids, but we did tend to do a lot of homemade snacks. I was thinking back on this when I tried the new Cadbury Peanut Butter Egg. The idea seems to be a mix of the classic Cadbury Egg, but with peanut butter added. When I bit into the chocolate shell and tasted the peanut butter and Cadbury “yolk” filling, I was immediately taken back to one of my mom’s greatest concoctions, at least in the eyes of a child. Mom used to mix peanut butter and Karo syrup together as a snack. I loved it. It was one of the trifecta of peanut butter snacks that a child could easily fix. The other two were peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and peanut butter and marshmallow creme (also usually served as a sandwich).

Peanut butter and Karo syrup was a go to snack for me for most of my childhood, and it was simplicity in itself. Take some peanut butter. Put it in a bowl. Add some Karo syrup, but not too much. Stir the two together and enjoy. The Cadbury Peanut Butter Egg brought back this long forgotten memory as the center of the egg tastes almost exactly like Mom’s peanut butter and Karo syrup did. The only problem is that the Cadbury product tastes like the peanut butter and Karo syrup snack where someone added a little too much Karo syrup. It was extremely sweet.

I’m trying to write down and share things like this as I remember them because these are things being lost to the dust bins of time. My son has heard me talk about the great toys from my childhood and some of the things that we used to do, but much of what life was like I have forgotten to tell him. He might remember me talking about having to wait years for a movie to finally come on TV, but have I ever properly explained Top Value stamps? Oh well at least he’ll have my blog if he ever gets curious about the old days when TVs had 3 channels, gas was well under $1 a gallon, there were no drive thru restaurants, and almost everything was shut down on Sunday. And now if he wants he can even try out one of our old budget snack recipes.

Remember The Plastic Pop Top?

I was fiddling around with the lid to my Diet Pepsi bottle the other day and got to thinking about the old plastic pop bottle tops. This was an item that was probably in every home up until about 30 years ago, but has now disappeared almost completely. Back in the seventies pop was sold in bottles with metal bottle caps that had to be popped off using a bottle opener. Once the bottle cap was removed it was unusable for resealing the bottle. Leaving the bottle uncapped allowed the carbonation to escape and the pop went flat. In order to fix this problem a simple little gadget was invented, a plastic reusable bottle cap.

bottlecaps

Some of the caps were used as promotional items and had the name of the bottler painted on it. Other caps were sold in packages at department stores in their housewares department or at grocery stores in their pop aisle. There were plain round ones and then there were ones with “tails”. The tail was a thin strip of plastic connected to a plastic collar that was placed around the neck of the bottle. This allowed the consumer to open the plastic top without fear of losing it.

The plastic pop top was made obsolete by the screw top pop bottle. Every cap was now a resealable bottle cap. In addition to the plastic pop tops, “church keys”, the bottle openers that popped off the old caps or poked holes in the old pre-pull tab cans depending on which end you used also soon went missing. The market tried to sell a redesigned bottle opener that fit down around the twist off caps and assisted in twisting them off. This didn’t last too long as the caps became easier to unscrew and people learned to use pliers on the bottles that remained contrary.

I miss those days. I also miss the old metal pop tops that had a thin layer of cork inside them as well. Drinks just seemed to taste better coming out of these bottles. The bottlers also used to place removable plastic liners inside the metal tops with game pieces or prizes on them. Now days the information is printed directly inside the screw off cap or on the back of the thin drink label wrapped around the bottle.