Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Bicycle Safety Assembly, or My Brush with the Future

It was around 1962-1965 that the future as concept really started hitting home to me. I was in 4th or 5th grade at a suburban New Jersey elementary school. The usual sort of place, red bricks, playground/fields in back. There was a day back then that remains in my memory.

It was a spring morning, if I recall correctly. It was a school day and the bus picked us up at the usual time. Years later they built a house where the bus shelter was, but the brown shelter back then was our little haven and a literary sounding board, so to speak. It had various kinds of kid graffiti inscribed inside it, on the walls.

We were all on our way to Stonybrook School. Our usual bus driver was on the job, a guy with thinning red hair, slicked back. He usually wore some kind of cap. The bus itself was one of the earlier GM ones with a triangular window for the speedometer, a defroster that consisted of a round fan on the driver side with a heating element within. These earlier buses did not let off a flatulent blast when shifting from first to second, like the later ones did. The seats were flat and uncomfortable, brown with some kind of simulated leather.

We arrived as always to the long, narrow paved disembarkation point with its overhanging part-roof-on-poles at the front of the school. The school flag was raised, indicating that today was an “out day,” a day when the weather was OK and so we could run around a little in the playground after lunch. The trip from my house in the local hill region and the school, on the eastern edge of the lake area, was a long one, and because of the Jetsons spaceport look of where the buses let us off, I used to pretend that the bus was a spaceship and that the school was another planet. Hey, it felt like it sometimes, anyway, even after we got there.

Once we had pledged allegiance to the flag and what-not there was an air of excitement as our teacher let us know that there was going to be an assembly that morning. I don’t remember which grade I was in. Either Mrs. Aldrich, Mrs. Kitchell, or Mr. Kramer announced it. So eventually we all dragged our little chairs with the orange plastic butt-buckets and aluminum legs out into the hall (where some kid had probably puked earlier), as we rounded the hall towards the gymnasium/auditorium we could experience the olfactory sensation of the overripe, overcooked concoction that was to be our hot lunch. Don’t get me wrong, I loved that stuff! We were big kids once they let us eat hot food like that! And it was all thanks to Lawrence Schwimmer, Cafeteria Manager, who deigned to sign the lunch tickets!

Anyway around and into the auditorium, to the rhythm of a John Philip Sousa march played on the PA system, the hardwood floor showing the various boundary lines for basketball even though most of us were a little too physically retarded as yet to play that game. There was a wooden door on the corner of the gymnasium with a tiny rectangular window and written in bold black letters, “Physical Education.” At least in fourth grade, I had no idea what that meant. So it scared me a little. It still doesn’t make complete sense to me. Physical Education? Sort of like Music for the Nose. Or Head Shoes. The two things don’t really go together.

On the stage there stood a shiny new bicycle, complete with mud flap, twin side mirrors and raccoon tail, I think. Those in the know (5th or 6th graders) had already experienced this annual bicycle safety assembly. This was what we all were about to witness. That room had a stage and curtains. The curtains were open; the bike perched in the center, American flag on the left. There were many events held in that room that I can remember. The class plays (I was a pilgrim in one; a Chinese drummer in another), the music concerts, puppet shows on Saturdays (Pinocchio, anyway), the Pinewood Derby, sometimes movies on Saturday afternoons, starting with a Mickey Mouse cartoon. During the regular school week we saw the educational movies done by Bell Telephone on the human body (“rub-dub” was what the heart would say). This day it was about our bikes.

With an introduction by Principal Greed (our personal representative for the Seven Deadly Sins, and one of the more appropriate ones for this time and place?) out of the way, a local policeman proceeded to run down, point by point, what we needed to consider when riding a bike—have red reflector, don’t wear black, drive against traffic, etc. The harangue finished—every year it was virtually identical—we all clapped. But it was the clapping itself and what followed that I can’t seem to forget. We didn’t clap in the regular, anarchic way, like on, say, the Ed Sullivan show. We clapped in unison, rhythmically, and I’m not sure why. Clap-clap-clap-clap. It wasn’t that we especially enjoyed the presentation. It was pretty perfunctory. Were we being sarcastic? Was it just a spontaneous experiment in kid-crowd-behavior? Well Mr. Greed did not like it one bit. He froze us, waving both arms, shouting “Children! Children! Stop it! That’s the way they clap in Russia, not America!!!”

I was puzzled. Who were these people, really, and why did they clap this way? Why couldn’t we? What were these people like? From the absolute terror on Mr.Greed’s face, they must have been frightening people indeed. That clapping was just the beginning—and we had fallen prey to their influence somehow. God knew what other horrors were to come. It was Mad Magazine and Rocky and Bullwinkle that had poisoned our minds. Of course Greed never explained further and all it did was make you think of some very, very bad people in that place that clapped funny and we were all in for it!!!! From that day at least, I knew our future involved some inevitable direct clash with evil, these people clapping funny and aiming their rockets at us, preparing for the big invasion, etc. By that time, I think, Martian cards were out and the graphic war between the formidably armed USA and the horrific aliens with their exposed brains and ray guns was elaborated scene-by-gruesome-scene. And that’s what I thought of when I imagined the coming war. I used to go down in the family basement and see in the little alcove in the work area the couple of cans of tomato soup that were there for us when we were to go into hiding during the nuclear finale. I didn’t feel reassured. I felt sick to my stomach.

At the same time the space age was in full flower. I watched every launch like all of us did, mesmerized. Some future world where we all drank Tang, ate food out of toothpaste tubes, wore aluminum foil suits and lived in empty minimalist white rooms with not much furniture and one big-ass TV, that was one future I thought was surely coming. The cold war as we grew up gave us another possible future. The drills where we crouched and faced the hall cinder blocks, head down, thinking about it and what it meant. The future was either going to send us to Mars or drop a big H-Bomb on our heads. There seemed little doubt that it was one or the other.

As we grew up there of course was Vietnam, all sorts of crises and indirect conflicts, but the really big war and the big bombs never came, thank God. I must admit that I was absolutely shocked when, seemingly without warning, the USSR just crumbled with a whimper in the ‘80s. So that was one of the first important ways that the future wasn’t what I though it would be. It did not involve our perennial adversity with Russia. And with the progressive diminishing, the blunting of space-race competition with Russia, the space age more or less died along with the Cold War.

People were so giddy when the Berlin Wall came down and it all ended, some people actually started talking about the “end of history,” like that was all there was ever going to be. Not quite. As we have seen, a more sinister future is before us, something we could scarce imagine, war with a group of terrorist criminals—not a national government with its flags, uniforms and such—just a bunch of incredible thugs, worse than Lex Luther, Goldfinger, Boris Badinoff or any Cold War villains we might have grown up with. Far worse.

But the look and feel of this future we are in, funny to say, in some ways isn’t much different than it was in 1965. OK, most of us have personal computers. Laptops. Cell phones are all over the place, like in Star Trek, only they are used in the supermarket for stuff like “Hello dear, should I buy Fritos or Pringles?” And we haven’t knocked down all the old buildings, the slums look the same, cars are just recycling their looks, we don’t all live in space modules or towering aluminum thingies, our clothes aren’t much different—except of course we all wear jeans at least part of the time. The whole idea of a modern world, a world of progress, a world where everything is spanking new, shiny, beyond race, beyond class, where unpleasant work was done by machines, where the poverty and hatred in the world was eradicated, where intelligence ruled, where all energy had become solar or atomic or something other than that stinking oil-based, smelly, life- and peace-threatening stuff, where did it go? And that whole world of “love,” the hippie stuff, the version of Christianity I was taught—the Sermon on the Mount, remember? I sure don’t see much of that, especially in certain religious-political circles (ahem).

What’s more, I never thought I would ever wish that Richard Nixon was president again! At least he had some sense. A crook sure, but he knew history and diplomacy. Well, I got to feel that way in the past decade, before the last election anyway.

One more part of the future I never expected—that is the degeneration and potential death of music. At one time for better or worse every town had numerous places where live music was performed—bars, clubs, the bandstand in the park, etc., etc. The beginning of the end was Disco, which quite quickly closed perhaps half of the opportunities musicians once had. Then MTV came along and created non-music-music: music that was primarily a vehicle to sell the product of the cute plastic singers as product. Then came home entertainment centers, and now everyone stays home, buys movies and watches them 3,000 times, and it seems music is rarely listened to compared to before. Then, sorry, there’s rap and hip hop—often not really much music as far as I am concerned. OK, I try to listen. If you take a look on the Billboard Hot 100, you’ll find almost no Rock, no kidding.

And how about the news? I mean the news that used to be on TV. Why is the government-controlled BBC doing a more balanced job covering the news than we are?

OK, so I sound grouchy. But one more thing. . . when’s the last time you tried to find a Jersey Tomato—not one of those garbagy, thick-skinned-tasteless-pieces-of-junk you find in the supermarket? And what about these packages that are so hard to open up, you need the Army Core of Engineers to help???? And outsourcing jobs to the rest of the world?? We are the United States of America! We are supposed to be a free, prosperous democratic beacon that shines on the rest of the world and gives hope. (And, I must insist, where a man can open a bag of potato chips with his own two hands!!)

After all is said my mind still goes back to that school assembly. Maybe Greed was right. We shouldn’t have clapped like that. The future happened the way it did anyway, clapping or not. It’s a future that is still worth changing for the better. What grade have we as Boomers deserved for what we have contributed to the world so far? I hope not one of those D’s, of which I received a few later on in high school.

But I shouldn’t feel too badly. They started taking to calling my parents’ group “The Great Generation” a few years back. Maybe. Great for what? Look what they handed us? Sure they won a war in a big way. Then they made lots of money in the ‘50s, some of them. There’s more to life than that though. I don’t resent their legacy. I just don’t overvalue it either.

This future continues. We can help change it.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Your comments are welcome!

Thanks much,