1953: How We Were

Eight years after the end of WWII, 1953 sprang upon America like a tabby cat on a mouse. Children abounded in profusion (if you can do that). Thousands of virile men had returned from long years of such erotically depressing things as floating around the Pacific on a destroyer. They meant to make up for lost time. Boy did they. Thus America brought forth moiling swarms of children exactly nine years, nine months, and about thirty seconds old. The unsurprising surprised no one, except demographers.

Dukesy and I were sheaves among this bumper crop of human wheat. Dukesy (technically Michel Duquez) was a dark dashing kid of Frog extraction who assisted me in crime-for example, the great fraudulent Plastic Man for Polio crusade. He was quick-witted, good with his fists when he needed to be, and a wicked second-baseman. Later he joined the Foreign Legion and died gallantly, repelling a camel charge against Fort Digby by 12,000 hashish-crazed Bedouins waving poisoned scimitars.

Well, I expect he did.

Ours was a sunny world, hopeful and prosperous. We lived in new suburbs of pleasant brick boxes in Arlington, Virginia, each with one tree in the yard, laid out with as much imagination as the stringing on a tennis racket. We Americans had won the war. Evil had taken it in the shorts, at the end of an American boot. Now we were going to buy washing machines.

Everything made sense. We knew who we were, what we wanted, and how things should be. Our patch of Arlington had no diversity, (and therefore) no crime, no drugs, no illiteracy. In its exoticism, divorce was stranger than human sacrifice. Life was endlessly wholesome. Kids, itinerant herds of them, amused themselves with yoyos, glorious Gilbert chemistry sets with, yes, fifty bottles (Let’s see, sodium thiosulphate, cobalt chloride, sodium silicate?.) and of course baseball.

But I digress. I’m trying to tell you about Plastic Man and how he disguised himself as a Thanksgiving turkey to catch a malign force that was eating all the food in whatever city he lived in. (Maybe you didn’t think you needed to know this. Well, you do. Read it.)

Now, Plastic Man–I know, this isn’t obsessively organized–was an elastic hero in comic books, which we read along with anything else we could find. We could read: Feminism hadn’t taken the intelligence out of the classrooms, producing a vacuum that sucked in the national dregs like a bored-and-stroked Hoovermatic that needed a better filter. The Waspish belief in work and study sat well upon the nation. You could have asked my friends Michel Duquez, John Kaminski, and Lynne Sverdlov.

On long summer afternoons when we couldn’t find a pick-up ball game, and we wearied of climbing the willow in Bradley Furman’s front yard and throwing spit-bombs at each other, we’d go to the drug store in Westover on Washington Boulevard and burrow into the comic racks. There were three of them, the kind that spin, close together so you could squeeze into the middle and hide. They enclosed a dim papery space like a fort, which appeals to all proper boys, and you could peer out between the comics and watch the customers. When we turned the racks from within to get new comics, they moved as by a ghostly presence.

Anyway, Plastic Man. (This is important. There may be a pop quiz.) He was a fixture with us, like Wonder Woman who had an invisible glass airplane and a magic lasso. He wore a red-and-yellow spandex suit (if memory serves) and blue sunglasses, so that he looked like a French bicycle racer. He stretched. If he wanted to see what was on top of a building, he just elongated his neck like a forty-foot soda-straw. He could make himself into any size and shape he wanted. He did this to fight crime. Dukesy and I hadn’t reached puberty so this seemed the most profitable use for a protean talent.

Plastic Man hardly stood out in a crowd in 1953. Those were the days when Superman was always jumping out of windows amid much whooshing with the announcer intoning something about a Strange Visitor from another planet who fought for Truth, Justice, and the American Way, then thought to be coextensive.

I guess Ol’ Plastic got all stretchy because his father, who was probably a scientific genius, accidentally spilled radioactive gunch on him. It’s how things happened in 1953. Scientists often spilled stuff on a shrew or scorpion or something, and it would grow and grow into a terrible movie. He had a vaguely Chinese sidekick called Woozy who was shaped like a wonton with legs.

Anyway, the bad guys would plot nefarious deeds and never notice a red-and-yellow umbrella in the umbrella stand. In one episode the Thanksgiving turkey was suspiciously red and yellow, but they didn’t notice that either. Maybe they thought it was just moldy or something, till it turned into Plastic Man and wrapped around them like grinning rope till the cops came.

Polio, though. Dukesy and I came up with the idea of Plastic Man for Polio. At the time the disease did a land-office business and the March of Dimes was always collecting money to do something bad to it. We gathered our substantial supply of comic books and began going door to door in the neighborhood, telling all the mothers that we were selling them to eliminate iron lungs.

“Yes, Ma’am, we’re selling used comic books. It’s to help polio. Got some really good ones, see?” we’d say to the wife of a de-mobbed B-29 captain.

Of course no one believed us, but they didn’t want to seem to be in favor of respiratory paralysis, so they smiled and gave us nickels and dimes. Soon we had several dollars, mostly in small coins that made it look like more. It suited us. Like Heraclitus, we believed in change. We’d count it and play with it in the manner of Scrooge McDuck. And then go spend it. I’d like to say that the enterprise taught us something lasting about commerce or the virtue of initiative, but mostly it let us go to Westover and buy more Plastic Man.

I’m not sure where this column is going. I had a feeling that Godzilla was about to come into it, trampling paragraphs while searching for something to eat—most likely Tokyo. He did that a lot at the Glebe Theater, while we hooted and threw popcorn boxes. I guess it’s too late for the old lizard, and I don’t have space to tell you about the Great Squash Wars on Soapstone Hill.

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