Pointed recollections

No matter how anyone cuts it, as a whole, Americans are woefully ignorant of history — especially their own.

When I say “history,” I don’t mean all the esoteric nonsense that drove us nuts in high school, like when the Articles of Confederation were approved, or who was FDR’s second vice-president, or which airport did Lindbergh land at during his trans-Atlantic flight? No, I’m talking the everyday stuff we should know and claim to know, but don’t. For example, classic cars.

It’s commonly accepted that The Golden Age of American Cars was the 50’s and 60’s. In terms of sheer beauty, those rides had it all — especially compared to today’s, which look like lunch boxes on wheels. They were big as boats, had great curvy lines, finishes and chrome that sparkled like diamonds, monster fins, tinted windshields, and dashboards that’d put a 747 to shame. Yeah, baby! So what more could you ask for? Well since ya asked, I’ll tell ya.

Essentially, for all their funk and flash, those cars were death traps. They had no safety features to speak of – even their one-point seat belts were late in arriving. And if you had a seat belt on and made a panic stop, you could easily bounce your head off the dashboard (the UNPADDED steel dashboard). Or if you were free-belting it, you might smack face-first into any one of the dashboard’s dozen knobs, buttons or dials sticking our far enough to rearrange your soon-to-be-former movie star looks into something out of a Lon Chaney flick.

Steering was sloppy, bias-ply tires didn’t hold the road like radials, and brakes were primitive compared to today’s.

Beyond their safety, those beauts were simply inefficient. Yeah, they were easy to repair, but then again they needed to be, since they broke down fairly often. Plus for all their power and pizazz, they polluted like crazy, and got mileage that with today’s gas prices you’d need a second mortgage just to ride around the block.

And while today’s new car prices are nightmarish, cars weren’t cheap in The Good Old Days either. A ’56 Ford Fairlane, a common family car, cost $2249. That sounds like peanuts now, but the average per capita income was $2992. And that’s the national average, a typical schlemiel in most Southern states wasn’t making half that.

The skin game

Cars are just one example of the historical details we’ve either forgotten or weren’t aware of in the first place. Now, if you want another one, I’ve got it for you — hypodermic needles.

While disposable needles were first introduced in 1961, I don’t know who they were introduced to, because I sure didn’t feel any till the early 70’s. And lemme tell ya, Bubba, I — and all my fellow injectees — felt ’em o’plenty.

Since the old needles were used, reused, and reused again, they had to be much bigger than the disposables. Which meant they were nowhere near as sharp as today’s and hurt a helluva lot, even when brand new. But how about after they’d been around for a while? Well, they had to be resharpened. The chore fell to the nurses, who did it by rubbing it on emery cloth, and inexact art to be sure. And to make it even MORE inexact, when being sharpened, a burr formed on the opposite side. This was detected by running the needle backwards through a cotton ball, to see if it stuck. And if it did, then the burr was rubbed off…hopefully.

Understandably, kids having a freakish fear of shots was probably more the norm than the exception. Certainly, everyone knew tales of kids being dragged literally kicking and screaming into the doc’s office for a tetanus shot. And the ones who weren’t freakin’ and peakin’ looked like the poor slobs walking The Last Mile, on their way to meet Old Sparky, if not their Maker.

A drill hall drilling

My ultimate Shot-a-Palooza was of course at Great Lakes boot camp.

We had a bunch of shot sessions, and they were all spectacular in their size, scale, and cynicism.

They took place in a drill hall, which was a huge open building, jammed full of recruits — hundreds of them. We lined up single file, one company after another. After peeling off our jackets and shirts and tying them around our waists, we rolled up our t-shirt sleeves and walked the gauntlet. And it was literally a gauntlet, since on either side of us were corpsmen at various stations. We’d stop at each station and the corpsman would jab us with varying degrees of disgust, delight, or plain ole sadistic glee.

I can’t remember how many shots we got per session, but I’d say three was the likely minimum.

While I’d been a big time wuss about shots when I was younger, by the time I hit boot camp, I was OK with them. It was probably because for the previous four years I’d given blood every six months, so a shot in the arm was no longer a big deal. But I knew it wasn’t the same for many of the other guys, most of whom were 18, and a lot of whom were younger.

Clearly, a bunch of the other recruits had to be scared if not terrified of shots. So how many of them either acted out or lost their cool? Well, in the three or four shot sessions I went to, I can tell you the exact number — zero. And there were a bunch of reasons why no one went loose in the boots.

First, this was Navy boot camp, where on even a low-key day the testosterone raged like the AuSable in springtime. So even though we were treated like moronic children, we were most assuredly NOT going to act like them.

Second, the corpsman giving the shots had all been with the Marines in Vietnam and were such a sardonic and hardbitten bunch they couldn’t have found sympathy in Webster’s Third International.

Of course, our company commanders were with us, for all they comfort they offered – which was none at all. Instead, they were hanging with each other, telling sea stories in what sounded like a foreign language: “Yeah, so we had libs in the PI and another airdale and me were in this bucket of blood, when some big ole BT got in it with this deck ape…” And on and on.

Plus the CC’s care about shots? They were grizzled lifers, most of whom were tatted up, and almost all of whom had, on shore duty, gotten up and gone to work with hangovers that would’ve killed a lesser mortal.

The simple truth was no one in charge gave a rat’s rear about our dermal discomfort, or any of our problems for that matter. And knowing that made every kid there reach deep into his psychic bag of tricks and find the one that got him — terrified or not — to keep putting one foot in front of the other till the misery was over and he was out in the daylight again.

Which, the more I think of it, seems to be the best way to get through almost ALL life’s miseries.


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