It was 1953 in the white newly prosperous suburbs of Arlington, Virginia, just outside the Yankee Capital. I was eight, having been born, like so many of my small compatriots, nine months and fifteen minutes after our fathers got home from the war. These men, my father anyway, had spent years in the Pacific, being torpedoed at and watching Hellcat fighters screaming off wooden decks, and seeing ships sink. What they wanted now was lawn mowers, lawns, children, and a life as boring as possible. They got them.
We kids did not know that we were at the cusp of an explosion of technological mastery. We were, though. In addition to me there was Michel Duquez, dark-haired, raffish, and of Frog extraction, who would later die fighting for the French Foreign Legion in the Silent Quarter of Arabia. Or if he didn’t, he should have. And there was John Kaminski, or Mincemeat, blond and crewcut, who could spit out of the side of his mouth with casual aplomb the way Humphrey Bogart did, or would have if he had spit much.
American society on North Jefferson Street, and all the burbs for miles around, was everything that today would be thought intolerant or not very inclusive. There was no crime, diversity not yet having become our strength. When we rode our bikes under blue skies, I think the only kind we had then, to the shopping strip at Westover on Washington Boulevard, we could leave the bikes for hours on the sidewalk, or anywhere else, and they would be there when we came back. There were no transgenders. We were little boys and little girls. This seemed to work. For some reason now forgotten, for a year or so we referred disparagingly to each other as “queerbaits.” There were no queers to bait though, and anyway we didn’t know what one was.
But this is a techno-economic column, so to Gilbert and Edmund Scientific. We were, if not quite scientists, at least tilted in that direction. At age eight or nine, we had microscopes. There were two kinds. First was Gilbert, which cost ten bucks and had lenses of, I think, fifty, one fifty, and three hundred power. Mine, more upscale, costing fifteen dollars, was from Edmund. I guess this indoctrinated me with elitism or classism or some other demonic trait. Anyhow, they worked, and you could look at bugs and rotifers and such horrors as right into a hornet’s face. These instruments actually were instruments, and could not quite be called toys. When I got to real bio courses, I already knew how to use microscopes, mechanical stages, well slides, and such. Dukesy and I occasionally slit our wrists slightly to get blood to look at.
Hey, we were little boys.
In those far-off days, a lot of kids were smart, which was OK, or even encouraged, since there was no affirmative action. There was no one who needed it, or had the gall to ask for it. Reading seemed normal to us. In the drugstore at Westover were shelves with long rows of The Hardy Boys books, Nancy Drew, Tom Swift, and The Lone Ranger. This, as noted, was before national enstupidation. The Hardy Boys have since been dumbed down. This will make us all love each other, or something.
You can see where this is going. Microscopes. Reading. Then Chemistry Sets. These, from Gilbert, were red sheet metal cases whose degrees of gloriousness were measured in bottles: Twenty-five bottles hoi polloi and, I swear I think I remember, fifty bottles the illuminati. All contained such powders and elixirs as sodium thiosulfate, cobalt chloride, sodium silicate, sulfur, and iron filings that you could blow into the flame of the alcohol lamp, included and not thought excessively dangerous. The particles burned in a shower of sparks, which was Oxidation.
There was also a booklet that explained atomic structure and the difference between atomic structure and atomic weight. Not…exactly toys. We just thought they were.
In this, I tell you, were the seeds of the Apollo program.
Add Captain Video. This was a TV space opera, still available on YouTube. Captain Video was a nondescript hack whose sidekick was the Ranger, also devoid of personality or acting talent. It didn’t matter. When their spaceship, the Galaxy, was going off on an adventure, the two stood behind the steering wheel, like a ship’s wheel, and swayed monotonously back and forth to indicate motion.
Look, you need to know this. It’s cultural history. Read it.
For several episodes, on the flickering black and white screens of the day, with rabbit-ear antennas, we watched these two inspirations being chased through space by Tobor. Tobor was a malign robot whose name plate had been put on backward at the factory, making him go bad. We had nightmares about Tobor. Anyway he finally landed on the hull of the Galaxy, and Captain Video went out in a spacesuit and fought him, spraying his joints with what looked like a shellac gun until he was gummed up and couldn’t move.
Now, put all of this together and you can see the genesis of the Heroic Age of American technology. This lasted into the Sixties. Then it all went to hell as if a switch had been pulled and the polarity of everything reversed.
Microscopes. Chemistry, Reading. English grammar. Encouragement of intelligence. Spaceships. Robots, however misspelled. Shellac guns.
Even the psychostructure (patent applied for) moved us toward building supersonic aircraft and the Hubble Telescope. We played baseball, not knowing that it was toxic masculinity and hierarchical . We had Mattel windup submachine guns that fired whole rolls of caps in long satisfying bursts. This was homicidal violence, but nobody had yet realized it. In recess at school we played tag, which we didn’t know would make some kids feel left and tnd turn them into psychopathic killers.
We enjoyed, or today we would say suffered from, a measure of adventurousness. Running under Arlington were storm drains. These were–are–concrete pipes, usually with a trickle of water running through them, that a kid can go through, bent over, tennis shoes making an echoing Plonk Plonk sound that, once heard, cannot be forgotten. A world closed to adults, who wouldn’t fit.
It was entered by lifting a manhole cover when no one was looking. We got candles and learned different systems. I will never forget where the pipe widend out at Westover and we saw the Monster Rat with Red Eyes. OK, it was probably a normal rat but that’s not the spirit of the thing.
Around the Fourth of July we got skyrockets and fountains and other fireworks, which were then legal, and fired them deep underground, oh wow. I know, we should have spent our time in a cooperative game led by a caring adult, but we would rather have committed suicide.
See? This is why America briefly did all sorts of astonishing things. It was not because of capital flows or compound interest or free enterprise or the rest of the world being in wreckage because of the war No. It was Edmund Scientific, Gilbert, schools that taught things, kids like Dukesy and Mincemeat and a society that knew when to leave kids the hell alone.
Write Fred at [email protected] Put “pdq” anywhere in the subject line to avoid autodeletion.