Spelling and grammer and all that stuff! Supposibly its like real important
Rudolph the Red-Foot Rhino
A Churnin’ Urn o’ Burnin’ FUNK!
‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,’ by Kurt Vonnegut. Sort Of
Some Disassembly Required
The True Story of the Maximally Flaccid Pud and Your Tax Dollars at Work
Vote for Willy Wonka and the Oompa-Loompas: Because America Deserves NOTHING!
The Helicopter Song
John Denver Was an Alien and He Killed Himself and All I Got Out Of it Was This Boring Childhood
♬ Rudolph the gore-foot rhino ♬
♬ Had a stupid Santa hat ♬
♬ And if you thought he was a reindeer ♬
♬ You’re a moron, dude; what’s up with that? ♬
♬ All of the ackshul reindeer ♬
♬ Used to laugh and call him names ♬
♬ I say “used to” ‘cuz our hero Rudolph ♬
♬ Stomped out their useless reindeer brains! ♬
♬ Then one foggy Christmas eve ♬
♬ Santa came to say: ♬
♬ “Rudolph with your gory feet ♬
♬ “Let’s find the nearest bar: my treat!” ♬
♬ “You’re not mad then?” said our hero Rudolph ♬
♬ “No WAY!” said Santa heartily! ♬
♬ “Who needs a bunch of elves and reindeer ♬
♬ “When I have a sweatshop overseas?” ♬
Back in ’82, I went over to my friend Rob’s house one summer day, and for some reason he had a black laundry marker and a bunch of letter stencils, and he wanted to put some slogans on some shirts.
For some reason—quite possibly the same reason Rob had a black laundry marker and a bunch of letter stencils—we were wearing identical gray tank tops, and this all reeked of portentous foreshadowings.
Alcohol may have been involved.
We had one T‑shirt each, so first drafts and revisions were out of the question. Despite alcohol’s possible involvement, we had to do some adulting and settle on our shirts’ messages.
So we sat down and watched an Incredible Hulk rerun titled “Metamorphosis,” in which Bruce Banner lands a sound engineer position for a punk rocker played by MacKenzie Phillips, because if you need a concert sound engineer, everyone knows you look for an expert in gamma rays and cellular biology.
So someone slips Banner acid, so of course he gets scared, and we get to enjoy the Hulk staggering around trippin’ balls while MacKenzie Phillips sings her earsplitting hit song “Necktie Nightmare” in front of a gigantic pair of high-voltage electrodes shooting perfectly safe 50-foot lightning bolts across the stage, and the also-stoned fans think it’s part of the show, so MacKenzie Phillips ditches her punk bonafides to turn into Amy Grant.1
Meanwhile, we got to laughing so hard Rob fell off the couch and I almost wet myself.
After the Hulk was finished with “Necktie Nightmare,” and after more contemplation and discussion, along with more of the possibly involved alcohol, we settled upon messages to stencil on our shirts, making them T‑shirts that would have helped Bill and Ted’s music to bring harmonic balance to the universe much earlier if Bill and Ted had been wearing shirts with the most totally excellent and bodacious stencils we created:
Rob’s shirt said PRO.
My shirt said DENTAL FLOSS TYCOON.2
With our new world-changing T‑shirts finished, and after some more possibly involved alcohol, we decided we needed to get out there and let the world see them. The T‑shirts, that is. Not the impressive pile of empty beer bottles.
So we hopped into my car, aka the legendary Charles the Deep Breather, and engaged in one of our favorite pastimes: Driving around and drinking beer while enjoying music generated by the vigorous pelvic thrusts of the renowned Pioneer SuperTuner and lustily pumped out through the inimitable Jensen 6x9 Triaxials.3
As we cruised up Topeka Boulevard, we saw that the Kansas State Fair was underway, so we parked and wandered around with a couple of warm, overpriced state fair beers rather than the nice cold beers waiting for us in Charles the Deep Breather’s back seat.
As we passed all the rigged games, a carny guy looking for someone to blow $80 to get a nasty-smelling imported teddy bear that was probably stuffed with asbestos accosted us.
“Hey there, fellas!” he said.
Rob lit a cigarette and crimped an eye at him. “Yo.”
“Those are nice T‑shirts!” the carny guy said, looking as convincing as that “Hello fellow kids!” meme with Steve Buscemi, no doubt thinking the fellow kids said, “Why, there’s that groovy cat with the skateboard (or nasty-smelling teddy bear)!” rather than “Here comes Chester the Molester again–run!”
“DENTAL FLOSS TYCOON?” he said, pointing at me. “What does that mean?”
“It means I might be moving to Montana soon,” I replied.
“Oh, cool!” he said, the way you would say “Oh, cool!” to a guy carrying a chainsaw and wearing a space helmet who told you he was the lovechild of Carl Sagan and an alien from Proxima Centauri V, hoping to distract him long enough to make a run for it. “Does th—“
“Just to raise me up a crop of dental floss,” I interrupted.
“With a pair of heavy-duty zircon-encrusted tweezers!” I interrupted again.
He gave up and turned to Rob. Apparently he wasn’t a Frank Zappa fan.
“What does PRO mean?” he said, sounding desperate.
Rob squinted at him again, taking another drag of his cigarette.
“Prostitute,” he drawled.
The carny guy turned on his heel and stomped away. I don’t know what got his dudgeon up; you’d think someone who travels with a carnival wouldn’t get offended at the word prostitute.
It wasn’t always like that, though. If you’re bracing yourself for a story about how I had to walk 10 miles to school barefoot, relax. What I mean is that you could buy T‑shirts when I was a kid that these days would make woke people pass out.
Take this charming, whimsical 1970s T‑shirt ad, for instance. Before Rohypnol, Jethro Tull T‑shirts were, alas, the only way a lot of guys could get laid.
The struggle is real.
Here’s the text:
Reprise leeringly invites you to win a T‑shirt that will
DRIVE THE GIRLS WILD WITH DESIRE!
You say you’re not making it with the local lovelies? That when you make Paul McCartney eyes at alluring little honeys in violet hip-huggers they respond by frowning and suggesting, “Jerk off, loser”? That even the offer of a seat next to you at a Led Zeppelin concert is insufficient inducement for a far-out nubie to spend part of the evening with you?
Then, fella, whatchoo need is a SUPER-OUTTA-SIGHT-JETHRO-TULL-T-SHIRT of the sort worn by the fullest-handed rakes everywhere.
These eye-catching sartorial groovies, which are guaranteed to reduce even the haughtiest of lovelies to a mound of hot pulsating flesh, are a divine shade of yellow designed to to flatter even the swarthiest of complexion, are the three-buttons-at-the-neck style recently made all the rage by your sharper English groups, appealingly reveal the wearer’s fashionably skinny arms (being short-sleeved) and feature an enticing likeness of sexy Tull leader Ian Anderson somewhere in the vicinity of the right boob. Available in the splendid sizes of medium and large, they may be worn with equal success by members of any sex.
We, in our customarily fiscally unsound way, are giving 1,000 of these wonder away. Free!
All you have to do to win one of your very one is: 1) fill our coupons below; and 2) give it back to us complete down to the exact playing time of the first side of Jethro Tull’s latest hysterically acclaimed album (surely you don’t expect us to give you something without first trying to trick you into buying something first), which information may be gleaned from the album’s label, which you have to remove the cellophane to get to.
So why don’t you in a real hurry send us the required so that we can rush you a Tull T‑shirt that’s certain to transform you overnight into a churning urn of burning funk.
I like Jethro Tull and I do have fashionably skinny arms, but I’m not sure I’d like Ian Anderson sitting on my right boob. Also, do I want to be a churning urn of burning funk? I honestly don’t know. A churning urn of burning funk might be a slick-talking studly chick magnet.
A churning urn of burning funk could also be an overflowing Porta Potty doused with gasoline and set on fire.
In ’77, when I was in Catholic high school—and I must emphasize that this was a Catholic high school—the math teacher, Sister Rose Celine, called a guy named Brian up to do a problem on the chalkboard.
Now Brian had been wearing a hoody all day because he was wearing a T‑shirt that said “Your Problem Is Obvious” on the back, along with a drawing of someone with his head stuck up his ass. He’d been collecting snickers and giggles all day from other students.
But now it was the last class for the day and it was pretty warm out, so he shrugged off the hoody and left it draped over his chair.
And when Sister Rose Celine called him up to do a problem, Brian forgot about the hoody.
Just as he was about to pass by Sister Rose Celine, he realized why the rest of us were stifling giggles and whispering “Pssst!” at him, and without missing a beat he pivoted 90 degrees to the right, facing Sister Rose Celine, and sidled up to the board. He filled out the math problem with his left hand, facing Sister Rose Celine all the while.
“Very good, Brian,” Sister Rose Celine said. “You may sit down.” Brian began sliding sideways back the way he came as the muffled snickers neared a crescendo. Sister Rose Celine glanced up at us, then at Brian. Being a math teacher, she put 2 and 2 together and stood up.
And because nuns are terrifying, Sister Rose Celine didn’t yell or throw things or grab a ruler or anything like that. All she did was to quietly say, “Stop.”
Brian froze in place; everyone else stopped giggling. We stopped breathing, in fact.
“Why are you walking sideways, Brian?” Sister Rose Celine said.
Brian said, “…eep?”4
“Turn around,” she said.
Brian turned and showed her the back of his shirt. She studied it for a moment and said, “Class, you will please work on the rest of the problems in your books until the bell rings and class is over.”
She walked to the classroom door, opened it, and waited. Gulp. This meant Sister Rose Celine and Brian were about to visit the principal, Father Ax, a visit. Dead man walking.
No, that’s not a joke. His last name really was Ax. Father Ax was the principal and the school’s boxing and wrestling coach.
Clarification: Father Ax was principal of Hayden East, which was in downtown Topeka, across the street from the state capitol. Hayden East was for 9th and 10th graders.
11th and 12th graders, on the other hand, went to Hayden West, which was across the street from Gage Park. And the Hayden West principal was (I’m still not making any of this up) Father Santa.
I didn’t attend Hayden after 9th grade, so while I have no direct 411 to share about Father Santa, I suspect he was even scarier than Father Ax. But let’s get back to Father Ax:
Father Ax was about 5 1/2 feet tall, 3 feet wide, and weighed about 220 pounds, all of it solid muscle.
Father Ax was not the kind of guy to have an avuncular chat with a wayward student and invite the wayward student to come see him if he ever wanted to talk.
If Father Ax answered the phone instead of Liam Neeson in Taken, Father Ax would not threaten to kill the kidnappers. The kidnappers would drop dead the instant Father Ax picked up the phone.
The reason you hear all those jokes about Chuck Norris being so tough and also about how Bruce Lee Chuck Norris in a movie is only because they were both way too smart to even joke about fighting with Father Ax.
Father Ax had a large paddle in his office made of 3/4‑inch oak. It was labeled “Board of Education.”
Father Ax was a Vietnam vet, but he was not rumored to have been a Navy SEAL or in Special Forces or a sniper. Father Ax was rumored to have taken the Board of Education to Vietnam and singlehandedly ended the war in less than a week.
Father Ax had no interest in, patience for, or mercy upon wiseass churnin’ urn o’ burnin’ funk T‑shirts, and even less for the student wearing it.
The next morning, everyone was whispering about poor Brian. No one knew what transpired in Father Ax’s office; Brian wasn’t talking about it and everyone else was afraid to ask, although we did notice Brian wincing whenever he sat down, so we assumed Brian had had a talk with the Board of Education.
Let’s get back to T‑shirts: Mom and Dad had 4 children, but I was the only one they sent to Catholic school; First Sister, Thing One and Thing Two stayed in public schools, while I left public school after 8th grade, attended Hayden for 2 years, and returned to public school for 11th grade, 12th grade and graduation.
My friend Rob has a mildly unusual last name. I’ve witnessed him being asked to spell it a few times, and he jokes that it’s spelled just the way it sounds, but with only two W’s.
I’ve never gotten much humor mileage from my name. Sometimes someone will say “Is that Greg with one or two G’s?” And I’ll joke, “Two G’s: One on each end!”
Now this right here is the difference between a good joke and a meh joke:
“Only two W’s” is pretty obviously a wisecrack (unless you’re Welsh or Czech and your name is something like Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch or Nejnedoobhospodařovávatelnější).
On the other hand, if someone says “Is that Greg with one or two G’s?”, they’re asking you if your name is Greg or Gregg. And “It’s two G’s; one on each end!” isn’t funny; it’s just confusing.
Mom once told me I was named after Pope Gregory. When you grow up Catholic, being named after a Pope is considered quite an honor, and I was their only male child. There has, alas, never been a Pope Thing 1, Pope Thing 2 or Pope First Sister, so Pope Gregory it was.
I looked the dude up once and discovered the dude was dudes: There have been 16 Pope Gregorys (or is that Popes Gregory?). Some of them were were notably good Popes:
Pope Gregory I (590–604) was a chill dude who earned the nickname Gregory the Great; the Gregorian Chant was named after him. The Gregorian Calendar was named after Gregory XIII (1572–1585).
On the other hand, Gregory IX (1170–1241) revved up the Inquisition from the equivalent of a Congressional inquiry to the Inquisition we all know and love, with the seizing of property and torture and burning at the stake and all that fun stuff.
I once asked Mom and Dad which Pope Gregory I’m named after. Pope Gregory XVI died in 1846, so I assumed I wasn’t named after a Pope in recent memory. They were a little surprised that there have been 16 Pope(s) Gregory(s). Mom said she wasn’t sure which one, but they knew he was a most excellent and bodacious Pope and she’d look it up and let me know.
That was 48 years ago, so Mom, if you’re reading this, I’m still curious.
If my name was Rockefeller or Kennedy, I’d expect to be asked if I had Kennedy or Rockefeller kin. Being named after a Pope? Ain’t gonna happen. No one’s ever going to ask me if I’m related to one of the Pope(s) Gregory(s), or tell me I look just like the Pope.
I’ve been mistaken for other people, though.
Way back in 1986, my friend Stan and I drove up north of Chicago for a music festival, picking up his friend Blue1 in St. Louis on the way. The festival was held on a great big piece of rented farmland, like Woodstock, except Cornerstone was a Christian music festival, so we didn’t have folks running around naked or ignoring the warnings about the brown acid. As far as I know.
I was wandering around looking at the product tables of albums and T‑shirts and other music festival accoutrements, and someone tapped me on the shoulder.
I turned to see a pair of excited teen girls. When they saw me their smiles vanished; one of them said, “Sorry!” and they both slunk away.
This happened several more times in the next few hours; come dinnertime, my friend Stan and I were waiting in line to get some BBQ ribs before the big main stage concert, and someone tapped on my shoulder again. I turned to see a young guy holding an album and a Magic Marker; his crest instantly fell.2
“Sorry!” he said as he started to slink away. I said, “Hey, wait a sec. Did you think I was someone else?”
“Yeah,” he said, “you look like Darrell Mansfield.”
We got our ribs and found a place to sit and watch the big main concert, and lo, Darrell Mansfield entered from stage right.
My friend Stan stared at Darrell, then at me, then at Darrell, like Darrell and I were playing tennis.
Turns out Darrell Mansfield’s the best harmonica player3 I’ve ever seen, and he’s a heck of a nice guy.
My friend Stan later sent me a picture of Darrell and I when Darrell was signing autographs, which I promptly lost, so you’ll have to be content with one of Darrell’s album covers and a blurry photo of me my friend Stan also took during the festival. As you can see, Darrell’s about 10 years older than me, but if you squint you can see how I could sort of look similar to Darrell if someone who just lost his glasses saw my back from 100 feet away at night.
Which no doubt explains why the people who wanted Darrell’s autograph looked so disappointed when I turned around and they realized I was just some miscellaneous guy with long hair and the appalling bad manners not to be anywhere near as talented or good-looking as Darrell Mansfield.
My Previous Best Half and I went to the same music festival a couple years later, and one night we bumped into Darrell taking his tube amp and other stuff over to one of the side stages.
He remembered me and made an “evil twin” joke when I introduced My Previous Best Half, and he invited us in the back door of the cattle auction barn where they were playing; we got to hang out with the rest of the band and watch the soundcheck and enjoy front row center seats.
Like I said, heckuva nice guy. He’s in his 70s now and had to stop performing a couple years ago due to dementia, the same demeaning, cruel way my dad was also robbed of his memories and cognition. But my dad was one of those sweet, gentle guys who just got sweeter as the dementia progressed. I bet Darrell’s just the same.
Okay! On that depressing note, being mistaken for Darrell was my only brush with celebrity, so let’s—
Wait; that’s not true. I’d almost forgotten this, but The Chowder just reminded me that 15 years ago, she thought I was unbearably cool for a couple of days because she thought I was Zaphod Beeblebrox.
This was for two reasons:
- Zaphod Beeblebrox was a character in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the film version of which had just been released, and
- Zaphod, played by Sam Rockwell, wore a messy blond wig that also resembled my hair if glimpsed from a distance during a blizzard through cracked binoculars.
The Chowder was only 4 years old, so she still thought I was awesome (quite rightly of course, until Fake News disavowed her of that belief, for which I will never forgive them).
And now, the moment you haven’t been waiting for: It’s way past time for me to explain the title of this post, so let’s talk about My Three Sons.
My Three Sons was a sitcom that aired from 1960 to 1972. The plot was layered and complex, so you might want to take some notes:
My Three Sons—bear with me here—was about a guy who had three sons. Got all that?
The youngest of the titular sons was named Thompson. Ernest Thompson. Suspiciously, everyone else’s last name was Douglas. Even more suspicious: Ernie’s brothers (Robbie and Chip) and their dad (Steven) were all tall, handsome, talented, and confident, and they had studly, cool names while Ernie was a short, clumsy geek with a clumsy geek name. It’s almost like Steven Douglas wasn’t really Ernie Thompson’s dad at all.
Which of course was the truth: Ernie was adopted. And being around four tall studly guys who were far more handsome and talented and older than Ernie was no doubt an honest-to-Tony-Robbins confidence boost.4
And I get that; I really do. I bet every adolescent scrawny geek guy wishes he had a cool studly name: Steele Hawthorn or Ripley Edward Absalome (Ripped Abs, for short) or even just Cool Studly McStudlycool.
I was not an Ernie fan as a kid. I was vaguely aware of the sitcom and the character (played by Barry Livingston, which was itself a cooler name than mine).
That all changed when I was 15. I was a 9th-grader at Hayden High School, which was extremely Catholic. Dead serious Catholic. To quote Jim Gaffigan, it was a Shiite Catholic high school.
And like most geeks in Shiite Catholic school, I spent most of my time being stuffed into my locker, punctuated with the occasional wedgie or WTSNA.5
I did enjoy going to Campus Life every week, and I enjoyed going to their week-long camp thingy in the summer out in Quaker Ridge, Colorado. Most of the other attendees were geeks and nerds too, so it wasn’t so awkward socially. Kind of like it you were 4’ 11” tall but once a year you got to hang out with like-statured people in a convention titled Nobody Over 4‑Eleven.
Anyway, halfway through my freshman year, something very strange happened:
All the girls in Campus Life and at school started calling me Ernie. I still have no idea why.
One day at school, a girl in class said, “Hey, you look like Ernie!”
I wasn’t used to girls talking to me willingly, so I kept my reply simple:
“Huh? Like on Sesame Street?”
“No, Ernie!” she said. “Ernie, on My Three Sons! Doesn’t he look like Ernie?” she said, elbowing another girl in class, who agreed with alacrity.
By the end of the day, every girl in school was calling me Ernie.
I was befuddled. Hornswoggled, even. I wasn’t used to being popular, or even noticed. I’d worked hard to learn how to be invisible at school and I liked it that way.
This was in 1977, so instead of Googling My Three Sons and Ernie and Barry Livingston, I went to the library and pored over archived LIFE, Time and TV Guide magazines.
Ernie had thick black hair; I had thin blond hair. Ernie had a Freddy Mercury-style overbite; I didn’t. Ernie had a strong jaw with a well-kirkled chin;6 I had a shapeless mooshy chin that looked like an uncooked Pillsbury Dough Boy biscuit.
Here’s some irrefutable photographic evidence: Photos of me and Barry Livingston at various ages.
The “HI ERNIE!” hollers from across the room tapered off, to my relief. But then something even stranger began to happen:
The embarrassing spotlight faded out, replaced with casual, but genuine kindness and affection: So many people called me Ernie that the teachers at Hayden picked up on it, along with Campus Life staff. I remember having to ask teachers and coaches to correct report cards or other documents referring to me as Ernie.
The summer before my sophomore year, I went to the Campus Life camp thingy in Colorado yet again. And on the first day, two or three girls gave me a Campus Life T‑shirt with “ERNIE” ironed on the back.
It revved up the whole “Hey, there’s Ernie whose name isn’t really Ernie but I don’t remember his real name so HI ERNIE!” thing again. But this time I didn’t mind it so much. Public schools can be tough environments; Shiite Catholic schools can be even worse. Geeks and nerds like me learned to be invisible at school because being the object of attention usually means being bullied.
But sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it’s okay to get a funny nickname or to be teased about one quirk or another. Not in a mean-spirited way, but in a welcome aboard, goofball-spirited way.
I still don’t know which Pope Gregory I’m named after, and I still have no idea why the girls at school started calling me Ernie.
But that’s okay. Just call me Pope Ernie. Or His Holiness Ernest the Oneth, if you’re a Shiite Catholic. I’ll answer to either of them.
Vonnegut1 was one of those important authors who make you feel vaguely guilty, given that you’ve never read any of his stuff except maybe Slaughterhouse-Five. And while some of his stuff is dystopian or mildly sci-fi, where do I get off saying he, not Douglas Adams,2 is responsible for a sprawling sci-fi epic like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy?
Stay with me here: In 1965, Vonnegut published God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, which included a lengthy excerpt from a fictional novel titled Venus on the Half-Shell, by a fictional author named Kilgore Trout.3
Kilgore Trout showed up frequently in Vonnegut’s work as a literary alter ego for Vonnegut himself, but Trout’s name was also a poke at Vonnegut’s friend, sci-fi author Theodore Sturgeon:4 “I think it’s funny to be named after a fish,” were Vonnegut’s exact words (he may have been a great writer but apparently part of him never left middle school).
And so, in 1975, Venus on the Half-Shell hit the bookstores, just three years before The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy began on BBC Radio. The byline read Kilgore Trout, but the author was really Philip Jose Farmer, using characters created by Kurt Vonnegut.
Got all that?
What does this have to do with Douglas Adams or Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? Adams was a huge fan of Vonnegut, for one thing. That’s not tantamount to plagiarism, of course. But if you’ve ever read, listened to or watched Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, you’ll notice some startling parallels:
1. The Everyman Galactic Wanderer
Both stories follow the adventures of an everyday schlub snatched from his everyday schlub’s life into an intergalactic adventure. HHGTTG stars Arthur Dent, who worked in a small radio radio station before roaming the cosmos in a bathrobe.
VOTHS, on the other hand, stars Simon Wagstaff, a folk musician who likes wearing faded jeans and comfy old sweatshirts. He has curly dark hair, a big nose and looks a lot like Kurt Vonnegut.
2. The Earth Gets Destroyed by Bureaucrats
When Hitchhiker’s Guide begins, Arthur Dent is lying in the mud in front of his house, blocking the bulldozers that have shown up to demolish his house. At the beginning of Venus on the Half-Shell, Simon Wagstaff and his girlfriend are having sex on the head of the Sphinx in Egypt.
Oh. This would be a good place to explain that according to Vonnegut, Kilgore Trout was a hack who wrote a lot of thinly-disguised porn and was published mostly in adult magazines.
And Philip Jose Farmer was the perfect ghost writer for Trout, given that Farmer’s favorite themes were sex, religion, aliens, sexy religion, alien sex, religious sex, sexy religious aliens, alien religious sex, sex as worship, alien sex worship, worshipful sex with aliens—you get the idea.
Anyway, Arthur and Simon are both minding their own business when aliens show up and destroy the Earth: The Vogons blow the Earth out from under Arthur to build a hyperspace bypass, while in Venus on the Half Shell, the Hoonhors decide Earth is too polluted and clean things up by triggering a worldwide flood, a la Noah. Turns out they cleaned up Earth a few thousand years ago already but are unhappy things are already so dirty again.
Arthur manages to snag a ride on a Vogon ship and later winds up roaming the galaxy on a ship called Heart of Gold, which was stolen earlier by one Zaphod Beeblebrox, looks like a giant running shoe, and is named after a Neil Young song.
Conversely, Simon leaves Earth on a Chinese ship christened Hwang Ho, which looks like a giant chrome penis and is named after the Yellow River (remember what I said about Philip Jose Farmer being a religious/alien sex fiend?).
3. Pursuing the Ultimate Question With Neurotic Robots in Stolen Spaceships
So! Now we have a couple of hapless doofuses roaming the galaxy in stolen spaceships after the Earth was destroyed by alien bureaucrats.
Arthur is traveling with a small handful of human and alien friends, plus a neurotic robot named Marvin, who resents being a lowly maintenance robot when he has a brain the size of a planet, and Eddie, a shipboard computer who tries way too hard to be cheerful.
Simon’s on the go with Anubis and Athena, his dog and owl, plus a neurotic robot named Chorwktap, who has free will and far too much intelligence to enjoy being a sex robot (this doesn’t stop her and Simon from having lots and lots of sex anyway–ref. P.J. Farmer, the sci-fi sex fiend author, again). Tzu Li, the Hwang Ho’s computer, is just a computer, despite Chorktap spending all her free time trying to prove Tzu Li is self-aware but shy.
Our heroes have the fastest spaceships ever made and a universe to explore, so they set out for some answers:
“What’s the ultimate answer to, you know–life, the universe and everything?” Arthur wants to know.
Simon’s question is this: “Why were we created only to suffer and die?”
4. The Genius Vermin Secretly Running the Show
As they travel and enjoy various hijinks in pursuit of the truth, Arthur and Simon discover the Vogons and Hoonhors are just what they appeared to be at first glance: Clueless, careless and callous bureaucrats. It turns out there are masterminds behind the scenes who have been running things all along, hyperintelligent beings everyone mistook for harmless or annoying vermin. They don’t really mean Arthur or Simon any harm, but they aren’t exactly nice to them either–the vermin masterminds, it turns out, are using Arthur and Simon as part of experiments to answer the same ultimate questions.
In HHGTTG, Arthur discovers mice are the most intelligent beings on Earth. They’ve been manipulating science all along while pretending to be laboratory test subjects; in reality they’re pursuing the answer to life, the universe and everything.
Simon, on the other hand, discovers a mythical alien race called the Clerun-Gowph, who accidentally populated most of the universe with messy scientific outposts that dumped waste products into the primordial soup of the planets they were studying. And the Clerun-Gowph, Simon is shocked to learn, are cockroaches.
This is a huge blow to the ego: Arthur discovers he’s nothing but a test subject in an experiment run by laboratory mice, while Simon realizes all life on Earth is just, as he puts it, the end of a process that started with cockroach crap.
5. The Planet-Sized Computer
Every seeker of truth needs an Oracle, and our heroes are no exception. In HGTTG, it seems Earth and all life on it were an enormous computer built in pursuit of the answer to life, the universe and everything (I know, I know — it was built to specifically help ask the question after another giant computer gave an accurate but useless answer — the point is that the whole planet is a computer).
When Simon, on the other hand, finally meets the Clerun-Gowph, he discovers they built a planet-sized computer to answer all the questions there are. Having nothing left to discover or learn, they decide to quit exploring/fertilizing the galaxy and devote themselves to drinking beer.
6. The Useless answers (spoiler alert!)
At long last, our protagonists are about to learn the question to their ultimate questions. The problem is that in both cases, the answer is useless:
- Arthur’s question: “What is the ultimate answer to life, the universe and everything?”
- Answer: “42.”
- Possible alternate answer: “We apologize for the inconvenience.”
- Simon’s question: “Why are we created only to suffer and die?”
- Answer: “Why not?”
Don’t give me that look. I said they were useless answers, didn’t I?
I know how to prove that men and women are fundamentally different:
Put a man and a woman into separate rooms alone with a new appliance—say, a bread machine—and watch what happens. The woman will make some bread. On the other hand—bear in mind that this is a brand new appliance, right out of the box—the man will take the bread machine apart to see how it works.
I’m not sure what drives men to take things apart. Maybe some psychiatrist has it figured out. If so, I bet the psychiatrist is a man. Why? For the same reason psychology has traditionally been a male pursuit: Psychoanalyzing people is very much like taking them apart to see how they work.
I think the drive to take things apart is genetic, not learned. For instance, I saw a TV show once about Underwriters Laboratories. This company takes new products, disassembles them down into molecules to see how they’re designed, and then figures out ingenious ways to break them.
Underwriters Labs pays the guys in white lab coats you see on TV commercials who build a robot arm to open and close a refrigerator door 38 billion times in two weeks. All guys, mind you—you never see women in the commercials. These are the men who send cars hurtling into concrete walls at 90 miles an hour to see what will happen to the dummies inside.
I’ve often dreamed about working for one of those companies that blow up buildings so that they collapse into their own basements.
Oddly enough, their research has conclusively proven over and over again that the dummies (surprise!) get demolished. But for some reason, they still find it necessary to crash an average of 10 cars a week.
Don’t tell me it’s all about safety and research—these guys are having the time of their lives. I’m not sure why Underwriters Labs even bothers to pay them; most men would probably work there for free. I know I would.
I’ve often dreamed about working for Underwriters Laboratories. I’ve also dreamed about working for one of those companies that blow up buildings so that they collapse into their own basements (c’mon—you have, too, haven’t you? Let’s see a show of hands, guys … I knew it!).
My favorite destructive fantasy, though, involves working for one of the big auto manufacturers. Their research departments have teams that secretly buy competitors’ cars. Then they completely disassemble the cars and mount all the parts on sheets of plywood, which they hang in a warehouse.
You must understand, though—when I say they disassemble a car, I’m talking a level of disassembly rarely seen on this earth. If a butcher rendered a cow the way these guys take on a car, he would need 17 square acres of countertop. Every single part in the car is broken down completely: The door locks are taken apart into piles of tiny springs and wafers. The engine is transformed into a heap of pistons, rings, bolts, bushings, springs, valves and bearings. The starter motor is unwound to see how much wire is in the armatures.
Every hook, pin, screw, nut, bolt, gear, spring, bushing, staple, clip, clamp, strap and wire in the car is unfastened, until the engineers have thousands of parts to catalogue and mount on the boards. They even unstitch all the upholstery, separate glued-together pieces, and cut all the welds apart until they have the original pieces of metal that make up the body and frame.
They say this is done to help them better understand their competitors’ designs. But it sounds like a labor of love to me. I bet they draw straws to see who gets to take things apart and who has to do the paperwork.
Yep, I’d be really good at that sort of thing; I’ve always been a champion disassembler myself. When I was 8, my parents gave me a watch. I pried off the back to see how it worked (and my mother has never quite forgiven me). Since then, I have disassembled electric razors, toasters, an electric knife, radios, car stereos and tape decks, a variable speed drill, an electric guitar, a See ‘N Say, and anything else I could get my hands on.
Last year I sawed an 8‑foot-wide aluminum satellite dish in half.
When I was 19, I took the engine out of my car and put it back. It was so much fun I did it again a year later. Last year I sawed an 8‑foot-wide aluminum satellite dish in half (don’t ask).
I suppose (I said don’t ask!) I can understand why, when my parents gave me a bicycle for my 24th birthday, my mother looked me right in the eye and with a straight face said, “Now don’t go taking this apart to see how it works!” She needn’t have worried. Bicycles were kid stuff; I was in the big leagues by that time.
The all-time highlight of my deconstructionalist career was when I murdered a piano. My roommate, George, had bought an old upright piano for $100. This beast was made by a German company called Gulbransen, and it was so heavy it took eight people to move it into our house. I think moving one of the rocks at Stonehenge would have been easier. The piano’s wheels left ruts in the wood on our front porch, it was so heavy. In fact, I think the Germans designed that piano to hold pillbox doors shut against enemy mortar fire in World War II. It was that kind of heavy.
Anyway, after we all got hernias moving this battleship anchor of a piano, George discovered it had six keys that didn’t work at all. The remaining 82 were so far out of tune they made my dog howl when we struck them. George called a piano tuner, who came over, listened to the piano, and then left, laughing so hard he was drooling.
Needless to say, George didn’t want to take the piano along when he got ready to move out a year later. The problem was that he had no way to dispose of it, and he was too kindhearted to sell it to some other sucker—I mean, victim.
So while George was at work one evening, I decided to surprise him: I took the piano apart and put it in a Dumpster in a parking lot behind our house. I used pliers to cut the strings; a crowbar took care of everything else (champion disassemblers don’t need hundreds of tools; that’s for wimps like Tim Allen).
Over the course of an hour or so that night, my friend, Dave, and I stealthily carried the dismembered piano to the Dumpster, armload by armload. Finally, only two pieces were left: the back frame, which was made of huge oak beams, and the harp, a thick steel framework over which the strings had been stretched. These pieces weighed several hundred pounds each and were the only parts that were difficult to maneuver into the Dumpster.
The Dumpster squatted at the end of the alley like a land mine as George and I gleefully peered out the upstairs bedroom window.
George nearly had a heart attack when he got home and found nothing but a major dent in the carpet where his piano had been.
At 5 a.m. the next morning, George woke me excitedly. One of those trucks that picks up Dumpsters and turns them upside down to empty them was rumbling up the alley toward the Dumpster. The Dumpster squatted at the end of the alley like a land mine as George and I gleefully peered out the upstairs bedroom window.
The driver positioned the loader’s arms in the slots on the Dumpster’s sides and turned on the hoist. George and I clutched our sides with laughter as the truck’s engine roared—and nothing happened. The driver scratched his head and put the hoist into a lower gear. With the truck’s engine bellowing in protest, its suspension groaning and the hoist’s gears screeching, the Dumpster slowly left the ground.
As we held our breath, the Dumpster turned over, the lid flipped open and the harp and frame tumbled out into the truck’s bed, which—and I knew God loved me when I saw it—was empty. The harp and frame landed flat in the truck’s bed with a resounding, thunderous boom. The rest of the pieces slid out on top, crashing and rattling into a heap atop the frame.
The noise echoed up and down the predawn street; lights began appearing in windows. The driver and his helper staggered out of the truck, holding their ears, and climbed the side of the bed, no doubt thinking an asteroid had just landed in the truck.
They looked over the side of the bed in astonishment. I could hear them excitedly questioning each other: “How on God’s green earth did a piano get in there?” the driver said in amazement.
I closed my eyes and sighed wistfully, knowing I would probably never again experience a moment so sublime this side of eternity.
Way back, maybe 30 years ago, My Previous Best Half worked at a state neurological institute taking care of developmentally disabled patients. They were facing a problem with their patients that I had to deal with working with the mentally ill: Many psychotropics or antipsychotic medications cause impotence, and some patients would masturbate, or try to masturbate, until they injured themselves (skin damage, usually, although sometimes the patient had no trouble getting erect but would simply masturbate all day every day).
Anyway, My Previous Best Half was in a team meeting at which they were discussing how to deal with one such patient: Very low IQ and minimal independent functionality, but he was otherwise a healthy guy in his early 20s who had no trouble getting it up and sweet eructating Cthulhu, but he loved to masturbate. Let’s call him Dick, because duh.
Dick had been flogging the bishop so much he’d chafed himself into a bunch of open sores and ingrown hair cysts and other grody things that developed into a nasty UTI; they’d had to catheterize him, pump him full of antibiotics and keep him in a straitjacket or bed restraints 24–7 for several weeks.
He was nearly healed, but they knew he’d just start oiling the old baseball glove again as soon as possible and were discussing options to try to control it without chemical or physical restraints.
(I need to pause for a quick aside: My Previous Best Half was an LPN at the time; there was another staff nurse present, the MSN in charge of the unit, and an activity therapist, who happened to be the only male in the room.)
Someone in the room wisecracked that they should just give Dick some KY Jelly so he wouldn’t keep hurting himself. After a brief chuckle, the MSN—remember, this was a woman with a Master’s degree in nursing—said thoughtfully, “Look, people masturbate. Instead of pretending we can make him stop maybe we can get him some lubricant and a little bit of instruction so he’s, you know, just doing it more safely.”
All heads swiveled and all eyes fastened on the male activity therapist, who was taking minutes. Let’s call him Willy, because isn’t it obvious?
Willy glanced up and realized everyone else was looking at him. “What?”
“We’ll need you to help Dick with this,” the MSN said.
“Help him with what? With masturbating?”
“Yes—I feel that if we can get him some lubricant and a bit of instruction we can minimize these injuries. We’d need you to adapt to whatever learning style will work with Dick, whether it’s just demonstrating”—I still can’t believe an educated medical professional said this with a straight face, even though Archer wasn’t there to yell about phrasing—“or a more hands-on approach.”
Willy stopped taking notes. “You cannot possibly be serious.”
“What’s the problem?”
Willie said, “Buy Dick all the lube you want. But if you think I’m going to teach him to masturbate better you can forget it. And if you ever suggest to me again that I masturbate in front of a patient to teach him how to masturbate better, I’ll report you to the state nursing board.”
The MSN got a little sniffy. “Willy, I can write you up for insubordination if you refuse a direct order.”
“Oh, PLEASE do!” Willie said. “I’d love to be there in the superintendent’s office or state board’s office when you try to explain to them why you thought your job gives you the authority to order me to masturbate in front of one of our patients!”
As everyone else in the room stared at one other with “Am I imagining this?” expressions, Willie and the MSN started shouting at each other, but then the MSN stood, took a deep breath and said, “Willy, we need to have this discussion in my office.” They left and were heard shouting at each other in her office for the next 20 minutes or so.
Willy and the MSN did a lot of stomping around and glaring at one another and addressing one another with icy formality for the next few weeks. My Previous Best Half never found out what happened in the long run—Willy and the MSN wouldn’t talk about it although Willie hinted they’d been forbidden to talk about it, so she suspect Willy made good on his threat to inform the superintendent.
But the MSN and Willy both kept their jobs, while Dick spent every spare moment masturbating and was in and of restraints for the next year or so until My Former Best Half went back to college to finish her RN.
Your tax dollars at work, folks.
PS: When I worked for the state hospital we had one such guy who would go into the bathroom and try to masturbate for hours at a time, but thanks to his meds he couldn’t get erect. He was an otherwise easy-going guy, a young POC we’ll call Peter, and if I have to remind you why we’re calling him Rod I really must ask you to take this article more seriously.
One day I was on the unit with he other psyche aid, a hilarious guy I’ll call Peter,1 who looked and talked a lot like Antonio Fargas from the ’70s buddy cop series Starsky and Hutch. We heard shouting in the bathroom down the men’s wing, and then someone exited the bathroom, yelling and threatening at someone else in the bathroom.
Peter and I went to check in the bathroom and there sat Rod, forlornly twiddling his a maximally flaccid pud.
“What’s going on, Rod?” I said.
Rod wasn’t the tiniest bit embarrassed or self-conscious. “Shit, man,” he said. “I can’t get it up!”
Peter rolled his eyes and said, “Get your pants on and get back out in the dayroom. You’re an embarrassment to our race, Rod—only black man I ever seen can’t get it up!”
I don’t remember exactly how we handled the incident in Rod’s case notes. I do remember feeling privileged to have witnessed and documented such an awesome bit of history.
ANDERSON COOPER: We interrupt this program with a special report:
After years of tantalizing hints and delicious chocolate, but not a golden ticket in sight, CNN can now answer the question on everyone’s minds:
Willy Wonka is indeed entering the presidential race, a dark horse indeed this late in the year; he’ll be the Brown Party’s candidate.
We join Douglas Fir at the gates of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory as OLLM protesters demand equality for the Oompa-Loompas and Everlasting Gobstoppers for all.
DOUGLAS FIR: Thank you, Anderson. We’re all waiting here at the gates of the legendary Wonka Chocolate Factory for Wonka himself to appear as promised, after more than 50 years of silence. In the meantime, we’ve been talking to the other candidates to see what they had to say about Willy Wonka:
Willy Wonka is notoriously publicity shy. Have you met him? What’s your impression of him?
DONALD TRUMP: Oh, we talk all the time! Bigly! Yuuuuge! Willy is a great, great man and he’s doing fantastic things. He asked me for a job years ago and he just wasn’t a good fit, but I do love how he keeps his labor costs down; I’m looking into his ideas for federal employee management. Willy’s almost as amazing as me! Almost, but not quite!
DOUGLAS FIR: What’s the Brown Party?
KAMALA HARRIS: It’s chocolate, you imbecile! Chocolate is brown!
MIKE PENCE: Chocolate is sinful. Are there any Oompa-Loompa females? I don’t want to be alone in a room with any of them.
HILLARY CLINTON: (muttering) Of course you don’t, you emasculated wet dishrag.
DOUGLAS FIR: Wet dashcam?
HILLARY CLINTON: (full volume) Willy is one of my closest friends! He offered to let me use one of his servers to help with my e‑mail, but I thought he said “servants,” so those allegations about abuse the Oompa-Loompas allegedly suffered at my house are—
BILL CLINTON: GODDAMMIT HILLARY! YOU’RE NOT RUNNING! SHUT THE HELL UP!
KAMALA HARRIS: I LOVE Willy Wonka! It’s terrible how those poor Oompa-Loompas are treated. Willy Wonka is my hero; the person I most wanted to be until he filed that restraining order. I think—
DOUGLAS FIR: Wait; I thought you said you love Willy Wonka.
KAMALA HARRIS: I do! He’s such a—
DOUGLAS FIR: You’re friendly with him even though you think he mistreats the Oompa-Loompas?
KAMALA HARRIS: IT WAS A DEBATE! (cackles wildly) But I am really very seriously concerned about the Oompa-Loompas and I’ll try to get around to releasing them from prison as soon as no one’s loo—uh I mean, as soon as I have a minute.
BILL CLINTON: Wonka flies around in that glass elevator, right? I’m not supposed to talk about anything involving privately-owned aircraft, so I have no commen—(the remote camera abruptly tilts sideways with a loud crash while the picture disappears)
HILLARY CLINTON: YOU ASSHOLE! YOU’RE NOT RUNNING EITHER!
DOUGLAS FIR: Bill Clinton, Joe Biden and Donald Trump have all been accused of sexual harassment and other inappropriate acts.
Most of us know very little about Willy Wonka, on the other hand. For those of you who say they have met Wonka: What’s your take on his personal and professional conduct?
♬ Oompa-Loompa doopity dance ♬
♬ Wonka can keep his dick in his pants! ♬
♬ Oompa-Loompa triple-dog dare ♬
♬ Wonka will never sniff at your hair! ♬
♬ What do you have when you constantly Tweet? ♬
♬ Or pay someone off ‘cause you wanted to cheat? ♬
♬ What if you sleep your way to the top? ♬
♬ Your neck will be the first one they… CHOP! ♬
♬ (Soloist): Good riddance to bad ru-huh-bish! ♬
♬ Oompa-Loompa choke on your polls ♬
♬ You are all a bunch of assholes! ♬
♬ Wonka always tells you the truth ♬
♬ Like the Oompa-Loompa doopity do! ♬
DOUGLAS FIR: What? Wait; why are the Oompa-Loompas here?
WILLY WONKA: The Oompa-Loompas are my vice-presidential nominee, that’s why.
DOUGLAS FIR: He’s here! Willy Wonka is here speaking with CNN for his first press appearance in more than 50 years!
Mr. Wonka, I speak for the American people (minus the deplorables) when I ask:
Why are you entering the race? What can you offer America that one of the other candidates can’t?
WILLY WONKA: Offer? I’m not offering anyone anything. Good day, sir.
JOE BIDEN: Willy Wonka? He makes chocolate, right? Is he that Hershey Nestlé guy? Where are we on that? Is this Pennsylvania? C’mon, man!
DOUGLAS FIR: But surely you feel America deserves an answer—
WILLY WONKA: Deserves? You want to talk about what America deserves? I’ll tell you what America deserves: NOTHING! You get NOTHING! You LOSE! I said good DAY, sir!
DOUGLAS FIR: Um, okay; I see. What do you foresee in America’s future?
♬ There’s no earthly way of knowing ♬
♬ Which direction we are going! ♬
♬ Not a speck of light is showing ♬
♬ So the danger must be growing! ♬
♬ For the rowers keep on rowing! ♬
♬ And they’re certainly not showing ♬
♬ ANY SIGNS THAT THEY ARE SLOWING! ♬
DOUGLAS FIR: Well, a simple “I’m not sure” would have been fine, but okay. Can you elaborate on your statement that—
MISTER ROGERS: “Elaborate.” That’s a big word, isn’t it? Do you know what “elaborate” means?
(ANDERSON COOPER, DOUGLAS FIR, DONALD TRUMP, MIKE PENCE, HILLARY CLINTON, BILL CLINTON, KAMALA HARRIS, THE OOMPA-LOOMPAS, and WILLY WONKA instantly genuflect as all the angels in heaven and on Earth sing):
♬♬ Mister Roooooogers! ♬♬
JOE BIDEN: Roger that! Loud and clear! Um, you go first; I don’t—
DOUGLAS FIR: (shoving Joe Biden out of the way) Mister Rogers is here, America! He’s right here! What do you want to talk about today, Mister Rogers?
♬ Oh, I have so many ideas for you! ♬
♬ And you have things you want to talk about ♬
♬ I do, too! ♬
DOUGLAS FIR: (trying not to cry) Thank you, Mister Rogers. If I may ask, do you have any thoughts about—
MISTER ROGERS: It’s nice when someone when someone wants to talk and share, isn’t it? Would you like to share today, Douglas? I enjoy making new friends, don’t you?
ANDERSON COOPER: (shoves Douglas Fir aside) Mister Rogers! I’d like to get your opinion on…
MISTER ROGERS: Oh, my friend Douglas had to leave. Does that make you sad? It makes me sad sometimes when a friend has to leave. But I think we’ll see Douglas again, because he wasn’t angry; he just had many things to do.
ANDERSON COOPER: Mister Rogers! Can you tell us why you want to run for President of the United States?
MISTER ROGERS: Oh, I don’t really enjoy running. I do go swimming every morning, though. Do you like to swim, Anderson?
ANDERSON COOPER: Um—not really, but I’d like to ask your position on immigration.
MISTER ROGERS: Won’t you be my neighbor?
ANDERSON COOPER: There are many issues connected to foreign policy that the US has to—
MISTER ROGERS: Won’t you be my neighbor?
ANDERSON COOPER: I’m not talking about domestic policy when it comes to—
MISTER ROGERS: I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you!
ANDERSON COOPER: Yes, fine, but I’m not talking about people on your block; I want to—
DONALD TRUMP: Block? Which block? My dad gave me a small loan of $1,000,000 to get started—
MISTER ROGERS: I’ve always wanted to live in a neighborhood with you!
DONALD TRUMP: No way, loser. You’ll drag property values down and—
MISTER ROGERS: Won’t you be my neighbor?
KAMALA HARRIS: So you’re propositioning ME to—
MISTER ROGERS: I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you.
MIKE PENCE: Yes, but can you guarantee there won’t be any funny business with—
HILLARY CLINTON: And here we go with the vast right-wing conspiracy again! Last time—
MISTER ROGERS: Let’s make the most of this beautiful day!
ANDERSON COOPER: Yes, fine, but I’m trying to get you to—
DONALD TRUMP: Okay, yes, everything is beautiful in its own way, fine! But what—
MISTER ROGERS: Please won’t you be my neighbor?
JOE BIDEN: Wait, do you live in Scranton?
DONALD TRUMP: Live in Scranton? I OWN Scranton!
JOE BIDEN: I was born in Scranton, but we have no bananas in Scranton, PA!
KAMALA HARRIS: Stay in your lane, Grampaw!
MISTER ROGERS: I have always wanted to live in a neighborhood with you!
KAMALA HARRIS: Who told you my addre—
MISTER ROGERS: Oh won’t you please?
ANDERSON COOPER: If you think you can get my address by—
JOE BIDEN: Address? What was that thing Washington did at the gutters; no, the burglar—
MIKE PENCE: That’s GETTYSBURG, you idiot!
KAMALA HARRIS: Look, I know THIS IS A DEBATE! but I think we all deserve to hear—
MISTER ROGERS: Won’t you be my neighbor?
DONALD TRUMP: Not unless you have some gold paint and…
MISTER ROGERS: Won’t you be my neighbor?
KAMALA HARRIS: “My” neighbor? So you think you own your neighbors and you’re reinforcing the whole master/slave dynamic that…
MISTER ROGERS: Please won’t you be my neighbor?
EVERYONE: YES! OKAY? YES, I’LL BE YOUR FUCKING NEIGHBOR!
MISTER ROGERS: Hello, neighbor!
When I was 4 or 5 my parents had some friends over for a barbecue. Everyone was milling around in fine barbecue fashion, and then the radio played a song I’d never heard before. It was amazing! There was somebody laughing and then helicopter sounds, but it didn’t have any lyrics.
I planned to ask Mom and Dad what the song was, but they were busy doing things and I forgot.
A couple of days later Mom was putting something on the record player, and I remembered the barbecue and said, “Play The Helicopter Song!”
“The what?” Mom said.
“The Helicopter Song! There was a guy laughing and helicopters! And there weren’t any words!” Mom had no idea what I meant. I did, but I couldn’t describe it well enough. I gave up, frustrated.
A couple days later we were driving somewhere and the helicopter song came on the radio.
“That’s The Helicopter Song! That’s The Helicopter Song!” I yelled.
“That’s the song you meant?” Mom asked.
“Yeah! It’s The Helicopter Song!”
And it turned out that the helicopter song was… (drum roll])1
“Wipeout,” by The Surfaris.
Lemme ‘splain: When I was a kid in the early 1960s, we lived in Topeka, KS, about 7 miles north of Forbes Air Force Base. Aircraft often flew right over us coming to and from Forbes; usually heavier cargo aircraft; once everyone in Topeka got to watch a brand-new Air Force One land at Forbes for the first stop in its inaugural test flight, fuel up, and take off again.
This was much earlier, though; maybe 1967 or ’68. The war in Vietnam was raging along full blast, and we often heard large choppers flying thumping along overhead: long-range special-ops copters like the Sikorsky MH-53, aka the Jolly Green Giant, or Boeing CH-47 Chinook dual-rotor heavy cargo helicopters.
It happened often enough that I didn’t consciously listen to them, but they still made a hell of a lot of noise.
And so it happened that when I heard “Wipeout,” the long drum breaks, heavy on the bass and toms, reminded me of all the big choppers flying overhead.
I didn’t know how to explain this when I was so young. So years later, when I was in my early 20s, a friend of mine was showing me how to play “Wipeout” on guitar, and I suddenly remembered: THE HELICOPTER SONG!
I told Mom and Dad about it, but they didn’t remember any of this.
So either I’m hallucinating or The Surfaris tricked me.
I owe John Denver a debt of gratitude, and not just because he did us all a favor when he accidentally killed himself in a plane crash.
No, wait. That’s entirely too snarky and cynical, even for me. Denver was an amazing songwriter, musician and performer; really he was. Let’s just say my relationship with him was a bit rocky1 for a few years.
Our story begins with Denver’s birth: John Denver was his stage name; his given name was Henry John Deutschendorf Jr., and he was allegedly born in 1943, in Roswell, New Mexico.
Based on his given name and place of birth, there are only two possible conclusions that can be drawn:
- He was a Nazi, and smart enough to get out of Germany a few years before his compatriots, change his name, get a fake birth certificate, but not hide in South America, or
- He was an alien who got stranded on Earth, like E.T.
I’m firmly in the alien camp, and here’s why: No Nazi could release 33 albums of award-winning music without a single tuba or accordion appearing in any of his songs.
And maybe he died in a plane crash. Or maybe it’s like Elvis in Men in Black, and he just went back home.
But as further proof I offer his album covers. About half of them were, I believe, coded distress signals to his home planet. He was trying to “phone home,” to coin a phrase.
No, really. Check out these highlights:
John Denver Sings, 1966:
Looks like a collage of Most Wanted mug shots. But Denver was still learning how to mimic humans; it’s possible he thought Most Wanted meant Most Popular.
Take Me to Tomorrow, 1970:
What’s he doing here, stalking the Unabomber? It sure looks like he’s peeking into the Unabomber’s cabin. And that soulless, blank stare could have belonged to Jeffrey Dahmer.
But the title’s the clincher: Take Me to Tomorrow. Yeah; that’s an alien asking the Unabomber if he can build a time machine or maybe a warp drive engine.
Whose Garden Was This, 1970
Some people can get away with bare-chested portraits. John Denver was not one of them. Especially not when his scrawny, pale geek chest was superimposed over some ancient relic looking a lot like the alien ship in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
Denver cuddles with his pet vulture and watches the sunrise. He appears to be shirtless again.
Or given the album title, maybe it’s an eagle and they’re sitting in the eagle’s nest. Which would make Denver an eaglet.
This is getting creepy.
Farewell Andromeda, 1973
Definitely a cry for help. He’s staring off into space with a bunch of ghost animals sitting on his hat, and somewhere along the way he stole Kirk Douglas’ chin.
But now we at least know which galaxy he was from.
Denver released some new material over the next ten years or so, but mostly he coasted on greatest hits and holiday albums, until…
One World, 1986
Neptune’s nose nuggets! What the hell is he doing? Standing on the surface of the Sun?
(Now we know where James Cameron got the idea to kill both Terminators in a bathtub of melted steel at the end of T2: Judgement Day.)
Having now proven John Denver was an alien, lemme loop back to the part about how I owe him a debt of gratitude.
In September 1975, Denver released Windsong, the cover art of which looks mostly human. The tracks did include a couple of alien hints, such as “Looking for Space” and “Fly Away.”
In Windsong, Denver also sang a song to a boat. Not a song about a boat; a song to a boat. It was titled “Calypso,” which was also the name of a boat owned by famous oceanographer Jacques Cousteau (not to be confused with the bumbling detective in the Pink Panther movies).
Yep—“Calypso” was a love song to the boat of the same name, complete with nautical sound effects: seagulls, waves, bells ringing, cabin boys getting buggered, crew members puking over the rail; all that fun stuff.
First Sister and Mom had both been hopelessly in love with Denver ever since he released Rocky Mountain High, but Mom went thoroughly insane over “Calypso.” She wanted to listen to “Calypso” All. The. Time.
I can’t criticize her for that; we’ve all gotten obsessed with a song or album and played it around the clock. It’s easier when you’re stoned, but still. I was 12 that fall; I liked John Denver too, but not quite at the Beatlemania level Mom and First Sister did. Thing 1 and Thing 2 liked him too, but without any screaming or fainting.
Mom had bought the album, but she also bought the single for “Calypso.” It was the B side of “I’m Sorry,” which you should consider dramatic foreshadowing.
And every morning when Mom rousted us all out of bed to get ready for school, “Calypso” was already on the record player in the living room. (Remember the huge TV-radio-record-player consoles popular at the time?)
She would put the single on the turntable, put the little arm doohickey in the middle so the record player played the single over and over, wake us all up, then bustle around like a Stepford wife, humming and singing and fixing breakfast so cheerfully it tempted me to stick a finger down my throat, barf on my breakfast, and claim I was sick so I could go back to bed.
It wasn’t just the abominable cheer, though. It was “Calypso.” I liked the song at first. But it usually took everyone about 45 minutes to get up, have breakfast, apply teethbreesh and get out the door. During which time “Calypso” played at least a dozen times.
After a couple days of this, I hated waking up, I hated “Calypso,” I hated John Denver, I hated Jacques Cousteau, I hated Jacques Cousteau’s stupid boat, I hated the record player, and I hated breakfast. My sisters didn’t seem to mind the song, but I have the attention span of a squirrel on crack, so it didn’t take long for me to get tired of “Calypso.” I didn’t want to ruin it for everyone else, so I didn’t say anything.
I’m not sure how many days we breakfasted to “Calypso”; maybe four or five. But one morning, 10 minutes into yet another “Calypso” marathon, Dad got up, went into the living room, opened the record player lid, and scuttled “Calypso” with that glorious teeth-on-edge SKVRRRRYK! sound of a record being terminated with extreme prejudice.2
Dad came back into the kitchen, grabbed his lunch box, kissed Mom and wished us all a good day, and left for work as my sisters and I sat openmouthed in shock.
Mom and Dad weren’t perfect; they disagreed or argued occasionally. They never had any serious drama or the kind of fights that make the kids hide under their beds. If anyone had said they wanted to listen to something else, Mom would have been happy to put on something else. She isn’t the selfish type of person who wants what they want, but doesn’t care about anyone else. She loved “Calypso” and found it joyful and uplifting and she wanted everyone else to feel joyful.
And Dad rarely raised his voice, much less lost his temper or started breaking things. He’d obviously had his fill of “Calypso,” but I think he was just being ornery and silly when he stopped the record.
I do know he didn’t scare any of us; we were just gobsmacked, and it took about 3 minutes for the incident to become a family joke: Someone would turn on the TV or ask Mom or Dad permission to play a record; the rest of us would yell, “Not ‘Calypso’!”
So yeah, John Denver got a lot of airtime in our house.
A few years before The Calypso Incident, a song on one of Denver’s alien-art albums caught my attention: It was Farewell Andromeda, and the song title was “Please, Daddy (Don’t Get Drunk This Christmas).”
It’s from the perspective of a little boy whose Christmas memories were of Daddy coming home at midnight Christmas Eve and passing out under the tree, or his mom smiling bravely and shooing the little boy upstairs as his dad arrived home, laughing and hollering drunkenly; the implication being Daddy’s going to be smacking Mommy around a bit.
Here’s an odd thing: I thought the song was hilarious. I was 10 and when the song played I thought it meant Daddy was up too late assembling gifts and fell asleep under the tree. I pictured Daddy as a lovable doofus, not a violent alcoholic.
There’s an old saying, rumored to be a Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.” It almost sounds like a blessing until you think about it. Thanks to World War II, for example, the 1940s are far more interesting than the 1950s.
I had no frame of reference with which to understand “Please, Daddy (Don’t Get Drunk This Christmas)” because my childhood was not interesting—no violence, no alcoholics, no abuse. Nothing interesting at all.
I’m boring, but that’s not a bad thing. Sometimes boring is good.
I guess it’s not John Denver who deserves that debt of gratitude.
I still wonder if he was an alien, though, what with all his bare-chested weird album cover art.
There’s a posthumous collection of his best music that came out in 2004, 7 years after his fatal plane crash. It’s even titled as such: John Denver: Definitive All-Time Greatest Hits.
This offered a priceless opportunity to define his body of work and career, to shape his legacy once and for all, so here’s hoping they chose cover art that avoids the weirdness of some of his earlier albums, and—
Oh for fuck’s sake! Really?