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 sound engineer, everyone knows you look for an expert in gamma rays and cellular biology.
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.
No, really. I couldn’t find a clip of it, but as a consolation prize, you can enjoy the Hulk getting into a bar brawl, which is almost as silly as the Hulk breaking Las Vegas or the Hulk landing a damaged 747.
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.1
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.
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 cooler full of ice and ice-cold reasonably-priced 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 “How do you do, 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. The carnival guy, that is. Rob was a Zappa fan. Still is.
“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 not just any Catholic high school, but Hayden Extremely 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?”
“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 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.
And I just realized Father Santa looked an awful lot like Principal Carter in the movie Porky’s, and that the actor playing Principal Carter was named Eric Christmas.
Okay, I’m having a panic attack here. I’m gonna go lie down.
I didn’t attend Hayden after 10th 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 killed 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 any wiseass churnin’ urn o’ burnin’ funk T‑shirt, 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.
Anyway, Mom and Dad had 4 children, but I was the only one they sent to Catholic school. I have no idea why.2
First Sister didn’t care; She’s three years older than me, so we never saw each other in school.
Thing 1 and Thing 2, on the other hand, are a year younger than me, so when I was sent off to Extremely Catholic school, they welcomed not having to say yes, that weirdo is our brother but he was adopted because his birth parents dropped him on his head a lot.
A little Extremely Catholic high school wouldn’t have hurt them, though. I mean, thanks to Sister Rose Celine and Father Ax and Father Santa, I stayed out of trouble (or was careful enough not to get caught). And thanks to Brian’s terrifying fate I especially avoided provocative T‑shirts (at least until after graduation).
Secular public school, on the other hand, deprived Thing 1 and Thing 2 of important, nurturing, eternal values; values like corporal punishment, sheer terror, and fluency in raunchy slang and raunchier T‑shirts .
And so one summer when they were maybe 13 or 14, Thing 1 and Thing 2 went to Worlds of Fun with some friends. Worlds of Fun was okay, but it was really just Acres of Fun.
Be that as it may, it was still fun, and that evening their friend’s mom dropped them off; they were sweaty, dirty, sunburned, overstimulated, greasy, and sugary from eating junk food all day. Job well done, Worlds of Fun.
Mom was sitting on the couch reading a magazine while Dad and I watched a movie. She said, “Go get a shower before you sit d…”
She trailed off as she glanced up and saw what Thing 1 and Thing 2 were wearing. They’d saved up their money and bought matching T‑shirts. And this is what was printed on their matching T‑shirts:
I laughed so hard it made me snort and then hiccup; Dad was shaking his head and trying unsuccessfully to look stern.
Thing 1 and Thing 2 were still looking happy, but a little puzzled.
Mom folded down the page she was reading, set the magazine down gently, and said very quietly, “Where did you get those shirts?”
Uh-oh. She sounded just like Sister Rose Celine. I’d forgotten: Mom and Dad had both graduated from Hayden Extremely Catholic High School in 1958. Back then, things weren’t as kind and forgiving and touchy-feely as they were 20 years later when I was there.
“We got them at Worlds of Fun,” Thing 2 said. “Um… is something wrong?”
“They had those shirts at Worlds of Fun? They let you buy those shirts at Worlds of Fun?”
Thing 1 and Thing 2 have this thing they do. They’ll glance at each other; maybe one of them will raise an eyebrow and the other one will shrug. It’s like all the hand signals in baseball, except instead of a short message like “Walk this asshole,” they exchange an ocean of info in the blink of an eye.
“Didn’t your friend’s mom say anything?” Mom asked.
Thing 1 and Thing 2 glanced at each other to discuss their strategy. It’s important to note here that Thing 1 is a practical, take-action type, while Thing 2 is more introspective and philosophical.
“Well, no,” said Thing 2. Meanwhile, Thing 1 quietly left the living room and headed down the hall.
“I see. Do you know what that means?”
“What what means? Oh, on the shirt? It’s, uh…”
By now Dad and I were desperately trying to keep straight faces. Mom glared at us for a second, and looking back I just now realized this situation was eerily similar to a famous scene in the movie Porky’s:
A group of horney—I mean, horny—guys were caught peeping into the girl’s locker room showers. One them sticks his, um—can we please call it a tallywacker?—he sticks his tallywacker though the peephole and almost gets caught by Girl’s PE Coach Beulah Balbricker.
Balbricker wants Principal Carter to arrange a lineup of naked teen boys so she can identify the scoundrel. Meanwhile, the Boy’s Coaches Goodenough, Brackett and Warren are desperately trying to keep straight faces as Principal Carter says no, a short-arm inspection is absolutely out of the question.
Coach Brackett says, “Mr. Carter, we can just call the police, and we have ’em send over one of their sketch artists. And Miss Balbricker can give a description. We can put up Wanted posters all over school: ‘Have you seen this prick? Report immediately to Beulah Balbricker. Do not attempt to apprehend this prick, as it is armed and dangerous. It was last seen hanging out in the girls’ locker room.’”
At which point everyone, including Principal Carter completely loses it, and Miss Balricker stomps out. I still admire Nancy Parsons, who played Miss Balbricker, for keeping a straight face. I would have had a stroke.
This all happened years before Porky’s was released. And it’s worth noting that Thing 1 liked Porky’s so much she had a personalized license plate saying “PORKY1” for a number of years.
But I digress. Thing 2 was trying to come up with a definition for horney that would would keep her and Thing 1 out of trouble, especially since they didn’t know what it meant anyway.
“It means,” Mom started. “It means, uh, well.. *ahem.* When someone is “horney,” it means they’re… um… sexual. I mean, excited in a sexual way.”
Thing 2 ruminated on that for a few seconds. “Sure, I’ve heard that,” she lied, “but it’s kind of like the word ‘crazy.’ There’s ‘crazy,’ where you see things and stuff, but it’s also like, you know, ‘wild and crazy guy.’”
“So what’s the other meaning of horney?” I managed to choke out between snickers. Mom glared at me again, and I realized I might have to explain how I knew what horney meant if I didn’t shut up. So I shut up.
Thing 1—who is, as I said, the practical take-action type—came back down the hall, saying, “Hey, what if we just wear them like this?”
She’d hitched her jeans up as high as she could, then tucked in the Smile If You’re Horney shirt so tight it was stretched out of shape, so instead of this:
It looked like this:
And we all—Mom, Dad, me, Thing 1 and Thing 2—we all lost it as thoroughly as the coaches in Porky’s.
It’s not fair. Whenever Thing 1 or Thing 2 got into trouble, they’d do something to make Mom or Dad laugh and they’d get away with it.
“Go take a shower,” Mom said, picking up her magazine. “Change clothes and bring me those shirts.”
Thing 1 and Thing 2 surrendered with dignity, glad they were off the hook.
And by “surrendered with dignity,” I mean “executed a strategic retreat to discuss flanking maneuvers.”
The next day, when we were all called to the kitchen for dinner, Thing 1 was last to arrive. She strategically executed a not-quite-late arrival, during which she showed up just as Dad was about to repeat Mom’s chow call, meaning everyone would be waiting to see what was going on.
She stepped into the kitchen, wearing the “Smile If You’re Horney!!” shirt that she’d been ordered to destroy, and said, “Hey Mom! How about this?”
She’d secretly rummaged through Mom’s sewing supplies and found some embroidered letters, one of which she’d sewn onto the offending shirt. And this is what it looked like:
Dad, who heroically managed to keep a straight face, said, “Smile if you’re CORNEY?”
Golf clap to Thing 1. I’m still in awe.
I don’t remember if Mom and Dad let Thing 1 and Thing 2 keep the shirts.3