We blew it: there won’t be a world’s fair or Expo extravaganza to celebrate the Bicentennial of the United States of America. Good. That frees us to do something more useful. Why, for example, don’t we make a list of the ten dumbest things spawned by our culture and summarily dispose of them before the big birthday party?
1) The Football Field as a Unit of Measurement
Perhaps we’re not ready for the metric system, but surely there must be something better than “The Navy’s newest aircraft carrier is as long as ten football fields.”
Most of us watch football on television, where the field is obviously eighteen inches wide. Or we view it from sixty-fifth-row end-zone seats, from which the portion we can see appears to be a tiny trapezoid, not counting the part obscured by umbrellas.
I once heard a British correspondent describe a bomb crater as “half the size of a rugger pitch.” Now how many lengths from the king’s nose to the tip of his hand is that? Tell me, and I’ll convert it into football fields. And may we all be pummeled by hailstones the size of golf balls.
2) Three-Abreast Seating
Somebody in the Boeing organization ought to be assigned a special seat in Purgatory. It would be fifteen inches wide, and every time he tried to eat lunch, all the peas and butter would end up in his lap. The fellow in the window seat would be instructed to deposit cigarette ashes on our man’s sleeve. He would be helpless to prevent the piercing stream of arctic wind directed at him by the air vent from playing on his left ear, which eventually would freeze and drop off.
The airlines are pioneers in the realm of public discomfort, and widely imitated by interior designers, sad to say. So now we have not only the threeabreast 707 to contend with, but also commuter railcars, doctor’s waiting-room couches, and modular classroom units that condemn fully a third of the populace to sit immobilized. Soon elbows will go the way of the appendix. Our arms will be seven inches long, and we will have to turn the pages of a magazine with our teeth.
3) Fruit Cocktail at Banquets
Fifty years ago some Assistant Functions Manager at a hotel favored by civic groups offered a modest suggestion: “Instead of a glass of tomato juice or three shrimps, why don’t we start off with fruit cocktail? We could call it Compôte des Fruits or something.”
So there it is when we enter the hall: two sections of grapefruit and a wrinkled maraschino cherry swimming in a sea of pink syrup. The waitresses set the glass cups in place several hours ago, and yet the first bite sends chilly shivers up the spine. Durable stuff, grapefruit. Some of it will resist dental floss hours from now.
The main course will come approximately forty minutes later. That gives us plenty of time to remove the cellophane and eat our two saltines. I firmly believe that the grapefruit people and the saltine-cracker people have formed a cartel, but I can’t prove it yet.
4) Recipes and Coupons in the Flour Bag
Just try to open a bag of all-purpose flour without getting some on your clothes, and on the floor, and in the crack between the sink and the kitchen counter. Somebody down there at the flour factory must fold those little booklets into taut springs that heave out half a cup of white powder when the top of the package is ripped open.
Why do we put up with it? Because if we make dozens of cakes and cookies and loaves of bread every week of our lives, and save several drawers full of dusty coupons, eventually we can send off to Bloomington, Minnesota, for a set of three stainless steel “decorator" canisters that will not come for ten weeks, and when they finally do, the postman will have dented the big one and broken the handle off the little one.
5) The Directions in a Bottle of Aspirin
Mothers and doctors teach us when and how to take aspirin. The act is fairly uncomplicated. Most people contemplate the meaning and methodology of aspirin-taking with about the same energy and attentiveness they devote to scratching an itch, flicking away a gnat, or stifling a yawn.
So what have they crammed into the box with the jar of 100 tablets-the complete works of William Shakespeare? The operating manual for a new car has fewer paragraphs than this ode to “headache, neuralgia, simple nervous tension, aches and pains.”
Why, with my head splitting, would I want to read acres of type-none of it larger than the flea tracks commonly found in insurance policies—proclaiming the trustworthiness of a pharmaceutical company? I would guess that an obscure volume of poetry penned in a forgotten Eskimo dialect has more readers per annum than the literature in a bottle of aspirin.
6) The Jars in Which Condiments Are Packaged
Catsup won’t come out the long neck of its bottle. Olives, once past the top two or three layers. are impossible to snare with dangling fingers. Salad dressing, mustard, mayonnaise, and peanut butter cling to the farthest reaches of their containers, Honey eventually flows down the side of its jar and out onto your toast, but only after you’ve told the car pool to go ahead without you.
The only two products which come in sensible wraps are margarine and artificial whipped cream, both of which can be purchased in shallow plastic or paper tubs. I, however, do not use either of these abominable products, and so I am denied the convenience of access they offer.
Why can’t a technology that gives us bucket seats—chairs shaped like people’s bottoms, mind you—come up with squeeze tubes or brushlike spreaders that put the right amounts of all things precisely where we want them? Come on, Betty Crocker and General Mills . . . anybody who can stick artificial sugar to the outside of corn flakes and distribute thirty-six raisins evenly through a forty-two-ounce box should be able to solve these simple problems.
7) The Federally Required “Proper Care of This Garment” Label
In an orgy of Naderism a few years ago, Congress decreed that clothing manufacturers must sew labels into all clothing to prevent people from melting or otherwise disintegrating their wardrobe by putting it in such caustic and dangerous substances as soap and hot water.
This made the clothing manufacturers angry, and when they found it was our niggling complaints that led to the legislation, they vowed to get back at us. They made their newly required labels out of the stiff cloth usually reserved for strait jackets and tent flaps. They sewed them in such strategic places as the neck facing and the crotch seams—right where they can jab and scratch just as we are trying to get on a crowded bus, or right after the minister calls for one minute of silent prayer.
To make the torment complete, they printed the labels in a type of ink that runs all over the place after one cleaning. The second time you consult the label you are directed to “Wasu.gh . . . therr . . . grant ... i ... WARNG . . . dont’tever fribb . . . guj . . . or . . . grument will fall aprrrt.”
8) Collapsible Umbrellas “So Small They Fit in Your Purse”
These are like road maps: they open once, but they never go back together quite the same. In the store they are very tidy, stuffed so neatly into their trim leather cases. After one using, they look like a small valise that has been ripped apart by a terrorist’s pipe bomb.
Since they are, indeed, “so small they fit in your purse,” you usually assume when you leave the house that yours is somewhere down there at the bottom, along with the Life Savers. Then, when it begins to rain, you remember that it’s under the front seat of the car. Humbug!
9) Supermarket Price Marks
The supermarket chains are now introducing a price mark consisting of several variable-width lines which can be read only by a photoelectric eye connected to a computer. The consumer has no way of looking at the package and determining the price; that information is posted only on the shelf.
This giant step in the wrong direction is about par for the industry. These are the people who gave us purple ink that smudges so that I looks like 7 and a 3 looks like an 8. These are the folks who slap little squares of gummed paper directly over the place on the can where it tells how many ounces are inside. These are the provocateurs who pul “3 for 89” on the display placard and “2 for 59” on the package so that we can engage in amusing conversations at the check-out counter while the ice cream is melting all over the broccoli.
Why don’t they make everything cost a dollar? Just vary the size or amount to fit the price. Then we could pay the number of items times a dollar. It would solve the penny shortage in the bargain. (Why, I ask myself when I am struck by such brilliant notions . . . why am I not running things?)
10)Last, and Least
I was going to end the list with an omnibus category called Tinned Fish Specialties: kipper snacks, capers rolled inside anchovies, and the like. But I realized that the Norwegians and the Portuguese are primarily to blame for such things, not America the Clever.
So I leave it open—nominations accepted for the tenth and final item on our “must go” list for 1976. I have a feeling that if we put it to a vote, the Bicentennial celebration itself may just complete the list.