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Did you ever have (or encounter) a Stretch Armstrong Doll when you were young? First manufactured in 1976 by Kenner (the toy company best known for Star Wars action figures), Stretch Armstrong was this beefy jock guy who looked like he had been discovered in a YMCA lost & found. If you pulled on his rubber arms and legs they would just keep extending and extending to an obscene and improbable degree. The toy was made of latex with some otherworldly nightmare jalop inside (the internet tells me it was super refined corn syrup: apparently the toy inventor just went to A&P and bought a bunch of karo and cooked it down).

Anyway Stretch was an awesome toy. I knew this kid who had one and he had this game where he would grab the arms and you would grab the legs and then both children would pull as hard as possible…

then he would let go and Stretch Armstrong would fly into your face like a huge grubby rubber band on steroids causing you (or at least me) to fall over. It was like being molested by a C list wrestler!

I haven’t seen a Stretch in forty years, but for some reason I have been thinking about him (perhaps because he seemed like a lovable character but was secretly a dueling device). I feel like toys are really important to childhood development, but my reminiscences about Stretch Armstrong also make me wonder why this is so. Maybe he taught that we must be flexible to achieve our goals but we must also always remember that we live in an adversarial society (or maybe the lesson is really about the fundamental importance of corn syrup). Are there any toys that pop back into your head after decades?

You have seen the news.  You know what is going on.  It is time to do what I have always dreaded.  I need to write about a subject which I always swore I never would write about: a festering thorn of toxicity which has been rankling in America’s underbelly ever since the storming of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. I am speaking of course about “The Dukes of Hazzard”

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What?? What in the hell?

Hopefully you have forgotten about this terrible TV show. Produced by CBS between 1979 and 1985, it featured the extended adventures of two work-shy yokels who drove around committing low-grade crimes in a vermilion Dodge Charger with the confederate battle flag painted on the top.  The authorities in the small Georgia town were weak, stupid and incredibly corrupt (we are talking about Georgia in the American south, not the nation on the Black Sea). The Duke Boys had kinfolk everywhere.  Hazzard County (which looked suspiciously like Nowheresville, California) was a warren of back roads and washed-out bridges.  Lessons and laughs were few, but canned country music and folksy narration were 100% guaranteed.

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I had never heard of this abominable thing until I was 7, but then my family moved from Cape Cod to the Ohio valley.  At recess when I wanted to play “Secret Agent” or “Johnny Quest”, my new friends informed me in no uncertain terms that the only game in town was “Dukes of Hazzard”. As the new kid I was forced to play Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane, a bumbling nitwit (and crooked cop) who said lots of things like “hoo diggety durnit!”

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“hoo diggety durnit! I’ll get them Duke boys good!”

The game was basically tag, with Sherrif Rosco always being “It” and chasing the popular Dukes.  If other kids decided to play, they got to be other characters as appropriate (the husky kid was Boss Hogg, cute girls were Daisy, other nerds were deputies, etc.).  Whenever Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane (i.e. me) caught the Dukes (i.e. the other kids) he was obliged for contractual reasons to let them go.  He could never win. And here was the problem: I never saw this awful show and I couldn’t understand the logic behind the policeman losing.  When I asked to watch “The Dukes of Hazzard” at home, I was told it was louche and not for children (an assessment of surprising acuity), so everything I knew about it was passed on in breathless narration from my new chums.  This was a problem because my questions had no reasonable answers.

“Why don’t the townsfolk vote out the crooked commissioner?” I would ask.  It was impossible, I was told.

“Why did the police always lose?” I wanted to know.  “Because they were crooked cops”.

“Why didn’t outside forces curtail the bad cops” I asked.  There was no answer. And on and on…

I did finally see this show as a teenager. Although I was more impressed with the good-hearted Daisy Duke than I would have imagined as a child, I found the rest of the thing to be an enormous let-down.  Each episode consisted of the sloppiest clichés hastily festooned with atrocious faux homespun moral lessons. It was patronizing in the worst ways and lazy to boot. And yet my childhood schoolmates had loved it so much! Apparently so did the nation: the show was the 2nd most-popular television show in America in 1981.

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The winsome Daisy Duke

And here is the real problem with “The Dukes of Hazzard”: it turns out that to all-too-many red-blooded, blue-collar, white Americans, this is the true national foundational story, and it is moral disaster! Here is a non-inclusive list of fundamental problems with this television program:

Environmental Degradation: The only thing anyone in Hazzard County does is drive around all day in 35 foot long muscle cars

Lack of viable economic productivity: the only economy in Hazzard County revolves around real-estate scams, roadhouse drinking/alcohol, and car culture

Union Busting: (the actors who played Bo and Luke Duke asked for more money and were replaced by appalling scabs for season 5 when rubber-faced pod people “Coy and Vance” Duke temporarily and inexplicably became the protagonists)

Failing infrastructure: Hazzard County is all dirt roads, dangerous washouts and fallen bridges

Institutional corruption: The President County Clerk of Hazzard County Boss Trump Hogg is a colossally crooked imbecile whose crooked schemes drive the plot…to nowhere

Incarceration: The Dukes could never escape Hazzard because they were on eternal probation for moonshinin’

Substance Abuse: aforementioned moonshinin’ (although the show towed the party line about the evil of other mood-altering substances)

Brutal and corrupt law enforcement: That sheriff!

Sexism: Daisy Duke is forced to wear hotpants and serve men all day

A failure to internalize the lessons of the Civil War: the meaning of that confederate flag (and other pro-southern references) were in no way abated by “very-special” episodes when the Dukes would rescue inner city orphans from human traffickers or whatever…

Over-reliance on automobiles & reckless driving: Hollywood definitely made speeding and unsafe driving look super cool. What could possibly go wrong?

Anti-authority: The boss was despicable…yet the heroes clearly had no good ideas about how to run anything or make anything work. Their idea of greatness was stunt driving!

Anti-intellectual: there were no books in Hazzard County

Now, obviously “The Dukes of Hazzards” was slapped together by cynical drug-addled Hollywood producers to appeal to their imagined versions of rural cretins. This post has been gently ribbing this hayseed extravaganza…except…

In the end, the Dukes of Hazzard wasn’t good clean fun.  It was nihilistic.  There was no way to get rid of the crooked leader or the bad cops.  The heroes were criminals (and dullards) who would have killed hosts of children and hapless pedestrians with their reckless driving.  Yet it was impossible to root for “the law”.  The show venerated rebellion against authority in a way which was not rebellious or useful.  It fostered a culture where nobody was right and there was no way to change the status quo. If you rub away the folksy Dixieland patina, the show was a classic 18th century farce where we are laughing at the weakness and depravity of humankind itself. Do you want to be the cruel, preening aristocrat or the harried underling who keeps bumbling into trouble? Well, nobody cares what you want: society’s strictures are set in stone.

My mom was right about this show: it fostered immoral ideas under the pretense of being family appropriate entertainment .   If you have read to this point in the article, you have probably noticed that the United States of America, the world’s wealthiest and most powerful nation, now seems disturbingly like a sadder & scarier version of “The Dukes of Hazzard”.  I believe we can get rid of our crooked leader and reform our crooked police. But how do we reform our crooked selves?  How can we make ourselves want things that are worth wanting? And how do we get rid of the show runners who keep playing this sort of thing just to make a buck? 

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It is bitterly cold and wintry in New York today. From Newfoundland to Georgia a winter super-storm is slamming the East Coast of North America (it goes by the amazing marketing name of “bomb cyclone”). As is frequently the case when I am dissatisfied with conditions here on Earth, my mind is wandering off to our sister planet, Venus, where temperatures are somewhat warmer.

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Back when I was a child in living in the countryside I had a lengthy bus-ride to school (this will get back to Venus in a moment). The elementary school library had a copy of The National Geographic Picture Atlas of Our Universe, an astonishing Cold-War era tome of facts and fantastical musings about space. Somebody always checked that book out (indeed, it disintegrated before I reached puberty) and so it got passed around the school bus as we rode to Waterford and back every day. One of the fantasy illustrations which has stayed with me was the painting of the “oucher pouchers” by Roy Gallant (?). These (entirely-imaginary) alien creatures lived on the molten hot surface of Venus, which I guess is why they said “ouch.” They had a plated, heat-proof hide and they were spherical, but if they became too hot, they blasted off into the atmosphere via some sort of posterior rocket-propulsion system (which was of great amusement to the children).

Through the magic of the internet, I found the picture, and I see that the ‘poucher is eating an ill-fated space probe to Venus. They also have scorpion tails (for hunting or protection or goodness only knows). Long-time readers know of my obsession with Venus. I wonder if it started with this concept art (which was made to get kids interested in space). I am including it here so you can think of the molten surface of Venus and of what sorts of life could flourish there, but it is also as a reminder to myself to write more about our nearest planetary neighbor. In 2018 we need to be more imaginative and we need to explore farther (and if anybody is good at engineering we need to do better at that too). This illustration from my childhood is a fun reminder to look back to our childhood dreams in order to look forward to new horizons.

Today’s post seems like it concerns exceedingly trivial matters from a bygone age, but it is actually of much larger import. When I was five, I had the most delightful birthday!  It was a splendid August day with the barest hint of coming autumn in the forget-me-not sky.  There was every food I like.  My mother made a special unlicensed Star Wars cake and, though chocolate Vader looked a bit blobby and brown he tasted amazing.  There were astonishing presents, games with friends, and my splendid loving family telling me how wonderful I was.  There was only one stain upon the luminous day and it came at breakfast through the black-and-white TV screen.

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I was only allowed to watch limited amounts of TV (it makes me feel like some nineteenth century fogy to talk about having one (1) tiny mono-color viewscreen in a whole house), but even in the innocent (?) world of the seventies there were ads everywhere, fiendishly concocted to sink their razor sharp hooks into desires you did not even know you had.  One of these was an ad for a cereal which featured the most miraculous toy—a swimming dolphin which actually dove down into the darkened abyss and then playfully rose back up with an enigmatic dolphin smile.

Through the dark magic of contemporary media saturation, the original ad is available on Youtube. Here it is!

Perhaps the four-year-old me was emotionally moved by the lumbering tragicomic figure of Smeadley the elephant, however I confess I did not remember him until seeing the clip.  But the toy dolphins were magical!  The only thing which could have been better would have been an ichthyosaur. There was a problem—we were not allowed to have sugared breakfast cereal, which my mother regarded as a dangerous abomination (as an aside: I was raised so well…how did I go so wrong?).  The only chances for such a treat were trips to visit grandparents and birthdays—the one day on the calendar where requests for sugared cereal were countenanced in-house.

Maybe don't trust people who have their eyebrows on their hat...

Maybe don’t trust people who have their eyebrows on their hat…

My poor parents were forced to turn down requests for Cap’n Crunch for weeks until the big day finally arrived.  The first thing that went awry was the cereal–I guess Cap’n Crunch is supposed to be artificial peanut butter maybe? But whatever that unearthly bletted corn flavor is supposed to be, I found it vile.  The year before I had had Alphabits when I turned four and they were amazing!  Cap’n Crunch was a real disappointment. No matter—the important thing was the toy. We were supposed to wait to eat down to the bottom of the box to retrieve toys, but I abused my birthday privilege to stick my arm through the crunch and finally extract the coveted dolphin!

The only picture I could find of an original Cap'n Crunch

The only picture I could find of an original Cap’n Crunch “Diving Dolphin” toy (I think this might BE the actual size)

Sadly the actual toy was also a disappointing thing, much smaller and more colorless than it was on TV (and, again, the TV was black and white!).  The dolphin came horrifyingly bisected in a little plastic bag and had to be assembled and filled up with sodium hydrogen carbonate (not included), an operation which involved my father and much muttering and forcing of poorly molded plastic injection joints.

Pictured: Fun

Pictured: Fun

We did not have a perfectly shaped transparent toy dolphin tank as pictured in the ad (not included) so the dolphin went into an opaque gray plastic mop bucket.  It sank to the bottom and fell over on its side.  We all stood there for a while as it was gradually wreathed in a milky cloud. Boring, boring time passed—five-year old 1979 time which I will never recover!  About an hour later, the dolphin began to imperceptibly rise (according to my eagle-eyed mother) whereupon I raced off, and the dolphin was pushed into a corner.  Later we looked at it—and it was floating at the top, on its side like a dead goldfish.

The bad toy was swiftly forgotten…except I have not forgotten it.  I remember it more clearly than many of the awesome beautiful thoughtful toys I received later that day.  It was a harbinger—and a warning.

...junk you don't need

…junk you don’t need

Ninety-five percent of consumer products ARE the diving dolphin. They are cheaply made, poorly conceived and useless except for marketing/merchandising purposes.  Most of what you are looking at on the web and on the news are diving dolphins. So is most of what politicians say.  It was hard for me to recognize so much of human endeavor in a little plastic sack beneath the corn-syrup and artificial flavor, but I assure you it is so. Just put any of that junk in a bucket and watch it sink forlornly to the bottom…

Fake peanut butter Flavor Not included

Fake peanut butter Flavor Not included

Of course diving dolphins do not detract from the real things—happiness, friendship, good memories, family, and love. Not unless you let them.

The author and his sister, 1979

The author and his sister, 1979

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I had lots of favorite toys as a child—the toy I loved most changed as I changed ages (a truth which continues to be valid).  However, like most boys of my demographic, one of my all-time favorite toy properties was the Star Wars action figure line by Kenner.  This was a line of licensed toys based on the blockbuster space opera films. The Kenner action figures changed all the parameters of toy manufacturing & sales and made a bajillion dollars…but I don’t have to tell you about Star Wars action figures; unless you are some bizarre eremite or a post-human reading this in the distant future, you already know all about them.  Anyway I uncritically loved all the figures I had–except for three problem figures:  R2D2 had a white marble stuck up inside of him which made it impossible to deploy his third leg (I had the droid shop—and the third leg! but to no avail). Han Solo’s head broke off and was lost: he was in the Hoth Anorak, so afterwards he just looked like a mountaineer who had slipped, but I still knew it was Han, so it was pretty devastating. And, perhaps worst of all, somebody chewed up Greedo’s head.

The internet, however, has no lack of unblemished Greedos.

The internet, however, has no lack of unblemished Greedos.

Now R2D2 was not a problem—you could still play with him.  Han Solo’s terminal accident came as I was outgrowing the figures.  But, throughout my childhood, Greedo’s disfigurement always bothered me.  Plus who chewed up his head?  Was it the dog?  Was it my little sister?  Was it me?  He had come into my hands when I was at such a tender age, that the secret of his scars was lost.  I could make it work—Greedo’s fate in the movies was pretty inglorious.  When you were playing, it was easy to make believe he had been savaged by some horrible space monster.  Yet he was one of the most alien of the alien characters and that was diminished.  Plus his big soulful empty eyes—his best feature!–were ruined.

Peckoltia greedoi (Armbruster/Auburn University)

Peckoltia greedoi (Armbruster/Auburn University)

That is a pretty long introduction to today’s post which–as you no doubt anticipated—is about catfish! Johnathan Armbruster is an ichthyologist who curates the fish collection for Auburn University Museum of Natural History.  Recently, as he was going through old specimens, he found an unknown catfish collected from the Amazon in 1998.  Using his special ichthyology powers, Armbruster determined this was an entirely new species of armored suckermouth catfish. Destiny was in his hands.  He had to name the new catfish.  I should mention that the defining features of this new armored catfish were its big soulful empty eyes (as well as some head appendages and a ribbed body).

Greedo really was named first

Greedo really was named first

Armbruster reached back to his own childhood memories and named the fish Peckoltia greedoi, in honor of the incompetent Rodian bounty hunter (well also in honor of Gustavo Peckolt, a member of the Natural History Commission—but Armbruster didn’t get to choose the genus name).   Looking at the fish, the movie character, and the action figure, I become ever more convinced the little catfish is actually named after the toy. I wonder if Armbruster’s Greedo action figure was chewed up too.

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When I was growing up, my family went to the feed store one spring to buy something (farm equipment? wire, grain? rakes? cowbells? I just don’t remember).  The store had a big pen filled with “Easter bunnies” for low, low prices, and thanks to their endearing cuteness, my sister and I had to have one. My long-suffering parents were deeply reluctant, but in the end they agreed, provided the bunnies stayed in hutches outside.  We went home with two adorably cute little rabbits (and a bunch of wire for building pens).  It was the beginning of a very painful lesson about the ambiguous nature of domestication. Rabbit-lovers may want to stop reading.  In fact everyone may want to stop reading.  Not all animal stories have happy endings.

French Lop Domestic Rabbit

French Lop Domestic Rabbit

European rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) were raised in large walled colonies in ancient Rome (like snails!) but they were not properly domesticated for the farm until the middle ages.  Wikipedia half-heartedly quotes a date of “600” (presumably 600 AD).  Goats, pigs, and cows were domesticated about ten thousand years ago—long before the first cities rose—so the rabbit is a newcomer to farming life.  Not until the eighteenth (or maybe nineteenth) century do we have any records of rabbits as pets.

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The rabbits we obtained from the feed store were certainly not raised as pets but as stock (the fact that they were sold at the feed store was a real clue). We already had cats and dogs and birds inside, so the rabbits had to live in wire pens with little straw lined nesting boxes.  For a while the bunnies were sort of stuck in a limbo between being pets and being livestock, but, as people who have real pet rabbits can tell you, rabbits don’t really love being held and they have an ambiguous relationship with children. They are also gifted escape artists and extremely devoted to producing more rabbits.  We had some litters of baby bunnies (did you know that stressed out rabbits eat their young? You do now) and we also had some rabbits that went renegade.  We tried to catch the escapees at first and we did catch some (even domestic rabbits can run like the wind) but ultimately we resigned ourselves to the fact that a certain number of rabbits would go “Watership Down” and never return.  Eventually something must have got them: the highway, the foxes, the hawks, the coyotes, the bobcats, the owls, the weasels—who knows?

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So in the end we wound up with hutches filled with rabbits that had to be fed and watered and tended to.  In the summer they would occasionally die of unknown causes (heat, stress, disease?).  I have extremely unpleasant memories of putting on rubber gloves and carrying a stiffened decomposing rabbit covered with flies over the hill to dig a shallow grave.

You can probably see where this is all heading. On a farm filled with delightful & personable animals like dogs, cats, ponies, and turkeys, the rabbits did not cut it as pets.  The cards had been hopelessly stacked against them from the beginning.  And so eventually they became rabbits for the pot.  It turned out that slaughtering rabbits was a task which I was shamefully unequal to as a child.  Jim Bowie might have slapped me around until I toughened up and became a frontiersman but my dad just sighed heavily and did the butchering himself (sorry Dad, I’ll take care of it next time).  Thereafter we found that the Amish neighbors were happy to slaughter rabbits in exchange for a share.  Rabbit fur really is soft and warm and we had a bizarre mud room filled with tanned pelts (although I am not sure what we ever did with them).  Rabbit meat is particularly delightful (especially with creamy sauce) and we had lots of savory rabbit curries, which are even better than they sound.

rabbit stew

rabbit stew

So what is the point of this story?  I am sure it will not endure me to other animal lovers (although I beg you all to stay with me–I am an animal lover too).  Maybe it is a simple story about domestication.  I like meat, but I have not forgotten where it comes from (and I can understand the point of view of vegetarians–but it isn’t my point of view).

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