Style, back in the day

My style in 1961 was made up of the twist, the swim, the mashed potatoes, and Chubby Checker. Along with Chubby, my style was made from a whole parade of music and images. Music which included Sinatra, Dean Martin, Johnny Cash, Johnny Horton, John Lennon among the many found on my A.M. radio and records. Time is supple and filled with a collage of styles, especially as this sound track had me sliding around in white-socks. It was the time of the sock hop. But not in the summer.

In my summers, style was dictated by Lake Michigan beaches, convertibles, pegged pants, and short hair. Perfect tans. Cruising around curves in the road, eyes looking sharp for curves. I remember a perfect canvas shirt to slap on over my white t-shirt which belonged to me because my pal Phil Frank, sketched cartoons on hoodies to make summer money. (He later became a syndicated cartoonist based at the San Francisco Chronicle.) That wasn’t on his dashboard then, it was just a “cool” way for him to earn money; inking rebellious social and political cartoons on our tough guy shirts. (Later his cartoons were to become “Travels with Farley,” but that was far later). He had my cartooned figure swigging whiskey, sporting tattoos, and smoking a cigarette. I thought it a great shirt.

I had “commissioned” the illustration, and thought it perfect for cool nights and of course cool dudes. My sense of style wasn’t thoughtful. (Is raw style ever thoughtful?) We pulled it out of the air, out of magazines and catalogs. Movies. Television. Seventy-eight lps. Car radios. If we dressed up, it was a string tie, or the soon to be regrettable Nehru jacket. We didn’t doubt our tastes of the moment or our sense of style, we had absorbed it. Never thought about what it “meant” nor how long it would last.

I did make a mistake……The huge error was the fact that I wore the shirt home. My mother saw it, and my sense of style was instantly rearranged. It had not dawned on me that one of the images at the bottom of the shirt happened to be a swastika…it was small….and I had not really noticed it. I was worried that my goofy-cartoon-figure swigging from a liquor bottle and dangling cigarette from his tattooed arm spelled trouble. Figured that I might evade disaster by saying that it was just a cartoon. My mother glanced at the shirt and said in “that” voice: “What were you thinking?” She went on to say: “It has a swastika, a symbol that has been responsible for horrible harm, it is despised by any sensible human, and by rights should be ripped to shreds!”

Since then, I’ve paid more attention to what styles mean. I begged to fix it. Phil revised my shirt and inked in a smudge of dirt where the swastika once sat. I still had a shirt for cool nights. Impossible to defend style, in any age. But when 16, what was I thinking?

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