Our second grade teacher at David Hill Elementary School loved contests. She had contests on naming classical pieces of music that she played on a phonograph. I won. She had contests for knowing facts about the world and about the USA. I won. She had contests on spelling. I won. She had contests for math facts but I did not win. Why? Because even though I knew all the answers, she didn’t call on me so often as she did some of the girls in the class and one of them won. At the time, I thought this wildly unfair though looking back on it, she might have been trying to encourage some of the others not to give up. She had a reading contest. I won.
And, unlike any of the other contests, the person who won the reading contest would receive a prize from her. That prize consisted of choosing whatever Golden Book we wanted. Golden Books, for those who do not recall, were small books for kids, each bound on the edge with gold. Well, it probably wasn’t actually gold, but it was gold in color. The front and back covers were also rimmed with a gold pattern. So, right off the bat, Golden Books were pretty cool! Each Golden Book also featured, on the back cover, a list of every Golden Book! What a clever marketing ploy. Anyway, after I won the reading contest, she handed me a Golden Book so I could pick my title from the back cover. I scanned the list very carefully. One and only one came with merchandise! Yes, Nancy the Nurse, the index promised, came with real band-aids!
In order to understand the appeal of this feature, you need to understand where my family lived. Our family’s small one-story two bedroom house sat on a busy street. Most of the block contained other small, one-story two bedroom houses like ours although they differed in the color of the roof and the siding. Our house was white with green trim. However, as luck would have it, at the very end of my block were three vacant lots! These were not mere fields of weeds or turned up dirt clods like most of the vacant lots in the area. Huge trees! Grape vines! A few dirt paths criss-crossed this forest, this wilderness, this jungle. It was Eden. Only better because our Eden lacked any adult supervision.
And therein lay both the beauty and the danger. At the end of the block, in those ancient verdant stands of oak and beech, we lived or died by our own wits every day. Well. Every day until our parents called us in for supper when it got dark. But meanwhile, we needed to fend for ourselves and prepare for every emergency.
So, a book — that is one thing. But a book that came with *real bandaids*! That meant that I could construct an emergency medical kit for our wilderness adventures! So, of course, I chose as my prize, Nancy the Nurse!
My teacher, Miss Hall, looked at me for a moment, paused, and then quietly suggested, “I think you probably mean Tommy the Doctor.” She slid her gnarly finger down to show me the title. Well, Tommy the Doctor did sound pretty cool. Indeed, my own nickname had once been “Tommy.” However, there was nothing in the description of Tommy the Doctor that gave even the slightest hint of real bandaids so I said, “No, thanks. I’ll take Nancy the Nurse.
My teacher, Miss Hall, paused, raised her voice just a tad and asked, “How about this one? Mike the Mechanic.” Clever the way her voice reminded me of victorious trumpets when she mentioned the name. Still, again, there was nothing there about the book being accompanied by a toolkit or indeed even a bandaid. So, again, I repeated, “No, thanks I’ll just take Nancy the Nurse.” Miss Hall made a few more increasingly desperate attempts but all to no avail. I was puzzled by all of this. She had made it very clear that the winner would be able to chose any Golden Book. At last, she grew weary of the game as had I and she took a different tack. “Well, I will have to check with your parents.” And so she did. To their credit, my parents had no qualms at all about my choosing Nancy the Nurse.
Soon the book came. I do not recall, but I am guessing that I did read the book. I read most everything I could get my hands on. But I recall nothing about the book. It did really come with bandaids however, and I found an old lunch pail to hold my emergency wilderness kit. However, as anyone knows, an emergency survival wilderness kit needs more than bandaids. For example, a method of remote emergency communication could prove vital. Kids back then did not have cell phones; mainly because they had not yet been invented. So, I needed another method. Something brightly colored would be good. In TV shows and movies, someone in danger often shot off a flare gun. Sadly, my parents did not own a flare gun. However, what they did have was a typewriter. And that typewriter had a ribbon with dark black on one half of the strip and a bright red on the other.
My parents never used the typewriter. And they had been very supportive of part one of my plan for the emergency kit; namely, the bandaids. I had no inkling they would be any less thrilled by my appropriation of the typewriter ribbon. And, sure enough the very first day, I had reason to use it. One of the kids found a gigantic caterpillar. I had already shown everyone my “flare” and explained its use. I removed the ribbon from my kit holder, took the ribbon cartridge in my right hand and gave a *tremendous* underhand throw. Sure enough, the red and black ribbon deployed beautifully, rocketing sky high. Maybe none of the other kids were looking and maybe as a consequence I had to yell to them to come see the caterpillar but that misses the point. The point is, it had worked. I carefully would the ribbon back up for another emergency.
I can’t recall how long life continued in this idyllic condition, but somewhere along the line, to my great surprise, my parents claimed an interest in using the typewriter. This, in turn, proved difficult precisely because there was no ribbon. They seemed perturbed to learn that the ribbon was intact, but meanwhile, rather than just sitting in the typewriter doing nothing for weeks, I had used it on multiple occasions to send emergency flares into the sky.
I suppose, by adult standards, none of the emergencies really “counted” because we were never really hurt, or lost, or attacked by wild beasts, but my point was that if any of those things had happened, we were prepared. Thanks to me. But thanks is not what I got. What I got was incredulity. What I got was yelling. What I got was a spanking. What I got was a lecture about not taking things that don’t belong to you, at least without asking.
The problem was that in my parents’ minds, the use of the typewriter ribbon was the typewriter, pure and simple. They had what I now know is called “functional fixedness.” They failed to see that a typewriter ribbon can serve as a typewriter ribbon when needed, but meanwhile can also be used as an excellent flare gun. They seemed to have a similar problem regarding the siding on the house. Yes, it could be used to form a wall that kept warm air in but it could also be used as a partner in a ball game if no-one else was around.
On the other hand, sometimes my parents teamed up with innovation. They didn’t seem to have any problem with my using old cardboard boxes and paper towel rolls to make castles or the use of short Lincoln Logs as soldiers. Using marbles as soldiers caused no problems. Using sticks and stones to make homes for toy dinosaurs was okay too. So, I’m not sure “functional fixedness” precisely named their problem. I think our main difference was that I saw things primarily in terms of their uses. Well — especially, my uses. Sure, the typewriter ribbon might be an important part of a typewriter, but if no-one ever used the typewriter and therefore never used the ribbon, why not let it become more useful by being an emergency flare gun? If no-one ever actually wore the diamond ring in my mother’s jewelry box, why not give it to my girlfriend at school instead? My mother found out and marched up to school to demand the ring back, quite rightly pointing out that the ring had not been mine to give away.
Many years later, I discovered that the ring in question was an engagement ring from my mother’s first husband. My mother and dad fell in love in college. But when World War Two came to America, my dad lied about his age and volunteered. My mother was both angry and heart-broken. She married another older man who hadn’t volunteered to go off and fight a war. Yet, in life’s inimical and ironic ways, he was almost immediately drafted and went off to fight the Nazis himself. One day she had Army Officers appear on the doorstep to inform her of his death. Meanwhile, my dad was having his own trials and tribulations. He received a Purple Heart for a shrapnel wound in his shoulder but went back into combat. He and his squad were again shelled and my dad’s lower leg was shattered. His buddy was severely wounded and they were under fire so my dad hobbled them to safety further injuring his shattered leg. His fighting days were over and he shipped back to the USA where he and my mother were reunited. She still kept the ring as a remembrance but never wore it because, after all, she was now married to my dad.
At the time when my dad volunteered to go into the Army, he, like most Americans, only knew that we had been attacked at Pearl Harbor and that we were now at war with Germany, Italy, and Japan. Although people were certainly aware of Hitler’s rhetoric against Jews and his “White Supremacist” non-sense, the full horrors of the concentration camps and pogroms were not revealed until later. Even with all the alt-right propaganda panderings of Goebbels, the German leaders may have still have been ashamed to let the world know precisely what they were doing. It might seem difficult to believe that the German people didn’t know. However, we must remember that one of Hitler’s first moves was to eliminate the free press and put a “Minister of Information” as one of his top aides. Rather than having his second in command someone who actually knew how to make Germany more productive and wealthier, his primary job was to make it seem as though this was happening, that Germany was winning the war, etc. and that any small remaining problems were due to a lack of patriotism and the “Jewish Problem.”
Of course, I didn’t know any of this in the second grade. All I knew was that to be fully effective in our corner jungle, we would have to have a medical kit and a flare. And, I suppose when my dad was under fire in North Africa and in Italy, his unit did have medical kits and flare guns and a lot more beside. But it wasn’t enough to prevent hot shrapnel from flying through the air and maiming and killing people. And, I honestly don’t know at this juncture what can help keep people safe from the clouds of hate that threaten to hurl us back into a second Dark Ages.
You don’t need a medical degree to know that some wounds cannot be staunched with bandaids. Flare guns, we definitely don’t need. Signs and signals aplenty like bombs bursting in air overhead shot out into the night sky for months and months. But people apparently dismissed them as normal atmospheric disturbances. So that now, after the dictatorial excesses of the late 1930’s and early 1940’s led to so many millions of deaths — German, Japanese, Italian, Russian, Canadian, French, English, American and others from virtually every continent, now we stand poised to do it all again. We are ready to beat every last one of our plowshares into swords. We are sick of science and making progress on disease and understanding the earth and exploring space. Instead, we want to wallow and wade in the wickedness of self-righteous bigotry. We are ready to fray the fabric of America. Something precious has been given away. And it wasn’t even ours to give away. It belonged to the heroes of other eras. And, unlike the diamond ring, this stolen gift will not be easily retrieved.
Of course, you might want to stock up an extra supply of bandaids. I doubt it will help much, but it can’t hurt. The jungle now will not be filled with oak trees and grape vines. And it won’t just be a few vacant lots of the end of the block. Vacant lots will waste away on every block as society unravels. Even the lots with massive iron-barred mansions will only populated by the vacant-eyed. Diamond rings will all have been confiscated as gifts for a chosen few.
Well, what about “Nancy the Nurse”? Well, Nancy earned her M.D. and became head of surgery at a prestigious University teaching hospital. But when it came right down to having her perform life-saving operations, the patients opted instead for Timmy the Technician. It turned out that Timmy didn’t actually have any technical or medical expertise. But he was big and brash and beige. Patients may die but no-one will be sued for wrongful death. Indeed, every death all along that long, loveless lane will be deemed as a righteous death. After all, every righteous death shall become just another … brick … in … the … wall.