Mercury Blues

Mister Boomer note: Sorry about the length of the video, but the song (David Lindley singing “Mercury Blues”), and the great visuals of those classic Mercurys are worth the time investment!

Ford Motor Company has announced that the Mercury line of cars will be phased out in 2010. Originated by Edsel Ford in 1935, the brand was fashioned to fit between the regular Ford line and the luxury Lincolns. Thus, Mercury joins the other brands of our youth, particularly Oldsmobile and Pontiac, now relegated to the dustbin of boomer memorabilia.

Some of us inherited Mercurys from our parents, especially those earlier models with the rounded, bulbous profiles. Some early boomers set about customizing the things to boomers’ discerning standards. With new wheels, fresh paint, rolled and tufted interiors and a Coca-Cola rubdown of any chrome bumper rust, we could be crazy about our Mercurys. Others will recall them as the utilitarian family car, though at least they had some semblance of modernist style (even if it was misguided at times). As for Mister Boomer, Mercury held peripheral memories dealing with other people’s cars.

Mister Boomer’s family was all about the Ford and Chevy, so a Mercury was out of the price range. A neighbor two houses down, across the street, did have one at one point. What Mister B recalls of that early 60s model was mainly the roof line and back window. The neighbor was one of the few on the block to have a garage to house his vehicle, so we only saw it when he would back his Mercury out of his driveway. This gave us a full driver side and rear view of the vehicle. It was a single paint color, all shiny turquoise and, of course, chrome. The cut of the car made it look like an italic font from the side, zooming forward to make its point. The roof line had a bit of a rounded overhang in the back — like a small car soffit covering the back window, which slanted slightly forward as it neared the trunk.

Once the car was safely backed out onto the street, we could see the neighbor kids in the back seat, waving to us through the rear window. The glass was flat and sloped inward, with an inch of chrome molding framing the center two-thirds of the window. Mister B discovered one day that the chrome molding was more than decorative; it served a function. The back window OPENED — by a power switch, no less! As an impressionable youth, that seemed more luxury than our suburb deserved.

Another Mister B/Mercury connection happened in high school. There was this kid who got a used mid-sixties Mercury Comet from his aunt as we were heading into our senior year. It was in showroom condition and a sight to behold. Blazing red inside and out, the only “eye rest” was the shiny chrome. Mister B had ridden in this blaze of color on wheels a few times since the owner lived nearby and would, on occasion, drive a few of us to Our Lady of Perpetual Guilt High School. (Yes, some of us really did walk five miles in the snow to go to school!)

Somehow, the folks at Mercury exactly matched the vinyl interior to the paint color. The metal dash (remember when they were all metal?) was also painted the exact same red, accented with blinding chrome when the fall and winter sun was at the right angle. Now, red is a fine color, even transcendent in the candy apple variety that appeared on tricked-out hot rods in the area. This particular incarnation, however, was not Mister B’s cup of tea. Insert your rendition of “Paint it Black” here if you like. Mister B is humming it now…

A few years later, a neighbor was coming home from Vietnam. His exact story is hazy at this point, but the facts are he was discharged and ended up down south somewhere. Shortly after that, he walked into a Mercury showroom, bought a Cougar and married the saleswoman a few days later. He drove back to the Midwest with his discharge papers, new car and new wife. Well, the wife didn’t exactly work out and she was gone within a week (a not-so-humorous story for another time, perhaps). The Mercury Cougar fared a little better. Before he was drafted, he drove a Chevy Corvair. Since the back seat was positioned over the rear-mounted engine, Mister B recalls that riding in the back of that thing was like sitting on a griddle. We’d sit on our hands to avoid roasting our rumps. It was no surprise to this boomer when Ralph Nader announced the thing was “Unsafe at Any Speed.” Now sitting in his parent’s driveway was this gleaming, jade-green, V-8 muscle Mercury with a tan leather-like interior. It was the model that had the headlights flip out of the grille when activated. Pretty sleek, my man. This Mercury model was one of the early attempts by the auto industry to tempt the younger buyer into purchasing off-the-shelf, with no need to customize a vehicle to be “street-ready.” Though Mercury turned the Cougar into more of a luxury brand a few years later, car companies continued the muscle car lines for several years into the seventies. Surely this resulted in every boomer out there having a muscle car story.

Yet what about Mercury? Once a Greek messenger to the gods … and now, a car line soon to be gone. Will it, like its Greek god namesake, be forgotten? Do you have any memories of Mercury you’d like to share?

Laughing Through the Cold War

Following World War II, the U.S. and Soviet Union engaged in a “balance of powers” exercise that was termed the Cold War. The rules were simple: each country had to accumulate more nuclear weapons to keep the other in check. Consequently, there was a massive arms build-up on both sides as the public at large was gripped with the fear of total annihilation. As “Eve of Destruction,” that great Cold War ditty from the sixties so succinctly put it, “When the button is pushed, there’s no runnin’ away.” It seemed hardly the time for laughing it up. Throughout history, though, we’ve had a habit of cutting our opponents down to size with humor. If you could laugh at them, then perhaps it could lessen some of the fear.

Our parents had done so in World War II. It is said that each generation develops their own sense of what is funny, and surely they had the likes of radio broadcasts and Spike Jones laughing “right in der Füehrer’s face.” When you think about it, they surely didn’t have much to laugh about. Yet they grew up through more than a decade of the Great Depression, which was followed by a World War. Once the war was over, they still couldn’t relax as they were always on guard for potential enemies… and they found one in Communism. Perhaps this set up our generation to be uniquely poised for a comedy explosion?

The first set of baby boomers were only five years old when the U.S. Department of Civil Defense produced that classic comedy of the Cold War era, “Duck and Cover,” in 1951. Not that they intended it to be a comedy, mind you. There is the very real likelihood that in the preceding years before Mister Boomer’s class was shown the film, it was taken all too seriously. Yet Mister B recalls that film, like so many others that were projected onto the portable tripod screen in the basement below the church. Lessons on school safety and proper bike riding would surely help us to be better citizens, so why not inject some civil defense knowledge, for our own protection? In Mister B’s class, however, the reaction was probably not what was expected. The lights went out and the familiar sound of the clicking projector could be heard, cutting the silence. Then it began, in glorious black and white, with that likeable turtle cartoon and memorable jingle. OK — so far, so good. Once the live action began, though, snickers started rolling through the assembled pre-pubescent crowd. Muffled at first, it could be contained no more when the scene of The Typical American Family enjoying a picnic saw “the flash” and grabbed the picnic blanket to duck and cover. A raucous laughter erupted that left the teachers aghast. The film clicked on as we children laughed and laughed at the silly scene of plates and food flying, the screen children’s heads ducking under the cover of their picnic “shelter.” We couldn’t possibly understand the ramifications of a nuclear attack. We just knew funny when we saw it. They finally quieted us down and we watched the remainder of the film in mandated silence.

Ike was our President and Commander in Chief at the time. He successfully saw the country through D-Day, and now he was protecting us from the evils of Communism, especially as represented by the Soviet Union. The visible Soviet leader during boomer time was Nikita Khruschev. In the spirit of détente, Eisnehower had invited him to visit the U.S. in 1959 following Richard Nixon’s participation in the Kitchen Debate. Khruschev came with his wife and children, and although it didn’t further Ike’s agenda the way he had hoped, it did provide fodder for satirists and comedians. Of the many spots the Soviet Premier visited on his 13-day trip, he was impressed with the agricultural education from the University of Iowa, and the self-serve cafeteria at IBM headquarters. Comedy gold! Like the reaction of Mister B’s class, all sorts of jokes about Ike, Khruschev, their unlikely meetings at Camp David and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) became fodder for the laugh machine. By 1960, the jokes were flying on TV and in the nightclubs. One such seminal star that weighed in on the subject was Bob Newhart. The young upstart would release “The Button Down Mind of Bob Newhart” that year, based on his stand-up routines. In an interview years later, he recalled that they needed an extra track for the album, so he tossed in “Kruschev (sic) Landing Rehearsal,” a re-imagined scene of the Soviet Premier being greeted at the airport. Bob envisioned it as the concept for a new TV show (can anyone say, “Green Acres”?), which never materialized.

Most boomers, however, are going to recall the unbelievably great Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons (1959-61). The Cold War characters Boris Badenov and his sidekick, Natasha Fatale, and their Fearless Leader, were an integral part of the show. As Boris himself would put it, “It’s good to be bad.” In print media, Mad Magazine also got into the act with its long-running “Spy vs. Spy” cartoon series.

A few years later, we were still making fun of our stalemate situation. After years of depicting bumbling Russian spies, we now turned to creating bumbling idiots on our own side. On TV, “Get Smart” (1965-70), saw the likes of Maxwell Smart as Secret Agent 86. Clueing us in on the joke, the writers gave him the “86” moniker. The term “eighty-sixed” in common parlance means to throw or kick out. Somehow, Max always saved the day, with the help of his ultra-sexy partner, Barbara Feldon, as Agent 99 (one would presume out of a hundred).

The top of the heap of Cold War comedies for Mister Boomer is “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” In 2009, the 45th anniversary of this Stanley Kubrick movie was celebrated. The movie starred Sterling Hayden, George C. Scott and the phenomenal Peter Sellars playing three distinct roles. It described a “what if” situation where a U.S. military general started the process that triggered full nuclear response from both sides, and the possible planning for the rebuilding of civilization the remaining leaders would need to accomplish with the survivors. If you haven’t seen it in a while, run to your nearest online movie ordering site and buy it or put it on your list immediately! Viewing it as an adult, in our post-Cold War era, has made the dark humor all the more poignant. Go forth and laugh it up, boomers!

What made you laugh at the Cold War?