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?

The Answer is Blowin’ In the Wind?

Recently, an “artifact” from the boomer age has resurfaced in the news. Clotheslines have been popping up around the country as personal expressions of energy conservation and “common sense.” Some boomers, however, disagree that the act of placing laundry on a line to billow in the breeze is natural and good; they believe dryers were invented to forever relieve us of this manual task. Some go one step further, and see the stringing of lines draped with clothespinned-garments as an assault on their sensibilities and a blight in their neighborhoods. As a result, homeowner associations have banned the practice in many states, to the point of fining offenders who break the rules.

Clothes dryers in various mechanical forms have been around in France and England since the 18th century. On June 7, 1892, George T. Sampson from Dayton, Ohio, was granted a patent for a clothes drying system that used heat from a stove, thus replacing the older models that required hand-turning a basket over an open flame. Despite the increases in technology throughout the years, it wasn’t until the boomer age — post World War II — that the popularity of dryers increased. By 1955, they came in electric and natural gas versions, but were too expensive for the average consumer. That year only 10 percent of U.S. households had a dryer.

Mister Boomer’s experience certainly follows the historical trend. Growing up in the fifties and sixties, there wasn’t anyone to object to the neighbor’s drying clothes on a clothesline because everyone dried clothes on clotheslines. Mister Boomer recalls helping Mom put up sheets on the backyard lines, securing the ends with that amazing little utilitarian invention: a shaped piece of wood that had a split three-quarters of its length, and a rounded head to easily grasp. Yes, the humble clothespin. There’s a great invention, if you ask me. We owned and used very few of those flat spring-type clothespins. Mister Boomer’s Mom reserved those for thicker and oddly-shaped garments that weren’t easily secured with the traditional pin.

Mister Boomer recalls the time — a decade before the Clean Air Act of 1970 — when clothes hanging outside weren’t exactly finishing fresh-air fresh. Little bits of rusty-brown soot from the nearby steel mills would sprinkle onto the drying laundry, forcing a good shaking before folding and placing in the wicker laundry basket. Winter was not much kinder. The snow and ice complicated outdoor drying. Mister Boomer used to get a laugh out of his jeans drying in the cold breeze — or rather, freezing — into a stand-up shape like the Invisible Man were somehow modeling them. The method then was to remove the jean-sicles from the line and bring them indoors. Propping them against the dining room wall by the heat register, they soon melted into a foldable fabric, like denim witches from the Wizard of Oz.

Mister Boomer’s family didn’t get a dryer installed until the mid-sixties. Mister Boomer had gone along for the ride when his Dad visited a local appliance store. “90 days, same as cash,” read the sign on the wall. Mister Boomer’s Dad double-checked on that before signing on the dotted line. A gas dryer was a helpful appliance in the Boomer household that lessened the drudgery of the modern housewife, allowing her to rejoin the workforce to enjoy a rewarding career in retail sales.

The debate, to outside dry or not, amplifies the point that the Boomer Generation, unlike others before them, is not one of a single mindset. While some find it a nostalgic glimpse at a bygone era whose time has come again in the form of energy conservation, others feel technology has reigned supreme for the past hundred years, and has made our lives the better for it. This has prompted some to go to the point of demanding legislation that allows residents “the right to dry.” Last month Vermont became the first state to pass such legislation, while other states, including Texas and California, have considered it.

Now, it’s far from Mister Boomer’s mission to get involved in political debates, one way or the other. But doggone it, we changed the world, man — so surely this is a problem we can solve on our own. Instead of new laws allowing people their “God-given” rights, how about if we require those persnickety homeowner associations to set up a fund from members’ dues that would subsidize the purchase of solar dryers? They could paint them in homeowner association-approved colors. Surely a box in the backyard wouldn’t offend the sensibilities of the gated crowd like colorful undies blowin’ in the wind.

And how about it, Mr. Boomer President? Can we make America number one in manufacturing solar appliances? What do you think, boomers?