Essay

Farewell to Arms

The sight of dainty toes splayed in flip-flops all but screams summer! But seasons change, and the digits disappear for months on end.
The sight of dainty toes splayed in flip-flops all but screams summer! But seasons change, and the digits disappear for months on end. (By Douglas Healey -- Associated Press)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The poet T.S. Eliot famously called April the cruelest month. What an idiot.

No, by far October is the cruelest month. The air turns nippy, the wind acts up, the dead leaves tumble from desiccated trees and, unless you're on the Skyline Drive, the bright colors only give you a headache or something to sweep up. Ugh, then there's Halloween, full of begging beasties and pretend heartiness. But most tragic of all, October is the month the flesh goes away for six long months. Why? Because that is the way of all flesh.

Of course, you suspect I do not really mean all flesh. My flesh, for example, goes away, and who cares? Does the world need a glimpse of spidery albino legs with a pelt as thick as a beaver's, sustained on spindly struts of ankles? Women have been known to flee in horror when exposed to such hellish vistas. What about that creeping wad of putrescence that is occasionally on view above my belt when I bend over in a T-shirt? Who in their right minds, male or female, would not applaud the annual half-year exile of this pod of glucose, Fritos and Mike and Ike Original Fruits?

I mean: Their flesh. As in female.

I seem to be among the last of the flesh guys. It was a generational thing. We baby boomers were given so much by our much braver and better fathers, and we in turn gave so little back; but one of our most twisted issues had to do with flesh, absence of, circa '50s America.

You young guys, you see a beautiful woman -- young, old, fat, slim, tall, short, green, white, yellow, black, brown, who really cares? -- walking across the street in a sleeveless shift on a summer's day, her hair possibly ponytailed back carelessly, her limbs sleek, hairless, her dainty toes displayed, her careless look utterly, sublimely, tragically perfect! Do you understand how grateful you should be? Why, son, in my day, all the women pranced about like Knights in Shining Elastic, not a human quiver anywhere under their perfect clothes. Before you marches Lady Godiva but for a few loose patches of material, and you have no big response. You might not even notice. The woman isn't a treasure to you, a glimpse of paradise; she's just a gal in a summer dress, ho-hum. You saw it all two minutes ago, you'll see it in two more minutes.

But think of yourself some half-century ago, growing up in a magic land called '50s America, which lasted until the double hits of Oswald's trigger work and the Beatles' invasion changed the place forever. Was it great back them? Er, yes and no. I think of it as a frozen Arctic of repression and superstition -- but also of confidence, security, unlocked doors, Rules to Be Obeyed. It was where my generation's wiring was soldered into place. In that era, benighted or not, the one thing we guys all knew about, all suffered from, all regretted, all raged, raged, raged -- do you hear me? -- raged against the dying of the light, was a thing called the panty girdle.

Can you begin to imagine, you young hulk, all testosterone and muscle tone from daily three-hour gym shots, can you begin to imagine what this thing was? The elasticity of it represented control, structure, the secret bindings beneath the pleated skirts. They were dead rubber, temperatureless, without much give or buckle; I'm guessing they left a generation with raw, red ridgelines everywhere, and I'm guessing that the girls didn't like them any better than the boys, but since I didn't know any actual girls, I can't be too sure about that one.

The panty girdle's primary function seems to have been to quell the jiggle. It was to deny flesh its fleshiness. Hard as it is to believe now, there were entire research departments of learned chemists making the then-fab sum of $50,000 a year, who drove $6,000 Cadillacs, who put all that Caltech genius not into figuring out a way to outperform Sputnik or get more A-bomb into less delivery weight for our big, beautiful B-52s, but into getting less jounce to the ounce upon the skeletal frame of Molly the Cheerleader, when she came to the microphone at the pep rally or sock hop, seemingly encapsulated in some new wonder-constrictor. Hmm, Melvin, should we up the polylaminated hydrocarbonized iambic DuPont Krynel to 32 percent?

Of course it produced a generation of perverts. It made stealthy peepers of us all, studied lookers who were quick to find angles and odd vantages (such as backwardly down, under the crooked arm), willing to risk virtually anything from a fall from a tree to a stint in juvie for just a flash of flesh.

The joke was, you never, and I mean never, saw anything.

You never saw their flesh, "flesh" being a nice term, conveying expanse, elasticity, undulation, gravity, dermatology and the like. It's generic and pretty safe. No, by "their flesh," you read me, between the lines, as meaning more specific body parts: the wondrous four to six inches above the knees, fabulous little toes splayed in a rictus by the thong of a rubber flip-flop, and even (and of late ubiquitously) navels. Is that what I mean?


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