Woe unto us, O generation of Road Runners, for Wile E. Coyote has devoured our children.
Yes, and more: We who sped nimbly through the '60s, dodging the Coyote of the Establishment with a smug and giddy "beep beep"--the Coyote has overtaken our progeny and captured their hearts for his own.
"How could you possibly have identified with the Road Runner?" my students demanded, with an astonishment that bordered on contempt.
This was in an honors seminar on meaning and culture at the University of Maryland. We'd been talking about these particular Warner Bros. cartoon figures as cultural archetypes.
Did they, could they, actually identify with the Coyote, root for the Coyote, see themselves as Coyotes?
"Of course," they said, waving their hands, 19 out of 21 of them.
" . . . keeps trying in the face of adversity . . ."
" . . . I feel sorry for the Coyote . . ."
" . . . Road Runner has no personality . . ."
" . . . Road Runner is a typical baby boomer, had everything handed to him, feels responsible for nothing except himself . . ."
I explained that the '60s could not have happened if students had thought of themselves as the Coyote.
Back then, I said, the Coyote was cops, parents, the draft board, the dean of students, and suburban tail-fin gray-flannel-suit conformity. It was a droopy-nosed old loser like Nixon trying to talk about football with anti-war demonstrators. It was Carly Simon's father, who "sits at night with no lights on--his cigarette glows in the dark." It was everybody over 30 we didn't trust. It was the dumb, scheming, generation-gapped Establishment waiting to devour us at every turn in the road except that we were way too fast, too much a cosmically sanctioned force of nature to be seized or even comprehended by the Coyote and the military-industrial madness of Acme products that blew up in his face.
Was it just I who'd identified with the Road Runner? A quick survey said no, though reality has intruded here and there, as it does in middle age.
"Your students said they identified with the Coyote?" asked Paul Feigenbaum, 53, a commercial lawyer in Albany, N.Y. "That makes no sense. You have to be adept at tap-dancing through life. The Road Runner thought outside the box. He was like Einstein. He understood that the universe stretches."
"There's still the dream of being the Road Runner, but as I sit here at my desk as chairman of the American studies department, I am the Coyote," said Jeffrey Meikle, 50, of the University of Texas at Austin.
The Road Runner was freedom, immunity, innocent victimhood and entitlement. It was the mascot of John F. Kennedy's "new generation" or Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters making fun of the FBI, or Howdy Doody's Peanut Gallery who'd grown up with their baby boom-Babylon beliefs that the universe was a conspiracy in their favor and all they had to do was what came naturally while the plot worked itself out.
Reality, it seemed to this generation, was nothing but a crutch for the Coyote, who believed in Newtonian mechanics and cause-and-effect--all that worn-out "linear thinking," as we called it. Having grown up as the first generation to watch cartoons every day on television, we'd seen animation stretch the laws of physics often, and out there in the wordless desert of endless sight gags they were always stretched in favor of the Road Runner.
Think of the Coyote with a paintbrush, painting the image of a tunnel on the side of a mountain, confident that the Road Runner will be fooled into smashing into the rock. Instead, the Road Runner goes "beep beep" and runs through the tunnel. Puzzled, the Coyote studies his painting. A truck roars out of it and flattens him.
So why would you identify with the Coyote? I kept asking around. It seemed that Road Runner identification is strongest for people in their fifties, with ambivalence appearing in the low forties and thirties groups, then strong Coyotiphilia taking over in the under-thirties.
"He's going after his goal," said Brian Good, 21, an animal science major at Ohio State University.
"I want him to get the Road Runner," said Nick Davis, 23, an intensely cool and dreadlocked courier for Airborne Express in Washington.
But why identify with a loser?
"I wouldn't lose if I was the Coyote," Davis said. "I'd get a gun, telescopic sights . . ."
"He never gets a break," said Dawn Volkman, 28, an administrative assistant at Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute. "He tries hard. It's like, would you rather have a student who tries hard or a bright one who's kind of sarcastic? The Road Runner is just lucky. It's a Generation X thing to feel this way. Gen-Xers think the boomers had it too easy, no responsibility."
In New York, the founding statement of a Generation X group called Third Millennium states: "Like Wile E. Coyote waiting for a 20 ton Acme anvil to fall on his head, our generation labors in the expanding shadow of a monstrous national debt. . . . For too long, we as a nation have failed to exercise self-control. We've trashed the ethic of individual responsibility."
Responsibility is an elusive idea for a Road Runner generation that perfected the whine as a communications device powered by shrink-wrapped beliefs that the world was trying to violate its right to stay tuned to a psychic station that was all happy, all the time, like the Road Runner.
What a glorious illusion.
One of my freshmen, Alec Patton, born in 1980, theorized that the '60s were the exception. He said: "The Coyote is a much more compelling personality than the Road Runner, who is merely a prop for the Coyote. My guess would be that basic human identification would be with the Coyote."
Patton's guess turns out to be supported by Warner Bros. creator Chuck Jones, who laid down "disciplines" for the cartoon when he began producing them in 1949. According to "That's All Folks: The Art of Warner Bros. Animation," by Steve Schneider, five of the disciplines were: "The cartoons are set in the desert of the American Southwest; the Road Runner never leaves the road; never is there dialogue; the Coyote is never injured by the Road Runner; and the audience's sympathy must remain with the Coyote."
Jones himself has written that Wile E. Coyote derives from his boyhood reading of Mark Twain's description of the coyote with its "despairing expression of forsakenness and misery, a furtive and evil eye . . . he is always poor, out of luck and friendless." Jones commented: "I was beginning to believe that I was a failure in life, and to find a colorfully inept companion was a happy and stunning surprise."
How strange that the cartoon worked for Road Runner sympathizers, too. And how strange that these characters are so fiercely etched into our brains. The cartoon was rarely anybody's favorite, and Jones made only about 30 of them.
Explanation: The cartoon is simple and universal enough to work for almost anyone: no language, one character with one appetite and one fate, another character who's merely a force, a condition, an unattainable goal with a ridiculous smile and a nasal cry of "Beep beep." In critical jargon, the cartoon is a polysemic open text, meaning that it can mean almost anything you want it to mean. For instance:
The Road Runner is the impossible dream of Don Quixote, a Platonic goal of goals, a Holy Grail to the Coyote's Parsifal, God's blessing to the Coyote's Job. The Road Runner is a child of nature uncorrupted by civilization as symbolized by the Coyote. The Coyote is the American military, and the Road Runner is the Viet Cong. The Coyote can stand for a sort of Freudian resurrection. He rises from his deadly plunges, anvil-poundings, truck-crushings and backfires to stand before us as an immortal neurotic who does the same thing again and again, expecting different results. His only joy seems to be in his work and in his faith in the ever-disappointing Acme Co. He is Sisyphus sentenced to push the rock up the mountain, and the rock, in the manner of an Acme product, always rolls back to the bottom.
To old Road Runner types, the cartoon was an anti-technological parable. But to technologists of the information age, the Coyote is the patron saint of mad scientists and garage software designers whom the hotshots always thought of as nerds. Nerd power! Who can afford to ignore that kid with the calculator in his pocket and a safety pin holding his glasses together?
Nerd power may beget Coyote sympathy. Also, political correctness has taught for years that virtue lies only in the powerless, the frustrated losers.
"No student argues from a position of strength anymore," said Timothy Burke, 34, a history professor at Swarthmore College and the author, with his brother Kevin, of "Saturday Morning Fever," about cartoons. "Nobody says, 'I'm with the winner.' There's an atmosphere of neurotic cheerlessness on campuses. They all have a sense of their relative marginality. It's very strange--you see these students who will be running the country soon, and they all claim to be oppressed. Everybody imagines a mainstream against which they're opposed, but in fact, the mainstream doesn't exist at all."
"The Coyote is not a villain. He just wants something," Chuck Jones said. He's 87 and still works in the animation industry in California. The Coyote may always fail to get what he wants, he said, but "we're all much more familiar with failure. The Coyote keeps ordering things from Acme because he's familiar with them. When I was a kid in the '20s, every Saturday you'd see everybody out in their driveways, trying to fix their cars, which were always broken. The next time, they'd always buy the same car because they were familiar with it."
Informed that kids nowadays identify with the Coyote, Jones said "they're growing up." But he's aware that not all grown-ups, or kids, will take the same side. Told that boy billionaire Michael Saylor, 34, of Virginia's MicroStrategy, has sent word that he's a "Road Runner, all the way," Jones wasn't surprised. "Of course!" he said. "Nobody can touch him. Bill Gates and those guys are Road Runners."
Another sea change happening? Another marginalization? A new business book is called "Beep-Beep: Competing in the Age of the Road Runner." One of the authors, Chip R. Bell, said, "What's important here is that the Road Runner doesn't really rely on speed; it relies on agility. It operates in the big picture; it's focused forward. Wile E. Coyote is so focused on the bird that he can't see what's happening. He relies on sole-source supplies. He never learns from his mistakes. He's always grim, and the Road Runner is all about joy. Michael Dell, of Dell computers, is a Road Runner. So is Richard Teerlink, the chairman of Harley-Davidson. Those kids protesting up in Seattle? They were all Coyotes, no creativity."
Bell is 55, deep in the heart of the Road Runner generation himself. His next book will be called "Wisdom of the Wabbit" and will teach leadership lessons learned from Bugs Bunny.
Does this mean that the kids in Seattle, along with my students at Maryland, are Elmer Fudds? Hardly. But you never know. Do you identify with the Hanna-Barbera cat, Mr. Jinks ("I hate meeses to pieces"), or the mice, Pixie and Dixie? Tweety or Sylvester, Tom or Jerry? Which side are you on?
CAPTION: Hard on the heels of the carefree Road Runner, the essential spirit of the anti-Establishment boomers, is the none-too-wily Coyote, a metaphor for the oppressed Gen-X.