The whole thing happened in one of those two-story planes they built to make you forget that you're five miles up in the air. I had just settled into a chair and opened a magazine when who should appear but Jo Jo White, standing half-naked in his little white cotton underpants with a towel wrapped around his neck.

Now, let me explain. I am not the sort of person who even fantasizes about encountering strange men in their underwear on planes, trains, etc. The one time I was sent to interview a houseful of nudists I broke the Guinness Book of Records record for maintaining eye contact. I leave the rest to Erica Jong, who has a less conventional fear of flying than I do.

But Jo Jo was not alone. He was to the right of Denis Potvin and above Pete Rose, happily occupying a page in the middle of a respectable national newsweekly that is not called VIVA. In short, there were eight male athletes posing in their little nothings for a Jockey and over a cutline that read: "Take away Their Uniforms and Who Are They?"

Well, it seems that Ken Anderson is a Fun Top and Jim Hart is a Slim Guy Boxer. The only one who was fit to be seen in public was Jamaal Wikes, who looked as if he were merely wearing a uniform of a different color. As for Jim Palmer's teeny-weeny green print bikini, his "Skants" were a scandal. Is it possible that he was not raised under the 11th commandment; Thou Shalt Not Go Out of the House in Unseemly undergarments Lest Thou Get in an Accident.

What were these jocks for Jockey doing - aside earning a lifetime supply of undies? What were they doing wearing hockey gloves and blue denim bikinis in front of millions of Americans?

They were being paid to convince the rest of the male population that it's okay to buy items they wouldn't have been caught dead in at 15. At that age, the average American male already had a conditioned response to anything that looked fancy, sexy or smelled good. That response was to the single word imprinted in the playgrounds of their minds: SISSY.

As the mere sound of sibilant S, strong men pulled their bodies into grey flannel like terrified turtles, shaved their heads to within an inch of their lives and learned how to remove each other's teeth with a single blow.

But over the past handful of years men have been urged by women and assorted merchants to adopt a variety of products that were once verboten. The more questionable the origin of the product, the more they were sold as maler-than-male.

Pocketbooks were not, gasp, pocketbooks, but tote bags and carry-alls designed to look like saddle bags for the Marlboro Man's horse or tackle boxes for the fisherman. Men wrote articles to each other about how to carry them - carefully - in a distinctively male over-the-shoulder fashion, as opposed to a female over-the-shoulder fashion.

It was obvious that if you wanted to sell men anything even vaguely neuter, you had to inject it with visual and verbal testosterone. Jewelry, for instance, could be sold either in the garrote chain style or as medallions heavy enough to double as a mace. Rings were popular in the brass-knuckle fashion; bracelets that looked like recycled handcuffs were also all right.

Perfume - forgive me - Male Cologne, was re-packaged and re-baptized. It became something like promise-him-anything-but-give-him Hai Karate, and then came Macho, a perfume in a bottle the shape of which will never appear in this family newspaper.

But nothing has worked quite as well in the fight against Sissy stuff as the jock. No one kicks sand in the face of a superstar. Dave Kopay's efforts notwithstanding, an athletic endorsement is as effective in fighting the old conditioned response as an Anita Bryant seal of approval.

Joe Namath sold pantyhose before he turned brute, or should I say, Brut. Pete Rose took to Qqua Velva before he stripped down to his Metrie Briefs. (From the look of him in the briefs, I suspect he signed the modeling contract.)

The more things change in male decor, the more they stay the same in the ads. The more androgynous the product, the more macho the role-model. So progress inches forward, or downward, to the Tropez Brief. As a trend watcher might suggest, it's only a matter of time before we have Doctor Julius Erving, the basketball superstar, selling eyeliner under the brand name "Sado." In the meantime I wish Jo Jo White's mother would cover the poor boy up. It must be cold in a Boeing 747 wearing just a pair of white briefs and a towel.

1977, The Boston Globe Newspaper Company