When I was a boy in the fifties, nothing was more dear to my heart than a Saturday matinee at The Birmingham. The theater’s very name, like those of so many similarly ornate movie palaces built in the twenties, conjured up images of taste, refinement, and wretched decorative excess. This particular example happened to be named for my hometown, Birmingham, a refuge for the patrician classes located safely north of Detroit. Those with long memories will recall that Detroit was once the Rome of the industrialized world, ruled by a triumvirate of the Big Three automakers. The economic health of the entire galaxy seemed to be pegged to how many cars the city fathers churned out, and The Birmingham accordingly styled itself as Circus Maximus.
Of course, on Saturday afternoons it was just another suburban movie house screening B movies with Ronald Reagan, Alan Ladd, and Steve Reeves, but my friends and I were not drawn by the prospect of seeing Hercules And The Sabine Sheep. We were there to exercise physically the ideals of masculinity these films presented: raw, unblinking courage, male bonding, the joy of combat, the thrill of mayhem. Specifically, we were there to discharge beans through plastic bean shooters at whatever ambled into our imaginary cross hairs: uniformed ushers, schoolmates, harried housewives in charge of a gaggle of Brownies — and, of course, Ronald Reagan, Alan Ladd, and Steve Reeves.
One Saturday, the management of the theater came up with a swell idea. They would have the kids save their ticket stubs, and during intermission, the owner of the lucky ticket would win a toy boat. This boat could be described only as a very rich kid’s toy boat: an only slightly smaller-than-life-sized replica of the Queen Mary. It took the theater’s strongest, biggest usher to manhandle the thing around. It was red, white, and black, with deck piled on deck like a floating wedding cake, and lights inside, and brass propeller screws. The Great Ocean Liner Giveaway was advertised with colorful posters at the brass-bedecked theater entrance and grandly announced over the house PA before the first feature.
I don’t recall what film was showing that day. I like to remember it as a John Wayne epic, fairly spurting with cinematic testosterone. My platoon was too busy pelting uniformed enemy personnel and innocent bystanders alike with a merciless fusillade of navy beans. The cavernous Birmingham held more than a thousand kids, so there was plenty of chaos to camouflage our bean-shooter blitzkrieg. There’s nothing like the havoc wreaked by smooth-bore bean shooters in the free-fire zone of a dark, crowded, noisy theater.
A veteran bean shooter could cram maybe fifty small-caliber navy beans into his mouth at once. Prior to firing, and rather like in making soup, the beans had to soak — in spit — for a good five minutes. This not only lubricated the ammo, but slightly wrinkled its outer jacket, thus leaving the armor-piercing interior of the bean hard as a stone while the wrinkles assured a smoother seal once the round was chambered. This was important, since we were forced to use sawed-off bean shooters, half their normal length, in order to get them into the theater undetected.
Once the ammo was properly saturated (hopefully with minimal accidental slippage down the esophagus), there were two modes of operation. The experienced sharpshooter could chamber one round at a time in the curl of the tongue for precision fire. Those with especially agile and muscular tongues could hit the fanny on a passing target a good four footlights down the aisle. Most of us preferred the more masculine approach: full auto, “Kill ’em all and let God sort ’em out.” No chambering; just squash the fifty beans up against the breach and blow! Sure, there was a loss of velocity, but the sheer volume of fire (and spit) was fearsome to behold.
After about ninety minutes of carnage among competing outfits, intermission was announced. The lights came up and a cease-fire went into effect. Now the sixtyish manager of The Birmingham and his Herculean usher toting the Queen Mary took the stage. Draining and cleaning my weapon, I took in the scene and received an indelible image of what can only be called dreadful pathos.
The theater manager must have been born no later than 1900. He had witnessed two World Wars and lived through the Great Depression. He had seen America rise to the pinnacle of power and influence around the globe, with all roads (or at least the cars on them) leading to Detroit. Now he stood before Birmingham’s little princes, a seething, energetic mass of color and noise on the royal scarlet floor below him. This was the future! And wait till they got a load of this boat, this boat he would have killed his mother for, this fantastic . . . this huge . . . this . . .
Although the firing had stopped when the lights came up, the din had increased. Kids were standing in their seats, meandering to the concession stand and back, yelling across the breadth of the theater. Since the mere sight of the leviathan ocean liner had failed to grab our attention, the stalwart manager tried the house PA. This focused attention, but it was all negative, boos and hisses. Shut up and get back to the movie! The manager could barely be heard above the roaring scorn. Valiantly, he called out a few ticket numbers, but the whirlwind of rebuke and slander only raged more fiercely. Finally, he gave up in disgust, signaling for young Hercules to bear the great ship away.
Having watched in fascination up till now, I headed for the concession stand to get something to rid my mouth of the starchy taste of uncooked beans. On the way, I passed the manager, with his assistant and Queen Mary puffing along behind. I will never forget the look in the old man’s eyes.
The real gift he had given us post-war princes that day was one we had all too eagerly grasped: an opportunity to boo a gray-haired father figure off the stage, knowing there wasn’t a damn thing he could do to a mob of paying customers. Our dads would have slapped us silly for any such behavior. My own father was an ex-RCAF/Marine Corps fighter jock. He would have made me eat my whole kit — beans, shooter, and all. But here, in the safety of numbers, we adolescent boys could abuse our fathers through this little manager and his big Queen Mary. Many of us had toys like this at home breeding mosquitoes in the back yard. Those who didn’t were just as adamant: think you’re going to buy off our hostility with a toy?!
The American Dream always had a fatal, amoral flaw in its aggressive, unquestioning, distinctly masculine promotion of material acquisition for its own sake.
Poet Robert Bly likes to quote Jeffrey Gore, who suggests that in order to become an American, first of all you have to reject your father. You don’t need to attack him; ridicule is sufficient. We ridiculed this gray-haired praetor of the Empire with a vengeance. On my way to the concession stand, I saw his hurt; even worse, behind the hurt, I saw bewilderment.
In his day, the awarding of a prize like the Queen Mary would probably have been anticipated with awe and silence. He, the giver of the prize, would have been respected and cheered. Now, for some inexplicable reason, all that was changed. Who were these kids — these spoiled rotten brats? What would they become? Could this possibly be the sacred issue of the loins of American triumph?
I wondered at the time if I was the only one to notice anything wrong. I had actually started to feel sorry for the guy when I saw the lights going down. But my brothers in arms were waiting. There was a war to fight, pilgrim!
Later there was another. Some members of my boyhood platoon, in accordance with the will of their real gray-haired fathers, went off to fight in Vietnam. Recently, one came to visit me for a few days. He had begun to drink. After all this time his own combat memories were stirring, none of them involving navy beans. He related one in particular. There was some hand-to-hand fighting after both sides had run out of bullets, and my friend had to kill a Vietnamese teenager no older than himself with his Marine-issue knife. It was night, and he had to stare close into the kid’s eyes with each thrust and twist to see if he was dead yet. After twenty-two years, the kid’s eyes had begun to stare back.
I wept on hearing this. Later, for some ludicrous reason, I remembered the look in the eyes of the theater manager at The Birmingham. My recollection was trivial by comparison, and yet a comparison was so compelling that I was forced to recall the whole silly affair in poignant detail. I’m still not sure why.
Surely, in the fifties, we had no idea what we were so pissed off about. But something was awry even then to occasion such universal, mindless hostility. By the sixties, of course, we felt more than an inkling of our fathers’ betrayal. By now, I think, the sense of betrayal is complete, and perhaps betrayal lies at the heart of it all.
Rome had a thousand years to rise and fall. We seem to be witnessing the same process within the span of a single generation. The American Dream always had a fatal, amoral flaw in its aggressive, unquestioning, distinctly masculine promotion of material acquisition for its own sake — a flaw even spoiled adolescent bean shooters could have recognized. Why not? Who would know better than spoiled brats that material acquisition was meaningless? We had stuff — lots of it. Stuff did not — does not — satisfy. The spoils of empire, in ascendance or in decline, merely spoil.