John Wilcock column header


The Column of Lasting Insignificance: August 16, 2008

Wed., Feb. 4, 1959: I’d been saving this clip from the Times in which Lt. General Clarence B. Huebner, director of the State Civil Defense Commission, predicted that within five years “most Americans would be living in fallout shelters and would see sunshine only by taking a calculated risk.  Underground living would be enforced, he said by the grim realities of a world in which even small countries would possess standardized intercontinental ballistic missiles…

I felt I had to see the general and ask if he meant what he said.  He does.  He stayed at his office after hours to give me a thorough rundown of the state’s civil defense system, which looks very elaborate and will doubtless save many lives if there is ever an attack.  But will it save enough and will anything make it worth spending all our lives in shelter?  I raised these questions but the general seemed to feel I had the wrong attitude.  His aide asked:  “What would you have us do — abandon everything?”

I don’t know how to answer that question.  I suppose it’s inarguable that if there’s going to be war, we have to try to defend ourselves, however ineffectual such a defense might be.  But I think my quarrel is with the assumption about WHEN the war is going to be rather than IF.  The general, of course, is in the position that to do his job well he has to frighten people out of an apathy which he confesses causes him alarm.

He said he thought the press had a definite responsibility to bring these matters to public attention and called me “emotionally sick” after I questioned the wisdom of pouring even more of our taxes into air raid shelters.  For all I know, he may be right. Certainly, these matters make me emotionally upset.

+         +         +

Greed (like jealousy) would make an excellent subject for a lengthy thesis, and there are fine examples in the papers every day.  Last week the Times reported the case of a man in Saddle River, N. J., whose friend’s will included a bequest for him to buy himself a new car.  The scrooge bought himself an $18,700 Bentley, sent the bill to the executors, and sued them when they refused to pay.  The court, happily, upheld their refusal.  Go peddle your Bentley, Buster.

+         +         +

If you’ve ever been at Idlewild Airport when Swarms of photographers were busily banging away at some schnook whose name means nothing to you, what you have probably witnessed is one of the imaginative operations of the National Nonentity Service.

NNS exists solely to inject a little color and prestige into the humdrum lives of people who have nothing but money; the client needs only pay a handsome fee for the ego-building process to begin.  After two or three expensive — but tax-deductible — years’ fees, he’s still a nonentity, of course, but people KNOW him.

The president and founder of NNS, a former nonentity himself, says:  “There is almost no limit to the things we can do to make a nonentity feel important, just so long as he can afford to pay.  Photographers meeting him at the airport…flowers delivered to his hotel room, with ambiguously written cards he can show to his friends…starlets posing with him for publicity pictures.

“We recently negotiated a tie-in with a vanity press whereby subsidy authors can dedicate their books to our fine roster of nonentities, and, although nobody buys the books, we let the client have a few dozen at trade prices.”

Some of the operations of NNS are particularly ingenious.  The vast quantities of liquor that have to be bought to get the nonentity’s pictures into the whiskey-endorsement ads, for example, are not wasted; they are saved until NNS manages to bribe enough thirsty reporters to attend a press conference (at which the nonentity announces the latest award he has been given by some non-existent association).

“In addition to such routine duties as getting our clients interviewed on daytime radio shows and having garden clubs name new hybrids after him,” says NNS president, “we are also able to offer a special service to clients who are troubled by feelings of sexual inadequacy.”

“This aspect of our work is handled by our ‘Romantic-Linking’ department, which devotes its time to getting nonentities linked romantically with the names of celebrated female charmers.   In the earlier stages, we find that our nonentity is quite content with the brief notation, in one of the syndicated columns, that he has been seen with a certain bosomy star.  Later, however, it becomes necessary for an affidavit to appear in print stating categorically that his name has been ‘linked romantically’ with that of the female personality.

“And, as a further progression, we can sometimes bribe the star to state publicly — and accurately — that there is no truth to the rumors.  That almost always gets both of their pictures in the newspapers.”

NNS fees are high, but the people who have only money pay willingly.

+         +         +

A few weeks ago I installed one of those recording devices on my telephone—the Bell system rents them for $12.50 a month — and since then I’ve been having a great deal of fun when I get home at night, playing back the messages people leave for me.  Anyone who calls my home number when I’m out hears my recorded voice and has about twenty seconds in which to leave a message of his own.  Many of the callers make wisecracks about how they’re coming to me in “live, stereophonic color:” or about how they want to be my “first poison-pen telephone call.”

There aren’t too many of these machines in use — around two thousand in the N.Y.C. area — but a Bell official, while giving me a brief tour of a roomful of softly purring devices last week, told me about some of their varied uses.

“Sometimes the answering machines are used for purposes we can’t condone,” he said.  “Like the girl who was offering sexy pictures of herself until the Post Office stopped it.  But on the other hand, there’s a bird-watchers group in Boston that leaves a recorded message about what’s been sighted lately, churches that offer prayers of the day, movies with time schedules, stores announcing bargain items, groups giving fishing information and highway conditions, and an association up in Westchester that provides the latest stock  market news.”

The whole subject’s very interesting.  I think, and there’s almost no limit to the sort of taped messages I could leave for callers.  Wouldn’t you like to call up and hear me reciting a brief poem to a jazz background?  Or to find out where there was a party next Saturday?  I could leave a definite and final word that No, I do NOT know about any vacant apartments (contrary to popular belief) or simply record the terse message: “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.”

Carole Janeway, a Village ceramist, also has one of these recording devices, and we’ve discussed the possibility of getting the two machines to talk to each other—so far without success.  Carole, incidentally, ends all her recorded messages with a commercial.  The current one is:  “And remember, the road to heaven is paved with Janeway tiles.”

[from The Village Square by John Wilcock (Lyle Stuart, 1961)]

[John Wilcock is currently cruising the Dalmatian coast]