Grief and memory. And sometimes surprise. I don’t usually write prose, because I think prose writing requires a special facility with the materials of memory that I lack. Sentences oblige a retrospective completeness of vision I can’t usually coax into words. Subject predicates object, but subordinate clauses intervene. And still, subject and object must float on thewy tethers. Usually, I tarry in the fragments of memory or drill into them without meaning to.
Here, however, I aim to write about the hall of fame. Technically, the hall of fame I’m interested in is mine, and I’ll explain this, but it’s also something that belonged to an “us,” or even to an “other,” which no longer exists. The hall still exists. Last I checked, it was sitting in my old bedroom in my parent’s house. But its meaning is interior to me now and something I’m not sure I understand.
Hence an essay. Hence this prose.
In general, halls of fame are weird things. John D’Agata has written about them because he likes weird things that tell us something surprising about ourselves as a culture. Usually, halls of fame commemorate and/or promote something otherwise on the verge of oblivion. Retired shortstops. My hometown hosts the International Towing and Recovery Hall of Fame. This is a fact I don’t know what to make of.
I think halls of fame have always been as marginal as they sought to be central. Consider the world’s first hall of fame (number 1, I guess, in the hall-of-fame-of-halls-of-fame), the so-called “Forum Augustum.” There, as has typically been the case since, architecture was employed to solidify a specific historical narrative (the prominent place of Augustus [né Octavian] among the great heroes of Rome). That narrative, like the one behind most halls, stressed how important the interested party was to history more generally.
Sadly, at least for the interested parties, even architecture falls apart, and memory—even that most distended of all its institutional forms, commemorated by stone and concrete—falls with it. Octavian’s ur-hall of fame is a ruin, and we don’t even know what he really called the place.
Our sense of fame’s meaning is derived from its ancient etymological trace (ancient Greek, “to speak”) and also from association with “reputation” (i.e., the condition of being spoken about). This should surprise no one.
Sometimes, fame forgets the words but keeps on speaking. Sometimes, it’s spoken over. In the 6th Century, the catholic church built a monastery on top of most of the Forum Augustum — different kind of hall for a different kind of fame.
Today, I’m writing from a house that belongs to a couple of friends. One of these friends is in the hospital with a very serious brain injury. I’m here to make sure the painters and the window cleaners do their job and get paid. My healthy friend is visiting my injured friend. My injured friend doesn’t remember her name right now. So, it feels oddly appropriate to be thinking about what I’m thinking about here in their dining room.
As I tried to tell the window cleaner what to do, I couldn’t help thinking about the petty operations of forgetting and recollection that usually go into arranging repairs and renovations. The logistics, of course: planning ahead, remembering to have someone on site, etc. But also the little surprise (even though you arranged the whole thing) of coming home to find something changed in the place you live. “Oh, yeah, the window cleaners came. Now, the windows will all be clean.” We could call this a new fame, what the windows now say to you when you come home. “I’ve been cleaned.”
Maybe I’m stretching. When my injured friend comes home, however, many weeks or months from now, I wonder what the house will say to her? The hall, in this case the house, is in great shape. It is being actively maintained all around me. But, how many of its words will she be able to hear?
D’Agata says halls of fame are elegiac. I’d say they’re apocalyptic.
It’s important to point out that I don’t view apocalypse as an entirely bad thing. Leaning on etymology again, I’ll say it’s about “disclosure” (towing and recovery?) as much or more than it is about destruction. But, it’s about destruction, too. As a result, there’s some lament in halls of fame … some elegy, but most of all there is something like the completeness of a good sentence.
When I was a kid, my best friend was a genius. When we were teenagers, he betrayed me. Now, he’s dead. He left lots of relics. Some memories. A hall of fame.
He and I were born at the very beginning of the 1970s, as was a line of toys made by a company called Mego. The most famous Mego toys were probably their superhero figures, but they basically translated every 70s pop culture phenomenon into doll form. According to Wikipedia, “the secret of Mego's success” lay in a combination of interchangeable heads, generic bodies, and custom costumes. They did not make the Evel Knievel figure that every 70s boy had (that was a company called Ideal Toys), but Mego did make other figures just like him. By 1975, they were making Muhammad Ali, Planet of the Apes, The Waltons, the Wizard of Oz, and most importantly for this essay, Star Trek. In addition to these figures, Mego made a Star Trek-themed playset that was meant to serve as a metonymic embodiment of the U.S.S. Enterprise. I think I had the second iteration (1976) of this set. I don’t remember getting it, and I can’t imagine why I was given it, except that I know my Dad thought the show was cool. I also had the kid-sized Star Trek phaser pistol…
At some point in 1979, I traded the playset to my friend Nate, the genius. I don’t remember what I got in return. I only remember the feeling of surprise and desire overwhelming me when I saw what he had done with his end of the trade.
Most of 1979 is a blur for me now, but basically everything I do remember is related to some combination of Nate and/or football. For example, I remember the made-for-TV version of Salem’s Lot, which I watched at Nate’s house, and which haunted me during several subsequent years of insomnia. I also remember Nate and his Dad rooting for the Oakland Raiders and mocking my Pittsburgh Steelers (e.g., “those guys are so broke they can’t even afford a logo for the left side of their helmets”). The Steelers won the Super Bowl that year, for the fourth time in five years. I remember that.
I also vividly remember the phrase “NFL ‘79,” which is what NBC called its NFL coverage, hosted by the young Bryant Gumbel. Those were the words neatly written in sharpie on the top of the erstwhile Star Trek playset once Nate had transformed it into the “NFL Hall of Fame.”
Really exploring my feelings about Nate would take more than one essay, but here are some important stats, mostly corresponding to years 1979-1983 (ages 8-12):
--An amazing free-hand illustrator and a terrible speller. Dismissive of the former gift, explosively defensive about the latter deficit.
--Southern by the curse of God. (Like me, he was born in the Midwest but raised in Tennessee by “yankee” parents).
--Preoccupied with Pandas. Founding and sole member of “The Panda Club.”
--Middle name: “Che.” Very defensive about this.
--Meticulous about his signature, which he appended to each of his drawings. Especially scrupulous about the proper spelling of his last name, ending with an “el” rather than an “le.” Part of Nate’s (and thus our) preoccupation with Bryant Gumbel stemmed from the “bel” their names had in common.
--Attached mystical significant to the numbers “4,” “7,” and “47.” Hence, hall-of-famer Mel Blount (who wore jersey number 47) was Nate’s favorite Steeler (even though Nate did not like the Steelers). Around 2003, shortly before he killed himself, Nate was producing a lot of collage work under the moniker NathanChe47. He sent me a small one that featured Mel Blount (on which he had forged Mel Blount’s signature).
--Somnambulist. Very defensive about this.
--Devotee of Hanna-Barbera oeuvre and visual style. Co-founder, with me, of Gabel-McCollough studios (see, Panda Club).
--Critic of racial injustice as he understood it as an 8-12 year old in Chattanooga, TN. Fan of William Tecumseh Sherman. Another part of Nate’s (and thus our) preoccupation with Bryant Gumbel stemmed from his being black, a pretty rare thing for a TV commentator to be in 1979.
--Precocious fan of punk music, especially Devo and the Ramones. An inordinate proportion of Nate’s many inside jokes with himself involved the terms “spudboy” or “pinhead.” Jocko Homo… Gabba gabba, Hey!
--Son of a professional hot air balloonist.
--Stopped going to the bathroom to urinate for about a year following his Mom’s re-marriage. Instead, he pissed in a corner.
--During 1980-1981, repeatedly molested by his male babysitter. I know this because he was the only person I told about an almost identical series of incidents in my life. As it turned out, his babysitter and my babysitter were best friends.
--As inspiring to me as anyone I’ve ever known or studied.
I feel like I’ve thrown molestation out there in a way that isn’t totally fair. I feel this way any time I ever mention it to anyone.
It should be shocking. It sucked for us. But, I don’t really think that thing that happened to us was much more dramatically damaging than other things we endured or were born with. Indeed, I remember our shared sense that there had been remarkable pleasure in it… that we’d only known it was wrong after we’d received the decalogue-like injunction: “Don’t tell anyone.” This made the pleasure putrid. It made us blame ourselves.
We each knew at that moment that a hall of fame could be an awful place — an echo chamber of our own not telling.
But the hall of fame, the true and good one, was a work of art. Before I knew anything about Harold Finster, Sabato Rodia, or the concept of bricolage which has been so crucial to my sense of what makes life worth living, Nate took a dumb, mass-produced toy, one in which I’d lost all interest, and turned it into what Deleuze and Guattari would’ve called a “desiring machine.”
In order to appreciate the hall of fame fully, one has to accept and appreciate the depth of imaginative possibility that the NFL represented to an 8-year old boy like the one I was. Probably, one would have to have been me.
That depth, therefore, may only be available as a given.
So what did he do? He started with a 12 x 12 x 12 inch, vinyl-and-cardboard-pentagon, which opened out on one side to reveal 4 interior spaces (a weird “transporter room,” a wide, open floor, a control room, and another multipurpose room).
His adaptations were pretty simple. He began with The Great NFL Fun Book, which both of us had bought at our annual Scholastic™ elementary school book fair. This book was not that fun, but it was great. What made it great were the full-color illustrations of all 28 NFL team uniforms, modeled by a total of maybe 4 dudes (plus full-color details of all 28 NFL helmets). Nate and I had spent hours discussing the nuances of every uniform. In turn, we designed uniforms for our own teams in our own imaginary league, the AFA: American Football Association (his main contribution: the Alaska Huskies; mine: the Honolulu Volcanoes).
He lined the outside of the closed pentagon with pictures of all the uniformed dudes, which he had carefully cut from the pages of The Great NFL Fun Book. The effect was comparable to that produced by the statuary inhabiting the perimeters of Roman fora. At once, it drew attention to the varied splendor of each of the NFL’s heroic lineages and also presented a myriad army of guardians.
He ripped out the transporter contraption (actually the neatest aspect of the original toy, which megomuseum.com describes as “one of Mego's greatest contributions to the toy industry”). He threw out all the other furniture (including a Captain’s chair, a control panel, and three interchangeable images for the “Telescreen”). He converted this “Telescreen” into a scoreboard and turned the open floor into a football field by a) inscribing it with yard-lines in sharpie and b) incising the vinyl cover so he could situate a smart-looking Raiders’ helmet in profile at the 50-yard-line.
He cut other pictures (black and white) out of The Great NFL Fun Book. George Blanda was one. I think O.J. Simpson was another. These he taped in prominent interior surfaces to obscure evidence of the hall’s Star Trek past.
In order to keep up with my injured friend’s progress, I have to depend more or less on a website. It’s kind of like a blog. On it, my healthy friend describes the latest developments. This is a weird way to experience worry and hope. I can’t ask the blog any questions. It only tells me what my healthy friend tells it to tell me. I can’t help feeling like something important is not being communicated.
Still, when there is good news I’m elated. When there is bad news, I’m dismayed.
Either way, a new post tends to make me want to get drunk.
The most important feature of Nate’s hall of fame was probably the “football guys” he made. Basically, these started out as Mego figures (like Superman and Spock). Nate cut their fabric outfits at the elbows and knees. Then he fitted them with miniature helmets, which could be obtained for a quarter from gumball-style vending machines at Hills department store (“According to legend, little folk know, Hills is where the toys are!”). These helmets were oversized for the football guys, but Nate remedied the problem with Sanford kneaded eraser (also known as “gummy eraser”), an element that already loomed unaccountably large in the elementary school imagination. This eraser made the helmet stick fast to the football guys’ heads.
The hall of fame served as a backdrop for football guy-related events. Mainly, these events were “hall of fame games,” played on the field Nate had marked out on the open area of the former Star Trek playset. Yes, at some level this was all a ruse meant to enable us boys to play with dolls. But the Mego toys had already achieved that ruse, as had Star Wars figures, etc. For me, the powerful thing was in the deviation from the script. I admit to ingenuousness, but the NFL felt like an open imaginative landscape. I think it was my fantasy of autonomous adulthood.
Nate and I were both vexed that none of our Mego figures were black. Had we known there was a Muhammad Ali figure out there, this would have been an easy fix. But, the closest I could come was my Spiderman figure. He had a red head. In what can only be understood as a failure of comprehension, I saw him as the best candidate for racial transformation. Even more embarrassingly, I deemed a black permanent marker appropriate to the task.
To my credit, I found the results immediately disappointing.
The following Christmas, I was astonished to find an “official” version of Nate’s innovation in the Sears wishbook. A company called Pro Sport Marketing had been manufacturing the “NFL Action Team Mates” line of figures since 1977, but neither of us had ever noticed. All 28 teams were represented (as were white and black skin types). Also, these “football guys,” as we continued to call them, came with a sheet of adhesive numbers, so you could change the identity of the player every once and a while. Each of us got two for Christmas. Steelers. Raiders. Black and white.
These figures were much more satisfying at some level (their helmets fit perfectly), but clearly they weren’t important in the way the original “football guys” had been. At the same time, they made impossible to go back. Kirk in a mutilated uniform was only that.
I can’t say I played with the hall of fame ceaselessly or that it obviated my need for any subsequent toys. I can say that it’s the one toy that still holds significant meaning for me at 40. This has everything to do with the fact that it was a product of Nate’s imaginative intervention.
Obviously, I had been exposed to handmade toys on occasion. But to me, the limber jack and the hooey stick were just depressing. The difference in this case had something to do with need. Nate and I didn’t simply need distracting, we needed something to play with that spoke to our imaginative world. Sadly, perhaps, the NFL was the richest vein in that world at the time.
When Nate’s hall of fame spoke, it didn’t really say anything about history or statistical supremacy. It said, “anything in the world can be a textile.” It helped me see that what mattered to me was also something I could enter and change. Text-, participle stem of tex-ĕre, to weave.
My old friend is dead. I drink to him.
My injured friend is in an uncertain state, and I drink to her, too.
None of us is important to history.
This is why I do not write prose.
Too much fabric. Too many words.
Temples to commemorate. Toys.