Back in the 1960s, one of the great animated TV shows was Rocky and Bullwinkle; if you are too young to have seen those shows, you missed a lot. One of the features on that show was Mr. Peabody (a dog) and his sidekick Sherman (a boy) who used a time-travel device called The Wayback Machine to go back in history and to observe what “really happened” surrounding historical events.
Today, I want to take a trip in The Wayback Machine – not to look at the trappings of history but to try to show how a wonderful work of fiction in the past can portend reality in the present. I am going to set our version of The Wayback Machine to 1972 when Dan Jenkins first published his novel, Semi-Tough. If you are a sports fan and you have not read this book, you really need to do so. [Warning: The language in Semi-Tough is incredibly politically incorrect by today’s standards; it was improper in polite company in the 1960s; I suspect it reflected the language of the locker-room in the 1960s rather well.] Dan Jenkins has been and continues to be an elite writer.
The premise of Semi-Tough is that one of the players on the NY Giants, Billy Clyde Puckett, is keeping a diary of the lead-up to a Super Bowl Game some time in the future that the Giants will play against the “dog-ass New York Jets”. Part of that “diary” describes what the Giants’ coach, Shoat Cooper, told his team to expect as part of the ceremonial pageantry accompanying the game. This was in 1972; this was fiction. Now look at Dan Jenkins’ words, which I will liberally quote here, and ask yourself just how far from reality he was with his images:
“In the serious part of the squad meeting, Shoat Cooper explained to us what the drill would be for Sunday. In terms of what time everything would occur.
“Shoat said we would start getting our ankles taped at eight o’clock tomorrow morning. Those that needed special braces and pads taped on, he said, ought to get to the taping room thirty minutes early…
“He said we would leave for the Los Angeles Coliseum at about ten-thirty. It would be about eleven-fifteen when we got there, he said, and that would give us plenty of time. ‘Time to get frisky for them piss ants,’ he said.
“The kickoff wasn’t until one-fifteen he pointed out. It had been set back fifteen minutes by CBS, he said, in order for the network to finish up a news special it was doing on some kind of earthquake that wiped out several hundred thousand chinks somewhere yesterday…
“Shoat said that both the offense and the defense would be introduced, on both teams, for television before the game. He said we should line up under the goal post that would be appointed to us and carry our hats under our arms when we trotted out to our own forty-five yardline and faced the dog-ass Jets and stood there for the ‘Star Spangled Banner.’
“That would be the last thing we would do before kickoff, Shoat said…
“Shoat said we might have a long time to lay around the dressing room after we warmed up because the National Football League had a fairly lavish pregame show planned.
“Shoat said he understood that both the pregame show and the halftime show would have a patriotic flavor…
“According to Shoat, here’s what was going to happen before the game:
“Several hundred trained birds – all painted red white and blue – would be released from cages somewhere and they would fly over the coliseum in the formation of an American flag.
“As the red, white and blue birds flew over, Boke Kellum, the Western TV star, would recite the Declaration of Independence.
“Next would be somebody dressed up like Mickey Mouse and somebody else dressed up like Donald Duck joining the actress Camille Virl in singing ‘God Bless America.’
“And right in the middle of the singing, here would come this Air Force cargo plane to let loose fifty sky divers who would come dropping into the coliseum.
“Each sky diver would be dressed up in the regional costume of a state, and he would land in the coliseum in the order in which his state became a United State.
“When all this got cleaned up, Shoat said United States Senator Pete Rozelle, the ex-commissioner of the NFL who invented the Super Bowl, would be driven around the stadium in the car that won last year’s Indianapolis 500. At the wheel would be Lt. Commander Flip Slammer, the fifteenth astronaut to walk on the moon.
“Riding along behind the Indy car, Shoat said, would be two men on horses. One would be Commissioner Bob Cameron on Lurking Funk, the thoroughbred which won last year’s Kentucky Derby. And on the other horse, Podna (the horse Boke Kellum pretends to ride in his TV series), would be the current president of CBS, a guy named Woody Snyder.
“Finally, Shoat said, the teams would be introduced and two thousand crippled and maimed soldiers on crutches and in wheel chairs and on stretchers would render the ‘Star Spangled Banner.’
“Shoat told us the halftime was likely to run forty-five minutes. It would be a long one at any rate, ‘which might be a good thing if we got some scabs to heal up,’ he said.
“The length of the halftime, Shoat said, would depend on whether CBS would decide to interrupt the Super Bowl telecast with a special news report on the earthquake, which might still be killing chinks with its fires and floods and tidal waves…
“Shoat said it was too bad we would have to miss it but the Super Bowl halftime show was going to be even more spectacular than the pregame show.
“He said there would be a water ballet in the world’s largest inflatable swimming pool, a Spanish fiesta, a Hawaiian luau, a parade stressing the history of the armored tank, a sing-off between the glee clubs of all the military academies and an actual World War I dogfight in the sky with the Red Baron’s plane getting blown to pieces.
“The final event of halftime, he said, an induction into the pro football hall of fame of about twenty stud hosses out of the past including our own Tucker Fredrickson, the vice president of DDD and F. United States Senator Pete Rozelle would preside, Shoat said, along with Camille Virl, the actress, and Jack Whitaker the CBS announcer. When the induction ceremony was over, Shoat said, then Rozelle, Whitaker and Camille Virl would lead the inductees in singing a parody on the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’ which was written by someone in the league office. The title of it, he said, was ‘The Game Goes Marching On’ and he understood it might make some people cry.
“Shoat said CBS hoped the whole stadium would join in the singing since all 92,000 people would have been given a printed copy of the lyrics.
“The last thing in the halftime would be some more birds. While the stadium was singing this song, Shoat said several thousand more painted up birds would be released and they would fly in such a way overhead that the likeness of Vince Lombardi, the great old coach, would appear.”
In 1972, Dan Jenkins saw that the pomp and circumstance that was building over, under, around and through the Super Bowl would become a caricature of itself. When you view the pregame nonsense this year, think about those sky divers landing in the order that their state became a United State. Is that so outrageous given what you are seeing right there on your TV screen?
When the halftime silliness unfolds and you have about five thousand mouth-breathers clustered around a makeshift stage to listen to someone try to create music in a venue with atrocious acoustics, think about a parade stressing the history of the armored tank. Maybe the Super Bowl organizers might take a lesson from that idea for a stupid parade for next year’s game instead of yet another irrelevant attempt to try to attach music to a football game.
In this case, it seems as if life is in the process of imitating art. It will not take too many more steps down the path of symbolic silliness for Super Bowl festivities to match this satirical picture. I do not know if Dan Jenkins had a sense of his prescience when he wrote those words in the early 1970s. But it sure is working out that way…
Once again, if you have not read Semi-Tough – or if you read it 25 years ago and have not thought of it since – I strongly urge you to get hold of a copy and read it again. It is definitely worth more than a few chuckles.
My copy of Semi-Tough is a reprint from 2006 by Thunder’s Mouth Press. It is available from online booksellers.
But don’t get me wrong, I love sports…