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  • October 11th, 2019


By Joel M. Vance


The scene is the Spring River in Arkansas, Horseshoe Falls, a U-shaped ledge that drops several feet into a plunge pool. A long time ago several canoes were congregated at the falls waiting their turn to run the little rapids. Just as my canoe was committed to the drop, a canoe with two girls slid into the pool from the side and I T-boned them, spilling both young ladies into the near icy water (it is a trout stream).


Somehow I managed not to capsize but did bail out of the canoe to make sure the two girls were all right.  They surfaced spluttering and, as it quickly transpired, were more (according to me and my buddies) more than all right.


Obviously, they were soaked to the skin–I say obviously because one in particular, a lissome lass was wearing what now was a soggy T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan “I’m a Pepper, You’re a Pepper.” There was, in one time, in American culture especially among the drooling, misogynistic male population, a deep appreciation for what was called the “wet T-shirt contest.” Okay, I admit to guilt for transgressing the bounds of propriety and indulging in improper art appreciation, but the bottom line is I developed an instant gratitude for Dr. Pepper, not only as a soothing soft drink, but also as a wonderful example of effective marketing.


If I had not been a fan of the T-shirt before that magic moment, I certainly have been ever since. I am a devout collector of T-shirts which have become iconic in our society. Not one of my vast collection refers to Dr. Pepper but the memory of that long ago river encounter does linger. T-shirts, emblazoned with advertising, slogans, or other decorations, are a fairly modern innovation on an article of wearing apparel that dates back more than a century.


According to Wikipedia, the first T-shirts surfaced in what they call “the Mexican American war” in 1898. Actually, I’m sure they mean Spanish-American war since the Mexican American war occurred in 1846-9. Wikipedia is a wonderful source of information, but you can’t always trust what you read (especially, these days, if it originates with Fox News). Anyway, according to the Wiki guys, T-shirts became an issue clothing item for the U.S. Navy in 1913.


Possibly the most cherished T-shirt I have ever had was one originally worn by the adolescent son of a canoeing buddy. I spied it on him during a Current River float. It was decorated with a tribute to Willie Nelson or, as I know him, Saint Willie. “Can I make you an offer for that T-shirt?” I asked the tot.


“How much you willin’ to give me?” instantly responded the avaricious little grifter. Obviously, the kid would grow up to become a successful used-car salesman. We finally struck a deal and whatever the terms were, I’m sure I was on the short end— except that I did get the T-shirt which was basically worn out anyway. The shirt looked remarkably like Willie Nelson has looked for the last couple of decades but I cherished it like the Kohinoor diamond until it finally fell into tatters and had to be consigned to the ragbag cemetery for defunct clothing.


Who can forget America’s favorite hunk, Marlon Brando, bellowing from the New Orleans street “Stella!, Stella!” in Tennessee Williams’ play “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Brando’s burly character, Stanley Kowalski, was wearing a sweat stained T-shirt and looking buff, unlike the porky Godfather of years later. In a memorable scene from the play, Brando strips off his sweaty T-shirt, and replaces it with a fresh one while Blanche Dubois tries to repress a seductive drool.


Thus, Brando, the role model for all us wannabe sex symbols, established the T-shirt as the in-costume for Cool Studism. It was not to be, of course, and most of us are reduced to bartering with eight-year-old kids for Willie Nelson T-shirts and, while Willie is a saint on earth he never will be mistaken for Brando at his Studly epitome.


 T-shirts today are emblazoned with all sorts of filthy slogans and I’m happy to say that none of mine bears any sort of profane or improper suggestions. Most are on the order of sly humor like the one that is attributed to Groucho Marx: “Outside of a dog, a man’s best friend is a book. Inside of a dog, it’s very dark.” That certainly is in the spirit of the irrepressible Groucho, who said in a movie, “This morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas I’ll never know.”


Back in the 1950s, sweathog types were not considered completely dressed unless they wore a white T-shirt with a pack of Camels rolled up in the sleeve. That, combined with a duck tail or crew cut haircut, a pair of blue suede shoes and blue jeans without—God forbid— any worn spots or holes that are mandatory on today’s jeans, was the uniform for he who would be cool, but promisingly dangerous to hot chicks.


My pack of Camels, vanished more than 50 years ago when my father died of a smoking related illness, and I quit smoking the next day. My blue suede shoes lost their fuzzy nap and ultimately, became consigned to the dustbin of time. And, as far as appearing promisingly dangerous to hot chicks I had a number of problems. I didn’t even suggest promisingly dangerous to our family dog, who rarely obeyed anything I yelled at her (and her name wasn’t Stella anyway), and my circle of acquaintances included only hot chicks who were already affiliated with large, muscular, and easily offended significant others. But I did retain an affinity for T-shirts which endures to this day. I have drawers filled with a variety of short-sleeved T-shirts ranging from plain to those decorated with a variety of colorful emblems.


(Confusion reigns— I just found a T-tshirt in my collection which reads “Lady Jays Soccer.” I have never been a member of the local high school women’s soccer team, nor do I expect to become one in the future. I have no idea where the T-shirt came from but I suspect I inherited it as a cast-off from our daughter, Amy’s, family which includes two girl graduates of Helias High School– also curious, because the Jays are the symbol of the local public school, not Catholic Helias. Amy’s husband, Brad, is a graduate of Jeff city high where he played football, not soccer. Curiouser and curiouser, as Alice would say.)


Political slogans seem to be endemic on today’s wearing apparel.  Our modern culture is dominated by a president who functions, part-time, as a weatherman, erroneously predicting the path of hurricanes to suit his mendacious mumbling, and who wears a ball cap Inscribed MAGA (I have studiously avoided memorizing what that stands for, but I suspect it means “Make America Goofy Again”)


Vilifying anything inscribed on a T-shirt seems to me an example of national disunity and insecurity.  But there it is— an Indiana middle school girl was disciplined by her principal for wearing a T-shirt to class with an inscription condemning racism and homophobia. This would seem to be a no-brainer in a civilized society, but we’re talking about Indiana, once a bastion of the Ku Klux Klan, and a state where the nation’s current vice president and former governor Mike Pence, has a record of opposition to gay rights as a member of Congress and as governor and has long been a champion of so-called “conversion therapy” which maintains that homosexuality is a disease that can be cured— an idea that has been discredited by the American medical Association and the American Psychological Association.


So, picking on a, teenage girl, for advocating racial tolerance, and for acceptance of another person’s sexual identity would seem to be par for the course for Indiana (remember, the Hoosiers also spawned  former vice presidential candidate Dan Quayle, who couldn’t spell, in common with Donald Trump, who has been known to misspell his wife’s first name).


My home state, Missouri, in common with Indiana, is known for causing the pundits to race for their red paintbrushes when they describe our political orientation. Once, Missouri was reliably Democrat, but for far too long the stubbornness of the legendary Missouri mule has ruled the political landscape (occasionally veering into commonsense territory as it did when it elected Democrats Mel Carnahan, governor, and Claire McCaskill, as a senator). And I shouldn’t downgrade mules which have far more commonsense than most humans and, quite possibly, more intelligence than the average Trumpian.


But I confess to being more than a little uneasy when I wear my favorite T-shirt of the moment which has a caricature of Donald Trump enclosed by a circle and the slash mark indicating a forbidden action, like a highway sign, and the words “Resist Hate”. I’m too damn old, weak, and chicken to put up much of a fight if, in a public setting, some beefy redneck wearing a MAGA hat snarls “I don’t like your shirt and I’m gonna rip it offa you!”  I wear the shirt proudly in a local Mexican restaurant, theorizing that if any of the workers there happen to be undocumented they may very well approve of my choice of wearing apparel. As social protest goes, it ain’t much, but it’s all I’ve got. (*See afterword)


Elsewhere, maybe I’d better wear my “Old Possum” T-shirt, a tribute to the eternally wonderful late honkytonk deity George Jones. My chest and back are equal opportunity body parts, open to varying points of view, although, I do reserve the right, to limit my haberdashery to causes that I believe in.


No matter what T-shirt I wear, or how weird it is, it won’t come close to matching the costume recently worn by Ivanka Trump on a visit to Bogota, Colombia, where she looked like a refugee from a 1950s sci-fi movie. The dress , which reportedly cost $1650, flared in the wind, giving the first daughter the appearance of something that just sailed in from Jurassic Park. By contrast, my most offensive to the Trump regime T-shirt cost less than $20 and “”Old Possum” was free, a gift from our daughter, Carrie, who has more fashion sense in her little finger, than the windblown human Barbie doll.


When I’m not wearing my “Resist Hate” T-shirt I wear another favorite which reads “There is no such thing as too many books.” My next favorite T-shirt buy will be from the same outfit with an illustration featuring what appears to be a hedgehog with an open book in his lap and an inscription reading “I read books— and I know things.” The animal could easily be a possum perhaps related to George Jones, or maybe a relative of Pogo Possum, the Walt Kelly cartoon character who famously said, “We have met the enemy—and he is us.”


Or maybe I’ll just order a brand-new Willie Nelson T-shirt with an illustration endorsing fealty to the smoking of processed hemp. But, although, I never would take up smoking anything again, including cannabis, I do endorse the growing of hemp as an alternative agricultural crop. It once was vital for the manufacture of rope, and currently is providing fibers to be processed into beautiful flooring that is stronger than oak. Thus, it saves valuable trees from destruction, provides the nation’s stressed farming community with an economic alternative to corn and beans and other monocultures, and, for all I know, can be used to manufacture Willie Nelson’s T-shirts as well as his reefers.


Stella! Stella! Are you listening? I’m wearing my blue suede shoes and don’t you dare step on them!


*Afterword: the Mexican restaurant is closed, probably forever. Did Trump’s immigration Gestapo round up the nice Latino family and send it to one of the Trump government’s concentration camps? I’ll probably never know, but we have lost a fine food destination, the local community has lost a small business and I’m just damn bitter about the whole thing.











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  1. CJ

    October 11th, 2019 at 8:45 am


    Hey, where’s my shirt?!

    • joelvance

      October 12th, 2019 at 4:35 am


      I’ll bring it next week!

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