The prototype of the Big Stretch was assembled during a lull in shop class. After tying some 15 or 20 rubber bands together, I talked a colleague into holding one end of the contraption as I stepped back for a test. Sighting along the taut line of connected rubber bands, I released my end. Then, like a cartoon, the whole business flew past the holder; the tip struck a target several feet beyond.
It was soon determined just how the holder and shooter could best maximize distance and accuracy. Once I started hitting fellow seventh-graders across the room with the bitter end of my brainchild, the spitballs and such that routinely flew around classrooms were strictly old news.
The following morning, uncharacteristically, I was on the schoolyard a good hour before the first bell. Inside a brown paper bag I carried a radical new version of the Big Stretch, maybe 50 links long. It wasn't long before boys were shoving one another aside to act as holders, most of the time I was the shooter. As the wonder whizzed by it made such a splendid noise that just standing next to the holder was a thrill, too.
The students' fascination with the Big Stretch mushroomed. That afternoon it made a crowd-pleasing appearance at a football game, where the Stretch's operators established that cheerleaders could be plunked on their bouncing bottoms from more than 25 yards away.
Eventually, the Big Stretch went on tour to several locations in the neighborhood surrounding our school, Albert H. Hill, for demonstrations. Naively, I thought being the originator of something the kids thought was cool had transformed me into being popular.
Riding that wave of attention, the next day I lengthened the Stretch again. However, it was soon established that the previous version worked better; the new model seemed too heavy for its own good. Later, a couple of ninth-graders, both chunky linemen on the football team, weren't content with a single turn at using the new Stretch; they demanded another go at it. I refused.
My fair-weather entourage proved to be useless in a pinch. Suddenly faced with no good options, I took off with my precious invention in hand.
Across the blacktop I ran, then around the hedges that lined the yellow brick Spanish-style school building. In short order I was cornered. Hemmed in, I absorbed a beating until the determined goons got what they wanted.
The thieves fooled around with their loot, trying to hit their ninth-grade buddies playing basketball. Eventually, several rubber bands broke and the Big Stretch was pulled to pieces.
By then my nose had stopped bleeding, so I gathered my dignity as best I could and shrugged off the whole affair. Naturally, I snapped back to being a seventh-grade, semi-nonchalant nobody. I didn't make another version of the Big Stretch. Other kids did, but nobody cared.
Just as abruptly as it had started the rubber band thing was over. It wasn't cool anymore.
In roughly that same time, like other moody teenagers, I was becoming aware of the Beats. As they were the most visible keepers and promulgators of cool, I yearned to know what they knew. By the time I had seen enough of life to start catching on to what cool in art, music and literature was saying, it was already fading out of the picture.
We're told the term cool, as well as the aesthetic it represented, seeped out of the early bebop scene in Manhattan in the '40s. That may be, but the same delightful sense of spontaneity and understated defiance seemed evident in other forms of expression that predated the Dizzy Gillespie/Thelonious Monk era at Minton's, on 118th Street.
In the two preceding decades, modern art with its cubism, surrealism, constructivism, et al. was surely laying down some of the rules for what later became known as "cool." Hollywood's well-written screwball comedies of the '30s with their tart, detached sarcasm were dealing in something akin to cool.
Significantly, the '50s/early-'60s beatnik concept of cool with its ability to be flippant and profound in the same breath developed without the encouragement of the ruling class. In a way it was a parallel world, chiefly populated by underdogs. To me, cool seemed to be centered on what an individual could do, rather than one's connections or credentials.
In the '70s, the mobs of hippies attuned to rock 'n' roll shrugged nothing off. Cool was too subtle for them. Eventually, in targeting the baby boomers as a market, Madison Avenue promoted everything from A to Z as "cool!" In the process the term lost its moorings and dissolved into the soup of mainstream vernacular.
Now, saying something is "cool" has little, if any, underground connotation. The word is used by anyone to express an ordinary endorsement of anything: "hey, that's ku-ul."
So, the word's meaning has evolved, as meanings do. Cool, as a style, existed for the moment; that was part of its allure. Yet, cool wasn't the nihilistic trip that punk cool's obstreperous bastard child was, some years later.
At its best, cool involved the joyous and artful grasping of a moment's unique truth, without flinching. Denial wasn't cool.
Just as the one-time-only perfect notes blown in a jam session can't be duplicated, authentic cool couldn't be captured and processed into a product. Consequently, cool things were either quickly assimilated by the mainstream, or they were willfully destroyed. It seems there was no in-between.
The Big Stretch was good for three days. It was a cool ride. S
F.T. Rea is a freelance writer who lives in Richmond.
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