Friday, February 21, 2014

Columbia's unforgettable brick mimes

     Watching that blockbuster LEGO movie reminded me of just how much silly fun you can have riffing on bricks.
     You thought bricks were just a bland facade of suburban affluence? Bricks never made you laugh? Then you must not have driven across South Carolina toward Myrtle Brick, back in the days when you might play a golf course designed by Jack Bricklaus, sing along with Brickney Spears, or go deep-sea fishing for Moby Brick.
     Those were the kind of visual puns portrayed by cartoon bricks we used to enjoy on one perpetually clever billboard along I-20 near Columbia. On the long drive from Greenville to Myrtle, it was a welcome sign of comic relief that could keep our family entertained for miles.
     Bricks can't talk, but they sure can mime. On that billboard in Columbia, a brickture could be worth a thousand words.
     Like this one from the 1980s:

     Once you take time to study the details, it's not hard to figure out that this is brick-dancing. But try to decode it with a quick glance at 70 mph.
     The billboard advertised the Richtex Brick factory near the Broad River Road exit. The signs were never sales pitches, and the Richtex logo was the only wording I ever saw. Yet that solitary billboard did its job so well that the Richtex brand remains engrained in my mind long after Brits bought the brickyard.
      That campaign must have been a marketing challenge. How do you advertise bricksa once-in-a-lifetime purchase that involves no customer loyalty, no price breaks, no free installation, no sentimental values, and no distinctive qualities? Has anybody ever built or bought a house based on the brand name of the brick?
     What's an ad agency to do?
     "Exit here for bricks"? I don't think so.  
     "Lifetime warranty"? That goes without saying. 
     When all else fails, drop back and pun.
     Hey, we're all groan-ups here.
     Stop, you're kiln me. 

     Here comes another one: 
     When I searched for these masterpieces on the Internet, I hit a brick wall. All Google could find were a few old chats and a 1987 newspaper clipping.* That's not surprising, since the brick ads date way back to the 20th century, long before Picasa and camera phones became so ubriquitous. 
     It's a rare treat when you get to discover something that Google didn't know and couldn't find—something a newspaperman could declare "Scoop!" The last time this happened, I was searching for Alfred Adams' long-lost biblical proof that Boone is the second Garden of Eden. That one I eventually found offline through the Boone Chamber of Commerce.
     This time, I found a clue on LinkedIn that led me to Cynthia Gilliam, the advertising artist with Columbia's Semaphore agency who developed the campaign for Richtex. She directed me to an old Facebook wall where a few of the billboard images survive. I am reposting these here with all due credit and gratitude.
     Gilliam obviously took delight in that campaign, and she shared how it "went viral" way before social media, sparking discussion on morning radio shows and hometown newspapers across South Carolina. I wonder if all that spontaneous buzz/free advertising might be one of the reasons why brick houses are so popular in the heart of Brixie. 
"Tunnelvision" on brick. Marion Street, Columbia

     Personally, I think the brick ads might be the best thing to come out of Columbia since my dear wife. In fact, bricks and billboards may represent the pinnacle of Columbia's creativity, considering Blue Sky's "Tunnelvision" mural, along with the recent tourism billboards with the self-depbrickating slogan, "Famously Hot, Surprisingly Cool."
     Mary and I were headline writers when we met, so you can understand why we still enjoy twisting phrases and playing with words. Our kids ought to be thankful we didn't name them Ben Joe and Amanda Lynn. They might cringe at our hee-haw humor, but they can't deny that they are ...

     I think this one is more idiom than pun. However, you get bonus points if you bricognized a bricket fence or brickberry cobbler. Shame on you if you guessed son of a brick.
     By the way, did you know that the holes in bricks are called frogs? (Google knew.) I think this goes back to the Bible. The endless demand for bricks was the last straw for the Israelites enslaved in Egypt, so to leverage their freedom, Moses called down a series of plagues, including a plague of frogs. And the Lord said to Pharaoh, "No more mason with My peeps." 
     And that, dear children, is where holy bricks come from. Behold!

     Speaking of peeps, puns sometimes hit you out of the blue. This one is from the Reagan era, when some of us were convinced the sky was falling:

     I assume that's Henny Penny with the pink purse, aka Mrs. Cocky Locky. (That reminds me of another Columbia icon, the Great Ball Coach, who once was a pun-ter as well as a quarterback and has now mastered the faked pun and the brick-handed compliment. Lots of orange-clad folks around Clemson and Knoxville have other sobriquets for him, some that rhyme with brick.)
     When budgets are tight, an agency may be able to squeeze multiple messages out of the same scene. These two holiday billboards feature the same silhouetted house, presumably made of brick, as well as the same moon, presumably made of bricotta cheese. I see five or six more briquettes, depending on whether those fluttering hallowingers are really brickbats. How about you? 

      Puns have an undeservedly bad reputation. Some snobs say they are the lowest form of humor. Yet Shakespeare and Jesus dabbled in puns, and Hitchcock called them the highest form of literature. 
     I will admit that too many puns may spoil the blog. And if you haven't had too many already, you soon will. Before you censor me, just remember: If puns are outlawed, only outlaws will have puns. 
     As far as I'm concerned, the only thing wrong with a pun is when the author writes, "No pun intended." If you didn't intend it, then backspace and change it. More often, "No pun intended" means exactly the oppositeI not only intended it, but I want to call it to your attention because you might be too brick-headed to get it on your own.
     No such intent here on my blog. 
     Nope, unintended.


*The Richtex billboards begin in 1979, according to a clipping of a 1987 AP story that Google found in the archives of the Tuscaloosa (Ala.) News. (Gilliam's Semaphore Agency took the account in 1982, and all the examples I posted are from Semaphore.) The AP story included a wirephoto of Chip off the Old Brick, so we can confidently date that one to 1987. Other first-generation illustrations mentioned in that story were Brick Dancing, Bricken Little, Aerobricks, Brick of the Litter, and Brickfast of Champions.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Olympic peakbagging? Why not?

    Should the Olympics give medals for a competition set to music, performed in sequins, and often decided by geopolitics or whim? Commentator Frank Deford mulled on his weekly NPR broadcast whether events like ice dancing are really sports: 
See, it's not easy to qualify what makes a sport a sport. My broad, more inclusive definition would simply be that any time you compete in a physical activity, you have a sport. The key words to me are physical and compete. I think, for example, that perhaps the greatest athletic feat of the 20th century was Sir Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norkay conquering Mount Everest. But however rigorous, is mountain climbing competitive?
    Well, now that you raise the question ... yes, it can be. And not just at the level of Everest. For quite a few of us, mountain climbing is obsessively competitive.
    We call it "peakbagging." Peakbaggers appreciate the mountainside journeys and mountaintop views as much as anybody, but what motivates us are the races to complete the computerized to-do lists. We keep score.
     Like other sports, peakbaggers have rules, records, and rankings—including global, national, state, and county categories. For example, the Highpointers Club keeps a running list of people who have reached the highest point in all 50 states (at last count, 241 ranging in age from 12 to 77). Among my friends, Charlie Zerphey has stood atop 49 states since turning 65, Rick Shortt has climbed all 106 Virginia peaks over 4,000 feet, and Peter Barr has bagged all 200 mountains in the Southeast over 5,000 feet. The lists are as endless as the horizon.
    I'm no great mountaineer, but I take pride in being one of the few people on record to climb all 13 mountains in Virginia over 4,500 feet. Maybe I could be the first to bag all 43 ranked mountains in Watauga County or reach the highest points in all 146 counties in the Carolinas.
     That brings us to the subculture of "county high-pointers"—peakbaggers who can make mountains out of molehills. We have to find the precise highest point in places like Tyrrell County, N.C., which lies so low and flat that it could disappear in a 17-foot tidal surge. I doubt that Deford would call that a sport. It's more like a cross between trivial pursuit and trespassing.
     But on the top end, I'm willing to bet there are more world-class peakbaggers than Olympic curlers.
     So why not mountain-climbing as an Olympic sport? We have downhill skiingwhy not the opposite? Why not an Olympic version of king-of-the-hill, with climbers wearing Go-Pro cameras for the rest of us to glimpse the cliff-hanging danger? Why not a true cross-country racea bushwhacking marathon? 
     Why not race up the highest mountain in the host country? In the case of Sochi, it is just 150 miles to Mount Elbrus, the highest point not only in Russia but in all of Europe. Even better from a peakbagging perspective, Elbrus has twin summits, so climb them both. And don't come back until you find the benchmark.
     On the other hand, Olympic peakbagging doesn't have to be a race. Judges could give bonus points if you attempt a particularly difficult couloir, crawl through a bear cave, or just rock your gaiters. 
     Or would that make it too much like halfpipe or figure skating? 

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Happy 80th, Hank Aaron

When this 1958 Topps card came out,
Aaron was just 24 and the reigning MVP.
I was just 3 and not yet a card-bagger.
     I listened to hundreds of Henry Aaron's home runs on the radio when I was growing up but never really got to know him until I read a friend's book.
     Lonnie Wheeler was among a crop of Missouri journalism graduates hired by my hometown newspaper in 1974, the same year that the 40-year-old Aaron broke Babe Ruth's 39-year-old home-run record.
     Wheeler was to the Anderson Independent what Aaron once was to the Eau Claire Bearspaying his dues in a minor-league town but destined for big-league headlines. 
     Working with Lonnie when I was fresh out of high school was the kind of opportunity that you enjoy in the moment and appreciate in hindsight. He wrote sports like nobody I had ever read. 
     Once we took a spring-break trip up to New England, where Lonnie interviewed for a job or two along the way. We broke down the road atlas to figure out the most common town name in America (Springfield or Franklin, as I recall) and stopped at the Blue Ball Bowl near Intercourse, Pennsylvania, to watch Willie Smith and Missouri play an NCAA basketball playoff. Meanwhile, I embarrassed myself by trying to order sweet ice tea in frost-heaven New Hampshire. I was just along for the ride. 
     Lonnie and Mickey Spagnola were the main reasons I went from Anderson to Mizzou, sight unseen.
     Anderson being two hours from Atlanta, we considered ourselves Braves Country. Lonnie went down to Atlanta one weekend and came back with a three-part series on Hank Aaron that was way above the reading level of most of us in Anderson. Soon after that, Lonnie was on his way to becoming a star columnist in Cincinnati and an acclaimed author. 
Is this the best Christmas present ever?!?!?!?! Thanks, Mama.
     I was reminded of Lonnie this week when I heard that Hank Aaron, my boyhood hero, has turned 80.
     In 1991, fifteen years after Lonnie left Anderson, he collaborated with Aaron to write "I Had A Hammer." One of my prized possessions is a copy that my mom gave me for Christmas, signed by Lonnie and Hank. 
     Gifted writer that he is, Lonnie taps into Hank's eloquence even as he lets him tell his own story. Here is a passage from Wheeler's introduction as Aaron, then 57, pondered his legacy:
He commented that he envied musicians because musicians never die--their music is preserved and played for eternity. Aaron is immortal in the baseball sense, but none of his 755 home runs will ever happen again, and the question of his legacy is one that he has not subdued. He has no self-doubts about his enduring qualifications as a ballplayer, but wonders where ballplaying fits in the greater scheme--in effect, where he fits in the greater scheme.
      The greater scheme was the American civil-rights era that harmonized with Aaron's baseball career. For a southerner who admired Aaron but blithely tolerated too much of the sweet-tea status quo, the book was eye-opening and soul-wrenching. Here's Lonnie:
It's a delicate book, because it attempts to deal with a man's complaint without complaining. Aaron is compelled to file his grievances against baseball but has no urge to lash out at the game he loves and owes. He wishes to get his message across without the graceless effect of a soapbox or sandwich board. What he wishes, really, is to speak his piece and think out loud about where he's been that others haven't, what he's seen that others couldn't, and how it all adds up. 
     It's interesting how the "N" word has become an issue today, just as it was 40 years ago when Aaron was closing in on Ruth. Back then, it was associated with death threats. Today, it's a 15-yard penalty or a technical foul. 
     "Hammer" helps me to appreciate how far America has comeand see how far we still have to go. Thanks, Lonnie.