Superman never made any money for saving the world from Solomon Grundy

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Water wheel turns 'round

One of the endearing characters in the recent heartwarming film Up is Russell, the enthusiastic "Wilderness Explorer" who inadvertently stows away on the flying house. Russell is the quintessential over-achieving, over-equipped Boy Scout (non-trademark-infringing type), just like my friend Davey Callaghan, who made First Class Scout and had twenty merit badges while I was still a Tenderfoot (and who one summer collected enough coupons from gathering empty milk cartons to go to a Mets game for free not once, but twice). But despite all his gear, Russell is missing something important. He's got the mess kit, and the flashlight with the 90-degree angle in it, and even a bugle, but there's no canteen.

When I was a kid in the sixties and early seventies, canteens were the most essential piece of wilderness gear (ignoring for the moment that closest I ever got to wilderness was camping on the edges of the vast Rockefeller estate in Pocantico Hills). Some lucky kid might have an old army surplus canteen, the kind that Sgt. Rock had in the comics or that Vic Morrow had on Combat! on TV. Others, like Davey, would have a specially-purchased Boy Scout model. The rest if us had whatever we got from uncles or older brothers, camping store remainders or bargain basement specials. But wherever the canteen came from, this silver jug, so cool to the touch on a hot day and infusing the water with a metallic tang, was the first and most important piece of survival gear, and we all knew that no soldier or explorer would be caught without one (we had seen Sahara with Humphrey Bogart).

Of course, this concern with constant hydration confined itself to Boy Scout hikes and our imaginations; I didn't know any kid who carried a canteen on a regular basis, when just hanging out or playing stickball. No, the "civilian" canteen didn't start appearing until the early eighties, contemporaneous with the aerobics craze. Suddenly, all sorts of people, mostly women, were wearing Lycra and legwarmers and flinging themselves about to get their heart rates up. That kind of activity wears a person out, so it became more common to see people carrying plastic water cups around. These started to get more elaborate, with sealed lids, and sippy straws and handles and places to put ice in separate from the drinking water. These "sports bottles" are pretty rare now, mostly because they were too ugly to keep and made of plastic too crappy to last, but at one time they were so popular that the Zippy the Pinhead comic strip blamed them for the infantilization of society because of all the nipple-sucking they required. (I hardly ever see the classic ones anymore, but encountered something like one at Goodwill not too long ago.)

Of course, it wasn't long before the whole drinking-container process got more complicated. On the one hand, the instant-gratification and convenience movements of the nineties begat bottled water in individual disposable bottles, available first in vending machines and eventually in just about every retail establishment on the planet. Gone was the mess and fuss of actually filling your sports bottle with water; just buy a new one each time! (I have often thought that if you could go back in time to Atlanta in 1950 and tell the Coca-Cola board that someday they would be selling their stuff without even having to put sugar, color, or carbonation in it, they would all just die from pure avarice.) This trend butted up against the political-statement-making and environmentally-conscious threads always present in our culture, and a significant and growing portion of the population dropped the disposal bottles for the nearly-ubiquitous Nalgene bottle of the oughts.

Of course, Nalgene bottles were added to the list of Things That Can Kill Us and all of a sudden sipping from one was tantamount to courting horrible death. Like Superman changing the course of a mighty river, public opinion modified the trend and metal containers became la mode. Silver or colorful, with or without carabiner, as long as it was stainless steel, it was cool. There's one a foot from my elbow as I type. It can feel so cool to the touch on a hot day and infuses the water with a bit of a metallic tang.

So, you can probably guess where this is going: a lament that I didn't keep my old canteen, since that's what we've essentially come back to. In fact, that's how I had planned to end this piece, until I saw this ad and realized that we no longer have to hold onto our memories, since the consumer-industrial complex will be happy to sell them back to us anytime.

That's all, folks. Stay hydrated!


lowcoolant said...

Occasionally I see someone at the gym carrying a GALLON JUG of water. As long as you don't mind taking a pee-break two or three times during your workout, hey, I guess it works.

*reels in shock at someone hinting that they found Zippy amusing or even readable*

John said...

I LOVE Zippy. Neanderthal.