Today is the 40th anniversary of the U.S. Bicentennial, and a fair amount of 1976-themed popular culture content has been crossing my path.
(I don’t personally remember the big day; wasn’t quite old enough. But maybe if I have grandkids, I’ll make something up to tell ’em, just because. I’ve got some years to work on these stories.)
Not every lingering image from the Bicentennial involves queens, and presidents, and fireworks, and tall ships on the Hudson River. Some are humbler.
Like this one:
What we have here is a half-hour special produced for Syracuse’s NBC affiliate (then WSYR, now WSTM), offering a ride-along down a stretch of the Erie Canal with one Kay Russell as host.
Ms. Russell appears to be making up the script as she goes along, and she hesitates, mis-speaks and repeats herself at various points. (Did you know Rome, New York, was a strategic city? After watching this, you’ll know — twice.)
Some of the footage from the beginning of the trip shows up again at the end. And the whole thing is set to a backdrop of historical music that isn’t loud enough to establish itself as part of the ambiance. It comes off sounding like Ms. Russell taped her voice-over in the same room as a transistor radio.
That’s why you, my Three Readers, might enjoy watching this.
I enjoyed it for other reasons. It stirred memories — not quite Bicentennial memories in my case, though if I presented them as such to my future grandkids, they would be perfectly believable.
Central New York, in my occasional travels through it, has always seemed full of three-stoplight towns where nothing much ever happens.
Towns like Little Falls and Oriskany and Herkimer don’t have Finger Lakes to draw people in. They don’t have destination colleges. They don’t have whatever critical mass it took to lift places like Syracuse or Utica into citydom.
They’re just there … part of a broad belt of communities that still seem to be searching for their meal tickets in the Revolutionary War, the women’s suffrage movement, or the days of canals.
She doesn’t mention it, but if you follow Ms. Russell’s path down the canal, you’ll notice that all of the sights and destinations she mentions are well over 150 years old (as of 1976; they’re even older now). There’s a whole lot of Revolutionary War, a little early 19th-century, and that’s about it.
There are also several classic moments where Ms. Russell says some town or another — I think Rome — was once “famous” for having the biggest lift-lock in the United States. (Near the end, she rhapsodizes that it was a shame anyone ever built a larger one.)
Claiming a faded distinction of limited public interest is a classic small-town marketing move, at least in the small towns I know, and it made me smile when I spotted it. Do you suppose anyone but the occasional civil engineer ever really cared about America’s largest lift-lock?
Watching the show brought back memories of my seventh-grade social studies teacher, Mr. Brainerd, a flat-topped, no-nonsense sort who might have time-traveled directly from 1965 to teach the students of 1985. (I once heard him complain that students’ behavior had gone downhill since rock n’ roll music became popular.)
He used to say our parents should take us to see Revolutionary War battlefields on vacation, instead of Disneyland. He had slide shows from these battlefields he would show us in class — faded shots with Ford Falcons and men in fedoras.
The soul of Mr. Brainerd lives in this doughty documentary. In fact, I would expect he took this very same trip at least once. He was definitely one to see the value in a historically large lift-lock, and one to be stirred by the sight of a replica packet-boat drawn by two horses.
Lest I seem too snarky, I should say that I don’t dislike these towns; in fact, I kind of relate to them. They seem like places where a person could make his life about as still and silent as he wanted it.
They have lots of old-growth trees and character-filled old houses that can probably be had for a song. And I’m sure the people who live there work hard and don’t get paid enough for what they do, in the manner of blue-collar Americans everywhere.
Still, I can’t contemplate these places for too long without thinking about the come-see-our-history blues … the restored one-room schoolhouses (they all look the same), and the horses that plod back and forth on the same well-worn paths, and the empty sweep of grassy battlefields with solitary granite obelisks, and the feeling that time has stopped as it waits for something to happen.