Monthly Archives: March 2019

T-Shirts from the Collection: Truth, Beauty, and a Naked Woman with a Spoon

Everyone’s heard of the Institute for Advanced Study, even if they don’t know much about it.  One day an IAS t-shirt appeared on the rack at Goodwill, and of course I had to have it. I mean, look at the thing:

Institute for Advanced Study Tee 1

The question I had: why was there a naked woman on the t-shirt? And why was she holding a giant spoon?  I emailed the Institute at once.

The IAS is an independent postdoctoral research institute where leading scholars — and flashy up-and-comers — are invited to reside for awhile and pursue whatever theoretical research they prefer in mathematics, physics, economics, and more. The advancement of knowledge for the advancement of mankind: that’s the mandate.

And the Institute is rolling in money.  Snagging Einstein as a permanent fellow in the ‘30s sure didn’t hurt.  So the IAS actually had the time and staff to respond to some rando t-shirt question from the West Coast. In detail.

An IAS archivist solemnly informed me that the design on the tee was the Institute Seal, commissioned upon the institute’s founding in 1930.  With input from the institute’s director, the renowned French medallion designer Pierre Turin produced an Art Deco design of the twin entities of Truth and Beauty holding hands in front of the Tree of Knowledge.  For only Truth and Beauty working together can make the tree bear fruit.  It’s a concept drenched in 19th-century romantic poetry.

Truth and Beauty

That Truth is a naked woman while true Beauty is clothed in artifice, however, is a world view so deeply French that I can barely stand it. Truth holds a mirror to reflect reality back to the world.  It only appears to be a giant spoon. Even on the actual medallion.

I love this shirt. The design is delightfully weird: like peering into the  id of another era.
And I’ve been tempted to wear it around town, which I rarely do with any shirt in my collection.

But sadly, it doesn’t fit.  It may not even fit the IAS anymore.

T-Shirts from the Collection: T-Shirts from the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake

The year 1989 brought Santa Cruz the Loma Prieta earthquake: at 5:04 pm on October 17, just as the crowd at Candlestick Park in San Francisco prepared to sing the National Anthem for Game One of the Trans-Bay World Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland Athletics.

They postponed the series, but it came back ten days later.  In the end, Oakland won it in four.

quake aftermathSanta Cruz took a bit longer to come back. Call it years. The downtown core along Pacific Avenue, built of fireproof 19th century brick buildings, proved anything but earthquake-proof.  Old brick walls cracked like eggs. Even some that seemed intact were fatally damaged; the wrecking ball knocked them down.

And Santa Cruz wasn’t the only town to suffer.  San Francisco, Oakland, even our neighbor Watsonville: all took significant damage.

Which is where this here shirt came from:

Santa Cruz 89 Quake Watsonville Chamber of Commerce Tee

Right after the quake, everybody with silkscreen capability was making earthquake commemorative tees.  The Santa Cruz Sentinel put out the most popular one in these parts: “5:04 PM,” it shouted in huge caps.  They were everywhere.  But I haven’t seen one in decades.

So, I’m glad to get the Watsonville tee at least. Besides Santa Cruz isn’t the center of the universe, after all, and other people had the right to punch the air and metaphorically shout, “We’re still here….”

Unlike the workers at the Moss Landing Power Plant.  Their tee says, basically, “Holy Shit.”

Moss Landing Power Plant 1989 Earthquake Tee 1

This plant, which at one point powered the entire Monterey Bay Area, sits on the bay’s the eastern shore. Its most striking feature is a pair of 500-foot smoke stacks that you can see for ] 20 miles down the coast. But there are also huge generator buildings, high-tension lines, and copious amounts of natural gas fuel under pressure.

When the quake hit Moss Landing, those towering stacks  danced like hula girls.  And the generator buildings shook and the high tension lines snapped like whips while alarms hooted and roared the and the natural gas fuel… didn’t blow up. In the end, there was little damage; power was back up in 24 hours.

But it was a scary thing to go through, and remember. Those memories brought out the artist, sort of, in some power plant worker who needed to celebrate survival in his own way: him, and his friends.

So, YAY! for Moss Landing. But downtown Santa Cruz had  collapsed storefronts, blocked streets, temporary wooden sidewalks with roofs, DANGER signs.  All it needed was zombies, but those wouldn’t be in style for awhile.

Dozens of displaced businesses needed a place to be. So in a burst of energy, the city and the merchants and the civic groups threw together a plan to house the displaced businesses in seven giant silver fabric shelters like think squashed zeppelins.

These would squat in the abandoned parking lots and the businesses would set up inside and continue to function.

Two Tents and a Hole

They were desperate, okay?

The union construction workers volunteered to erect all seven shelters in a single weekend. And on one sunny Saturday, several hundred of them showed up to do it.  Each was issued a t-shirt.  I found one of them, 30 years later, at Goodwill.

Santa Cruz Phoenix Pavilions 1989 Tee 1

They succeeded: all seven structures went up in two days.  I watched them do it, in white helmets and those red tees.

The Phoenix Pavilions, the city called the shelters.  Everybody else called them The Tents.  The squat, hulking structures were only a limited success, but they kept businesses alive for a couple of years, and gave people a reason to keep coming downtown while rebuilding took place.

Tent C

And now few remember them.  But… there’s still this shirt…

There’s one final quake shirt— commemorating the time that 532 guitarists played “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” simultaneously in the half-deserted ruins of downtown Santa Cruz. Is this a great town, or what?

Santa Cruz Shake Rattle and Roll Event Tee 1

Union Grove Music, a local music store still operating from its building, orchestrated this strange and quixotic attempt to set a Guiness book world record while bringing people downtown. Five hundred and thirty two guitarists showed up and set the record, first time out in 1990.  The proceeds went to earthquake relief.

Santa Cruz Shake Rattle and Roll Event Tee 2

Union Grove staged the event two more times (the tee is from the second try): to raise money and also to regain the world record. It had been quickly snatched away by crazed Ohioans.  Sadly, Santa Cruz never got it back.

Somebody took a video of the original event, and if you want to see it, here it is: Santa Cruz in its flaky, crazy, late-20th-century glory.

I miss that Santa Cruz; the town’s much more buttoned down and irritable now.  But at least it left a shirt behind.

Tee Shirts from the Collection: Arnold “Mixed Message” Schwarzenegger

Arnold Schwarzenneger appears on more t-shirts than God could count: as bodybuilding icon, as big-screen barbarian warrior, as buff robotic Terminator from the future, and as general bad-ass. But I like him best as the Governator.

How Arnold Schwarzenneger got to be governor of California is a lot like Brexit: nobody really meant it to happen. But through screw-ups by politicians of both parties — it did.  He produced at least one t-shirt as governor, and I am proud to have it.

Arnold Schwarzenegger's Trip to Mexico

Yep, there he is in all his smug Hollywood glory, leading a trade mission to Mexico.  If there had to be a t-shirt for this venture, whose face should be on it? Who’s the star of this epic? Need you even ask?  This is the guy who mounted the Conan sword in the governor’s private conference room.

Occasionally an Arnold tee bears a different kind of message, like this Terminator-themed tee from around the turn of the millennium:

Terminator Terminate Violence Tee

But the message… is unclear. Terminate violence — with what? A humanoid killerbot from the future? Or are we all supposed to be mini violence-Terminators? If so, where’s our cool weaponry for destroying violence?

Or maybe Arnold’s simply telling us that violence solves nothing? (After starring in so many movies where violence solved everything.)  This is as likely as anything.

I’m sure Governor Schwarzenegger meant well.  That might make a fitting epitaph for his administration.

As of 2019, by the way, a new Arnold “Terminate Hate” tee is readily available online. Arnold never terminates. That said, maybe he’s learned something: this time, the tee shows flowers peeking out of the barrel of Arnold’s shotgun.

Arnold Schwarzenegger writes "Let's terminate hate.

T-Shirts from the Collection: Memories of the FireGod

Ebbets Pass FD 2

My brother-in-law was every mother’s nightmare: a short-tempered, leering hot rod guy with no money, no prospects, really nothing except a cool ’57 Ranchero and a string of manual labor gigs that paid under the table more often than not. In the Mother’s Dictionary, a picture of his face appeared alongside the definition of “Trouble.” With a capital T.

And he was five years older than Mother’s beautiful, accomplished daughter, my sister, who’d fallen for this, this entity before even graduating from high school.  They married soon after she did graduate.

Flash forward ten years.  They were, inexplicably, still together. Sis had earned a master’s in public education and had just begun a long career as a take-no-prisoners vocational education bureaucrat.  And Brother-in-Law — he’d become a firefighter.  I credit Sis in part; Brother-in-Law had wanted it, but hadn’t organized how to get there. Sis was organized.

Brother-in-Law was good at firefighting: he loved it, in fact  Even after seniority came to him, he always chose the busiest stations, the ones that took the most calls.  No quiet ‘burbs for him: he wanted the inner city: flammable old houses! Knife wounds! Frail old people with coronaries!  He even delivered babies.

Life and death, 24-on and 24-off! If Brother-in-Law’s company didn’t ride out on ten or twelve calls in a day, his life wasn’t worth living.

Somewhere along the line, other firemen started calling him FireGod. Firemen tend to be “into” being firemen, but nobody was more into it than FireGod.

FireGod added a massive brass eagle to the peak of his standard-issue helmet.  FireGod had an encyclopedic knowledge of all the hardware on his fire truck and would make sure that you knew it, too.  At home, he had a huge collection of firefighting memorabilia that  he housed in a museum-like room called the Hall of Flame.

FireGod even collected firefighting t-shirts: over 200 t-shirts with firefighting themes. He dedicated a 20-foot-long closet to them.

So there’s a t-shirt connection between me and FireGod. Though his interest long preceded mine. Still, there’s always a place for a good fireman’s tee in my collecction. They all address the things that FireGod obsessed with: the history, the trucks, the traditions, the gear, and most of all the firefighters’ self-image.

In short, the firefighting culture. I can’t tell you how many engine company tees identify firefighters with Batman. Hence this cool shirt, from a fire department that I can’t identify:
Engine 6 Fire Company Tee 4

I get it, of course: firemen roar out into the dark night to save lives with their mighty weapons of water and fire and steel: to protect the helpless against implacable dangers.  They’re proud of that.  FireGod used to say, “When I see people, they’re never having a good day.  But they’re always glad to see me!”

The emblem on the front of this tee is the St. Florian’s Cross,  the “firefighter” symbol used by American firefighters — well, slightly modified to look like a bat. How could you not imagine yourself a superhero?  Especially since, every so often, you just might be?

Engine 6 Fire Company Tee 1

Take the East Contra Costa Fire Protection District. It had quite a few lean years and had to make do with old equipment: tired red fire trucks.  But when better times finally came, the Oakley station house got a huge, brand-new ultra-capable fire engine.

Oakley FD Green Machine

It is green.

Not everybody who fights fire stays on the ground. This California Division of Forestry Fire Protection (Cal Fire) air tanker unit flies out of an airstrip about 40 miles from where I live.  We hate to see them coming, because they’re the harbingers of trouble.

Santa Cruz Local Air Tanker Tee

It’s just another day, and suddenly comes the ground-shaking drone of old military propeller planes. Overhead, a repurposed patrol bomber orbits above the hills and you can’t but think: what’s burning up there? And is it heading this way?

And the crews risk their lives to keep us safe.  Just… seeing them is like getting a friendly wave from the Angel of Death.  The forest comes almost down to the ocean here.

t’s a common problem everywhere in the west: more and more people moving out into the forests and country to live, where there is no good fire service.  Where this happens,  at first they depend on the state firefighters when fires get out of control.

But to keep things from getting to that point, volunteer fire departments rise up. They become the first line of defense.  And it’s true that not all of them are exactly professional.

Hobson Creek FD Angry Moose Tee
But give them time.  I like this shirt from the Ebbetts Pass Fire Protection District, up in the Sierras.  It’s very down-home and home-made — like the EPFPD.

Ebbets Pass FD 1

Ebbetts Pass is an obscure mountain pass through the Sierra Nevada range, 8000 feet up in the sky. State Highway 4 traverses Ebbetts Pass through sparsely-populated territory. Fifty years ago, the few locals along a stretch of 4 felt that they needed structure fire protection in the winter, after the summertime Cal Fire crews went home.

So the citizens taxed themselves and bought an old engine and raised some volunteers.  And after awhile, a few more engines, and a full-time chief.  Over the years,  the population grew and so did the crowds of summer visitors: and so the fire district needed more and better engines, more stations, more paid firefighters to anchor more EPFPD volunteers, and then paramedics and a patient transport wagon, and  a service area that expanded to over 200 square miles.  And of course, more taxes to pay for it all.

It just goes to show: a settled civilization wants firefighters.  It needs them. Without enough firefighters, and good fire prevention strategies, civilization doesn’t stay settled for long.

National parks and forests also had to raise their own rural emergency services organizations. The year-round visitors need protection.   I particularly like this tee from the paramedics at Glacier National Park.  It has just the right tone of weary cynicism:

Cynical National Park Medics Tee

Finally, 9/11 and the World Trade Center: the death of hundreds of firemen in the terrorist attack generated — I must say — several hundred metric tons of fireman-oriented t-shirts: mostly with themes like “Lest We Forget” or “Heroes of 9/11.”

I don’t buy most 9/11 tees: fireman worship became something of a fetish for awhile, and many of these tees weren’t even generated by firemen.  But I couldn’t pass up this one, from an FDNY engine company in Brooklyn:

Engine 201 FDNY Memorial with Jesus

Firefighting culture is a complicated thing, and not completely admirable (what is?).  But I do like the over-sentimental — and irreverent — image of Jesus behind the heavenly bar, mixing drinks for the precinct’s fallen firefighters. As if to say: truly, they’re in a better place.

I never heard FireGod say a thing about 9/11, oddly.  Maybe it was because New York was 3,000 miles away. He was the kind of guy who thought about what was in front of him, first and foremost.

So he worked his career and rose in the ranks — but never to a desk job. He’d have hated that.  He even sat on the the board of the local fireman’s association.  He resigned from the board when he realized that it was illegally syphoning money from  “charitable fundraisers” to buy favor — in the form of fatter contracts — from local politicians.  When the district attorney  exposed the scheme, FireGod thumbed his nose at at the board from the sidelines.

FireGod knew: the best reward for being a fireman was that you wanted the life.  He worked that life hard — too hard, as I’ve described.  He didn’t keep himself in the best of shape, either.

He finally took a medical retirement. Parts of him hurt all the time. He just couldn’t do it anymore.

And one night, a year or two before age 60, an respiratory disease or condition came up out of nowhere and killed him in 12 hours.  The doctors never did figure out what it was.  Men in his family die early, but — jeez.  You have to wonder.

A few months back one of our home smoke alarms went off around 3 a.m.  I smelled nothing, but that’s meaningless.  I called 911 and a fire truck arrived in five minutes.

They could find nothing wrong; they concluded that the fire alarm just went whacky. Some of the older guys were a little pissed off to be turned out of bed for a non-fire.  But when the fire alarm sounds, you call 911.  And 911 dispatches the trucks, and the firemen make sure all is well.  Don’t grouse, boys, it’s the system.  And it’s a good one.

FireGod knew that. I imagine he wouldn’t have minded a bit.  He probably would have given me an informational lecture on the ins and outs of fire alarms, too.  Miss ya, BIL.