‘Cool’ a constant description; what’s ‘cool’ is not

Published 1:00 am Sunday, May 6, 2012

OXFORD — We’re on the cusp of another summer and that means many things. For some of us (me) that means another high school reunion.

Which decennial has been reached is not really relevant. Suffice it to say there have been several.

What’s more interesting is that young people today (some of them) still use “cool” as a descriptive term when they observe something agreeable. (They also use “hot” for the same purpose, but that’s another conversation.)

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Use of “cool” was common when I was in high school. It originated, I think, with the beatnik generation (which preceded mine). And I have a grandson who, when properly stimulated, says “cool” (although “awesome” is invoked more often).

For the male members of the Class of 1972 (now you know), red, white and blue saddle oxfords were cool. So were Sero or Manhattan shirts with half-inch-wide red, white and blue stripes. Plaid madras pants were cool (but not if worn with red, white and blue shirts).

Long hair was cool as were Afros. White kids often had the colorful handle of a plastic comb extending from a hip pocket. Black kids had a pick, a specialized device to keep the ’fro teased out 18 inches to 2 feet from their scalps.

Most of the female members of the Class of ’72 still wore skirts and tops or pantsuits to school. Few wore jeans as often as the more wild and reckless males did. For both genders, pants legs had to be “flared.” Bell bottoms never really became a rage in Mississippi as, perhaps, they did elsewhere.

They’re back in but not as cool — or as flared — as they once were.

In fact, some young men perfectly capable of growing hair and not affiliated in any way with the Aryan Nation shave their heads. I don’t understand this, but it’s considered cool. In my day, it would have been noticed, but not cool.

Water is cool today.

I see young people with water bottles from which they swig at regular intervals. There are special taps in many schools merely for the purpose of filling water bottles.

Drinking water was not cool, as I recall, when I was in school. There were water fountains in the hallways, but as I recall they were repositories for chewing gum and, occasionally, cigarette butts.

Which brings us to our next then and now.

Smoking was cool in my high school. In fact, the school board had surrendered to complaints about so much “smoking in the boys’ room” (and girls’ room) by creating designated smoking rooms inside and areas outside the building. Students couldn’t smoke in class, but if they had a note from a parent (yea, sure) they could join the custodial staff on the loading dock and puff away.

The era of tough guys rolling a pack into the sleeves of their T-shirts was over by my high school years, but smoking was cool. Come to think of it, smoking Kools was cool.

Teens today either don’t smoke at all or smoke “socially,” which, of course, is very dangerous. Smoking today isn’t cool, a rare instance in which government efforts have led precisely to the desired result.

Muscle cars were cool. I could offer a list. Mustangs, Camaros, Firebirds. Most of them got about 6 miles per gallon. But that was OK because we could fill a 20-gallon tank for seven or eight bucks. Driving something with a throaty V-8, “four on the floor” and an eight-track tape player with two speakers self-installed on the rear deck was cool.

Caring about melting ice floes, homeless polar bears, the diminishing ozone layer and being concerned about global warming is cool today. So it would be hard to be cool if you arrived at an Earth Day event in a GTO with dual four-barrel carburetors.

For some reason, backpacks weren’t cool at H.V. Cooper High. Students, male and female, cupped unwieldy stacks of texts and notebooks under one arm and tried to maintain their balance under the load. Backpacks had been invented, but no one was smart enough to notice they could be used for purposes other than, well, backpacking.

Students today could furnish a small apartment with the contents of their backpacks. Books. Yes. iPad. Yes. Notebooks. Yes. Change of clothes. Yes. Lunch. Yes. Phone. Yes. Charger. Yes. Water bottle. Yes.

All very practical.

“Cool” is transcendent; what is “cool” is not.

For the most part, that’s a good thing.

Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or e-mail cmitchell43@yahoo.com.