The Pop-Cultural Ties that Bind

Jul 04, 2008

On this July 4th, since others are addressing the patriotic, political, and recreational aspects of the holiday in a major way—I’m going to go with a uniquely American pop-cultural moment I experienced some years ago.

Like a hundred, give or take.

But it was a pretty neat moment, and strong evidence of that force that binds the American people in ways that transcend the political and geographical. 

I lived and worked in the former Portuguese territory of Macau for two unforgettable years. When the time came to think about what to do next, I began mailing out requests for graduate school applications from several U.S. institutions.

But due to a lumbering bureaucracy at one prestigious university, they mailed to me a foreign-student application package by mistake.

Now, I had explained to all that though I was living overseas, I was actually a U.S. citizen, and would need application materials appropriate to that situation.

OK, technologically speaking, as you may have guessed, this was back sometime after the discovery of fire, but still before the advent of the Internet. Whereas today, the problem could have been cleared up through the ethers in no time, back then—if you lived overseas—you were dependent on the international post.

I wrote to this school a second time, and waited weeks for the result. Amazingly, they got it wrong again!

Now I was beginning to wonder whether the matter could be resolved in time for me to make their application deadline. I was utterly perplexed as to what to do; I had no reason to believe that a phone call, under these conditions, would have yielded a better result—I only knew that such a call would have been diabolically expensive.

So I sat down to write what I hoped would be my last letter to this group. In it, I began by repeating my request for the proper application package, and the fact of my U.S. citizenship. I described my earlier problems, and implored the reader to send along the correct package as quickly as possible.

Just as I was finishing this draft, a wacky thought hit me, and, after a moment’s consideration, I decided to run with it, for what could it hurt at this stage?

In closing this time, I boldly declared that I knew all the words to the opening theme of Gilligan’s Island, and that I could, therefore, sing it on demand in any setting. I added that I hoped this fact would clear up for good the matter of my origins for legal and administrative purposes.

Sure enough, a few weeks after I’d sent that letter, the proper application materials arrived in my mailbox at last, and I was able to complete them by the appointed time!

Coincidence? I think not!

Our American pop-cultural heritage is a frothy assemblage of generally useless facts and phenomena, in one way of seeing; but as the incident above suggests, up to a certain point in time, a particular collection of words, images, trends, and happenings (the late Evel Knievel’s Snake River Canyon jump, anyone?) nevertheless has the power to bind many of us in an oddly meaningful way. We find we are bound through largely happy memories of specific moments shared by millions of others, from coast to coast.

As we unfurl the red, white, and blue this Independence Day, our thoughts might well go to the founding of a nation whose workings, makeup, and astonishing promise are rooted in its daring philosophical foundations.

But here, now, a quick nod in the direction of the unique, often humorous ties that link us today beyond ethnic, economic, and historical parameters.

Here’s to fond memories of Gilligan; the Skipper, too; The Millionaire, and His Wife; The Movie Star; The Professor, and Marianne…Here on Gilligan’s Isle!

 * * * * * *