Monday, April 18, 2011

Of Mice and Meetings

Even as a precocious tot, I was very interested in organizations, clubs, groups, societies, and alliances. From a tender age, I was starting "secret clubs" in and out of school with various chums. Some employed codes, charters, mission statements, protocol, rules and regulations, and of course, public outreach. This usually consisted of asking the girls down the street, "you wanna join our secret club?" and then immediately contriving peculiar new initiation ceremonies on the spot.

And even when I wasn't ringmastering these elementary-school secret societies, sometimes they would come looking for me. When I was in fourth grade at Model Laboratory School, a man who was supposedly a student teacher from EKU instituted "The Pirate Club", apparently with the teacher's blessing. While the rest of the class went about their regular work, The Pirate Club were excused so we could hold meetings in a back room. The lights were turned out, and we would don our paper pirate hats and stare into a large candle while sitting in a circle. Most of the kids in the club were dumb toughs and bullies, but a couple of them - including me - were semi-brainy nerds. We would answer questions and talk about our feelings on various subjects, and were awarded pieces of that "Gold Rush" chewing gum that looked like gold nuggets and came in little drawstring bags. The man would repeatedly tell us that we were superior to everyone else although he also cautioned us that, like with Spider-man, with great power comes great responsibility - and that we should all try hard to fit in with the rest of the students because they would never truly understand "gifted" people like us.

Now, this was great fun when you're in fourth grade, but looking back, I wonder: what the hell was this all about? Who approved a secret society to tell already rowdy kids that they really are better than everybody else? Was it a ploy to use reverse psychology to defuse our rebelliousness? Or was it some sort of test to look for certain kinds of answers from certain kinds of kids, much like when a young John Locke on ABC's LOST is presented with a test from the future?

Whatever they were fishing for, they must have found it. One day, it was announced that the Pirate Club was disbanding. "We're still the Pirate Club", the guy said, "we just have to make it so secret now, that we never talk about it, never acknowledge it, but we will know, won't we?", or words to that effect. It wasn't until years later that I realized just how creepy the whole thing was. (Of course, another student teacher later confided to me that she was a Witch, and said I could join her secret Witch Club, and that probably creeps me out even more, so much so that we'll save that story for another time.)

Anyway, I continued my interest in fraternal organizations as I grew older, and the game pieces remained but the stakes got higher. I soon aligned myself with all sorts of groups ranging from the hilariously time-wasting to those seeking a higher purpose of serving mankind. And now, I've come full circle again and have started my own fraternal club all over again, the Transylvania Gentlemen. My theatre company also functions as an exclusive cliquish sort of club, with its own chain of command, meetings, bylaws, and mission purpose. Hopefully these organizations will achieve more noble goals when all is said and done.

But re-reading my surprisingly well-preserved copy of The Three Mouseketeers #26, October 1960, which I obtained used from a flea market in Irvine probably around 1969 or so, it dawns me that a large part of my procedural fascination stems from this very comic book, written and drawn by the great Sheldon Mayer in the 50s and 60s (plus a reprint revival in the 70s).

The Three Mouseketeers concerns a trio of mice who operate a secret club that holds official meetings obsessively - even when there's no pressing business at hand - inside a tin can with a leaf for a door, and a Hogan's Heroes-like secret tunnel that leads up into it from a hidden entrance. Given that tunnels, spelunking, and all things underground have also been lifelong points of interest for me, I feel re-reading this comic is nothing less than a personal satori of self. (Cheaper than a shrink, and I don't have to get pumped full of soul-draining big pharma meds.)

The Mouseketeers are led by Fatsy, who insists on strict adherence to the club's charter and Robert's Rules of Order. Demerits are handed out for all manner of failure to comply. And yet they are a loyal and close-knit group, whose main purpose seems to be twofold: to gather food for survival and to have fun. Minus is a tiny, energetic mouse whose enthusiasm constantly leads to misadventures and disciplinary action from Fatsy. Patsy, the only mouse of the three who doesn't wear clothes, is a good-natured but dimwitted fellow.

The Mouseketeers' main enemies were humans (or the "Big-Feets", as they called them), and in this issue, Fatsy and Minus actually have something of a moral argument regarding their dependency on human resources. Fatsy insists they own the land their clubhouse-can sits on, while Minus tries to remind him that no, the land belongs to the Big-Feets, and the mice are just squatting there hoping no one notices. When Fatsy further declares that they have every right to just take the land anyway, Minus proffers an opinion that Mouseketeers should not own property at all, and be above that concept. Heady stuff to read as a toddler! Probably warmed me up for Proudhon.

Sheldon Mayer's other major comic book, Sugar & Spike, was also a huge influence on me as a child. It concerned two toddlers whose baby-talk functioned as a secret language by which they could communicate perfectly between themselves as well as all other children, forming a sort of alliance against all adults. They, along with their super-genius baby friend Bernie, made their way through the world looking at the grown-ups as their adversaries even as they pillaged their snacks - just like the Three Mouseketeers, really.

- - JSH

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