Saturday, December 14, 2013

Unsolved Mysteries...Solved

               The fitness movement had a Hit Parade?

Do you ever have one of those days where a moment from your long ago past is accidentally uncovered and you can't believe that you ever forgot it because it was so unusual or important at the time? My husband refers to this as "The Closet". He believes that there's a closed closet in your brain containing all the things you've experienced and forgotten and you mostly forget that the closet even exists, until some stray thought or event opens that door and you're presented with this perfect slice of time that you didn't even remember you had. This happened to me last week.

So, I'm in the 5th grade. It's a crisp fall day as we file into the slab floored and corrugated metal building that my school used for PE class. My hair is in pig-tails and I'm probably wearing a jumper with shorts underneath because that's what girls did in those days before gym suits were required. Our PE teacher is a tiny chain-smoking leprechaun of a woman named Mrs. Benny whose daily uniform consisted of a powder blue Adidas track suit, Keds and a police whistle.

Regardless of what drill or skill we were learning on any given day, Mrs. Benny was always big on warming up with "old school" exercises. Deep knee bends, toe touches, arm spins...the works. One day, and I can't even remember when it started, she switched on the record player, ordered us to line up in rows with an arm's length between us on either side and a roomful of 5th graders began marching in place to the mysterious "chicken fat" song.

I say mysterious because, even though I heard this song at least four times per week and for two years afterwards, I never understood what it meant. Didn't know what chicken fat was (unless it was attached to the meat course at dinner) and had no idea why I was doing push ups with this tune as the background music. The man singing it had a big, booming, look at me! show-tune kind of voice and his delivery did seem oddly familiar as he articulated what a daily exercise regimen should look like.

As I struggled to execute my sit-ups in time with the cheerful rhythm of the music, the only image that ever came to mind was that of a plucked chicken jumping rope while wearing a hat. Pity me, readers. This was back in the day before any kids had ever even heard of the word cellulite or adipose.

Mrs. Benny would stroll around the gym giving the side eye to any slackers and would sometimes attempt to model jumping jacks until a tubercular-style coughing jag brought her flailing to a halt. Unlike the male athletic coaches of later years whose physiques were more of a cautionary tale for the students they taught, Mrs. Benny was as thin as a Vanilla Wafer, but also as dark and sun-wrinkled as a piece of beef jerky. She loved a good joke, but could quickly decide when it was over, and her terrifying visage could scare the donut holes out of even the worst kid. At first, "chicken fat" seemed as though it could be one of those jokes, but after two years of "Go--you chicken fat--go away!", there was clearly something we were supposed to have learned from it. I confess that I never did. Until last week.

During a conversation with my husband about something that I can no longer remember, the door of "The Closet" swung open and a dusty crumb of a memory caused me to I ask him if he had ever done exercises to the song about chicken fat. He looked at me funny and said that he had not. I was forced to turn to my boyfriend, Google, who quickly swept back the cobwebs of time and revealed something pretty astonishing to me. Others had been doing their side bends in fear of the dreaded chicken fat also.

The song had gone by another name: The "Youth Fitness Song". Words and music were provided by Meredith Willson, who had also written the score for "The Music Man". The singer with the booming voice who critiqued our spastic moves as though he was watching from behind a two-way mirror was Robert Preston, Broadway's original Music Man. What's more, the song had been commissioned for President Kennedy's Physical Fitness program of the President's Council on Physical Fitness and  copies had been sent out to all elementary schools during that era, though Kennedy had been dead for years by the time I did my first toe touch while listening to it.

Like all naive and sheltered kids, I had too easily assumed ours was the only school required to get into good shape while un-ironically listening to a song about a crucial member of the food pyramid. And because were probably the only ones being taught to run relays by someone who looked as though she had fallen off of a box of Lucky Charms but who--if provoked--had enough moxie to kick an old man down a flight of stairs, I never questioned it or her.

Clearly, I lived in a vacuum, but it only took a quick and unexpected trip into the closet in my brain to show that we had actually been participants in a nation-wide phenomenon. True I didn't know it then, but sometimes late is better than never.

Everyone has a memory closet. What has yours revealed to you?

P.S: I went on to win the President's Physical Fitness award for the two years it was offered during middle school, though I can say with confidence that the fear of chicken fat had nothing to do with it.

1 comment:

  1. I am very well aware of the Chicken Fat song. Here in NEO, we had a local kiddie show called "Franz the Toymaker". Franz was dressed up like a guy from a German cuckoo clock, and during one silly segment, he'd play the Chicken Fat song and hugely flail about, beckoning his viewers to do the same. The song cracked me up. No idea that it was a Huge Government Plot! Thanks!


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