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What Walks Down Stairs, Alone Or In Pairs, And Makes A Slinkity Sound?

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No, the answer is not Steely Dan, but the steely Slinky toy! Invented by an Naval engineer (by accident) at a Philly shipyard in 1943, it has become an icon over the years. Originally sold for a buck, it now goes for $5.95 or so on Amazon.com. The inventor sold 100 million of the things in the first two years after he finally got toy stores to carry them. Here’s a Popular Science article from 1945:

A Slinky consists of 98 coils of high-grade Swedish spring steel and is 2-1/2 inches high. In Viet Nam, the Army used them as emergency antennas for their short-wave radios. They are the official state toy of Pennsylvania, and they are alluded to in a lot of books and movies. My favorite reference, of course, is this one from the second Ghostbusters movie, where Egon describes his strange childhood:

Dr. Ray Stantz: “You mean you never even had a Slinky?
Dr. Egon Spengler: “We had part of a Slinky. But I straightened it.”

NASA has had fun fiddling with Slinkys in space, where they have strange properties unknown to us on this planet. Because a high-frequency sound wave travels faster than a low-frequency one, a Slinky makes a cool swooshy/boingy sound if you hold it vertically and hit the bottom end with a drumstick; the sound is so unusual that avant-garde composer John Cage used it in a 1959 symphony called Sounds of Venice. And I’ve heard a foley artist used a Slinky to make that laser-blaster sound in Star Wars.

Here’s an ad for the Slinky from a 1953 Abbott and Costello comic book; it appears to have been drawn by the artist who did the Dubble-Bubble chewing-gum ads:

The Pleasure Was All Mine

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When I was in high school, I was recruited from a two-week stint at Winn Dixie to Publix Supermarkets (Where Shopping is a Pleasure!) by Bob DeVille, who managed the Naples store and was one of the smartest men I’ve ever known. He came to our house and told my mom and dad I would be better off working for him. I ended up spending 14 years at Publix, though I often got frustrated and quit. Mr. DeVille would wait a month or so and then call me up to see if I’d calmed down and was ready to return. I usually did.

I got into the produce department because I had read that an agricultural job could keep you from being drafted and sent to Viet Nam. After I while, I was transferred to Tampa and eventually I got my own produce department in a tiny art-deco Publix on Nebraska Avenue. I loved that store and the staff and customers. Patty and I were just married, and I was happy to have a job during a tough recession.

I’d work hard to make creative displays, using hand-lettered signs and the contrasts in colors and shapes of the produce to create excitement and interest. Fresh produce wasn’t a big deal at that time, and most of the unusual stuff I tried to sell didn’t. I’d have recipe cards and samples available but folks didn’t want to know what a Kiwi fruit was or to give a carambola a try. I was lucky to sell half a case of romaine to every twenty cases of iceburg lettuce.

Working in a supermarket was a great way to learn what ads worked and what ads didn’t; what displays moved merchandise and what displays didn’t, and I was lucky enough to work for a store manager who let me try anything that I dreamed up. I’d draw little graphs of where people stopped in my little department, what they put in their shopping cart and what they didn’t.

On the side, I’d do freelance writing, photography and graphics, and when I made more money one year doing that than I did at Publix, I left for good. But I learned a lot and met Patty there, and consider myself most lucky for the experience.