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Jewish World Review July 20, 2000 / 17 Tamuz, 5760

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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Consumer Reports

On Main Street, signs of the times tell two stories -- COLUMBUS, Ohio | I tend to idealize the years and place of my growing up, and at the center of these memories is Main Street. When I recall what it was like for my friends and me to ride our bikes along Main Street, the landmarks are as vivid now in memory as they were on the summer days when we would roll past them, pumping away at the bike pedals: Seckel's 5 & 10, the Eskimo Queen ice cream stand, the Ohio National Bank, Rogers' Drugstore. . . .

But there was something else -- something we barely paid attention to.

It was a billboard -- a big one.

And the words on the billboard, in huge letters, with no explanatory text underneath those letters, were:


We had no idea who Earl Warren was; we were kids. I don't think we even had any idea what "impeach" meant. Probably we thought "impeach" was sort of like "elect." Maybe this Earl Warren guy was running for office, and wanted our parents' vote.

Earl Warren was the chief justice of the United States Supreme Court. He was appointed by President Eisenhower in 1953, and served until 1969 (he died in 1974). He became a figure of enormous controversy in the 1950s and 1960s because of what some people on the right considered to be his liberal leanings. He was the justice who wrote the historic Brown vs. Board of Education opinion for a unanimous court, banning segregation in schools; the Warren Court, as it was called, issued the Miranda vs. State of Arizona decision ruling that criminal suspects must be informed of their rights. . . .

All of this infuriated many people on the far political right; the John Birch Society in particular targeted Warren, agitating for him to be removed from office. Bumper stickers advocating his impeachment were distributed across the country -- and in our neighborhood, someone had funded the big "IMPEACH EARL WARREN" billboard on Main Street.

The people who despised Warren thought that his purportedly permissive political leanings would eventually be the downfall of the country; they thought that his court stood for an anything-goes attitude that would bring the nation down. It was such an odd sight on Main Street -- there were all the feel-good artifacts of Leave-it-to-Beaver-land, and then there was the angry billboard urging the removal from office of the chief justice of the United States.

We didn't know; we would ride our bikes right past it. We were children on Main Street.

Last week, I was back on Main Street. Not on a bike this time; I was riding in a car, in a hurry to get someplace.

The "IMPEACH EARL WARREN" billboard is long gone. But not far from where it used to be, I saw another sign. It was on the side of a small building on Main Street.

The sign said: "Recycle Your Old Porn."

It was on the side of a so-called adult book and video store. Apparently it was an invitation to bring in no-longer-wanted pornography, and trade it in for new pornography.

Had we seen that sign from our bikes as we rode down Main Street in the 1950s. . . .

Well, we wouldn't have seen it. Any business owner who had put up such a sign would have ended up in jail.

But had we seen it, we would have had no more idea of what those words meant than we did about the words on the Earl Warren sign.

"Recycle"? What's that mean? Something to do with bicycles?

But the main confusion, of course, would have been about the "porn." If "porn" was short for "pornography," and pornography was forbidden, dark, hidden, something to be stamped out. . . .

Then how could those words be displayed on a sign on Main Street? Right where everyone could see them? "Recycle Your Old Porn"? How could that be -- right out there in full view, as if the words were advertising a bake sale or an ice cream social? Right out there where not only grownups in cars could see the words, but kids on their bikes on a summer afternoon?

In the days of the "IMPEACH EARL WARREN" billboard, far-right conservatives were warning that some day the country would change so much that it would hardly be recognizable -- would change in ways that we might regret.

The billboard has disappeared. On Main Street the other day, I found myself thinking about whether, years from now, boys and girls who are children today will think back to the Main Street of their own growing-up time, and hazily remember another sign. "Recycle Your Old Porn."

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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