The Official Flaming Underpants of the 2020 Covid Olympics

This week our local schools revealed their plans for the fall. There are as many different approaches as there are school districts involved, but the one thing that is fairly consistent is that if students return to the classroom, they’ll be wearing face masks.

It’s going to take some adjustment and patience, but I suspect most kids will do okay with this. Image by Leo Fontes from Pixabay

I don’t think that comes as such a shock. Also this week, most stores in our area began requiring masks inside, a mandate that has not come from our governor in the state of Missouri, but has been left up to county health officials, local governments, and business owners. A good number of people were wearing them anyway, but now it’s official policy.

That’s led to a little bit of grumbling, as there are still some people who question the practice, but for the most part, the folks in my little corner of the world are handling any conflicts with calm discussion and a touch of humor.

Mostly, we talk about underwear.

It’s all over my social media feeds as clever memes that draw parallels between wearing a face mask and wearing a bra or panties or boxer briefs. A mask, they say, should be treated like underwear—it should be kept dry, worn clean, and not adjusted in public. Many ladies add to the discussion by proudly proclaiming that even though it’s uncomfortable and kind of a pain, they wear a bra in public for the benefit of others. Unfortunately, outside of social media, and in the sticky summer St. Louis heat, the resolve of some seems to fall away and that particular metaphor doesn’t always hold.

But the point is still valid. And what else do we have to talk about?

Because on this day in 2020, when the world should be sharing in the celebration of the parade of nations and the end of the Olympic torch relay at the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, instead we’re sharing a virus.

One of many great disappointments in 2020. photo credit: Tim Schofield IMG_0965 via photopin (license)

And when we should be watching with pride as the torch is run into an Olympic stadium filled with the best elite athletes the world has to offer, anticipating gymnastics floor routines, swimming medley relays, and (in my household particularly) epic fencing bouts, we’re stuck instead with endless conversations about the fallout of Covid-19. And underwear.

In 1956, the topics actually overlapped, because that’s when the great underwear torch relay occurred. The Olympic torch, of course, is the symbol of connection and continuity from the Olympics of Ancient Greece and the modern-day event, which draws the world together in a spirit of friendly competition, cooperation, and good fun.

I can’t help but wonder how many people have touched this and whether or not their hands were clean.

The relay, however, which sees the lighted torch carried from Olympia, Greece to the host city, making appearances in cities around the world on the way, has much shallower roots, only dating back to the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. It was a tradition begun by Nazis.

For this and probably lots of other geopolitical reasons, the torch relay and the torch itself, has at times been the target of protests. In 1956, one such protest carried out by eight students from St. John’s College at the University of Sydney, involved a fake torch made from a silver-painted wooden chair leg, a plum pudding can, and a flaming pair of underpants.

Approximating the dress of an official torch runner, and accompanied by a uniformed buddy on a motorcycle, one student carried the flaming drawers ahead of the official torch and even managed to hand it off to then Lord Mayor of Sydney Pat Hills, who, flustered at the earlier than expected arrival of the torch, proceeded to give a prepared speech to an expectant crowd. By the time he learned of the deception, the student had disappeared.

The real torch did make its way to the handoff at Sydney Town Hall amid a little bit of mayhem. It went on from there to Melbourne where it burned brightly over the Olympic Games that year. The student who’d handed off the flaming underwear, a young man named Barry Larkin, went on to establish a successful veterinary practice, and as is so often the case, no one really seems to know what he and his friends were actually protesting.

photo credit: pburka Mask required via photopin (license)

But I suppose people will always find a reason to get a little riled up. It might be that we disagree with the way our local school districts have decided to try to navigate an impossible situation. Or it might be that we have deep-rooted personal beliefs about whether or not people should be required to wear face masks into WalMart.

I wish we could all be watching the Olympics. But I guess instead we’ll talk about underwear.

An Unexpected Need for Change

It was sometime in the early 1900s when an educated and highly intelligent young man from Austria-Hungary known by the name Victor Lustig embarked on a renowned life of crime. Aboard numerous transatlantic vessels this sophisticated gentleman successfully schmoozed would-be investors into supporting his non-existent Broadway Musical project. Then later he successfully sold a number of people his fantastic “Rumanian Box,” a small mahogany trunk containing two slots and some levers that worked to duplicate currency bills.

The con was pretty simple. Lustig, who tended to introduce himself as a count, happily demonstrated by asking his mark to provide a large denomination of bill, usually $100, and explained that it took six hours to make a perfect duplicate that would be accepted as legal tender by any bank. Then six hours later, Lustig’s miraculous contraption yielded two $100 bills, both of which would be determined to be genuine.

Lustig is the fella in the center with the trustworthy face. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Because they were. Of course Lustig planted the bill, and several more until the mark was thoroughly convinced and willing to cough up an awful lot of money to own the box. Lustig timed the con carefully so that he could be far away by the time the mark figured out he’d been had.

It is so simple, in fact, that one might wonder why any reasonably intelligent person might fall for it. Obviously, Victor Lustig was a pretty charming kind of guy, who gave off a trustworthy vibe. He allegedly put together a list of ten commandments for conmen that actually make me kind of like him, despite his questionable sense of morality. He’s also the same man who managed to sell the Eiffel Tower, which was neither on sale nor owned by him or anyone he ever represented, and who once conned Al Capone out of as much as $5,000. 

Lustig allegedly pulled off this creative scheme at least twice.

But I think the Rumanian Box scheme had something else going for it. On the dresser in my bedroom I have a basket where I sometimes throw the coins from the bottom of my purse, and where my husband might drop the loose change from his pants pockets before sending them through the ever-revolving laundering process.

If you have a similar spot on your dresser or nightstand or kitchen counter, you will probably not be surprised to read that this little collection of coins seems to multiply. Logically, I know this is because we add to it every time we find a few pennies in the couch cushions or clean dimes out the cup holders in the car or remove clattering nickels from the washing machine that slipped through the initial pocket-emptying process.

I could swear it multiplies.

When I occasionally think about it, I might grab a few coins from this basket and make an effort to spend them at the store, but I rarely do think about it. I’m often not using cash at the store these days anyway so I don’t really worry much about exact change.

And it turns out that’s true of a lot of Americans, particularly right now in this strange era of Covid-19. We don’t go to as many physical stores or use as many vending machines or stuff as many parking meters or travel as many toll roads or walk into as many bank lobbies as we used to.

Our tossed aside pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters are sitting, multiplying, in the baskets on our dressers. The businesses that are usually part of the chain that reintroduces those coins into circulation, aren’t handling as many. In fact, there’s a shortage.

First toilet paper. Now this.

As a result, the Federal Reserve has been rationing coins, and signs are starting to pop up in retail spaces asking people to use either exact change if possible, or an alternate form of payment. It’s almost as weird as not being able to find toilet paper and canned soup.

It sounds like the problem just kind of snuck up on us. I suppose it is difficult to anticipate all of the ramifications of shutting down an economy on a scale we’ve never attempted before. Fortunately, according to Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell, the shortage is most likely pretty temporary and should sort itself out as more parts of the economy open up.

But if it doesn’t, I have a solution. I think the US should consider investing in some of these fancy dresser-top baskets so many of us have sitting around. I’d part with mine for the right price. Oh, I’m also working on a Broadway musical in need of investors. And I happen to have a tower for sale.