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Pat Boone's "Twixt Twelve and Twenty"

Pat Boone's "Twixt Twelve and Twenty"

Thanks to the ongoing, interminable attempt by journalists to understand and humanize Trump voters, we've learned that there was once an alternate America, where people married for life, families went to church every Sunday, everybody lived a perfectly middle class existence without wanting for anything, and the blacks knew their place. You're not familiar with this version of America? Well, that's a shame, it was really such a wonderful time, when children could ride bicycles without helmets and homosexuals suffered in silence, as they should have. The crown prince of this white Christian utopia was Pat Boone, a container of non-dairy vanilla pudding brought to life by voodoo magic and taught to sing. 

Pat Boone was for kids whose parents thought the music of Lawrence Welk was just a little too racy. He rose to fame largely by recording watered down, whitewashed covers of songs like "Tutti-Frutti" and "Ain't That a Shame," in some cases outselling the original artists, and was second only to Elvis when it came to charting hits in the late 50s. Unlike Elvis, who had a playful yet dangerous charisma, Boone was all gee whiz apple pie and homespun traditional values, with all the sex appeal of a mayonnaise sandwich. The closest modern comparison to Boone might be Miley Cyrus, before she started dropping acid and hanging out with Wayne Coyne. What Boone sold was aspirational--he was a nice kid who proudly loved his mama, never had a pants pleat out of place, and wanted nothing more than to spend a Saturday evening at the local soda shoppe with his best girl, while still having her home by 9 p.m., of course. He was a smiling reminder about the importance of always staying in your own lane, and maintaining a fake humility about where you came from, while at the same time recognizing that you're still better than other people.

As is usually the case, over time those "traditional" American values twisted and decayed into the kind of mindset that compels one to describe liberalism as "filthy black cancer cells," as Boone did in a recent article, or compare gay rights protests to terrorism, as he did in an interview with WorldNetDaily. He's not all that nice of a guy, and probably never was. Nevertheless, he remains an icon of a time that only really existed for a very small number of people, but is still held up as when America was at its best.

Though Boone married at 19, and was the father of four children by the time his career peaked, he was still considered the leading authority in what the teens are into these days. He went so far as to write a book about it, 1958's Twixt Twelve and Twenty. Chockful of the most vapid, useless "advice," it's a guidebook on how to be the perfect white Christian teenager, in which hard work without complaint, being likable, and clean living are the three most important values. Written in a phony conversational style that suggests he's sitting across from you in a backwards turned chair, Boone opens with a little humblebragging about how he just felt compelled to write this book, after "I had just finished my umpteenth hundred interview and answered my umpteenth thousandth about teenagers in general and myself in particular.” Like a lot of "non-fiction" books written by celebrities who just wanted to add "author" to their resume, Boone professes modesty about his remarkable success, while also name dropping famous friends and mentioning his own show as an example of good television programming for young people.

The book opens with Boone paying homage to his parents, whom he still refers to as "Mama" and "Daddy," and the many spankings he endured growing up, claiming that they broke him of a "stubborn streak" (which, by Boone’s definition, appears to mean asking questions and occasionally giggling in church). As another review of this book noted, the first chapter of Twixt Twelve and Twenty mentions spankings more often than the entire first volume of Fifty Shades of Grey. "If you've never had your share of this type of teaching, you don't know what you're missing," Boone says, then goes on to mention, with utter sincerity, that if your parents didn't spank you, somebody else probably did, such as a teacher, a policeman, the neighbors, "or even good friends" (oh my). Boone seems to view regular spankings as a highlight of his youth, receiving them all the way up to age seventeen. The spankings ended when Boone refused to cry, an event that, in his words, "shattered" his mother. It's difficult to determine what's more unsettling, the fact that this happened, or Boone's breezy recounting of it, as if it's normal for mothers to spank their nearly adult sons, then become emotionally devastated when it no longer makes them cry. In either case, Boone is grateful to have experienced this psychosexual nightmare, noting "We all thought Mama the greatest, and I tell her now that she can spank me any time she likes."

Once you get past the really weird fixation on spanking, the book offers the standard banal "why didn't I think of that?!?" advice. Spoken with the smug assurance of someone who’s never doubted himself a day in his life, Boone suggests that the best cure for insecurity around your friends is to just be yourself. Be confident, it’s just that easy! And shower every day, ya beatnik! Despite the overall lighthearted tone, however, Your Pal Pat wants you to know that he really understands what it's like to be a typical teenager, particularly the trials and tribulations of trying to fit in. He understands because he experienced the tragedy of growing up as one of the only kids in his peer group whose house didn't have a badminton court, and once had to chase a cow across a pasture. It's remarkable that he was able to overcome such adversity and find the strength to record a sanitized for your protection version of "Long Tall Sally."

Nevertheless, it's incumbent upon a teenager to face life's challenges with a smile and a positive attitude, and the best way to do that is to remain as busy as possible. According to Boone, a teenager’s ideal life should be one of non-stop activity from morning till night, occupying themselves with school, chores, church, socializing, acquiring a skill or talent, sports, and planning for the future, with virtually no time left for thinking about yourself or your problems. I suppose in theory that’s an effective way to avoid the things that are bothering you, but it does catch up with you eventually. Be that as it may, time thinking about yourself is time wasted, when you could be focusing on how to be a better citizen, student, child, and friend. Does that sound like a little too much pressure, twixt twelves and twenties? Don't worry, it builds character!

Of course, given the time period and who was writing it, there's almost nothing about actual problems teenagers face. Boone every so briefly skims the subject of "overly strict" parents, and the best advice he can offer is that teens simply put up with it until they're old enough to be out on their own. Mostly it's about the importance of presenting your best self at all times, no matter how you might feel on the inside. There's something a little sinister about Boone’s oft repeated friendly admonishment that nothing is more important than people liking you, and, above all else, image is everything, which directly contradicts the notion of “just be yourself,” but never mind that. As long as your shoes are shined to a high gleam, all that other stuff will just work itself out somehow, if the Good Lord wills it.

Boone's true colors start to show in the section about dating and relationships. Though he admits that, given he eloped at nineteen, he might not be the best source of advice for such a topic, naturally he plows ahead anyway. As you could probably guess, Boone is not a fan of casual fooling around, stating "Kissing for fun is like playing with a beautiful candle in a room full of dynamite." He believes that dating should be pursued with the same determination and drive for perfection as everything else in a teenager's life, and fully endorses dumping someone the minute they don't suit the image you're trying to create for yourself. This is illustrated with his story about breaking up with a girlfriend after just three weeks of dating. Her great failing? Letting Boone see her in curlers, and then later inviting him to her home when she was suffering from a head cold. This so disturbed Boone that, even when the young lady looked more acceptably put together, he couldn't get the image of her being a human being with flaws out of his mind, and thus had no choice but to end the relationship. "No matter what the other girls tell you, I say, if you want to be attractive to boys always look your best!" he orders (emphasis his), which again, is the opposite of "just be yourself," but hey, Pat knows best--after all, do you have a bunch of gold records?

Boone leans further into the conservative Christian stereotype when he talks about marriage with his wife, Shirley, for whom he lists "neatness" and "cleanliness" as among her most notable qualities. To his credit, he does seem to be dimly aware that the idea of the man being the king of his castle and all that he surveys was becoming slightly passe by the late 50s. He expresses a sort of faux sheepishness about his belief that the man has the final word in every domestic situation, claiming that arguing about it just makes things confusing and stressful. He doesn't think a man's home is his castle, he thinks of it as a corporation, where he's the president, and Shirley is just fine being his vice-president, a rung beneath him at all times and with no room for promotion.

Much of the book treads over well-worn, confusing ground, offering contradictory guidance, such as how it's possible to be both too shy and too outgoing, and it's up to you to figure out where the happy medium is. Your teen years are no time for idleness, Pat warns. You should be always thinking ahead, always making a plan, including a literal on paper checklist, of what you want to do with your life and how to get to that point, and start on that path immediately, without a single moment of complaint about how difficult it might be. Above all else, have fun! Your teenage years are the best years your life!

I have a slight personal connection to Twixt Twelve and Twenty. Many years ago I was in a used bookstore with my father, who was delighted to find Twixt on a shelf. A fan of vintage kitsch, like old anti-drug educational films, he bought it immediately, then later told me that there was some sentimental value attached to it. His father bought him an original copy as a gift, hoping to give my dad a little guidance. Mind you, by this point my dad was cutting school to go shoot pool, so a book extolling the virtues of a proper shoe shining, let alone spending your Friday nights at church socials, wasn't going to have much of an effect, but he appreciated the thoughtfulness of my grandfather buying it for him. Regardless, he saw right through a Hollywood celebrity trying to pass himself off a regular fella who understands how tough life can be and substitutes platitudes for genuine insight. Times change, but nobody sees through phonies like teenagers.


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