Saturday, June 20, 2009

In Memory of the Passing of a Great American

This morning brought a bit of sad news: the inventor of the "Magic Fingers Vibrating Bed" passed on to the Great Beyond at the ripe age of 92.

I found this story, as with so many things Americana, on the Huffington Post blog. The story included a photo of the inventor: a mild-looking elderly man wearing old-guy couture and glasses thick enough to fry an ant. It's a candid shot -- it looks like his grandkids were taking him to the park that day for a walk or something.

In other words, a perfectly appropriate, informal image. Who would expect the obiturary photo of the inventor of the vibrating bed to show him wearing a tie and preppy sports jacket and an aristocratic sneer? No, John Joseph Houghtaling was one of us, an everyday Joe. He belonged to a peculiarly American tradition: guys who invent stuff that no one really needs but that everyone wants to try at least once.

For one shiny quarter, his vibrating bed promised 15 minutes of "tingling relaxation and ease" to weary travelers. The heyday of the coin-operated bed was the late 1960s and 1970s.

I came to know my first "Magic Fingers Vibrating Bed" many years ago. My high school shop teacher, a rather small, densely bearded man, had offered me a job during spring break, helping him clean and service a bunch of ice cube machines he owned.

I'm not sure why he chose me. Perhaps because I was a good student who seemed hard-working, honest and trustworthy. Or perhaps because I seemed like the sort of person who wouldn't laugh at a middle-aged man who, over the course of his life, had managed to acquire an empire no more significant than a chain of ice cube machines outside of motels in rural northern Maine.

I don't recall much about the actual job. Drive through the woods for a while, come to a motel with an ice machine, stop. As I remember, I would then go about putting a shine on the ice machines while he went inside and chatted with the motel owners. Were they selling much ice? Were they pleased with their ice machines? Did the customers find the ice satisfactory?

At the end of the day, he would pick a motel for the night. One had a "Magic Fingers Vibrating Bed." I figured, what the hell, and dropped in a quarter.

The bed rather aggressively kicked into life, like something in a Stephen King short story. I expected a sort of gentle, soothing hum. This bed sounded more like a piece of industrial equipment, lying in wait for me. I lay down on it. The bed buzzed away and trembled. The sensation didn't much resemble fingers, unless they belonged to some stick-fingered person with bad tremors.

It was a bust, but I don't remember feeling cheated. It was more like a feeling of awe that I lived in a country that could produce men who could invent such things as "X-Ray Spectacles" and "joy buzzers" and "Magic Fingers Vibrating Beds" and could actually make a fortune doing so.