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Fast

Exclusive commentary by Greg Lewis / WashingtonDispatch.com
June 18, 2003

"Fast" was the F-word of the 1950s. Fast was good if you were a teenager, bad if you were the parents of a teenager. It was no accident that this word, with its attendant implications of illicit thrills, was used to describe both cars and women. I can remember my first drag race and my first "French" kiss. Each of them evoked a virtually identical gut rush, at least as far as my overloaded teenage sensibility could determine. And as far as that goes, there was no good reason to distinguish between them. It didn't matter where it came from as long as it came. For my money, there was no such thing as too much fast.

The bullet tit was one of the icons of fast in the '50s. Car manufacturers created cars that incorporated bullet tits into their bumpers and hood ornaments, and women wore bras that molded their breasts into the shape of bullets. Nor is it important whether bullet tits appeared first on cars or on women, although there's surely a Ph.D. thesis about the topic just waiting to be written in some university that offers advanced degrees in Popular Culture, if that hasn't long since happened.

As a teenager in the 1950s, you didn't really think about the fact that too much fast in your life might spell trouble. For adults, though, for the parents of teenagers especially, too much fast could mean, at the low end, irritations like speeding tickets, suspended drivers' licenses, and whisper campaigns that compromised reputations. At the high end, it could mean the disgrace accompanying out-of-wedlock pregnancy and the tragedy of injury, even death, in car accidents. Fast was no longer something to be trifled with; it was becoming a force to be reckoned with.

It's important to recognize that the fast I'm referring to denoted a "quality" and not something that had been quantified, or ever could be quantified, for that matter. The fast I'm referring to is an older version of the word, and for those of you who have never had the pleasure of experiencing the reverence, indeed, the awe, once exhibited in fast's presence, let me try to explain. When I say fast, I mean '55-Chevy fast. Iskenderian-five-cycle-racing-cam fast. Sudden-Sam-McDowell fast. Go-all-the-way-on-the-first-date fast.

Fast was the occasion for the first buzzword I ever encountered. The word "Isky" was short for Iskenderian, and if you dropped it into a conversation, you might get over, at least briefly, even though you really knew very little about what really made cars fast. Nowadays there are people worth millions of dollars who don't know anything but how to use buzzwords. Sports Illustrated didn't clock Cleveland Indians' pitcher Sam McDowell's fastball, they wrote an article about it. The article's title was "Sam, You Make the Ball Too Small," and it described how the Indians' ace threw fastballs that looked the size of aspirins as they came to the plate.

Oh, sure, zero-to-sixty was beginning to be invoked as a measure of fast. And as the nascent technology was developed, it gradually became possible to measure with relative accuracy how many miles per hour a fastball traveled. But such measurements remained in the realm of the exotic for a long time. Zero-to-sixty really didn't apply to the family station wagon, and no one you knew threw the ball fast enough that a major league scout might be interested in clocking its speed. During the '50s, radar guns weren't really part of the game but were used to give credence to legend, to help justify pitchers' reputations as being fast. These measurements couldn't displace the fact that fast was a quality, and you either had it or you didn't.

Back in the '50s, when parents used the word "fast," there was an underlying sadness, a deep poignancy, in their voices, as if every time they spoke the word they could feel something slip away and there wasn't much they could do about it. The backroads on which drag races often occurred back then had been, within the memories of many parents of that decade, dirt roads along which horses and wagons once traveled. Cleveland Indians' pitcher Bob Feller, touted as the "fastest" pitcher in major league baseball, had the speed of his fastball measured in the late 1940s. There's a certain quaintness in the method used. Feller stood next to railroad tracks and threw a fastball to a catcher as a train went by at 100 miles per hour. Feller's pitch was "faster" than the train, according to witnesses.

If one thing can be said to characterize the 1950s, it was movement from "human" and manageable speeds to speeds that could easily cause a loss of control, and this took the form of the growing availability of fast to the general population. As the decade slipped away, to be transmogrified into the '60s, and as bullet tits (indeed, as brassieres themselves) disappeared, something began to happen to fast. It was being used less and less frequently. And although we may not have noticed it at the time, the reason was that there were fewer and fewer things that needed to be — or even could be — described as fast. The word was simply becoming obsolete.

We were quantifying fast. We knew just how fast you needed to be to be fast, and there was a rapidly shrinking number of phenomena which fast, with its aura of mystery, could be used to describe. Like it or not, the upshot is that fast no longer has any real value as a word. Fast is just assumed, and that's because fast is now a universal condition, a fact of life. Fast doesn't distinguish one thing from another any more, because everything is fast. Fast just is. It's something everything partakes of. Fast is the bottom line, and slow no longer need bother to show up.

The train against which Bob Feller's fastball was measured has been replaced by the radar gun, and on television broadcasts, the speed of every pitch thrown is displayed in an on-screen graphic. For that matter, virtually every pitch thrown by every pitcher, from AA ball on up, is now tracked by radar, obviating the need for the word fast. A pitcher who used to have "a good fastball" now "throws a 90-mile-an-hour four-seamer."

Fast never really stood a chance. Fast was a word you could latch onto during a time of transition, a word which summed up everything you liked about what was happening around you, or everything you didn't like. Fast went to the heart of one the first widespread and highly publicized generational polarizations. In the '50s, fast became more than just a phenomenon; it became a rite of passage, something of which a significant percentage of an entire generation partook, a ritual fueled by means of early iterations of electronic feedback loops which enabled savvy marketers to supply the culture to a youthful public hungry for fast. In that light, it's hard to imagine that a word which in its heyday was applied with equal enmity to sluts and hotrods has become the Tennessee Waltz of adjectives, an old, sentimental favorite, which recalls a saner and more settled era.

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