Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Do You Know the Muffler Man?

Muncie, Indiana.  Spring 2010.

I'm excited when I tell Sarah she's got a piece of pure vintage Americana practically in her backyard.  "You've got a Muffler Man!" She's not quite as enthused as I am, but she gamely asks where it is.  "Oh, is that what that is?" she asks when I tell her he stands in the parking lot of a bar named Timbers.  "We just call him the giant lumberjack."

And a giant lumberjack he is.  But he's so much more than that.

In the 1960's we built giants.  Fiberglass giants.  The first Muffler Man was built in 1962 by a company called Prewitt Fiberglass.  It was a Paul Bunyan statue, and it stood outside the PB Cafe, along Route 66.  Prewitt Fiberglass was absorbed into International Fiberglass shortly after, and they continued to install the odd man in front of out of the way cafes.  And suddenly these places started reporting a dramatic upswing in earnings, and word got out that a fiberglass man was good for business.  And in the decade that followed, everyone wanted a giant for their front lawn.

Not just any giant man is an official Muffler Man.  There are signs, indicators that the men all came out of the same mold.  The lantern jaw.  The broad shoulders.  Arms bent at the elbow, one hand facing up and the other facing down, the better to hold his ax, or muffler, or any number of accessories crafted specially for the giant's grasp.  There are variations, of course.  Add a stetson to your classic Man and now he's a cowboy.  A wooly beard, knit cap, and a plaid painted shirt gets you an official Paul Bunyan.  The Native American model, so charmingly called The Brave, is a bit of a sticking point for Muffler Man enthusiasts (don't laugh!  They do exist!).   He doesn't bear the traditional markings of the Muffler Man - his features are narrower, his chest is bare, and he has one arm raised in the "How" greeting.  But the more liberal devotees of roadside Americana recognize the long, long history of putting an indian in front of your store to bring in business, and honor him just the same.    

They used to be everywhere, or so I'm told.  I'm a generation or two too late to really appreciate the heyday of the Muffler Man.  There are plenty still around, but they're harder to find.  Few, if any, are still with their original owners, and many have been so heavily modified that they barely resemble their original state.  Some are hidden away, as if the owners are ashamed that, as a population, we were ever so taken with something so frivolous.  I miss the time when things were allowed to be frivolous.

The Muncie Lumberjack is not, technically, an official Muffler Man, but an untrademarked hybrid that upholds the legacy as much as any official Man, Uniroyal Gal, or Texaco Big Friend can, standing tall and proud outside Timbers Bar.  Next to the adult video store. 

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