"What's a necktie?" the young'uns are asking. Well, it's a piece of cloth with no known practical function this side of Alex Comfort's Joy of Sex. In the Dark Ages, about 30 years ago when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, every male in America was required to wrap a tie around his neck in the morning before heading off for work, in case he needed a napkin at lunch or suddenly had to sneeze.
There was a time when all fathers, husbands, and uncles could count on getting at least one new necktie for Christmas. Some unfortunate wretches even received two or three. Of course, this was before T-shirts were invented.
The tie almost always came wrapped in a shallow, rectangular box that left no doubt about its contents. Nothing else could fit inside that distinctively shaped box except the dreaded Christmas Necktie. Certainly not the tackle box or that new sand wedge you really wanted.
"Oh, what a surprise," the man was expected to exclaim as he opened it. To lend verisimilitude to this fib he would add, as if the thought had just occurred to him, "You know, I really needed a new tie." Men of a certain age know these words better than the lyrics to Deck the Halls.
At the first opportunity, all new neckties would be transferred to the deepest recesses of a storage closet never to be seen again. Before that, however, Emily Post or some other government official mandated that every adult male in the nation had to wear his new Christmas tie at least once -- no matter how hideous it might be.
We were reminded of those ancient customs the other day when we noticed by the neolithic calendar on our wall that it was time once again to sort through our neckties and see how many we could safely throw away. For most men, every excursion of this kind into the necktie closet is like a bad trip on the dangerous drug of nostalgia. What we found this time brought flooding back memories of someone else's very special Christmas tie.
Back in the '70s, after the Watergate scandal when Gerald Ford was serving out Nixon's remaining term as president, the only U.S. president never elected to national office made an otherwise-routine appearance before the White House press corps during the holidays. It must have been in late December or early January of 1975 or '76.
The next day's news reports mentioned that Ford stepped up to the presidential podium wearing a "predominately" brown necktie he had received for Christmas. One sharp-eyed reporter immediately noticed that the brown swatch hanging down Ford's shirt-front was, in fact, a joke tie cleverly masking a blatant obscenity.
Remember, this was the 1970's, a decade known to modern historians as "the '60s." Blatant obscenities were the order of the day.
According to our mental transcript of the event the reporter asked, 'Where did you get that tie, Mr. President?'
'It was a gift from my children,' President Ford replied proudly.
'Sir, did you notice what the tie says?'
This puzzled the president. 'What it says?' he asked doubtfully, looking down his chest. 'It's just a design. Nice, don't you think?'
The reporter doggedly persisted. "Mr. President, isn't that an obscene word woven into your tie?"
"Not that I know of," the president replied.
The press corps twittered. A few guffawed.
This may strike the modern reader as unkind and disrespectful of the White House Press Corps, but you must remember the times. It was before Fox Cable News. Beltway journalists were still flushed with their success in ferreting out the ugly truths behind that "third rate burglary" at the Watergate. They had not yet learned the avuncular art of dutifully transcribing any ol' thing a president might say, regardless of its patent ridiculousness, and repeating it in print or on television with utter credulity.
How times have changed. The press back then recognized reality even when the president wouldn't. They knew what all men at home that day knew, too, and probably for the same reason. That particular Christmas season every man in America, even professional journalists, had received the same damn gift tie.
Having thoroughly confounded the president -- though it must be admitted he was an easily bewildered man -- the White House reporters moved on to a different topic, and that was the end of that.
Newspapers the next day reported on the press conference. Several mentioned that President Ford had worn "a Christmas tie" his children had given him. Many published photos of the president, although taken at such a distance that the only thing to be seen clearly was the faint suggestion of squiggly diagonal lines. But a number of more intrepid reporters, as we recall, went so far as to add that embedded in the tie was "a common four letter word" about which the president seemed oblivious.
There are perhaps ten thousand web sites that offer old neckties for sale. Google them and you will be astounded. Amazingly, however, none -- at least, none that we could find -- displays President Ford's Christmas joke tie. Perhaps it's now hanging in the back of some archival closet at the Gerald Ford Presidential Library.
Our own copy of the same tie inexplicably surfaced the other day while we were rummaging through a rarely used closet at home. It's a good guess that all over the United States this Christmas season other men will be doing the same. After all, it's that time of the century: get rid of those vintage neckties, men. Make room for new.
Click the tie to read it, if you dare. But don't take it personally. Soon, you'll be seeing thousands of them for sale on Ebay.