Color Him Angry

November 04, 1990|By BARNEY KIRBY

I was watching the news when a story came on about a group of protesters picketing outside of Binney & Smith Inc., in Easton, Pa.

The protesters held signs that read, "We want green blue!" "What's wrong with orange yellow?!" "Raw umber or else!" They chanted, "Bring back lemon yellow! Bring back lemon yellow!"

Binney & Smith are the manufacturers of that American icon, the Crayola Crayons 64 count box. This year they replaced eight of the original colors with eight new ones. The reasons they gave were simple. First, they decided that there was room for expansion in the spectrum, and second -- and most important -- kids these days like brighter colors. So in with the neon and out with the drab. Dandelion outshined lemon yellow. Teal blue bumped blue gray. Those tertiary colors that were wire-walking the spectrum lines, like green blue or orange red, are no longer.

At first these crayon protesters seemed silly. In comparison with the dark reports about the Gulf crisis that permeated the first 20 minutes of news, these people had little to complain about. The Kuwaitis, yes, the soldiers sandbagged in the Arabian Desert, yes, but those protesters who whined about a few sticks of colored wax? Get serious.

That is until I found out that Binney & Smith had dropped maize.

Now I know I'm being hypocritical, but losing orange yellow or green blue wasn't that big a deal. You still have yellow orange and blue green, which aren't quite the same I realize, but they're close enough. Unfortunately, Binney & Smith had struck too close to home. They couldn't get rid of maize. It may sound odd, but I have a lot of fondness for that crayon.

I can remember late mornings on Thanksgiving Day, after the parades had ended. My brothers, sister and I were anxious for the arrival of relatives. To stop us from tormenting each other, or from pestering her in the kitchen where she was busy prepping the turkey, our mother would sit us down at the dining room table to make place cards for the guests. She'd give us sheets of lined loose-leaf paper and would place the tin of crayons in between us, so a fight wouldn't erupt because someone hogged them.

Our Crayola 64 box never lasted very long; most of the crayons were casualties to the pressure put on them by sweaty hands. The broken fragments were always kept in an old cookie tin, which made it impossible to coordinate the colors or find the exact shade you were looking for. But the pile of crayon fragments was always fun to run your hand through, and the surprise of finding what you were actually looking for was worth savoring.

The place cards were usually those hand turkeys they taught us to draw in first grade art class. We would hunch quietly over our paper, No. 2 pencils tracing our left hands, the outlines always shaky, exaggerated, and fat around the knuckles. We'd add an eye and beak to the thumb, spindly turkey legs to the base of the hand, and then begin to crayon in each finger feather a different color.

My sister fancied neatness, and my youngest brother relished scrawled mess; but my other brother and I thought we were students of Audubon and always chose our colors for accuracy. Brown. Copper. Burnt sienna. Forest green. Red orange. Brick red. Maize.

These were the colors of turkeys, the colors of the trees in October as we knew them when our father would take us on hikes through Patapsco State Forest. These were the dark, quiet colors of childhood, when autumn was slowly turning to winter.

When we'd finish coloring the feathers we'd neatly print the names "Grandma," "Uncle George," "Aunt Donna" across the palms in big block letters.

Gray. Silver. Sepia. Violet blue, the color I always misread as "violent blue." The drab, darker colors in the 64 box were hints of what was awaiting us in the world, beneath the soft colors of lavender and apricot, or the bright sea green and flashy sky blue. Grass gone brown in December. Flocks of starlings rising from roof to tree to field in an iridescent black cloud. Deaths of people we knew. These all had places in our lives too.

Binney & Smith's decision to drop those crayons seems to tell us that we should always look on the bright side of things. This is the MTV generation, where all of the kids dress like Andre Agassi, where TV shows and commercials make us believe that it's perpetually summer, where designer names and fluorescent colors that can sear the eyes rule. The new Crayolas scream, "Look at me! Look at me!" They aren't real colors. The only place that most of them appear are in chemical spills.

They're all style and no substance, like a cheap ad for a resort getaway. Wild strawberry and vivid tangerine sound like syrupy lip gloss. Fuchsia! Gesundheit! And cerulean. I can't even pronounce it, yet imagine what color it might be. It sounds like an element on the periodic table.

A few weeks later, after thinking about those picketers in Pennsylvania, I understood what they were protesting about. Forget the Radiant Eight.

Bring back green blue.

Bring back blue gray.

Bring back raw umber.

Bring back maize.

Bring back the colors that remind us that brighter isn't always better.

BARNEY KIRBY is a poet who lives in Catonsville and teaches writing at Loyola College.

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