»  The Straggler, No. 11

September 15, 2003

  Conversion Experience


I grew up believing there were only two kinds of luggage: trunks and suitcases. The old style of steamer trunk was still around in my salad days. (I am speaking of the 1960s.) I actually took one with me when I left home to go to college. It was a glorious thing, a relic from the heroic age of luggage, the kind of Victorian monster that Alexander Kinglake or Henry Morton Stanley might have lost fording a river. It was strictly an item for porters and redcaps to deal with, though. For stuff one carried oneself, the suitcase was the thing.

Wheels were beginning to make an appearance, and some avant-garde spirits could occasionally be seen tugging a suitcase with a pair of wheels stuck on one corner, the tugging being accomplished by dint of a strap attached at the diametrically opposite corner. This was an unhappy and unstable contraption, though, a unimaginative hybrid, like those early digital watches where the rectangular display of numbers was imbedded in a traditional circular watch face. I never bothered with it, and schlepped a series of suitcases — and then, after the Kluge revolution, shoulder bags — across three continents over thirty years.

The best of them was my Saks bag. Leaving New York to get married abroad in 1986, and perhaps with the mind to have one last bachelor fling before the curtain came down on my days of reckless spending, I went to Saks Fifth Avenue and bought a disgracefully expensive bag. It was, and still is, a robust yet beautiful thing, expandable to twice its width via some clever zipper work, with a dog-clipped padded webbing strap to attach for shoulder carrying. In un-expanded state, it is precisely the right size to fit into those wooden boxes they set up near airport check-in counters, to test whether your bag is too big for carry-on. This one looks as though it ought to be; but it has survived all challenges, and seen me through the era — which seems to have started about then, in the mid-1980s — when it came to be thought an essential life skill for a person, traveling alone, to manage with only carry-on luggage.

Meanwhile, wheelie technology was advancing steadily. That early unhappy style of suitcase with attached wheels had been superseded by the first true wheelies: bags built on a wheeled frame with an extending handle, so you could walk along upright while pulling the thing. I was not tempted. For one thing, it was mainly women that used wheelies, and older women in particular — wheelies seemed to go with tweed suits and sensible shoes. I felt sure that whatever the French noun for "wheelie" was, it took the article la, not le. A man needed no assistance from one-inch wheels. He hefted his suitcase or shoulder bag stoically, even if he had to lean over at forty degrees from the vertical to do so.

I did not know at that time that over quite large areas of human life, most especially those areas concerned with comfort and pleasure, women are what the advertising industry refers to as "early adopters." In his WW2 memoir Quartered Safe Out Here, George MacDonald Fraser notes the common soldiers' prejudice against filter-tip cigarettes, at that time quite a new thing. "That's a tart's cigarette, man!" scoffed a comrade when GMF produced one ("tart" being low-class English slang for a young woman, especially one of easy virtue). I can recall a parallel opinion about automatic transmissions when they first appeared. Only a woman would seek that degree of separation from the raw, the real, the mechanical (went the prejudice); men drove stick shifts. Well, pretty soon men were driving automatics, puffing on filter-tip cigarettes as they did so.

So it was with wheelies. I took my whole family off to China for the summer of 2001. By that time I had already seen men pulling wheelies. Not dubious men, either, but indisputably masculine men — large square Texans, thick-necked big-city cop types, purposeful business captains in medium-weight worsted, military men. I was not yet ready, though. A natural conservative, I am at one with Aldous Huxley, who, after seeing one of the first talking pictures, wrote: "I can watch unmoved the departure of the last social-cultural bus — the innumerable last buses which are starting at every instant in all the world's capitals. I make no effort to board them, and when the noise of each departure has died down, 'Thank Goodness!' is what I say to myself in the solitude." Preparing the troops for China, I bought wheelies for my wife and each of the kids, but disdained to buy one for myself. I still had my Saks Fifth Avenue bag from fifteen years before, and, considerations of propriety aside, did not feel that its stupendous price tag had yet been fully amortized.

There were no dire consequences to this decision, mainly because China is well supplied with able-bodied young men (and in country districts, women and children, too) very willing to carry your bags for a dollar. Still, several weeks of watching my family strolling along happily with their wheelies in tow gave me cause for reflection. Some months after we returned to the States, an old back problem flared up and refused to yield to treatments that had proved successful before. Then — we have reached Spring of the current year — I had a new book out, and my publisher was flying me round the country for "events." After the first couple of these trips, I realized that, primo, shoulder bags are no help at all for a lower-back problem, and secondo, that I was the last person in the U.S.A. not to own a wheelie.

I buckled. Preparing for a third or fourth "event," I hesitated while reaching up for my Saks bag. My hand wavered. I withdrew it, cast one longing lingering look behind, went up into the attic, and brought down my wife's wheelie.

Things did not go well at first with me and the wheelie. Its handle, pulled out to full extension, was not quite long enough, so that I had to tilt to one side slightly while towing it. While not as bad as being forced to lean out in counterweight to fifty pounds of freight hanging from the opposite shoulder, this took the shine off the experiment, and I contemplated returning to the old religion.

Then came an "event" in Washington DC, my publisher's home town. I took lunch at their office, and voiced my disappointment at this first wheelie experience. One of them slipped out, to return five minutes later with a brand-new wheelie, bearing the firm's name and logo. "Try this one," she urged. I tried it. Not only did the handle extend a full six inches further than the one on my wife's wheelie, not only did it have double wheels (two sets of two, I mean), the thing also converted to a backpack, with sturdy shoulder straps, and a velcroed flap you could cover the wheels with — and a suitcase-type carrying handle, too!

The clouds of doubt parted; a shaft of bright sunlight burst through; like the late incomparable Hank Williams, I saw the light. I accepted the gift with a heart brimming over, silently praying that I might be forgiven for all the wicked, uncharitable things I have thought and said about publishers. Strolling across the concourse at Union Station on my way home, I knew that I had done the right thing. I shall never be able to look at my faithful old Saks bag without a twinge of remorse, but neither, I know, shall I ever go back. Nothing will now part me from my wheelie. This is for keeps.