MY TURN: Columnist knows way around 'Wienermobile'

By Tom Kirvan

Years ago, at a special bank-sponsored luncheon in Washtenaw County, I had the pleasure of meeting and--for a few precious moments--interviewing Dave Barry, perhaps the foremost newspaper humorist of our time.

Barry, then a nationally syndicated columnist for The Miami Herald, was the featured speaker at the luncheon, which was heavily populated with bankers and other financial types who are not necessarily known for their sense of humor. In short, he faced a difficult task in getting them to crack a collective smile at some of his musings, which on that day centered around his recent experience driving one of the great symbols of American ingenuity: The Oscar Mayer Wienermobile.

For those unfamiliar with the Wienermobile, it qualifies for a spot in the Hall of Fame of promotional head-turners, a show-stopping slice of Americana that has been making the rounds since 1936. One of its models is currently on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, a fact that Barry was proud to mention in his speech that memorable spring day.

My fascination with the 27-foot long (no pun) and 11-foot high vehicle stemmed from a story I wrote a year earlier about a couple of Saline brothers who had spent their college summer piloting the craft around Michigan. Theirs was an interesting journey, spiced by various stops at schools, colleges, and sporting events where hot dog lovers were likely to hang out. They logged several thousand miles during their summer sojourn, which included being nabbed for a speeding ticket in a residential neighborhood. The local paper, accordingly, made big news of their heavy foot, splashing a front page headline: "Cops ketchup with Wienermobile."

Of course, the brothers, who just happened to be good friends of my son, were subjected to far more folly than that during their time at the controls of the Wienermobile, which reportedly weighs some 3 tons and sports such vanity license plates as "OH I WISH" and ""RELSHME." Let's just say that they found it is hard to remain dignified when traveling around in a makeshift hot dog that is target practice for every would-be comedian that passes by.

But, according to the brothers, they received special training to help ward off the tawdry taunts and decidedly un-clever comments that came their way. Their willingness to display a thick skin in the face of such lewd and lascivious behavior is what earned them the right to be called "Hotdoggers," the unofficial badge of honor worn by Wienermobile drivers.

Barry--who is back in the literary spotlight with the recent release of his new book, "You Can Date Boys When You're Forty: Dave Barry on Parenting and Other Topics He Knows Very Little About"--acknowledged the many challenges of being a true "Hotdogger" during his luncheon talk that day.

Specifically, he had words of caution for all parents in the audience: "Never pick your child up from middle school in the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile."

Barry, a Pulitzer Prize winning writer, spoke from experience, confessing that he put his then-13-year-old son, Rob, through such pain.

"He was out front, with all his friends, when I pulled up," Barry related.

His message to his son, broadcast loudly over the Wienermobile PA system, was simple: "ROB BARRY, THIS IS YOUR FATHER. PLEASE REPORT TO THE WIENERMOBILE IMMEDIATELY."

Like a good boy, his son did.

"Rather than run off and join a fringe religious cult, which is what I would have done at age 13, he got into the Wienermobile," Barry said. "I could tell that, deep inside, he was proud of his old man, although he did not explicitly say so."

In a sense, Barry viewed it as the ultimate father-son bonding experience.

"Of course, I did not expect thanks," Barry said. "My reward is the knowledge that some day, somehow, Rob will be a hideous embarrassment to HIS son. That's what makes this country great--an older generation passing along a cherished tradition to a younger one, in very much the same way that a row of people at a baseball game will pass along those tasty Oscar Mayer wieners, which by the way also have been shown in laboratory tests to prevent baldness."

Published: Fri, Mar 14, 2014