by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
March 18, 2007
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Every February, one of the last South Pacific islands to host a cargo cult puts on a major festival. Reading about this year's party made me think of cargo cults in general, and one in particular that I joined for a little while.
Cargo cults worship manufactured goods.
"During (World War II) (the islanders) saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now," wrote the late Nobel laureate Richard Feynman a while ago. "So they've arranged to imitate things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas - he's the controller - and they wait for the airplanes to land. They're doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn't work. No airplanes land."
Is this rational? Not in the least. But most religions don't pass the rationality test. Is it charming? Yes, in an innocent way. Did everyone have a good time at the festival? Definitely.
Which brings me to the cargo cult I joined, which worshipped - if that's the right word - only one American manufactured item: Rheingold beer. We not only drank it, we wore the packaging as hats.
Rheingold was once a dominant New York brand. It was the official beer of the New York Mets and touted by the likes of John Wayne, Jackie Robinson and the Marx Brothers. But the company shut down operations in 1976, when corporate consolidations more or less wiped out regional breweries.
"During the interim period, it appears that the name was most likely licensed to the Miller brewing company for an inexpensive beer sold primarily in the northeastern part of the United States," says Wikipedia. "While almost certainly inferior to the previous version, it met the requirements of an inexpensive, but not foul tasting brew."
That inexpensive - but not foul-tasting - brew was the foundation of the Rheingold cult at Brattleboro's School for International Training in 1987. It was a far cry from what our earnest teachers were trying to impart to us, but in some small way culture begets culture. So we created a cargo cult.
The whole class was worldly. Some of us had done years of rural Peace Corps work in places like the Philippines, Botswana, Guatemala and Brazil. Many came from other countries - Nepal, Italy, Finland, Liechtenstein, Pakistan, Tanzania, Indonesia, India, Bangladesh, Togo and China. We spoke a multitude of languages - we had three speakers of Cebuano and two of Kiswahili.
The school might have thought that our common goal was a desire to learn international management techniques or to further our careers in NGOs and nonprofits. But our true common denominator was a profound need to let off some steam after many years of travel. And what better place than a lush green hill overlooking the misty Connecticut River Valley, with a supermarket at the bottom that sold cheap beer?
I was not present at the inception of the Rheingold Cult, so I tracked down one of its founders to tell me about it.
"So, the Beer Hat Cargo Cult thing," John e-mailed back. "I actually think it started with the two Daves, but once I saw it, I just knew it was something I had to get in on."
At the time, Rheingold came in cardboard containers. The more fearless among us started to wear them as hats.
"There were so many ways to wear them, and the designs were only limited by your own creativity," John wrote. "There was the Stove Pipe, the 'Hammerhead,' the Sweep. And some of my favorites were when Dave would tear and curl pieces of the cardboard and make things of beauty! Wearing a hat symbolized that you had actually consumed the beer that was in the carton. So when you walked in, and the three of us were wearing hats, you knew we were trashed."
Then there was "The Wishing Tree."
"It was the thick pine tree in front of the commons," John wrote. "Dave and I would stick any leftover beer there the night before, and then in the morning, when we were all standing around, one of us would say, 'Jees, I wish I had a beer!' Then we'd reach into the tree and voila! Beer!"
My class yearbook shows several people wearing Rheingold hats. It also has a picture of me dancing in a grass skirt that I made - under the direction of a woman from Polynesia - from the reeds growing near Upton Pond. Draw your own conclusion.
People can create belief systems out of almost anything, and drunken college students are nothing new. But I find it interesting that my class, with such a depth of intercultural experience, instinctively created its own culture.
While no airplanes landed, I think we all enjoyed being part of the Rheingold cargo cult. And yes, at the end of the school year, we returned to "rational" society and became, more or less, productive citizens.
Joyce Marcel (joycemarcel.com) is a journalist. Reach her at email@example.com.