The Hollywood tough-guy image of a hardened soul with a toothpick dangling from his lip has all but disappeared.

There was a time, though, in our culture when the lowly toothpick held center stage. It was in the time of Elvis, the 1950s and '60s, when the tiny wooden stick was the ultimate symbol of toughness.

Macho screen actors like Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, Lee Marvin, Robert Mitchum, Humphrey Bogart and others sported toothpicks in their film noir flicks.

Bars and beer joints exhibited toothpick-chewing characters hanging around their front doors and sitting astride their stools. Their toothpick props sent a clear message: “Don’t fool with me!”

President Trump sports the look of a tough toothpick dude. Piercing eyes, a ducktail hairstyle, a smug smile, a strong voice and a confident walk all add to the image. 

Most men during the toothpick era, though, kept their hair close-cropped and appeared even more menacing.

Long dangling hair didn’t arrive on the scene until the Beatles invaded America in the mid-1960s, with their hairy heads a twirl during high-energy musical performances.

Today, we see characters chewing on toothpicks ever so often, but nothing like we did in the past mid-century of the '50s and '60s. 

Very few restaurant checkout counters today provide free picks for their patrons. Back in the day, every restaurant did.

Each eatery had a pick holder on the cash register counter. And just about every male paying the bill reached for the iconic pick on the way out.

The toothpick, or something like it, dates back to the caveman era, giving us the impression that tough-looking characters have always been around using them. Picture the Neanderthal man with a pick.

Toothpicks back then were fashioned from small animal bones. Today, the majority of them are made from birch or bamboo. No true toothpick lover would be seen using a colored, plastic pick like we find today on hors d’oeuvre plates.

Like pictures of farmers chewing on straw, the image of the macho man chewing on a birch pick didn’t seem all that out of place back in my youth.

My late uncle Ray, who was a rugged outdoorsman and a lineman for Southern Bell, always sported a toothpick. It was one of the required props for his self-image.

Uncle Ray’s ever-present toothpick went up and down with his lips while he chatted with me. He never took it out of his mouth. I was amazed how he kept it from falling. 

As you read this, I can image most of you thinking, why the heck is the old boy writing about toothpicks?

Well, the toothpick is just another example of radical change. Like telephones, TV networks and automobiles, everything, it seems, has undergone unbelievable change in my lifetime. 

Each time the torch is passed to a new generation, familiar things are tossed aside or altogether eliminated. The toothpick is a very good example. At one period in our culture it was the symbol of toughness — a prop, no less, for a specific kind of male image.

Staff Sgt. Lacey, my basic training drill instructor a half century ago, chewed on a pick and had a way of hanging on to it as he screamed orders into our swollen ears.

I remember a guy in high school, Willard, who kept a toothpick in his mouth at all times, even during classes. I ran into him often over the years, and yes, the toothpick was there. Willard only took it out to use as a source when he wanted to make a point.

As for me, I almost swallowed a toothpick and made the wise choice then to lay them aside. But I keep a box in a kitchen drawer and use them from time to time only to pick my teeth. Which is what they were made for.

The next time you use a toothpick, stop and take a look at yourself in the mirror. Maybe squint. Give it your best tough-person look. I bet you’ll resemble someone worthy of extra niceness, someone who knows his or her own mind and goes his or her own way. Maybe not a bad image after all. 

Ralph Morris is a retired newspaperman who lives near Auburn. His email is r.morris@ctvea.net.

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