Peggy Keener: The meme that circled the world

Published 7:05 am Saturday, November 3, 2018

Question: Can you guess what graffiti has been seen on such far reaching places as the wall of Osama Bin Laden’s home, just about any surface of any American troop ship, the top of Mt. Everest, the Statue of Liberty, the underside of the Arc de Triomphe, and even scratched into the dust on the moon?

It is a simplistic cartoon-like drawing of a tiny-eyed, pendulous-nosed bald man peering over a fence with only his eyes, nose and fingers showing. Yet it has infiltrated even the most unlikely of places, to include an outhouse that was built for the exclusive use of Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill during the 1945 Potsdam conference.  Stalin was the first occupant of the outhouse. He emerged from it with an annoyed, yet puzzled look on his face.  In Russian he demanded of his aide, “Who is Kilroy?”

On the whole, any of us born between 1913 to the mid-1950s knew of Kilroy.  But, who was he?  America wanted to know.  So, in 1946 in a search for the real Kilroy, the American Transit Association sponsored a nationwide contest through its radio program, “Speak to America.”  The unusual prize was an authentic transit trolley car.  One has to wonder why anyone would want a real or not real trolley car, but almost forty men stepped forward, each claiming that he was the real McCoy …. er, real Kilroy.

In the end, only one man had the evidence to prove his identity: James J. Kilroy, a 46-year old shipyard worker from Halifax, Massachusetts.   During World War II he worked as an inspector at the Fore River Shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts, where his job was to mark each completed rivet that was used in building the ships.

One day Kilroy’s boss called him into his office.  The foreman was upset over what he saw as questionable wages being paid to the riveters.  He wanted Kilroy to find out what was going on.

Riveters did piecework and got paid by the number of rivets they finished.  It was Kilroy’s responsibility to count a block of completed rivets and then put a check mark in semi-waxed lumber chalk beside it so the completed rivets could be counted and the worker suitably paid.  What Kilroy discovered was that some unscrupulous workers—just as the boss had suspected—waited until Kilroy left work for the day, then erased his chalk markings.  Later when an off-shift inspector came through, he counted the rivets a second time which naturally resulted in double pay for the spurious riveters.

It was decided that the best way to solve the problem was to use a more permanent marking. Kilroy decided on paint.  In his inspections, however, he had to crawl into tight spaces in order to check the rivets. Not only was this awkward, but sometimes it was also impossible to lug around a paint can and brush.  Thus he had no choice but to continue using the waxy chalk. But, make no mistake, he added something to each check mark to make the men know with certainty that he was on to them.  It was a rudimentary sketch of half a face with a bulbous nose and gripping fingers.  Beside it was the message  “Kilroy was here!”

Kilroy became the all-seeing eye—the prison guard, the dormitory housemother, the 24-hour security camera—that monitored the workers; always taking note of their moves.  Moves that included wiping away his chalk marks!

During normal times the rivets and chalk marks would have been painted over, but with a war going on, the ships left the Quincy Yard so fast there wasn’t always time to do this.  As a result, Kilroy’s inspection marks remained to be seen by thousands of servicemen who sailed on those troopships.  Finding it quirky, fun and mysterious, the servicemen began using the goofy little half-face themselves, spreading it all over Europe and the South Pacific.  Wherever they landed, the graffiti was jokingly written as a claim that Kilroy had already been there before anyone else showed up.

It seemed that no place was too sacred onto which to scrawl the simple infectious face.  Kilroy became the U.S. fighting man’s super-hero-GI, a meme that spread from person to person, from geography to geography, with lightning speed.  No matter where the men went, Kilroy had been there first.  It comes as no surprise to learn that it soon became a challenge for the Kilroy wannabes to paint the logo on the world’s most unusual of places. We seniors clearly remember seeing it everywhere, always nudging a smile onto our faces even though we didn’t know who the ubiquitous Kilroy was or where he had come from.

In the end, the reward for being the authentic “Kilroy” was, just as promised, an authentic transit trolley car.  James gave it to his nine grandchildren for a Christmas present, setting it up as a playhouse in the yard of his Halifax, Massachusetts home.  What do you suppose was painted above the door?