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. . . It’s a Wrap : Ponder the possibilities of duct tape and you ponder the universe: handcuffs. Car repairs. Elbow patches. Seriously ...

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a development that could shake the faith of millions, liberal theologians are now questioning the omnipotence of God, saying they have proof that he was able to create the heavens and the Earth only by making extensive use of duct tape.

OK, not really. But the silvery adhesive does seem to be holding everything else together:

* In Honduras, when a vulture crashed into the wing of a small jet, duct tape was used to patch the hole and return the plane to flight.

* Off the coast of Texas, an angler found a 20-pound redfish with a torn dorsal fin, taped up the wound and watched the creature swim merrily away.

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* In the mountains of Nevada, two drivers duct-taped their bumpers together to tow one vehicle out of a snowdrift.

The omnipresent tape has also become the accessory of choice for robbers (it’s great for immobilizing fidgety bank tellers), astronauts (a roll goes up on every space flight), police (when L.A. cops ran out of handcuffs during a 1989 AIDS protest, they used long strips of it to bind demonstrators’ wrists) and U.S. senators (Rhode Island’s Claiborne Pell, a multimillionaire, drove a battered Dodge with dangling bumper and ductified convertible top until the car finally died this year).

A few folks even use the stuff for its intended purpose: to seal air-conditioning and heating ducts. Go figure.

In short, “Nothing is ever really broken. It just lacks duct tape,” says Tim Nyberg, who has written a book about it.

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Among hardware cognoscenti, the metallic-looking roll has achieved cult status, inspiring songs (“The Duct Tape Junkie Blues”), fashions, contests and an emerging genre of duct tape humor.

Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion” radio show, for instance, regularly features goofy ads from the fictional American Duct Tape Council, a group that “highlights America’s contributions in the adhesive field and currently owns and operates the World’s Largest Tape Ball--at last measurement, 24,598 feet in diameter--housed south of Orlando at the Adhesive World amusement park.”

(As it happens, fiction is not too far from fact. This spring, the real-life Pressure Sensitive Tape Council held its annual “World Congress” in Florida, at which 350 industry representatives convened for lectures on such topics as “Repulpable and Recyclable Adhesives.”)

The origins of duct tape are a bit of a mystery. Believed to be a descendant of friction tape, it first appeared during World War II as a waterproof seal for ammunition boxes and a quick-fix tool for machinery (and you thought the A-bomb was why we won).

But nobody seems to know who invented it. At first, it was camouflage-colored, but when civilians adopted the tape for ventilation work, it assumed its current hue and name (the wartime title is apparently lost to history).

Since then, the cheesecloth-and-polyethylene adhesive has slowly entangled itself in nearly all facets of modern life. Americans alone have bought about 11 million miles of it in the past five years, according to industry estimates. That’s enough to resurface every square inch of Washington, D.C.--including monuments--and still have plenty left over to bind and gag the entire Congress.

“Duct tape is the ultimate power tool,” says Nyberg, who co-wrote “The Duct Tape Book” with brother-in-law Jim Berg. “Hammers need nails, screwdrivers need screws . . . [But] duct tape is totally self-contained. It requires no training.”

Other connoisseurs include comic Tim Allen, whose preferred method of household dusting entails duct-taping all knickknacks to the shelves and then firing up a leaf blower, and columnist Dave Barry, who worries that if women ever find out about the powers of duct tape, men will “no longer serve any useful purpose.”

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The adhesive has also helped keep order in an Orange County court and thwarted college vandals.

In Orange County, a Superior Court judge irked the American Civil Liberties Union several years ago by using duct tape to silence unruly defendants. Although the group branded the practice “humiliating” and “unconscionable,” the judge said he would continue doing it to prisoners who swear or spit at court personnel.

Meanwhile, at USC, duct tape is plastered over the school’s Trojan mascot during football season to shield it from spray-paint-wielding “visitors” from cross-town rival UCLA.

Until recently, such heroics went largely unsung. Although the tape has long been indispensable to rock concert roadies, Hollywood set builders and do-it-yourself repair artists, its role was mostly behind the scenes.

That is changing.

In November, the Rocky Mountain News in Denver set up a duct tape hot line for readers to phone in their favorite uses. The responses ranged from a beauty pageant official who said the tape provides “cheap [breast] lifts for swimsuit and evening-gown competitions” to a canoeist who noted: “We carry a pack of bubble gum and duct tape with us always. If we have a leak . . . we chew the gum, fit [it] into the crack, then tape.”

Others recommended the adhesive for makeshift bathing suits (“Just little squares pasted on for swimming suits for our little girls”), wart remedies (“Leave it wrapped for six or seven days . . . and the wart should be gone”) and stage plays (“In the theater, duct tape is God”).

The tape’s recent rise to prominence has also included supporting roles on “Frasier,” patching up the father’s favorite chair, and “MacGyver,” whose life philosophy was, “You can get through any problem in the world with duct tape and a Swiss Army knife.”

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Now, there’s “The Duct Tape Book” (Pfeifer-Hamilton, 1995).

Co-author Berg, an avowed ductophile, says the humorous guide was written “to bring duct tape users out of the closet, to [have them] admit their addiction and to tell them, ‘It’s OK.’ ”

The idea gelled during a power blackout in Wisconsin. Someone at the Christmas party mentioned duct tape and the group started brainstorming weird uses for it. Sensing a moment of historical import, Nyberg fetched a battery-operated laptop computer.

A book was born:

Duct Tape Tip No. 2: Obliterate that blinking “12:00" on your VCR once and for all with a single strip of duct tape.

Tip No. 37: Go for that scholarly look by taping elbow patches on your sport coat.

Tip No. 155: Sleepwalker? Tape sleeper in place.

Tip No. 4: Gals--duct tape keeps the toilet seat down.

Tip No. 5: Guys--duct tape keeps the toilet seat up.

Tip No. 43: “Star Trek” fan? Make space-age eye wear by covering all but a narrow slit in the lens of your eyeglasses.

Tip No. 57: Can’t afford the vet? Create a duct tape pet chastity belt. Nothing says “keep out” like a few well-placed strips of duct tape.

“In two days, we had 365 uses,” Nyberg says. Finding a publisher was tougher--until a low-ranking editor who liked the idea duct-taped his boss to a chair and made a heartfelt plea for the manuscript. It worked. Released in October, the small paperback has sold 120,000 copies, Nyberg says.

And a sequel is on the way. “Duct Tape, Book Two” will include doctored photos of the authors “duct-taping famous stuff,” such as the Eiffel Tower, the nose of the Sphinx and--to prevent further erosion--the Great Pyramids of Egypt.

The main text, however, will be a collection of “true stories” submitted by readers or taken from the files of Manco Inc., the nation’s leading manufacturer (3-M Corp. is a distant second).

In 1993, the Ohio company sponsored a “Discover New Uses” contest for its Duck brand duct tape and was deluged with more than 1,500 entries. Winners included the three stories listed at the beginning of this article, as well as a Hurricane Andrew survivor who duct-taped two sliding glass doors coming loose from his house. The doors held fast, but he should have kept taping: The roof blew off.

Manco has also heard from a customer who wrote “Will you marry me?” in huge duct-tape block letters on his roof and then flew his girlfriend over the house (she said yes). And a little boy reported that a pet turtle whose cracked shell was deemed fatal by a veterinarian miraculously healed after being covered with silver-cloth tape.

On a more practical note, author Berg says he tapes the TV remote to his arm so he never has to relinquish control over the channels.

*

Duct tape scientists, meanwhile, have devoted long hours to improving duct tape technology and, after decades of tireless effort, have come up with the following important innovation: More colors.

In addition to best-selling silver, the adhesive is now available in yellow, green, blue, black, red, white, brown, beige and olive drab.

Actually, duct tape R & D has produced a couple of non-color-related innovations.

Manco devised a “200 m.p.h.” tape for use by race car drivers (“You can take a blowtorch to this stuff,” boasts a company spokesman). And 3-M sells a “nuclear-facility” tape to prevent corrosion in pipes that will be used to transmit radioactive materials.

For the most part, however, duct tape is as duct tape was. And nothing new is on the horizon.

Which is fine, contends Manco spokesman Kevin Krueger: “Even if it never changes, duct tape can take you far into the 21st Century. It’s kinda like cockroaches. It’s always going to be around--it adapts to any environment.”

* The Associated Press contributed to this story.


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