“There’s a bizarre lunatic fringe who feel I owe them a living.”
Bars are a curious institution. There’s no other place where you can reliably find the intoxicating combination of comedy, tragedy and inspiration commingling on any given night. When this emotional cocktail is mixed with spirits of a distilled variety anything can happen. And so it was one April evening in 1975 when Dahl and his mates began discussing the downside of pet ownership (this wasn’t the Algonquin Round Table after all). Dahl suggested that a rock might make the perfect pet. The reasons were obvious. It required no feeding, walking, training or any of the unpleasant things associated with taking care of Fido or Whiskers. The conversation moved on to other topics but Dahl had heard his muse. At the time he was a freelance copywriter with a lot of time on his hands (which may explain why he spent so much time in bars). The following day he began work on The Care and Training of Your Pet Rock. The manual covered acclimating your pet rock to its new environment, how to recognize different breeds of rock, basic obedience training, teaching your rock tricks and healthcare tips. There were also cautions about approaching rocks in the wild (don’t do it) and the assurance that, “if you take care of your Pet Rock, your Pet Rock will take care of you.” He’d done the manual for the amusement of his friends and thought he’d add to the merriment by actually acquiring a pet rock. It was all in fun and represented that kind of bar room goofiness that some of us are all too familiar with.
But it didn’t end on a barstool. If the idea of a pet rock was inspirational, Dahl’s next move was pure genius. The cost of printing the manual and putting a small rock in a cute carrying case was negligible and with Christmas on the horizon Dahl smelled opportunity. He began marketing aggressively and took his Pet Rock to the San Francisco Gift Market. Neiman-Marcus spotted it, thought it was cute and promptly ordered 500. Momentum built and in short order, the Pet Rock was the premier fad of 1975. Dahl was featured in Newsweek and made two appearances on the Tonight Show. By the time holiday sales were totaled, he’d sold more than a million for $3.95 each. That was a big payday and a good thing because like all fads this one quickly faded. By Valentine’s Day the public had largely lost interest in caring for a Pet Rock. The phenomenon limped along for a couple more years and all in all, Dahl sold 1.5 million pets. He tried to make a comeback with the Original Sand Breeding Kit, which let buyers grow their “own desert wasteland,” but it never caught on and he was left with a huge unsold inventory. Sensing that the Pet Rock was as good as it was going to get, Dahl humbly joined the pantheon of one hit wonders and got on with his life.
Dahl had one really good idea and the wherewithal to make it work. That’s where this otherwise ordinary guy differs from the rest of us. A lot of us have great ideas but no clue as to how do anything with them. Many others have ample persistence, but spend their days scratching their heads and wondering what to do. Both camps hectored Dahl until his death. They assumed there was some secret formula that they could apply and overnight become one (or two or three) hit wonders. Of course there isn’t any secret, just the recognition that fate—ever quirky—sometimes aligns things perfectly for someone. And that’s enough to nourish the dreamer in all of us. It’s the genuine belief that the someone may be you. And that’s why we bought Pet Rocks. —Ebert