October 16, 2012

Growing up in the 70's (For Jimmy)

My nephew recently told me that he wished he could have been alive in the 70s to see what they were like. I had to pause for a moment as I was hurled through memory lane. I was a kid in the 70s. Maybe I could help him.

The first thing I remember is the simplicity of the decade. Plain clothes, straight hair, muted colors. We lived in a world of plaid and paisley but it wasn't blinding. Mustard yellow was a wardrobe staple.

We didn't spend our weekends at the Mall or the movie theatre. Going out to the Ihop was a treat. McDonalds was a luxury.
We spent our summers in the front yard running through sprinklers, zipping through neighborhoods on our bikes, or huddled under yards of sheets in makeshift forts. We had toys, but I had never seen a Toys R Us. My parents purchased my Christmas gifts at Kmart. I'm not sure where the other kids got their presents, but it must not have there because the K word, in the third grade, was a dirty word.

There were no vidoe games to keep us occupied. There was just one TV. We had three channels to choose from. Four if you were lucky and could get the clothes hanger your father installed as a makeshift antenna to work. My mother guarded our TV by day, and my stepfather took over at night. Occasionally, I was able to sneak in Mork and Mindy or Happy Days, but only because my mom found neither of those shows deplorable. She hated The Brady Bunch though, so I had to stay in the closet about that one until I came of age.

Homes were large and mostly one level. If you were lucky you got your own room. Most of the time I was unlucky, having to share a space with two sisters and several family pets. But once we lived in a four bedroom house and for two glorious years I had an entire room to myself. It was painted white and I dreamed of yellow fluttering curtains that my mom never got around to hanging up. I littered my room with Nancy Drew books and Slurpee cups from my weekly treks to 7/11. I put on shows for money to keep up my Slurpee habit. Bad singing mostly, but the kids in the neighborhood had few other options for entertainment and so they came to see me and my cousin perform. It was like Little Rascals without the really cool clubhouse.

Our living room was panelled to offset the green cabinets and yellow appliances of the kitchen. My mother would say that the panelling provided warmth. It also helped hide the drawings of my budding artist brother. The adults drank coffee together, brewed in our our house, discussing music and politics as they visited at speckled tables. And they played cards. Lots and lots of cards. The days of gathering on front porches and whittling had vanished but community, conversation, and neighbors were still very important. My mother opened up her house to everyone. This didn't sit well with me. There were six kids in our family and our house was always a mess. But my mother didn't care. She was as friendly as she was undomestic and the only people who seemed to notice were her own children who teased me about it the next day at school.


The adults of the 70s were the children of the 60s and they had come to this decade with the ideals of their youth, even if they were now saddled down by 'the man'. They talked about them too, oftentimes around children. We weren't as protected from words back then. We learned about wars and sex and who was doing what with who as our parents gossiped over chocolate fondue. But we also learned about freedom, sacrifice, and what it meant to be an individual. My mother was very open with me. She told me things that would make parents today gasp. She told me about a man she knew who shot children in the Vietnam War and never came out the same. She told me about the importance of a woman having control over her own body. And she told me that it was okay to love whoever I wanted, regardless of race or gender. Maybe that was too much to tell a child, but even then, I respected that she saw me as a person, not just a kid.

Speaking of protection, our generation was probably the least protected groups of children in current times. We didn't wear helmets when biking, and there were no bark chips on our playgrounds. In our day we played on hot, metallic monkey bars and if we were dumb enough to do an aerial flip and crack our heads on the pavement below, it served us right if we walked around drooling for the rest of our lives. I was too chicken to try most of the flips and so I (and chickens like me) stayed safe. But we watched with wonder as those kids, like my brave cousin, twirled around the bar three times, flew high into the air, and landed gracefully on their feet. There were no adults telling them to be careful. We had walked to the park. Alone. If it was during school hours you might have a playground attendant blow a whistle in your ear before she waddled away, but that was about as much attention as our stunts ever received.

We were the last generation to go to Drive-In movies and one of the first generations to witness the giant, naked breasts on the screens that surrounded us. My parents may have taken us to see The Fox and the Hound but we were gawking at the half-naked women running from a masked psychopath on the screen to our left. The movies of the 70s were a feast for those who love scifi, fantasy, horror, and boobs. And at seven years old, lying on a blanket on the hood of our my car with a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken, I had front row seats to a world formely privy only to adults.

We were an interesting generation, unprotected from the adult world yet somehow spared the fears of global annihilation that generations before and after knew. The Bay of Pigs and Vietnam were old news, and the threat of Russia was years away. All we had were long days of bell bottoms, great music, and Gilligan's Island reruns. Time stood still in this decade. At least when you are seven years old.

I got my first radio in 1977. It was shaped like a ladybug and when you pulled its wings out you could hear music. It picked up two channels but I can still remember the thrill of tuning in and hearing Top of the World playing for me alone  the very first time. With my radio came freedom. I was no longer at the mercy of my mother's Bee Gee's albums. I was introduced to a new world of music to explore (if I were patient enough to wait for the song to come on), and as I was listening, I was dreaming. I started writing my own songs. Really, really bad songs. My sister would mock me as I'd tell her, all fists and seriousness, to leave me alone because I was going to be a famous songwriter one day. Once, she even stole one of my songs to piss me off and claimed it was hers. I was sure that she would get famous for it and no one would recognize the creative genius behind it, but that never happened. It turns out a song entitled Boy Oh Boy Ardee, written by an overzealous eight-year-old, was not destined to pop the charts. We weren't the first generation to have been inspired by music, but the mellow sounds of Bread and The Eagles, and later the harder sounds of Zeppelin and punk and early metal bands, all changed the way we thought and felt forever. Maybe I'm turning into an 'old fogie', but as I look back now I can't think of many songs as powerful and enduring as Hotel California.

You can't stay locked in a world forever. The 70s, like childhood, was about simplicity. But adolescence was on the horizon and another decade was about to roll over. New music was being recorded. Malls were being erected. Kids were wearing things that cost more than their parents made. We grew tired of simplicity and patches on our knees. We wanted new.

I was watching The Facts of Life one day and thinking...if all I ever get in life is a real pair of Jordache Jeans, a really cool blazer, and hair like Blaire's, I will be happy. Please, God. Please let me have those things. Brooke Shields, who had made her fame by living on an island in The Blue Lagoon, was now telling us to buy Calvin Kleins. And if Brooke was pimping jeans, we had to have them. My cousin and I wrote Brook a letter begging for a free pair since all the other kids would have them and our thrift-store shopping parents certainly wouldn't get them for us. Brook never responded. We resorted to cutting out the labels of my older sister's clothes and sewing them onto our own. I'm not sure anyone really bought that we were wearing Gucci cutoff shorts, but the power was in the words plastered across our butts. They made us superheroes, at least in our own heads. We started classifying each other. Those who wore designer jeans. And those who did not.

The 80's arrived and I was a decade older, ready to embrace the next chapter of my life. The world became nosier as gadgets and gizmos invaded our homes. We were one of the first houses to get an Atari and a VHS player, but one of the last to get a microwave. We also got an additional TV which mom put in her bedroom. She now had two to lord over, but I became queen of the remote during those hours when she slept and I'd turn on something called music videos and sing along. Maybe I wouldn't write songs after all. Maybe I would produce music videos instead. They were the future of the industry. With more TVs and gadgets came the necessity for more money and moms started going off to work. There wasn't after school care for us, there were TV's and VHS players to keep us entertained until our parents returned. We were the first and only latchkey generation, raised on the wisdom of Meatballs and Fast Times at Ridgemont High. We were free. Independent. And knew how to make our own macaroni and cheese.

More access to information also meant more news. We learned about the doom and gloom of a dissipating ozone and the real possibility of a global nuclear war. The 80s brought me into the real world and it was scary. So I did what every other kid of my generation did. I listened to loud, obnoxious music, ratted my hair out, and drowned out the world in the most gaudy pieces of fabric I could drape across my body. When the movie The Day After came out in 1983, depicting the horrors of humanity after a nuclear attack, I checked out of the real world and disappeared into the fantasy of the early 80s. If simplicity hadn't saved me, then excess might.

The 90s, of course, brought me back. While the 80s had taught me to Rock and Roll all night, the 90s reminded me of the frailty of human existence. The artists of this era sent out a wake up call, reminding my generation of the things we had tried to forget. Wearing hot pink and having hair that rivaled the height of the Space Needle was no longer in. The 90s meant you had to get real. I couldn't live in a pretend world anymore. The world was sticky and messy and at times rather unpleasant, but it was the world I lived in.

My nephew wanted to know what it was like to live in the 70s and I hope I told him. But that was my experience as a child. I knew nothing of what haunted the adults of that generation, those who had lived through wars and depressions and civil unrest. I only know that for me, it was a shelter before the storm. Maybe that's because i was a kid, and that's how it should be, in any era.


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