The Odd Things I Remember from the 70s

Preschool and elementary years in a suburban apartment. I only realize now how young my parents were. They were still on their first leg of life’s journey. My younger sister was still an infant and had many health problems, several surgeries before the age of five. It seemed a fine enough home to me, what did I know any better? I thought everyone lived in an apartment and had grandparents with a farm out in the country.

Our apartment was an end unit, my bedroom window looking out upon a common green where I first learned to play football. Back in those days my dad was still pretty athletic. He had that Johnny Unitas flat-top. He was a fan of the AFL, before the leagues merged in 1970, his favorite team the Oakland Raiders.

In just a little over a mile to the north there was the constant sound of construction as the 270 outerbelt was still being built around Columbus, Ohio.  My parents were country folk from neighboring Pickaway County. My mother was afraid to drive in Columbus; she thought there was too much traffic and everyone drove too fast. My dad had a red Corvair convertible that he was so proud of. It’s design was the curiosity of our block, especially after Ralph Nader succeeded in branding the car “unsafe at any speed”.

I walked to my elementary school, a little less than a mile away. After being escorted for the first couple of weeks I was permitted to make the walk to and from on my own, something almost unconscionable today.  Most all of us had stay at home moms, except for one boy in my class, Danny. Danny was a bit of an oddity, the only child picked up by a van from KinderCare at the conclusion of each school day. Danny’s mother had to work because she was raising Danny on her own while his dad was fighting in Vietnam. Danny was so proud to tell that his dad was a soldier.  I did not discover until years later that during the time we were schoolmates Danny’s father had already died in combat sometime in 1969.

My dad’s older brother was also serving in Vietnam at the time, with the Air Force, flying low level counter-insurgency missions in an AD-10 over the jungles. The AD-10 was among the few non-jet planes used in that conflict, known as the flying dump truck for the heavy load of ordnance it could carry. I remember sitting in our basement at my dad’s workbench, watching him paint and build models of the AD-10 and other warbirds.

That year at Christmas I got my first radio, a small Motorola transistor powered by a 9V battery. This began many years of my childhood to be spent in my room listening to the radio and reading books. There were always piles of books in our house.  My dad was an avid reader of paperbacks, my mother of magazines, and my grandparents were always buying me books. There were numerous collections; Scholastic Book Series “______ do the strangest things” and child’s biographies of Washington, Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Lincoln.  Also JFK and MLK, both fairly fresh in their graves at the time. I remember my first copy of Jack London’s Call of the Wild, Kipling’s The Jungle Book, and a collection of short stories Tales of Time and Space. The latter of these was of special interest as our home were avid followers of the nation’s space program.

I remember at the time of the Apollo 11 mission my grandparents were away on a trip to Europe. My dad had his vacation during that time and we spent the duration at my grandparents’ farm. The lawn tractor nor the farm tractor, a rusty old International Harvester model, were considered safe for me. Instead I learned to care for the chickens, sheep, collect the eggs and help in the garden. The garden was a gigantic plot to my young eyes, surrounded by berry brambles, a variety of Irises in pink, purple and white. And in the very middle of this garden there was a slim galvanized pipe that towered to a height of fifteen feet above where there was mounted a Martin house. The Martins made full use of this. During the day they were always heard fussing and rustling about the house. In the evenings we would marvel at their sleek vee wings spread as they swooped down and soared away from the buffet of mosquitos.

On the night of the moon landing I tried to stay awake but fell asleep on my grandparents’ living room floor in front of their gigantic RCA console TV. Back in those days they were built right there in Circleville. I remember my parents waking me to witness the historic event. There had been so much build up to it all, I remember at the time finding it somewhat anti-climactic. At that age I hardly know now what I had expected, I just remember some sense of disappointment. My parents were born in the depression. They attended high school in the 50s and witnessed the space race as young adults. It meant something more for them.

I realize now that in spite of the title I have shared an awful lot that was actually the end of the 60s, chronologically. Some decades bleed into others as an era. I think this was true for 1968-1974, the Nixon years. So I guess my recollections are bifurcated into two 1970s: the 70s that bled from the end of the 60s and then everything that came after. The after coincided with puberty and the teen years so maybe that is the difference. Memories of childhood and memories of growing up; two different things, aren’t they?

Coming back to that radio… That summer of 1970, between 2nd and 3rd grade, I remember spending a lot of time listening to it. WCOL AM, 1230. That was the pop/top 40 station of the time. This was my introduction to music. FM radio was still relegated to “doctor’s office music” at the time. From 1970 to 1974 this was the voice we youngsters of the time shared. I began that summer with a steady diet of CCR, The Beatles, Mountain, Mott the Hoople, Three Dog Night, Aretha Franklin’s Rose in Spanish Harlem. They played that one a lot. Mac Davis and Ray Stevens were early “crossovers” who got a lot of air.

In the fall of 71 we moved to a rental house in the country. I remember that the rent on the place was $125 per month. It wasn’t my business and I had no reason to care, I just remember it because I was often entrusted with delivering the rent check to the landlady, just a couple of houses up the road. I wasn’t aware at the time, but my parents were beset with a lot of medical bills for my sister. Dad had to sell his prized Corvair and we made our travels in a used, blue Chevy Bellaire sedan for a few years thereafter.

It was then, largely thanks to my grandfather, that I developed my interest in NFL football. To this day it is really the only sport I have any interest in. The Baltimore Colts were the reigning league champions at the time. My grandfather was a huge fan of the Miami Dolphins because of his attachment to Don Shula, who he had watched play as a defensive back with the Cleveland Browns back in the 1950s. I got my very first package of Topps Football trading cards that fall, some of which I still have today. I remember they came in a three compartment, clear blister pack with a cardboard tab at the top to hang from the display. From that first pack I obtained such NFL notables of the time in the form of Johnny Unitas, George Blanda, Joe Namath, Don Maynard, Dick Butkus. Also some forgettable players like Larry Krause, Cyril Pinder and Bake Turner. One of the things I remember most about these packs was the smell of the hard-as-rock stick of bubble gum that was sealed with the cards in every package. Once in a while I may dig out some of the old cards and still catch the slightest hint of that scent lingering. I went on to collect hundreds of more cards in subsequent years, but none of them ever seemed to measure up to the 1971 set. With each year the cards became more and more of a disappointment.

The music changed. 1971 brought the Beatles’ solo efforts, George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord, John Lennon’s Instant Karma and Ringo’s It don’t come easy.  Time passed and the venerable WCOL favored us with the likes of Joan Baez, Carole King, Melanie, Todd Rundgren and Harry Nilsson. Three Dog Night’s Jeremiah was a bullfrog and Paul McCartney’s (he hadn’t sprouted “Wings” yet) Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey were regular staples for months. Good Christ! I just realized that Paul McCartney turns 75 tomorrow! Happy Birthday, Sir Paul!

Another little thing that was anticipated from the radio every day was Dick Orkin’s syndicated spoof, Chickenman, a two and a half minute vignette featured during morning drive and again around 3:00 or 4:00 in the afternoon. This bit of silliness originated in Chicago several years previously. We were always a little behind the times in those days. Carly Simon, James Taylor, Al Green, Gladys Knight and the Pips were played a lot. And Elton John. He was just beginning to take off in the states at that time.

Halfway through junior high we moved to a proper farm, a lovely plot of ground along Darby Creek. Unlike my grandparents, who at the time still had their farm, we did nothing with livestock. We were just dirt farmers. With this change there came a change in the radio too. I now had a plug in model with AM and FM. I outgrew WCOL and migrated to WNCI FM, 97.9 on the dial. WNCI had a pop format, but they also featured Casey Kasem’s weekly Billboard Top 40 countdown. It was here that I began to learn of Fleetwood Mac, Seals and Croft, ZZ Top, Queen, Supertramp, The Who, whetting my appetite for more. These were also the days of the Sunday night silliness we all knew as the Dr. Demento Show.

I was not into watching a great deal of television in those days. It would be nearly another 20 years before anything even resembling cable would come to our part of the world. Somehow our household had remained a mostly “radio” home. The set in our living room was set alternately between 610 AM, WTVN or WMNI AM, a country station. In those years I would cringe whenever my mom put on the country station. Oddly I now have a liking for some of the old country classics. There were a few TV programs that we enjoyed. My parents enjoyed MASH, though I was not permitted to watch it until the 8th grade. It was deemed unsuitable for me before then.

My most lasting memories of television in those years was watching the NFL on CBS or NBC until it grew dark. Then on Sunday evenings there was The Rockford Files with Jim Garner. I thought he was cool, I loved his car. I can’t remember now if it was a Camaro or a Firebird. And then there was the NBC Sunday Night Mystery Theater, which featured alternately McMillan and Wife or McCloud or Columbo. There were a few others in that repertoire as well. Jim Hutton’s Ellery Queen and George Peppard’s Banacek. On occasion now I may catch one of these old gems on one of the “retro” networks. I am dismayed to see how camp these were, but it was gripping viewing at the time. I can still sit through some of them, if only to remember lying on the floor in front of the fireplace and watching on our little 32″ screen.

In the summer of 75 came new discoveries.  Nixon was gone, we were stumbling through the Gerry Ford years.  Our house did not have central air. On warm nights the only relief to be found came from having your windows open and a gigantic, industrial strength attic fan in the upstairs hallway. This behemoth was right outside of my bedroom. Though it did draft a mighty breeze through the windows it was loud as a truck! In fact it was so loud that it carried down that hall to the landing at the top of the stairs and filled the wide open space of the A-framed ceiling. This would cause my parents to crank up the volume on the TV when Johnny Carson was on.  There was many a night when I drifted off to sleep hearing the laughter of that Burbank studio audience and the guffaws of Ed McMahon.

One night in the middle of that summer it was a steambath outside. The fan and the television were roaring, but it was too hot to close the door. Since all other sounds were drowned out I could turn up my radio to block the din. I was scrolling through the FM dial and chanced upon Close to the Edge, by the band Yes. I had never heard it before and sat up in my bed transfixed by Steve Howe’s lilting caress upon the neck of “that” guitar. What I was hearing was only an excerpt, though. It was the intro theme music for a radio program on WCOL FM, which until that time I had never known existed. The show was called Midnight and other Beasts, hosted by a DJ named Terry something-or-other. Come on! I’m doing great to remember this much!

Midnight and other Beasts featured deep album cuts. Jeff Beck and Jan Hammer ( later of fame for his Miami Vice theme music in the 80s), Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, King Crimson, Zeppelin, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Fleetwood Mac before they went pop. Before this time I had occasionally heard a little David Bowie from the top 40 countdown, but otherwise he received little airplay where we were. I got a heavy dose from this program. There were more Stones than I had ever heard, The Who, more Yes and Genesis. I became a regular listener of the program, each time coming away wondering “How come we haven’t heard this?”

In the pop music scene we were entering the dreaded age of disco. There were all of these other exciting things happening in the music world and we were missing out! I didn’t know what it was called at the time, but I was developing a taste for “prog rock”.

The 70s droned on. We suffered through disco, the Jimmy Carter years. There were some highlights. Those early years of SNL were precious. I also discovered cigarettes. And weed. Lots and lots of weed. Dr. Demento had introduced me to more of Monty Python. In those years, if you were lucky, you might catch an episode after 10:00 on PBS on a Saturday night.  We were treated to the early years of Steve Martin.

About 1978 I got my first cassette tape player. I loaded up on everything I was missing from the radio through the Columbia House music club. Steely Dan, ZZ Top, Rush, Supertramp, Queen, Yes, Genesis. There was a fairly decent catalogue to choose from and between this and the vinyl I had been able to purchase I built a respectable collection. It was then that I realized that my tastes fell mostly outside of the mainstream. I was ripe for the alternative movement in the decade to come. It wasn’t until then that I finally got current. I later had the opportunity to travel and live in other places that broadened my universe in many ways. When alternative morphed into grunge I was still on the train. They lost me somewhere after that. Since then I still hold to my musical roots and to the 80 alternative, but for the past decade I’ve been exploring the indieverse. There are still a lot of good things happening out there, if you know where to look. And there are a lot more places to look today than there were in 1970s midwest America.

It is often said that America lost it’s innocence after the JFK assassination. As an event that may have been the start of it, but from my life experience I’ll say that we had not fully shed this until the 70s had passed. It was the last days of the analog age, where we were still mechanical rather than digital. Much of this modern technology has its uses, this forum here as a fine example, but I thought we did alright with what we had in the 70s.  Now that I am mostly retreated from the outside world I find myself doing many of the same things I did then.  I still till the ground, plant the seeds and tend the garden. Things like this and the trees, the birds, the earth, they are constants. Yes they change, but in their own time and not as a result of anything we do. We are still only renting this space.

Johnny Carson is dead, you can’t even buy cassettes any more and the world is still a scary place. We just have different kinds of scary now. When I lay down at night and close my eyes I can still hear Close to the Edge playing feebly through the air as I drift to sleep. As I enter the land of Midnight and other Beasts….

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