I’m a lucky kid … and I’m still a kid, even at 46 years old I’m still a kid. I’m lucky in that I was born in 1969 which means that my childhood years, the years that formed my psyche, that tempered my wit and sharpened my intellect, the years that molded my emotions and the years where I learned the basics of what it took to be a human being in this world … all of that I experienced in that decade we call the 1970’s.
The 1970’s was a really magical and weird and fantastic and scary and crummy and wonderful time to be a kid, all rolled into one big seemingly never ending experience that was colored in harvest gold, burnt orange, covered in deep shag carpet and wearing really bad ideas in fashion.
Did I use the word “crummy”?
Man, I haven’t used that word in … well, since the 1970’s.
I need to use that word more often and I think I will … you won’t believe the dust I just blew off of that word … I really should clean up my lexicon … one day … when I’m bored … or have nothing to do … and for those of you who know me, you know that day won’t ever come because I’m never bored and I never have nothing to do.
The 1970’s were like a kind of Purgatory for the kids who lived through that time, a Purgatory from which we sprang forth into the 1980’s as New Wave or Punk or Headbanging metal listening space age whiz kid teenagers and then fell into the 1990’s as young college age adults bombarded with our first assault of broad spectrum, no talent ass clownery in pretty much all forms of entertainment media. It’s like for three decades, the ‘60’s, ‘70’s, and ‘80’s, America was rocking and rolling and then we hit the 1990’s and everything just went straight to hell.
So many good memories, though.
The 1970’s were crazy, the 1980’s were nothing short of awesome and the 1990’s … eh, that decade pretty much sucked and it was full of retards but that’s another story in and of itself. After the 1980’s it only got worse and it’s been on the downward slide now for the better part of two and a half decades … but I digress.
Entire books, movies, sitcoms and even television series have been made about the 1970’s but reading a book and looking at old pictures or watching a popular sitcom on television can’t let you experience what it was like if you never actually lived through those times.
The 1970’s had to be experienced …
I was there … and in this regard I’m going to tell you what the 1970’s were like from my point of view. Not from a point of view of history or major events but from my point of view, the point of view of a child born in 1969. If you’re looking for political or racial commentary from a 4 year old child’s point of view … this isn’t what the podcast is about and short of watching combat footage of the Vietnam War on nightly news or seeing Nixon leave office on my parents’ console Zenith color television set that was pretty much about all I remember of early 1970’s social and political events. Sorry, to a really young child, the Vietnam War, Watergate, racial tensions, and everything else that was going on back then wasn’t nearly as interesting as the cartoons we watched on Saturday mornings or all the television shows we watched at night or the toys that we played with from sun up to sun down.
The 1970’s were my childhood years, the magical single digit childhood years, the learning years, my playground and life experiences for growing up years. As such, I look back on those years fondly and have many wonderful memories, both good and bad and, yes, you can have wonderful bad memories in your life. Those are called “learning experiences” and we touched on the concept in the last podcast and as far as experience goes, I’ve often heard it said that good judgment comes from experience and that experience itself comes from bad judgment. I’ll let you take that for what it is worth to you.
Run as far as you can with it.
One major thing you have to understand about the 1970’s … and this is one of those things that actually defined the 1970’s, one fact that hung like a dark cloud over the entire era and from which we all tried to get out from under, to escape from in one way or another was the fact that the ‘70’s was a decade long era of over the top, hysterical even borderline whacko environmental, social, global, political, sexual, religious, pharmaceutical, ecological, disaster and fear mongering. Everything was so frigging crazy and blown so out of proportion that you couldn’t go a day being a child without having something or someone trying to scare the ever living weasel snot out of you, especially if you were a kid.
This stuff was hammered into us relentlessly.
Every disaster became a stepping stone towards doomsday.
Every time you turned on the radio or television there was some new type of human-race-ending globe-spanning Armageddon or holocaust that was heading our way and unless we drastically changed our ways we wouldn’t be able to escape whatever richly deserved doom was rapidly approaching our civilization. In fact, more often than not, when a disaster happened (or when we finally found out about it) we were all told that it was probably already too late and that we had just better bend over and kiss our collective hineys goodbye.
What was on the gloom and doom menu for kids growing up in the 1970’s?
Oh, it was a real Armageddon buffet; try nature out of control, weather disasters, nuclear power plant meltdowns, fossil fuels were going to run out, the Earth was going to drown in flood waters from the melting ice caps, the Earth was going to catch on fire from solar flares, the ozone was going to be destroyed by people using cans of hair spray, pollution was going to cover everything in a choking black fog, the trees and flowers and birds and bees were all going to die, the animals and fish were all going to die, whales were going to die, seals were going to die, bunnies were going to die, ladybugs were going to die, we’d have to wear gas masks to go outside or ride the bus or go to school, a giant asteroid or some rogue meteor storm was going to hit the Earth and kill us all, solar flares would bake us alive, the air was going to turn to fire, the water was going to turn to acid or poison, flaming orbital junk would fall on us from space and crush us and of course the ever present threat of just getting nuked back into the Stone Age by those evil, god-less communism loving Russians if and when they finally decided to start World War III over the political affiliation of some silly third world banana republic that you couldn’t find on a globe or a world map with a magnifying glass and fifteen minute head start.
Day after day we, as kids, were told that we were doomed.
The TV was filled with national litter campaigns including Jot (which was this bouncing white dot), Woodsee the wood owl, Smokey the Bear, and of course a Native American Indian in full Indian costume. The funny thing is that this Native American Indian was played by Iron Eyes Cody who was not really a Native American Indian. He was just an actor who liked to play Indian roles. The commercials showed him sitting on his horse or paddling his canoe all the while crying at all the pollution and litter that Americans, that the evil White Man, had spawned, … but like so much of all of that bunk it was just that, bunk. I can still remember William Conrad’s voice saying … "People start pollution; people can stop it."
We were hammered with this stuff as kids.
It was almost daily brain washing by the state and the whackos that were slowly rising to political power throughout the land. We saw the start of the fall of Detroit, the advent of unleaded gas, catalytic converters, ever increasing emissions standards, cars that wouldn’t start unless the seat belts were clicked, skyrocketing gas prices, oil embargoes (two of those), the energy crisis, protests against nuclear power, the rise of combat environmentalism and we were hosed down with guilt, guilt, guilt.
It really got a bit ridiculous after a while but even when it got utterly ridiculous the onslaught continued unabated. You’ve probably heard the expression “beating a dead horse” …? Well, in the 1970’s, everything was beaten to death and then the beatings continued long after the message was heard and received.
Disaster movies like “The Towering Inferno”, “Earthquake”, “Airport” (4 of those winners in one decade), “The Poseidon Adventure”, “The day the Earth moved”, “The Andromeda Strain” and even “Meteor” had us all scared to death of everything. Don’t go to the top floors in really tall buildings. The Earth is going to get angry and open up and you’re going to fall into a great big crack in the ground. Don’t go on an airplane because it will have some mechanical failure or crash in the water and you’ll die or be trapped. Don’t go on a cruise ship because some giant wave out of nowhere might capsize your luxury liner then you’ll be trapped and have to fight your way out. And if that wasn’t enough, there was always stuff falling out of space that was going to wipe you out … some virus brought down on a returning satellite or some giant rock flying through space that would hit the Earth like a thousand nuclear bombs.
Nature went wild and got its just revenge on foolish, selfish mankind in movies like, “Phase IV”, “Bug”, “Jaws”, “Grizzly”, “Tentacles”, “Orca”, “Piranha”, “Food of the Gods”, “Kingdom of the Spiders”, “Empire of the Ants”, “The Swarm” and “Prophecy”. If it was some animal or insect that could chew your flesh off your bones then Hollywood supersized it and turned it into a killing machine gone wild. Ants, mutated insects, giant sharks, killer whales, angry bears, giant octopuses, giant rats, swarms of spiders, giant ants, clouds of killer bees and mutated bears driven insane by toxic chemicals dumped into their natural water supply by mean old corporations were all the bad guys in the 1970’s.
Nature wanted all of us dead.
We were scared to fly or take a boat or look up at the sky or go in the woods or even go in the water at the beach. The 1970’s had us so scared as kids that some of us didn’t even want to go into swimming pools or swimming in lakes at summer camp because we thought something was going to be in the water waiting to eat us.
Every part of the government and public school system back in the 1970’s tried to make kids more aware of conservation and the need to change our habits to be good stewards of Mother Nature and the powers that be did this by putting fear of the apocalypse into us, even though they had, by that time, taken God completely out of the public school and started to replace God with a state sponsored form of religion called “Evolution” which was nothing more than itself a state sponsored belief system, a flawed belief system, a state religion disguised as science so as to be able to be taught in the education system under the guise of being both legitimate and credible when it was truly neither.
As a kid, I remember saying the Pledge of Allegiance and reading from the Bible every morning in first grade in 1975. Reading from the Bible stopped altogether in second grade and by third grade we had stopped saluting the flag and saying the Pledge of Allegiance and we never did it again after that … even when I graduated high school all those years later in 1987.
We were told that fossil fuels would run out by the end of the decade, no more cars, planes, trains or school busses. We were told that the oceans would rise, the ice caps would melt, the trees were all going to die, the parks would turn to deserts and the air would become soup-like poison with pollution … and … do you know what?
It never happened.
None of that silly, over the top fear mongering ever happened.
All of it … It was all just a bunch of extreme alarmist nonsense spread thick and heavy by often hysterical whacko extremists who were little more than liberally educated retarded activist hypochondriacs. These people were real SPED graduates. If you want a good example of what a typical liberal environmental activist is like, think of the childhood tale of “Chicken Little” and you’ll be very close. Common sense says these people should never be allowed to hold any kind of public office, they should be medicated and monitored and looked after and cared for and kept under close watch and scrutiny but today they’re heroes to a generation of pseudo-intellectuals which might have a collective IQ of 70 if you put forty of them in a room together.
The 1970’s was just one “Chicken Little” scenario after another. The sky is falling! The sky is falling! … and every single time it all turned out to be nothing at all.
I look back now at all the insane predictions that were made in the 1970s by so-called learned individuals, by all of these doctors, scientists, professors, teachers and scholars and I laugh today that none of these doomsday predictions ever came true. I’d like to think that smart people pulled together and averted these globe spanning disasters but the truth was that most of this stuff was never actually real. Litter and pollution is still a problem and there are more people than ever on this planet so where is the crisis? The truth is that almost everything we were told in the 1970’s about any and all kinds of disasters was so blown out of proportion, so Chicken Little in scope that once whatever disaster or crisis had been milked for all it was good for it was time to bring in another disaster or crisis.
Doom and gloom were big money in the 1970’s but none of it ever came to pass.
None of it.
Growing up in the 1970’s made me quite skeptical of doomsday scenarios brought on by man which, I guess, is why I think that Al Gore is an idiot and that stuff like global warming is such a crock. Been there, heard that, lived through it and it never came true. Al Gore is to environmental science what L. Ron Hubbard is to religion. If you lived through the 1970’s … chances are that you’re pretty much immune to a large portion of today’s tree hugging environmental whacko BS … and you have a very low tolerance for the likes of loud mouth environmentalists, aggressive animal rights groups, pushy hippies and combat vegans.
A lot of us kids, me included, learned what was simple common sense and the decent thing to do when it came to you interacting with your environment. Simple stuff that you kept with you the rest of your life. You learned to not litter, to not destroy the environment and to take care of your spot on this planet. It didn’t take a whole lot of intelligence or hard work to do that … it still doesn’t, not even today.
You also learned to distrust anyone taking conservation so far that it became a pagan religion like it has become in the last three decades. You learned to inherently distrust anyone who was more concerned about some endangered species of snail rather than a large group of people. If someone was willing to cry over a tree that was being cut down but then said that they were a pro-choice advocate who believed in abortion then you had to scratch your head in wonder at what kind of special stupidity they suffered from.
In hindsight, I learned more about how to be a good steward of Mother Earth in Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts than I ever could have learned from listening to the likes of Al Gore and all the other environmental whack jobs that are riding around in SUVs, flying around in big jet planes around the world and telling all of us how we need to lower our carbon footprint all the while expanding their own carbon footprint while filling their pockets.
These environmental whack jobs are hypocrites, they’re snake oil salesmen, carpet baggers and they don’t really care about the planet … they care about their bank accounts. Seeing Al Gore and the other environmental whackos is like watching an interview with the members of The Village People. You have some interest in watching it but your main thought is …
I saw these guys back in the 1970’s.
You mean to tell me that they’re still around?
They sound just the same as they did way back then.
I say all of that to set up one particular bit of my life … after having lived in the 1970s and all the doom and gloom I came to actually love the impending apocalypse and all the off the wall, over the top post-apocalypse scenarios. Like some alternate form of Stockholm Syndrome or capture bonding, the stuff that was supposed to frighten me nearly to death and turn me into some kind of mindless, environmentally sensitive, liberal voting, nature worshipping, limp wristed pansy instead intrigued and fascinated me. Instead of fearing the apocalypse I began to fall in love with it and even wish for it.
I wanted to see a world covered in the overgrown ruins of mankind and minus a large portion of the human race because the human race seemed like it was way over its functional limit and only getting larger. It didn’t take long for me to realize that the human race was full of a whole bunch of stupid people who couldn’t take care of their selves if their lives depended on it.
Movies and TV shows like “Planet of the Apes”, “Where have all the People gone”, “Logan’s Run”, “Strange New World”, “The Omega Man”, “Ark II”, “Damnation Alley” and others like that all failed to scare me, instead, they simply poured the fuel to my already fired-up imagination. While other kids were fearing the apocalypse (which we were constantly told was just around the corner … so close it might happen that afternoon on our way home from school) I was embracing the apocalypse with loving, open arms. I couldn’t get enough of the supposedly rapidly approaching apocalypse and I drank it in with an unquenchable thirst for more. The ruins of civilization, the handful of rugged individuals willing to try to clear out the rubble, working to pick up the pieces and trying to restore order to the chaos … those people … those archetypes, those role models became my heroes … not those who fought for environmental causes or silly social causes but the larger than life action heroes who invariably stepped in and picked up the slack where the retards had made things such a mess with their heart over mind kind of sensitive thinking and caring.
If the 1970’s taught me anything it was that the end of the Earth, the end of the human race, could be a very cool thing ... and that’s probably a topic for an entire podcast so we’ll save it for later and revisit the apocalypse that never happened, in all its myriad glory, when the time is right.
Another curious thing in particular that I seem to remember about the 1970’s, especially the early 1970’s, was that karate and kung-fu had become such a generic action concept that every action hero knew these mysterious Far Eastern martial arts techniques and apparently you could become a master of martial arts in very little to no time at all (and with very little effort as well). Magazines and comics were full of ads telling you how you could learn to sell flower seeds for profit, sell Grit newspapers for great prizes, how you could stop getting sand kicked in your face at the beach, how you could learn to play the guitar, or how you could learn to become some black robed martial arts master and you could do all of those things right from the comfort of your own home. I don’t think there was an action show on TV where you didn’t see someone using a karate chop to the neck and shoulder to bring someone else down low and out. The karate chop became something so generic that anyone could do it with little or no training, at least it seemed that way on TV. The karate chop of the 1970’s was like the Vulcan Neck Pinch of the 1960’s … sneak up on someone from behind, do a quick karate chop and they went down for the count with no cry, no sound and it all looked so easy on TV and in the movies.
In fact, karate became such a mainstream concept that not only was there a popular aftershave named Hai Karate (that came with a small parody of a self-defense manual to protect you from women who would be inclined to tear your clothes off just for wearing it) but there was even a Saturday morning cartoon show featuring a dog that was a janitor who would turn into a crime fighting kung-fu using superhero known as “Hong Kong Phoey”. The comic books and comic magazines of the time all offered mail away promises of being able to learn shadowy, forbidden knowledge of long ago outlawed martial arts that would let you take out even the biggest opponent with superficial ease. Supervillains and not-so-super villains would often be protected by kung-fu or karate trained bodyguards, James Bond was especially bad about this and even a Sam Peckinpah movie called “The Killer Elite” had one of the heroes come back nearly crippled from a bad government mission only to learn karate to make himself stronger and more badder. Chuck Norris appeared in the 1970’s as the master of martial arts and many movies all played to this mysterious form of unarmed but apparently highly effective, even decidedly deadly form of unarmed combat. No discussion of martial arts in the 1970’s could be complete without mentioning the “Billy Jack” series … a Native American, ex-Vietnam vet who returns seeking a life of peace and quiet and ends up being the sole defender of a bunch of hippies. Billy Jack knew karate, kung fu, what have you and he was probably a heavy inspiration for that 1980’s classic “Rambo”. Billy Jack was so bad he got to appear in three different movies.
Karate, kung-fu and martial arts probably hit its lowest point during the “Blaxploitation” era when cheap movies like “Dolemite” showed us that Karate was so easy to learn and to use that even a gangster street pimp could do it with Black Belt finesse. In fact, I’m finding it hard pressed to think of one black action hero in the 1970’s who wasn’t some kind of martial arts expert … of course, back then, the ability to do a single karate chop made you a martial arts expert … and karate gave you the power to kick reinforced doors completely off their hinges, dodge bullets and shatter all sorts of materials with your bare hands. Every angry Vietnam vet, every revenge seeking Special Forces member, every renegade loner cop knew karate and could use it to kill you seven ways to Sunday with just their little finger. It seemed that the secret of learning karate was to do a lot of slow katas in some flowery courtyard with beautiful women in skimpy ghias surrounding you because evidently somewhere there were legions of women in really short ghias learning the martial arts from dawn to dusk. In the mid 1970’s, David Carradine would capitalize on this pop culture craze by starring in the television series “Kung Fu”, a show about Cain, a wandering Shaolin monk in the wild west who went in search of his missing family and was a righter of wrongs when the need arose. During this time, Chuck Norris made his acting debut and, well, the rest is legend.
Toys were Kung Fu crazy as well. Kung Fu and Karate were such mainstream concepts that even G.I. Joe added a special Karate Gi and marital arts accessories in 1971 and followed that up in 1974 with the famous “Kung Fu Grip” action play feature. Mattel’s Big Jim action figure got his own Karate Dojo with a special attachment that allowed you to use the action figure to make karate chops to break simulated concrete blocks and wood boards. Coming a bit late to the action scene in the tail end of the 1970’s, Kenner’s Colonel Steve Austin, the Six Million Dollar Man, had an accessory pack offered for him. The accessory pack, called the “Critical Assignment Arms” package, allowed you to remove the entire right arm of the Steve Austin action figure and replace it with a different, mission specific, special purpose bionic arm. Of the three new bionic arms included in the set, one had a karate chop feature … because karate is even better with bionics thus bringing even Steve Austin up to bionic karate speed. I’m not sure if Steve Austin knew karate through his bionics or if he had special training (because we all know that astronauts need to be martial arts experts) but suddenly Steve Austin had the ability to do karate chops … bionic karate chops. Insert bionic sound here (da-nah-nah-nah-nah) and maybe some whistling sound as Steve’s hand slices through the air and splits some object in half. Whether Steve Austin lost his knowledge of karate when the arm was removed is up for speculation.
I remember that in the early to mid-70’s when we played “guns” that karate and kung-fu were acceptable to use if you got in close to one of your friends. I remember sneaking up on a friend who had one of those wooden bolt action rifles, the kind that you see used by high school bands, and he heard me. He turned around to shoot me and I grabbed the rifle. A struggle ensued and since he was bigger and stronger and a year older than I was I could tell real quick that I wasn’t going to get the rifle away from him so I just karate chopped him, playfully, on the area where his neck and shoulder met. To my surprise, he played along and went right down to the ground.
“Karate chop. Cool.” He said as he lay there, holding his rifle tightly and counting.
I thought it was pretty cool as well and ran off to keep playing while my friend on the ground counted off his time being “dead”.
All in all, kung fu, karate, and other forms of martial arts became so common place in pop culture and the entertainment media that as a kid I began to wonder if every adult I ran into knew kung fu or karate.
Somehow I just knew that my dad could karate chop someone down to size … my dad, even though he was gone out of my life five days out of the week, was still a powerful image to me and somehow he just seemed like someone that wouldn’t take no jive off any turkey, to use a bit of very dated ‘70’s slang.
… and if karate wasn’t good enough for you, well, you could always just pick up a big stick like Sheriff Bufford T. Pusser or pull out a huge magnum revolver like Dirty Harry and get the job done that way. In a decade where so many people were up in arms about violence on television, there sure were some violent themes running around the entertainment industry.
The 1970’s had some really classic television programs that, I think, only a decade like the 1970’s could spawn. I remember watching game shows during the day … stuff like Monty Hall’s “Let’s Make a Deal” and Bob Barker’s “The Price is Right” … I watched Sesame Street and The Electric Company and Saturday mornings I watched cartoons from about 7am to noon then went outside and played until sun down then came inside, ate supper, played with my toys and sat in front of my parents’ big console Zenith color television set and watched tv shows.
I remember the early 1970’s as being a time for lots of crime drama on TV. Every crime drama featured some tough cop taking on the bad guys by their self and the show usually had just their name on it.
The Rockford Files … I loved that show … probably one of my first introductions to the Pontiac Firebird.
There were others as well … the buddy cop shows like “Adam-12”, “The Streets of San Francisco” which starred Karl Malden and a really young Michael Douglas and of course the buddy cop show of all buddy cop shows … “Starsky and Hutch” … a tv series about two undercover slash vice detectives working the street in probably the loudest and brightest, most conspicuous car to ever become a fan favorite … a red with white stripe, jacked up, hot rodded, big wheels, loud exhaust, Ford Gran Torino GT … a car that became known as “Zebra-1” or to fans of the show as “The Flying Tomato.” … and who could forget “CHIPS” and “The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo” which was itself a spinoff of “BJ and the Bear”, a CB-ploitation TV series hitting on America’s love for the CB radio and big trucks in the mid-1970’s … a series about a trucker and his pet monkey.
One of my favorite shows in the early 1970’s was a short lived crime drama called “Chopper One” … it starred Dirk Benedict (of later “Battlestar Galactica” Starbuck fame) as a police helicopter pilot in Los Angeles. I loved helicopters back then and the Bell Jet Ranger was one of my favorite helicopter designs … I saw them everywhere … in real life and on TV. I even had a Tootsie Toy diecast toy of the Bell Jet Ranger that I played with all the time. It was red metal, white plastic and had blue rotors. It wasn’t the same colors as Dirk Benedict’s “Chopper One” but my imagination did the rest especially when it came to chasing bad guys in my Hot Wheels cars around the living room floor.
Other crime dramas that I remember watching all the time included:
Police Story … (I can still hear that theme song).
Barney Miller (though that was more a cop sitcom than a cop drama) … still watched it because I was somewhat fascinated with their gritty, dingy office. It always reminded me of my school classroom on a day when it was dark, wet, damp and raining. Everything happened in that office, at least it seemed that way … it was like they were trapped there. They wouldn’t go out on the street, they didn’t drive around, they didn’t kick in doors, everything happened in that office or at least it did when I was watching the show and that kind of intrigued me.
SWAT which was one of my favorite TV cop shows and probably the first TV theme song that I remember being popular on the radio … in 1975 and 1976 I would always listen to the radio in the car, hoping that the local radio station would play the theme from SWAT and the station did, more often than not. The theme from SWAT was probably as popular as the theme from “Miami Vice” would be less than a decade later. SWAT was probably the first time that I noticed music on the radio and the first time that I had a favorite song … a personal favorite song on the radio, but that’s a discussion for a later podcast.
Even women got into the whole tough cop show trend. You had “Charlie’s Angels” with Farrah Fawcett, Kate Jackson and Jacklyn Smith. I’ll take a second here to explain that I was never a Farrah fan. Yes, one of the most iconic women of the 1970’s and she really didn’t do a thing for me. I didn’t have “that” swimsuit poster of her from the 1970’s hanging up in my room (though a friend down the street did) and I just didn’t think that Farrah Fawcett was hot. Even at an early age I just didn’t like blondes, still don’t. I’m into redheads and brunettes in that order and when it came to “Charlie’s Angels” I always thought that Jacklyn Smith was over the top beautiful and Kate Jackson was okay looking but both of those women were far more beautiful than Farrah could ever be. As a young boy, I watched “Charlie’s Angels” for those two women alone because I realize now that even at that early age I think I had what amounted to a crush on Jacklyn Smith … her and Linda Carter who later became known for her “Wonder Woman” TV series and even though “Wonder Woman” was a cop or crime drama it was kind of a crime drama because she went after bad guys.
Linda Carter … mmm … momma.
Cue The Commodores “Brickhouse” playing loudly in the background.
And I remember “Police Woman” with Angie Dickinson who was a blonde actress that I thought was really, really old. Years later I’d discover that Angie Dickinson was some kind of heartthrob to a lot of men but to me she looked more like a substitute teacher than a police officer so I never had the hots for her. I watched “Police Woman” because it was something that was on TV when I was flipping channels and it generally had some good action, especially if there was nothing good on the other channels.
Man, is it any wonder that my early years were spent with my nose glued to the TV set watching all of this crime drama that I would one day grow up to wear a badge myself?
I remember watching “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” in both black and white as well as color. Years later I’d discover that show wasn’t a new one but an old one being shown again in syndication. Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea was a neat show to a four year old mind … it had this neat submarine, scary monsters and lots of action and it was the first science fiction television show that I can remember ever watching as a child. One other show I fondly remember, not really crime drama related, but I also sat glued to the TV whenever “Emergency” came on. That was one of my favorite shows as a child … Johnny Gage and Roy Desoto were my heroes back then. In the mid-1970s I remember the two childhood games my friends and I played outside were “Emergency” and “SWAT”. I don’t know how many plastic toy guns and toy medical kits our parents bought all of us but we were never underequipped to play either of those two television shows. When SWAT was on television my friends and I played SWAT in our neighborhood. Back then, plastic M16 toy rifles were plentiful at any department store so everyone had a M16 and a cap and we all ran around, diving behind cover, going over fences, ducking behind the corner of a house and taking out the bad guys with our toy M16s. Cherished memories of a time when you could play outside, run around with toy guns, shouting until you were hoarse, running until your lungs burned and all in the name of fun.
The 1970’s was the era of the cop show and I think I saw every single cop show that was ever made in the 1970’s. Good memories there, but now when I find one of these shows on something like YouTube and I try to watch them … I just … can’t.
Those shows are dated, some of them badly. Really, really badly.
I’ll get on YouTube and find something like Mannix and start watching an episode and then I’ll just … go to something else because there’s this little thing called Muir's Law of Nostalgia # 3:, taken from John Kenneth Muir a pundit of some renown though I only recently stumbled across his work.
Muir's Law of Nostalgia # 3: Some "gems" (both cinematic and earthen...) are better left unexcavated. Or to put it another way: not everything you remember from your youth is a treasure. Sometimes it's just...poopie.
Lately I’ve found that a lot of the stuff that I liked from the 1970’s really was just … poopie. It hasn’t aged well, no … that stuff hasn’t aged well at all. In fact, when I find it now it definitely stinks.
Another curious aspect of the 1970’s that brought a certain mystique, even color to that whole era was the fact that the decade of the 1970s was the New Golden Age of formerly fringe beliefs … all the weird and kooky stuff manifested itself in the 1970’s … and to the tune of profit hand over fist.
The paranormal reigned supreme in the 1970’s.
Fringe became mainstream.
Power crystals, ancient astronauts, ancient civilizations, Atlantis, Stonehenge, Satanism, ESP, UFOs, the Loch Ness Monster and Big Foot were all key players in the myths and popular subculture of the 1970’s. All of this stuff went from the outer fringe to pretty close to main stream in the blink of an eye and suddenly it was everywhere. There were UFO cults and new religions springing up all the time. Satanism and paganism and Wiccanism, Earth and Nature worshippers, all left the shadows and were dabbled in by well known media personalities … some for the attention it got them and some because they were simply so dumb that they could get caught up as easily as they did in something that ridiculous.
A common term also appeared during this time … deprogramming.
That is, people who left these cults had to be deprogrammed by professionals before they could reenter their family circles or society again. Stories of families hiring private investigators to kidnap their children from the cults and have them deprogrammed were the stuff of news casts and even made for television shows. Eastern mysticism bled over from the late ‘60’s when everyone had their own personal Indian Guru and you started to see stuff like Hari Krishna in airports and at national parks in more and more instances. I remember going on vacation to Gatlinburg and the Great Smokey Mountains National Park and seeing these people there trying to hock books and asking for donations.
The weird went mainstream in the 1970’s … TV shows like Kolchak: The Night Stalker held my attention and even Disney, that’s right, Disney even got in on the whole paranormal craze because after all there was money in the paranormal … lots of money and Disney liked making money.
“Escape to Witch Mountain” was a smart combination of different interests from this flood of fringe elements woven together into a common theme. Two orphaned teens, Tony and Tia, use their ESP and psychokinetic powers to help them find “Witch Mountain”, a secret enclave of ESP and psychokinetic capable human looking aliens who came to Earth aboard flying saucers when their own sun or planet died. They’re pursued by an evil capitalist who wants to use their powers to get rich and they’re helped by a kindly widower in a Winnebago and in the end they link up with their uncle and escape to Witch Mountain aboard a flying saucer. Spoiler alert but then again it’s a nearly 50 year old movie so if you haven’t seen it by now … oh well.
Disney followed it up with a sequel in 1978 called “Return to Witch Mountain.” This was a dark period for Disney … a far cry from the “Snow White” era and Disney would continue to dabble in the paranormal long after the 1970’s were over … would continue halfway into the 1980’s with their dark tones for their movies but perhaps the height of Disney’s venture into the scary movies and paranormal was 1979’s epic “The Black Hole” … Disney’s first real foray into hard core science fiction and the first Disney film to include not only a robot disemboweling a man but also a convoluted quasi-religious montage right out of Dante’s Inferno, a scene that probably stuck with every single child that ever saw that movie in the theater.
We’ll talk about “The Black Hole” in more detail in a later podcast.
As I was saying, the 1970’s was a time when what had once been kook and fringe beliefs, what had once been counterculture and underground now permeated pop culture and the main stream media entertainment, especially UFOs and extraterrestrial beings so much so that shows like “Project UFO” (which dramatized some of the cases from the famous Air Force investigation of UFOs) and Leonard Nimoy’s wildly popular myth exploring show “In Search Of …” were prime time entertainment.
Perhaps the greatest exploitation of the UFO cult mindset was Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” which tried to tie a lot of UFO myths together into a giant government conspiracy that eventually had a few diehard believers manage to sneak into a government first contact base just as a giant UFO mothership arrived. Yes, after Spielberg made a movie about a giant killer shark in 1975, he made a UFO exploitation movie in 1977 … and it was a blockbuster success.
Cryptozoology also really came of age in the 1970’s.
The Abominable Snowman, also known as the Yeti, appeared in the G.I. Joe Adventure Team lineup as a special Sears exclusive holiday offering in 1973, made a cameo in the third season of Sid and Marty Kroft’s “Land of the Lost” and later starred in a made-for-tv horror movie called “Snowbeast” in 1977. Bigfoot was the real star of the decade becoming a pop culture sensation through many movies and TV shows and documentaries. Movies like “The Creature of Boggy Creek” were low budget box office smashes while early in the 1970’s AMT even had a “Bigfoot” model kit with glow in the dark parts. Heck, Bigfoot became such a pop star in his own right that he became the favorite costar of Lee Majors’ character “Colonel Steve Austin” in “The Six Million Dollar Man” in 1976 and the big hairy mystery even had his own Saturday morning live action show called “Bigfoot and Wildboy”, courtesy of Sid and Marty Kroftt, where Bigfoot adopted a golden haired orphan, raised him into a teenager, and the two of them went around the woods righting wrongs and stopping evil developers, careless lumber harvesters and soulless polluters of nature.
I remember all of this, I remember watching all of this, I really do.
Bigfoot went from being a big scary monster at the beginning of the decade to being a pop culture hero by the end of the decade … something that you could do in the 1970’s.
The 1970’s was also the era of the Cold War and the Hot Space Race … America and Russia were still competing to see who would control space. The 1969 Moon landing was followed by several successful (and one epically unsuccessful) Moon landing and from July of 1969 to December of 1972 Apollo 11 through 17 lifted off for the Moon. Everyone made it to the Moon and back except the crew of Apollo 13 and if you don’t know that story just watch the Ron Howard movie. Spoiler alert: the Apollo 13 crew returned to Earth safely but it was touch and go for a while. In November of 1971 NASA launched Mariner 9 bound for an orbit with Mars. About four months later, in March of 1972 Pioneer 10 was launched and later in 1973 Pioneer 11 was launched, both bound for the outer four giant planets; Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. These spacecraft provided the first really closeup images of our four outer planets and the images were amazing.
During the late 1960s NASA scientists discovered that once every 176 years both the Earth and all the giant planets of the Solar System gathered on the same side of the Sun. This infrequent line-up made closeup observation of all the planets in the outer solar system (with the exception of Pluto) possible in a single flight. This flight was called the "Grand Tour." NASA launched two unmanned spacecraft from Cape Canaveral, Florida: Voyager 2 lifting off on 20 Aug. 1977 and Voyager 1 entering space on a faster, shorter trajectory on 5 Sep. 1977. Counting the two Pioneer spacecraft, that made four unmanned American spacecraft bound for the outer planets and eventually, decades later, to be the first artificial objects to go beyond the solar system.
In 1975 the Americans and Russians teamed up to test out the docking capabilities of different spacecraft, namely the American Apollo series spacecraft and the Russian Soyuz series spacecraft. The Apollo-Soyuz linkup I remember well and I even have a stamp minted at that time to commemorate the event.
Skylab – America’s first space station, went up in 1973. Four missions went to this floating laboratory before it was finally powered down and left abandoned for four years. Four years later, in the summer of 1979, Skylab would reenter the Earth’s atmosphere and burn up. News shows and magazines were abuzz about space debris falling from orbit and killing people. Thankfully Skylab fell, mostly, into the Indian Ocean and across some unpopulated parts of Western Australia but for a while it was just another disaster waiting to happen and we all wondered if we were going to be wiped out by space junk. Of course the news agencies and news magazines all hyped up the situation to the point of panic and hysteria.
Like Japan and the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I guess that Australia will never forget about the time when flaming American space junk falling out of orbit crashed into their country. In fact, 8 years after Skylab fell across Australia, a cheap Spanish sci-fi horror movie was made with the plot involving Skylab’s crash bringing with it alien spores which turned victims into blood thirsty monsters. “Alien Predators” from 1987 … yeah, it’s as bad as it sounds but if you’re a fan of bad ‘80’s VHS sci-fi horror movies, give this one a watch. This event would be remembered in pop culture 21 years later with a commercial for Yahoo in 2000 where a guy living in the outback of Australia learns that a piece of space junk is going to land where he’s living. He gets on Yahoo, does online shopping, and orders a metric-butt-load of pillows then covers his trailer with pillows. Just as he unpacks and lays out the last pillow, a satellite from space lands on the roof of his trailer and is cushioned by all the pillows.
But I digress.
The Viking series probes went to Mars in August and November of 1975. Viking 1 and Viking 2 took roughly 11 months to reach our next closest planet outward and provided a wealth of information on the Martian surface.
Towards the end of the decade, in 1977, the reusable orbiter, or “space shuttle” as it was commonly called, began to appear in news casts and pop culture. Named “Enterprise” after a fan campaign of the “Star Trek” television series, the new spacecraft promised a lot of advancement over the older Apollo series spacecraft. For one, it was reusable … after launch and completing its mission the space shuttle orbiter would fly back to Earth like a giant airplane, gliding in on its return path and landing like an airplane rather than splashing down in an ocean and having to be recovered by naval forces.
Seeing the shuttle orbiter being ferried around on the back of that 747 jumbo jet was a familiar image in my youth and later watching the test flight and landing of the glider orbiter was amazing to my young mind.
Yeah, the 1970’s had some major space stuff going on during that decade and I sat spell-bound in front of my parents’ big console Zenith television set watching every launch, every lift-off and every splashdown and recovery. Astronauts were (and still are, I guess) my biggest heroes and I consider Astronauts to be the real heroes of America, not professional athletes. I don’t follow sports, never did, and I cast a cold eye on those who do simply because I consider sports to be a childhood game and not worthy of being considered an honorable or worthwhile profession. You get paid millions of dollars a year to throw a ball and catch it and prance up and down a manicured flat surface. Must be nice. Don’t expect me to fawn over your accomplishment or give you the time of day if you somehow cross paths with me.
But … I digress and with all of that said, having painted a broad brush stroke across some of the core elements of that strange and wonderful decade, it’s time to move on to our first subject … a sliver of childhood remembered … growing up as a child in the 1970’s.
Stay with me and hang on tight because I may ramble. After all, this is a homemade time machine and the controls are a bit tricky so we may wobble back and forth between years every now and then and I may race forward to spread some experience across several years long before I ever actually start to talk about those years.
You have been warned.
Keep your hands and feet inside the ride at all times … or prop them up and relax if you’re listening to this in your favorite easy chair.
An adult beverage or your favorite soft drink will probably be in order as well.
Pause me if you need a potty break.
What a decade to grow up in.
Amazingly, my memories of the 1970’s really are colored in that burnt orange and harvest gold color tint that seemed so popular on everything back then. Gaudy wallpaper, shag carpet, bad fashion, the smells of the 1970’s, the groovy music, the weird movies, the psychedelic posters, the eye melting colors, the overall feel of the vibrant pop culture … it’s all there in my memory; it has a slight background noise that sounds very similar to that Coke commercial, the one where they sang “I’d like to teach the world to sing” and if I had to put a smell to the 1970’s then that smell would be fresh dipped caramel coated apples on a stick … either that or the smell you got when you walked into an Orange Julius.
If the 1970’s had a particular taste that I associate with that decade then the taste would be that waxy, three color candy corn like you got in a big bag from Brachs Pick-A-Mix every Halloween. Everything runs together into this kind of eclectic pop culture fondue, it’s all slightly fuzzy and wonderfully patina’ed with age but it’s all there … every last bit.
Most people can’t remember their first years of life or their first dreams but I do and with vivid clarity. I remember the first dream that I ever had, I remember birthday cakes and what they tasted like, I remember toys and what they felt like and smelled like, I remember the cities I lived in, shops and businesses I went in that are no longer even there, zoo animals that are long dead, the houses I lived in … I remember the pets I had, the faces and names of friends, the neighborhoods we lived in and the cars my family owned. I remember TV shows and commercials I watched, movies I saw and books that I read as a child … I remember all of this with outstanding clarity.
Growing up in the early 1970’s I remember a life that was carefree and full of wonder.
Around 1972, my mother brought my brand new baby sister home from the hospital and now there were five of us at home all the time and the rules changed because I had to be quiet for the baby. I think I pretty much ignored my sister, when I wasn’t tormenting her like a big brother is supposed to do. In any case, I was three years old and now I had a sister so I had to learn that all important life trait of … sharing.
My sister and I never really were close … I can’t tell you why and it’s still that way today. Some siblings are close, some hate each other’s guts and some just aren’t close. My sister and I were like two adopted kids … I understood that she was my sister but I don’t remember playing with her much because three years separated us in age. I had my friends and she had her friends, when she got old enough to have friends, and our lives were pretty much separate under the same roof. Even when we were both teenagers we came and went like two ships in the dark. Even today my sister and I are like that … we’re both blood and kin but we don’t hang out with each other. We each have our own lives. I’d do anything in the world for my sister, all she has to do is ask, but until she asks I’m going to just carry on with my life like it’s always been.
This is just a funny memory I have of my sister … early years. My dad had a picture of my mom holding me, fresh from the hospital. My mom is a beautiful woman, always has been and dad’s a lucky guy because he married well. A lot of women think my dad is really handsome and every time he ever came to see me at work the older women would always tell me how handsome they thought my dad was after he left.
I guess I had good looking parents … so that can’t really explain how I turned out the way that I did.
My sister is really pretty, in fact she’s beautiful.
When we were really young I showed my sister the picture of mom holding me after coming home from the hospital. When my sister asked me where the picture of mom holding her was, I just turned and with a perfectly straight face said to her “there isn’t a picture of mom and you because you were adopted.” My sister started crying and ran off to find my mom. A few minutes later, my sister brought my mom back to my dad’s closet to show her the picture I was holding and told mom what I’d said. Mom didn’t know whether to laugh or be mad so she took my sister and held her and told her that she wasn’t adopted that there just wasn’t a picture like that of mom and her.
Even to this day I still tell my sister that she was adopted … recently my dad had a health scare that brought reality down into our lives at an unwelcome point, the kind that reminds you of our own mortality. My sister and I were talking about what we would do if our parents died and I told her she didn’t need to worry about that because I had all of that taken care of. When she asked how I had all of that taken care of I told her that as the sole surviving heir everything in the will was being left to me and since she was obviously adopted she was getting nothing which made the whole thing pretty easy in my book. I said this with a perfectly straight face and she just rolled her eyes and huffed. The adoption thing is an amazingly long running joke between us, going on now for the better part of 40 years at least and it never gets old because I can always sneak it in under her radar and deliver it with a perfect poker face when she least expects it.
But I digress … anyway, in 1972 my mom gave me a sister and I wouldn’t have any other sister in the world other than her so if she’s one of the three people who are actually listening to me ramble on in this podcast then I’m going to give a shout out to her. For someone as beautiful as she is, life sure has given her some bumps along the way and if I could ever take all of that hurt and misery from her I would, in an instant. So, taking a few seconds to say that I have the greatest sister in the world and that even if I don’t show it all the time, I still mean it all the time.
1972 was the year of the little sister … definitely the year of the little sister.
And now back to our regularly scheduled programming.
If the 1970’s were full of anything, it was cars. Cool cars at the start of the decade and not-so-cool cars in the middle to late end of the decade. Big cars with big engines that became little cars with little engines. It was like watching the extinction of the dinosaurs. Performance started out strong at the beginning of the decade then became a joke by the middle to end of the decade. Cars started out big and got smaller and smaller and uglier and uglier and while a lot of people look back on the big cars of the 1970’s and shake their heads I’d still drive a lot of the cars made from 1970 to 1975, just because I’m eccentric. If I could get my hands on a copy of the red with white stripe Starsky and Hutch Gran Torino with the correct mag wheels I’d drive it every single day, just to be different and just to stand out from the crowd.
I remember that my family owned two big full size American cars during the early to mid 1970’s; a kind of golden greenish bronze 1969 four door Buick LeSabre with a 350 cubic inch Buick V8 in it and a dark brownish bronze 1970 Chevy Impala four door with a 350 cubic inch small block Chevy. Both cars had automatic transmissions. The latter was a veritable land yacht, 18 feet of pure shining American luxury though I did like the imitation wood grain paneling inside and the little plastic icon of a running Impala on the dash. The dash was so wide and long that I used to play with my Hot Wheels cars on the dash when we went on trips ... that dash was like a super highway for my Hot Wheels cars and I remember that I had to avoid racing them down into the defroster vents because my dad told me that if any of my Hot Wheels cars ever went down the defroster vents the car would be gone forever and he couldn’t get it out. As a child I was very careful playing with my Hot Wheels cars while we were on trips because I never wanted to lose my toy cars in those big gaping dash defroster vents.
One car that I do remember that we owned, brand new, and that my dad ordered to spec was a Chevy Vega. Much has been said about the Chevy Vega and its many problems and I think dad had a few of those problems. Why he got it I don’t know, especially with all the heavy cases and portfolios of regulations that he constantly had to carry from job to job. I guess after the first Arab Oil Embargo my dad wanted something more economical than the big thirsty Impala that he was driving so he bought the brand new Chevy Vega. I also remember he didn’t keep the Vega very long. It was white with a black interior and I think it was a stick car. It was the first manual transmission car that I’d ever seen and the first stick car that I think my family owned since I was born.
I liked service stations and gas stations and I remember in the early ‘70’s the full service gas stations because the attendant would always come out and ask you what you wanted.
Usually it was the cheap gas that my mom wanted to fill up with, the low octane version. The attendant always wanted to sell the high octane, high priced gas but my parents always got the least expensive gas. My dad told me it was all the same and I believed him.
You paid a little extra for full service but most stations were full service and when the option came for self-service where you did everything yourself or full service where the attendant did all the work, my parents started opting for self-service.
In my lifetime, I’ve seen everything go from full service to self-service. I can’t remember the last time I saw a service station or gas station that offered a different rate if an attendant came out and pumped your gas for you … I can’t remember the last time I saw a station with an attendant that would do that … maybe for handicapped or disabled customers but not for regular customers.
Back in the 1970’s I remember that the gas station attendant would start pumping gas into the gas tank of our car then would wash and clean the windshield with a squeegee. When the tank was full, the attendant would take my parents’ gas credit card. I marveled at the sliding credit card receipt thing that all the gas stations back then had. The attendant would take my mom’s credit card, put it in this mechanical slide thing with a piece of funny looking paper … cha-chak and then he’d pull the paper out, tear off one copy of it and hand mom her credit card and receipt back.
Those credit card embossers and the carbon paper always fascinated me because, like the gas pumps, I thought they were some kind of magic trick.
Gas pumps fascinated me because you took the nozzle, filled the car with gas and then you drove off. I always thought that the gas pumps were magic because they filled every car and truck up and never ran out of gas. It blew my mind when I finally asked my mom how did the pump hold so much gas for so many people and she explained to me about there being huge underground tanks and tanker trucks that came by and filled the tanks up when the gas ran low.
Huge underground tanks?
Then she pointed out a giant tanker truck pulling into the service station lot and I watched the driver get out and start to pull the big, heavy hoses off the side of the truck. I asked my mom if we could stay and watch, just for a few minutes and she agreed and there I sat, nose to the rear passenger window, watching this guy unhook these huge hoses from the side of his tanker truck, connect the hoses from his truck to these holes in the parking lot and then start pumping gas down into the underground tanks.
I was 3 years old … cut me some slack, but I remember when mom told me that … that it was like suddenly a whole bunch of ideas and concepts just fit together like a jigsaw puzzle being finished and I was amazed at the whole gas station / service station concept after that.
After that I saw big trucks and tanker trucks everywhere … it was like my eyes had been opened and suddenly I could see the big rigs in traffic. Big rigs fascinated me because they were so big. Sometimes when my parents were in traffic next to a big rig I’d just look at the big rig and wonder … where was it going? Where had it come from? Who was the driver? What was it carrying?
My mom told me that big trucks delivered stuff like clothes and toys and TVs to department stores, food and milk and bread to grocery stores and that tanker trucks delivered gas to gas stations. After that, I literally saw big trucks everywhere and I always wondered what it was that they were carrying and where they were going. Each one was a mystery, something to guess at until another piece of the puzzle fell into place when I began to equate trucking company logos with gas company and service station logos … I understood that big tanker trucks with the Exxon or Texaco logo were heading to fill up an Exxon or Texaco gas station and HESS trucks were my favorite. I didn’t even know what HESS was but when I saw a HESS truck I’d always point it out to my mom or dad.
For a three year old my mind was blown.
I remember when you could still get leaded gas and my parents always bought leaded gas because at the time it was cheaper than unleaded gas. I remember my parents complaining about the rising price of gas and how we would have to eventually start buying unleaded gas all the time and how much more it cost than leaded gas. Gas prices always seemed to be something my parents griped about when I was a kid and my dad or mom would always try to find a gas station with the cheapest prices. I remember my dad driving past a gas station because he said he could get gas cheaper a few blocks away and we’d go to that gas station instead. Heck, I still remember when gas was under a dollar a gallon and when it went over a dollar my dad went into this tirade about how we’d never see gas under a dollar again.
I loved service stations … there were always parts inside hanging up on the walls when we went in to pay for our gas. The smells of cars being worked on … the smell of gas, oil, old coolant, and rubber. It was all the cologne and perfume of cars and trucks and it was a set of smells that I still hold dear. I was fascinated by the rack displays of turn signal bulbs and light bulbs. Boxes of fuses and accessory belts hung on the wall and radiator hoses with their weird shapes and bends were hung from pegboards on the walls as well. There were rows of oil and air filters, window wiper blades and outside big metal racks with tires and batteries on them.
Most service stations had a pair of vending machines … usually a Coke machine and a snack machine and my dad would get me a Coke in a bottle and a snack, usually a bag of Lance salted peanuts, and then we’d sit in the waiting area and watch some TV show on some small, old, badly tuned TV or we’d walk around the mechanic area, talking to whoever was working on our car and finding out what was wrong with our car and how soon it would be ready.
I loved to stand there and watch the mechanics work on cars, the tools they would use … service stations were like doctor’s offices for sick vehicles and the mechanics were like doctors for cars … at least that’s what my 3 year old mind put together and I guess that’s as good an analogy as any.
When I was three years old I wanted to be a car doctor!
I loved cars and trucks and I loved anything that supported them, worked on them or made them go faster. I loved the smell of hot engines, oil, lubricants, coolants and new parts. I loved the smell of tire stores, that rubber smell, the sound of a tire being taken off a rack, hitting the pavement and bouncing two or three times before being rolled over to where it would be put on a car. I loved the sound that the can of oil made when the mechanic stuck the spout into it and punched a hole in the top. I loved the colors of the different automotive trademarks and chemicals … the big orange GULF signs, the brightly colored STP cans, the red star of Texaco.
Automated car washes also fascinated me. I loved the ones that you could walk through, the big full length car washes where there were big windows and you could see your car going through the different stages of being washed but the best car washes were the ones where you sat in your car, where you actually sat in your car as it went through the car wash.
It was like being in some kind of nightmare storm … but it wasn’t scary.
There were the jets of water, the different colored soaps being sprayed onto your car and windshield, the giant brushes that roared down the sides of your car and what I thought were leather straps slapping at the sides and windows of the car then there was the huge blower thing that came down and had this huge rolling wheel on it and it just glided along the hood then up and over your car, blowing off all the water and then like that you were back out in the sunlight with a clean car.
I loved car washes and my dad usually took his car to get it washed every Saturday morning and I made sure that I went with him because it was time spent with my dad and that meant a bottled Coke, a snack, and
One car wash that I remember in particular was in Birmingham, Alabama. There was this huge, really popular high capacity car wash called “The Big Green Cleaning Machine”. The slogan of the car wash was “The Big Green Cleaning Machine hates dirty cars and loves little children.” The Big Green Cleaning Machine was one of those really big car washes that you could either sit in your car and go through the wash or walk through the car wash on the inside and watch your car going through the different stages. My dad used to get his car washed there about once a week and I’d sit in the front seat, sipping on a cola flavored Icee, amazed at the car wash around us, the swirling brushes, slapping colored soaps, high pressure sprays.
To a three year old it was pretty heady stuff.
All of that … the gas stations, the car washes, the smells, the sounds, the impact wrenches and air hoses, the hydraulic lifts, the chain falls, being with my dad when he went to get his car worked on … all of that started my lifelong love affair with the automobile … something I’m still smitten with all these years later at the ripe young age of 46. Cars and trucks have never been just transportation for me, no, they’ve been family members … each car that I owned was a love affair … sometimes it was a love-hate affair but it was always an affair to be remembered. From Hot Wheels diecast cars played with as a child to the black and gold ’86 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am, the white ’91 Chevy Corvette and the black and silver 2004 Honda CBR600RR that currently are parked in my garage … I’ve always been fascinated with and amazed by anything on wheels and the sleeker, faster and sexier those wheeled things were the more I liked them.
What can I say?
When it comes to high performance toys I started early and I started young and I started with my parents cars helping my dad maintain them, wash them and watching him drive them where ever we were going. Even the simple act of driving was something that I enjoyed just watching and I’d lean over the front bench seat, rest my chin on my folded arms and just watch my dad drive … I’d watch the lines in the road disappear under the front of the car and sometimes I’d stare out the back window and watch the road roll away from us as we travelled.
I remember being small enough to curl up on half of the back seat … a blanket and my pillow and I’d sleep for hours. Sleeping in a car was like time travel. You take two or three naps on a long trip and suddenly you were there, especially on vacations. I used to sleep on the rear seat, sometimes with my head in my mom’s lap or my grandmother’s lap … sometimes I’d sleep in the floor with my head on the carpeted drive shaft tunnel being lulled to sleep by the roar of the road carried through the frame of the car and the floor plates and sometimes I even slept on the shelf in the rear window but I remember that wasn’t very comfortable and the sun kind of baked you.
Back then there really weren’t any laws on seat belts for kids or if there were I guess no one cared to follow them or really enforce them. It wasn’t until the late ‘70’s that I started wearing a seat belt in a car and then I thought that was kind of neat … like an astronaut or a pilot being strapped in.
I loved cars and I loved traveling and being in a car just put me to sleep, all the time, and in short order. Years later I would have two modes when I was in a car; either I was driving and wide awake or I was riding as a passenger and I would be sleeping. The roar of the engine, the breeze from the dash vents, the feel of the car on the road … all of these became comforts for me and I think they became comforts, familiar comforts, at a really early age.
The earliest memories of my life, the earliest contiguous memories of my life occur in the very early 1970’s when my family lived in Birmingham, Alabama. We lived on 93rd street North. It was a rectangle shaped neighborhood with houses on both the inner sides of the rectangle and an alley dividing the houses down the middle of the rectangle. It was mostly older married couples though the neighbors next door had a daughter my age that I played with often.
I remember the little convenience store at the end of our street, at the start of our neighborhood. The convenience store had this wooden screen door with its cracking, peeling green paint and the long rusty spring that drew it shut, a spring you could tweak with your finger to make it go boiiiiiing when you walked in or out of the store. I remember all the old signs that the store had on the outside.
The store was owned by a Greek family and my parents were fond of their old-country home cooking which they served and sold for take-out at the store. I remember the cold Cokes in glass bottles that they had, the pop off metal caps, the candy isle and the slightly rusty metal turn-style dispensers of both cheap blister packed carded toys and comic books.
I remember the Coke machine that had the glass door you had to open to get a Coke, the knob you had to twist to get the Coke, that the Coke came in a glass bottle and the Coke machine had a bottle opener and catch basin for the metal tops there on the front of the machine. I also remember that after you drank the bottled Coke you were supposed to return it to a metal rack near the machine or to a wooden crate on the floor otherwise you had to pay a nickel for the bottle.
I remember the saying “No deposit, no return” on bottles you didn’t have to leave behind.
I remember turning in bottles of Coke for a deposit, my mom buying the big glass bottles of Coke, we’d drink them, put the empty bottles back in the cardboard carrier then the next time we went to the grocery store we’d return the empty bottles for a deposit and get fresh, filled bottles off the store shelves.
The little convenience store up the street had a squeaky display rack with lots of rack toys on it. My dad used to take me up the street, walking since the store was literally within walking distance of our house, only about a quarter mile away if that far, and he would buy me a Jolly Pop which is one of those frozen flavored ice treats (they sell them today at most grocery stores, in bulk and sometimes by the name “Otter Pop”).
Sometimes dad would let me get a rack toy … I remember being partial to those cheap balsa wood gliders with the weighted metal clip on the nose, the ones you slid the one piece wing into the body, slid the tail and rudder on the back, put the little oval shaped cockpit into the slot on top and … it lasted about five throws before breaking but it was a fun toy and I had lots of them.
Walking up the street to that store on a Saturday afternoon and getting a grape Jolly Pop or a Coke in a glass bottle and a rack toy was a special treat, a special time I remember spending with my father.
I was just a little boy.
My father was so tall … He was like this mythical figure in my early life … he was gone most of the week working for the federal government, traveling out of town and sometimes out of state, but when he came home on weekends it was like Zeus coming home to Olympus. Not the thunder and anger, it was just like the king of everything was home and everything would be okay.
Dad was a happy Zeus but he was Zeus nonetheless.
Because of his work schedule, I pretty much grew up without a father because my father worked so much and was home so little during my formative years that it was kind of like not having a father at all even though I knew that he was there, in the wings of my life, taking care of me and my sister and my mom and my grandmother. Sometimes, if dad was working at a bank in a nearby town, we’d drive over to that town, visit him, and get a motel room to spend the night and spend some time with him. We’d go out to eat with him then go home the next day. That was when you could have a single income family, that was when my mom didn’t work and she was a stay at home mom.
When he was home dad spent what time he could with me and I enjoyed every bit of time I could spend with him when I was young. Dad was a hard worker, a really hard worker and I guess that’s where I get my own work ethic from, and even though he couldn’t be there all the time for me he made sure that me, my sister, my mom and my grandmother were taken care of. Dad was just this non-stop machine who did everything … he worked, he drove long distance, he was gone during the week, when he got home he did anything that needed to be done like fix stuff or work on the cars or cut the grass and then he was gone again.
That blew my mind … my dad was one of my first heroes and it took me years to realize that but once I got a lot older and out on my own, I began to see traits in my behavior, traits in how I lived my life that matched up with my dad’s life almost perfectly.
I remember that my dad travelled a lot … and when he left his way of saying that he loved me and his way of reassuring me that he would be back in a few days was to leave me a brand new Hot Wheels or Matchbox car when he left. It was just a little something he did and I fondly remember him doing this. I’d wake up on a Monday morning, my dad would be gone for the week out of town or out of state and I’d have a new Hot Wheels car to play with and I always knew where to look for it … he’d always leave it on top of his chest of drawers in his bedroom and I’d have to ask my mother to reach up there and get it down for me because when you’re three years old a chest of drawers was as tall as the Empire State Building.
I remember cigarette vending machines. I used to love to see the little pictures of the cigarette packs there on the front of the machine, to see people drop coins in the machine, pull a knob and a pack of cigarettes would fall down out of the machine and the people would take them and go on about their lives. I always wondered why no one made a match vending machine or a lighter vending machine because people were always smoking cigarettes and buying them but I never saw a machine that sold matches or cigarette lighters.
I liked match books … that was an age when a lot of people collected matchbooks from different night clubs or businesses and when night clubs and businesses, even businesses like service stations or The Big Green Cleaning Machine car wash had their own matchbooks. I remember the first time that I saw a big glass bowl, it looked like a giant glass or maybe a big aquarium for a goldfish, and it was full of matchbooks. I thought that was the neatest thing …
Smoking cigarettes was such a common thing to do in the 1970’s. The smell of cigarettes was everywhere … and the smoke of people enjoying cigarettes often formed its own strata in places of business, in my friends’ homes, in the grocery store, in department stores … the smell of cigarettes permeates my memories of the 1970’s … partly because my mother and my grandmother (which was her mother who lived with us at the time), both smoked. I remember my mom and grandmother smoking in public, smoking at the house, and smoking outside.
I grew up with the smell of cigarettes but I remember that my mother and my grandmother never smoked in the house. They’d smoke outside, sitting in chairs on the patio or standing in front of the house but never inside the house. I had relatives that smoked inside and I used to ride with an aunt that smoked like a chimney, even when I was in the car with her. The pull out ashtray of her Cadillac was full of ash and crumpled up cigarette butts and the whole car smelled of cigarettes and old people. I didn’t like that smell very much.
Every house back then had an ashtray or several … I remember seeing ashtrays for sale at all the local stores. One ashtray was this brass beetle that its shell opened up to put ashes and butts in, another was this smokey jade glass ashtray that I loved the creamy white swirl patterns in the heavy stone-like material and another ashtray I remember was shaped like a rubber tire with the ashtray in the center of the rim. White letters on the tire and I think it was probably an advertisement for a business but I always thought of that ashtray as the Hotwheels ashtray even though I’m sure that Mattel never produced something like that.
My dad never smoked, unlike a vast majority of male role models in the 1970’s. I think every other kid’s father I knew smoked but my dad didn’t. All of his friends smoked but my dad didn’t.
I always thought of my dad as being tough … hard … forged … kind of like a cowboy without the chaps, the guns, the vest or the hat … even though he was a banker.
I never thought of him as ever being a kid or having a childhood … somehow my dad had just been made … like he had always existed and he was this larger than life figure that came in and out of my life.
My dad was tough. He was like a tough cowboy … in a suit and tie, and he carried a briefcase. He was always dropping off his clothes or picking them up from this dry cleaning place called “1 Hour Martinizing” or maybe that was a process that they used. Anyway, I always remember seeing that “1 Hour Martinizing” sign and knowing that my dad was going to either drop off his suits or pick some suits up. The place always had a really bad smell to it, a chemical smell that seemed to hurt my nose and even though I was fascinated with the big moving rack of clothes behind the counter, and the lit up posters in recesses in the walls, I sometimes got a headache from that place but I never complained about it. Dad would usually get me a Fanta Grape drink from the vending machine and I’d get a penny off of him to get a handful of gum out of the bubble glass gum bending machine, putting that penny in the slot and sliding the lever – ka-chak- from side to side to get the handful of gum that fell out the chute on the front of the machine … little, different colored squares of gum with some kind of white logo on the front.
My dad went to the dry cleaners about as much as he took his car to the carwash.
I remember my dad was … precise. He was always shining his shoes with this shoe kit that he had, this wooden box that looked like a carpenter’s kit, something that had a flat top, open sides and was stained with the stain of shoe polish and shoe oils. That shoe kit seemed ancient … like something that had been made after Jesus but before Christopher Columbus ever discovered America. My dad would pull out his shoes that he was going to wear for his trip Monday and he’d pull out these different colored metal tins of Kiwi shoe polish … he’d put one shoe on top of the shoe shine kit then he’d get a cloth, some Kiwi shoe polish and he’d go to polishing and shining his shoes … cloth, brush, his hands going over his shoes and making them shiny.
I used to love to watch him shine his shoes and get ready for work, to pack his clothes for the week in big suitcases, suit bags and his shaving kit. I remember trying to pick up his suitcase one time, to help him carry it out to his car to help him load up and that thing was so heavy I couldn’t budge it. Of course, it was this big American Tourister suit case, the kind that the gorilla in the cage used to try to beat to pieces in the television commercial that I loved to watch, and of course I was three years old but … still I tried. It was like a sword in the stone moment only I didn’t pull the stone out. My dad just smiled, reached over and with one hand lifted his suitcase and carried it effortlessly out to his big Chevy Impala, putting it in the trunk with the rest of his bags and slamming the trunk closed.
My dad was my hero.
My dad never smoked.
I guess he didn’t need to smoke to be my role model and maybe because he didn’t smoke it would make it easier for me, later in life, not to pick up that particular bad habit when everyone else around me was first starting.
I remember smoking and cigarettes were everywhere in the 1970’s, the smell of cigarettes, the smell of cigarette smoke. Everywhere you went there were people smoking, cigarette butts on the ground or sidewalk, sometimes in the floor of the grocery store … ash trays overflowing, cigarette ash here and there … little tubes of compact gray ash. Cigarette burns on furniture, on the benches and seats and tables at McDonald’s or the Goodyear tire store where my dad got the family cars serviced.
I remember hearing about people falling asleep with cigarettes in their hands, setting the bed on fire and dying in the house fire. I think that happened in a neighborhood around us, near us because that’s a vivid memory for me from my early years. There were always stories about something like that happening, in the newspaper, on TV and in TV shows.
When all the health concerns and scary commercials started to come on television and radio, I managed to get my mom to quit smoking. My grandmother stopped a while after that, my mom and I being the leading advocates for her to do so.
I lost my grandmother way back in ’99, not to cancer but to natural causes. She died in her sleep at my parents’ house. I was thirty-five miles away, at my own house, with my wife, at the time when I got that phone call.
That was a tough time, especially since my wife and I had made time to spend with my grandmother since our marriage … taking my grandmother shopping at the mall, taking her out to eat, just spending time with her when my parents went out of town on their own to visit my sister and her husband.
I had a lot of fun with my grandmother growing up. My dad’s parents were divorced and my mom’s dad had died before I was born so I never had a complete set of grandparents to spoil me. I never got to go to grandma’s or grandpa’s and spend the night or the weekend. I never had my grandparents come and visit me on my birthday or come for Christmas or Thanksgiving or any other holiday. All I had growing up was my mom’s mom, my grandmother, and that woman was the greatest grandmother that a boy could ever want.
I remember going on vacation in 1989 … I was 20 years old and I was driving a 1986 Dodge Daytona Turbo Z. Somewhere halfway along our trip we swapped places, I fell asleep in the passenger seat and my little old grandmother drove my ’86 Dodge Daytona Turbo Z for the next hour and a half like it was nothing at all.
Three years later she pretty much couldn’t drive anymore but we went on vacation again, my grandmother and I getting a day early start ahead of my mom, dad and sister and we took my ’89 Chevrolet Corvette Z51. The Vette was so low to the ground that my poor old grandmother could barely see over the passenger side door and dash but there she was, riding in that Corvette, just talking and carrying on as we flew down those interstates and highways.
Really good memories.
It’s 2015 when I’m recording this podcast and like I said … I lost my grandmother in May of 1999 so for the first 30 years of my life I had the world’s best grandmother, all the time, in the house with me when I grew up. I miss her sometimes … it’s not the miss her in the kind of way that makes me sad but miss her in the kind of way that brings back a lot of really good memories of growing up and having a grandmother like her around.
I still have my mom today.
I really do believe that getting my mom to quit smoking way back in the late 1970’s is one of the reasons why I still have my mom today. I’d like to think that getting my grandmother to quit smoking way back then was what kept her around until years after I was married.
My grandmother got to see me get married but she passed away before she could ever see my two daughters and that is one of my regrets in life. I think my grandmother would have loved to have had great grandchildren … and they would have loved to have a great grandmother.
This was 1970 to early 1973 and like I said … I was an only child until 1972.
I have really fond memories of living in Birmingham, Alabama. It was a big city full of big buildings and there, up on the hill in downtown Birmingham was this giant statue of a guy holding his hand up to the sky. My dad said this was “The Vulcan” and everytime that we went downtown I was always looking up on the mountain there to see if I could see the Vulcan statue.
Those were some good memories … but I digress so let me fiddle with the time machine controls a bit and get us back on course.
I’ve told you of some good memories … and now for some not so good memories and some real creepy stuff from my childhood mainly because the ‘70’s were full of some pretty creepy stuff, at least for me.
The first real creepy memories come at a time when we lived on 93rd street north in an older wood house that we rented while we were waiting on a new house to be built in a developing neighborhood a few miles away.
I remember that Birmingham was a dirty town … it had a lot of pollution, especially air pollution, in the early 1970’s and I remember being sick all the time. My mom told me it was because the air was bad which I guess stuck with me in my later years when I came to learn to love the apocalypse, especially any kind of pollution based apocalypse. I was sick all the time with nose and ear trouble and it wouldn’t be until we moved from Birmingham and got away from all of that smog and pollution that my health really improved and I wasn’t sick anymore. I remember the early years of my life as a time when I was always going to see doctors for my runny nose or my ear aches. I remember having to get tubes put in my ears and that seemed to help with the ear aches and ear infections that I was always getting.
My early memories of my life seem to be colored in this ochre kind of sepia colored patina … maybe because I was sick and it wasn’t a fun time.
I didn’t like being sick … maybe that’s why I was always in a car being taken around Birmingham … taken to see specialists and doctors to see why I was always sick. I remember having my tonsils out … that was back when having your tonsils out meant you checked into a hospital for a few days. That memory is laced with this soft green and white patina … of nurses and doctors like I’d seen on the TV show “Emergency” and of a big play room with lots of neat toys including a big kid’s size yellow and black bulldozer. I remember playing on that thing with this other boy and a little girl. I asked the boy why he was in the hospital and he said “cancer.” I told him to make sure they gave him ice cream because I was going to get ice cream when my tonsils were out and they told me that would make me feel better.
When I got back to my room I asked my mom what cancer was and she said it was a very bad way to be sick. I told her the little boy that I’d met in the play room had told me that he had cancer. My mom said the little boy was very sick if he had cancer. I asked her if cancer was like getting your tonsils out and she said it was much worse.
I felt bad for the little boy.
I remember the next morning the nurse taking my bed out of the room and wheeling me into the operating room and I remember standing up on the gurney, walking around on it, asking the doctors and nurses what different types of equipment was. The doctor had on those green scrubs, green mouth mask, green cap. The nurses did too. One of those honeycomb lights was overhead and the doctor and nurses finally got me to lie down on the gurney. They put the anesthetic gas mask on me and had me count as high as I could and I started at one and …
My tonsils were out.
When I woke up, I was being taken back to my room and the nurse laughed and told my mother how I had carried on in the operating room, walking around the top of the gurney, asking the doctors and nurses what each piece of equipment I could point to was and my mom just shook her head. Yeah, I’ve always been a handful, sometimes more than my parents could handle. A little while later I got some ice cream for my sore throat and that made it feel better. My dad came to see me and brought me a gift … the Mattel Putt Putt railroad set! It had a wooden wind up train, plastic tracks and a wooden dump truck that dumped a load of wooden lumber. I played with that toy in my hospital room until the nurse and doctor came and released me. I never went back to the big playroom so I never saw the other little boy with cancer.
I hoped the little boy got ice cream and got to feeling a lot better.
I remember our first house, the first house that I can remember, being the old wooden white house on 93rd street north and that house had a really odd layout.
It was a single story house, but it was built into a rising hill so the garage was actually below ground of the house and it had a long set of stairs going up from the driveway, over the hill, to the story where we lived. Looking back now at pictures of the house it really was a bad design and it was designed probably by an architect that had been borrowed for the day from the local retard school. The garage we used as a storage area, we never put a car in there, and the garage had a study, paneled, carpeted, with a door on it, and separate from the rest of the garage, built off to the side.
That first house scared me and for good reason. It was an old house and something … dark … and evil … lived in the basement of our house and also in the basement of our next door neighbor’s house. In fact, it seemed to live in both houses at the same time or it went back and forth between the two houses.
The single car garage we used as a storage area and separate from the rest of the garage, built off to the side, was my dad’s study, paneled, carpeted, and with a door on it. The area that we used for storage was piled high with family keepsakes and spare stuff that we didn’t have any room to use in the floor above … it was full of shadows, it smelled wet and old and it was creepy which is something I’ll get to in a moment because I always thought that something lived in the shadows, something that was scared of adults but put the fear into little children … something that would eat little children if it ever caught one.
That was The Mean Thing.
At least that’s what my next door neighbor, my friend, a little girl my age, called the thing in the basement. I will talk about the Mean Thing that lived in the basement shortly.
One of the other things that I remember was this huge cow pasture across the road from our house though I don’t remember ever seeing any cows in it. Mostly it was overgrown with tall grass in the summer and dead grass in the winter. The trees on it were gnarled and twisted, huge things that I always thought might open blank white eyes and dark gaping mouths like the Halloween decorations I was fond of during that season. The cow pasture seemed a relic of something that may have been in the neighborhood long before our house was ever built, maybe even before the neighborhood was built as the fence posts marking the property were leaning and overgrown and the rusty barbed wire spoke of years long past. In one place, the barbed wire bit into a tree, the tree itself slowly growing around the barb wire, taking the wire into the body of the tree. Another tree, a big old tree, had the barbed wires already more than halfway through the trunk. It was like the trees were eating the fence, I thought that was scary and cool at the same time.
My dad said the pasture had been there a really long time.
One night I was watching a scary movie with my dad, some movie about werewolves and old timey classic cars and this guy chased his wife and her werewolf boyfriend through a mirror back in time and … something happened. He pushed his wife into the mirror and it cut her in half, all that was left of her besides the broken mirror was this standing torso, like a mannequin in the store missing its upper torso. There was also some kind of painting of the woman and the man driving some really old turn of the century touring car and suddenly the man’s image in the painting changed to that of a werewolf in old timey driving clothes. That show freaked me out because I didn’t understand what was going on.
Dad told me that if I ever went near the big cattle pasture and the gate that it would cut me in half like that woman got cut in half. I guess he was just trying to keep me from going across the street to the cow pasture and exploring but for a long time there as a child I looked at cattle gates as some kind of razor sharp guillotine waiting to cut me in half if I ever got near them. Needless to say, I never went near that gate or crossed the road to the cow pasture to go exploring, even though I really wanted to so I guess his scare tactics worked, harsh as they were.
That must have been about 1971 or 1972.
To this day I have not been able to find out the name of that movie … I’d like to see it again if only to see how much I didn’t understand of the movie and how much I got wrong from a childhood memory so if anyone remembers that movie or show from that time, drop me an email.
When I lived in the old white house, my next door neighbor was a little girl named Mary. She was my age and we played together often since she was the only other child that lived nearby and, well, she was my age. She had a scary basement, much like mine, that we used to play in all the time and I remember playing only in the patch of sunlight that filtered in through the dirty garage door windows.
We never played in the darkness because somehow as a child I always felt an uncomfortable presence lurking there in the shadows and the dark. She felt it too because anytime the light that was available for us to play in fell below a certain ambience level she would just get up and quickly leave the basement, often leaving whatever toys that we were playing with there on the basement floor, and she would tell me to come on, to follow her, back into the other area of the house where there was a lot more light and she would urge me to be quick about it. Something in her voice always made me do what she told me to do and I could always feel like something was there, in the shadows, watching us play.
She called the thing that lived in the basement “The Mean Thing” and she said sometimes it took her dolls if she left them in the dark. That scared me as a child, to know that there was some monster called “The Mean Thing” that lived in the dark of the basement and took toys that kids left behind. I didn’t like that idea at all, especially when I started to notice that The Mean Thing also was in my basement as well. I remember playing one afternoon in the basement at the bottom of the stairs with some of my Hot Wheels cars and the lights flickered a little bit and got a little dimmer and that’s when I got really scared because I felt like something was in the basement with me and it wasn’t my dad or my mom or my grandmother. It was something else, the same thing I’d felt watching Mary and I play from the shadows in her basement.
Granted, it was an older house, but when you mixed that with my new found knowledge of “The Mean Thing” and the fact that I was playing in what amounted to the glow from a 40 watt single exposed bulb at the bottom of the stairs, well, the shadows started to move and I started to hear sounds and that was it. I grabbed up my Hot Wheels cars in their tire shaped carrying case, not even bothering to put them in their correct slots … I just grabbed them all up, held the loose cars tight by pressing the lid of the case down on them and I beat a path up those stairs as fast as my little legs could carry me. I wasn’t about to let The Mean Thing get me or my Hot Wheels cars.
By the time that I reached the top of the stairs, I could almost feel The Mean Thing reaching out for me. I threw open the door at the top of the basement stairs, fell sideways into the kitchen and used my little feet to kick the door closed behind me. I grabbed up my case and loose cars and ran into my bedroom. I’m not sure what my mother and grandmother thought was happening, since both were there in the kitchen making dinner, but a few minutes later as I was counting out my Hot Wheels to make sure that I had them all my mom came in to comfort me and ask me why I had run out of the basement. I told her that I got scared and she laughed and held me as I put my Hot Wheels cars carefully in their correct slots and clicked the carrying case closed. After that, I didn’t play in the basement … only on the top floor or in my dad’s study …with the study door closed because if the door was open I could always feel the Mean Thing out there, in the shadows, watching me play in the study.
Watching … waiting …
Even to this day when I think about those two dark basements, mine and hers, and the narrow rays of light coming in from the old dusty windows of the seldom if ever opened garage doors … feeble rays of muted and dust filtered light that defined our play area and I sometimes shudder involuntarily. It was never anything physical, just a feeling but it was an unshakeable feeling that “The Mean Thing” was real, as real as anything else and there was just the simple understanding that you didn’t play in the dark areas and if you got out of the area that was lit by the sun then you kept moving until you got up the stairs and into the rest of the house … back into the light and the place where people lived. You never looked back and you always moved quickly and the closer you got to the door at the top of the stairs the quicker you moved until your hand flew across the big brass knob, turning it and you literally threw yourself sideways out of the basement into the kitchen and you shut the door behind you. Only then could you slow down and be safe from whatever it was that called the darkness home. The same protocols of being a kid moving through the dark held true for my house and I often called down the stairs to the garage to have my father either open the door to his study so that light would spill out or for him to do that and meet me at the bottom of the stairs. It seems all kind of silly today, looking back on that, but way back then it wasn’t silly … it was basic understood survival. Somehow my father was powerful enough to ward off and keep away whatever lurked there in the darkness of the basement but even with my father waiting on me to walk me from the stairs to his study I could feel … something … watching me from the shadows, seething, biding its time … waiting on me to forget the protocol that I went through in order to avoid letting it get me.
Whatever the mean thing was it lived in the basement of those two houses and one day it stole one of my favorite Hot Wheels cars … I remember it was the Porsche GT car, the cool one where the entire rear end lifts up to show you the engine, and I was playing with it in the kitchen. I ran the car across the linoleum of the kitchen floor because it got up to some insane speeds on that slick surface. I remember that my car bounced off the base molding under a cabinet and ricocheted off under the crack of the door leading to the steps to the basement and … vanished. Horror stricken, I jumped up and heard the little diecast car hit the wooden steps, bounced twice and was gone. Then I heard something moving around down in the basement, like boxes being moved around … like something sliding over boxes … and then silence. There was no way I was opening that door or going into the basement alone so I waited until my dad got home late that afternoon.
When I told him what had happened, he scolded me for playing with my Hot Wheels cars in the kitchen where my mom could step on one and slip and fall. He and I then went down stairs and looked all around for that little Hot Wheels car … we even opened up the rusty hinged garage door to let in a whole lot more light to search by … the old rusty hinges sounded like something screaming in pain when the door opened and maybe something was …
We got a flashlight and went all under the stairs, over all the boxes under the stairs … nothing. That was one of my favorite Hot Wheels cars and the Mean Thing in the basement took it and kept it.
I hated the Mean Thing in the basement.
And then there were Tom and Peg, our next door neighbors.
I remember that my grandmother was friends with Tom and Peg, an older couple my grandmother’s age. My grandmother would go over there and visit Peg and the two would talk and talk for hours, sometimes I would go with her. The house smelled of old … old books, old furniture, old beer, old cigarettes and old people. I remember as a child not really liking the smell of Tom and Peg’s house.
Tom didn’t do much. He didn’t seem overly friendly and I’m not sure he liked small children in his house. Most of the time when I went over to Tom and Peg’s house with my grandmother, Tom would be there sitting in a big reclining chair. He was the gruffest man in the world and if you had to have a modern equivalent to him, I’d say that Jeff Dunham the comedian used Tom as the role model for his puppet “Walter.” All three adults would drink canned beer and smoke cigarettes and I’d be there sitting on the living room floor looking through some picture book from the shelf of books that Tom and Peg had collected … or I’d go outside and play in the front yard, just digging rocks out of their gravel driveway or peeling pecans that had fallen from the big pecan tree in the front yard.
I remember that Tom and Peg had an amazing collection of beer steins from around the world and Tom gave me one, a small blue hand painted German stein with a metal lid that had a thumb latch to open the lid and close it. It was reliefed in scenes of a German pub with drunken patrons and a busty bar maid serving. I still have it today. I didn’t like going to Tom and Peg’s with my grandmother but I did, sometimes.
Decades later I found out that Tom was a World War II veteran, that he had been captured by the Japanese and had befriended a Japanese soldier while he was in the prison camp. The friendship kept Tom out of a lot of trouble. When Tom and some others finally broke free, he and the escapees came across the Japanese soldier that Tom had befriended and Tom had to kill the Japanese soldier with his bare hands to keep the Japanese soldier from alerting the other Japanese soldiers of Tom and the other’s escape attempt. I think having to do that messed Tom up bad on the inside because he always seemed like a man who was grumpy and who drank like a fish.
I didn’t know this as a child when all of this was going on, no, I only learned it from my parents as a young adult many, many years later … decades in fact. That was a good forty plus years ago so I figure that Tom and Peg aren’t with us anymore … they were in their sixties even back then so … hand it over to the law of averages, basic mortality and such.
I also remember one year there being a veritable plague of big black grasshoppers, these things were huge, three or four inches long, and they were everywhere which kind of scared me. These grasshoppers were a real nuisance and if you squashed them they really had a bad smell. My dad used to shoot them just for fun with an old Daisy pump action BB gun. He’d pump the BB gun, take aim and !PHUNT! there’d be a big black grasshopper with its guts blown out there in the back yard. My dad was a crackshot with that BB rifle … just as good as any cowboy with a lever action rifle that I’d ever seen on the cowboy shows on TV. I thought that was neat, shooting those grasshoppers for fun and I’d act as spotter for my dad … I’d find one of the big black grasshoppers and point him out and my dad would pump the BB rifle and blow the grasshopper away.
My dad still has that Daisy pump action BB rifle.
I haven’t seen a black grasshopper that big since that one time in my childhood.
One incident that I’ll never forget …
May 27, 1973.
This was in the new house that we moved to and I’ll talk about that shortly. I remember that the new house had this big bay window in the kitchen that looked out on the backyard and the neighborhood behind us and one day, late in the afternoon the sky grew dark, really dark. The sky turned really weird colors and the weather got really bad really quick. I mean Midwest, Kansas, we’re all going to die in this storm and they’re going to find our torn up bodies scattered all over Oz kind of bad.
I wasn’t scared of bad weather, I was fascinated by it.
I used to love to stand outside and watch the bad weather roll in, only going in after it started to rain really hard or if the lightning got too much. I loved the thunder and the lightning but something was different about this storm … there was just this feeling that I had and I remember that I didn’t want to go outside and watch the storm … I didn’t want to go into the kitchen to watch the storm outside the big bay window so I stood there in the den, on the carpet, holding onto the side of the threshold entrance to the kitchen, watching the clouds get darker and darker and the backyard turn from sunny and green to yellow and dark and gray.
This storm was different.
This wasn’t a good storm.
This wasn’t a fun storm.
The lights in the house went out, all electricity failed and still I stood there, watching the storm grow outside while my dad and grandmother moved around the house in the ambient light and got out the flashlights. I watched the clouds grow outside the window until it was very dark, almost night with just a thin band of gray sky to separate the ground from the clouds.
My mother was watching the weather from the kitchen window which looked out the right side of the house and suddenly she screamed out something and my father grabbed up my little sister and me and headed for the garage and basement. Just like that … one second I knew that this storm was bad and the next second I was under my dad’s arms being flown down stairs as fast as my dad could carry me and my sister. My mother and grandmother were close behind, their feet pounding down the wooden stairs louder than the thunder and wind outside. I remember being in the garage, underground and built into the side of a hill … the two story house above us.
My mom held my sister and I went and stood by my dad who held me close. There was a terrible roaring noise that went on forever, it just got louder and louder and then it faded away slowly into nothing.
That roaring had been an F3 tornado, 800 yards across with a damage path 50 miles wide and it had set down just a few miles away from where I lived before proceeding to demolish everything in its path. My new house was on the outskirts of the storm so we didn’t get very much, if any damage but a block or two away from us it was a different story altogether. All in all, 32 frame homes and 48 mobile homes were destroyed and more than 300 homes sustained minor damage in the area.
Later I found out that my mother had seen the huge tornado tearing through the houses just a block away from us, demolishing the Centerpoint area, throwing debris into the air as it went and that’s when we had run for the basement.
The next morning we drove through that neighborhood and I marveled at the destruction, of houses reduced to splinters and broken bricks. One man had died, he had been sitting in his favorite chair when the tornado had picked up the house, literally picked up the house and dropped it back on top of him.
My parents showed me the house, it looked like a pile of smashed wood and broken bricks and all I kept thinking about was that a man had died in all of that debris.
My parents took pictures.
I still have those pictures in a family album somewhere. I still have the picture of the house where the man died when I was 4 years old. I think that was the first time that I had heard of someone dying in real life or someone that lived close to me. People died all the time on TV but this was real life and somehow that saddened me even though I didn’t know the man who had died, not even his name … just that he lived a few blocks from my house and that the tornado had destroyed his house and killed him.
So much for the creepy stuff in my early childhood and growing up for my first few years in the old white house on 93rd Street and the new house on 5th Street.
Let’s move on to some happier memories.
The basement / garage at our house was filled with lots of big, worn leather satchels full of government documents and federal regulations that my dad rotated out as needed. These satchels reminded me of saddle bags and stage coach satchels that I’d see on the cowboy shows on television.
Like I said, Dad had a small study and office in the basement. Dad’s study off to the side was a warm, inviting place where pop music came from a small portable transistor radio and dad sometimes practiced his game of golf by putting into this golf ball trap that was a series of ramps that tilted up when the ball rolled over them and then trapped the ball in the middle. I thought that was the neatest thing I’d ever seen and I used to play with that ball trap with my Hot Wheels cars … rolling them towards the ball trap, letting them go up the ramp and then land trapped in the middle.
My dad liked to play golf, not a lot, but I remember that in the early 1970’s he had a golf club set and sometimes he went out to play golf with a friend or two. Dad also had this Texas Instruments electronic calculator … red numerals and buttons that were hard to press and clicked loudly when you did. He kept it in a charging cradle, you could use it away from the cradle but the battery ran down quickly, if I remember correctly. It was also one of the first commercially available battery powered calculators and it was incredibly expensive. I think the government gave it to him to use on his job.
I remember that my father had an adding machine as well and many times I would walk down the long set of stairs to the basement and visit him in his study / office and marvel at how his fingers would be flying over the keypad, almost with a mind of their own as he looked the other way at some records or statement.
Dad also had a briefcase that he took with him everywhere when he went on business. In that briefcase was this unbelievable collection of ink pens taken from each bank that he had ever visited or examined. There must have been a hundred different shaped, different colored pens in his briefcase. Some people collect little trinkets of where they’ve travelled, of where they’ve been … thimbles, shot glasses, etc. My dad got a pen from each bank or savings and loan that he investigated and examined.
I always thought that was neat.
Sometime when I was really young my mechanical aptitude really took off.
I say that my mechanical aptitude really took off because one of the fondest memories of my childhood and one of the stories that my parents always tell was when I was about three years old. My father had a tool kit, just some open ended wrenches, an adjustable wrench, a vice grip, a hammer, some screw drivers, etc. in an old surplus U.S. Army .30 caliber ammunition carrier (metal, olive drab painted, dented, with yellow lettering on the side but I was too young to be able to read yet). All the mechanical problems in the world could be fixed by my dad with that old surplus military ammo box and the handful of basic tools that he kept in there.
Today I have two rolling tool chests in my garage and I still think I need more tools but like I said before, back then it was a different time and like Frosty the Snowman’s famous hat, I truly believed that there was some magic in that old surplus military ammo carrier turned tool box.
One day in 1972 my father and I were working on his Yazoo big wheel mower. Some of you probably don’t know what a Yazoo big wheel mower is. I think it might have been a Southern thing, local to Southern states. The mower had little wheels up front and huge spoked wheels out back which I think made it a lot easier to push. It had a sky blue metal deck and a white painted engine. It made a lot of noise and I loved to watch it cut paths through the tall grass of our yard which my dad cut every weekend. One of the front wheels broke and it was a simple bolt on wheel. My dad had a spare, I guess he got it from the local Yazoo mower dealer. Regardless, my father worked on that broken front wheel for nearly half an hour, using every single open ended box wrench, plier, adjustable wrench, hammer and screwdriver in the surplus ammo carrier / tool box and he could not get that wheel off. Frustrated, he left me, three years old, sitting in the driveway, with the tools and the mower. My mother and grandmother were out tending and watering the flower beds in the front yard and dad had gone inside to get us something to drink.
I remember reaching out, touching the surplus military ammo carrier, pulling it over, finding an open ended wrench, fitting it to the wheel of the lawnmower and … taking the wheel off of the mower. When my dad came back I held the wrench and the wheel up for him to see and he freaked out. There he had worked on that wheel for nearly half an hour with no luck and while he was gone inside to get us something to drink I had removed the wheel in the short time that he was gone.
That particular childhood story gets retold every few years by my dad because he still can’t believe it happened.
It was my first time to swing a wrench and it would be the start of a life-long hobby … working on mechanical things, repairing them, replacing parts, trying to figure out how exactly they work. A few years ago I asked my dad about the old surplus military ammo carrier tool box that he used to have and the next time that he came over he had found it and decided to give it to me.
I still have that old ammo case in my garage … it’s kind of a legendary family icon. It’s sitting on top of one of my rolling tool chests in my garage.
And now to the New House, because that’s what my family called it. It was a new house, recently built and we were the first owners so … New House. My second house and compared to my first house it was a castle.
Sometime in early 1973, when I was three and a half years old, we moved from the old white house on 93rd street to the new two story big brick house, over on the 1000 block of 5th Street North West, not far from where we were living, just a few miles, but it was to a different neighborhood, a different subdivision and I said goodbye to the little girl next door with the sad realization that I’d never see her again. Moving like that, even just a few miles, when you’re young and you might as well be moving to another galaxy.
Even at such an early age I understood that sometimes things you liked in life just didn’t last forever. Even to this day I wonder what happened to that little girl I used to play with … did she get to grow up? Did she have a happy life? Is she out there somewhere having a good life or was life bad to her? I guess I’ll never know …
And like that we were living in our brand new two story above ground, one story below ground big brick house in Birmingham and we had a two car, in ground garage. I remember the steps going up the front of the yard to the front door were long, towering impossibly over the yard and that once you got to the top you could see all the way back up the neighborhood, probably a distance of a good mile to a mile and a half.
I bet those steps alone, their steep design, discouraged many a door to door salesman in the 1970’s and I bet my parents loved those steps for that very reason. Our new house had been built to discourage encyclopedia and vacuum cleaner salesmen.
Even when we lived in the New House my dad still had to travel a lot for his job and he was on the road at least five days a week … sometimes longer but when he came home it was always something special. I remember dad brought me a small Lego set from a place he said was called “The Playpen” in Jackson, Mississippi. I knew what a playpen was but when he said that “the playpen” was a toy store I had no idea that such a place existed or could exist. I remember trying to wrap my four year old mind around the concept that there was such a thing as a “toy store” … a whole store filled with nothing but toys. Up until that point in time, my toys had come from either the toy department of department stores like Sears and Zayres or the turn rack at a convenience store. Dad said that “the playpen” was the name of a store that was filled with toys and that’s all that the store sold; just toys.
I loved toys and my little mind was blown at the concept of a toy store.
At the new house I quickly made two really good friends. There was Donny who lived a few houses up the street and there was a cute girl named Ashley who lived across the street and the three of us would play together, sometimes one or the other and sometimes all three at the same time. I remember that Ashley had curly brown hair that fell past her shoulders and freckles across her nose.
I also remember that Donny was a biter.
Don’t get Donny mad while you were playing with him or he would suddenly turn and try to take a chunk out of your arm … or leg … or any other body part he could get a hold of. He’d even chase you, push you down to the ground and then climb on top of you and try to bite you. I guess I got my anti-zombie hand to hand fighting technique learned at an early age. Donny quickly either grew out of that bad habit or was forced out of that bad habit by stern parenting and corrective action but I do remember him biting me once or twice before my parents and his parents had a talk together and after that Donny never bit me again when we played together.
Donny was my best friend while I lived at the New House.
I remember Donny’s father had that icon of the 1970’s, a fiberglass, open top dune buggy with a roll bar out back. It reminded me of the talking dune buggy from the cartoon “Speed Buggy” and I loved it. Donny and I used to go into his garage, climb into the dune buggy and pretend to drive it. Donny and I went with his father on many rides through suburban and urban Birmingham in that dune buggy. It was loud and the wind whipped at you. I said I would own a dune buggy like that one day but alas, at 46 trips around the sun, I still haven’t had one to my name.
Maybe one day.
No matter how you looked at it, in the 1970’s if you had a childhood friend whose dad had a dune buggy and who took you for rides in it then that was way cool and you can safely say that without a doubt you had an awesome childhood.
Childhood was filled with television … you couldn’t be a child of the 1970’s and not have been overexposed to television but back then we didn’t have four hundred channels and DVRs to record stuff when it came on and we were away somewhere doing something else. We had like three to five channels, that was all … We had ABC, CBS, NBC, maybe a local channel if I remember correctly and maybe a public access channel and that was it.
No DVR or VCR.
If you wanted to see a TV show and you missed it you were out of luck. If you were late in getting home or turning on the TV you couldn’t rewind the show and watch it from the start, no, you just had to pick up where you could and make the best of it. If you missed your favorite sitcom episode … oh, well, maybe they would rerun it at the end of the season in a few months and you could watch it then.
Compared to the convenience we have today in media, growing up in the 1970’s was the Stone Age of television and I only say that because I didn’t get to live in the 1960’s and 1950’s which would probably have been pre-Stone Age for media.
Captain Kangaroo was an early morning favorite and I always watched it as I had breakfast. Romper Room was another morning pleasure and then it was outside to play. Sometimes I watched the game shows with my mother and grandmother while they ironed and did laundry or if the weather outside was bad.
Monnie Hall’s “Let’s Make a Deal” was a favorite of mine as I loved all the costumes that people made and wore while trying to get chosen to play the game. Bob Barker’s “The Price is Right” was also a favorite of mine to watch, especially with all the gimmicks that the contestants had to use to win. I remember watching “Candid Camera” at night and “The Flip Wilson Show”.
During the afternoons I remember that there was an ice cream truck that drove around the neighborhood during the spring and summer. It was this green truck with the side vending window and pictures, real pictures, not just painted pictures, of all the frozen treats that the truck owner offered. My favorite treat was either the red, white and blue rocket pop or the multi-color sherbert cone with the frozen and hard as a rock, teeth breaking gumball there on the bottom. A few orange pushups convinced me to stick with the two previous favorites though the occasional ice cream sandwich and the plastic wrapped rainbow colored snowcone in the paper cone were also contenders.
Donny, Ashley and I would get our treats and sit on the curb in front of whatever house we managed to get the ice cream truck to stop at and we’d eat our frozen treats.
Once the ice cream truck disappeared into the distance and the music faded, once we finished our treat outside we would go into my house and watch “The Sergeant Jack Show” which was a local TV kid show which had a sheriff’s deputy showing cartoons to a live studio audience of kids. The show was kind of like Romper Room only in between the officer telling the boys and girls in the audience about basic childhood safety and sharing and other morality lessons the officer showed the kids old Popeye cartoons.
Safety was something that other kids needed to be reminded of … and something that I ignored.
I remember my mother and grandmother taking me to a city park to play. There was this giant slide, at least it was giant to me when I was four years old, but in hindsight it was probably not more than eight to ten feet tall at the top of the ladder. I’m not sure how I did it but somehow I fell off the top of it, landing on my head with a crack that probably sounded a lot worse than what it was. My mom ran over, picked me up and rushed me to the local hospital. I’m not sure who was crying more, me or her. I remember x-rays and doctors and nurses and the word “hematoma” and … do you know, to this day, the part of my forehead where I hit there’s a slightly elevated bump due to scar tissue from the hematoma. If I look closely, sometimes I can still see the outline of that hematoma and that was a good 42 years ago.
Like I said before … I’ve got a lot of scars.
As a child, traditionally dangerous things didn’t scare me. Even as a young child I was a death defying daredevil. How I made it to my adult age without major medical disability or disfigurement or being permanently confined to a wheelchair I have no idea but somehow I did.
To give you an idea of some of the things that I used to do in my single digit years …
I remember that our New House had stairs going upstairs to the second floor. Carpet covered stairs. There were a pair of stairs in the foyer leading up to a landing and then the staircase made a 90 degree turn to the left and went up to the second floor. I used to sleep in footy pajamas, what my mom called them, but these pajamas were a two piece design with sealed legs and non-slip grip on the bottom of the feet. I think they buttoned together at the waist. Anyway, these pajamas were smooth and slick and when I was belly down on the shag carpet in our New House I found that I could slide across the carpet in my pajamas pretty easily. When my dad used to play with me and tickle me he would sometimes drag me across the carpet by my arms or legs and that’s when I found out that I could basically shag carpet body surf with footy pajamas.
Now, kids who grew up in two story houses probably had the fear of God put into them about playing on the stairs or leaving toys on the stairs where unwary adults could slip on the toys, fall down the stairs and break their necks and I guess I was no different but stairs really fascinated me, especially the shag carpet covered stairs in our New House. I was all the time rolling my toy cars down the stairs … most of the time I could do it and not smack the wall at the landing at the bottom but a lot of times my toys smacked that wall, left marks on the wall and my mom scolded me for playing on the stairs.
One night I found out that going down the stairs on my bottom was not only a bumpy ride but a really fun one as well. I guess the noise I made put the fear of God in my mom because she came running from the kitchen, through the dining room, thinking that I’d fallen down the stairs and broken my neck. When she saw me sitting there on the landing she asked me what all the noise had been about. I walked up the stairs to the top, sat down, and butt surfed my way down every single step until I hit the landing in a “ta-dah” type finale. My mom shook her head because she was caught between being amused at my antics and wanting to scold me for not being careful on the stairs.
Somehow, what I was doing was considered “acceptable” by my mom and because of that I got to do it pretty much as often as I wanted. I found that butt surfing only seemed to work in my footy pajamas. When I tried it in my regular day play clothes it just didn’t seem to really work as well. Butt surfing soon evolved into shag carpet luge where I would slowly position myself at the top of the stairs, board straight, feet aimed towards the bottom of the stairs and I’d let go and slide, dead body style, all the way down the stairs until my legs hit the bottom step and landing and I came to a stop. This also concerned, then amused and through passive acceptance became tacit allowance by my mom for me to continue my staircase daredevil antics.
A few weeks after I started my staircase antics I took the big plunge … I body surfed the staircase face first. That was awesome and my mom was less than happy about my new trick but after I showed her a few times she grabbed the family camera, took a few pictures and made me promise her that I’d be careful. After that, once I was in my footy pajamas for the night, I don’t think I ever walked down the staircase in a normal fashion ever again.
At the shopping center near I-59 and Highway 11, there near Roebuck Plaza Drive, there was a large two or three story slide that had multiple chutes, side-by-side, going down. It had a few humps in it, places where you bled off speed rather than built speed up and a run-off at the bottom. You could either pay to slide once or buy a package deal for a set of repeat slides. You slid down the slide on a mat so this slide was kind of like a water slide of later years, just without the water and the neoprene mat. I remember that slide was huge. My dad took me to that slide one night, paid for our trips down the slide, grabbed a mat then we walked to the top. That slide was really high up and my dad sat down on the mat, spread his legs slightly and the attendant at the top of the slide helped me walk over to the edge, sit down in my dad’s lap and then he and I pushed off and for the next five seconds of acceleration and free-fall I was having a mixture of utter fear and utter joy. Eventually joy overcame fear and on our next trip up the slide I was climbing the steps in front of my dad.
After that, every now and then my father and I would go to the big slide and slide down two or three times, just my dad and I, and I couldn’t get enough of that feeling of falling and acceleration, that feeling of … I guess it was an adrenaline rush, but whatever that feeling was that I was feeling I tried to duplicate it in anything that I could do.
On a side note, getting ahead of myself, about two decades ago I made it back to Birmingham and the area that I used to live … first time I’d done that since I’d left … and the big slide was gone. In its place was a McDonald’s so if you’re ever in that section of Birmingham, out near Parkway Drive and Roebuck Drive, look for the strip mall near the interchange of I59 and Highway 11 and look for the McDonald’s … that’s where the big slide used to be in the early 1970’s. I don’t know when it was taken down or what happened to it but when I did make it back to Birmingham decades later the big slide was gone.
My friend Donny’s house was this two story design with the back door and deck on the second level … a design which I still don’t understand to this day. I remember his deck was really high up, like over 20 feet in the air, mounted on big wood posts and with a railing built around it. The deck had a long set of winding stairs that led up to it. One afternoon I decided to hang off the edge of the big wood deck and hand-over-hand around the edge until I got to the stairs on the other side where I could get back up on the deck.
Donny thought this would be awesome … and so did I.
It was just me, hanging off the lip of the wooden deck, the only thing keeping my tiny five year old self from falling 20 plus feet to my certain doom was the strength of my fingers holding that edge of the deck. I managed to hang off the short edge, hand-over around that to the long edge and just as I was starting across the long edge my fingers started getting tired. I knew right then that I was going to be in trouble so I told Donny to go get his mom to help me.
I held on there, hanging over 20 feet in the air from the edge of that wooden deck and then next thing I knew was Donny’s mom reaching over, almost hysterical, grabbing me by the arms and lifting me back up and over the deck rail. She asked me how I got in that position and I told her that I was climbing around the deck edge … her look I still remember to this day. Not really quite sure what to make of my antics, she told me not to do that ever again and then went back inside … probably to get a stiff drink to calm her nerves … and that’s when Donny and I decided that the next best thing to do that afternoon would be to climb down into the huge and deep drainage ditch behind his house and walk the length of the ditch until the ditch came out at the entrance to our subdivision.
Donny and I had climbed down into the big drainage ditch behind his house and walked halfway around the neighborhood. The ditch was filled with steep sides that were impossible to climb out of once we were down in the ditch so once we were down in the ditch we were pretty much committed to our adventure. There were areas of deep water and wet, slick clay that made walking difficult if not impossible. That clay was slippery. Donny slipped down and got his clothes all dirty and I had to hold onto a branch growing out the side of the ditch in order to help him back up and keep him from falling into the deep part of the water in the creek. We couldn’t see bottom in that water and it was sheltered in shadow both by the late afternoon sun and a pretty good overhang of the cliff above it. Donny said that snakes probably lived in that dark water and that’s why I had to really work hard to save him from falling into that deep water which I felt was probably over our heads but in worst case scenario was probably no more than waist deep for us. After Donny slipped and fell and got all muddy and dirty, I didn’t want to get my clothes all muddy and dirty so I managed to stay upright by grabbing exposed tree roots sticking out from the sides of the ditch walls and pulling myself along one root at a time. Donny saw what I was doing and copied me.
About twenty minutes after we’d gone down into the drainage ditch, Donny and I surprised my parents and his parents when we climbed out near the cement bridge at the entrance to our subdivision. My parents were working in the front yard on some shrubs and dad was cutting the yard with his big Yazoo mower when Donny and I climbed out of the drainage ditch down. My shoes were caked in mud and clay and I had to wash them off and mom made me dig the mud and clay out of the treads of my shoes with a stick. Donny went back to his house to clean up and his mom spanked him for getting dirty and that was the end of that day for big adventure.
New houses sprang up around us and the neighborhood not only became complete it soon started to fill with neighbors. There were kids scattered around the neighborhood, especially on the street behind us and behind Donny’s house but we didn’t play with those kids very much. When it came to friends, there was just Donny and Ashley and a little girl that lived up the street at the very end of the dead end but she was more Ashley’s friend than mine so when Ashley and I weren’t playing together Ashley was playing with the other little girl.
I don’t remember her name.
I do remember that there were some boys that lived on the other side of the ditch, behind Donny’s house but other than Donny and I standing in our yard with our toy guns shooting at them standing in their yard, across the ditch, with their toy guns, we didn’t ever have any interaction other than that.
I remember that most of the houses in that subdivision were on a septic tank system back then and I remember that the house just to the corner of us had its septic system exposed, brand new … it was a huge concrete box set in the ground with no ladder and no way out. It looked like a long way down as I stood there near the side, holding my father’s hand. I didn’t want to fall in there and no matter if there was twenty feet between me and the edge of the septic tank I wasn’t going near it. The concrete septic tank wasn’t even active, the house was still unfinished and the contractors still hadn’t finished with all of the plumbing on the new house. I felt if I fell into that concrete septic tank that I’d never get out. There was plenty of room on each side to walk around it but for some reason I couldn’t get the courage up to walk past that big gaping hole in the ground … that concrete pit seemed like a gaping maw to hell there in the ground and I made my father pick me up and carry me around it … I only felt safe walking around that big open pit when he was carrying me. Yeah, the kid that tried to hand over hand around the edge of my best friend’s two story back deck then crawled down in a big, deep drainage ditch and walked around the neighborhood was afraid of a concrete box sit in the ground.
Funny now in hindsight and it’s another story we share sometimes but back then that was real scary to see that big open concrete pit … I just didn’t understand what it was or why someone would build something like that.
Two days later the top was put on the septic tank and it was covered over with dirt and sod but I still refused to walk over that bit of ground for a long time … I had thoughts of the top falling in and me being trapped down inside it, unable to get out.
I’m not sure what my next door neighbor did for a living but I remember that in his living room he had this really cool model of an 18 wheeler and trailer in a long glass case, decorated up with a big western mural down the side of the trailer. Every time my parents went over to visit the neighbors and they took me, he would take me to the living room and show me the big 18 wheeler model in the glass case. I thought it was the neatest thing at the time. I guess that was the earliest that I was exposed to the big rig, trucker, CB radio craze that was even then starting to emerge in America. Years later when I would see the Burt Reynolds’ classic “Smokey and the Bandit” I would see Jerry Reed’s 18 wheeler, the mural of Jesse James holding up a stage coach on the side and I would instantly think about the model of the 18 wheeler that my neighbor had on display in his living room. The model back then and the rig in the movie years later were very close in design and execution of the artwork. I also remember that my neighbors’ house always smelled like cigarettes and beer and what I always thought of as weird candles.
While Donny and Ashley were my main friends, I remember making a new, sometime friend with a boy my age who lived in the house behind me. The boy and his family had just moved into the house behind us, at the top of our backyard since our backyard was this sort of upward slope. Our chain-link fence divided our backyard among the chain-link fences of the other backyards of the houses around us, kind of like state lines divided a group of states. I remember that the gates on our chain-link fence had these dog emblems on them, like hunting dogs. I always remember that one memory about the chain-link fence that ran around our property there in the subdivision.
One day I was playing in the backyard and I saw this boy my age standing at the edge of the chain link fence that separated our properties. Like I said, it seemed like every house had chain link fences back then but we could climb over them if we were careful of the twisted wire ends on top. Once one of those twisted wire ends scratched open your leg really good you were doubly careful about going over a chain-link fence. My little feet went in the holes in the fence like a cowboy’s boot went in a stirrup on a saddle and I’d hand over hand up and over the chain-link fence then drop down on the other side (after a brief period of introspection on whether the fall was going to hurt me or not from that height). The new boy’s name was Scotty and I waved to him from my back patio. He waved back and that’s when I walked up the hill of my backyard to the fence, and with the innocence of youth and I asked him if he wanted to be my friend.
He said yes and that was that.
When you’re a kid you don’t question who your friends are … you just know that they’re your friends and that they’re fun to play with and if the world was that way all the time it might just be a lot better place than it is today.
Scotty and I started playing together and I remember my mother being a little cautious saying that Scotty and his family had just moved in and that they seemed strange. Sometimes I would walk in on my mom and dad having a hushed conversation and I would hear Scotty’s name mentioned. I knew they were talking about Scotty but they never told me what they were talking about.
I never got to go in Scotty’s house very much which saddened me and made me a little mad since I wanted to see what kind of toys he had and to play with any neat toys that I might not have. We played a lot in his backyard with my Hot Wheels cars in his sandbox but his backyard was always overgrown with a rusting swing set, rusting garden tools just laying around and always a strange smell like plants rotting. My parents kept a pretty neat house but this was the exact opposite of how my dad kept his yard. The backyard of my new friend’s house was like a jungle, unkempt and wild.
I liked it.
Scotty seemed a little sad but also tough. He was usually quiet, I could get him to play whatever game I wanted to just by telling him that we were going to play that game. Scotty just seemed happy to have a friend and I liked being Scotty’s friend.
One time I remember that we went into Scotty’s house to get some Kool-Aid and for him to tell his mother that he was going to come over to my house to play. His house was dark and smelled kind of funny … it had this strange odor to it like a burnt candle or old flowers or something. I remember that on a few doorways there were hanging beads that you had to part with your hands to walk through. I’d seen beads like that on TV before and I thought that was neat.
The living area of his house was elevated slightly, there were like five big carpeted steps leading up to that level of the house where the bedrooms were and I remember seeing his mom for the first time. She was a beautiful raven haired woman, tall, but sad. She wore one of those long silky ivory night gown robes like my mom was fond of wearing and she stood there, in the pale illumination of the light filtering into that part of the house, no lights on, and I could see her smoking a cigarette. She and Scotty said something, almost a whisper that I couldn’t hear, then she turned and went back into her bedroom and shut the door. I thought that was weird since it was afternoon and she was still in her night gown. Scotty said that we had to go outside, that we couldn’t be in the house and so went back outside, climbed the chain-link fence between our properties and went to play at my house. My mom fixed us Kool-Aid and I never got to gp back in Scotty’s house ever again.
That was also the first and only time that I ever saw Scotty’s mom and then I thought she looked a lot like Cher from the Sonny and Cher variety show on TV. In hindsight, all these years later, I’m pretty sure that Scotty’s parents were swingers that were 4:20 friendly in their meet ups and I can still see his mom, standing there, outside her bedroom in her nightgown, looking almost ethereal. If the Eagle’s hit “Witchy Woman” had been playing softly in the background the scene would have been complete.
A week or so later, my dad woke me up in the middle of the night and told me that Scotty’s house was on fire and did I want to come see. I crawled out of my bed and my father and I stood there in the dark of the kitchen, looking out the big bay window at fire blazing through Scotty’s house up the hill in the backyard. I could see red and blue lights flashing so I knew that the police and fire department were there. The next morning my dad and I walked up the hill in the backyard to the chain-link fence and looked at what was left of Scotty’s house; there was the blackened husk of Scotty’s house, burned furniture and junk was littering the yard and smoke slowly wafted up from the ruins.
I went to the fence to see if I could see Scotty but I didn’t. I didn’t see anyone. I did see one of my Hot Wheels cars on the side of the sandbox but something told me it was better to leave it there than climb over the fence and try to get it.
I never saw Scotty again though my parents did tell me that he didn’t get hurt in the fire and that he and his family were moving to another house in another part of the city. I never got my Hot Wheels car back, either. I don’t know if Scotty took it with him or someone else got it but the next day the Hot Wheels car was gone.
I never saw Scotty again.
I kept thinking of his mom … of her smoking the cigarette there in the house, standing there in her nightgown and I wondered if she had fallen asleep while smoking and accidentally burned down the house?
That was my thought back then, wondering if Scotty was going to be okay, if all his toys got burned up, if Santa was going to bring him new toys to replace the ones he lost in the fire because to my 4 year old mind that’s what Santa did if you had a house fire and all of your toys got burned up …
I remember being sad … Scotty had been a friend but he had been different than Donny or Ashley because Scotty had been a mystery and being his friend had been an adventure. Climbing over that chain-link fence into his overgrown backyard was like climbing the fence and jumping off into a jungle. I guess it was the start of a life trending pattern of me having very few friends but the friends that I did have being very unique and very special.
And then I started kindergarten.
Kindergarten would be the start of my lifelong hatred of school. From the fall of 1973 to August of 1992, 19 years all told, I would be in school in one form or another; kindergarten, elementary, junior high, high school, junior college and college and it all started there in the fall of 1973 with me going to kindergarten.
I remember my mother taking me aside, squatting down in front of me there in the living room and telling me that I was going to be going to kindergarten. I didn’t know what kindergarten was so she explained it to me.
That kindergarten thing just didn’t sound fun at all to me no matter how she tried to sell me on the idea but apparently I had to go and I didn’t have a choice. When I asked her where kindergarten was and how I would get there she told me that a big bus would come and pick me up and take me to kindergarten.
I was going to get to ride a big bus to this kindergarten place!
Well, at least that sounded fun.
I remember that my only experience with any kind of big bus was with the Greyhound bus that my dad’s brother, Uncle Tommy, had arrived on to visit my father a few months ago. That had been a neat visit … my dad and I had taken his big Impala to downtown Birmingham to the Greyhound Bus Station and we had picked up my Uncle Tommy. I remember the bus terminal being a big place, I remember there being some mechanical games there like pinball and a few of those shooting games that had the rifles or machineguns fixed to them and when we picked up my Uncle Tommy I remember that in a big field near the bus station that I got to see the Goodyear Blimp being tied down. That thing was huge and there it was … I’d seen it on TV before but here it was, in the city that I lived and that blew my four year old mind. We didn’t stop but my dad slowed down just enough to let me get a good look at all the people running around grabbing ropes and tying the Goodyear Blimp down. Years later, in 1975, when we were living in Jackson, Mississippi, my dad would take me with him to watch the George C. Scott thriller “The Hindenburg” and I would think back to a few years before when I was so close to a blimp like that.
I digress again so let me get back on track …
I was going to kindergarten and I was going to ride a big bus to get there.
As soon as my mom told me that I went out and sat on the front steps of my house, the elevated front steps with a clear view of the only road leading into my subdivision and I waited and waited and waited. It seemed like a long time and I finally got bored and went back inside the house because no big Greyhound bus had come to pick me up and carry me off to this kindergarten place that my mom had told me about and I was going to ask her why it hadn’t come to pick me up.
My mom asked me where I had been and I told her that I was outside waiting on the bus to take me to kindergarten. When I asked my mom about why the bus hadn’t come to pick me up already she said that I wouldn’t be going to kindergarten for a few more days and that she had made a mistake. There was no kindergarten bus that would be coming to pick me up, she would be taking me to kindergarten every day in the car and picking me up from kindergarten in the afternoon. When I told her that I had been outside waiting on the big Greyhound bus to pick me up and carry me to kindergarten she just laughed and held me tight and tried to explain that if a bus came to pick me up it would be a big yellow school bus, not a big Greyhound bus.
And like that, what she said seemed to make perfect sense to my four year old mind.
And so I started kindergarten at a big local church.
Donny and Ashley didn’t go to my kindergarten.
That’s where I learned about colors and sharing and playing … that’s where I got my first chipped tooth when I fell on the playground (I played rough) and that’s where I played with toys that were probably hand me downs from the 1960’s.
We had juice and cookies and nap time and story time and arts and crafts and watched films and it wasn’t a whole lot different than not going to kindergarten except there were lots of kids and I didn’t like being around lots of kids and I didn’t like the regimentation or the discipline. I really didn’t like the regimentation because I was used to doing what I wanted to do and now I had a teacher, another woman who wasn’t my mother, telling me what I could and couldn’t do.
I also didn’t like being in a crowd, having to line up in a straight line, having to be quiet and having to follow directions from anyone who wasn’t my mother or grandmother. I liked doing my own thing, all day long and kindergarten was, in short, a pretty abrupt lifestyle change for me. The totally carefree part of my childhood passed away that first day of kindergarten and my life was never the same after that.
One time in particular I remember that we were supposed to line up for playtime outside. We all lined up in the hall and started to walk single file outside to the playground. I guess we were making more noise than we should have because suddenly we stopped outside the kindergarten principal’s office, the place we knew we never wanted to be sent to, and me, being me, stepped out of line and asked my teacher:
“Hey! Who are you going to put in there?”
“You.” She responded flatly, walking down the line to me, taking me by the hand and sitting me in the principal’s office.
I felt bad at first, realizing that in my curiosity to see who was going to get in trouble I had broken the rule of being quiet in the hallway and got my own self in trouble. It seemed like some kind of trap and I sat there, musing over my predicament in the principal’s office while the other kids went out to play for recess. The principal asked me a few questions and then I proceeded to torment that poor old man.
I asked questions.
I asked non-stop questions.
I wouldn’t be still.
I wouldn’t sit in the chair he told me to sit in.
I walked around his office while he was sitting at his desk and I picked up the things he had decorated his office with, I looked at his pictures, I opened his books and looked at the pictures and I asked that poor man ten thousand questions. I’m sure he’s passed on now, he was old even way back then but I fondly remember that incident because the time that man had to look over me as some kind of punishment turned out to be a punishment for him and I’m sure that he thought that the teacher had done this on purpose.
When my teacher came back with the class the principle was waiting, standing there at the open threshold of his office door with me standing there beside him. That old man was more than happy to return me to my teacher’s care. I got back in line and several of my kindergarten friends all looked at me like I’d just come back from a dungeon for children but I had the biggest smile on my face because I think that I had more fun in that bit of corrective detention than I would have had playing outside.
I don’t think my principal appreciated my teacher leaving me with him and I think he told her as much in a hushed conversation there at his office door, with plenty of looks cast at me by my teacher and my principle. I’m also pretty sure he told her to never, ever leave me with him again.
And she didn’t … ever again.
Yeah, I remember that incident fondly to this day and it always makes me smile. Like I said … I was a handful. Always was, still am today, and probably always will be.
Sometime in the summer of 1973 my grandmother’s brother, Carl, came down from Tennessee to visit us. He worked for the TVA and had just bought a new ’73 Dodge half ton pickup truck. I always called him “Uncle Carl” and he was my favorite relative because he was a World War 2 veteran and sometimes he would tell me stories about the war and about his time in the service as a paratrooper. Uncle Carl was a lot of fun to be around and when he came to visit that time he and his wife brought two things with them … a case of Double Cola for my dad and something none of us had ever seen before … a tall red can of potato chips called “Pringles.” Uncle Carl said that “Pringles” had just started to be sold in the part of Tennessee where they lived and he gave us a can of the unique potato chips.
My four year old mind was blown.
A few months later I started to see Pringles in local stores and mom bought them to go with my sandwiches at lunch. Since then, Pringles have pretty much been a regular fixture in my life as far as potato chips go but I remember them being hard to find in the early ‘70’s and then a staple of my lunches in the mid to late ‘70’s.
I had a lot of good memories at our new house in Birmingham but like all good things that part of my life eventually came to an end.
My dad, wanting to be home more and not on the road as much as he was, transferred to a different government office based out of Jackson, Mississippi. He worked there for two years but the first year was spent with him still on the road while we tried to sell our house so we could move to Jackson, Mississippi to be with him. It took almost a year for our new house to sell and in the fall of 1975 my family and I moved from Birmingham, Alabama to Jackson, Mississippi.
That was a tough time for me because I was six years old and I thought Birmingham was my home, I thought I’d live in my big house forever and I thought that I’d never have to say goodbye to Ashley or Donny or the ice cream truck or the Sergeant Jack Show or my big back yard or my kindergarten or the Big Green Cleaning Machine or the big slide my dad and I went on when he was in town.
I watched, only understanding somewhat, as uniformed movers from the Mayflower Moving Company went in and out of our house, packing stuff, moving my bed, moving our furniture, and loading it in a huge green truck with this yellow gold painted ship on the side. Ashley and Donny were there as well, watching with me.
When it came time to leave, when the house was empty and the three of us had walked through it from one end to another, marveling at the indentions in the carpet where furniture had once been for years, I said a heartfelt teary goodbye to Donny and Ashley with the youthful understanding that I would never see them again.
Donny and Ashley’s parents were there to say goodbye to my parents and I got in my dad’s ’71 Chevy Impala and we drove away. I remember turning around and watching my two friends wave goodbye one last time then Donny and his parents and Ashley and her parents walked slowly back to their houses.
I remember driving up that long road, out of the subdivision, seeing my house get smaller and smaller and then turning left at the top of the road to where I couldn’t see our house anymore. As we drove out of the area that we lived, as we drove down Parkway East and got on I-59 I saw the big slide that my dad and I had spent so many nights going up and down on and when that landmark, too, had faded into the distance out the back of the rear window I felt such an utter sadness that all I could do was to just stare out the back window of my dad’s Impala and think about what I was leaving behind.
I was five years old and it felt like my world was coming apart and I guess in one sense it really was. Everything that I’d come to know, everything that I knew and loved I was leaving. My dad must have known I was feeling bad about leaving everything behind because he stopped off at the convenience store at the end of the long road that led into our subdivision and he let me buy a rack toy and get a Coke flavored Icee. I chose this cheap carded set of two deep sea divers and submarine. The toys came with three small rubber hoses and you put these small rubber hoses over a nipple on top of the divers and on top of the submarine and put the toys in water like a filled up sink or a bathtub. The toys sank and when you blew into the rubber tube, bubbles came out the bottom of the diver’s boots or the bottom of the submarine and the toy moved around in the water or rose up out of the water.
We made one more stop before we left Birmingham that day … and it was a very special stop. We pulled into a shopping center there on Parkway East and dad took me into a hobby shop. In all the time that we’d lived in Birmingham I’d never known this shop existed. We’d never been here before and the shop looked old, it smelled old … I had never been in a hobby shop before and it blew my mind to see all the models of tanks, planes and ships. The hobby shop had several models built in the display case in the window and I remember one of them being the AMT Star Trek Mr. Spock figure where he’s pointing his phaser at the three headed snake coming out of a hole in the ground. I fell in love with that kit and wanted it but my dad thought it was way too complicated for me to ever be able to put together and paint … that kit was my first introduction to the fact that science fiction model kits existed and my first introduction to a hobby that would follow me throughout the rest of my life. My dad, instead, bought me an Aurora “Seaview” submarine kit from the TV show that I’d been watching the last year; “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea”.
I loved the Seaview … it was just a really neat looking submarine.
It was my first model kit and dad and I put it together at the guest table by the front window of our motel room there at the Holiday Inn where we spent the night in Jackson. I remember how the model glue in the tube really smelled bad. My dad was a smart man … that model kit took my attention and my worries away as he and I built it and once the glue dried I got to play with it in the bathtub that night when I was taking a bath, right along with my new deep sea divers. The model of the “Seaview” came with a little display stand that looked like the bottom of the ocean and I went to sleep that night with the Seaview mounted on that display stand and the two deep sea divers leaned up against the stand there on the end table between the beds. I remember laying there in bed, lights off, thinking about the move and looking at my new model submarine there in the dark, remembering everything that I could about living in Birmingham until I finally fell asleep.
We moved to an almost new house out in the Cross Gates community and in the fall of 1975 I started first grade at the elementary school in Brandon, Mississippi on the corner of College and Franklin. I remember riding a big yellow school bus to school … the bus picked me up just down the street on the corner of Terrapin Drive and Terrapin Hill Road. I waited on the bus with a bunch of other kids in the neighborhood several of which became friends that I played with after school. My across the street neighbor was a kid named Cecil who was my age. Cecil had a sister who was in high school … I think she was a junior or a senior … she seemed so old.
My bus number was 118 and I loved that yellow school bus because it was big and loud. I always rode in the seat right behind the driver who was this ex-Vietnam veteran who looked like a cross between Johnny Cash and Michael Bein. My bus driver liked to talk about war comic books like The Unknown Soldier, The Haunted Tank, Sergeant Rock and The Losers … comic books that my dad bought me on occasion and which I pored over again and again until the pages were worn slam out. Sometimes my bus driver gave me comic books that he had read, mostly the titles I mentioned, and I always looked forward to when my bus driver would hand me a bunch of comic books. I’d shove them into my backpack and read them when I got home.
I remember there being a hinged lid beside the bus driver and all year long I asked him what was under that metal lid and he said that he kept a M60 machinegun in there. My imagination ran wild all year long imaging there being a real M60 machinegun under that big metal lid. Everytime I asked the driver to open the lid and show me the M60 machinegun he would just laugh and shake his head. It became kind of a game that the bus driver and I played every day. There, at the end of the year, maybe the last day of the school year, the driver finally flipped open the hinged lid there by the side of his seat and much to my disappointment all that was under the lid was a bunch of switches and fuses … no M60 machinegun.
Sometime in the fall of 1975 the State Fair came to the State Fairgrounds there at the Coliseum in Jackson and my dad took me. There at the fair I got to see some military exhibits where I got to shoot a BB gun at some targets (and got to keep the target, had a pretty good score as well), got to ride a 500 foot zip-line down, and got to look real close at a Skikorsky Skycrane helicopter, a jeep, a M60 tank and a M113 armored personnel carrier.
Six year old mind blown … especially when my dad told me that they had to fly the big grasshopper looking Skikorsky helicopter into the fair grounds and land it there. That helicopter seemed so big …
I talked to the soldiers and they were amazed at how much I knew about military equipment. My dad and I wandered through the state fair, getting Cokes and cotton candy and then I found this place that sold posters and there was this poster of a really evil looking trike chopper done in blue and pink lines … it almost looked like it was moving on the paper and I begged my dad to buy me that poster. It was a motorcycle, it was a chopper and it was bad looking! It even had a skull in the high back seat. It was the coolest thing that I’d ever seen and my dad bought it for me.
My first grade teacher was really nice … her name was Mrs. Ponder … she was in her fifties or maybe early sixties even then so I’m sure she’s passed on now. I was always letting my imagination run wild in class. She had this small army shirt, kid sized, that someone had left behind from the last year. It was a button up fatigue shirt, short sleeve, and I wore it like a jacket. Every day I asked Mrs. Ponder if I could wear the old army shirt and she let me. I felt like a soldier and I wore that shirt so much that she finally told me I could just take it home and keep it. That shirt was one of the best things that a teacher had ever given me because when I played “guns” with my friends I always wore that camo shirt.
I was always drawing pictures in Mrs. Ponder’s class. I drew army tanks and army men and army planes. I drew pictures of battles and planes dropping paratroopers and bombs and blowing up cities. All of this was the fervent doodling of a six year old boy bored to death in class. When we came back from Christmas break, Mrs. Ponder gave me a poster of the blueprints, the exploded view and inside view of a DC-10 passenger liner. It was the neatest thing that I’d ever seen. Mrs. Ponder said that she had gone to Disney World during the Christmas break and a man there was making those posters on a big machine. She knew how much I loved airplanes and drawing so she got me one of the posters the man made. I was the only kid in the class that she brought anything back to from her trip.
A few weeks later, I had a really bad dream. I can’t remember much of it now except that my mom and dad argued about my nightmare and whose fault it was supplying me with all the bad stuff I was reading … like the comic books and the evil motorcycle poster stapled to my wall. The next thing I knew all of my comic books, the poster of the evil trike chopper that I’d gotten at the state fair and the poster of the DC-10 passenger jet that Mrs. Ponder had gotten me at Disney World were all taken, taken down, and thrown away because my mom thought I was too young to be constantly exposed to all of that type of stuff. I remember crying … mainly because I couldn’t understand how my comic books that my dad had bought me, the comic books that the bus driver had given me, and my two favorite posters had to be thrown away or why my mom thought that throwing all of that away was somehow going to keep me from ever having nightmares again.
In the fall of 1975 I played pee-wee football for the Brandon Exchange Club. I can still remember my coaches … Coach Womack and Coach Baker. I had a helmet, a mouth piece, pads, cleats, a uniform and I had my shares of tackles. I remember mom boiling my mouthpiece so I could bite down on it and fit it properly. I hated the plastic taste of that mouthpiece but I liked wearing the helmet because it made me feel like I was strapping on a motorcycle helmet or a pilot’s helmet and the feeling of being able to run as fast as I could and take down another kid my size or bigger was an amazing feeling. My team practiced in the area just outside of the main entrance to the Crossgates community where I lived … in the grassy area that once existed between Highway 80 and I-20. Today that area is all populated with businesses and strip malls but in the fall of 1975 that area was nothing but waist high wild grass, bushhogged down for about half the width so that all the BEC teams could practice.
My team was undefeated; we were the Brandon Exchange Club Champions for 1975. I remember going to the awards ceremony at the end of the season, basking in the glory of being on an undefeated team, getting a trophy for the season and … I never played football again. Whatever it was in me that made me want to play football vanished after that season finished up, probably to the great disappointment of my dad.
One curious aspect of the sports that I did play … I never played for a team that wasn’t undefeated the entire season and I never played for a team that didn’t go all the way and become the area champions for that season. I won’t brag and say it was all my doing but there’s something there … maybe I brought some luck to the team … maybe I just don’t play with losers.
Right after we moved to Jackson I remember getting to go to The Playpen, the toy store my dad had told me about for the last year, and I remember walking into that place and having my childhood mind blown again. It really was a store that just sold toys … only toys … and that store became my favorite store in all of Jackson.
There was also a hobby shop in Jackson, out near Meadowbrook, just down the service road from the Play Pen in the Maywood Mart shopping center … the hobby shop was called something like “Little Red Rooster Hobbies” or something like that and it was just this small hole in the wall hobby shop, nowhere near as impressive as the hobby shop in Birmingham had been and everything inside was dark and dusty. It had everything from plastic kits to model rockets to paint sets but it was like walking through someone’s attic, if that someone had decided to have a hobby based garage sale in their attic.
My family shopped a lot at the Jackson Mall and I guess that was my first real indoor shopping mall experience but that’s best left for a future podcast and there will be a future podcast all about malls and the memories I have of them. I have a lot of fond memories of shopping malls, as any kid my age probably does.
Living there in Crossgates was a fun time for me that seemed to stretch out much longer than it actually did. I had one year, one whirlwind year, in my new house in Jackson … just one year to make friends and start public school before my parents yanked me up again and we moved … again.
In the fall of 1975 my family had left Birmingham, Alabama and moved to Jackson, Mississippi. In the fall of 1976, almost a year to the day, my family left Jackson, Mississippi and moved to Hattiesburg, Mississippi.
From the fall of 1975 to the fall of 1976 was a whirlwind time for me as a child and by the start of first grade in the fall of 1976 I had lived in two different states, three different cities, and four different houses. I’d gone to two different kindergartens and two different elementary schools. It’s hard, as a kid, to start out your second grade year at a school in Brandon, Mississippi then just one day pack up, move somewhere far away and start over again in a new school but I did that twice in the space of two years. Those big green and gold Mayflower Moving trucks became both a familiar sight to me in my youth and a cause for alarm when I saw them parked in front of my house. When I saw one parked outside of my house, ramps extended, and with Mayflower employees taking stuff and furniture and boxes out of our house then I knew that what I had right then was ending.
I moved to Jackson, Mississippi in the fall of 1975. About a year later, I pretty much followed through with leaving my new house in Jackson like I had left my new house in Birmingham …
Like Birmingham I’d made two really good friends, Jim Bob Brock and Mark Poole, my two closest friends. Having those two friends had really helped me to get over losing my old friends in Birmingham and now here I was, watching Jim Bob and Mark wave goodbye as my family drove off for Hattiesburg in the fall of 1976. There’s a special kind of sad feeling you get when you’re a child and you move and you see everything that you knew, everything that you loved and cared about, slowly vanish in the rear window as you drive away.
The funny thing is that I don’t remember my parents ever really telling me that we were moving. I’m sure that they did but out of all the things I can remember about the two big moves we made from one state to another I just can’t remember my parents telling me that we were about to pack up everything and move far, far away and that I’d never see my friends again.
I remember coming home from school one day, seeing the big green and yellow Mayflower moving van, seeing the movers taking stuff out of our house in boxes and with wheeled dollies. It was starting all over again … I remember standing there in my room, looking at all of the boxes of my stuff packed up, watching the movers grab the boxes of my clothes, my toys, my stuff … and carry it outside to load in the trailer of the moving truck. I remember sitting in the suddenly bare window of my bedroom … it had this kind of bay window where as small as I was I could sit there, and I remember watching the movers come into my room, pick up the boxes in my room, and head back out to the moving van. I remember my mom standing there, watching me watch the movers move our stuff, telling me that we were moving to another house in another city.
Moving to a different city, a different house twice in the space of a single year; that’s not just a big adjustment for a kid … It’s a major life changing experience.
So, in the fall of 1976, at the start of second grade, my family and I left Jackson, Mississippi and moved to Hattiesburg, Mississippi about ninety five miles to the south east. I was yanked out of the first few weeks of second grade, transplanted to a new house, a whole new school, had to say goodbye to the friends in Jackson that I’d just made and had to start all over again but I was lucky because my new house was on a street that had kids my age on both sides so making new friends didn’t take long and I had more friends in Hattiesburg than I’d ever had in Jackson or Birmingham.
I have a few fond memories of Jackson … I just didn’t live there long enough to have a lot of tales to tell though some of my memories from my time there may come out in the podcasts to come.
I feel for any kid that has to move, especially move a couple of times in their early childhood because I know what that’s like to try to make roots then be yanked up and dropped into somewhere new and have to start all over again. I’ve always felt sorry for the military brats that had to move not only to different bases but sometimes to different countries as well. I couldn’t imagine that kind of chaos in a child’s life. I mean, what I went through was pretty rough for a seven year old boy but after that Hattiesburg would be where I’d spend the rest of my childhood, my teenage years and my early adult years so there was some longevity and stability there and oh, the stories I have to tell about living in the ‘Burg.
Well ... I guess that’s a pretty good place to stop this podcast and with that, I’ve talked to you for the better part of another hour and some change. I think I’ll close this second podcast here since this gives you a pretty good idea of how my really young childhood years were spent and the kind of environment that I grew up in, the media I was exposed to and the things that were basically there for me to build my life on. Jackson was nothing like Birmingham and yet I had good memories of the thirteen months that I lived in Jackson and living in Hattiesburg was an adventure all in and of itself … a nearly two decades long adventure.
Next cast we’ll move on to a topic that is near and dear to me; toys.
I love toys!
Even today at 46 years old I still love toys, maybe now more than ever because I’m basically well enough off to be able to buy any toy I want, when I want. If something grabs my eye and yanks on my heart strings I don’t have to ask my dad for my allowance or wait until my birthday or Christmas to buy something really big … I just whip out the old wallet and throw down some green and walk out of the store with a smile on my face and a bag in my hand.
So much of the 1970’s and 1980’s were defined by the toys of the time and I had a lot of toys when I was growing up. I had toys back then, brand new, that collectors still eagerly seek out today, toys that collectors sweat to track down and empty their wallets to acquire. We’ll pick up again at the early part of my childhood and move through the mid 1970’s when Planet of the Apes really became fixed in my memories, the reign of Hasbro’s twelve inch G.I. Joe in my life and the rise and fall of both Evel Knieval and The Six Million Dollar Man. By the time we work our way through the decade up to 1977, well, that would start my Star Wars years and that in and of itself is a whole separate topic all together worthy of its own podcast because when it comes to Star Wars I’m a “Star Wars” kind of guy and that means that for me there is only one “Star Wars”, 1977, just … “Star Wars”. No Episode IV: a new hope” Just … “Star Wars” and for me the core of my Star Wars years existed between the time leading up to “Star Wars” being released in May of 1977 and the debut of “The Empire Strikes Back” in May of 1980. Those three years were just magic for a kid like me which I guess is why they get their own podcast (and their own blog … look up my “The March of the Twelve Backs” if you’re curious).
So much to talk about … more good memories on the way.