I was born into neither privilege, nor circumstance, and with very little fanfare. That mild Indiana day at the front part of the 1970s just brought another end-of-war baby into the world, adding to the tally of an entirely different body count.
It wasn’t necessarily a childhood of struggle, but then neither was it to be considered entirely comfortable. It was the days of Blue Light Specials- and yes, they actually used a spinning blue siren style light- and things bought on the cheap because it was the only real way to get by.
Coupons were cut and jealously hoarded until just the right sale. Weird little books full of store issued stamps were diligently collected and carefully guarded until there was enough to exchange for that set of weird encyclopedias. Or that set of bicentennial dishware.
It was a childhood defined by those awful, ill-fitting “three stripe buddy” shoes bought from the Kmart. The shoes that far too often struggled to keep up with either our growing feet, or the rigorous exertions of youthful exuberance set free to prey up an unsuspecting neighborhood. At least until the street lights flickered on.
The many hazardous railroad excursions or the numerous soggy creek explorations were simply no match for the barely sewn together footwear bought on sale, so often our toes were at the mercy of the wild world of paint factory run-off and the collapsing railroad bridge escapades.
On the opposite side of the durability spectrum were the Garanimal corduroy pants. Those often surpassed even the later espoused first generation Nokia phone standards of indestructibility. Stained from nearly constant abuse, and often patched repeatedly at the knee, they still provided an amazing level of protection from the all the broken glass and the frequent fires, some more accidental in nature.
The evening hours, after all the running around and all the games of Ghosts in the Graveyard were completed, were often reserved for sitting in front of the television in the living room. To this day I remain convinced that our parents only gave birth to my brother and me so that they would have someone on hand to change the channel for them, saving them the trip from that itchy couch made from the most god-awful pattern of browns and gold, that may have been partially constructed from industrial grade asbestos.
Thankfully, there were only four local television stations broadcasting at the time. But it was still an impressive upper body workout for our young arms.
“What’s on 33?” one of my parents would ask, leaving my brother and I to exchange a knowing glance at each other as we sat cross-legged in front of the television set, often close enough to burn out our eyes, despite the constant warnings and threats.
One of us would reach up to the large dial and begin turning it.
Commercial. God damn it.
“What’s on 55?”
“Oh, that’s no good. What about 15?”
This would occasionally go on for five minutes or more before the folks could settle on which channel to watch, leaving my brother and me with exhausted arms and frustrated attitudes.
And I think sometimes that they did that shit on purpose. At least I hope that they did. Because I probably would have done the same thing.
One of the shows I remember watching the most, usually on the small black and white television that my folks kept back in their bedroom, was Little House on the Prairie. There was just something about it that caught me, something beyond my boyhood crush on Laura Ingalls that would forever spark my slight bonnet fetish.
Feeling the nostalgic pull back towards Walnut Grove during the recent pandemic isolation, I managed to score the complete set of the show and I settled myself down for a rewatch of the entire series, looking forward to revisiting what most people tend to remember as “a charming, family friendly show about a simpler time.”
They generally don’t remember the people blowing up with dynamite or nitro glycerin, people faking their death for attention, morphine addiction/suicide o.d., the alcohol-fueled child abuse, complete with bat-filled detoxing hallucinations, Ma almost chopping off her infected leg because the Bible told her she should, women and kids burning up in a fire, Pa losing his mind and going into the wilderness to build a monument to bring back a dead kid, deadly anthrax outbreak, etc.
Oh. And the creepy clown rape. You can’t ever forget the creepy clown rape.
It was really kind of a horror show. But one where people wear bonnets and go to church in a buggy.
And I’m sorry, but I have to say it. Pa was an absolute shit farmer. I think in the whole of the series, he managed to produce only one viable crop. Just in time for grain prices to collapse.
Looking back now, several decades into this tumultuous adulthood, I realize that there was a lot of that going on at the time, those sometimes not so subtle shifts in televised culture and attitudes. You could see it every night on MASH. And All in the Family. There was Roots and Welcome Back Kotter.
Each show seemed to push the social consciousness a little bit further with every episode, trying with entertainment to push our understandings of race and culture.
And it ended up teaching me a great deal.
Then the 80s hit.
Things had started looking up, both in the world and with the household economics. We even had some of the first video games, owning both an Atari and Intellivision system.
But generally, we only played those when our friends were over, either for the day, or for one of our many sleepovers. Or maybe if it was raining outside.
Otherwise, we would be out on our bikes- Dirt Bike Derby being one of our most popular activities. The derby consisted of basically peddling as fast as you could towards one another until you crashed in rather spectacular fashion. It was kind of like jousting, but without the lance. Or the chivalry. Or the armored protection. Or the rules. Or the pretty girls watching our manly feats of self-destruction.
When not smashing each other’s bikes and bodies, we would often be found still playing guns with realistic looking weapons. Orange safety tips are for pussies and when our parent’s generation finally pushed the manufacturers to begin including them, we simply painted over them with hobby paint or covered them with black electrical tape.
We were taught to hate the Russians and their political system, but in a fairly polite way. Most of us secretly desired for Red Dawn to actually happen, anyway, having armed and equipped ourselves from the stock of the local army surplus store just a couple of blocks away.
It wouldn’t surprise me if that store still has those terribly forged letters pinned up on some random back storeroom or office wall. Those notes supposedly from our parents, granting us their permission to purchase those knives and Chinese throwing stars. I mean they did threaten to keep them on file. Right before going ahead and processing the transaction in cash earned from either mowing the neighbor’s yard, or from a paper route barely completed.
We were also advised repeatedly to “just say no to drugs”, even though at the time a lot of us didn’t even know what they even were. But they sure as hell made us want to find out and eventually, we did.
And honestly, that was probably a good thing in the grand scope of our cultural development because I think it helped to somewhat quiet the devil’s voice, supposedly hidden in much of our music. Because apparently, we needed protection from that, too.
I’m not quite sure exactly why the nostalgia bug is biting so hard tonight, or why I am passing the time documenting those early years of my youth. I really have neither excuse, nor justification, to properly explain myself.
I’m just so fucking tired of this lingering pandemic-inspired isolation. And I’m tired of all the bad news and the hurtful words being thrown around, sometimes even directly at me and the choices I have recently made to fight for that in which I truly believe. I’m tired of the divisiveness and the endless streams of carefully crafted disinformation thrown at us every day.
Or maybe I just miss the days when television was actually worth a damn.
Maybe, like that crush from my earliest years, I am simply looking to reconnect with a simpler time for the sake of a single relaxed breath in a world still so intent on burning itself down. Maybe I need to better understand the places from which I came before deciding where it is I most want to go now that I find myself in the twilight episodes of my series nearly running out.
And wherever that place might be, maybe I will find that next crush, too.
The bonnet, of course, is optional.