Liz Swain 4:24 p.m., May 24
Being born in the mid-‘50s, my schoolmates and I were just old enough to look on in wonder at the tumult of the ‘60s but not really to participate in any adult kind of way. We went through school and childhood together, then set out in the early ‘70s from this area where we all grew up, some of us re-connecting for the first time since then only recently through the technology of the new millennium. Others, as the old song about the sidewalks of New York puts it, they are wanderers.
Much has happened before and since, but the time period my head keeps returning to in moments of nostalgia is the early to mid ‘80s. I kind of maxed-out then, much like the U.S. maxed-out in the ‘60s, in the sense that things never got more exciting and there was never--in spite of current difficulties--a greater sense of hope. In both cases, life kept going thereafter, in some ways better and in other ways not, and maybe the whole package deal is never as great as recalled, but for me the early to mid '80s remain a source of pleasant memories.
During this cold, rainy Presidents’ Day weekend of 2011, I found myself pondering such things. Maybe it was the classic movies on the cable channels. Maybe it was some of the old CDs I was spinning. Maybe the Reagan Centennial mixed with Presidents’ Day observances had something to do with it, this glorification of the time our nation got mass-brainwashed into fiscal irresponsibility by a smiley conservative who knew he’d be senile by the time the bill came due. Nonetheless, I was 29 years old for most of 1984, wrapping up my graduate work at SDSU and having a good time.
Less a late bloomer than an indecisive procrastinator, I’d spent six years in the army from 1975-1981. It was relatively undemanding office work in the immediate post-Vietnam era, and as a fairly smart guy in a dumb job I got great assignments. I worked in the Pentagon and in a corps headquarters in Europe, taking long leaves and weekend trips, sending proud pictures of my travels and adventures back to my folks in San Diego. I saw and did more stuff by my mid-twenties than most people do in a lifetime… and was eligible for Vietnam-era GI Bill benefits on getting out.
Thus did I end up in the early ‘80s back in my hometown, pursuing a graduate degree in an impractical subject at SDSU which, having grown up just a mile or so away, happened to be my home turf.
Starting out, I knew not a thing about linguistics, but had qualified for minimum professional proficiency in Spanish and German during the army years. Then, during the 1982-83 academic year, the chance came up to study in Peru while receiving education benefits. The available courses weren’t all transferable, but the experience gave me a much-needed fundamental background in the field.
Then came that 1983-84 academic year at SDSU. It was one of those times a person looks back on for the rest of a lifetime as magical. It wasn’t that I knew more than I know now, or even that I thought I did. It wasn’t that I had no financial or other practical worries looming. It was that I was in my late twenties, and everything seemed possible and within my reach.
When you’re at that age and reasonably bright, such a feeling of optimistic enthusiasm can be contagious. I was knowledgeable about certain things, and curious about those I didn’t know. It's a time in life where those more knowledgeable than yourself admire your potential, but also are flattered by your earnest curiousity. In addition—let’s face it—it’s probably the only time in life where a twenty year old girl and her forty-something mother might both think it a nice idea that you were interested in either, or both, of them.
Add to these age-determinant factors the phenomenon that was the ‘80s. I’d re-joined the army as a reservist after returning from Peru, and whatever else one might think of Reagan’s What-Me-Worry-About-Deficits ways, the military got plenty of new toys. It’s difficult, unless you experienced it firsthand, to comprehend the cynically amusing contrast between the borderline contempt toward a recently-discharged veteran in 1981 and the borderline hero worship of anyone wearing a military uniform by 1984. Perhaps there was a purpose in invading that little piss-ant Caribbean island in the fall of 1983 afterall.
For whatever reason, the country was once again full of itself, and happy days were here once more. Though I was fond even at the time of comparing it to a midlife crisis-stricken man maxing-out credit cards to temporarily impress the ladies, it was hard not to get caught up in the good feelings. This was particularly so if you wore a military uniform then, even on a part time basis.
As an army reserve linguist in a specialized unit, I made modest but surprisingly lasting contributions to some procedural matters. I lived in the motorhome I’d bought during my last year of active duty in the nation’s capital, the interior decorated with exotic if not expensive stuff from my travels. It lent a certain atmosphere to my offbeat lifestyle. A lot of work, as well as a lot of fun, went on therein. The army reserve was my main part time job during that period, and I played when I could and worked when I should.
The soundtrack to this period was the now-classic hits of the ‘80s. Madonna and Cindy Lauper were just arriving on the scene and Tina Turner was making a comeback; I used to bust people up by changing the lyrics of her biggest hit to, “What’s Reagan got to do with it?” Sixties music was also becoming, for the first time, nostalgic but not yet Paleolithic or even particularly “Old School.” There was a kind of loopiness to the era. One got the impression that the music, like the fashions and other aspects of popular culture, reflected a sense of not taking oneself too seriously mixed with a curious longing for the past that might have something to do with my theory of '60s max-out.
Never before or since have I felt so connected to past and present, with vague plans for a future that didn’t seem necessarily that optimistic given the direction the country was moving in. Nowadays, it’s tempting to boast that I was right, and way ahead of the times. To this day I don’t understand the concept of deficit spending while mouthing platitudes about fiscal responsibility, and the Everybody-Else-Does-It-More-Than-Me excuse—that last refuge of scoundrels, public school students, and neoconservatives—doesn’t cut it in my book.
My folks were not that much older than I am now, still active and there for me if I just plain didn’t know what to do at times and wanted someone’s advice. My oldest friends from childhood were back in my life again, and a couple of my best friends now made my acquaintance during that weird and wonderful year. We’d hang out in the motorhome wherever it was parked, sometimes at the beach but usually around the college area, often in the lot of the church on the edge of campus, where the pastor also enjoyed discussing things with me and occasionally sought my advice on matters Latin American.
Nowadays I’m much more affluent and comfortable, living and doing many of the things that were only dreams and ambitions in those relatively youthful days. So many things I was just curious about then I know of in great detail now. In late '84 I'd set out on a whole new adventure, teaching in Asia for the better part of a decade and acquiring properties during yearly trips home. Yet there's a soft spot for the person I was then, a worthy captain of my soul who eventually rallied and got it together on the cusp of middle age.
Every one of us carries around a personal history more detailed, if anything, than that of any nation or culture. I cherish the ability to remember so much of mine, particularly that meaningful period in the special place that is the college area of San Diego.