Jeff Smith 12:30 p.m., Feb. 11
- Community Blog
Only in the '70s Were the '60s Uncool
Every October I go to a regional conference where, usually just that one time a year, I see people I don't see any other time. My thesis advisor from graduate school days is almost always there. Sometimes I talk to her a bit and sometimes not. She lives in my neighborhood, though we seldom run into each other shopping or such. For a decade or so after getting my master's, she seemed to wonder why I didn't go farther and become more of an academic. For my part, I wonder why she doesn't just retire.
Other folks stop for a minute between presentations to pass the time with me. We're glad to see each other, though it would be a stretch to say that we're close friends or even friends at all, in the sense of being someone you'd call when you're really in a bind and need a favor. One of them, nonetheless, I kept running into throughout the day and at the end of the conference we stood out in the parking lot talking for longer than we probably had in a quarter century. We spoke of things we'd never known about each other, and about this phenomenon of passing time.
There are several dozen local people in our field who have known each other casually for two or three decades, so now we've grown well into middle age and beyond together. Sometimes it seems like forever, and sometimes it doesn't seem like that long at all.
The reality is that it isn't in fact that long. Even thirty years isn't that much when you're pushing twice that age, especially when you grew up here and have clear memories of JFK riding down El Cajon Boulevard in his limousine or Johnny Downs dancing on a Golden Arrow milk bottle between Popeye episodes on the after-school cartoon show.
So, the conference was on a Saturday and pretty much shot the weekend in the ass. I go home and have a few beers, and the next thing you know it's Sunday morning and I'm riding by the old high school on a meandering path to the beach. For reasons imbedded in previous stories, I find myself stopping there with nobody around, peering through the locked gates at an area that until a couple of decades ago was open for anyone to come in and walk around. We used to play football on weekends on the back field overlooking University Avenue during and immediately after the high school years. A buddy of mine even flipped a dune buggy once on the baseball field during a Saturday night escapade in the mid-'70s.
Now it's all locked up and peppered with Do-Not signs. Just the same I can see pretty far in, and notice for the first time that the western-most buildings are only two in number, and smaller than I remember. They border the baseball field, with an interior courtyard between them with some grass and a tree or two as filler. I met someone there in a class long long ago, and it makes me feel sweet-sad. I'm old now and looking wistfully at a place that had significance in the early '70s, nearly forty years ago and before I ever had a clue to what sort of people would be my professional colleagues, whiling away one of those low-cloud San Diego weekend mornings with a mood to match the sky.
The early '70s were an odd time of both cynicism and hope, of KPRI "underground radio" and Peter Max posters... Sly & the Family Stone, Badfinger, Jethro Tull, and... Bread. Speaking of the latter, the airwaves were filled with wimpy sounding sensitive male songs that sounded wimpy even before the end of the decade. It was part of the times, I guess, an effort to show that we were going to be a different generation of males. We weren't going to glorify the sort of macho things that had gotten America into all these pointless military adventures, and we know four decades later how well THAT worked out.
So, we must face Realitysville: The '70s weren't particularly cool, and just seemed to get uncooler as the decade advanced. Yet they were the only years when the '60s weren't cool. I guess at the time the '60s were too recent a part of history to be nostalgic, much less cool, so all they could be in their role as the immediate past decade was passe. By 1972/73, practically everybody had long hair and sat legs akimbo on the grass in old blue jeans and dropped F-bombs in casual conversation. There was nothing special about it anymore, so how were we supposed to be awed by the awesomeness of it?
In a way I miss those times. Though secretly I didn't mind him that much, it was almost obligatory to hate Nixon, who was president for less than a term and a half though it seemed much longer when you went from gangly adolescent to your first legal beer during his administration. There was the sense that he knew at least what he was doing, even if you didn't like what he was doing. It was also the only time when it really seemed like--if we sang enough soft rock songs and all dressed in the same sloppy clothing--everything might just work out in the end and the world might come to be a better place than the one our parents grew up in. The postwar period really wasn't that great, afterall, if you were black or brown, and now it seemed that after a few pockets of turbulence we'd break on through to the Great Society that the Great Cornball LBJ had envisioned.
The feeling couldn't last, I suppose, and to be perfectly honest about it I get tired nowadays of walking around my old neighborhood and feeling a bit surprised if I see more than one or two non-elderly white people in any given location. In the early '70s, though, young Latina or black ladies were an exotic rarity out my way, and much more what floated my boat than the pale, whiney, pimply girls I'd been looking at all my life. By the end of elementary school I'd had my fill of them, and in high school was ready to play my part in the Great Social Experiment.
A lot of the more thoughtful among us then were True Believers in the multicultural dream, and I for one still have a hard time getting it out of my head, despite all the firsthand evidence to the contrary that indeed we aren't all the same and probably can't all just get along afterall.
Well, I joined the army in the mid-'70s, afraid of ending up right back in my hometown if were I to join the navy instead. It was the ultimate uncool thing to do at the time, but the Vietnam-era benefits hadn't yet expired, even though U.S. participation in that unhappy corner of the world had. As a reasonably smart guy in a dumb job, I got good assignments and generally consider the six years spent in Washington DC and Germany a load of laughs. By the time I got out, people in the military were back to being looked up to again, which I also found amusing.
Having acquired a taste for living in exciting, interesting places, I spent some more time working and studying abroad, then one day in the mid-'80s came home to find that '60s music was back, first the occasional Sunday morning special broadcast and then full-blown 24/7 "oldies" stations. You don't really notice things like that when you live here day to day, but as someone who'd left for years on end and dropped in from time to time, it was very noticeable.
Ever since then, for over a quarter of a century, it's the '70s that People of a Certain Age consider our most embarrassing decade, though we sure thought it cool at the time. I'll blast "All Along the Watchtower" through the car speakers, my long hair blowing out the open windows, and know that I'm Mr. Cool. It just wouldn't be the same with one of those Barry Manilow tunes.
As for the old high school, the buildings are recognizable anyway and that's reassuring. It opened in the late '50s, so more classes have graduated there since mine than before mine. For all the lament about how lazy and spoiled us postwar baby boomers were, when I was a kid even the biggest goof-offs could measure out a bag of pot and sell it at a profit without being totally dependent on the calculator function in their hand-held devices. Everybody seemed to pick up a certain amount of knowledge of the world, if only through sheer osmosis.
The majority of kids I come into contact with today just seem so willfully ignorant and proud of it, and I don't think it's just a perceptual thing or a part of my impending geezerhood. Information technology has grown exponentially, the talk about the importance of education is stronger than ever, but people just seem to be getting dumber and dumber. I'd wager that a lot more learning went on within that now fenced-in and locked-up area back when educational technology meant a filmstrip projector.
The early '70s were a long time ago, but some of the people and things are still around. I find it really neat when Carlos Santana comes out with a new song or Peter Max a new art project. These are, afterall, folks that were part of my consciousness before I was even officially all grown up. It makes me feel like the time I've spent being an adult professional, now close to half of my life, isn't really that much time at all. It makes me feel that I'll probably be around awhile yet, greeting the people I see not much more than once a year at that conference, and still identifiable to those I care about as the person I've always been.