When Did the Seventies Begin?

A blog reader asked, "Do you remember an instance when you knew that the 60's were gone and the 70's had taken over?" Indeed I do. The Seventies were when I came of age, so it was an important decade for me. I remember two milestones quite well. One was physical, the other was emotional.

There is a school of thought among pop culture writers which holds that a new decade really doesn't begin until some time into the new decade; in other words, the old decade persists for a while. I agree with this. For instance, 1960 and 1961 were pretty much like the 1950's. The things that made the 1960's characteristically the Sixties hadn't taken place early in the decade - those things (the youth movement, drugs, Vietnam protests, Beatlemania, the generation gap, psychedelia, etc.) came around later, after the death of JFK.

I think this was also the case with 1970. Nothing about that year specifically strikes me as being characteristically Seventies. Let's see... the Dark Shadows movie came out that year. But Dark Shadows was really more of a Sixties phenomena than a Seventies thing. (The show premiered in 1966 and was canceled in early 1971; it became a hit when Barnabas the vampire was introduced in 1967.) Mungo Jerry had an enormously popular song with "In the Summertime" in 1970 - but so what? It wasn't disco. For me life was pretty much the same as it was in 1969. I was still in junior high (middle school) - no difference there. So we can safely dispense with 1970 as anything other than the chronological start of the decade.

For me, the Seventies arrived with a jolt - a physical jolt - on the morning of 7 February 1971 when the Sylmar Earthquake hit at 6 AM. I had never experienced an earthquake before in my life; this was the first. It was very memorable, and Southern Californians who remember it consider themselves "survivors" and wear wry little smiles. I've written a web page about that day. But it wasn't just getting shaken all day long with aftershocks, it was the whole feeling that something new had arrived in my life, mainly fears about what would happen with a bigger, follow-up earthquake. Would California fall into the ocean? This became a topic of interest in the Southland - from that point on, people became interested in earthquakes.

That very same evening I saw my first episode of "All in the Family," a groundbreaking Seventies television show and a media event. That episode dealt with a friend of Archie Bunker's who was gay. It was obvious to me that a line had been crossed; the Seventies had begun in earnest. But the event that had really convinced me that things were different and a new decade had started had to do with a girl in high school.

I had sixth grade in 1967-1968. It was about as bad as it could possibly be. And junior high, which is what the rest of the nation called middle school, wasn't pleasant for me at all. What's worse, in the school system I was in, one had to endure middle school a year longer: we had 7th, 8th and 9th grades in junior high and didn't start high school until 10th grade. I think eighth grade was my worst year, ever. I had a bad case of acne, I was unusually socially inept and most of the time I just wanted the world to leave me alone with whatever book I happened to be reading at the time. I was a thirteen year-old hermit. So when it became time to start high school my general feeling was, "Swell, more of the same." I was surprised and gratified when this turned out not to be the case at all.

Emotionally the Seventies began for me in my French class, which was my first class in the mornings in my first semester in Burbank High School, September 1971. I didn't know what to expect. The classroom seats were arranged weirdly, so that half of the students were facing the other half. I'm not sure why the teacher did this - something to do with the educational benefit of watching other students speak French, I guess. There was a girl who was sitting on the other side of the room directly in my line of vision; I have entirely forgotten her name. She was pretty, and I can see her now in my mind's eye. Freckles, wide open blue eyes with big false lashes, dark blond curls with a hat sitting thereupon most days. She usually wore brightly colored dresses. Looking back on it, I conclude she would have been hard to miss.

What convinced me that a new era had indeed started was that we often glanced at one another - it would have been difficult not to, really, given the classroom set up. The teacher walked up and down the aisle speaking French phrases and had us repeat them. Towards the end of the semester we began to make faces when we repeated the French phrases, and we began to entertain one another with our mugging. Well, young men of fifteen become easily enchanted, and I did. What came of it?

Nothing. I was still coming off an era in my life when I thought I looked like the Phantom of the Opera (Erik the Opera Ghost only had to deal with acid scars, not acne), and striking up conversations with members of the opposite sex was a fearsome thing. By 1971 my face had cleared, but the psychological scars remained. It would take the experience of being in the Marine Corps to develop my self-confidence later in the decade - but that was years hence. So the semester ended and so did our French class, and I lost track of the gal with the freckles without ever having had a conversation with her.

But my feeling at the time was that high school was very different than was junior high, and that my personal problems of the Sixties were over. It was a new decade and a new environment, and there were possibilities - mainly, girls - that weren't there before. A few months later I began driver's training, which ushered in a whole new sense of freedom and Independence. The Seventies had begun!

When did the Sixties Begin?

After I had written the piece above, it dawned on me that I remember when the 1960's began (for me). I was born in April 1956, and so I was only three years old when January 1960 arrived. But as I was a somewhat precocious child, I do recall some things from 1959, and they are my earliest memories. For instance, I remember the antique car pajamas I had when I was only three in 1959, shown in these Christmas 1959 shots. And I recall watching a daytime television news show for kids called Discover '59 - later, it was called Discover '60. But there are three things from the early years of the Sixties that I recall most vividly, things that led me to realize that we had passed into a new era of some kind and that the 1960's were going to be different than the 1950's. Well, at least that's what the ad men and the media were loudly insisting.

The first was a display somewhere, I think in the television section of a department store, that featured a transistor atop a plinth with a curved piece of cardstock showing space as a background. I'm pretty sure a satellite was seen in orbit in the distance. It extolled the virtues of "Solid State" (in other words, using transistors in place of vacuum tubes), the technology of the satellites, and contained the word transistorized in lightning font letters. The plinth was in neon orange. I was mesmerized with the display, and so, when Mom wasn't looking, I crept past the barrier to reach out and touch the transistor. She saw me, yelled and violently grabbed my arm and then scolded me for touching the display, but I had actually touched a transistor. It was a magical moment that I have never forgotten. I felt that I had made physical contact with the future.

The other event which signaled a change from the 1950's to the 1960's was the Kennedy-Nixon Presidential Election. The campaign was fought in 1960, and our youthful, modern John F. Kennedy took office in 1961. Because Mom was from New England she was a verbal supporter of John F. Kennedy (Mom and Dad were also both Democrats), and was thrilled when I opined, in my little boy way, that "Nixon has curly hair but no brains!" I recall that she was so pleased with this she wanted to call the local Democratic Party headquarters and have me tell them that - but she didn't, and my career as a political pundit never got off the ground. I also recall seeing part of the famous televised Kennedy-Nixon debates in September and October 1960; the schoolyard opinion was heavily tilted in favor of JFK as having won. When he was elected president it was no surprise to me.

Another great milepost of the new decade was the construction of the infamous Berlin Wall by the East Germans in August 1961. We watched the news reports on television. This seemed an unexpected and frightening thing - especially since Mom, with her usual flair for the dramatic, openly wondered if this would lead to a war. I'm fairly sure I recall her talking to Dad about my having to be in such a war, but I could be wrong. At any rate it was a very worrisome thing; obviously I was sharing the fretful vibes my mother was putting out.

So. Looking back on it, transistors, JFK and the Berlin Wall - this signaled to my young mind that a new decade had begun.

When did the Eighties Begin?

This is the easiest of all! For me, the Eighties began just when they did for everyone else: 12:00:01 AM, 1 January 1980. I was 23. I knew in November/December 1979 that the Eighties would be a vastly different decade than was the Seventies. After all, I was a recently-converted member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormon), which meant a new social circle; I was engaged to be married in December 1980, and I knew in February I'd be starting college at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. So there was the realization of a new spiritual life as well as marriage, probable fatherhood, four years of college in an unfamiliar place, beginning my career and homeownership.

We had attended a New Year's Eve church dance that night, and had hung out with another couple until the wee small hours of the morning. We all went home, got a few hours of sleep, then gathered at my parents' house for breakfast. Then we took a drive to Pasadena to see the Tournament of Roses floats. It was memorable, and I knew the Eighties would be "our" decade.

I have distinct impressions of when the 1990's and the 2000's began, but those are beyond the scope of this Avocado Memories website, which is mostly concerned with the late 1950's to the early 1980's.

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