Scenes from a ’70s Childhood

Jackie 4 mo. old with MomI was born in the Summer of Love, 1969. Well, it was actually the spring directly preceding the Summer of Love, but there’s really no need to be nitpicky.  As much as I’d like to claim that I was conceived by two hippies in the back of a VW van at Woodstock, that’s not only untrue, but also a biological impossibility.  I was actually born in a suburb of Chicago that wasn’t exactly a hotbed of free love and progressive politics. My parents were both 22 years old, having gotten married two years previously.  Family members assumed that my mother was having trouble getting pregnant since she and my father waited so long to start a family.

My dad worked for the town in various capacities (driving snow plows, working at the sewage treatment plant) before becoming a cop.  I guess he was a company man. My mom had a more glamorous job working as a secretary at an ad agency in Chicago. As was surprisingly common back then, as soon as her boss found out she was pregnant, he fired her.  She didn’t work outside our house again until I was in middle school.

My husband and many of my friends were born in the ‘70s, but I’m proud to have been born at the tail-end of the 1960s.  So many major events happened in 1969, some of which changed the world.  In addition to Woodstock, Neil Armstrong was the first man to step foot on the moon, the gay rights movement was born with the Stonewall riot in New York City, students everywhere banded together to protest the Vietnam War, the Manson Family went on a killing spree in California and PBS launched Sesame Street.

70s family photoI am really a child of the ’70s though.  My formative years were spent running in a pack of kids around our “Everytown, USA” suburb from morning until night.  My mom would feed us cereal for breakfast and then set us free.  We’d return home only for bathroom breaks (the girls, that is…the boys just peed in the alley) and meals.  We knew it was time to head in for the night when my dad used his impressive whistle to call us from the front porch.  It was about as taxing as having a dog in a fenced-in yard (feed it, let it out, bring it back in, occasionally give it a pat on the head) unless someone came home bleeding which happened fairly often.

I spent my days riding my green Schwinn with a sparkly banana seat around and around the block, sometimes for hours on end.  We’d play Kick the Can, Running Bases and “Spy,” a game we made up that had virtually no rules.  We’d ride my brother’s Big Wheel down the steps of our porch and, later, his BMX bike over rickety ramps he’d nailed together himself.

We weren’t allowed to travel far, but luckily, the neighborhood park was just down the street.  Only in my adult years have I come to realize that the park was a death trap. We had the high metal slide on which we burned our butts in the summer and from which, occasionally, someone particularly uncoordinated fell over the side, plunging to the ground below.  There was a red and white mushroom-shaped merry-go-round thing the the older kids dubbed “the bloody tit” (so poetic). You could climb on top of it and lay on your belly, while the other kids tried to spin it so fast that you’d fly off head first.

The most popular feature with the teenagers was the Fun House which was a little house-shaped structure that had a rolling drum inside made of planks of wood that you could run around on like a hamster wheel.  Since four or more kids could fit in there at a time, we suffered your typical injuries from bodies smashing into the hard wood and each other.

The older kids were fond of the Fun House, however, for the shelter it provided from prying eyes.  Adults couldn’t see into it from the street so the teenagers were free to make out with boyfriends or girlfriends and smoke pot without fear of being dragged home by their parents or the police.  And, if that weren’t private enough, there was also a pavillion that had brick walls to about waist height.  We little kids only figured out what the teenagers were up to in hindsight.  At the time, we had no clue what they did in there for hours or what that weird smell was that came wafting out.  I distinctly remember that someone had spray painted in large letters on the cement floor a mysterious string of words…Blue Oyster Cult.

Jackie & Jeff 1976I thought the ’70s was the best time to be a kid and marveled at my luck in being alive to experience the highlight of the decade…The Bicentennial.  I was 7 years old in 1976, the perfect age to get caught up in all the hoopla over our nation’s 200th year. The whole country was bathed in red, white and blue and there was a palpable excitement in the air.  The pinnacle of my young life at that time was riding on a float dressed as Betsy Ross in our town’s Bicentennial parade.  That was my first brush with fame only to be topped years later by half-assed performances in numerous school plays.

To me, red, white and blue were the colors of the ’70s.  One of my earliest memories is of watching Mark Spitz in the 1972 Olympics.  He rocked not only a pretty rad porn-’stache for the Games, but also a snappy red, white and blue, stars-and-stripes Speedo.  And, I clearly remember a family of five we’d see every year when we drove down to Sarasota, Florida for vacation who arrived one summer all dressed in matching stars-and-stripes bathing suits.  It was a thing of beauty.

We didn’t have much money, but my mom managed to decorate our home with a stylish 1970s flair.  We had the requisite flocked wallpaper and macrame.  The living room was decorated in the, then popular and very hip, “Spanish Style.”  The furniture was red and black and the room was accessorized with a 4 foot tall statue of Cortez in armor.  The walls were decorated with ominous looking crossed maces and “ojo de Dios” wood-and-string designs.  My favorite thing was the white shag carpet in my parents’ room, but I rarely got to go lounge in its heavenly fluff because my dad worked shift-work and was usually snoring away in there.

We later moved a few blocks away and our new house was decorated in a more upscale, but ubiquitous at the time, avocado green, goldenrod and burnt orange color scheme.  Anything that wasn’t patriotically clad in the ’70s, was some off shade of either green, gold, orange or brown.  I remember it as an extremely muddy decade.

Being young and not yet partied out, my parents had a large group of friends.  I have memories of them lugging my brother and I along to parties with them.  After we wreaked havoc with their friends’ kids for a while, the parents would stuff us all into our pajamas and attempt to get us to sleep so they could stay late drinking beer, Whiskey Sours and a minty cocktail called a Grasshopper which I would sneak sips of when my mom wasn’t looking.

the_day_afterOverall, I had a pretty happy and carefree childhood.  The ’80s soon arrived though, and the magic of those days faded away.  With the new decade came puberty, Ronald Reagan and the nuclear holocaust movie The Day After.  I don’t know why my parents thought it was important for my brother and I to watch it with them.  It’s not like we headed to the back yard afterwards to start digging a bomb shelter together.  But I do know that my childhood ended abruptly as I entered my teens terrified of an impending nuclear attack.

I often think about how different those days were from these in which my daughters are growing up.  Despite the many differences, though, I hope my kids will someday think back on their own childhoods as fondly as I do on those long ’70s summer nights when the sun seemed to hang in the sky forever, riding in the way-back of my parents’ Buick LeSabre station wagon, fighting with my brother and listening to Jim Croce on the radio.

11 thoughts on “Scenes from a ’70s Childhood

  1. I can vividly remember all the crazy playground equipment! I was one of those kids that came home with a concussion from the double swing thing that went around in a circle! This blog stirred up some great memories. What a beauty your mom was….you look so much like her.

    • I remember that thing too, Jenny! We called it the witch’s hat. I was going to write about it, but I couldn’t figure out how to describe it to someone who’d never seen one. I saw more than one kid break a finger on that thing!

      Thanks for your sweet comment about my mom. It was nice digging through old photos and reveling in my memories of her for a while. 🙂

  2. We could have been neighbors! We also had the dangerous playground equipment, flocked wallpaper, and even a suit of amour in our foyer. This blog really brought back memories!

  3. My parent’s room had white shag. I shared a room with my sister who was 8 years older than me. We had multi color blue shag. My brother had the perfect orange brown and gold shag. But the best was our living room; beautiful multi colored avocado shag.
    My job was to RAKE the carpet after it was vacuumed……. Oh those were the days, thanks Jackie!

  4. Pingback: Superficial Movie Reviews: ‘American Hustle’ | MommyEnnui

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