My Journey Through Pop Culture: Part 1 (From Watergate To The Bicentenial)

I was born in 1965 — two years after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The same year that Martin Luther King Jr. held his successful Selma march, and just three years before both he, and John Kennedy’s brother Robert were shot to death. Being far too young, I have no memory of the impact these events had. Whatever turmoil and confusion they caused in the country I was born in, eluded me. Of course I would learn about them later, but though I technically existed in those times, I wasn’t really a part of them yet.

My first memory is of nodding off in the back of my parents car late at night — or at least what must have been late at night to me — as we drove home from somewhere. As I sleepily looked out the dark window, I can remember seeing a nursery school with a large front window and it’s lights on. Inside was a children’s slide set up on the interior carpeting. In a flash of insight, it suddenly occurred to me that just because it wasn’t light outside, didn’t necessarily mean I couldn’t play. That sort of “a-ha!’ moment may have been a major factor in seeing past the world’s rules and restrictions, and set me up to make my own. Or it is possilbe that I was just a willfull child and I would have come to that conclusion one way or another. In either case, I think of it as a defining moment.

Though a number of pop cultural events of the time missed me, simply because I was too young to understand or remember (I have no memory of the Beatles while they were together for example), the first major culture changing event I can remember was Watergate. Coming home from school one day I switched on the TV. But instead of seeing my usually cartoons, I was greeted with the friendly image of the Senate Watergate hearings.  All my young mind could gather from my brief viewing of the proceedings was that it was some type of scandal, and from the name I assumed it had something to do with a dam.

By my mother’s account I learned to speak early. By the time I was two years old I was speaking and could even read road signs and billboards. My mother’s father, my grandfather, claimed this was ridiculous and that I was far too young to read, if not to speak. My mother told him to drive me around the neighborhood and see for himself. After a drive where I sat on the passenger’s seat and identified one sign after another, reading them perfectly, he came back and insisted I wasn’t really reading – I had, he said, memorized what other people said when they saw the signs. My mother, exasperated, gave up. My Grandfather died when I was too young to remember him, but my mother still tells that story to this day and insists it is perfectly true.

There are some pop cultural landmarks I do remember with clarity and some understanding. I can remember leaving a theater after seeing the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey with my family, and asking my father what the ending meant. My father explained that the baby at the end was the man’s soul going back to earth to be reincarnated. Since my father is a Christian, and does not believe in reincarnation, whenever I tell this story around him, he gets a slightly pained look on his face — as though he believes he steered me a bit wrong early on and caused me to grow up Agnostic. But I came to that conclusion on my own (as you’ll read in part 2). And I can remember, as a child, understanding clearly that he was talking only about the movie. I understood that just because things happened that way in a movie, didn’t mean they happened that way in real life.

At this point I should mention that I had an older brother that would be a big influence on me later, but for now he just seemed like another kid (sometimes fun, sometimes annoying) I was forced to hang out with. My father, a member of the military, would take us each Christmas to the military base where he worked. The base theater would be showing the 1970 musical film “Scrooge”. I have very fond memories of the film, and it came each year like a welcomed guest in our family — as it does to this day. For I and my family English actor Albert Finney is Scrooge. We have seen many productions of the original book and various plays and movies come and go over the years. But to my family and I, there simply is no other. Its seasonal showings on television where it is cut it up and filled with commercials at it’s most grandiose and heart-warming moments still saddens me.

If Dickens, via musical, is one of my artistic godparents, there is another that must be mentioned here. J.R.R. Tolkien. My mother instilled in me early on a love of the written word and stories by reading The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings to my brother and I at bedtime as though they were Grimm’s fairy tales. Though there are many fans who can claim far more knowledge and familiarity with the Tolkien universe, I feel a certain kinship with it, as though it was simply as much a part of my family as any of it’s members. I have simply never known a world without it.

I am old enough to remember seeing the dawn of the video game age, and can quite clearly remember television commercials for the Magnavox Odyssey – a game system so simple that all it could manage was to throw simple white dots up on your television screen. You would then place multi-colored plastic sheets over the screen of your black and white television to create mazes to walk through or green tennis courts to play on. It had no sound capability. As primitive as it clearly was in retrospect, the idea of manipulating an image on television directly was a fascinating one.

Another fascinating image was one of a masked man in dark blue and grey; Batman. I remember seeing the opening animation while being taken into a daycare center. Later, I would fight to stay up late one night to see a midnight showing of the first episode – obviously in syndication. I fought with my babysitter, but after agreeing to take a nap, we would awaken again at midnight to sit in a completely dark house while cathode ray radiation probably poured out to forever ruin our eyes. But got to see Adam West, Burt Ward and Frank Gorshin strut their stuff in tights, and soon I was using wooden clothespins to fasten a towel to my back and jump from the front porch of our home – some sort of home made bat symbol attached to my chest. Several years later, it would take both my father and brother to explain to me what “satire” was. Batman would also bring my first understanding of the effect commerce has on culture, when I happily announced to my family that I’d figured out why Batman didn’t die despite getting into death defying predicaments; “Because people would write letters,” I told them.

Some time later, near the mid 70’s, my brother and I would being buying and collecting comic in earnest, and for each DC comic we bought, I believe we bought at least two Marvel. I think this was part of my brothers growing influence. Three years ahead of me in age, he cared more about good stories and artists than what hero was in each comic. He just preferred Marvel storytelling. Years later, as a teenager I would sit down and try to organize the collection, and be surprised to discover that The Fantastic Four was the most frequently bought comic in the bunch. If comics and Superheroes were a big part of my early life, so was science fiction – primarily due to Star Trek. Trek had gone into syndication and found more success than in it’s original run. Star Trek Mego “action figures” (some marketing guy’s brainstorm for how to sell dolls to boys — it worked) joined Batman, Superman and many marvel toys in my toy-box at home.

Though I was, for the most part, blissfully unaware of the complexities of the world around me early on. As I grew, I did begin to learn and see for myself that there was a much bigger world than my neighborhood, and events taking place that could have profound effects on me. One of these was the 1973 oil crisis. I saw television reports of cars lining up and gas prices soaring. I don’t remember being fearful, only a bit concerned. What confused and concerned me more was that when the crisis “ended” with OPEC stopping the oil embargo against the United States everyone seemed perfectly happy to go back to the way things were, and most serious talk of alternative fuels and energy sources were dropped. To my childhood self, it seemed simple; if someone can take away something you need that bad, maybe you shouldn’t need it so much.

But if the 1973 Oil Embargo was a moment of tension for the country, 1976’s bicentennial was a moment of celebration. Long before the year 1976 occurred, people were celebrating and talking about the 200th anniversary of America, and schools taught the early history of the country, bolstered by news, televisions specials and presidential speeches. I can remember well leaning out of the front door of my family’s tiny suburban tract home with my mother; she and I ringing a large metal bell on July 4th, 1976 at noon as part of a country-wide celebration of our nations founding. I told my young friends that I intended to live to be 110 years old so that I could be there to celebrate the country’s 300th birthday.

(Coming Soon: My Journey through Pop Culture: Part 2 (From Star Wars to The End of Dr. Who))