Annals of Childhood: My Swinging 70s

I’ve previously written about the Decade of Brown as a cultural phenomenon, and more recently about the Big Kids and their heavy metal lives. The parents are their own story.

My own parents were the identified weirdos in the community. Our family was politically left, pacifist, intellectual, and artistic. And we all had big noses. One friendly neighbor said to my mother over a cup of coffee “Ann, you’re really nice people. But you’re not like the others.” Even in the corduroy 1970s, our corner of Orange County was lily-white, right-wing, know-nothing, and kinda stupid. As registered democrats who didn’t go to church and drove a Volvo, my parents were clearly alien.

The 70s were also the decade of divorce, though. More than half of my friends had split families in elementary school. They’d talk about their weekends with Dad, or how Dad and Mom were fighting about the house or the dog. A lot of them got pretty badly stressed by it. I particularly remember a couple of boys who, after their father left, became very combative and tried to ascend to alpha dog by shoving the other boys and challenging us to fights.

Going to their houses was odd too. You weren’t supposed to mention the dad when the mom was around, and a few of the houses had dad’s den preserved as he’d left it because either removing it or using it was too painful. When the mom said “your father…” to the kid there was ice hanging in the air. Being with a friend at the dad’s house was even weirder. Dad usually lived in a smaller place or in an unconventional kind of housing like the Balboa Bay Club or a boat or some condo tower. He’d be in full weekend dad mode trying to provide entertainment for junior and his friends, which was cool, but there was clearly some panic going on there.

And then there was the sex problem. This was the disco era, and the divorced moms and dads were dating like crazy. I’d be over at someone’s house and realize that the mustachioed, nervous Tom Selleck looking guy this week was different from the last one, and that he wasn’t addressed as a dad but as “Tim” or “mom’s friend”. Tim and mom would stand 5 feet apart when the kids were around, and Tim also had a habit of bringing gifts or candy and smiling in a terrified way at us.

The dads’ girlfriends were disco hoochie mamas mostly, and terrified of children. They’d totter around in heels and short skirts grinning at us and making inane small talk for the minimum possible time before vanishing. They were all very tan and wore lots of jewelry. Sometimes girlfriend and dad would go in a room and close the door and have really loud arguments.

The weirdest part of the divorced households was that the adults would just disappear. Mom or Dad and their life mate du jour would flit off for a precious weekend afternoon together leaving us kids to our own devices. I’m surprised that we didn’t manage to burn down any houses or kill any pets. We did break at least one major appliance that I remember.

Finally, drugs. My own parents were of the pre rock ‘n’ roll generation, and having seen a friend melt his head in very early LSD experimentation, they were anti-drug. Anything more than a glass of wine with dinner was a bad idea in our house. But it was pretty clear that Disco Dad and Saturday Night Mom didn’t live that way. I was fascinated by the sight of “responsible adults” being clearly high, or clumsily trying to hide paraphernalia or pills from us.

I think a lot of my cynicism comes from the huge contrast between the reactionary moral and political attitudes of the adults around me and their own behavior. My parents, the distrusted lefty secular humanist eggheads, had a stable and nurturing family and worked out their problems. And they were sober and didn’t go out on Saturday night and leave me at home with a TV dinner. Meanwhile, the local Elmer Gantrys and Dimmesdales were popping disco biscuits, partner-swapping, and shaking their butts to Peaches & Herb while Junior at home was finding their weed stash.

The Ice Storm was like a documentary about my friends’ families growing up.

Of course, now these conflicted right-wing hedonists are running the country. It explains a lot.

5 thoughts on “Annals of Childhood: My Swinging 70s

  1. I love Brown as a metaphor for the 70s. I only caught the exhaust vapors of that decade myself, but I remember all of the tan and tired-yellow of the early 80s. The strange thing is, I’m pretty sure it looked and felt horrible to us even at the time as we partook.

    1. Decade
      The weird thing is that even if everything weren’t brown then, the color photos from the time are of such screwed-up chemistry that they make everything look either all brown, or all cyan.

      1. Re: Decade
        I think that people were more cyan-skinned at the time. Something to do with the ozone layer, nuclear buildup and the concentration of Stella D’oro snack preservatives in human flesh.

  2. The past with crystal clarity
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  3. I've been thinking about this:
         And all I can come up with is that I've got both a
    faulty memory and I'm not all that observant...  :)
         I mean, I'm pretty sure I had friends in the
    70s, but I don't recall noticing anything about their household
    situations.  It might be a consequence of having an older
    sister and two younger brothers--I didn't hafta go very far
    afield to find people to play with.  And then by the time
    I ran into you and both the Dans and all the rest at Harbor
    High, well, that was 1979, wasn't it?  Were the 70s over by then?
    I've heard people say the 60s really bled over into the 70s, so did
    the 70s do the same?  
         I do remember the first time you and Dan
    made the trek down to my house: you said something about feeling
    like Frodo and Sam on the way to Shelob's lair.
         See?  I was trying to come up with a phony memory for that
    earlier thread, but all I could come up with was real ones!

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