OPINION

Drumming Cherub

Jeffrey L. Bromberger, Executive Nobody

10 September 2021

Coming of age is supposed to be a magical time in a young person’s life.  But sometimes it comes too soon.

The Wikipedia entry defines coming of age as ‘…a young person’s transition from being a child to being an adult.’  It lists three common points when this happens: the onset of puberty, participation in religious rites (such as bar mitzvah or confirmation) and finally reaching the age of majority, where one can vote, purchase alcohol/cigarettes and own a firearm.  OK, maybe us Americans have poisoned the last one, as it is hard to say whether we’re talking about being 18 years old or 21.  Regardless, none of this applies to you if you’re a Gen X kid like me.  My introduction to adulthood was thrown at me in 1979.  Trust me, it wasn’t as glamorous as Billy Corgan (who is less than a year older than me) makes it out to be.  1979 is when, to use a phrase, shit started getting real in my world.

1979 Camaro Z28

If you were an boy in 1979’s America, there were two items you wanted more than anything in life: a Camaro Z-28 and Farrah.  Trust me, the car was the more sensible goal…

The year 1979 starts out with your hero getting ready to leave 6th Grade and make the big jump to Junior High School.  No more kid stuff – we’re talking about schooling that can determine your future.  Exams for super specialized programs, such as those run by Columbia University and Hunter College.  Also, exams to see if you’d qualify for the “SP” – the intensive program where you would be fed three years of schooling in just two, effectively helping you to “skip” a grade.

For fun, there was Mad Magazine – you were finally old enough to get most of the jokes.  On TV, there was Happy Days, showing you the benefits of being in High School.  Even now, I still remember seeing Ron Howard recite the common line: But Mom, I’m a junior!  And, if you didn’t do so well in school, there was the warning from Laverne and Shirley: you’ll be stuck in a crap job, doing manual labor for a paltry wage, and living in a basement apartment without real windows.  Disco was still widely available on the radio to go along with all of the news reports about Studio 54.  I had no idea who most, if not all, of those newsworthy people in the pictures were at the time.  All I knew was that it was supposed to be the place to be, and that we were way Way WAY to young to go there.  All this talk about “free love” means little when you’re that age.

As an 11 year old, how much better could life get, right?

Twenty four hours after my 12th birthday, halfway around the world, over sixty Americans were taken hostage in Iran.

Fall of ’79 arrives.  New clothes for a new grade in a new school.  New teachers, as Junior High students now have a different teacher for every subject.  Half of my class is new to me – they have come from the other neighborhood schools.  And they’re just as bright as me.  As an added benefit, the teachers suddenly expect so much more from you.

Gotta say that by the time my birthday rolled around, I don’t remember making a big deal of it.  It isn’t as if 12 is such a big milestone for a Jewish boy from Brooklyn – that was coming next year…

And then, out of the blue, it all ends.  Goodbye hope, farewell optimism, bon voyage childhood.

Twenty four hours after my 12th birthday, halfway around the world, over sixty Americans were taken hostage in Iran.

No matter where you were, there was no way to avoid the news.  24-hour press coverage.  Good Morning America before school, Peter Jennings in the evenings and Ted Koppel late nights. Newspapers and magazines had it on Page One.  And we discussed it daily in school.  Even for those of us too young to understand the whys and the hows, the differences between shahs and ayatollahs, democracy vs theocracy, we were constantly bombarded with the pictures and news clips of those Iranian “students” marching our Embassy officials around like toys.  We were submerged way past our necks in the outrage that was masked in the fabric of Current Events. Sink or swim, no floaties available, and many of us sucked in just a bit more water than is routinely considered safe.

And it didn’t end.  I’m not talking about the Iranian crisis, but crisis in general.  If you had to pick a sub-title for the 1980s, in general, you couldn’t do worse than saying “And here’s another crisis for ya!”

Let’s skip the rest of the Iran situation – the failed US rescue mission, the start of the Iran/Iraq war, the gasoline shortages coming back.  The Russians invade Afghanistan, but who’s keeping score?  Let’s even skip the landslide election of Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter.

Say goodbye to 1979 – we’re now in the 80’s, kids.  And what does that mean to us freshly minted teenagers?  Let’s start with sports.  We boycotted the Olympics in 1980 – the Games were to be held in the USSR, and we were “upset” that they tried to take over the tribal cesspool that is Afghanistan.  No new athletes for our Wheaties boxes that year.  It was the first time I had experienced Politics as a force powerful enough to negate something as big as the Olympics.  I still feel sad for those athletes who trained for their once in a lifetime chance and saw it stolen away by elected paper-pushers who would never know what hard work and determination to win would ever look like.

While we’re talking about 1980, let’s look at the amazing music.

NENA - 99 Luftballons

“Everyone’s a Captain Kirk…”

Photograph swiped from Wikipedia

Music underwent a monumental shift in the ’80s.  You don’t need me to tell you that.  Disco and several genres of Rock died.  Painfully.  And in came so many new things.  New Romantic bands, such as Duran Duran and Culture Club.  Hair bands, distilled down from Glam and Hard Rock, such as Poison, Skid Row and Van Halen.   Post punk made a showing, too, with artists such as Elvis Costello, Blondie and Talking Heads.  And, to make the party complete, we started seeing more and more music from overseas.  Music like INXS, Men at Work, Midnight Oil and Brian Johnston’s AC/DC (all Australian) replaced Olivia Newton-John.  We got more music from Europe, too, and not just the UK.  If you really listened to the lyrics, though, a fair percentage of those new songs had a consistent theme:

      • 99 Luftbaloons by NENA (German)
      • Christmas At Ground Zero by Weird Al (American)
      • Sunday Bloody Sunday by U2 (Irish)
      • It’s A Mistake by Men At Work (Australian)
      • Electric Avenue by Eddy Grant (British)
      • The Final Countdown by Europe (Swedish)
      • Stand Or Fall by The Fixx (British)
      • Since Yesterday by Strawberry Switchblade (Scottish)
      • Everybody Wants to Rule The World by Tears for Fears (British)

I can go on and on.  Dylan had it right when he said “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”.

We were musically surrounded with the images of death and destruction.  And we could happily sing along with it!  If you’re just waiting for those Godless Commies to push the button, might as well be enjoying yourself under those desks until that final flash comes.

By now, some Baby Boomer will be pitching a fit, “But they shot John Lennon in 1980!”  Sorry to disappoint, but his music had already been relegated to the cutout bin and Classic Rock stations.  His passing meant little or nothing to those of us who had no older brothers or sisters  to share that music from an earlier generation.  Look at it this way, it took a 2 song collaboration with Michael Jackson (Say Say Say and The Girl Is Mine) to bring Paul McCartney’s tired voice back to relevance.  Seriously.

The years are now screaming by like lines from that pointlessly absurd Billy Joel song:  AIDS, crack, Bernie Goetz…  Junior High somehow becomes High School, and High School quickly draws to a close before you can say “But Mom, I’m a Junior!”  Each passing year brings its own passing tragedies, both on the personal and world stages, but you’re so wrapped up in the moment that you lose track of it all in the rush of time.  And when you stop too look around, it’s now 1984 and you’re destined for university at 16 years of age.  Orwell and all that baggage, eh? Just barely 5 years since 1979, and it is time to step out and explore the real NYC.  A chance to see what I’ve been missing all the time I have been cloistered in Brooklyn.  Oh…

NYC Subway Graffiti
Street in South Bronx
Death to Crack Dealers

College morphs into Grad School, which becomes your first real job, and then your second, and third.  No more big celebrations  by now – it’s all about the ‘struggle for the legal tender.’  You’re a captive on this carousel of time.  But don’t you dare look back, behind you.

The innocence, the youth, the wonder and joy that you once had, those parts of your personality that were ripped from you – they’re gone.  And just like Orpheus of legend, each look back means the further and further it all falls away from you.

I’m not trying to deny that there were real world issues in the past.  Heck, NYC had the Blackout in ’77, Son of Sam that same year, Eastern Flight 66 crashing at JFK in ’75 and the huge fiscal crisis before that.  But all of those events materialized before I was even 10 years old.  At that age, my biggest concerns centered around whether or not I could watch the Saturday morning cartoons and if I had enough Lucky Charms to make it through until the next time we went to the supermarket.

It all changed one seemingly nondescript Sunday morning.

Thank you, 1979, for pressing this 12 year old boy into a man.

Late Addition: It’s now Post Afghanistan and I am having those bad 1979 nightmares again.  Sleep does not come easy these days, as we not only face another possible hostage crisis (over 100 American citizens are trapped in Taliban territory), but we’re now importing thousands of refugees and there is absolutely no way to even pretend that we can vet them for terrorist affiliations.  I feel sorry for the spirits of my grandparents, who faced the biggest challenge of their lifetimes and managed to make the world a safer place after their work was done.  We have allowed our politicians to dig a hole for us so deep that we, as Americans, may not see the sunlight again for a very long time.

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