I am generally satisfied with the economy and society of today because I spent my early adult life in the 1970s. From the bottom of a hole like that, everything is up. The 1970s were objectively a bad time – the energy crisis, stagflation, fall of Saigon, double digit inflation, long lines at gas stations, Iranian hostage crisis, dollar weakness … Baby Boomers like me had no experience with hard times. Our parents told us about the Great Depression, but that seemed like ancient history, certainly a different America.
A messed up decade
To clarify, what we call “the 70s” didn’t fit neatly into the decade. More appropriate to mark the period from the start of the energy crisis in 1973 until the economy really started to work well again and American confidence returned about ten years later. 1973 is also a convenient starting time for me too, since I graduated from HS that year and that is where I will start my story.
My mother died the year before, but my aunt Florence attended my graduation along with my father. She was proud also to be a Bay View graduate and commented that the music was more triumphant when she graduated. I responded with youthful ignorance that times were so rough for us. She pointed out that she graduated HS in 1939. 1939 was not an auspicious year.
Milwaukee was still an industrial city in 1973. We had the industrial pollution to prove it, and we had the jobs. Unemployment was a little higher than it is today, but guys like me had a better chance in those days than now.
With a mind that’s weak and a back that’s strong
Strong young men did many of the jobs that machines do today. Lack of experience was no disadvantage when success depended only on the capacity to wrestle heavy, dirty and/or hot stuff from one place to another. In fact, ignorance was an advantage. We loaded bags that weighed 70-94 pounds at the cement company. You were almost sure to develop some sort of work-related injury, usually a bad back, if you did this work more than a few years. The work kinda chewed up each new generation of young men. This and the 12-hour days meant that fresh guys like me didn’t have to compete with most men and with no women at all. Call it strong male privilege. The work was amazingly hard, but I made good money and got 20-40 hours of overtime every week, so it was like packing two summers’ work into one. I earned and saved enough money to be content and comfortable over the school year. I still worked in the fast-food and hospitality industries during the school year, but did not depend on that income.
In fall, I started at University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point (UWSP). I didn’t take school very seriously, and neither did most of the people I knew. Our problem was lack of preparation and available beer. Most of us were first generation college students, but with family beer drinking traditions that went back to the middle ages. Drinking age in Wisconsin in those days was 18. That is too young, and we were too stupid to drink responsibly. I learned to sing drinking songs in English & German (actually the one song In heaven there is no beer/ Im Himmel gibt’s kein Bier), but my academic mind was wasted.
I didn’t get my act together unit well into my second year. By that time, I got a girlfriend, who helped civilize me, and most of my drinking friends had left school, voluntarily or at the urgent request of school authorities. Not sure how I survived, but I survived, started to study and started get good grades. I believe in redemption. I still graduated on time, four years after I started.
Water finds its level
UWSP was good for me. I had the test scores good enough to go to a “more competitive” school, but not the habits, skills or culture needed for success in school. Those things I learned at UWSP. Thanks. In the course of learning how to go to college, I decided that I liked it so much that I never wanted to leave college. I did have to leave Stevens Point, however, and go to the bigger and more sophisticated University of Wisconsin-Madison for graduate school. UW was the best university in Wisconsin & non-Wisconsin institutions were largely precluded by my low budget and abysmal grades left over from my time of troubles.
Dreams of an academic life
My dream was to be a history professor, ancient history. It took me a couple years to know for sure that was not a practical option. Ancient history was not a growth field and all the good jobs were taken. I was a little more than a decade late. Universities had expanded a lot in the 1960s to accommodate students like me. They needed professors of everything and a guy graduating with a PhD in 1965 was golden. Lots of students piled in to fill the gap. The Vietnam war made it worse. Students avoiding the draft wanted to stay in school as long as they could; student deferment kept the out of the draft. This led to an unusual boom in advanced degrees. The first ones out took all the jobs and quickly locked up the supply, and since they were not much older than me, I couldn’t wait them out. I ended the decade with a MA in ancient history. I could read Greek & Latin, but otherwise nothing for employers might want, and Greek & Latin were useful in a very narrow set of circumstances. In fact, an MA in ancient history was worse than nothing even in a normal job market, and I was heading into the worst job market since World War II.
I figure whenever you’re down and out. The only way is up.
I am not saying the 1970s were all bad. I was healthy and young, and got to experience all those “firsts” of a young man. Nike invented “waffle stompers” in the 1970s and I took up running, which I enjoyed for decades after. There was good music, some good TV programs and they made “Star Wars” & the Star Trek movie. Most important, I became an educated man in that decade, even if my erudition was not immediately useful for getting a job. Besides that, however, the 1970s sucked. On the plus side, it was a good immunization against hard times in the future. It has been up ever since.
I Don’t have many electronic pictures from the 1970s life. My first picture I took a few days ago. Picture # 2 is my father on my UWSP graduation day. Next is me lifting weights in the back yard, maybe summer of 1974. Picture # 4 is my sister, me and her then boyfriend Joe. She wisely got rid of him Last is my old dog Sam, our dog of the 1970s.