My Favorite Times from the Seventies
Growing Up Strange in 1970s Rural America
In late April of 1970 my parents moved to a farm on the outskirts of a small town insulated in a change-resistant bubble just three months after I was born. It was an interesting place and time to grow up, rural West Michigan in the seventies and eighties. It was a mix of good, bad, and merely strange. But some of the best times of my life happened during those years and I'd like to share some of them with you.
You'll have to forgive the scattershot, disorganized presentation but I am severely chronologically challenged by which I mean I have a great deal of trouble remembering the order in which things have occurred. I blame it on brain damage, but I think I was never very good at it anyway. I was a very odd child and I have a form of high-functioning autism sometimes called Aspergers Syndrome so the things I loved about growing up in rural America in the seventies might not even make sense to anyone else but here it is anyway.
This page was written in response to a writing challenge. To take the challenge yourself, simply write a page about five or more happy memories from your childhood and give it a title of "My Favorite Times from the ____" with the blank being the decade you grew up in.
Where We Lived
I lived in a three bedroom farmhouse perched atop a hill and surrounded by eighty acres of mostly woods bordering close to the Manistee National Forest with my parents and my older brother and sister. Pentwater village was about eight and a half miles away and the city of Hart was about ten.
The pavement ended just beyond the East property line and the road beyond it was gravel or dirt. More times than I can recall I sneaked out and rode on that pavement under cover of darkness the summer I learned to ride my red-painted rebuilt bicycle that was trying vainly to hang onto the 1950s.
Fun for Nerds
I was a big reader even for a big reader when I was a very small child. I was the sort of reader who left a fair percentage of a small town library's patrons whining because the book they wanted to check out was in my grubby old army bag with a mule drawn on the side. Or something like that.
If you'd lived in my hometown and wanted to study Russian, German, or French as a second language, you could have been one of them. The same would apply to those interested in Ancient Mythology, Celtic Myths, Native American Legends, or absolutely anything even tangentially related to science. That would include science fiction which led me on a trend toward astrophysics in the realm of non-fiction. I used two other people's library cards at two separate libraries not including the one at school.
The warm dark basement was the perfect place for a different sort of reading. I found boxes and boxes of my dad's old pulp fiction magazines and stacks of his old Playboys. I read both sitting hunched over on a slightly mildew-scented cardboard box filled with more magazines and paperback novels. I didn't read them in the basement because I wasn't allowed (because I was) but because I'd go down to look for some reading material and get caught up in what I was reading right there. I'd get lost down there sometimes until the weak sunlight coming in from the high window wells was no longer enough to supplement the single bare light bulb hanging from a basic light fixture in the ceiling.
There were also old-school science experiments from brown musty books to be performed in the basement, bathroom or kitchen when they weren't done secretly outside. Mom got nervous when anything involved chemicals, heat, or venomous snakes. She didn't hunt up Robert A Heinlein for giving adequate instructions with which to concoct explosive materials and beat him about the head with a stick. But it may have been a near thing.
More Nerd Fun
There were Q-tip sticks to turn into dodecahedrons and tensegrity spheres with a bit of clear nylon thread and a needle when school was called off due to snow. I wanted to build walls with them, only I couldn’t imagine where I could get so many Q-tips, much less use them all to clean ears before using them.
I learned about them when I read "A Guided Tour of Buckminster Fuller" and became a huge Bucky fan.
Woods, Water, and Streams
Deep in the forest there were quite a few natural clearings and sand pits speckled throughout. Sometimes the sun in early May made the day seem warmer than it was so I would take off all my clothes and lay out in the sun on the still-cool sand of one of those sandy bowls surrounded by woodland on all sides. The light was like a warm blanket that shifted away from me if I moved so much as an inch. I could feel the summer in those fickle rays. Innocent as a kitten, I sometimes napped in Spring sunlight without a stitch on.
The woods were home to Jack-in-the-pulpits, trillium, and my momma’s favorite yellow or white violets. Sometimes we’d see red-winged blackbirds near the cattails, cardinal flowers, or marsh marigolds. We may never have found the cinquefoil my momma kept looking for but it never bothered me too much. The sound of those blackbirds vibrated richly in early spring morning air, liquid as melted gold. I didn’t care that my feet got wet because the butter bright blooms I knew my mother would love needed to grow almost in the stream itself.
The stream running way back in the woods flowed with water so cold year round it would make your feet numb standing in for an hour in August. It was home to amphipods, crayfish, dragonfly larvae, and myriads of other interesting life I could see under my microscope or keep in whatever held water.
Pickle jars and two-and-a-half gallon antiques hosted odd, wet experiments. Daphnia pulex and guppies proved both are, indeed, hermaphrodites that can fertilize themselves. In the dining room by the stereo in assorted small containers under the window, water fleas sucked up with pipettes from a glass slide moments after they were born grew alone to adulthood and spontaneously gave birth in vases, canning jars, and cups. Then the guppies got to eat them and experience the same sort of thing themselves, only in much larger strange containers that had to live on the glassed-in front porch. It seems odd but there was a record player out there, too.
Music and Other Media
The record player on the front porch was there for hot summer nights. During thunderstorms it played "Baby Elephant Walk" for a girl crazy about elephants. The black sealed crack running from the front screen door to the living room stood out like a navigation aid on the light gray cement floor. The couch and seats were made with cushions resting on a cat's cradle affair of rubber covered wires one could stick one's bare feet through down to the floor and technically avoid getting called out for having one's feet on the furniture. I remember at least a hundred nights listening to LPs in the darkness while my mom and dad sat in their rocking chairs softly conversing while I reached between the cushions and touched cool sanded concrete under the couch across the room.
I fell in love with chess, The Beatles, classical music and eventually with Carl Sagan. At the age of nine, I burst into laughter as the creature in Alien popped out of John Hurt's chest and a theater full of adults gasped and shrieked, spilling popcorn on the floor. It was only a bloody puppet, and that blood wasn't even the right color! But I was still head over heels for Sigourney Weaver before the end of the flick.
Judy the Elephant
Sitting in the back of my daddy's Valiant with my feet up on the dull yellowish plastic cooler I was uncomfortable but excited. We were on our way to our grandmother's house near Detroit. The day had started early and it seemed like the longest day of my life, making a lie of the theory that time always flies when you're having fun. I got to see grandma who seemed to think I was the smartest child in the universe while still not understanding I no longer read children's books. I got to go to the Belle Isle Zoo and feed bread crumbs to a pond covering carpeting of rich orange-gold carp and mixed goldfish before taking a ride on a genuine baby elephant named Judy. That's me perched confidently on the elephant's back. I was five and unaware that anything could possibly ever hurt me no matter what I might try or do.
Daddy made me a cement elephant that stood right near the garden on top of the hill. While I look pained in the photograph, it was only because I’ve always been very light sensitive and momma always made us look into the sun for photographs.
On the day of my fifth birthday, I burst into tears of joy when I opened a box with a calculator inside that I assembled with a great deal of help from my big brother. On the eve of my ninth similar tears were due to the guinea pig huddled inside his coat tucked away safe from a blizzard that left the car stranded two miles away in snow up to his butt.
We set up the cage, a sort of rabbit hutch made by my dad using chicken wire, two by fours and hardware cloth. Oh how I grew to love hardware cloth!
A few days later, none of them spent at school, we watched with excitement as the giant snowplows brought in from Milwaukee bashed through the twelve-foot high drift across the street in front of our house. It was a fluke of the landscape but it wasn’t all that strange at the time.
The general store was the site of many fond memories. It was also, at times forbidden, but that only make the sweaty green glass bottles of cola opened with a nicked and battered racist bottle opener affixed on the wall behind the sliding glass cooler all the more delicious.
One day in 1976 we took the car for a drive out into the country to pick up three goats we planned to buy. We had burlap sacks to tie around their sharp, strong hooves and perhaps to even put them in so no one would be injured bringing them home. The large, dangerous animals turned out to be similar in temperament to beagle puppies and not all that much larger. My brother, sister, and I each held a sleeping goatling on our laps in the back seat of the blue Valiant on a lovely drive on a cloudless day. My momma named the large dark ginger male goat MacDuff, I'm not so sure why. My sister named her goat Frosty, as he had silvery markings on a gray coat. I named mine Suzy-Q because, for some reason the white blob on her deep gingersnap side looked like a "Q" to me. I was only six. And I had a cat named Three-Spot so my naming skills were not the best.
Bugs, Beetles, and Butterflies
My folks got me an insect collecting kit when spring rolled around one year and the net didn’t stay dry for more than half an hour after I made it outside. I read the instructions on how to capture, kill, and mount butterflies and other insects and ignored them completely ever-after, dumping and rinsing the neat little vials of “relaxing solution” and using the pins to hold up newspaper clippings on my cork board. The kit instead caught live fish, and crustaceans that went back to their place in the creek in a few days. Beetles are better caught with fingers and butterflies should never be caught at all because all it will do is hurt them by brushing off their wing scales or damaging their legs.
My fifth grade teacher told this story about a girl he went to high school with who tied a housefly to one of her waist-length hairs and flew it around like a dog on a leash. Being a girl with waist-length hair I decided to try it for myself. It worked and it sparked other ideas which proved to be much more fun. I caught an assortment of very large beetles and used them to pull tiny carts made from mini match boxes. I carefully fed them their preferred diets and kept their cages scrupulously clean but I crocheted them tiny harnesses out strands picked from the softest sewing floss in momma’s sewing kit and hitched them to Red Diamond matchbox carts wheeled with the lightest of broken off toy car wheels or very thin carved disks of soap. Maybe it wasn’t that kind to the insects but I had no idea of that at the time.
The Monarch butterfly is one of the loveliest of those found in North America. Its tiny eggs are laid like glistening gold-touched green gemstones on the velvet undersides of milkweed leaves and hatch into incredibly tiny and adorable hairless black, yellow, and white striped caterpillars. When they are ready, they molt their skin in a kind of scary and fascinating preparation for metamorphosis that leaves them a gleaming light lime green chrysalis with tiny gold dots on its surface. You need to be there when they are ready to emerge, so you can make sure they don’t get into trouble when their wet wings are still pumping full of blood and expanding. The second the monarch begins to flutter its wings, the cage lid must come off. Its wings are dry and ready to fly and it can’t be allowed to batter them on anything trying to escape.
When we visited Grandma in Detroit, my brother stayed home to watch my butterflies. I was quite thankful for his sacrifice and didn’t realize at the time he wasn’t all that keen on the trip anyway.
By now you might think I was some strange character in a bad science fiction novel that ends up with somebody driving a spaceship but I assure you, I am not. I’m just a forty-something retired florist who has made a bunch of wrong turns along the way because I was completely oblivious to the world around me on some of the worst of all possible days.
These weird memories of my weird childhood are some of my very best. I was excited and happy and felt like there was a whole universe for me to explore. On the best of my days I still do.