I've spend the entire summer writing about the decades. I can't tell you how much I've learned and I've been looking forward to this one. When I think of the 80’s, I think about women wearing big shoulder pads, the food court in the mall, and our amazing Apple 2 that was great for making rad banners on our dot matrix printer. And for once, my impression is right because this is the first decade I’ve written about that I actually remember!
In other decades, I’ve talked about pop culture, but in the 80’s, it’s impossible to separate things from pop culture because it was the driving force for so much of what defined this decade. Fads in the 80's spread fast and infected the entire population.
We Need A Miracle
I feel like I’ve been talking about The Cold War for months because it started in 1947, but tensions between the US and USSR were actually winding down in the 80’s. One event caused a shift in the decades-long standoff and it wasn’t a military event. It was a hockey game. On American ice in the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid, New York. Ask anyone who’s a little older than me (I was two) and they’ll tell you this was a defining moment for the US. The nation was still reeling from the Vietnam War and the seemingly unending Cold War still loomed large. We needed win.
But no one assumed that win would come in a hockey game against the Soviets. They’d won the last 4 gold metals in the men’s hockey events and our band of blue-collar college students didn’t seem to stand a chance. The Soviets took an early lead, but the U.S. hung with them. Going into the third period, the Soviets were up 3-2. Mark Johnson fired off a shot that went under Myshkin and into the net at the 8:39 mark tying the game at 3. Only a couple of shifts later, Mark Pavelich passed to Mike Eruzione, who was left undefended. Eruzione, who had just come onto the ice, fired a shot past Myshkin, who was screened by Vasil Pervukhin. This goal gave Team USA a 4–3 lead, its first of the game, with exactly 10 minutes remaining to play.
The almost 35 million people watching the game on TV will say it felt like the longest ten minutes of their lives. As the seconds ticked down, the announcer said, “Do you believe in miracles?” The buzzer sounded and the crowd erupted. For the first time in a long time, miracles seemed possible again. If you’d like to read a book about this historic game, I recommend: The Making of a Miracle: The Untold Story of the Captain of the 1980 Medal-winning U.S. Olympic Hockey Team by Mike Eruzione. This wasn’t just a hockey game. It was a statement. It was democracy verses communism and the 80’s proved that democracy would win out, and not just on the ice.
New Decade, New President
Republican Ronald Reagan won the 1980 election in a landslide, receiving 489 electoral votes, defeating incumbent Democrat Jimmy Carter, who received only 49. Reagan received the highest number of electoral votes ever won by a non-incumbent presidential candidate. A little over two months into his presidency, he was shot outside a DC hotel, but that didn’t stop him. A few weeks later, Reagan was back at work in the oval office.
Ronald Regan was known for a lot of things: Reaganomics (or Trickle Down Economics), The Iran Contra Affair, saying, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall”, and just saying “no” to drugs. Some loved him, some hated him, but few forgot him. He made conservatism cool again. Think about “Family Ties” where Michael J. Fox’s character, Alex P. Keaton, flipped the script by rebelling against his hippie parents with his conservative values. It was the opposite of the typical 60’s and 70’s themes.
Reagan’s idea of Trickle Down Economics was good, in theory. Empower business owners so they can organically grow the economy providing jobs and pulling the nation out of a recession. Something Reagan seemed to underestimate was just how greedy people at the top can be.
The Me Generation
The old motto of “money isn’t everything” was replaced with “it’s all about money.” Shows and movies like Dynasty and Wall Street glorified the “me generation” of stock traders and yuppies. With all that spending, there wasn’t a lot of wealth left to trickle down to the poor. Credit also changed the way people spent. In the past, wealthy people could get a Diner’s Club card. But with a few banks working around interest rate regulations, credit was being offered to just about anyone. People flocked to one of the hundreds of new malls being built in the 80’s to spend money they didn’t have. The day after my 9th Birthday, I didn’t realize the stock market had crashed because I was 9, but Black Monday occurred on October 19, 1987. Luckily, the economy bounced back and the bubble pop didn’t have the lasting effect of the 1929 crash. Stock traders still did their thing making money and making deals on $4,000 cell phones roughly the size of a breadbox.
There were tragic events in the 80’s. And I don’t mean women’s fashion, New Coke, or hair bands, though they were pretty tragic.
I’ve said it before, but the kids of the 60’s remember Kennedy being shot. Those in the 2000’s remember 911. The kids of the 80’s remember the Challenger Explosion. I was in first grade on January 28, 1986. The class from across the hall came over to watch with us. I remember Mrs. Fortenbacher rolling in the TV and adjusting the rabbit ears to tune into the launch. We were chatty, talking about the teacher, Christa McAuliffe, who was part of the crew. Suddenly, there was an explosion. We didn’t know if that was supposed to happen. I looked at my Mrs. Fortenbacher and she was covering her mouth with her hand and tears were forming in the corners of her eyes. The room was completely silent. I’m not sure what she said next, but I was a brand new teacher on 9/11, so I know she was trying to be brave and not lose it in front of us kids. We eventually filed out of the room for lunch, but it was an event we’d never forget.
On the evening of March 23, 1989, the Exxon Valdez Oil Tanker left the port of Valdez, Alaska, bound for Long Beach, California, with 53 million gallons of Prudhoe Bay crude oil onboard. At 12:04 am, on March 24, the ship struck Bligh Reef in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. The impact of the collision tore open the ship’s hull, causing 11 million gallons of crude oil to spill into the water killing hundreds of thousands of seabirds, otters, seals and whales. I remember news reports of the spill. It was so sad.
The 60’s and 70’s had their share of drugs. The drug of choice for wealthy people in the 80’s was cocaine. It wasn’t new. Cole Porter wrote the line, “I get no kick from cocaine,” in 1934. But its popularity grew among professional athletes, stockbrokers, musicians, and actors. A government survey in 1982 found that 22 million Americans had tried cocaine. Something that was new in the 80’s was crack. It’s cocaine in a solid form that can be smoked and unlike cocaine, crack was cheap. It’s impossible to measure the effects of the crack epidemic, but one thing is for sure. It crippled a generation of African American men and its effects are still felt today in broken families, gang violence, and economic inequality.
During the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, LGBTQ communities were terrorized as they became the focus of mass hysteria. Targeted with extreme acts of violence, those who were already dealing with the nightmare of this disease, were isolated and marginalized. The disease spread quickly and killed over 100,000 people during the decade. Homophobia delayed research which would have helped prevent many of those deaths. It’s one of the most tragic events of the 80’s.
Totally Rad Tech
In the seventies, we got a taste for technology, but in the 80’s, it really took off. It all started with the personal computer. In the past, computers were only for government offices and businesses. In 1982, the Commodore 64 came out. Priced at $595 ($1,670 today), people were finally buying computers for their homes. During the Super Bowl in January of 1984, Apple ran its famous 1984 commercial introducing the Apple Macintosh. Take a look:
By 1985, when Microsoft released Windows, the era of the personal computer had begun and we as a nation couldn’t get enough. Tech defined the 80’s in a way it hadn’t before.
Since the fifties, television hadn’t really changed all that much, but there was a problem. People in rural areas, had trouble getting good reception. The answer to this problem? Cable TV. Now, instead of watching what was one of the handful of network channels, you could tune into something that truly interested you. Like…music. Did you ever hear someone say, “I want my MTV?” It wasn’t just a catchy ad campaign. It was in response to the fact that urban areas were the last to get cable because it was designed for those with a poor signal. When a channel dedicated to continuous music videos hit cable, everyone wanted it. Even if there are only about 30 music videos at the time.
If you weren’t watching MTV, maybe you were shopping the home shopping network, or tuning in to watch a TV evangelist. You probably weren’t watching CNN. The around the clock cable news channel had a rocky start with low production value and the fact that people enjoyed tuning in for the news at specific times of the day. But, when baby Jessica McClure fell into a well in Texas, people were glad to have around the clock coverage of her rescue. Over time, people shifted how they digested news and CNN grew in popularity.
Video gaming systems like Atari became more popular as well as arcade games like Pac Man. In 1989, the first virtual babysitter was invented. It was called a Game Boy and kids loved to use it to play a brand new game designed by a Russian and marketed by the Japanese. It was called Tetris. And I love it. In fact, the reason I’m so late in posting this is because I was reminded of this amazing game and I’ve been playing it day and night. That’s only kind of a joke.
Probably the most drastic change in entertainment, came with the invention of the VCR. When they first hit the market, VCR’s were around $1,400. A couple years later, you could get one for $200-$400. I imagine those who ran to the store right away were kicking themselves, but even the reduced price was nothing to sneeze at. That’s about $1,000 in today’s money. Suddenly, a new market emerged: VHS tapes, and video rentals. And what were people renting in the 80’s? Top Gun, Back to the Future, The Breakfast Club, Ghostbusters, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. I don’t remember if we rented these movies. We mostly cycled through the 30 or so VHS tapes our library had in circulation. You had to flip through a binder to choose them. Who am I kidding? I loved flopping through that binder.
A Time for Women
Women were more empowered in the 80’s than ever before. Celebrities like Jane Fonda took on the subject of sexual inequality in her movie “9 to 5”. She also made some rad workout videos that made leotards and lycra pants a fashion statement. I remember putting on my church tights and a bathing suit to sweat it out with my mom and our neighbor. All we had to do was pop in a VHS tape and Jane Fonda was there in our living room.
Geraldine Ferraro was the first woman on the ticket for a major party. She was Walter Mondale’s running mate in 1984, and even though they didn’t win, she encouraged other women to enter politics.
Pop stars like Madonna also made women feel like they could express themselves in a new way. Many women simply copied her style, but they felt empowered.
TV shows like Dynasty put a woman in the boardroom. Other shows and movies like Who’s the Boss, Mr. Mom, and Three Men and a Baby showed men in a more domestic role. In a lot of ways, the 80’s were good for women.
The fall of communism didn’t happen all at once, but there were events that weakened its hold on Eastern Europe. The Soviet economy began to crumble and they lost their hold on the nations that made up the USSR. Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev were cordial with one another. On June 12, 1987, Reagan planned to give a speech about the positive changes that were being made around the world, (The part about tearing down the wall didn’t make the final edit.) But when his speechwriter, Peter Robinson, saw how bleak East Germany was from the helicopter, he urged the president to stick with the original draft. His call to “Tear down this wall” was heard all around the world. Two years later, the wall came down and communism lost its grip. I was in the 6th grade and my Social Studies teacher, Joyce Avers, had given me the opportunity to have a foreign pen pal. Mine was from Germany and I’ll never forget the letter where she talked about what it was like to live in a unified Germany for the first time in her life.
Being a kid in the 80’s was awesome. We had Birthday parties at McDonald's and Chuck E. Cheese’s. If I try hard enough, I can still recall the scents of my Strawberry Shortcake figurines. I remember playing Lite-brite at my friend’s house once. I didn’t know why we brought our golden Retriever with us. Then, when her Golden Retriever had a bunch of puppies, my Dad said that Benji was a stud. It was much later that I realized what was going on that day.
I loved snuggling my Care Bears and Pound Puppies while reading a new Babysitter's Club book from Border's in the mall. My older brother was all about his Masters of the Universe figurines and the Rubik’s Cube. I remember loving Glo Worms and being freaked out by Teddy Ruxpin. Everyone was freaked out by Teddy Ruxpin. We played with Little People, Smurfs, and of course Cabbage Patch Kids. (I won’t talk to much about them because I’ve already written a blog post about them). We didn’t know a lot about what was going on outside our brick ranch, but we loved our family and we loved our childhood.
I have only one more week of the decade series. Next week, I’m talking about the 90’s so get out your Hammer pants and brush off your ceramic geese, cause they’re getting dressed up.