Weird Things From My Childhood (That May Have Warped My Mind)

I went to a Sunday afternoon matinee of the movie Argo this past weekend. I enjoyed it immensely. The movie is set in 1979, the year I graduated high school and began college. I was old enough to have been paying (at least minimal) attention to the hostage crisis and the world events surrounding it, which comprise the storyline of the movie. My companions at the matinee were much younger – in fact, one was born in ’79. The story was familiar to me, yet well-told and performed by some of my favorite character actors working today. And I’ve got to hand it to the moviemakers – they really captured the look and feel of the 70s.

The movie sparked a string of memories for me. Growing up during the cultural upheavals of the 1960s and 70s was a trip for most people my age; my friends and I have shared memories of some unusual cultural events and/or icons – Watergate, bra burnings…Ruth Buzzi, anyone?  However, as I’ve discovered in talking with my peers from the midwest, my childhood may have included exposure to some things their parents firmly sheltered them from. I’d like to share a few of these experiences with you – if for no other reason than to give you a glimpse of what’s really hidden inside my psyche. In other words, for your amusement (and for those of you not born until 1979 or later, whatever educational value you can find)!

  • Glen W. Turner: The “grandfather” of motivational and inspirational speakers captured my father’s imagination and set him on fire with the challenge “Dare to Be Great”. As Turner would say, ” “If a man with a harelip and an eighth-grade education can be happy, so can you. I like myself. Do you like yourself?” After seeing and meeting Turner, my dad became a true believer, and was even offered the opportunity to fly on Turner’s private jet. One of Glen Turner’s phrases, in particular, was heard regularly in our home – “Fantastic and amazing! It’ll warp your mind!” In his heyday, Turner drew crowds of 50,000 to his seminars. He also amassed $300 million dollars through his multi-level marketing schemes which, perhaps unsurprisingly, led to a conviction for fraud and a stint in prison. This may be why many of you haven’t heard of this Anthony Robbins of the 60s. But I’m still a fan of all things fantastic and amazing!
  • Lillian Vernon and the Moonwalk: When I was four we moved to the house on Wilbur Lane that my mother had grown up in, to live with my Grandpa Postel. Built on one of the bluffs that define the topography of Dubuque, our house was three stories – two on one level of ground and the third, the basement, a full-storey walkout the back of which was built right up to the side of the bluff. (One cool feature of this location was that we had an “upper yard” on the level of our two stories and a “lower yard” on Grandpa’s level, with steps connecting the two levels.) My Grandpa was a unique individual. For example, everyone in my family has fond memories of the decor of his apartment, since many items were novelties purchased from the Lillian Vernon catalog. On July 20, 1969, we all gathered in Grandpa’s apartment to watch the moon landing. I distinctly recall dozing off from boredom before Neil Armstrong’s famous “one small step”, lulled to sleep by the psychedelic multicolored light cast by the revolving shade on the Lillian Vernon pillar lamp on top of Grandpa’s television.
  • The Smothers Brothers: Ok, this team of comedians (and I use that term loosely in this case) was pretty well-known. Many people remember them and their variety show, although some of my peers were not allowed to watch due to the left-leaning politics and anti-Vietnam War sentiments expressed on the show, and which eventually led to its cancellation.  I’ve included them on this list because of the parenthetical statement in this post’s title (above) – the Smothers Brothers definitely did something to warp my mind, though I’m unsure what exactly it was. Over the years, I have had a recurrent dream in which I discover that I am related to Tom Smothers – a.k.a. Yo-Yo Man. His brother, Dick, is no relation of mine. In these dreams, Tom is a real hero of mine and I am honored to welcome him back into his estranged family. What do you suppose caused this odd bit of fantasy to lodge in my dreaming brain? A couple of years ago I actually came face-to-face with Tom Smothers at a casino. My dreams have seemed so real I nearly greeted him as my long-lost uncle.
  • H.R Pufnstuf: This had to be the strangest Saturday morning kid fare ever. The generation after me had School House Rock, in which they learned about the constitution and how to use conjunctions. We had a clearly drug-induced fantasy about a boy and his magic flute being cast away on a a magical island complete with the incarnation of Good (H.R. himself) and the incarnation of Evil (Witchiepoo). The theme song from the show, a rip-off of Paul Simon’s “59th Street Bridge Song”, says it all: “H.R. Pufnstuf, who’s your friend when things get rough? H.R. Pufnstuf. Can’t do a little cause you can’t do enough.”
  • Protesting the Establishment, Dubuque-Style: One thing that has always made me proud has been my parents’ willingness to play an active role in their community, especially when it comes to social justice. In the years of my childhood, social justice movements arose overnight. And in the world of my childhood, northeastern Iowa, many people lived as if these movements and the people who populated them were anathema. Not Jack and Shirley Hanson. During dad’s leadership with the Jaycees, they brought both “Up With People” and a traveling cast of “Jesus Christ Superstar” to Dubuque. I attended both performances, my parents explaining (though I didn’t really get it) why conservative Catholics were picketing the latter. My parents also participated in the creation and staffing of Cornerstone, a drug half-way house. The other volunteers and counselors were a diverse and interesting group of socially conscious young adults, and we grew accustomed to their presence at our home. I loved sitting at the picnic table, aluminum tiki-torches casting undulating shadows, listening to the political arguments and laughter. I will also never forget the taunts and hateful comments directed toward those involved with Cornerstone from many others in the community. Or the arguments with my cousins on the farm, whose denigrating comments about hippies, meaning people who looked like my parents’ friends, called forth all the ire and tongue lashings my eight-year-old self was capable of dishing out. I was the only 3rd grader in my school who thought hippies were the “good guys”.
  • A purple aardvark named George Wallace:  In 1972 my little sister Anne was in the hospital having her tonsils removed on the day of the assassination attempt against Alabama governor George Wallace. Wallace was known for his Southern populist politics and was a staunch segregationist (though he repented of this later in life). Annie was given a stuffed aardvark by a visitor to her hospital room. As special news reports about the assassination attempt and Governor Wallace’s condition were being broadcast repeatedly, Annie was so moved by compassion for Wallace that she named her aardvark after him. Imagine my parents’ chagrin to have a much loved new member of our liberal family who bore the name George Wallace! We never shortened it to “just George” either. That aardvark was forever and always called, proudly, by both of his names!

Obviously, I’ve tried to stick with the weird and warping experiences of my childhood that can be referred to in humorous terms. As I was dramatically reminded at my viewing of Argo last weekend, there were so many events that shaped those turbulent years that cannot be construed that way: MLKs assassination, race riots, body counts from southeast Asia on the nightly news, Nixon’s resignation. I am certain that each of these impacted me, as they did the rest of America. However, as I spent time thinking about some of the stranger moments and memories from my formative years, I have not only found myself immersed in laughter and wishing my siblings were here to talk about it with me – I have also felt profoundly grateful. Grateful that my parents could provide a reasonably stable, normal childhood (I went to Catholic school in uniform daily, attended church and family gatherings on Sundays, among other hallmarks of a fairly straight midwestern upbringing) while also offering an education in compassion, justice and openness to the wider world. Not such a bad way to be warped, in my opinion!