Being a kid during the 1970s, almost none of my toys had any sophisticated electronics by today’s standards.
And the Internet? Who had heard of the Internet?
Most 1970s toys that didn’t involve balls or game boards relied on the imagination.
One of my favorite toys in this category was the Timpo Medieval Castle. The UK-based company marketed these toy sets in the US as Black Baron’s Castle. I was eight or nine years old when my parents got this for me. I had hours of fun with it.
Based the knowledge of history that I’ve acquired since, I understand that the toy set was historically inaccurate.
The toy set crusaders didn’t do battle with the lightly armored Muslim warriors of the 11th or 12th-century Middle East, like the real ones did. Instead, their foes were black-armored knights reminiscent of the Hundred Years War 1337-1453.
When these toy sets were made, there was no political correctness as we know it today. No one would have been offended had Timpo made a historically accurate toy set, complete with the clash of civilizations. Rather, someone in the Timpo marketing department probably figured that the target market (young boys) would prefer the black-armored knights to turban-wearing Saracens.
Photos from eBay and Etsy
Below: a modern take on the medieval play set. Not bad, but I’m attached to the Timpo original
This past week two consecutive winter storms dropped more than a foot of snow on Cincinnati. I managed to shovel two driveways, twice, without a.) throwing out my back, b.) re-repturing my 2005 hernia, or c.) having a heart attack. At my current age of fifty-two, I consider that a not unnoteworthy accomplishment.
The winter of 2020 to 2021 has been a rough one so far in Cincinnati, especially compared to the past three or four. Yet more snow is forecast to arrive later this week.
Of course, for American adults around my age—especially if they grew up east of the Mississippi—there are two childhood winters that stand out in memory: those are the back-to-back “blizzard winters” in the mid-1970s: the winter of 1976 to 1977, and the winter of 1977 to 1978.
The winter of 1976 to 1977
The winter of 1976 to 1977 was the winter of record-breaking, pipe-bursting, river-freezing cold. Here in Cincinnati, there were three straight days of record cold in January 1977, in which the temperature stayed below minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit the whole time.
The Ohio River froze solid—for the first time since 1958, and only the thirteenth time on record. In the Cincinnati media archives, there are photos of people walking across the Ohio River, and even driving across the ice that month. The freezing of the Ohio was quite a novelty, much talked about on the local news. One of my older friends has told me about driving his car across the Ohio River that winter on a dare. He was then nineteen years old, and he’s now in his sixties. So he obviously made it across.
January of 1977 was also a snowy one. Cincinnati had 30.3 inches of snow that year. (The usual figure for Cincinnati in January is six inches.)
The winter of 1977 to 1978
The following winter of 1977 to 1978 was just as bad, with almost as much cold, and even more snow. On January 25, 1978, one of the worst blizzards in U.S. history pummeled Cincinnati with almost seven inches of snow. There were already fourteen on the ground.
I remember the night of January 25, 1978 well. I played forward on our fourth-grade basketball team. That night we had a game at a rival Catholic school in the area, Guardian Angels. I remember walking outside at halftime with other members of my team. The air was not exceptionally cold yet by January standards. (It would soon plummet below zero degrees.) But there was a strange fog in the air. I think we all had the feeling that something momentous was imminent. On the way home from the game, the snow began. By morning, it was a whiteout.
Winter landscapes of the memory
At the age of eight or nine, one doesn’t have much life experience to draw upon. I could sense, though, that those two winters were worse than the handful of winters I could recall before. During those two winters, the outside air always seemed to be bitterly cold. Furnaces ran constantly. Fireplaces crackled nonstop. The ground was always snow-covered.
Many people are depressed by snow and cold weather, and winter in general. Not me. I will confess that some of my happiest childhood memories are winter ones, in fact.
I was particularly close to my maternal grandparents. During those blizzard years of the 1970s, they lived just down the street from us. When school was canceled due to inclement weather, I got to pass the day with my grandfather, who had recently retired. We spent a lot of time together in those years. I’m grateful for all the snow.
The cyclical nature of winter weather
It has been my observation that bad and mild winters tend to alternate in cycles. From the mid-1970s through the early 1980s, the winters were harsh, with record cold and snow.
The winter of 1981 to 1982 was cold. The Cincinnati Bengals went to the Super Bowl that year. On January 10, 1982, the Bengals won a key home game against the San Diego Chargers. The air temperature at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium on game day was minus nine degrees, with wind chills down to 35 below. That game has gone down in NFL history as the “Freezer Bowl”.
I was in the eighth grade in 1981-1982, and going through a (brief, in retrospect) rebellious adolescent phase. This included hanging out with an edgier crowd, and embracing a short-lived fascination with smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol.
Even in 1982, smoking and drinking weren’t acceptable pursuits for eighth graders. But hiding these illicit activities from adult authority figures was half the fun. I have many memories of shivering outside that bitter January, as I sipped a furtive drink of whiskey, or smoked a Marlboro. Even today, when I happen to smell someone else’s newly opened pack of cigarettes, or taste an alcoholic beverage, I’m transported back to that brutally cold winter of 1981 to 1982.
The last bad winter I remember from that larger cycle was the winter of 1983 to 1984. That winter brought record cold and snow to the entire United States, including Florida and Texas. As I recall, there was a lot of anxiety about the citrus crop that year, and skyrocketing prices of orange juice.
Over Christmas break in December 1983, my parents decided to embark on a rare family trip to Florida. When we reached Macon, Georgia, it was 4 degrees, with 23 degrees forecast for our destination in the Sunshine State. After spending a night shivering in a Macon hotel room with an inadequate heater, my parents decided to cut our losses. We headed home the next morning. We could freeze in Ohio for free, after all.
But the weather is no more constant than anything else in this world. That cycle of severe winters, from 1976 to 1984, transitioned into a milder pattern over subsequent years. The winters of 1984-1985 and 1985-1986 weren’t exactly balmy; but they weren’t severe, either. Throughout my last two years of high school, classes were rarely canceled due to weather. This was fine with me, because I generally enjoyed high school more than grade school.
And during my college years, spanning the winters of 1986 to 1987 through 1990 to 1991, the winters in Cincinnati were notably mild. I did not go away for college; I lived with my parents and commuted to two local schools. I did not miss a single class due to bad winter weather throughout my entire college career.
That mild cycle continued through the early 1990s, only to go the other way again in the middle of the decade. The winter of 1995 to 1996 was an especially bad one for the entire Midwest, resulting in a rare shutdown of the University of Cincinnati in January of ’96. By this time, I was a working adult in my mid-twenties.
The winter of 1995 to 1996 drew comparisons in the media to the blizzard winters of the mid-1970s. I remember scoffing when I heard this. Having been a kid during those fabled winters of the 1970s, I never took the comparison seriously.
But then, everything seems to happen on a larger scale when you’re a kid…even the weather.
Krampus, Dickens, and what I saw on Christmas Eve, 1976
Merry Christmas, everyone!
Yes, I know this has been a lousy year. It’s almost over, though.
Christmas is generally a festive holiday, but there are some macabre Christmas traditions, too. And they didn’t necessarily begin with this very macabre year of 2020.
Consider, for example, the Dickens tale, A Christmas Carol. This is one of my holiday favorites. Who can forget the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, which reminds us of the Grim Reaper? Or, for that matter, Marley’s ghost?
In some parts of Europe, Christmas includes the Krampus, a horned creature that incorporates both Christian and pre-Christian (pagan) traditions. In Germanic folklore, the Krampus works in conjunction with St. Nicholas, rewarding children who have been good, and punishing those who have been bad.
Let me tell you about something that happened to me on Christmas Eve many years ago…in 1976.
I was at my grandparents’ house in the suburbs of Cincinnati, Ohio. The family had just had our Christmas Eve dinner—Grandma’s turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes. (My grandmother also used to prepare a festive gelatin salad made with raspberry Jell-O, diced nuts, sliced carrots, and Cool Whip. (I realize that might not sound very tasty, but it was.))
Anyway, I had just left the table for a call of nature. This took me to a hallway in another part of the house.
There in the semidarkness of the hallway, I saw the shadow of a small, gnomish creature. It was right there, within lunging distance of me, cast on the wall.
I was startled—though not necessarily in mortal terror. Being eight years old in 1976, I ran back into the dining room, and told the adults.
There was something in the hall!
They accompanied me back to the hallway where I’d seen the unusual shadow. Needless to say, it was gone.
But there had been something there. I know there was.
My grandparents lived in that house for the rest of their lives. I was close to my grandparents, and visited them often, well into my adult years.
I never saw anything there resembling that gnome shadow figure again. Nor did I ever see any other other strange phenomena in the house.
But I know that something made a brief visit there on Christmas Eve, 1976.
A bad elf, maybe? I don’t know. But like I said, I saw something.
I logged on to Facebook yesterday, and found that many of my friends were making posts about Edward “Eddie” Van Halen. The guitaristsuccumbed to cancer yesterday at the age of 65.
My friends and I are all part of that generation that reached adolescence just as the rock band named for Eddie Van Halen was taking off. From my early teens through my early adult years, Van Halen’s music was indeed a fixture. I remember all the songs on Diver Down (1982), 1984 (1984), 5150 (1986) and OU812 (1988) when they were brand new, and no one had ever heard them before. I enjoyed most all of those songs, and I really liked a handful of them.
Eddie Van Halen did not try to change the world with his music. A few of of Van Halen’s songs contain vaguely mystic or generically motivational lyrics. (“Love Walks In” and “Right Now” come to mind here.) For the most part, though, Van Halen’s music was simply fun. It was music to listen to while you were working out in your high school’s weight room in 1983, or while you were driving around on a late summer afternoon in 1987. I still listen to Van Halen’s music on occasion, and I suspect that I always will.
But then there’s the man, Edward Lodewijk van Halen, who is being mourned today—especially by those of us old enough to remember his band’s heyday.
I have always been a bit ambivalent in regard to the effusive mourning of celebrities who did not know us, and who, therefore, would not have mourned us had we preceded them in death. I’m not sure that it really is possible to mourn someone we did not know personally. What we miss is their artistic output, and the era they were associated with in our lives. Eddie Van Halen’s music is certainly bound to an era in my life, as I’ve noted above.
Eddie Van Halen had a good run. He was wealthy and famous for most of his adult years, and he was able to spend those years doing something he loved. He did not live as long as he might have. But he lived long enough to become a senior citizen. That is something.
By all accounts, Eddie Van Halen had loving relations with family and friends, especially his surviving son, Wolf, who eulogized him on social media yesterday. He seems to have been a genuinely good-hearted and personable individual. In all the years he’s been in the public spotlight, I can’t recall a single negative news story or scandal involving him. That is something, too.
Yesterday marked the passing of a significant musical era, and also the passing of a life well-lived.Edward Lodewijk van Halen, dead at 65. R.I.P.