1980s

My History of Lunchability

I spotlighted this on an old episode of the podcast, but back in the late 1980s, there was a Roy Rogers commercial that satirized the nastiness of school lunches.

The ad was controversial because of the way it punched down on hard-working cafeteria staff and was pulled rather quickly. Having been a high school teacher for 17 years now, and knowing the amount of work it takes to feed more than a thousand teenagers on a daily basis for way less money than they should be paid, I completely agree that it’s an insensitive commercial*.

If you’d asked me about that ad when I was in my teens or even my twenties, I would have given you that tired line of “Ah, people are too sensitive/you can’t make fun of anyone anymore/why can’t people lighten up and take a joke?”** I thought it was the best commercial ever produced, the pinnacle of satire. I still think it is, objectively, a brilliant ad because of the way it plays off a reputation even though the punching down is insensitive and unnecessary. The meals served in my junior high and high school cafeteria were often nasty: soggy BLT sandwiches, hot dogs with a seafoam green tint, the steamiest of steamed hams, and industrial-grade rectangular pizza that we referred to as “Ellio’s” as a way to fool ourselves every Friday. In high school, we’d have a separate walk-up window for Domino’s pizza at a dollar a slice, which is one of the saddest things I have ever had to type.

I didn’t buy lunch often, although that wasn’t always an appealing alternative. The 1980s and 1990s pre-dated our current era of thermal-lined lunchbags with ice packs, and while we all carried bitchin’ lunchboxes at the beginning of elementary school, by the time you hit fifth grade, you were more likely to be made fun of for bringing your ham and cheese in a Snoopy lunchbox. So from late elementary school to the day I graduated, I literally brown-bagged it with lunches my dad made the night before. Now, to his credit, they weren’t slapped together peanut butter and jelly sandwiches–he knew that PB&J was the worst thing to pack in a brown bag because it always got crushed at some point. These were turkey sandwiches with Alpine Lace Swiss chees on a semolina roll, ham and cheese on marble rye, or epic meatloaf sandwiches, all with a Yoo-Hoo box that had been frozen the night before so that it could thaw out in my locker and still be cold by the time I drank it for lunch. I ate well.

But I was, of course, the exception to the rule. Many of my peers had sad slices of bologna or boiled ham between half-stale pieces of white bread accompanied by a warm box of apple juice (or maybe a CapriSun if they were lucky) and a bag of Hydrox cookies. And this sadness went on for years in our school cafeteria.

That is, until Oscar Meyer changed everything.

Lunchables hit the market just as I was starting junior high school, and by the time I was in eighth grade, they were showing up more often among the “bringers” at the cafeteria table. A quick look at their history shows that Oscar Meyer developed them throughout the mid- to late-1980s as an alternative to the labor that cam with packing kids’ lunches every day. The company had conducted research with mothers, especially working moms who had school-aged children and whose commutes often made pressed for time. Oscar Meyer was the most well-known lunchmeat brand, and after the company merged with Kraft in 1988, they had the most well-known cheese brand to go with said lunchmeat. Add some crackers and you have an appealing, ready-to-go charcuterie plate that any kid would love.

At least that was the deal when they went nationwide in 1989, as the original Lunchables were a TV-dinner-esque box of cheese, crackers, and meat, although there was a “Deluxe” version that included extra meats and cheeses, condiment packs, and a mint. Those were meant to appeal to adults, as you can see in the commercial. In fact, I have to say that though I’d seen this commercial back in the 1980s, watching it now, I was struck by how basic it was. Then again, food companies in the late 1980s still thought the way to kids’ stomachs was through their parents and were aiming at them instead of the kids themselves***. That would change in the Nineties, as Oscar Meyer embraced the “Extremely Cool Extreme Kidz” school of thought.

You’ll also notice that by 1998 (when this commercial aired), Lunchables had expanded just beyond processed charcuterie. Varieties such as wraps, pizza, and hot dogs and hamburgers were part of the line, and their nutritional value was questionable at best. In fact, Lunchables became a poster child of sorts for the childhood obesity epidemic because of their fat and sodium contents****. But nutrition aside, you have to appreciate the Millennial that is this commercial. As well as this one, from 1996.

Now, I’m not going to generation shame too much here, but in the midst of all of Millennials’ current (and justified) crowing about economic hardships, we do need to remind them about how they basically had their asses kissed throughout their childhood and teen years.***** Commercials like these are presented as individualism in your lunch choices, but what they really are is a way to enforce the purchasing power that Millennials had as early as elementary school.****** They used to run minivan commercials where the kids were making the decisions on what car to purchase. You know, as opposed to having to suck it up and squeeze your gangly ass into the back seat of a Pontiac Fiero.

Anyway, Oscar Meyer really knew what it was doing here, even if these all looked really gross and I could feel my arteries hardening, blood pressure rising, and colon seizing as I watched the ads. Because it wasn’t about the food; it was more about making Lunchables seem cool to “kidz” and the thing that “kidz” wanted. Even at a young age …

This was probably the most famous Lunchables commercial, probably because it involved a cute little kid getting all hyped when he finally got the Lunchables that he wanted. And to be fair, he does fall on the “precious” side of the precious/precocious binary that commercials like this often had to navigate, but the parent in me is really annoyed here. I don’t want to crap on a kid, and I’ve never called my own kid ungrateful, but what an ungrateful little shit. Oh, I’m sorry that your mom or dad provides you with food every single day, food that’s probably a better nutritional choice than that road to a future stroke. I swear.

Plus, and this might be a “controversial” opinion here, Lunchables taste horrible. I speak from experience, having actually packing them a few times as a kid. Oscar Meyer’s cold cuts are B-grade at best, they are cut way too thick, and the crackers had less flavor than the pencils I tended to chew on when I was stressed. And the cheese? Oh yeah, thick-cut cheese left to sweat it out for four hours in a junior high locker? Who knows, maybe they have changed in 30 years, but back in the day, they were nasty.

I pack lunches every night before school and use better cold cuts; in fact, it’s possible my kid has only had a Lunchable once or twice in his entire life and didn’t like it either. But then again, it probably was never about the food and was always about the Lunchables experience.

* Huge credit, by the way, to my high school’s cafeteria staff, who did not slow down during the COVID lockdown and converted the high school cafeteria service to a drive-up, and went so far as to personally deliver lunches to classrooms during hybrid learning when the cafeteria seating was closed by mandate. They should be paid double and I’m not kidding.

** Somewhere, I have a long rant about the enormous amount of immaturity found in middle-aged men who constantly say these things that ties into all of the damage that bullshit sentiments like this causes.

*** This original Lunchables commercial also follows that annoying “rhyme time” trend of commercials from this era. I guess it was effective because I watched it and said, “Oh, I remember this rhyme.” But that didn’t make it any less annoying.

**** The turkey and cheddar Lunchables sold today, per serving contain 260 calories (100 cal from fat), 13 g of fat, and 670 mg of sodium.

***** I’m not kidding. Go read The Tipping Point.

******* And this should make them hate Boomers even more, tbh.

Fallen Walls Open Curtains Episode 8

It’s the eighth chapter in a podcast miniseries that looks at the fall of the Iron Curtain and the popular culture of the Cold War. To start us off, I look at what happened in Eastern Europe from June 1991 to August 1991 with a special focus on the attempted coup on Moscow by Soviet hard liners, an event that led to the rise of Boris Yeltsin to the world stage.  Then, I take a look at two of the most important movies of the mid-1980s, the movies that “won the Cold War”–1984’s Red Dawn and 1985’s Rocky IV.

You can listen here:

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Here’s some more stuff for you …

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Politics, Protest, and “Running on Empty”

There is a point in Running on Empty where Annie Pope (Christine Lahti), a fugitive who has been on the run for more than a decade, risks getting caught by having lunch wit her father. Obviously upset that he has not seen her nor her family since 1971, he also still carries anger about her crime–she and her husband Artie (Judd Hirsch) were part of a Weathermen-type antiwar group that bombed a napalm-making facility, a bombing that seriously injured a person. Frustrated at him for bringing up the crime, she says, “I didn’t come to talk politics.”

This line stuck with me after I watched the film, not because Annie is trying to shut down an argument so that she can ask her son to take her son Danny (River Phoenix), but because it’s also as if Sidney Lumet was making his thesis statement for the film. The politics of the Pope family are obviously on display for Running on Empty‘s two hours, but the point is not to show how the correctness of a certain point of view; instead, it’s to show how children an bear the burden of their parents’ actions. Make the Popes a right-wing extremist family who bombed an abortion clinic and the circumstances surrounding their lives might be similar. People on the run are interesting; a family on the run is intriguing, and this is a moment where Lahti has to portray desperation because her son is caught between the life that her and Artie have brought him into and the one he can have as a virtuoso pianist. So when you have this conversation in this film, questions come up: How do we address the violence in protest against violence? Is violence only okay when “your side” is doing it? And how do you deal with being the child of one of those people?

There was a point after I watched the film where I regretted not covering it when I was doing the “In Country” podcast, although in all fairness, I didn’t know what Running on Empty was about when I was hosting that show. All I knew is what I remembered from back in the day–it was a River Phoenix movie and one of three (the others being Stand By Me and My Own Private Idaho) that showcased his raw acting talent. That it had anything to do with the antiwar movement or that movement’s violent side escaped me.

Despite her insistence that we don’t think about the politics, at least in that moment, I can’t help but wonder about the Reagan Eighties and how that is being portrayed here. This was the era of a more conservative approach to American ideals, and while there was a bit of nostalgia for the flower power hippie part of the 1960s, the more violent aspects of the antiwar movement were still viewed with disdain.

Which is how we see all violent protest movements, epecially those that look to upend the status quo. I’m not much of a conspiracy theorist, but I can recognize that our culture has become purposely embused witha rigid mindset of the “right” way to protest. It’s nonvient, and perhaps features the holding of hands and singing of songs. And there is nothing wrong with that picture, as they are some of the most iconic protest images we have of the twentieth century. But there’s a gentility that’s pushed when those are the primary images we see, and is certainly the narrative that right-wing pundits insist upon, as they are quick to decry the violence committed in the name of any liberal or progressive movement, labeling it terrorism without any note of the irony that their own followers have committed actual acts of terrorism and treason.

You pick that sentiment up in Running on Empty, but in the conversation that Annie has with her father–a wealthy industrialist–and the bits of media coverage that are present while the family is on the run, some of which cause them to pack up and flee once again. For instance, at one point in the film, an old friend/compatriot comes to visit and is later caught robbing a bank. When the story breaks, the media employs a subtle tone of reminding the public that these people may have said they were antiwar, but they are actually bad.

And yet, Sydney Lumet (who directed the film) doesn’t want us to think that. If anything, that sentiment is there to show us the toll that being on the run can take. I’d say, in fact, that he wants us to sympathize with the Popes and is even setting up a subtle indictment of the Eighties’ inherent conservatism, or at least our culture’s want for a closed narrative. The Reagan Eighties mirrored the Eisenhower Fifties in many ways, and while those Fifties ended with Kennedy, they were ultimately upended by the Vietnam War. When Reagan declared “Morning in America”, the message was one of a return to a sense of pride; conservatism of the day sought to begin the rewriting of the Sixties as a problem and a mistake. The antiwar movement was the reason we lost the war, they spit on the troops when they got home, and were by all of their definitions “anti-American.” That idea trickled down in some ways into history curricula, and was used to an exceptional degree in drumming up support for our wars in the Middle East.

And that’s just an overtly white antiwar group. What I described was used to try and discredit the Civil Rights movement of the Fifties and Sixties and is still being done today with right-wing pundits and politicians falsely equating Black Lives Matter and white supremacist terrorsists.

Ultimately, I root for the Popes because they make the right decision and find a way to get Danny out of their cycle, knowing that he is a victim of circumstance. This is aided by the deeply written characters and the layered performances. Judd Hirsch–who always looked at least 45 and perpetually bothered–struggles with the conflict between his son’s independence and the need for their “mission”. Lahti plays a caring mother (and as an aside, is damn sexy in this film) who has more agency than most mothers in Eighties films. But the film belongs to River Phoenix–in fact, it garnered him an Oscar nomination. He spends the two hours of the film smoldering with angst while avoiding the scenery chewing that in lesser hands would have been terribly melodramatic, a two-hour version of Judd Nelson’s yelling through The Breakfast Club or the hammier points of Christian Slater’s monologues in Pump Up the Volume (both of which are favorites of mine). He loves his parents and believes in them, but also wants to be his own person and strike out on his own. Balancing coming of age with politics in a decade known for its flash is very tough and Running on Empty is a gem of a film that should have literary status.

Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 124: Futuristic Van Damme-age

Jean-Claude Van Damme, made his name as “The Muscle from Brussels” off of B-level action flicks that were light on story but chock full of martial arts action.  In 1989, coming off the success of Bloodsport, he starred in Cyborg, a post-apocalyptic sci-fi/action thriller about a man bent on revenge and helping to find a cure for a worldwide plague.  Join me as I take a look at the movie’s production, its story, and even the comic book that Cannon produced as a promotion.

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And here’s a gallery of stuff from the Cannon Home Video promo comic for Cyborg. It includes the comic’s cover, a page of story/art, one of the behind the scenes pieces, an ad from the comic, and the comic’s back cover.

“Kid 90” and the discoveries from Personal Archaeology

Toward the end of her documentary Kid 90, Soleil Moon Frye talks about how she watches video tapes that she made of her and her friends in the early and mid-1990s and considers how she never saw the warning signs regarding those friends who died by suicide or because of drug abuse. She also mentions that she is living a lot of those memories for the second time and (of course) with the perspective of a now middle-aged adult. It’s a moment that is predictable because of the way we naturally consider such things after a tragedy, but is sad nonetheless and tempers a very nostalgic documentary with a sadness, making it more than superficial fluff.

If you haven’t heard of Kid 90, it was born out of the fact that Frye spent much of her childhood and adolescence recording both audio and video of herself and her friends in their everyday live, intending it as a private keepsake*. A few years ago, she dug up the material and began going through it with the intention of making a documentary about being a child star and a teenager in Hollywood during the 1980s and early 1990s. She originally didn’t intend to put herself into the film (except for the aforementioned archival footage) but as she told Variety, she was editing one particular segment and realized that in order to give it full context, she needed to be interviewed. And that’s how we get the moment I just described.

I came to this film via Hulu’s recommendations and upon seeing the description, put it on my watch list. Plus, I’m a mark for any sort of late 1980s/early 19990s nostalgia, and am like every other person my age in that I immediately associate Fry with her iconic role as Punky Brewster. I also remember her showing up on a couple of random sitcom episodes–The Wonder Years and Friends, especially. What I didn’t know was that her circle of friends consisted of actors and actresses I was watching regularly during my early teen years and whom were also about my age (Frye is a year older than I am). So when people like Brian Austin Green, Mark Paul Gosselaar, and Jenny Lewis started showing up in both the footage and interviews, and also oddly connected to it beyond just recognizing those faces.

Over the past couple of years, I have spent time going trough my own personal teenage archive. Most of the stuff I have been looking at has been my teenage journal, along with various ephemera I’d thrown in a box or storage bin and held onto over the years. None of it is nearly as star-powered as Frye’s video and audio footage of hanging out with Danny Boy from House of Pain, but I could at least relate to it on the level of digging into what you had in the past. But as I watched Kid 90, I also had the passing thought:

This is what it must like like for the cool kids to reminisce.

Oh yeah, that is flat-out one of the most idiotic thoughts a middle-aged man could have about people from high school, but I couldn’t help it. As the movie rolled, my mind flashed to Facebook group threads filled with pictures of them at house parties, seventeen with 1990s haircuts, flannels over Gap jeans, with Budweiser cans everywhere. And really, that’s what Frye’s home movies look like–suburban keggers but with famous people. There’s a point she makes in the film that her mom tried her best to her and her brother (Meeno Replace, the star of the NBC show Voyagers!) as normal a life away from their jobs in Hollywood as possible and this is the proof. The rooms they’re in, the general silliness that they’re up to (especially when they’re 13 or 14) all looks s if it could be taking place in any number of my classmates’ houses, and a world that I never entered. I spent many Saturday nights playing video games with friends or renting whatever movie I could get my hands on and then watching Saturday Night Live.

And while I’d like to be nonchalant and say “Ah, who gives as shit about school popularity when you’re 44?”, I have to also admit that this lack of coolness dogged me for quite a long time. I wound up with more tan a few toxic “friendships” and a laundry list of embarrassing and awkward moments, which my anxiety loves to weaponize on occasion, just to remind me who I am … or at least who I was. The world of the cool kids in my immediate vicinity was as much a mystery to me as the world of these ultra-cool Hollywood kids in the film. Frye goes from hanging with the ‘tween and teen jet set of the early ’90s to heading across the country to attend college in New York and befriending cast members from Larry Clark’s Kids, showing that she always had a “crew” wherever she decided to live.

But in the midst of all of that, there’s a real darkness. At one point, we hear an audio recording of her talking to a friend and trying to figure out what happened the previous night because she woke up at home not knowing how she got there. At another point, she is discussing how a guy at a party clearly raped her when he kept going even though she told him she didn’t want to. You can’t dismiss those stories by saying that it’s some symptom of Hollywood excess or that it’s another sign of how former child stars often become cautionary tales. No, ask around and you are bound to meet a woman who has had one of both of those happen, maybe even more. And, to bring in Hollywood, add the way the film industry treated her because of her body (she had breast reduction surgery at 16, which was a People Magazine cover story) and you have a look at how monumentally screwed up our culture is.

Which brings me back to what I mentioned in the beginning of this piece–Frye’s perspective as a woman and parent in her forties. One of the reasons she began the project that would become Kid 90 is to see if how she remembered her teenage years was accurate, and I found myself relating to the honesty with which she approached everything as well as the bravery required to do it. You can always flip through an old yearbook and laugh at the silly or even heartfelt things people wrote to you, but there is a point where you have to decide if you want to cross the threshold into the uncomfortable and really meet the kid you were. As a parent, you want to see what you can learn from your younger self so that your kid doesn’t suffer the same fate. Sure, there are adolescent rites of passage that involve mistakes and regrettable moments and I know I can’t protect my kid from everything bad they might encounter, but I also know that part of my job as a father is to use the gift of hindsight to discern between true rites of passage and truly awful things that we are too scared to admit were wrong or even toxic.

Reopening old wounds, taking the blindfold off in the cave, digging into the past–whatever you want to call it–can suck, even when you know it’s going to be therapeutic and said therapy can last longer than intended. But it’s a testament to the fact that making it through any of it is a small miracle.

* A similar documentary from Val Kilmer is set to debut on Amazon Prime in August.

Wordiness

The back cover says it’s “The Children’s Dictionary for the 1980s” and offers up a sample of how it can improve word skills through the way it illustrates its entries as well as employs phrases and sentences to demonstrate proper usage. The front is a mish-mash of different images from inside, complete with the bubbly sans serif font that was considered modern for the day, as textbooks and reference materials were trying to show that they were not the stodgy, inaccessible tomes that lined the bookshelves and walls of classrooms and libraries. No, The American Heritage Children’s Dictionary was something else.

That’s a lot to lay on a dictionary, which is quite possibly the most utilitarian reference source you can own. But sometime around the second or third grade, I received my copy. I can’t remember who gave it to me–maybe my parents, maybe an aunt or uncle–I just know that it became a permanent fixture on the bookshelves and for a while, it was one of the coolest books I own. Granted, I have always been a dork when it comes to any textbook or reference book, especially those published from my childhood. I realize that it’s total nostalgia, but seeing one of my old reading books or the social studies textbook from second grade brings back memories of making book covers from a Waldbaum’s shopping bag and flipping ahead to units I hoped we would get to at some point in the year.*

With the dictionary, though, I didn’t have to wait for a teacher to cover anything, and during the next few years, if I wasn’t using the dictionary for actual schoolwork, you could find me flipping through it for fun**. Yes, I realize how that sounds. Like, who flips through the dictionary for fun? Furthermore, how the hell does someone flip through the dictionary for fun and not have that be the moment in the first act of the movie when his parents “knew” that he would grow up to be the inspirational genius that moviegoers have been suckered into watching in the dead of winter because there’s nothing else in the theater?

Come on, people, we’re talking about “The Children’s Dictionary for the 1980s!”

So what’s so special about this? Why am I giving this so much attention even though it’s just a dictionary? Well, let’s take a tour.

A sample page from the dictionary that shows both the illustrations as well as the use of font.

The Illustrations. Upon first glance, you can tell this is going to be a different dictionary than, say, your average Webster’s edition. The cover is bright with illustrations, which are also featured throughout the book. The illustrations were by George Ulrich, who has had a career as an illustrator for children’s books for more than thirty years. It’s a cartoony style of drawing that is also grounded in realism, a calmer, toned-down School House Rock! that accurately represents whatever needs to be shown but doesn’t shy away from being fun on occasion.

The Fonts. As fun as this book is in its illustration, the font choice takes its job seriously. We have a serif font (such as TNR) in place for most of the body text, but Helvetica is in play quite a bit. You might not really notice it, but I freakin’ love the font and I’m pretty sure that this is where my love for Helvetica began. Yes, it’s the very definition of generic, but the cleanness of that sans serif font made everything in the 1980s look and feel newer and slicker. Even today, Helvetica is comfort food to me***.

The History of the English Language. Before you even get to the words and their definitions, there is a section of the dictionary that is the story of English as a language, written and illustrated in that calmer School House Rock! manner. I’d read this section all the way through at one point, although the pictures stuck with me more than any of the text. And the picture that stayed with me the most was probably the most random one of all of them, which is the one of a person in the present reading a book. Like Helvetica, this was comfort food to me, the suburban kid, back in the early 1980s. The casualness of the pose and the common nature of the picture made me feel like that could be me in the picture but also a bit aspirational, like that’s what “ordinary” life should look like. It’s the same feeling I would get (and still do to a certain extent) watching an old episode of Family Ties.

Letter History. Whereas the pictures in the “History of the English Language” section were something I focused on more than the words, this part of the dictionary was something I obsessed over. Leading off each letter section of the dictionary, it’s a rainbow-striped guide to the evolution of the modern-day letter. We start with ancient Phoenician writing moving through Ancient Greek letters, Ancient Roman lettering, Medieval script, and finally showing the contemporary lettering via our friend Helvetica. Years later, I would take an introduction to Linguistics course in graduate school and I credit my love of these letter histories for my love of that particular course. The way that our language evolves (along with other aspects of culture) is fascinating, and if I have any academic regrets in life, it’s that I didn’t take more courses in topics like linguistics, anthropology, or sociology****.

The first page of “A”, which shows the evolution of the letter’s form.
The entirety of “X” in the dictionary.

The Definitions of “Run.” Okay, so now we’re actually into the definitions, and the one word that I would look up in this dictionary and then any other dictionary that I came across (even the multi-volume Oxford English Dictionary in the reference section of my public library*****). I was amazed that this word could have 21 definitions (and even more listed in those other dictionaries). English, as a language, is complex to an almost horrifying degree, and I remember that when I see any of my students–especially English language learners–struggle with comprehending the rules of usage. The myriad definitions of “run” is a great snapshot of that.

X has one page. I guess this is more of a fault than a feature? Anyway, I always found it funny that the publishers decided to look at “X” and say, “Ah, screw it” leaving us with five definitions: X (the letter), Xerox, Xmas, X-Ray, and Xylophone. I mean, even “Q” has four pages (although all the words are “q-u” words) and they give “Z” a page and a half.

Zucchini. Speaking of Z, this is the last word in the dictionary. It also has a rather … phallic illustration to accompany it.

I touched upon how the book was important for fostering my curiosity as well as building a foundation for learning. What’s also important is that this book was mine. Not that I was ever discouraged from being curious about the world or writing, but I loved being able to do that on my own. Yes, it’s kind of like giving yourself homework, and it probably contributed to my being such a teacher’s pet for so many years, but I can’t help but feel grateful because of how I’ve never stopped being curious or interested.

* Yes, I was that nerd. Even in graduate school, I found myself skimming chapters that hadn’t been assigned just because I was interested.

** My parents had a dictionary on the shelves that was more “adult” and had an awesome reference section in the back. That and their copy of The People’s Almanac from 1974 probably deserve their own entries.

*** Not surprisingly, I was a high school yearbook adviser for 10 years.

**** There’s a part of me that wonders if I should have gone into sociology and/or media studies instead of toiling in marketing and then becoming a high school English teacher.

***** Holy shit, was I a nerd for that reference section. Books that were so special you could only use them in the library and not check them out? Oh hell yes. And THEN, I could look at the New York Times on microfilm.

Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 123: Cardboard Heroes

The Eighties and Nineties were a boom for the baseball card and trading card industry, and since I was a kid, I was right there in the thick of it.  Join me as I recount my days collecting baseball cards as well as cards featuring characters from Marvel, DC, Star Trek, and Star Wars before looking at books and documentaries about the hobby.  Plus, I open four packs of vintage baseball and trading cards live on the show!

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And here’s a gallery of the cards I opened (plus the gum) …

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73 Seconds

The Challenger at liftoff. Image from americainspace.com.

When my son was little, he liked to watch videos of the space shuttle taking off. They were exciting and short, perfect for the attention span of a three-year-old. But whenever we watched them, I would get anxious about a minute and a half after the launch when the camera angle switched to the underside of the shuttle as it flew diagonally away from the viewer. The anxiety would melt when the solid rocket boosters separated, because I knew that the launch had been completely normal.

It doesn’t take any real analysis to understand why that happened. Everyone in my generation has not only seen the Challenger explode, we each have our own very specific answer to the “Where were you?” question. Mine? I was in Miss Hubbard’s third grade classroom at Lincoln Avenue Elementary School. We didn’t get to watch it live, and found out when Mrs. Nolan, our principal, came over the PA to tell us that the space shuttle carrying the teacher in space had blown up after takeoff. I’d never heard an adult sound so upset before and I can’t imagine how she managed to even stay that composed. Nobody said a word for at least a while and I can’t remember what our teacher said, just going home, turning on the television, and watching Peter Jennings narrate the shuttle taking off and exploding 73 seconds into its flight, leaving a huge ball of smoke in the clear Florida sky. The lack of sound after Mission Control’s “Go at throttle-up” made it more real than anything I’d seen in a movie, and while it scared me, I couldn’t stop watching.

Christa McAuliffe. Official NASA press photo.

The news played the footage more times than I can remember and 35 years later, I am struck by how we were all totally unprepared. Everyone who saw the Challenger explode live on television had been watching because something good was supposed to happen. Christa McAuliffe, a teacher, was being launched into space, nearly every child in the country — every member of a generation — was tuned into that event in some way. Unlike the way my parents’ generation watched Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald, which had a pallor of tragedy prior to its happening, this broke a generation’s trust in the world. The time after was surreal and confusing. President Reagan offered words of solace that we half understood and adults chastised us for not staying quiet enough while he did. And nobody wanted to be an astronaut anymore.

One of the best sources of solace came a little more than a month later when the Punky Brewster episode “Accidents Will Happen” aired on NBC. Filmed as a direct response to the Challenger disaster, it was a rare moment of responsibility on the part of a show, as the writers understood their influence on a young audience. We all understood how Punky felt when she comes home in tears after watching the Challenger explode on live television, and how she is completely inconsolable. It takes a heartwarming talk from an adult—in this case, it’s Buzz Aldrin—to help her realize this is something she’s allowed to be upset about but it shouldn’t stop her from pursuing dreams of going up into space or loving space travel. While not a cure for our sadness, it was a much-needed balm; Punky was our friend and if the adults in her world took the time to show they cared, then they cared and were thinking about us.

Later that year, we received Young Astronauts commemorative packets. These had 8×10 pictures of the crew, Christa McAuliffe, and the shuttle lifting off; two stickers with the Teacher in Space Program and the official mission logos; a letter from President Reagan; and a poster with a picture of the shuttle and the poem “A Salute to Our Heroes”. That poster hung on my bedroom wall for a few years and I even bought a Revell space shuttle model kit because I really wanted a space shuttle toy but couldn’t find one. It sat in its box for a few years before I made a poor attempt at putting it together. We had a moment of silence on the one-year anniversary, but then the Challenger faded from consciousness and conversations—that is, when we weren’t making tasteless jokes like “What does NASA stand for? Need Another Seven Astronauts”. We turned our attention to movies where humans were fighting aliens in space, and the shuttle program went into in limbo.

In the aftermath, NASA took a serious image hit, especially after hearings revealed that the explosion could have not only been prevented, but some engineers’ pleas about an impending disaster were ignored or dismissed. While at eight, I knew about the cause of the explosion—a failure of both O-ring seals on the right solid rocket booster—it wouldn’t be until college that I would attend a lecture given by Roger Boisjoly, one of the Morton Thiokol engineers who gave the warning. He went into detail about the engineering behind the rocket boosters, what was an ultimately fatal design flaw, and those efforts to warn management and NASA about the probability that the shuttle would explode. Having just watched the Clinton impeachment play out, I was fully aware at the capabilities of our government to cover things up, but I still wound up feeling almost exactly how I felt like the day of the disaster when I stood in the den watching television. The gravity of the situation was still abundantly clear.

The Space Shuttle Discovery at the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, VA.

The shuttle program would be retired in 2011 and in 2013, my son and I went to see Discovery—the shuttle that in 1988 made the first successful launch after Challenger—at the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center. Upon reaching its exhibit hall, I was floored by its enormity. Knowing that we could build something that huge and send it into orbit reminded me of what we are capable of, and as I walked around it, holding my son’s hand, I felt the same awe that he did, and was humbled knowing what our achievements cost.

Fallen Walls Open Curtains Episode 5

It’s the fifth chapter in a podcast miniseries that looks at the fall of the Iron Curtain and the popular culture of the Cold War. To start us off, I look at what happened in Eastern Europe from September to November 1990 with a special focus on the roles that corporate America and pop music played in the end of the Cold War. Then, the discussion turns to sports; specifically, the Olympics with a spotlight on the controversial 1972 men’s basketball final, The Miracle on Ice, and the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics.

You can listen here:

Apple Podcasts:  Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download 

Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page

And here are a couple of extras for you …

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Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 114: Unsolved Mysteries of the Unknown

It’s Halloween and that means it’s time for me to actually get seasonal … for once.  I’m here and talking about some oddities of entertainment from the late 1980s and early 1990s.  First up is Time-Life Books’ best-selling series Mysteries of the Unknown, whose commercials were some of the creepies of the time.  Then, I move into the area of true crime (among other subjects) by looking at a classic Robert Stack-era episode of Unsolved Mysteries.  Plus: listener feedback!

You can listen here:

Apple Podcasts:  Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download 

Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page

After the break, here’s some extras for you, including four of the classic Mysteries of the Unknown commercial …

(more…)