For many people, the 1970s were a time when things began to fall apart—the era of Jimmy Carter, earth tones, the oil embargo, drugs. Yet as a new book reveals, “the Me Decade” was also, at least in certain safe American enclaves, a pre-digital world of fun, happiness, and strong families.
Sting-Ray Afternoons, the new memoir by Sports Illustrated writer Steve Rushin, is about growing up in the American Midwest in the 1970s. It is filled with memories of 1970s things: ugly sports stadiums, Shakey’s pizza parlors, Adidas tennis shoes, remote-less televisions, tacky furniture, cheap toys, and processed fast food. Yet for all its time-stamped cultural detritus, the book could be describing 1950s, or even 1920s, America. The reason: Rushin is the middle child (of five) of an intact family, which is a template for love, creativity, and diversity. Rushin’s father Don was a traveling magnetic tape salesman in Bloomington, Minnesota for 3M, and his mother Jane a stay-at-home mom.
G.K. Chesterton once observed that being in a family is good practice for joining the League of Nations, because both entities are filled with wildly dissimilar personalities. The foundation of a mother and a father is simply the best way to raise well-adjusted children; it’s also an arrangement that produces the craziest kind of beautiful diversity. The contemporary fetish for multiculturalism rules out of bounds the reality that there is an explosion of individuality in any American household. Shyness, comedic genius, religious fervor, jocks and nerds, rock and roll virtuosity, political fanaticism—the family can produce all of it under one roof. Rushin may be surrounded by the “unfailingly decent and generous people” of the Midwest, but they, like his family, are not the boring Rotarians of whom we’ve heard tell.
The main stars of Sting-Ray Afternoons are Rushin and his parents. His father has a wry sense of humor and wears a blue blazer everywhere, even on a ski trip. Like a lot of men of his time, Don Rushin enjoys a drink or two when he gets home from work. He loves his wife and cracks jokes, intentionally drawing out syllables of words for comic effect and referring to his five kids, one girl and four boys, as “a redhead and four sh*theads.” He notes palindromes and other word novelties for young Steve, who delights in puzzles and games, a fascination that will serve him well as a writer. His mother runs a strict but loving house, making sure that “the boys” don’t learn habits—drink rings on the table, bodily functions in public—that will make them seem like “hillbillies.”
Reading this book, we come upon pop culture references at very turn; it’s common these days, but Rushin writes with an elegance that is rare in the breezy-memoir genre. Here he is on his home life in the Minneapolis subdivision of South Brook:
Everything gleamed or glinted on TV in the ’70s, from the “flavor crystals” in Folgers coffee to the yellow dentures dipped in Polident and instantly restored to pristine, piano-key whiteness. This cleansing was often done by a fastidious mascot: Mr. Clean or the Ty-D-Bowl man or those kamikaze Scrubbing Bubbles, who scoured the tub, then dived to their death down an echoing drain. My mother was a fastidious mascot in her own right—a Swiss Army knife of housekeeping implements, armed to the teeth with feather duster and Bissell broom and lemon-scented Pledge. With the ease of a riverboat poker dealer, she could flick five coasters beneath as many sweating Kool-Aid glasses from 10 yards away.
Mom would tell Steve to “stop gathering dust” and make him go outside, into an analog world filled with nature and other kids. “Among the many reasons not to go outside in Minnesota in the 1970s,” he writes, “were snakes, tornadoes, mosquitoes, stray dogs, dragonflies, gnats, bees, killer bees, wasps, ticks and—to judge by a terrifying line repeating on the radio—‘alligator lizards in the air.’ More fearsome still were bullies and ‘hippies,’ who hung out in the elm trees in the park across the street, many of which were marked for execution—the trees, not the hippies—with a spray-painted x, the scarlet letter of Dutch elm disease.”
The Rushins are a sports-loving family. They follow the Vikings, the North Stars, and the Twins, and teenaged Steve sells candy and popcorn at the games. When the boys tear up the yard playing baseball, their father, placating their mother, quotes Twins baseball great Harmon Killebrew: “We can raise grass or we can raise boys.” Rushin also gets to meet Alan Page, his favorite Minnesota Viking:
He smiles and puts his hand on top of my head, as if palming a grapefruit. Then he disappears into the stairwell, leaving me to stand there in the lobby, slack-jawed, forming a small puddle of admiration and flop sweat. I am instantly aware that it will be impossible to improve upon this experience, no matter how long I live.
A kind of melancholy runs through the late pages of Sting-Ray Afternoons, as Metropolitan Stadium in Minneapolis is torn down in 1981 and then oldest brother Jim goes off to college. Unexpectedly, when Rushin is 25 in 1991, his mother succumbs to amyloidosis. But not before seeing her children into adulthood. After Steve graduates from Marquette University in 1988, he lands a job as one of the youngest writers at Sports Illustrated, the obsession with word games and puzzles paying off. He is now married with four kids of his own.
There are more serious books out there concerning the 1970s. One is is How We Got Here (2000) by David Frum. Frum catalogued all of the things that were roiling the country outside of the Rushin home: Vietnam, Watergate, inflation, feminism, the loss of trust in American institutions. Another is a classic text written even before the decade was over, Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism (1979).
In a kind of premonition of the snowflake generations that would emerge out of the 1970s, Lasch argued that in the West, strong and generally well-adjusted people had been replaced by people who were weak and dependent on government, corporations, authority figures, and bureaucracies. Family ties, local community, and jobs that kept fathers more closely tied to home had previously allowed for psychologically healthy children, but this changed, according to Lasch, after the industrial and sexual revolutions and the rise of mass culture. Developments in the nature of capitalism, and in the family, had “given rise to a new culture, the narcissistic culture of our time, which has translated the predatory individualism of the American Adam into a therapeutic jargon that celebrates not so much individualism as solipsism, justifying self-absorption as ‘authenticity’ and ‘awareness.’” In other words, the modern-day Oprah acolyte and college snowflake.
Rushin doesn’t dig this deep, but there is more going on in Sting-Ray Afternoons than cereal boxes, disco, Johnny Carson and old sports teams. Rushin celebrates the miraculous mystery of the family and its striking dynamism. Today, Rushin himself is a well-adjusted and loving father living in Connecticut. He has said in interviews that he takes great joy in watching his kids discover the world as he did back in Bloomington. While a story about a particular time and place, Sting-Ray Afternoons is also about the most timeless things.