Mount St. Helens Blows Its Top (May 18-23, 1980)

Of all the natural disasters that wrack our planet, a volcanic eruption seems the most exotic, something I expect in the Andes or Pacific islands (or Pompeii) - but not in the U.S.  But on the morning of May 18, 1980 Mount St. Helens, a largely inactive volcano straddling the border of Oregon and Washington, erupted.  And although it was a frightening occurrence for those living in the Pacific Northwest, I don't think many of us living in the East appreciated how serious the eruption was.  One photo etched in my memory showed a young boy who had been asphyxiated lying face-up in the back of a pickup truck covered in ash.  In total, more than 60 people died from the eruption.   




Provincetown_postcardMy memory of the disaster is linked to my first visit to Provincetown, a largely gay resort at the tip of Cape Cod.  It was Memorial Day weekend and I drove there with my boyfriend Gordon.  We left from Poughkeepsie (he lived there and I took the train up from New York after work) and drove there on Friday night.  This holiday trip was memorable because it was the first time I tried marijuana - and it wasn't a pleasant experience. 


Pepperidgefarm_logoRather than smoke it Gordon put the pot in a Pepperidge Farm chocolate sandwich cookie (which I don't think they make anymore).  I became paranoid, which wasn't a nice feeling, especially in unfamiliar surroundings, and I remember thinking that two female friends of Gordon's were witches.  (Alas, because of how I reacted I never became a regular user.)  The trip back on Monday afternoon was stressful because of heavy traffic on the only road off the Cape.  Throughout the weekend the news reported on the effects of the eruption of the volcano.   




Nuclear War Movie "The Day After" Airs (November 20, 1983)




ABC aired the chilling, and controversial, movie The Day After on the Sunday before Thanksgiving  in 1983.  It depicted a conflict between the U.S. and Soviet Union that escalated into nuclear war, and the consequences suffered by a family living in Lawrence, Kansas after a nuclear bomb was dropped nearby.  I watched it with my ex-boyfriend Rick at his apartment. (We had broken up a few months earlier but would reconcile and move back in together a week before Christmas.)  I have to admit it was weird watching a movie depicting Armageddon just as the holiday season was getting underway.   




The movie (starring Jason Robards) had a grim storyline with no happy, or even hopeful, ending.  It was even more sobering because of real-life tensions that had been building between the U.S. and Soviet Union during the first Reagan administration.  Despite the fact that it was expected to attract a huge audience, the movie aired with limited commercials (and none after the missles were launched) as very few advertisers were willing to air in it.  This apprehension prevented ABC from charging high rates  for advertising time; therefore, the few advertisers who took advantage got extremely good deals.  One ad I remember seeing was for Orville Redenbacher microwave popcorn.  I thought the juxtaposition of a nuclear blast and corn popping was amusing in a black humor sort of way.   




By the standards of today the special effects are quite cheesy and have a slap-dash look to them, but even today the five minutes showing the attack are sobering.  As expected, the movie delivered a huge 46 household rating/62 share, making it the highest rated TV movie of all time and 3rd highest rated program of the year (behind the final episode of M*A*S*H and the Super Bowl).  Soon afterwards a parade of TV movies with "socially relevant" storylines would follow, including Something About Amelia (incest); The Burning Bed (wife beating); and An Early Frost (AIDS). 


Upon the movie's conclusion a special episode of Nightline aired to discuss the movie with a studio audience.  I had seen enough and didn't need to immerse myself further in the grim subject so I walked home in the rain to my apartment in Manhattan's East 20s.  After what I had watched tonight I was looking forward to spending time with my family back in Pittsburgh for the Thanksgiving holiday.


Marveling at History Through the Covers of TIME Magazine

Newsstand2When I was growing up magazines were always found in our house.  We had subscriptions to Time, Sports Illustrated, Good Housekeeping, Look, Money and Consumer Reports.  Thrown into the mix were subscriptions my older sister had to Cosmo, People and Rolling Stone.  And I had my own subcriptions to Jack & Jill (when I was in grade school), Weatherwise and Baseball Digest.  And I've always been drawn to magazine covers. During my sophomore and junior years at Penn State I stapled covers from various magazines to the ceiling of my dorm room to give it a unique look.  (I still collect covers that catch my eye and I've amassed a nice collection.)


Until this decade, when newsweeklies began struggling mightily for relevance due to the draw of the Internet, there was a certain cachet attached to appearing on the cover of TIME Magazine (however, unlike Rolling Stone, a song was never written about it).  Since it began publishing in March 1923 approximately 4,600 covers have been published.  I recently surveyed these covers and was mesmerized by the wonderful review of US and world history they provided.  




In Times's first few decades covers were relatively uninspired B/W portraits but they slowly evolved and became more eye-catching, incorporating a mix of styles, e.g., photographs, collages or illustrations.  (Covers of the past decade feature noticeably more white space.)  Some were created by well-known artists of the day such as Andy Warhol (first cover, below), Peter Max (middle cover) and Robert Rauschenberg.  Many covers around Christmastime had a religious theme depicted by beautiful paintings.  Covers can be purchased through Time's website; those featuring the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Leonard Bernstein or Jackie Kennedy, for example, are great conversation pieces and make great wall decorations.






As the 1950s progressed cover subjects began to touch upon societal trends and issues.  Many were topics that would have never been discussed in polite company in the first 40 years of Time's existence, e.g., homosexuality, date rape, domestic violence, herpes.  Surprisingly, some social issues of current concern, e.g,. suburban sprawl, salt intake, women's changing roles, obesity, were featured as cover stories 15-25 years ago.






Of course "anyone who was anybody" in the fields of politics, culture and entertainment, religion and sports graced the covers over the years.  However, some personalities slipped through the cracks.  For instance, Judy Garland, Truman Capote, Hank Aaron and Coco Chanel are some of the "movers and shakers" of their time not to get a cover.  And it wasn't until 30 years after his death that Babe Ruth appeared on the cover. (Determining those who haven't been on the cover can be a great parlor game.)




A number of handsome coffee table books are also available including 75 Years of TIME Magazine Cover Portraits and TIME: The Illustrated History of the World's Most Influential Magazine.  In closing, here are a handful of other classic covers:





Time_magazine_ ojsimpson






Man Walks on the Moon (July 20, 1969)




The morning of Apollo 11's lift-off on Wednesday, July 16, 1969 was bright and sunny in Pittsburgh.  My dad was on vacation that week and we went for haircuts in the morning and were back in time to see the rocket blast-off from Cape Kennedy at around 9:30.  By contrast, the weather on the day of the Moon landing four days later, a Sunday, was overcast and a bit showery.




It seemed that life was put on hold as most everyone was following the TV coverage of the lunar module's approach to the surface of the Moon.  (And since this was in the days before cable TV there was no counter-programming to switch to.)  The afternoon's baseball games kept fans apprised of the mission's progress.  I alternated my time between playing kickball out on the street and sitting in the living room sorting through my baseball card collection while listening for updates.  The anticipation was unlike any I had ever experienced - perhaps with the exception of waiting for the arrival of Santa Claus.





The lunar module settled on the Moon’s surface late in the afternoon at 4:17 ("Houston, the Eagle has landed"). Finally, at around 11PM, we watched the fuzzy black/white TV transmission as Neil Armstrong descended the Eagle's ladder and took his, and mankind's, first step on the moon.  A short time later he was joined by fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin (the quintessential astronaut name) and together they planted the American flag into the lunar soil (further immortalized by an MTV promo 12 years later).  It looked like they were having fun as they sort of skipped and bounced around due to the Moon's lack of gravity.  This was a truly an awe-inspiring occasion that was a bit difficult for my 12-year-old brain to fully grasp. 




Many years later (in 2003) while vacationing in Iceland our tour bus drove through the barren central part of the island and my friend Tom and I remarked how it could pass for a moonscape.  Then our tour guide told us that, in fact, NASA had trained there for some of its Moon missions because of the similarity in landscape.




If your interest has been piqued, two worthwhile books that commemorated the 40th anniversary are One Giant Leap: Apollo 11 Remembered and  The Apollo 11 Moon Landing: 40th Anniversary.





Hale-Bopp Comet Puts On A Show (April 2, 1997)

Hale_bopp_hudsonriver_taconicparkway Hale-Bopp was one of the brightest comets to streak across the skies in the 20th century.  And unlike Kohoutek, a much hyped comet that turned out to be a big dud in the winter of 1974, H-B lived up to its hype.  A survey conducted by Sky & Telescope Magazine reported that 69% of Americans saw it during the winter and spring months of 1997.  (The photo to the right was taken in the lower Hudson River Valley).  




I Hale_bopp_triboro_bridge

I was thrilled to catch a glimpse of Hale-Bopp, especially since star gazing in Manhattan can be a frustrating experience due to the glare from the city's lights.  It was Wednesday evening on April 2 at around 7:30 and I was doing my thrice-weekly 5-mile jog along the Hudson River in lower Manhattan.  In the Battery Park City neighborhood I noticed a man pointing his telescope across the river in the direction of Jersey City.  I glanced over my shoulder and was stunned to see a slash of light not far above the horizon.  It seemed to be holding still in the sky and had the classic comet's tail.  I stopped running to gaze at it further and then detected a slight, jerky horizontal motion.  It was a very Zen moment.  (My sighting occurred one day after the comet's closest approach to the sun, aka "perihelion".) 



Heavens_gate_suicides A week before my sighting the comet figured prominently in a mass suicide carried out by members of a religious cult known as Heaven's Gate.  39 members, mostly young adults, and the cult's elderly leader Do (pronounced "doe") committed the act in a rented mansion in an affluent suburb of San Diego.  A videotape made shortly before the suicides indicated that a spaceship following behind H-B would pick up their souls.  It was done in a very orderly manner and the victims were dressed in a similar fashion, which included wearing the identical Nike sneakers. 


RSCN1794 This was also an interesting time in my life (perhaps the comet had something to do with it).  With my 40th birthday looming in May an ex-boyfriend from 10 years earlier reappeared.  "David the Israeli", as I referred to him, was now living in Chicago (not far from Wrigley Field) and suggested I consider moving there as well.  (I attached "the Israeli" to his name because there was a multitude of Davids in my life at the time, i.e. my roommate, boss and a number of co-workers, so to avoid confusion they each had their own descriptor.)  At the last minute he joined me and my friend Tom when we went to San Francisco on vacation in March.  (That's me with David on Lombard St.  I'm the tall one.)  Then at the end of April I visited him in Chicago (my first time there). 


It was a whirlwind six weeks but, alas, it didn't work out this time either as the same dispiriting patterns re-emerged (his, of course).  And no appearance from a comet was going to magically change him.  Speaking of comets, if you'd like to learn even more about them the book The Greatest Comets talks about famous ones through history. 

Near Meltdown Occurs at Three Mile Island (March 28, 1979)

1101790409_400 After I graduated from Penn State at the beginning of March 1979 I spent the rest of the month going on job interviews in New York City.  I stayed with my older brother, Darrell, who lived in Bayonne, NJ, conveniently located across from Manhattan.  In the months preceding my graduation I had set up meetings at ad agencies such as J. Walter Thompson, Dancer Fitzgerald Sample and Grey Advertising, and also arranged appointments with a number of personnel agencies.  If nothing turned up on the job front I planned to return home to Pittsburgh where I'd resume my job search.  (However, the personnel director - it wasn't called Human Resources back then - at the Kenyon & Eckhardt ad agency insisted that if I really wanted to work in advertising it had to be in New York, particularly after he interviewed for a job at Pittsburgh's major agency, Ketchum & MacLeod, and was told that if he wanted to be hired as its personnel director he'd first need to marry the woman he was living with.)


March 28 was a chilly Wednesday and after having meetings at three personnel agencies I walked across town to the Port Authority terminal to catch my bus back to Bayonne.  Walking along 42nd St. near the Public Library a NY Post headline caught my eye.  It screamed (as only a Post headline could) that an accident had occurred at a nuclear reactor in south central Pennsylvania and there was the possibility of a radiation leak. 




Residents of the New York metropolitan area were reassured that if a leak occurred we wouldn't be in danger, at least for the next few days, since the wind would be coming out of the north.  Still, the accident was of great concern since 30 million persons lived within a 200-mile radius of the reactor.  There was also skepticism about how forthright officials were being with the public as they tried to reassure residents in the vicinity of the reactor.  (My Aunt Lee and Uncle George lived in York, Pennsylvania, which wasn't far from where the reactor was located.)




A few days later Darrell and I saw the new movie China Syndrome (starring Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon and Michael Douglas) which, by eerie coincidence, had a plot about a meltdown cover up.  Looking back, I don't recall ever feeling panicked over the incident at Three Mile Island despite the fact that it was the most serious accident at a commercial nuclear power plant in US history.  Perhaps it was the cockeyed optimism that came with being a recent college graduate. 




A week later my future looked bright as I was hired by ad agency Scali, McCabe, Sloves to work in its media department.  And thousands of residents from south central Pennsylvania began returning to their homes. (Later in the year, however, my future seemed somewhat uncertain when talk of war, and a possible military draft, arose after Americans at the U.S. embassy in Tehran in Iran were taken hostage.)