I turned 13 in July, 1978. I was headed into eighth grade in a small middle school in a small town in Kentucky. The country’s economy was bad and our little town was hit hard: well-paying jobs in the coal mines and the few factories we had disappeared and there weren’t any new industries to take their places. I lived in a dry county, except for the VFW or American Legion and private clubs like the Elks, Lions and Moose Clubs where liquor was served illegally with a wink and a nudge and the occasional raid during election year.
It wasn’t a cultured town and I wasn’t a sophisticated child. When I look back at that year, I remember going to school (we called the art teacher the “cat lady” because everyone said she had 30 cats), and to church (everyone went to church) and to family gatherings (lots of cousins, lots of noise, lots of fun). Before I started researching the events of 1978, I would have said it was a quiet year, when nothing much happened.
I would have been wrong.
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- People were born in 1978, including James Franco, Usher, Rachel McAdams, Nate Silver and a baby girl named Louise Brown, who was the first child brought to term after being conceived in a test tube.
- People died, among them President Hubert Humphrey, Norman Rockwell and Harvey Milk. Some people died horribly, the victims of serial killers Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy or the Hillside Strangler (Kenneth Bianchi and Angelo Bueno), while a February blizzard in New England claimed more than 100 lives. And in November, 918 people died in Jonestown with the Reverend Jim Jones.
- Two popes died, Paul VI and John Paul I, making 1978 the Year of Three Popes when John Paul II donned the pointy hat as the first pope of Polish ancestry.
- In 1978, we were shocked when Roman Polanski escaped to France after admitting that he raped a 13-year old girl and irritated when the Susan B. Anthony dollar coin was introduced and it looked like a quarter.
- Watching the news in 1978 was a window to a world in turmoil. Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat won the Nobel Peace Prize for the Camp David Accords but there were bomb attacks in Australia and at the palace of Versailles, ever-increasing violence between Israel and Palestine and an escalation of war when Vietnam attacked Cambodia. The violence in Iran intensified, leading to the destruction of the British Embassy in Tehran and a demonstration against the Shah estimated to have involved two million people. In the United States, the Unibomber set off his first bomb at Northwestern University and Pintos blew up in rear-end collisions, forcing Ford into a national recall. The Senate voted to give control of the Panama Canal back to Panama and the hate-filled anti-gay crusade begun in 1977 by Anita Bryant began to bear fruit as cities like St. Paul, Minnesota repealed their fledgling gay rights ordinances.
- The National Honor Guard opened itself to female soldiers in 1978 and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act became law in 1978. I don’t remember much talk in our house about Mavis Hutchinson becoming the first woman to run across the United States or Dianne Feinstein becoming the first female mayor in California but I sure knew that Pete Rose got his 3000 hit.
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When we wanted to escape the 6:00 news, we had options. Classic TV shows like Happy Days, Charlie’s Angels, Little House on the Prairie, Love Boat, Three’s Company and WKRP in Cincinnati were all somewhere on the 13 channels that were all we had, in prime time.
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Or we could go to the movies. My little town had one theater with two screens and if you didn’t see them up there you had to wait for the edited version to come on TV because VCRs were another ten years away. Who wanted to wait, though? The movies released in 1978 are still favorites. Raise your hand if you’ve seen these:
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- Animal House
- The Deer Hunter
- Midnight Express
Best selling albums (remember vinyl?) went along with the movies as soundtracks hit the top of the charts, along with hits from Paul McCartney and Wings, Rolling Stones and the Commodores.
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Wanna read a good book? 1978 saw the publication of Stephen King’s The Stand, Mommie Dearest, Christina Crawford’s tell-all about living with Joan Crawford, and best selling novels from prolific writers like Sidney Sheldon, Ken Follett, Anne McCaffrey, James Michener…I could don’t know where to start listing them all! I was certainly wrong about nothing much happening that year.
Today, thirty-five years later, I can’t help a bittersweet look back at 1978. It was the year I didn’t know.
I didn’t know I would lose my paternal grandmother within the year from breast cancer. If I have an inflated sense of my own importance, it’s probably because of Mamaw Enola. I was the first girl born into our family in 30 years and she always treated me like I hung the moon. She loved all of us but she made me feel special. I miss her.
I didn’t know that my parents, whose marriage was never particularly stable, would separate for the last time and divorce not long after my grandmother’s death. Child support laws were nonexistent or unenforced in 1978 and although my mom did the best she could to provide for her four children, we went from not having much money when my dad was there to having none when it was just us. I started working at the local Dairy Queen the next year, paid in cash under the table because I wasn’t 16.
In 1978, I was 13 and my youngest brother was 11 and I didn’t know we only had five more years with him. What would I have done differently if I’d known our time was so limited? Would I have been less the bitchy, bossy oldest sister? Would I have told him more often that I loved him? Would I have appreciated more those nights when we four kids would sit around the table playing games? Would I have memorized more stories to tell my own kids, who never got to meet their Uncle Matt?
I didn’t know I would have a first love, that I would marry a soldier and live in Europe and have two babies who will always be my babies, no matter how old they are.
I didn’t know that I would have a last love, and learn to live without him.
I didn’t know what I didn’t know and from the vantage point of hindsight, I’m both sorry and glad about that. In 1978, my life stretched before me like a long, glittery highway full of possibilities. Thirty-five years later, through all the detours and rough, unpaved stretches, I think it’s been a road well traveled.