Growing Up In The 1980's

By Ethan Lewis

Presented to the Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship of the Wyoming Valley

March 5, 2006

©2006 All Rights Reserved

Growing up in the 1980's left me with many cultural touchstones and talismans.  Besides the music videos, the unshaven "Miami Vice" look, and a feeling that the DeLorean was the coolest car ever, the "Greed is Good" decade made me deeply aware of the problems facing America. As a 10 year old when the Reaganite assault on American government began, I spent my teen years under the shadow of Republican efforts to raise defense spending so high that social services would be unable to be funded and ketchup became a vegetable serving for public school lunches. 

We grew up under a government that made war on its neighbors, either directly or via proxies ,“won” the Cold War only to squander the opportunity for a peace dividend in the sands of Iraq, and during the Iran-Contra scandal, created a “shadow government” bent on subverting the Constitution itself. 138 Reagan appointed office holders were either indicted or forced to resign under a cloud of suspicion and when President Bush (the first one) pardoned Casper Weinberger (who died this past week) before the former Secretary of Defense was able to go to trial, the country lost its last chance to learn the full scope of the arms for hostages imbroglio.

The 1980’s was, of course, the decade of AIDS. As infections and deaths mounted, the Reagan/Bush administration put its collective head in the sand and ignored the problem, mainly out of a wish to avoid association with what many considered the “gay plague”.  Two of my best friends at college were gay, and as a result, I came to take a close interest in LGBT issues (Courtney and I are the faculty advisors for Wyoming Seminary’s Gay/Straight alliance, for instance, and one of the things that attracted us to the UUCWV was the fact that it is a Welcoming Congregation).  I still remember the nervousness my friend Rick exhibited when he came out of the closet to me, and his relief when I told him that it didn’t make me like him less.  Then he told me that he didn’t find me attractive.  Come to think of it, all of my gay friends have told me that.  Gosh, what’s wrong with me…?

Health issues probably occupied my interest more than anything (except baseball, guitars, and girls) in the 80’s.  During the decade my father had his aorta replaced twice, a heart attack, and was diagnosed with diabetes.  He and my mother were self-employed, and health care costs ate up all of their savings and left us with little disposable income.  In later years, more affluent friends of mine would try to tell me how great the 80’s had been, but it wasn’t like that in our household, or in millions of others. For that matter, the 1980’s was when we learned of the plague of the “homeless” who didn’t even have a household.

My father tried for years to get Social Security disability.  While he was finally successful, it was very hard during those years when he couldn’t work, and only my mother’s income as a secretary and family assistance supported us.  At this time President Reagan was working hard to reduce the number of people receiving disability insurance payments from Social Security.  I still remember the scorn my mother expressed over the fact that Mr. Donald, my baseball coach in 1984 was receiving disability from his government job and running around the ball field, but my father couldn’t receive any payments even though he could barely walk.

The 80’s was also a time of extreme patriotism.  When the military defeated a band of Cuban construction workers on the tiny island of Grenada (while only losing 20 highly trained Navy SEAL’s in the process) more medals were given out than in the entire Vietnam conflict.  The bombing of Marine barracks in Lebanon also made Americans more proud of their soldiers than they had been since the retreat from Indochina in 1975.

Mostly, though, the reason was President Reagan’s intensifying of the Cold War conflict with the Soviet Union, through proposals such as the “Star Wars” missile defense (which has cost us over $40 billion since 1983) and increased preparation for nuclear war.  Oh, and Sylvester Stallone. 

Rambo, First Blood, was a fairly engaging movie about a Vietnam vet with Delayed Stress Syndrome who flips out in a hick town, and thinks he’s being pursued by Vietcong instead of the corrupt local cops.  The movie came out in 1983 and earned $6 million in its opening weekend.  Two years later, the infelicitously titled Rambo, First Blood pt. II was released.  This movie had Rambo sneaking back to the ‘Nam to rescue our POW’s.  Perhaps moved by his plaintive request to “be allowed to win this time”, moviegoers flocked to the theatres.  Pt.II earned $25 million in its first weekend, and ultimately grossed (and I mean that in all senses) $300 million. This started a mini boomlet of American patriotism.  Soon everyone from Magnum, PI, to Chuck Norris, to Gene Hackman was going back In Country to rescue our boys.  And who can forget the weekly visits from the A-Team, who traveled the country righting wrongs, even though they had been “wrongly convicted for a crime they didn’t commit”.  Finally, of course, Patrick Swayze saved Iowa from an invasion of Cubans (seeking revenge for Grenada—it’s never really clear) in the movie Red Dawn, spurring every high school footballer to train in survivalism and marksmanship.

My friends in high school were very patriotic. I grew up in Warminster, Bucks County, and I have always thought that the software engineers at Microsoft knew what they were doing when they programmed their spell-checker (if you type “Warminster”, it suggests “Warmonger”—try it). While I loved America as much as the next guy—depending on who that was—I was openly skeptical.  I was the guy who worked up the courage to use the word “bourgeois” in a sentence in history class, gave a speech decrying the lack of punishment for the My Lai massacre, and one day suggested that Ronald Reagan was a bad President.

According to the inscriptions in my high school yearbook, some of my friends were willing to accept this.  Loren Pearson wrote “Your sharp witticisms like “Reagan is a complete boob” have added that distinct Ethan flavor to European and American History classes.” On the other hand, Russ Love demanded to know “What the hell were you trying to prove with your history report?”—you can’t please everyone all the time.

The most important thing that happened to me in the 1980’s was my decision to continue my education at Hampshire College. Of 238 college bound graduates of the William Tennent High  School class of 1988, only 30 of us left the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.  I was convinced that I would thrive at an alternative college, and I was right.

I think that one of the things that led me to Unitarian-Universalism was when I chose Hampshire.  Hampshire College, in Amherst, Massachusetts is a proudly "alternative" school, where there are 1200 students and 1200 majors, no tests or grades, and all students do independent study.  Deciding to go to Hampshire was foreshadowing of my willingness to "color outside the lines" and it was while I was there that my world view was most permanently shaped.

At Hampshire in the 1980’s I learned about the importance of women’s rights, reproductive rights, sustainable agriculture and economies, the value of critical thinking, and sowed the seeds of my future career as a teacher of history, videography and computing.  I also helped found Hampshire’s first baseball team. At Hampshire, everything is decided via the democratic process.  When my teammates and I met to come up with a name for the team (which was rather inept—we typically lost to high school and junior college teams by double digit scores) the group rejected my first choice of name “the Widowmakers”.  Eventually, though we arrived at the best possible name: the Hampshire College Baseball Collective.  While the HCBC rarely won, and I never managed to get a hit in my college career, I suppose that it did help prepare me to be a baseball coach, which is how I’ve spent most of the past seven springs.

 The most important thing was, strangely, an event that I can’t remember.  I can clearly remember seeing Courtney at a softball game on the first weekend of college, and thinking that she was the most beautiful person I’d ever seen.  But even though I can’t remember the actual first time we met, I am pleased that by September 1st of this year I will have known Courtney for half of my life.  I tend to measure eras in my life as C.E (Courtney and Ethan) or B.C.E (Before Courtney and Ethan).  I appreciate having had the chance to reminisce with you today.

Thank you.