Friday, October 31, 2014

My 80s Childhood Scarred Me

Cute, plucky kid who went through some mighty 
disturbing shit.  

When I was a kid, for one year, I had a stalker.  I don't know how or why, just that an older man became interested in me and would call my house on a semi-regular basis.  When he got me on the phone, he would ask me questions in a very creepy voice that I still remember to this day.  He claimed to be a friend of my father's, yet when I gave the phone to my dad, he would inevitably get a dial tone.  One day it started and then one day, just as mysteriously, it stopped.

And I didn't think about it again for years.

Until recently, when I stopped to think just how fucked up that was.  Where were my parents?  I never answered the phone, so how did they just decide it was okay for an adult male to speak to their child?  My mom claims that she doesn't recall that sequence of events at all.  I recall as a kid feeling that something was wrong, but I couldn't understand it.

The question is why, as I grew into adulthood, it took me so long to revisit that time in my youth and wonder what the hell happened.  Now I think I know the answer.  I didn't think anything of it because, to me, it was just part of what childhood in the 1980s was all about.

So, nostalgia has you thinking that the 80s was such a great time?  Oh no.  As a kid, I was blasted with the message that everything was definitely not okay.  Drug dealers were waiting to sell me cocaine on the playground.  Kids were getting kidnapped right and left.  Graffiti was everywhere because people had no respect for anything, unlike in the 1950s when everything was clean and pure.  (See Back to the Future for an example.)  We were latchkey kids expected to come home to an empty house and deal.

And if we somehow escaped all that unscathed, we were just going to get nuked into oblivion by the Soviets anyway.  Because perestroika-smerastroika.  And if we weren't, our country would be taken over by the Japanese and we would be turned into their pets.

While Saturday morning cartoons were relatively sane, the rest of television was far from safe.  It was an age of after school specials that featured kids ODing on drugs and committing suicide, and "very special episodes" on otherwise non-threatening sitcoms.  I learned that "rape can happen to YOU too" on The Facts of Life and Different Strokes, that your favorite relative could become a violent, raging monster on Family Ties, and that nice little kids could get AIDs and become social pariahs on Mr. Belvedere.

And Punky Brewster.  My God, Punky Brewster...

On the surface, Punky Brewster seemed like a cute show about a spunky kid, her grouchy foster dad, and her friends.  But take a look at this string of episodes from Season Two:

216: Punky's friend Cherie gets trapped in a refrigerator and almost dies.

217: Punky's foster dad, Henry, loses his photography studio to a fire and winds up in the hospital with a life-threatening ulcer, while Punky is dragged away to an orphanage.  This one's a five-parter!

222: Punky watches the Challenger explode, live on TV.

So basically, seven weeks of uninterrupted misery.  And that's not even considering other Season Two episodes like the one where Punky befriends a girl who was kidnapped by her father and forced to change her name, or the one where Punky worries about Henry being murdered by a serial killer.  Even the premise of Punky Brewster is a downer: plucky kid manages to survive being abandoned by her mother after her father abandoned both of them.  Yay?

As an adult today, you can bet that Punky is still plucky and full of life during her weekly therapy sessions.

But that was the stuff I grew up with.  I can't say that it was definitely worse than childhood in other eras.  For instance, those born shortly before or after 9-11 may grow up with a very dark view of the world, believing that nothing is safe, that even going to school could lead to your demise.  That said, I would bet my worldview is markedly darker than that of someone whose childhood took place in the 1990s.  From what I recall, most of the dark, disturbing shit in the 90s, like Columbine, took place late in the decade.  Before that, the biggest concerns were apathy and that the world could be... too peaceful?

So why would I question some dark weird thing happening to me as a kid?  It was just par for the course growing up during the 80s.  I mean, at least I wasn't ODing on drugs or getting kidnapped.



Man, childhood sucked.

The above image was used under the Fair Use Doctrine.    

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