by Eric Bergeson, January 5, 2011
At a New Year's Eve gathering in Phoenix, a twenty-something kid to whom I had just been introduced looked me over and said, "Man, it must have been cool to have been alive in the 1970s."
It has happened again: Egged on by the media and the marketers, the younger generation has idealized the decade just before they were born.
When I was a young adult in the 1980s, we thought the 1950s were just so cool. We mimicked the styles of thirty years before.
It helped a great deal that we hadn't lived through the 1950s. Although last part of the that decade looks like peace and prosperity from a distance, any decade with Joe McCarthy in the headlines more often than not couldn't have been all good.
As for the 1970s, any decade that featured Gerald Ford as its most popular president probably wasn't all that great, either.
But life is in the details and there's nothing like a four-day trip across the county to highlight how good we have it today and how great the 1970s weren't.
First, the smells.
Cigarette smoke was still everywhere. No-smoking areas in restaurants didn't come in until the 1980s, and when they did, it caused an uproar. What a bunch of kill-joy puritans!
In fact, if you had smokers over to your house, you were expected to produce an ash tray or be identified as a poor host.
There was no such thing as a non-smoking motel room. If you had problems with the smell of cigarette smoke, all you could do was ask to check out the room and see if the level of stench was acceptable.
Today, many romanticize Ma and Pa restaurants and lament the proliferation of boring chains.
However, the quality of restaurant food on the road in the 1970s was pretty spotty. As with the motel rooms, it was best to walk in the place and take a look at a few plates before committing the whole family to a meal which the kids might not touch.
Chain restaurants have performed two services: First, they give the traveler a dependable, if mediocre option. Second, they have improved the quality of the Ma and Pa joints which have had to clean up their act just to compete.
There was no good coffee on the road in the 1970s. None. Bracky gas station coffee in white styrofoam cups was all there was. Like it or leave it.
The roads are better now. The cars are more dependable.
Richard Nixon made us all drive 55 miles-per-hour for a decade after the gas crisis of 1972. His foolish and oppressive law was finally lifted in the 1980s.
Today, you can pretty much go 80 miles-per-hour and be nearly legal, at least in the open spaces west of the Mississippi.
There were few rest areas open in the 1970s. That last stage of the interstate highway system was just getting finished. For relief, you were dependent upon outside-entrance restrooms at the gas stations.
Filling stations were filthy. They actually fixed cars there and put on your gas for you, but almost all of the stations stunk of grease, gas and cigarette smoke. And they didn't take credit cards besides their own.
About the only thing I miss from the 1970s is the music on the radio. Back then, the music was great. Now you turn on the car stereo and get trashy music, trashy talk and endless advertisements.
Satellite radio took care of that this trip. Out of the 120-some stations, I discovered one which features 1970s folk rock twenty-four hours per day with no talk and no advertisements.
Wow! Fleetwood Mac, Jim Croce, Gordon Lightfoot, Gerry Rafferty, Steely Dan, Bob Seeger, Peter Frampton and the whole crew all day long!
Usually I flip stations every few seconds, but during this trip I once drove 648 miles without changing — until Linda Ronstadt broke the streak with her no good “You’re No Good.”
So yes, it was good trip. The internet and the Weather Channel, neither available in the 1970s, helped me avoid the storms.
And thanks to satellite radio, I was able to enjoy the very best the 1970s had to offer: great rock music.
So, at least living through that part of the 1970s was cool.