One of the most popular TV series back in the 1970’s was Happy Days, about a group of High School kids in Milwaukee in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Happy Days fed the “nostalgia” craze about the era when we 70ish people were dealing with puberty, becoming a teenager, relationships outside our family, self awareness and self worth, and oh yeah … sex.
The movie Grease in 1978 was another cultural icon about the High School culture in the late 1950’s. Grease, was partially filmed at Excelsior High School in Norwalk California. I attended Excelsior in my freshman and sophomore years in the late 1950’s, and Grease had a really familiar feel to me. Before Excelsior, for 7th and 8th grade, I went to Centennial Junior High School, not far away.
My memories of Excelsior, and especially Centennial Junior High, felt to me as much like “Blackboard Jungle” as “Happy Days”. I was skinny and little for my age, and because I never attended any one school more than 2 years (we kept moving) I was always the “new kid”. I seemed to get bullied a lot, especially in Junior High (7th and 8th grades). I remember one tough “kid” in 8th grade who had a tattoo on his arm (yes it was real) that said “Duke”. I tried to not cross “Duke”. There was “Jr High Vegas” stuff (“lagging” coins, “odd/even” coin flipping…) that seemed to go on every day in 8th grade. I have to admit that this was one of the vices I sometimes participated in, I remember winning a quarter once, but usually lost many pennies, nickles and dimes. There were gangs, and just plain mean people. This time is when I developed my life long passion (obsession?) to “grow large and strong (quickly please…), play football, pump iron (where were steroids when I needed them?), be good at something cool…”.
But I also remember little acts of kindness, like one cold winters day in 8th grade, one of my classmates who was a pretty big guy who didn’t get messed with, saw me shivering in the playground. I didn’t have a jacket and being as skinny as I was, I would literally “turn blue”. He looked at me and said, “here wear my jacket until class starts”. I’ll never forget how warm and comfortable that jacket felt. I probably mumbled “thanks” or something, but I was grateful and remember this little thing to this day. Wish I remembered that guys name…
Fortunately for me after I turned 15 I seemed to grow fast, so football became a reality, and it wasn’t any too soon for me… Kind of silly for a 70ish guy to still remember these “inconsequential” things, deep down inside.
During those early times in the mid 50’s, I remember many different powerful, sometimes directly opposite, emotions. Like obsessing with sex, but also feeling like for some reason that it must be somehow “dealt with correctly” or else…. In conversations with my buddies the first obsessing part was always topic number one, and we never spent much time on the second one.
As time passed we became wise old teenagers with the “status” and freedom that driving usually gave us. Obsessing with sex never seemed to diminish, and driving just added fuel to ignore the “dealt with correctly” part.
My parents were devout Christians that took their family to a local Baptist Church in Downey California, seemingly every time the doors were open. In 1959 we moved back to Downey and I went to Downey High for my Junior and Senior years in high school, and all through college. That Baptist Church had a very active and large youth group in my age bracket, and it was especially well stocked with lots of good looking girls from the two Downey high schools. This seemed to ensure that there was also a good supply of guys there. The two fed off each other. I am sure the church elders understood this dynamic.
I, and many of my Downey buddies, seemed to gravitate to dating from this pool of good looking church girls, even during our college years. For one thing it was easier to get our parents to let us have the car … “…yeah I’m just going over to the church, be back around 11”.
This didn’t eliminate the “obsessing” … when siting in the drivers seat parked on one of our “make out hills”, with one of the beautiful girls from the church, it seemed to be there in full force. But somehow it all worked out.
To this day there is a good sized group of these 70ish people from the church, still in friendly contact with each other. And many of them, including me, found our life partners there (she is one of those “beautiful girls from the church”). Lately there have been a spate of Golden Wedding Anniversaries with this group of people, including my wife and me.
Looking back, I must admit that after all, these were Happy Days indeed!