Hindsight and adulthood have altered my perspective, but when I reflect on my childhood, my daily activities offer clues about what life was like. Here are a few snapshots of growing up in suburban Dallas-Fort Worth in the 1970s and ‘80s:
Screens were low-fidelity, bulky, and not at all portable. Television was our primary screen, and we watched it when the shows we liked and were allowed to watch were on. We scheduled our lives around “The Dukes of Hazzard,” “The Incredible Hulk,” and “The A-Team.” As a small child, I spent mornings with “Sesame Street,” “The Electric Company,” and “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Limited to about two to three hours a day, my viewing was dictated by my parents’ standards of decency and the dearth of age-appropriate content.
We had only four or five channels, which we tuned in to with an antenna. Our first television required a person to get up, walk over to the set and physically turn a knob to change the channel. I grew up hearing my parents watch the evening news, and sometimes I was awake to hear them watching Johnny Carson at bedtime. I don’t know what else they may have watched after we went to bed, but I remember on the weekends my dad watched nature documentaries and fishing shows like “Bill Dance Outdoors” and “Jimmy Houston Outdoors.” Concerns about screen time back then were as much about how close to the TV I sat as the hours I spent consuming programming.
I clearly recall TV sets evolving with such innovations as remote control and cable, expanding our channel selections. But what extended my screen time beyond a few hours a day was the advent of video games. When my brother and I received an Atari video game system for Christmas in the late 1970s, it took over the main television in our living room. My dad came up with a creative solution. To ease the competition for our family’s main screen, he set us up in my grandmother’s old florist delivery van in the garage. My dad put our old color TV and two chairs in the cargo area of the van. When it got too cold, he added an electric space heater. We imagined it was the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon. It sparked our imaginations and kept us occupied for hours, allowing him to watch the TV in the den in peace.
At first we only had two Atari games, Space Invaders and Combat. Undeterred, we logged hours of screen time. With each birthday and Christmas we added to our game cartridge collection with such classics as Breakout, Missile Command, Asteroids, Adventure and Pitfall. The games advanced marginally with slightly fancier 8-bit graphics and more complicated storylines. Eventually, there were cinematic tie-ins with games like Indiana Jones and E.T. We had about 50 cartridges by the time we graduated to computer games when I was in high school.
The only portable games we had were the handheld electronic sports games: Football, Football II, Basketball, Soccer and Baseball. These were powered by 9-volt batteries and featured red LED lights representing the players. The player with the ball glowed just a bit brighter, and we had to hand the device back and forth depending on which player was on offense. The noisy games were nerve-wracking with their bleeps and bloops, so we kept them on mute for long car rides.
Now, the phone I carry everywhere has more computing power than those early video game systems and home computers. The amount of time I could spend gaming is limited only to the number of hours in a day. Today’s plethora of distractions require stronger limits and greater discipline, and the portability of such systems as the Nintendo Switch allows my children to take the game they were playing on a larger screen with them anywhere. Gone are the 8-bit animations, except in those games trying to evoke nostalgia with purposefully rudimentary graphics. The games have complex storylines, musical scores, and stunningly artistic imagery. When you factor in video streaming apps on iPhones and iPads for such services as Netflix, Hulu, Disney Plus, and YouTube, my boys can access millions of hours of entertainment from anywhere, and it’s a special family event when we sit down together to watch something on our television, which leads to another clue…
Movies that captured our imagination didn’t come out every year. I was 7 years-old when the original “Star Wars” appeared in theaters where I grew up in the mid-cities between Dallas and Fort Worth. Though I may not have immediately grasped the plot, the inventive visuals were unlike anything I had ever seen. Lasers and spaceships and aliens all came to life in a way that my dreams took on a cinematic quality. What I saw on the big screen outstripped what I could imagine. In the years before VHS, though, we had very limited access to “Star Wars.” I remember listening to a radio play on my parents’ bedroom clock radio. It featured scenes cut from the original motion picture giving me precious nuggets of new information about the story of Luke Skywalker. I had “Star Wars” comic books as a way to delve into the world I had seen only once in a theater. The line of action figures, playsets, and spaceships allowed me and my brother, Lee, to tell our own “Star Wars” stories and stage our own battles even as we impatiently waited for the next installment in the series to arrive in theaters.
I was 10 and Lee was 6 when Mom took us to see “The Empire Strikes Back.” Our minds were blown during the climactic duel (spoiler alert) when Darth Vader revealed he was Luke Skywalker’s father. We were crushed when the movie ended with the swashbuckling Han Solo encased in carbonite being transported by the bounty hunter Boba Fett to the gangster Jabba the Hutt’s palace. No movie I had ever seen with such beloved characters had ever ended on such a down note. There was no immediate antidote to the depression. We had to wait another three years before “Return of the Jedi” lifted our spirits and filled us with the euphoria of victory over the galactic empire and the dark side.
In those intervening years, Lee and I received record albums of the movies’ soundtracks complete with dialog and the musical score. We listened to them so often we had large swaths of the films’ dialogue committed to memory. In a few years, we had VHS to allow us many, many rewatches of the original “Star Wars” trilogy. It was more than 20 years before another original “Star Wars” movie would come to theaters, and I had moved on from childhood and the “Star Wars” universe. With the release of “The Phantom Menace,” my childhood sense of awe and adventure came rushing back, even if the plot and acting were not up to the same level of excellence I had remembered from the original trilogy.
Now, I can literally watch “Star Wars” on television any time I want. There are more movies and weekly serial television-style stories that come through streaming services. If I wanted to inhabit the “Star Wars” universe, I can immerse myself any time I want. Gone are the days of waiting three years to discover the truth of Luke’s heritage and if Han will escape Jabba’s clutches.
For fans of “Star Wars” style action and adventure, there are also many more stories to consume. The Marvel Cinematic Universe cranks out two to three movies a year. It makes going to the movies a spectacle reminiscent of those childhood experiences with “Star Wars.” DC competes with a cinematic universe of its own, stuffing the comic book superhero genre with more movies than we can take in. My boys have far greater access to visual entertainment that appeals to them than I ever could have imagined in my youth. They also have far fewer reasons to go outside.
I played outdoors more often and played more sports as a child. Even though Texas summers could be unremittingly brutal, I spent most of my days outside. Armed with a toy gun arsenal no longer in vogue culturally, my brother and I matched up with neighbors and friends to play such traditional scenarios as army, cowboys and cops and robbers. When we got noisy “Star Wars” blasters for Christmas, we elevated our outdoor play to include “Star Wars” battles.
Bicycles were not only our primary mode of transportation, they were the source of hours of occupation. We were allowed to ride the neighborhood, which included a long, curving hill. We discovered the best way to get repeated thrill rides without having to pedal or push your bike back up the hill was to let the momentum carry you down the hill, around the curve, and down the street to the intersection. From there, you could turn right, go up a block, take another right, pedal down that street and you were back at the top of the hill. Occasionally we would be granted permission to ride our bikes to the nearby elementary school, which had a number of ramps and amphitheaters with thin steps separating the grade pods. The futuristic design and footprint of the campus enhanced a game of bicycle chase giving us the feeling we were on speeders tearing through Mos Eisley or some other “Star Wars” city.
I was very mindful of the seasons: football, baseball and basketball. Playing football one-on-one with my younger brother created some challenges. It forced us to follow special rules for rushing the passer and completing forward passes to one’s self. Football was always more fun when we recruited neighborhood friends to play, but our front yard field was often too confining to accommodate more than two-on-two. Larger games moved us out into the street where the call of “car!” caused frequent timeouts. Our world revolved around the Dallas Cowboys, so when we weren’t playing a game, we were recreating dramatic touchdown passes from Roger Staubach to Drew Pearson.
Wiffle ball was ideally suited for our situation. This baseball variation had a plastic bat and ball, so no windows would be broken. We could play one-on-one using basic baseball rules. Our yard served as the perfect venue with the other side of the driveway serving as the homerun barrier. My brother and I took turns deciding which major league team we would be for that contest, and we tried to make each game last five innings, although most ended after three. One summer we even drew up a schedule and would play a different make believe matchup each day. We were fans of the Texas Rangers, so we knew more about American League teams. The Yankees were the most hated opponent, and my brother and I didn’t like having to be their stand-ins.
I don’t remember what year we got a basketball goal, but I do remember we were not very good. We broke out the windows in the garage doors, forcing my dad to install plastic. Like wiffle ball, basketball was particularly well suited for my brother and I to play by ourselves, and we could shoot baskets alone. Our favorite game was “H-O-R-S-E” or the shorter version, “P-I-G” in which we took shots from various positions around the court. When your opponent missed a shot you had made, he accumulated the letters of the games’ namesake words. We also marked the driveway with chalk to have a course of what we called “Around the World.” The winner was the first person to make a shot at all the pre-marked spots.
The only similarity to my childhood outdoor play experiences that my boys have engaged in during their childhood is riding their bikes. When allowed, they take them all over the neighborhood. Admittedly, we were more restrictive with their territory until they were older. Our first house in Lilburn had a large, shady backyard. They played outdoors in a sandbox and on a tree swing and swing set. There was a basketball goal, but our boys never got into sports nearly as much as I did growing up. The creative outdoor play seemed to vanish when we moved into our current house with a terraced yard on a hill.
Mealtimes were more about quantity than quality. My mom prepared all of our meals, except for the occasions when my dad grilled. She took time off to stay home with each of her boys after we were born, but I also remember her spending a fair amount of our lives working. When we lived in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, that meant stressful days, long commutes and limited time to cook supper. Unlike kids these days, we did not have options at supper time. We ate what was set before us, and we typically had no say in what would be on the menu. I remember such delicacies as Hamburger Helper, meatloaf and fried fish that my dad would catch on his frequent fishing trips around the area. Side dishes came from a can or from a box, and as we got older my mom used instant potatoes to fill us up. We never ate school lunches, instead taking a lunch box or brown bag with a sandwich and chips. If there was an emphasis on eating healthy, I was unaware of it. The only rules in our house were “clean your plate” and “no dessert if you didn’t eat your vegetables.”
Church was the focus of our activity. If the doors of the church were open, we were there. Even before my dad left his job as an airline mechanic at American Airlines to go back to Bible college to prepare for the ministry, we were always at church. And we weren’t the only ones. Society was more focused on faith, and schedules were based on the assumption that families would be tied up with church activities on Sunday and potentially Wednesday night.
My family is still very much focused on church, and we’re still there every Sunday and most Wednesday nights. But society has moved beyond accounting for church activities when scheduling youth sports, Scout trips, and even school activities conflict with worship services. As a child, it never occurred to me that there would be anything else to do at those times. My boys have grown up keenly aware of what other kids do instead of going to church.
It’s a cliche to say “life was simpler back then.” It’s also probably not completely true. My awareness of what was going on in the world was limited by my childlike understanding of events like the Vietnam War, Watergate, the oil crisis, the Iranian hostage situation, and many other world events of that era.
From my vantage point, life was good. When we moved to Central Florida the summer I turned 12, my life changed dramatically. Adolescence coincided with a new landscape, and my innocence slowly faded as I became a preacher’s kid, enduring the scrutiny of a congregation and having to live up to a higher standard.
I remain grateful for my childhood and don’t for a second believe I suffered any lingering trauma. I enjoyed being a kid and count myself lucky to have grown up the way I did.