‘Stranger Things’ and nostalgic fads from my childhood

As my family indulges in season four of Netflix’s hit series “Stranger Things,” I’m once again overwhelmed with ’80s nostalgia. It has led to many conversations with my boys about which fads of the era I embraced.

No, I did not have Steve Harrington hair. Yes, I was a high school journalism nerd. No, I did not kill monsters with a baseball bat filled with nails. Truthfully, I did not grow up in a fad-following family, but there were a few fads that slipped through.

As independent, fundamentalist, Bible-believing Baptists, we were taught to “be in the world, but not of the world.” We were expected to separate ourselves from the culture around us. I learned at an early age to mistrust anything that was too popular or seemed to be counter to my religious upbringing.

The list of prohibitions was lengthy and included rock and roll, Christian rock, any music with a beat, movies, playing cards, dancing, swearing, books with swearing, TV shows with swearing, immodest clothing, long hair (for males), sex, discussions of sex, nudity, alcohol, going to bars, eating at restaurants that served alcohol, drugs, smoking, dipping, any activity on Sunday other than church, and many others that I’m not remembering at the moment. You can rest assured I abstained from all of them.

Still, no one is an island. I was not immune to the cultural forces at work during my formative years in the 1970s and ‘80s. The first popular culture phenomenon that captured my attention was without question “Star Wars.” I didn’t see it when it was first released the summer of 1977, but I distinctly remember having a “Star Wars” lunchbox in the second grade. By the time I saw it in 1978, every kid I knew was conversant on the plot and characters. While not the first movie I saw in theaters, it was the most influential. It captured my imagination in a way nothing else had, and my parents fed my fascination with action figures and toy spaceships. My brother and I would play “Star Wars” as well, acting out scenes or creating new ones with our favorite characters. We even started writing our own space adventure movie, using our names spelled backwards for the characters. In hindsight, this was probably the first spark of an interest in writing and creating that would later shape my career choice.

A wall of Star Wars movie action figure toys fill a wall.
This display of “Star Wars” action figures would have made my younger self ecstatic with greed. I sold my brothers and my collection in the mid-1990s, just before the prequels. Probably should have held onto them. Photo courtesy of KennerCollector.com

It wasn’t just the story of “Star Wars” that appealed to me. I loved the characters. Initially, I was all “Team Skywalker,” sharing Luke’s naïveté about the universe and his yearning for adventure. As a pre-teen and young teen, I shifted my loyalty and appreciation to the roguish Han Solo. His brashness stood in stark contrast to my shyness, and I secretly wanted to be able to have a “shoot first” and fly by the seat of my pants approach to life.

Upon further reflection, it was most likely my admiration for Han that led me to partake in the fad of parting my hair down the middle. As I grew into adolescence and actually started combing my hair, I traded the bowl cut of childhood for an attempted feathered middle part like Harrison Ford wore in “Empire Strikes Back.” At the time, I never considered my hairstyle to be fashion forward, and our conservative views ensured my hair would never be so long as to touch my ears or my collar. The fact my parents permitted such an overtly worldly hairstyle was either a function of ignorance to the trend or relief that I finally wanted to comb my hair at all. I had dueling cowlicks on either side of my bangs, so the center-part cut worked as well as anything could at the time. I began carrying a comb in my back pocket, even before I had a wallet. It was 8 to 10 inches long, cream colored, and plastic with a wide handle for easy grasping when the need arose to style my hair with dramatic strokes.

We moved to rural, central Florida the summer I turned 12. My dad was called to pastor a church in Lake Wales, a small town known for humidity, orange trees, retirees and cows. It was hardly the center of the cultural universe, and my location reinforced my lack of participation in fads. I also went from being a kid no one really paid attention to, to the preacher’s oldest son. Expectations increased. Perception became crucial for whether or not parishioners criticized my dad’s ministry. My appearance and clothing took on greater importance at the exact time I crossed the threshold into adolescence.

It was at that time I began to embrace the footwear fad that swept through the 1980s – the boat shoe. We were not a yachting family, but few were who wore the dark brown shoe with rawhide laces and white plastic soles. My first pair of boat shoes were hand-me-downs from my Uncle Rocky. I thought they were tremendously cool. The only problem was that they were tan and not dark brown. I wanted to tell people that even though they weren’t the “right” color, they still counted as boat shoes and, therefore, by extension, I was still cool. I was outgrowing clothes quickly at that age, so it wasn’t long before I left Rocky’s tan boat shoes behind. The “preppy” look became the fashion fad of the mid-1980s, so plaid button up or polo shirts with Levi’s 501 button fly jeans and dark brown boat shoes without socks became my uniform. Fortunately, my look was conservative enough to pass muster with the church folks and the preppy teens of Central Florida. I’m not sure if it added to my self-confidence, but it certainly helped me blend in. Others may have embraced ripped jeans, mullets, and rock band T-shirts, I basically dressed like most of my friends.

A red-haired, teen-aged girl in blue pants, a yellow shirt with a navy sweater wrapped around her neck and Sperry Top Siders talks with a young man in a light blue polo, white pants and brown boat shoes. They are both holding books. She is sitting on a brick wall in front of a school, and he is leaning against the wall.
One did not have to own a boat to sport boat shoes back in the day. It was my footwear of choice for probably longer than was fashionable. Source BestLifeonline.com

Being a preacher’s kid was isolating. My brothers and I naturally gravitated toward video games. From the first Atari we received at Christmas around 1980 to the Atari 800 XL computer that showed up around 1986, we embraced video gaming at home as a hobby. We spent hours with those early games – Space Invaders, Asteroids, Missile Command and Pitfall. High scores were bragging rights between my middle brother and me. Video games occupied us for hours, kept us out of trouble and made sure we didn’t succumb to the list of sins enumerated above. The computer games that consumed us as the technology improved and our tastes matured included M.U.L.E., Archon, Zork, and sports games like “One-on-One: Dr. J vs. Larry Bird.” There is no sound in contemporary life that mimics the whirring of the floppy disk drive as a game loads.

An original Atari video game controller with a game cartridge inserted
Too many hours to count of my childhood and teens were lost to this device, the original Atari. From Space Invaders to Asteroid to the Activision games of Pitfall and Starmaster, that little box and its joystick controllers were my brother, Lee, and my constant entertainment.

At the time and now, that combination of fads seems pretty nerdy, but the rise of nerd culture makes it easier to admit what my life really looked like growing up. The church was a constant, good grades were expected, chores and yard work were character-building. But an honest assessment of cultural participation during my formative years is incomplete without “Star Wars,” a middle part, boat shoes and Atari. And you know what? I don’t regret it.

Nerd alert

Carlton's seat for Dragon*Con
Carlton had the best view of the Dragon*Con parade last year.

Does dressing in the costume of your favorite super hero make you a nerd?

Does carrying a plastic gun or laser sword make you a nerd?

Does donning pointed ears and makeup to resemble an elf make you a nerd?

Does getting up early on a holiday weekend to go downtown and watch a parade of these people make you a nerd?

My nerd tendencies have always had an uneasy coexistence with my jock inclincations. Before the days of fanboys and geek chic, I had a sense that my interest in “Star Wars,” “Lord of the Rings” and other art forms from that genre had a place, but not a very public one if I valued my reputation.

Dragon*Con Parade storm troopers
Hey, these aren’t the droids you’re looking for. Put that gun away!

As pop culture references to such things have become more mainstream, I’ve been a little more willing to give my inner nerd some room to breathe. And now that I have three boys who have fully embraced “Star Wars,” “Harry Potter” and “Batman” I am confronted with a dilemma: do I encourage their interest in imagination-inducing entertainment or dampen their enthusiasm for elements of nerd culture and get them to embrace more mainstream elements of pop culture?

Last year I completely gave in to nerddom by taking the whole family — even Carla — downtown to see the spectacle that is the annual Dragon*Con parade. You know Dragon*Con right?

It is the big gathering of nerds held every Labor Day weekend in Atlanta. Officiallly, it “is the largest multi-media, popular culture convention focusing on science fiction and fantasy, gaming, comics, literature, art, music, and film in the universe.” I can’t challenge their assertion because, frankly, I haven’t traveled much outside of our solar system.

Batmobile at the Dragon*Con parade
“Engine to power. Turbine to speed.” No, I’m not talking about the Batmobile, I’m talking about Barron’s heart when he saw it!

We didn’t buy tickets to the event, so it was a fun, cheap way to spend a Saturday. The boys got to see people dressed in costumes of their favorite characters, including a 1966 replica Batmobile (Barron’s current obsession) and I got to relive a portion of my own childhood with all the Star Wars costumes.

The float and characters promoting the haunted houses were a little much for Carlton, who was 2 years-old at the time. Otherwise, it was a family-friendly parade.

So why am I going back again this year?

1. It’s fun. It’s not every day you see people trying to bring to life fictional characters who live only in your imagination, on the movie or television screen or in books. It has the same vibe as running into a celebrity at the airport, only that usually doesn’t involve plastic weapons.

2. It’s a time to bond with my boys. I’ve dedicated a lot of space in this blog to talking about how I bond with my children. Camping is one way. Engaging in the “campy” elements of pop culture is another.

3. Who doesn’t love a parade? I still remember sitting on the frozen curb as a child watching the Cotton Bowl parade with my friend, Ryan, one New Year’s Day. It’s a spectacle, and the democracy of the Dragon*Con approach of taking all comers (who sign in and arrive at the check point on time) is refreshing. There’s really no skill involved. And it’s interesting to try to pick out what each group of nerds is representing. There are some pretty obscure corners of pop culture represented, and fortunately, my friend, Rob, is an expert who can help identify the more niched references.

4. Sometimes the real world is just a downer. There’s world hunger, hurricanes, war in Syria, stalled economy, crime, etc., etc., etc. Being transported to another place and time for a few hours may not be productive but it does make it easier to cope.

5. I’m still a kid at heart. As much as I try to repress my urge to pick up a light saber and run around the yard joining in my boys’ Jedi combat, I must have an outlet for my inner child. Yes, it’s a little nerdy to always be quoting Obi Wan Kenobi (“Trust your feelings”) or Gandalf (“It’s the deep breath before the plunge”) at the office, but giving space for these fantastical diversions moderates the highs and lows of a workday.

So if you’re looking for me Saturday morning, I’ll be at the corner of Peachtree Street and International Boulevard hanging out with my boys watching the denizens of Dragon*Con strut their stuff. And if that makes me a nerd, well, so be it.

Do you have hidden nerd tendencies? What’s your secret nerd indulgence? Go ahead and get it out in the open. You’ll feel better. We won’t laugh. I promise.