‘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.