I just got back from the movies a little while ago. Checked out Super 8, the Steven Spielberg-produced and J.J. Abrams-directed adolescent alien thriller, and boy did it make me nostalgic. It’s almost like it was custom made to appeal directly to me: the movie is set in a small town just outside Dayton, Ohio in 1979 and involves the Air Force, a boy with a crush on a pretty blonde girl, railroad tracks, and some cool music from Electric Light Orchestra, The Knack, and Blondie. What was I doing in 1979? Living in a small town just outside Dayton, Ohio. My dad was in the Air Force. I had a crush on a pretty blonde girl. We lived in a house just up the hill from some railroad tracks. And I rocked out on my transistor radio to cool music from ELO, The Knack, and Blondie. I even had the same Coleco Electronic Quarterback game as one of the boys in the movie.
There are a few subtle differences between my life and the film. The kids are a couple of years older, for one thing. I was in the 5th grade, and they’re middle schoolers. Plus, I didn’t come face to face with a snarling, grunting tarantula-like alien creature from another world. Other than those minor details, the movie certainly took me back to a place and time that I consider among the best years of my childhood. It was a happy sense of deja vu.
Our three years in Fairborn, Ohio – or technically, Wright-Patterson AFB – were sandwiched between stints in Hawaii. My dad was stationed there from 1977-1980, when I was 8-11 years old. Having been born – and lived most of my life – on a tropical island, Ohio might as well have been a different planet. A strange and wonderful new world filled with exotic discoveries like snow. And buckeyes. The 1970s never really felt like the 1970s in Hawaii, in much the same way that Christmas never really felt like Christmas: all the warm sunshine, aloha shirts and Hawaiian music masked the real world. Ohio, by contrast, was a polyester-filled, disco-drenched wonderland in a strange part of the country that isn’t quite the midwest but can’t really call itself the northeast, either.
And I loved it. I never wanted to leave.
We would wander down to those train tracks often, laying down pennies for the passing locomotives to flatten. It was the perfect place for a kid that age to grow up: our neighborhood had hills ideal for sledding, a giant field to run through, and a forest with a creek that led to endless opportunities for exploration. My parents bought a camper and we spent weekends camping. We would hike and fish and swim in lakes. I can’t imagine a more wholesome, carefree and idyllic place to spend those years.
About that girl. Her name was Kelly, and we were classmates in Mrs. Ricard’s 5th-grade class at Central Elementary in Fairborn. She wasn’t the first girl I ever had a crush on, but she was the first I ever thought I might be in love with. It sounds silly now, but man, some days she was all I could think about. One time she called me on the phone. I was thankful that I’d answered, because how embarrassing if my parents knew I was talking to a girl! There’s a scene in a favorite movie of mine, Singles. Steve shows up on Linda’s doorstep one night. When she answers his knock, he says, “I was just…nowhere near your neighborhood,” which earns him an invitation inside. Kelly lived a couple of miles from me, and one evening I did the same thing, sort of. Walked over to her house and just kind of loitered around outside, too scared to ring the bell. She saw me, and came out. I told her I was just passing by, and she smiled, because she knew I lived pretty far away. How did this burgeoning romance end? Unrequited, because the following year my dad was transferred back to Hawaii, and we moved thousands of miles away.
I figured, even at a young age, that you only get one shot in life at showing somebody how much you care. So I wrote Kelly a letter, telling her how much I’d liked her but had been too shy to say anything. To my utter surprise, she wrote back and confessed to similar feelings. Talk about bittersweet. I wonder if my heart has ever hurt so much as it did in that moment when I read her words?
I often wonder what happened to Kelly. Naturally, I’ve searched Facebook, but have come up empty. Her name was common, and she’s probably been married forever by now, anyway.
I think sometimes I cling to the 1970s because they were such a happy and fun time in my life, pure innocence from another era. That might explain my obsession with lava lamps and vinyl records and vintage avocado green and harvest gold appliances and the Sweathogs and Saturday Night Fever.
And why I enjoyed Super 8 so very much.