STING-RAY AFTERNOONS: A MEMOIR
By Steve Rushin
Little Brown, $27, 336 pages
For many years, nostalgia in books and movies has been reserved for the 1950s and 1960s. Nostalgia for the 1970s has been limited to depictions of teenagers and young adults. Those who lived their childhoods in the 1970s have found their chronicler in Sports Illustrated writer Steve Rushin. His memoir, “Sting-Ray Afternoons,” humorously and poignantly describes his youth and family life in Bloomington, Minn., a suburb of Minneapolis.
His story is a celebration of the average and mundane things that children of that era experienced, yet later realized had value and left their mark. “My childhood ran precisely parallel with that decade,” Mr. Rushin writes. “As surely it does not seem to recede at all with the passage of time, but follows me the way the moon always followed our car at night.” His mother wore yellow latex gloves for cleaning and could remove a drink from a table before it left a ring. She routinely dismissed anything uncouth as “hillbilly.” His father sold eight-track tapes for 3M. (Could there have been an occupation more suited to the 1970s?)
Mr. Rushin grew up in a family of five children. “One redhead and four sh—heads” is how his father described his sole daughter and four sons. Mr. Rushin has a keen eye for the “totems” of his youth, including the music, cars, toys and many other points of reference that shaped the era. Readers of “Sting-Ray Afternoons” will instantly recognize the setting that includes shag carpeting, avocado green appliances, Country Squire station wagons and wood console televisions that counted as a piece of furniture.
Sports were a big influence on Mr. Rushin’s family and the Bloomington community. The Rushin boys played hockey and clipped pictures of their favorite players from Goal magazine. It was a heady time for professional sports in Bloomington, as well. The Minnesota Twins had slugger Rod Carew. The Minnesota Vikings went to the Super Bowl four times in the 1970s, only to lose all of them.
Sports were not the only things attracting national attention to the Bloomington area. General Mills was feeding the nation’s youth with new cereals like Lucky Charms, and Minnesota’s Reyn Guyer invented a basketball made of nonexpanding recreational foam. Its acronym, “Nerf,” was almost as fun to say as the ball itself.” Mr. Rushin often digresses to explain the backgrounds of these companies, including the Schwinn Bicycle Company, whose Sting-Ray model gives the book its title.
Even an event such as a sick day from school warrants examination. Every child in that time can remember being nursed with St. Joseph Children’s Aspirin and a steady stream of daytime game shows.
Mr. Rushin and his brothers found novel ways to inflict pain on one another with a number of tactics, such as the Hertz Donut. The aggressor asks his mark if he would like a Hertz Donut. The poor sap who says “yes” receives a punch and the rhetorical question: “Hurts, don’t it?”
As with any family memoir, readers are brought into holiday celebrations, including Christmas pageants at Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic School. Mr. Rushin reminds 1970s children of the Sears Christmas Wish Book. In the days before Amazon.com, the Wish Book was the all-encompassing guide to every toy available, spread over 200 pages.
As wonderful a memory it is to relive, Mr. Rushin humorously reminds the reader that the catalog models did not reflect reality. “There are moms and dads and brothers and sisters all voluntarily wearing matching pajamas. They all look giddy, Dad with a shellacked helmet of hair and a mustache like Mark Spitz’s, Mom and the kids smiling into the middle distance, every one of them with one hand tucked up to the knuckles in the front pocket of a robe.”
Mr. Rushin also dissects things that appeared on television. A famous television ad by Keep America Beautiful, an organization funded by Philip Morris, Coca Cola and other companies, shows a Native American chief, played by actor Iron Eyes Cody, shedding a single tear at the growing amount of litter and pollution spoiling the land.
Iron Eyes Cody was an Italian-American actor famous for playing Native Americans. Mr. Rushin remembers that was not the only attempt to get into children’s minds: “As a child of the 1970s and thus the fresh-faced hope for the world change, I will soon be introduced to a succession of cartoon characters to take responsibility for the planet.”
Those who read “Sting-Ray Afternoons” will likely find themselves smiling and nodding, recognizing Steve Rushin’s experiences, from family vacations to backyard games, all sprinkled with lyrics from Led Zeppelin, the Eagles and others. It is both a time capsule and mirror for ‘70s children, which inspires countless memories and an accurate reflection.
• Kevin P. McVicker is vice president of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs in Alexandria, Virginia.
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