I was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, in July 1969, two weeks before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. The next month, at the Woodstock Music and Art Fair in upstate New York, 500,000 people gathered for rock and roll, free love, and a whole lot of marijuana—and thanks to three days of rain, a let’s-get-naked mud bath acres and acres wide. The following May, in northeast Ohio, the National Guard killed four college kids during a Vietnam War protest at Kent State. Neil Young immortalized the tragedy in a song: “Tin soldiers and Nixon coming … How can you run when you know?”
The country was full of unrest, and changing fast, much of it captured in newsy, black-and-white clips between Laugh-In and Hee Haw, the latter launched as a replacement for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, which CBS banned for its liberal leanings. Damn hippies. My early years were full of them.
Of course, I knew nothing of our national consciousness back then, except maybe football games like the Super Bowl, then, when I was big enough, playing with my buddies in the backyard, the corn and bean fields behind my house a sea too wide and too deep to be impacted by anything from another shore. But I did watch television—a lot of television—and I remember 1970s shows like Happy Days and Good Times and The Six Million Dollar Man, the way the astronaut played by Lee Majors survived a fiery crash by being rebuilt as a sort of robot, his powerful hands and legs and squinty left eye creaking like a fantastical machine whenever he saved somebody, or fought somebody, or had to rip off Bigfoot’s arm as he did in one episode in ’76, though even Bigfoot turned out to be a gizmo—an android created by aliens.
What’s my point? Nostalgia, I guess. Or something graver.
I miss being young. I miss Lee Majors. I miss the optimism he represented, which now seems to evade me in my forties. And Majors—or Steve Austin, as his character was named—embodied exactly that: a can-do American attitude, a butt kicker married to Farrah Fawcett, a hairy-chested-git-r-done hero before our country forgot how to get things done. Before I forgot.
Maybe that’s all I’m saying: I miss the Six Million Dollar Man.
Now that I’m 44, 10 years shy of my father’s age when he passed away unexpectedly, after a surgery … well, after his drinking conspired with pain meds to crash his heart, then mine, I find myself missing a lot of things these days. Optimism tops the list. I’m struggling to land permanent work, struggling to finish writing a book, struggling every day, it seems, with many of the same things everyone else in the country is struggling with: jobs, a career, a sense of purpose, a positive outlook, a plan.
Yet when I look at my bank account, it’s fine—I’m stringing together paychecks, saving money. My marriage is as strong as ever, and my purpose seems clear enough: I teach at a university. I mentor young people. I get to travel. I’m fit.
Still, there’s something hanging over me. What is it? What looms?
This all came to me the other night as I jogged through my neighborhood at dusk. I live along the Upper Mississippi River in southwestern Wisconsin, in a small town called Onalaska—blue-collar bungalows built 50 years ago amid oaks and maples and cottonwoods. It’s beautiful in a family-friendly way, tucked beneath sandstone bluffs.
As I ran, I could see people in their living rooms, their blinds yet to close for the night. Screen-lit images played across their windows—news channels, sports, whatever. I no longer watch TV. What’s on at eight? I wondered. What’s on at nine?
Then Steve Austin popped into my head, or rather I imagined myself as Steve Austin, my fantastical legs racing toward the high school where I often do laps around the football field. I could feel my aging body creaking, and I could hear a steely voice, a narrator, some fatherly boss like Oscar Goldman from The Six Dollar Man’s opening credits:
Steve Austin. Astronaut. A man barely alive.
Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have the capability to make the world’s first bionic man.
Steve Austin will be that man. Better than he was before. Better. Stronger. Faster.
Here, see for yourself. Watch the intro. Is this not a show for people at midlife, those of us full of unrest, those of changing fast, those of us running as if racing toward something, or away from it, or both?
Better. Stronger. Faster. I can be that man. Bionic. Forty-four years, I say, rounding the ball field. Make ’em count. Git-r-done.
Your turn: What happened during your birth year? Did a local, national, or worldwide event shape you in some way? How old were you? What do you remember—a news clip, a song, a TV show? If none of that suits you, let’s talk aging. How are you handling it, gracefully or grudgingly? Do you run the streets at night, chasing Bigfoot?
Photo: Lee Majors as Steve Austin, from the introduction of The Six Million Dollar Man. SPABLAB (Flickr Creative Commons)