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SMOG Blog #3 - 1960s pop culture

Here, as promised, is a look at a few of the pop culture references scattered throughout my novella Smog.

Spies. My twelve-year-old protagonist Joey is obsessed with spy stuff. She watches The Man from U.N.C.L.E., loves James Bond, and reads Nancy Drew books (and yes, I know they're not exactly spies, but they were the closest we came in terms of kids' fiction back then). Since Smog is set in June of 1965, she's just missing out on my personal favorite, The Avengers.


I'm far from an expert on the '60s spy craze, but I can only assume it must have come from a confluence of the Cold War and technology (both U.N.C.L.E. and Bond depended on everything from pen-sized communicators to cars with ejector seats). This, mind you, was the period following the Bay of Pigs, when we knew the other guys had the same atomic capabilities we did, and our best defense was good intelligence. Interestingly, these fictitious spies rarely took on the Russians directly; the early Bond films now seem somewhat prescient in making their bad guys large, greedy corporations who are ultimately interested only in accruing vast wealth.

The Rolling Stones. In Smog, Joey talks about going around her neighborhood on a warm summer evening, when all the teenagers are sprawled on their lawns with transistor radios, and hearing that guitar riff from "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" echoing up and down the street. This is completely autobiographical; I wasn't twelve the summer that "Satisfaction" hit, but I do remember all those older kids with the tinny radios tuned to Los Angeles station KHJ. At another point in Smog, Joey is watching Herman's Hermits perform on an afternoon television show, but she's more interested in something nasty at the heart of the Stones. Weren't we all.


Journey to the Center of the Earth. Yes, this was one of my favorite movies as a kid, and I still enjoy it. It may not have the greatest dinosaurs in the world (although most fans agree that it did the "lizards in costumes" thing better than any of the others), but it does have that magnificent Bernard Herrmann score, those awesome cave locations, some amusing interplay between James Mason and Arlene Dahl ("Madame, are you wearing stays?"), and Gertrude the Duck. Back in the '60s, we only had a handful of television stations, and the local stations were apparently pretty cheap, so they'd show the same movie every day for a week. Whenever Journey or any of the Universal monster movies or Karel Zeman's masterpiece (yes, srsly) The Adventures of Baron Munchausen was on, I'd watch every day.

Space. Southern California's aerospace industry is important in Smog, just as it once was in real life. Remember "the space race"? It was all part of that Cold War thang; we had to beat Russia into space. But beyond that...it was exciting and adventurous and gave me a tremendous sense of optimism about America's future. In 1965, Ed White became the first American to open his capsule door and step out into the weightlessness of space, and all of America watched. My dad worked off and on in the aerospace industry, frequently as a consultant to NASA; as a kid, I remember him bringing home little space capsule models and actual Mercury program helmets and signed astronaut photos...none of which I have now, sadly. Well, that's not completely true - I still have the memories, of being a kid and crowded around the television taking in each breathtaking moment.

Five-and-dime stores. These stores used to ROCK! Woolworth's and Newberry's were the popular chains, but most 'hoods had their own little independent five-and-dimes (or just "dime stores"). Think the 99 Cent store but a little more upscale; they had the same wide selection of products, everything from toys to kitchenware. In Smog, Joey and her best friend Debbie visit a five-and-dime, where Debbie commits an act of petty larceny. In real life, I was more interested in buying monster toys at our local store; the '60s were also the golden age of "monster culture", and although I don't touch on this in Smog, I was pretty crazy about it (duh!) in real life. They were also where we went every October for our Halloween supplies.

Mattel's Thingmaker. In Smog, neighborhood psychotic Matthew Visser is described as luring naive younger kids into touching his Thingmaker, with dire results. Crazy toys abounded in the '60s, stuff that would have parents shrieking in outrage now. The Wham-O company made "Air Blasters" that fired huge blasts of air, there were toys modeled on those spy shows I mentioned above that did some pretty outrageous things (I remember having a James Bond attache case that fired a rubber knife out of the side), and Mattel offered up an entire line based on "the Thingmaker". The Thingmaker was a little square unit that you plugged in so it could heat up, and then you could cook metal molds in it filled with something called "Plastigoop". Depending on which toy you had, you might be making plastic bugs ("Creepy Crawlers"), scars you could wear ("Fright Factory"), crazy little figures you could stick on pencils ("Creeple Peeple"), or several other kits I didn't own (yes, I actually had the three mentioned above). You had to buy Plastigoop refills from time to time, but they were cheap and eventually they even produced Glow-in-the-Dark Plastigoop.
Haight-Ashbury. There's a brief mention in Smog's epilogue of one major character who apparently disappeared in Haight-Ashbury, never to be seen again. This, by the way, is not intended to implicate the legendary San Francisco district in any sort of evil doings...because I actually loved the Haight, and saw it in its heyday. By 1967, it had received a great deal of national press; it was the "Summer of Love", and the Haight was a mecca for hippies and other counter-culture types. We moved that year from Southern to Northern California, and my (very straightlaced) parents immediately headed to Hippie Central to gawk. I remember being pressed up against the window in the back seat of our Volkswagen bug, looking out at the flocks of young people in colorful clothes and with wild hair, hearing music on every street corner, and just thinking it was about the coolest thing ever. I was still too young to join them, or I might have vanished into the Haight along with Joey's best friend.



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cinriter
Sep. 13th, 2013 08:13 pm (UTC)
Thanks!