Do you remember what you were doing on this day in 1979? I do. Or, I probably do. Chances are, I was out on Clark Avenue in a serious game of kick the can, or hide-and-go-seek, or capture the flag, or kicking field goals over the Topels’ white fence, or doing “The Rerun” in the driveway, or if it was a risqué kind of day, listening to and (totally not getting) Joey Wilson’s brother’s “Cheech and Chong” records while nervously thumbing through his stack of Penthouses by the light of a neon green lava lamp. If it was a perfect day, it would end with a heaping double-stacker of cinnamon and bubble gum – featuring authentic frozen harder-than-your-molar nuggets! – from Big Scoop, the finest ice cream purveyor in the greater Billings, Montana, metropolis.
If any of this rings true, it means you were a child of the 1970s. I, at forty-six, have sentient memories going back to the 1976 Bicentennial, when our family took a road trip to Philadelphia. For acclaimed fifty-year-old sportswriter, Steve Rushin, the bulk of those years are buried deep in his cortex. He mined the “Me” decade for his new memoir, Sting-Ray Afternoons. The result is a warm-yet-bittersweet fun-loving-yet-elegiac look at life with his four siblings in the booming suburb of Bloomington, Minnesota – at the time, home of the Twins and Vikings – in a stadium where the Rushin boys would hock wax paper cups of Sunkist in subzero weather.
Longtime fans of Rushin’s writing might be surprised to learn that while Sting-Ray Afternoons goes into great detail explaining how he fell in love with language and wordplay – there’s rarely been a pun he couldn’t type – it isn’t chock-full of the alliterative whimsy that has become his stock in trade over the three decades he’s been writing for Sports Illustrated. (A recent meaty example is his Independence Day ode to the wiener.)
This isn’t a padded essay, it’s deeper and more introspective than Rushin’s best features, including his career-defining 1994 opus “How We Got Here.” It’s also a hell of a good spin in the wayback machine. For the solidly middle-aged readers out there, Sting-Ray Afternoons will have bits of your childhood spring up like the rabbits of Watership Down. For in the specific lives the universal, especially when it comes to all those wonderful forgotten toys, the totems of the Watergate days – with a shout-out to Super Toe.
“There was a lot of stuff I’d forgotten, including classmates through high school, but the toys I remembered and what I didn’t I found thumbing through electronic copies of our holy grail, The Sears catalogue,” says Rushin. “I think it’s because I spent so much time playing with them by myself.”
Rushin’s dad was a magnetic-tape lifer salesman at 3M, “Mickey Mining” in family slang, so they didn’t lack for a comfortable life, but Sting-Ray Afternoons isn’t awash in curdled nostalgia. From the outside, his childhood seemed “idyllic,” but when it comes to childhood, is there really any such thing?
“A friend said to me, if the title wasn’t already taken, the book could be called Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” he says. “The Rushins didn’t have any ‘real’ problems, but I had all kinds of fears and anxieties. I was scared to go down in the basement. I was the least social of my siblings, so I spent lots of solitary time filling the hours. It’s probably why I became a writer.”
Some of Rushin’s fears, killer bees for example, were silly, but others, like the constant “games” of 99 Bump (those would be sternum welts) inflicted by Jim, his oldest brother and local jock of note, were an actual daily concern. There were also the unforeseen terrors, like the time he got his teeth knocked in during a Little League game, pooped his snowsuit in a stranger’s hallway, or took what was then an accepted method of discipline, a naked-bottom spanking. (Anti-nostalgia sparked up the best line in the book: “I come to think of being embarrassed as being em-bare-assed, like the opposite of embraced.”)
Deeper than the physical horrors young Rushin endures are the existential ones. Death, be it Yankees catcher Thurman Munson in a plane crash days before Rushin himself was to fly home from California or the actual passing of a friend’s dad from a heart attack, was always floating around even if the killer bees weren’t. There is also the fear we all face: the passage of time. Jim heads off to college, Metropolitan Stadium is ripped apart, and ultimately Rushin too leaves the massive nights of Minnesota behind. Shout-out to Charlemagne.
Sting-Ray Afternoons is definitely suburban. The only war Rushin fights is of a snowball variety, but even though it isn’t of the A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But A Sandwich 1970s, it still captures an essential element of the much-maligned decade. The economic shorthand for the decade is of gas lines, American inertia, and the “Malaise Speech” from a peanut-farming president we all knew as the punchline of a processed meat jingle. (“If you ask me, what I’ll say, is Jimmy Carter has a way of screwing up the U-S-A.”) Sure, the renowned “stagflation” of the 1970s may have prevented hyper-growth at the high end, but overall, the decade was actually a time when the difference between the top and bottom wasn’t a chasm.
“I looked it up, tuition for the Catholic school I attended was $100, which is barely more than nothing,” says Rushin. “In hindsight, the basketball teams we played in the city probably were poorer, but anecdotally, I don’t remember the wealth divide being that large, it seemed like everyone was sort of middle class, certainly not the income disparity of today, which is demonstrably worse.”
On the flip side, divorce was rampant – it stalked families throughout my Montana childhood, including ultimately, my own – and all manners of teenage delinquency were higher. Keep this in mind next time someone laments how kids just used to run around in the woods: A lot of unholy stuff went down in the woods. Trust me.
“The ‘good old days’ thing drives me crazy. We stuffed our seat belts back into the cushions because they were a nuisance, and everyone threw their garbage on the side of the road,” says Rushin. “Like every epoch, some things were better, some were worse.”
For me, as the parent of a six-year-old girl, what actually shines through the most in Sting-Ray Afternoons is what hasn’t changed a lick. Yes, American youth are over-scheduled, and technology ever marches forward whether it improves society or not, but the state of play remains the same. My daughter plays house, school, tag, hopscotch, and dress-up from the costume hamper; takes tennis lessons in the park; broke her arm on the monkey bars last summer; and constantly foists the latest in pop music – Katy Perry 4evah, apparently – on her weary father.
Rushin and his wife, hall of fame basketball star Rebecca Lobo, have four kids in their Connecticut brood. Ages six to twelve, the three girls and their brother (the inverse of, as Rushin’s dad called it, his “redhead and four shitheads” arrangement) do all the same wonderful, silly, stupid, annoying stuff he and his siblings did back when a friendly greeting of “Nanu Nanu” made perfect sense.
“My kids are at their throats all day, don’t get along, just like we did, but when we shove them out of the house and they’re left to their own … I don’t want to say devices because we have to take them away, left to their own creativity and imagination, they come up with the same backyard games we played. I think playing is universal and ingrained in our DNA.”
Right after we hung up, Rushin texted me to further the point. His six-year-old son had just walked up to him in flippers, goggles, and underpants, and said, ‘I’m Michael Phelps.”
Just like Pops, he was having a sting-ray afternoon all his own.