Hard Times

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(Pictured: a house alight at Christmas 1972. One year later, things would not be so merry or bright.)

The series Tales of ’73 hasn’t really turned out like I hoped it might, but I want to return to it before 2018 is over. Back in 2013 and 2014, I wrote about Christmas in America at the end of 1973. This next is a reboot of bits from both.

In October 1973, the United States aided Israel in the Yom Kippur War against Egypt and Syria, and as a result, OPEC countries deployed the oil weapon against us. By the holidays, officials right up to President Nixon were predicting hard times and requiring difficult choices. Lines formed at service stations, and “sorry no gas” signs appeared; eventually, Nixon requested that stations voluntarily close from Saturday night through Monday morning. The Senate came eight votes short of instituting gas rationing; the order had already been given to print the coupon books. Some schools extended Christmas vacation to save energy; in Massachusetts and Connecticut, kids stayed out for all of December and January. Christmas lights became an extravagance many communities and families could not afford.

On Monday, December 24, 1973, all the trouble in the world was on the front page of the Wisconsin State Journal, starting with “Persian Gulf Oil Prices Doubled.” OPEC’s Christmas gift to the West was to announce that effective January 1, the new price per barrel would be $11.65, up from the current price of $5.11, which had represented a huge increase when it was announced in October, just after the Yom Kippur War. Related, at the bottom of the page, is the headline “Kissinger to Push Talks,” over a story about the latest Middle East peace efforts. Inside the paper is an article about preparations for the return of daylight time in January as an energy-saving measure.

If all that wasn’t bad enough, it happened while Nixon was beleaguered by Watergate—the fabled Saturday Night Massacre happened in October while the Middle East was at war, and while a full-blown Constitutional crisis was averted at that moment, impeachment resolutions were introduced in Congress, and nobody could be sure what twists were ahead.

And we even believed there was a toilet paper shortage.

By year’s end, some commentators felt a sense of looming disaster—that something earth-shatteringly terrible was about to engulf the country. Nobody could predict what it would be, although in retrospect, what it was seems obvious—not some grand conflagration, but a transformation nonetheless: the end of America as we’d known it since the winning of World War II. Soon we would live in a different country.

It occurs to me now that the greatest gift my parents gave us for Christmas in 1973 was to protect us from even noticing the possibility of disaster. As best I can recollect, the energy crisis did not have a grave effect on us. If we put up fewer Christmas lights that year, I don’t recall it. I don’t remember us having trouble getting gasoline, either, or the gas shortage affecting our travel requirements much. Dad kept tanks of regular and diesel on the farm for his tractors, his truck, and the family car; the only concession he made to the energy crisis was to put locks on the tanks after we heard that people were stealing gas from farmers at night.

The worst I had to endure in that year was being 13 years old, and all the complications that being 13 will cause in anybody.

There is less ominous news inside the paper on 12/24/73, the kind of thing that would have interested me more than the front page. A winter storm is moving through the central part of the country, and what the weather service calls a “travelers’ advisory” has been posted for southern Wisconsin, with a threat of freezing rain and snow. One article is headlined “Big Foot Might Exist.” The Skylab astronauts are spending Christmas in orbit. Pairings are set for the NFC and AFC Championship games on December 30th after Minnesota, Dallas, Oakland, and Miami won playoff games over the pre-Christmas weekend.

Also in the paper is an Associated Press story headlined, “This Year’s Christmas Is Only Outwardly Dim,” which quotes a couple of religious leaders on the crisis facing America. “We seem to be surrounded by a creeping ugliness in our affairs,” says one. “The hard truth is that a sense of desolation has come upon many.” But as religious leaders do, they remain optimistic: “The hope and eternal promise of Christmas are ours today as in all the years past. The fulfilling of them is up to ourselves.”

As it was, and ever shall be.

One response

  1. Your observation on the protection you received from your parents that Christmas resembles thoughts that have come to pass through my mind (though in different contexts and for different reasons). The debt it feels I owe them seems to only increase with time. I appreciate you putting this into words.

    Merry Christmas to you and yours, jb.

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