Do you remember what happened 50 years ago?

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This month marks the end of the first half of 2021, so let’s take some time to go back 50 years and recall the world of 1971. Sometimes it is fun to look back, remembering Barbara Streisand’s “The Way We Were” and some sentimental recollections.
If you are a young senior today, say 67 or so, you were a young adult that year, living in a very different world. There was no internet or social media, no cable TV, no cell phone service or “Zoom calls.”  The United States was trying to bring the Vietnam War to an end, and we still feared an attack from the Soviet Union, a nation that no longer exists. Richard Nixon was the President of the United States and the Democratic Party was struggling to recover from the “Chappaquiddick” incident.
Before you read on, take a moment to see if you can answer these trivia questions:

  • What boxer ended Muhammad Ali’s win streak?
  • Who was Richard Nixon’s first Vice President? Who replaced this forgotten man?
  • What group sang “Brown Sugar?”
  • Can you identify “Soyuz” or the ARPANET?
  • What did a 30-second Superbowl commercial cost 50 years ago? (The cost in 2021 was 5.6 million dollars)

In sports, the Baltimore Colts won Super Bowl V earlier that year, defeating the Dallas Cowboys. It was $25 more or less to attend. If you watched it on TV, you saw 30-second commercials that cost $72,000 to run. TicketIQ, an internet site that tracks sports ticket prices, stated that the average Superbowl LV (this year) ticket cost $8,161. The year 1971 was also the first year the ban on tobacco ads went into effect, so there were no commercials for Kent, Lucky Strike or Marlborough. Times have changed, and now we see prescription drug commercials.
That same month, in January 1971, boxer Sonny Liston was found dead of a heroin overdose. Liston had been called “an invincible fighting machine,” until he met Mohammed Ali. Ali, a seven to one underdog, knocked Liston out by a TKO. Ali was one of the most colorful sports figures in history, and his fights with “Smokin Joe” Frazier became so famous that they were given names like the “Rumble in the Jungle” and the “Thrilla in Manila.” Frazier ended the champ’s 31-consecutive win streak in March 1971.
Richard Nixon was midway through his first term, and he was having difficulty ending the Vietnam conflict. His Vice President was a forgotten man named Spiro Agnew, famous for making ‘gaffs.’ He resigned from office two years later while being investigated for bribery, extortion and tax fraud. Nixon replaced him with a well-liked congressman named Gerald Ford, who later replaced Richard Nixon as President. Think hard. Can you name the person that Gerald Ford chose to become his Vice President? It was Nelson Rockefeller, also a name that is largely forgotten.
In 1971, the Watergate scandal was still in the future for Mr. Nixon, and that year he began one of the most important series of events in modern history. In July, he sent Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to mainland China to begin the process of “normalization,” later announcing that he would visit China himself in 1972.  For better or worse, this began the 50-year rise of China, making it the giant it is today. You are very likely reading this article on a device made in China, and most Americans consider that nation to be our number one competitor.
In 1971, Mr. Nixon announced his administration’s “War on Drugs.” Despite 50 years of this effort, hard drug abuse remains as great or greater a problem today. Drugs like marijuana are finding acceptance among a wider and wider public. There are even marijuana clinics in senior-centered communities like The Villages and cannabis is found in dozens of products.
The number one song on the Billboard Top 100 in early June ’71 was “Brown Sugar” by the Rolling Stones. The band is still active today, although Mick Jager looks a little worn. “Joy to the World” by Three Dog Night would be the top song for the year. The Best Picture award went to “The French Connection,” starring Gene Hackman; he also won the Best Actor.
Some big entertainment and publishing names came to an end in 1971. The Ed Sullivan Show and Look Magazine both produced their final editions. But a very important name was born—Walt Disney World opened in Orlando, becoming the most visited resort in America (2018 attendance was more than 58 million.) We could not imagine the changes it would bring to Florida.
Do you recall the names Charles Manson, Sharon Tate or D.B. Cooper? “D.B. Cooper” was an alias used by an unidentified man who hijacked a Boeing 727 aircraft during a flight between Portland and Seattle in November of 1971. After stopping at Tacoma and collecting $200,000 in ransom and four parachutes, he jumped from the rear door of the 747. Experts feel that “Cooper” probably did not survive this jump, but the FBI maintained an active investigation for 45 years after the hijacking.
Sharon Tate was a very beautiful actress married to producer, Roman Polanski. Tate and four others were murdered by members of the Charles Manson cult. In 1971, Manson and several cult members were condemned to death, but the California law under which he was sentenced was overturned, and he spent the rest of his life in prison, dying in 2017.
It was also a big year in space.  You surely remember the Apollo Moon missions, but do you recall Soyuz, the world’s first-ever space station. The 1971 launch of Soyuz 10 made it the world’s first mission to a manned space station. The docking was unsuccessful and cosmonauts came back to earth. Also in that year, the United States resumed Apollo missions, following the near-disaster of Apollo 13. Two manned landings would be accomplished that year, eventually followed by a decades-long absence of manned American space exploration. Eventually, the slack would be taken up largely by privately financed organizations, driven by individuals like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk.
Recently, we have been impressed or disturbed by the Black Lives Matter demonstrations. This is not at all new. In July 1971, a march on Washington D.C. by 500,000 anti-Vietnam war protesters took place. It was the largest demonstration in U.S. history and it showed how divided our nation was then (as it is now).
Many of the most important events of 1971 took place unnoticed at the time.

  • The NASDAQ stock exchange was formed, aimed at giving young companies a way to finance growth. Names like Microsoft, Google, Amazon and Apple were yet to be invented, but they would find startup money in places like the NASDAQ.
  • ARPANET, the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network began operating chat rooms for scientists and engineers to exchange ideas. This system would morph into today’s internet.
  • Starbucks was founded in Seattle.
  • FedEx was founded in Tennessee, the start of the instant, on-demand delivery service we expect today.
  • The first Cup Noodle was marketed in waterproof polystyrene containers. The age of instant food begins.
  • Intel introduced the 4004-processor, the first commercially produced microprocessor, starting the computing age.

Today’s seniors have lived through some of the most important changes in human history. Thinking back, today’s world is not really so different from that of 50 years past. There is controversy, scandal and division, as there was before. We have always gotten through it and come out the better.