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My Reagan Years

By Elissa R.

I found myself back in my California hometown the week of Ronald Reagan’s passing. The local newspaper, worthless as ever, was full of elegies for an “American hero.” Looking back on my teenage years, I remember Reagan a little differently.

I.

In 1981, John Hinckley Jr. shot at President Reagan in order to impress actress Jody Foster. He got this idea from Martin Scorsese’s film Taxi Driver. One of Hinckley’s six bullets hit Reagan; another left his press secretary James Brady crippled for life.

My 7 th grade English teacher brings us the news. His solemn tone indicates that he expects us to react with the same shock and horror with which he in his youth probably experienced the Kennedy assassination. He’s wrong. We spill out into the hallway laughing and joking. We don’t give a damn, and some of us are amused. We voted against Ronnie in our school’s mock election the year before, and even at 13 we know that he deserves none of our pity.

II.

A couple of years later, I’m in high school and Reagan is still the president. It’s a bad time for it—high school, I mean. California’s famous “granola head” governor Jerry Brown has been replaced by Reagan ally Dukmeijan, and the chill is on. At school, the previously liberal atmosphere erodes. We still have an open campus, but the Constitution doesn’t apply to kids--our lockers and persons are subject to arbitrary searches, pissing us off to no end. Then there are inane “drug education” lectures to sit through, all ending in “just say no.” Plus our classes are a joke, with the only relief provided by the art teacher (who lets us explore our punk and metal motifs in a stimulating variety of media) and an English teacher who passes out excerpts from Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” photocopied (at least in my memory?) on flaming pink paper. The French teacher, on the other hand, offers to let us skip our homework if we will write letters of support to U.S. troops in Libya. My friend Anna and I indignantly decline, and don’t do the homework either. Small acts of defiance are our only true education.

Why were those troops in Libya, anyway? Who can remember now? The Monterey area harbors several military installations, and although we generally tried to avoid contact, some of the troops were punks and became our friends. I recall hanging out with young soldiers who were awaiting or had just escaped duty in Grenada: another incomprehensible, soon-forgotten intervention. During that period, fear of a reinstated draft became pervasive, and that was how my friends and other kids in the punk scene saw Reagan: as the guy who was going to send the youth off to die in places they’d never even heard of, the guy in the “I’m a Contra too!” t-shirt and plastic Hollywood grin, the guy who said that ketchup was a vegetable, the guy who didn’t give a shit.

III.

Of course I did learn, no thanks to school, something about Reagan’s policies in Central America during the 1980s: training death squads, funding mercenaries, supporting torture, disappearance and murder of innocents, etc. etc. In the process of studying and protesting these events I began to learn about and appreciate Latin American history, cultural traditions, music, film, etc. So I guess you could say it was the crimes of the Reagan years that made me the cultural historian I am today. Thanks Ronnie!

IV.

The media has talked about Reagan as an American icon, and as far as punk was concerned, they are right. The president’s image, defaced in various ways, appeared on flyers, zine illustrations, and album covers, like Pushead Lamort’s grafitti-inspired design for the L.A.’s Wasted Youth album “Reagan’s in” (pictured above). Songs also proliferated, hundreds of hardcore diatribes, more than I can remember now. Veteran punk band the Clash started off the era denouncing Washington’s bullets on their mega-album Sandinista!, while the Ramones--who, according to the late great Johnny Ramone’s September obituary, actually liked Reagan--weighed in with “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg.”; Closer to home, my brother’s band Biohazard came up with “Reaganomics Suck.” Moreover, the 1981 assassination attempt inspired band names like Jody Foster’s Army and songs like the Crucifucks’ screechy, glorious “Hinckley Had a Vision.”

Does this kind of rage-fueled creativity still exist in the Bush era? I did see a Rock against Bush compilation CD, volume 2, at the store recently. But I also heard about a boy being reported to Homeland Security after drawing a picture of Bush’s head impaled on a stick in his art class, and I imagine that under the Patriot Act, the violent lyrics of “Hinckley Had a Vision” would qualify for some kind of legal punishment. Back then it was the Cold War; now, almost any of us could suddenly be deemed terrorists, and the technological capacity for surveillance has increased even as our legal protections—like the right to free speech—are removed. So, even though the hostile and paranoid environment we now live in is the natural result of Reagan’s so-called ideals, maybe there is a grain of truth in the nostalgia shamelessly marketed by the media in the wake of his death. Compared to the way things are going, maybe the dismal 1980s actually were the “good old days.”

My Reagan Years 1 | My Reagan Years 2