When I think about the objects or events that really give you the best bang for your buck when it comes to that straight-to-the-forehead hammer blow of nostalgia, I don’t think of those long-running cultural touchstones, like how everybody watched Family Ties or how every kid had a metal lunchbox that to this day probably smells like the ancient remnants of long ago eaten peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
No, if you want a point-blank shotgun blast of nostalgia right to the face, you gotta go with fads.
I was going to look up how the Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defined the word “fad”, but I’m lazy and just want to keep typing. So instead, I’ll tell you how I would define “fads”. A fad can be anything the general masses suddenly become enamored with for no other reason other than the fact that everyone else is suddenly enamored with it, so you might as well be too. It’s something that hits everyone just the right way at just the right time. A better author than myself would probably try to use the word “zeitgeist” right about now. But in short, a fad is something that seemingly, usually for a very brief time, everyone is crazy about.
Sometimes a fad can also be called a “craze” or will find itself talked about on the evening news as “something, something madness” or “yadda yadda fever”. I distinctly remember schlocky news segments in the 90s talking about the “Pokémon Craze”, and I personally lived through the pandemic that swept through the nation in the 80s known as “Cabbage Patch Fever”. Oddly enough, that one seemed to affect adults more than children.
Fads are nothing new, mind you. They’ve been around since the first Flapper Girl did the Charleston in the 1920s. They had the radio detective decoder ring craze of the 40s, the hula hoop madness of the 50s, the skateboarding craze first kicked off in the 60s (and comes back around every 10 years or so), and the sci-fi and shark fevers of the 70s (mostly due to Star Wars and Jaws, respectively). But there was something about the 80s that seemed like it was the golden age of fads, crazes, and fevers. Or maybe I just think that because I was there.
Regardless, the fads and crazes I experienced are always good for a little mental stroll down memory lane. The reason that I think they hit the old hippocampus the hardest is two fold. One, they burned brightly. When you have something that pretty much everyone that you know can’t stop talking about, it sort of imprints itself into your brain with an extra white-hot flash of extraordinary brilliance. One day, nobody was saying the word “Pac Man”, then the next day, virtually every single human being you came into contact with was wearing a Pac Man shirt and sticking Pac Man stickers on their notebooks and bragging about their Pac Man high score and listening to the song “Pac Man Fever” by Buckner & Garcia. It felt like overnight the world had changed. That sort of thing will leave a mark.
The second part of why fads are the perfect storm for nostalgia is that very often, as quickly as they caught fire, they just as quickly burned out. Whether it was because the next new shiny thing came along to eclipse the previous fad, or because it simply didn’t have the staying power of some other beloved crazes, you could almost put your money on the fact that today’s fad will be tomorrow’s forgotten castoff. It didn’t take long before Pac Man started looking a bit passé once Donkey Kong came along.
So here we have this thing that comes along and it seers its image indelibly on your mind, then relatively, and usually without foreseeable warning, quickly vanishes. Leaving you to go on living your life and using up that precious space in your brain reserved for pop culture memories on other things, until the memory of how many quarters you plunked into that little yellow pill popper’s machine is pushed off the shelf and pretty much forgotten. Now, I know that nobody completely forgot about Pac Man. I’m not saying that. But what many people did do was forget about how much they loved Pac Man. How much it meant to them. How the fever actually felt.
Then, enough time goes by, maybe 15 or 20 years or so. Some long-ago Pac Man fever survivor is now a young twenty-something with a decent job, their first apartment and the new sensation of having a disposable income, and then WHAM! Some company comes along and puts out a t-shirt with some retro Pac Man graphics on it, and this person stumbles onto it in some boutique hipster store in a mall and as soon as their eyes land on it, they’re taking a sledgehammer made of pure industrial grade nostalgia right to the side of the head. With a rush, all those memories come flooding back. They remember the weight of the quarters in their pocket as they rode their bike, the smell of the bowling alley where they had a table top version that the local teenagers didn’t know about yet, the hypnotic sound of the wakka wakka wakka as Pac Man devours pellet after pellet. They remember desperately wanting the table top LCD version for Christmas, and the board game they got instead, that wasn’t quite the same, but for some reason they’re even missing that right now. And as the rush fades into a soft warm blanket of nostalgia over their entire body, all they can think is, I gotta have that shirt.
That is the power of fad-based nostalgia.
Throughout my childhood, I remember getting caught up in several fads (the aforementioned Pac Man Fever being merely one of them), and although I was clearly taken by the whole Star Wars craze, I don’t necessarily consider it a true fad. At least not in my case. Star Wars became practically a way of life for me. (More about that in later chapters.)
One fad that hit me incredibly hard was the Rubik’s Cube craze. I won’t insult the reader by going into what a Rubik’s Cube is, but if you happen to be one of the very few people on the planet Earth that doesn’t know what one is, feel free to go look it up. We’ll wait…
I personally contracted Rubik’s Cube fever in much the same way that I contracted the chicken pox, some kid brought it to school and spread it like a disease. It was the beginning of 3rd grade, which happens to be the perfect age for being stricken with a highly contagious case of I-gotta-have-one-too. I remember wandering over to a tightly knit huddle of chattering fellow third-graders to see what everyone was so excited about. Peeking over the head of a smaller blond girl, my eyes landed on an object made out of pure mystery. It was a turning, clicking mass of colorful squares, spinning inside of a larger cube. The kid who brought it had no idea how to solve it, but we didn’t care. It’s alien motions and geometric construction was mind blowing all the same. It was somehow fluid and amorphous, yet structured and confined. I didn’t care what it did, you could have told me that every fifth turn of a square would melt one of my fingers off and I still would have asked for one for Christmas.
This was my first experience in a mass contagion. I wasn’t the only one feeling desperate to have a Rubik’s Cube in my life. It had spread throughout the school. Soon after, I would learn that it had jumped the playground and infected the high school as well, when I heard my older brother trying to describe it to my parents one night at dinner. He had that same amazed gleam in his eyes.
Shortly after my first introduction, I did manage to get my hands on a Rubik’s Cube, but this was also going to be my first lesson in knock-off mass production when a product was hot. The cube I got was considerably smaller than the original one I had seen and was covered in colorful stickers that probably could have done with a bit more adhesive. Yes, it turned and clicked and did all the things the larger one did. But it also lost its stickers easily and kept popping out one of its corner pieces every now and then. Still, I wasn’t deterred. I was happy just to have something to twist and turn.
The object of the puzzle, to match the colors on all six sides, became clear to us early on, but the method remained elusive for some time. For a while, I earned a little bit of 3rd grade street cred when I could show off in front of my classmates that I could easily match at least one colored side. I remember feeling pretty good about myself when I’d tell a kid to pick a color. He’d say, “Red!”, and I would smugly reply, “Red, it is, my good man,” or something to that effect and then promptly fill one whole side completely in red squares.
But the time eventually came just before Christmas when a kid in my class brought in a completed cube for all to see, claiming he had solved it the night before. We told him something along the lines of “You’re a big fat liar pants,” and he promptly shut us up by letting another kid mix it up and had it solved again by lunchtime. So much for my one-side-solved popularity. With much pressing and begging and bribing with various snack cakes at lunch, he finally owned up that his dad had gotten him a book on how to solve the Rubik’s Cube. I was stunned into silence. There’s a book?!
Needless to say, that Christmas, not only was I going to require a new, full sized, brand name Rubik’s Cube, but I would also need a copy of “You Can Do the Cube” by Patrick Bossert. I did get that new cube and the book, and yes, though it took several tries, I finally did become adept enough at solving the Rubik’s Cube that I could get it back to its complete form if given enough time. Which I thought was pretty impressive until I realized my “Cube Master” status at school would never truly manifest, mostly due to the fact that while I was learning how to master the cube, so were pretty much all of my classmates. Eventually, several kids then took things to the next level by trying to see how fast they could solve the cube. And knowing enough about my brain and my innate laziness to know that I was beaten, my cube was eventually put away, but not before the Rubik’s craze led to hours spent fiddling with other puzzles, like the Rubik’s Pyramid or that one where you flipped the weird crystal tiles to make the images of the chain links interlock and then free themselves again.
There were other fads and crazes. 3rd grade also saw a whole slew of us boys inflicted with Stomper 4×4 fever, those little battery powered off-road trucks and SUVs that would climb over piles of scattered No. 2 pencils with ease, during which we were all greedily collecting, playing with, and trading Stomper 4×4 vehicles with a furious madness.
One summer, we even had a sudden outbreak of marbles fever in my neighborhood. For some reason, one kid on my block must have gotten his hands on an old stash of his dad’s marbles and got a quick lesson on how to play. Pretty soon, we were all chalking a circle, picking our best shooter and getting down on the sidewalk or driveway for a cut-throat game of “keepsies”. I still remember the look on my mom’s face when I told her I needed to get a bag of marbles from the store. It was a game that was probably old fashioned when she was a kid, and now this little boy who spends most of his life soaking in a marinade of spaceships and laser blasters suddenly wants a bag of simple glass spheres to flick across the concrete? It just goes to show, even a sickness that you once thought eradicated long ago can rear its ugly head once again and infect a whole new generation.
Sticker collecting fever may have been the longest-running craze that I can remember, starting in the 1st grade and quite honestly not dying out until I bought my last pack of Garbage Pail Kids in middle school. During the height of it all, many of us, boys and girls alike, would carefully collect every sticker we received, whether it was from our teacher for a particularly well done spelling quiz or from the dentist for not biting him when he poked around in our little mouths. Stickers also became a form of underground kid currency during grade school, and our carefully curated sicker albums were our bank accounts, ready to be pulled out at a moments notice to show off how wealthy you were. Stickers of things like old-timey cars or hot air balloons from companies like Eureka and Dennison were chump change when compared to the various scratch-n-sniff stickers made by Trend or Mello Smello, which stood out in our albums like crisp $100 bills. Looking back, I find myself stunned at how long I meticulously built and preserved my sticker collection, especially for a kid that couldn’t keep a pair of shoes looking new for more than a day and even the best toys had a space in my heart for a year or so at the most. My sticker album was like a friend that stayed with me almost my entire school career.
But one fad that really stuck with me was more of a home-grown sort of thing, and it often makes my nostalgia areas of my brain light up. It wasn’t anything we saw on TV or based on a popular comic strip (like the extremely brief Garfield pencil topper craze, that was a weird one). It wasn’t even something you could buy in a store, at least not completely intact and ready-made. It was a little craze called “friendship pins”.
The friendship pin was such a simple concept. It was basically a safety pin with little colorful beads threaded through the pokey end of the pin and then locked together, usually after being looped under the bottom lace on your sneakers. I remember them being introduced by a clique of girls in my class, who had all made these pins and given them to each other. Each girl had developed their own pattern of beads; a signature, if you will. Then they all traded them with one another and clipped them onto the bottom laces of their shoes so that one only had to look down at their feet to see who that person was friends with, as long as you knew whose bead pattern was whose. In fact, knowing the other person’s bead pattern was in itself a sign of friendship. Nothing says I’m your tried and true pal like memorizing that two pinks, one purple, two pinks, a big center crystal, two pinks, one purple and two more pinks is the signature pin of your third best friend, Elizabeth Whatsherface.
Now, as one of the rough and tumble boys in the school, who was usually far too busy running over perfectly good pencils with a Stomper 4×4, I normally would have ignored this “girly” decoration, just as my fellow rough and tumble boys in the school would have done. But something about this piqued my curiosity. There was a simple genius to this idea. And in a world in which concepts like popularity and self identity are just beginning to bud, the simple act of earning the right to put a popular kid’s friendship pin on our shoelaces was a fast track to the in-crowd. But as I mentioned, I was a dyed-in-the-wool, good old fashioned, red-blooded American boy, so I wasn’t going to be the first to show the slightest bit of interest in this “girly” thing. Not unless I wanted to end up wearing the baloney sandwich my mom packed for me in my lunch as a hat.
But luckily, something miraculous happened. One of the coolest kids in class, a boy named Charlie, opened his mouth and said, “Hey… Those are pretty cool. I should make one and then we could trade.” Holy cats! This new practice had just been deemed worthy for all, by the kid that all the boys wanted to be like and all the girls wanted to pass notes to! I quickly joined in with the other boys trying to be the first to agree with Charlie’s declaration with my own, “Yeah, you’re right! We could all come up with our own pins and trade them!”, already making a list of all the cute girls I wanted a pin from. I also remember our teacher overhearing this exchange and voicing her support for it, probably citing “positive classmate interaction” or “a symbol of friendship” or some such nonsense. But I knew what this was really about… He who has the most pins wins.
Over the following weekend, I had told my mom about the idea and she seemed all for it. I’m sure my dad was less than supportive of this “girly” arts and crafts garbage, but it wasn’t the sort of thing he’d waste a veto on. So off to the craft store in nearby Adrian we went to grab a pack of safety pins and carefully pick out my signature bead colors. Not surprisingly, being sort of the creepy kid, even back then, I picked out silver and black beads. And over that weekend, I worked out my pattern. This wasn’t exactly like coming up with an unbreakable Enigma cipher to fool the German troops, it just needed to be a pattern that people could quickly identify and remember. It went; three black, two silver, two black, two silver, one black, two silver, two black, two silver, three black. God, I was brilliant.
The following Monday, most of the kids brought in their pins. In a moment of wishful thinking and displaying a massive underestimation of how many friends I actually had, I had made more pins than there were kids in my grade, much less my classroom. But that didn’t matter. What mattered was that the trading had begun. This would be a better story if I could say that nobody wanted my pins at all nor did I receive any pins in return, and then button this chapter up neatly with a nice philosophical lesson on how the only friend I needed that day was myself, or some such mumbo jumbo, but that was not the case. I gave out quite a few and got quite a few in return.
We spent that morning in between lessons lining up our pins from various classmates along the bottom laces of our shoes, like little taxidermied animal heads won in the noble hunt for friendship. Later at recess, everyone was showing off their collections. You could hear kids saying things like, “Whose pin is that? What?! You got her pin?!” I was also surprised to see that it had spread to other classes and even other grades. I was glad I had made extras at that point. I was handing out pins like I was running for town council. And honestly, it felt great.
The friendship pin craze stuck around for a few months, but eventually, like every fad, it was forgotten about as we all collectively moved onto the next thing that monopolized our attention spans. By the end of that school year, it was a rare sight to see a couple of straggling pins on some kid’s laces, the last holdouts to remind us of a time when we all decided how fun it would be if we were all friends.
Out of all the things that maddened our minds back then, that one was probably my favorite. And one that I, quite frankly, think the world could use a little more of today.
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