Cover Story

1979 The year that was

Roy MacGregor December 31 1979
Cover Story

1979 The year that was

Roy MacGregor December 31 1979

1979 The year that was

Cover Story

Roy MacGregor

It 's better to burn out than to fade away.. ./And once you 're gone you can never come back.

—Neil Young, 1979

The year certainly began harmlessly enough. Broom Hilda was into the thick of belly dancing, the Montreal Canadiens were on top of the league, the Bank of Canada had just moved the prime lending rate to the highest point in history-11.25 per cent-and a young man who looked like the eternal blind date was saying that "Canadians are

fatigued of charismatic leadership.” By the time 1979 had ended, Joe Clark’s prediction had come true—he had become the youngest prime minister in Canada’s history and was threatening to become the youngest former prime minister. By year’s end the man he had beaten, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, was threatening to prove that politics and the tire industry have more than forced air in common: as retreads are often found to be unreliable and disturbingly thin on substance. Even so, Trudeau did return from the dead to fall into yet another election coma.

Those anxious for a truly exciting election had to turn to the south, where poor Jimmy Carter had no sooner dealt with his hemorrhoids than a new pain in the area arrived courtesy of Ted Kennedy. Determined to fight fire with fire, the president appropriately declared: “I’ll whip his ass.” It was a year in which gold fluctuated from $219 to $481 an ounce and gasoline from 89 cents to $1.25 a gallon. Predictably, a whimsical store in Beverly Hills put out a 24-karat gold-plated gas can for a mere $350—considerably more for fussy customers who demanded it be filled before delivery.

It was a year when the world ended up with several things it didn’t need—the bra with the built-in nipples, The Raes on television—and lost a number of minor things ranging from a Swedish parent’s right to slap his child to the Lone Ranger’s mask. When it was all over, the world knew only one small thing for certain: generations from now, they will not be asking: “Who was that man in the dark, wraparound sunglasses?”

What wasn't astonishingly boring about 1979 was actually astonishing. Clockwise from left: the Pope in Mexico; Joe and Maureen victory; Mountbatten burial; Vietnamese refugees; exiled shah; aroused Iranians

On April Fool’s Day Iran declared itself an Islamic republic and as Christmas approached, with 50 Americans still kept hostage in the American embassy in Tehran, all hope for a laugh had long since passed. Those who could not even pronounce Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini last Jan. 1 were, by year’s close, incapable of getting through a day without crossing the angry stare of his dark and brooding eyes. For once the rise of religious feeling lived up to its dream of becoming universal: in Iran it forced out a self-serving dictator, and in New York it greeted a hugely popular Pope John Paul II with a school cheer— “Rack ’em up, stack ’em up, bust ’em in two, Holy Father, we’re for you.” Compared to Khomeini and the Pope, the other new international faces—Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, China’s Teng — paled in comparison. Canada’s Joe Clark merely bleached in comparison.

But then, how dare they expect a man to lead when he can’t yet walk? Canada may well suffer from a lack of dramatics (where else, after all, would the romantic lead go to a government-owned oil company as it did with Petrocan?) but it is hardly short on humor. This is, after all, the very country where the leader of the third-place party uses a press conference to call for a national lowering of hair-dryer voltages. And never forget Rideau Hall in Ottawa where, since January, a Governor-General now sports shiny chest medals where an oval, greasy patch with “Eddie” scripted in white thread might seem more in keeping.

Yes, this was Canada in 1979, where what wasn’t astonishingly boring—like business mergers and sun eclipses—was actually astonishing. First High Society magazine told the country the prime minister’s estranged wife had trouble dressing herself in the morning and then a chlorine leak proved to an aghast country that people actually live in Mississauga. Like Lee Marvin’s live-in girlfriend, Mississauga had to be abandoned before anyone noticed. But then, no one was much impressed with what they saw in Michelle Trióla Marvin, either.

Who, short of the National Enquirer, could have predicted what 1979 would bring? Just look around: diners are turning down $2 glasses of imported wine for $3 glasses of imported water; heterosexuals can now deal with their confusion by going to gay Anglican priests; Brian of Nazareth is being crucified on the pulpit; the red-necks are now long-hairs, the avant garde wear brush cuts; the Queen’s personal art adviser admits he doesn’t know much about nuclear physics, but he sure knows what they like; and one simple man, Joe Clark, sets United Van Lines’ bill-collecting methods back decades by demonstrating that it is possible to move a Canadian embassy from one Israeli city to another and back again, and end up paying for it with only Ron Atkey’s hide.

What, what does it all mean? In New York they stand and applaud Sweeney Todd, a broadway musical celebrating the business partnership between a throat-slitting barber and a baker who sells human meat pies. In Estevan, Saskatchewan, they shiver at the thought

of a local man and woman surviving a plane crash by eating the thighs of the woman’s dead father. It’s enough to drive a person to light beer.

I'm not living in the real world!

I'm not living in the real world!

I'm not living in the real world!

No more, no more, no more!

—Blondie, 1979

‘The horror! The horrorV Clockwise from lower left: Schreyer swearing-in; Teng visit to U.S.; Liona Boyd with Juno; Jupiter’s moon photographed; the great flood

“The horror! The horror!” Mr. Kurtz said in Joseph Conrad’s 1902 novel Heart of Darkness, and again in Francis Coppola’s 1979 movie, Apocalypse Now. Even without the Bee Gees for bilious background music, it took a strong stomach to get through the year. Pol Pot was finally beaten out of Cambodia, but the human relics of his Khmer Rouge regime were left behind. The systematic destruction of a race—including the use, in this enlightened age, of snake pits—created the cruellest story of the decade. United Nations Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim sadly estimated in October that half or more of Cambodia’s 8.5 million population has already died from war, disease and starvation-much of the starvation needlessly brought on by Pot’s decision to burn his own people’s fishing nets and hoes. It made the wretched boat people, with their malaria and crowded camps, their high seas and marauders, seem practically well-off by comparison. Throughout the year in India, one or more young brides a day were burned to death by her in-laws simply because her dowry didn’t measure up to expectations. In Naples, babies in the slum sections began to cough, then vomit, then gasp for breath, then die; and when the cause of the mystery disease was uncovered—basically, poverty—it was deemed incurable. In suburban Chicago, John Gacy, a “good doggone Jaycee” who often entertained children as Pogo the Clown, was found to have 27 strangled, decomposing bodies of young boys buried in the crawl space and under the garage of his house. One could hardly imagine a revived Garry Moore Show ever celebrating “that wonderful, wonderful year—1979.”

Whaty does it all mean? Clockwise from lower left: Trudeau's first goodhue; Amin dethroned; Skylab landing; Thatcher crowned; first pedal across the Channel; Carter's 'peace' for the Middle East

The year was full of ill thoughts: Canadians cringed under acid rain; Australians cowered under Skylab; travellers checked their ticket stubs for mention of DC-10s; investors sweated over Chrysler; and house buyers were scared off by soaring mortgage interest rates. Even the weather acted up: snow and sleet grounded New Year’s Day air traffic in Canada and storms continued through January, the final big blow claiming 100 lives and dumping 31 inches of snow on Chicago’s O’Hare International, closing the world’s busiest airport for 42 hours. Britain suffered through the worst winter in 15 years and didn’t get to summer until October. Tornadoes and massive floods in the spring and then male hurricanes named David and Frederic formed bulldozer-blade parentheses around a squeezed, but exquisite summer. Weather no longer qualified as small talk.

And yet, the summer itself was spoiled with the growing realization that the energy situation was moving from crisis to permanent state. When OPEC raised the prices from $13 U.S. to $23 in June and then as much as $30 in December, it signalled that the worst is still to come. The previous belief that technology will rescue technology finally died its well-deserved death in March when a Hollywood movie The China Syndrome dramatically came true only two weeks after opening. The Three Mile Island nuclear power station near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, instantly became the symbol for what can go very, very wrong. By year’s end, the most positive alternative energy image belonged to the good old wood stove— which assuredly deserves Comeback of the Year billing over any of Willie Stargell, Pierre Trudeau or even Herb Gray, the only wire brush in the world that needs prescription lenses and something interesting to say.

Valium enjoyed another great year in sales, thanks in part to fear of war between (take a choice): China and Vietnam; China and the U.S.S.R.; the U.S.S.R., Cuba and the United States; the United States and Iran; and Billy Martin and any marshmallow salesman, team owner, outfielder or baseball commissioner who happened to pass within range of his mouth. The year proved what the true paronoiac has always known: you can’t trust anybody. And nobody found that out more dramatically than South Korean President Park Chung-Hee, who put his personal safety in the trigger-happy hands of his good friend and Korean CIA director, Kim Jae-Kyu. Unfortunately, Mr. Park is no longer able to comment.

It may seem crass to say that there are worse things than death in this imperfect world, but before voting it is necessary to consider the following: Richard Rohmer produced yet another rearranged dictionary; The Village People rode (motorcycles, whips, twisted fantasies and a simple beat) to the top of the hit parade; magazines tried to justify showing Loni Anderson’s mountain-pass cleavage by writing thin copy about her brains; the movie Alien appeared; television kept Little House on the Prairie from the dustbowl it so richly deserves; and worse, Charlie's Angels got Shelley Hack and discovered, much to their everlasting joy, that the talents of the newest Angel could dance on the head of the same pin that was bearing up so well under Cheryl Ladd and Jaclyn Smith. This, too, was the year where they literally died to see The Who, where Sid Vicious became the opening verse of a future song, Punk Heaven, and the year when disco rollerskating arrived. With such a dismal expression of humanity’s present it is no wonder sexual anorexia—orgasm fasting-emerged as the new disease of the year. Let’s cut off the future at the pass.

To give up the effort would mean, as it were, to switch off hope for a better tomorrow.

—Queen Elizabeth II’s Christmas Message, last Christmas

Matthew Arnold would hardly be blinded by 1979’s “beacons of hope,” but the English poet would not be in total darkness, either. For one thing, the charges against Montreal engineer

Peter Treu under the Official Secrets Act were finally overthrown, albeit only after they had cost him five years of his life and a marriage. And there was the signing of a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin pledging, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, to “beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.” Jimmy Carter was involved in the historic signing and also in another with Soviet leader Leonid

Brezhnev in Vienna, formally agreeing to the SALT II arms limitations agreement. Unfortunately, Carter found it easier to lure a kiss out of the burly Brezhnev than from his hawkish Senate back home.

And the world is surely much the better for the following losses: Idi Amin, who killed some 200,000 Ugandans during his bizarre, eight-year rule; Nicaragua’s General Anastasio Somoza, who managed to turn one-quarter of his own people into refugees; Emperor Bokassa I of the Central African Empire, who believed petty thieves should either be clubbed to death or else progressively amputated until they had nothing left to steal with; Cambodia’s mad Pol Pot; and Francisco Macias Nguema Glyogo who, in a single decade, managed to kill tens of thousands of Equitorial Guinea’s people, including almost the entire intellectual community. May their likes not pass this way again.

Cutting the future off at the pass. Clockwise from lower left: Queen Mum visit: Teddy’s run; gas lineups; Mississauga refugees; Israeli camps in Sinai decamped; Castro at UN

There were also small points that must not be missed. Sixty Minutes managed to chase Láveme and Shirley completely out of television’s top 10; Jill Clayburgh finally became the actress she was intended to become; freedom of information legislation was introduced, even if lost; the James Bay hydroelectric project, so accustomed to being turned on, finally got to do it itself; and England’s Sebastian Coe ran the mile in 3:49, magnificently celebrating the

quarter century since Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile.

The year also belongs to Bryan Allen, a 26-year-old California biologist who, using leg power alone, flew across 22 miles of the English Channel in two hours, 50 minutes. His Gossamer Albatross showed the world that hidden behind the nightmares there are still dreams, and that beyond 1979 there is 1980. And that, if nothing else, is something.