The 1972 Olympics

Mark Spitz

At presstime, Michael Phelps has just picked up gold medal number eight in the 2008 Summer Olympics. This makes the nostalgic among us (like you and me, for instance) harken back to when the mark of seven was set back in 1972.

The world was a different place back then. The war in Vietnam was still going on. However, Nixon was running for re-election promising “peace with honor.” Gasoline was still dirt cheap, but that was about to change. The previous Olympiad had been notable for the Black Power salute on the medals stand by Tommie Smith and John Carlos, as well as a record that was shocking in its destruction of the previous one, the long jump mark set by Bob Beamon.

What would the 1972 games hold? The event organizers were optimistic that there was less tension in the air than four years previously. The war looked to be winding down. Civil rights were at an all-time high, and getting better every day. Perhaps the 1972 Olympiad would be known as a return to the idealistic standard of sports without politics, or controversy.

Yeah, right.

The 1972 Olympics would certainly have its triumphant moments. For instance, USA swimmer Mark Spitz would win seven gold medals, a feat never before accomplished, and one which would take 36 years to surpass.

Incidentally, this would be followed by Spitz practically disappearing from public consciousness afterwards. A triumphant and handsome athlete who can’t cash in? Methinks he should have shopped around for a better agent. Contrast his case with that of Mary Lou Retton, who is still a familiar face in ads 24 years after winning gold.

Olga Korbut

Another name that jumped into the headlines for positive reasons was that of Olga Korbut. The seventeen-year-old touched a sympathetic nerve with viewers. A member of the cold-hearted, strictly-business Soviet bloc, she nonetheless displayed real tears after making mistakes, something we weren’t used to seeing. That made us cheer hard when she did well, and well she did well indeed. She won three golds and a silver, and would have won more if not for her frequent human failings, another trait that we were not used to seeing among the communist ice princesses.

By the way, Olga, now an American citizen, has had her ups and downs since then, but she appears to be on a nice upswing now, teaching gymnastics at Scottsdale, Arizona.

Controversy would also rear its head at Munich, though, in a minor way (it certainly didn’t seem that way at the time) as well as a tragic act of terrorism.

The US men’s basketball team had never lost in men’s basketball in Olympic play, winning seven gold medals dating back to 1936. But psychopathic timekeeping had a different outcome in mind this time. The end of the game was delayed again and again until Russia finally won. The shocked Americans appealed, and guess what? The two judges from democratic nations voted for them, the three from communist regimes voted against. The Russians won gold, the US refused silver. Even having a present-day democratic Russian government, I.E. winning the REALLY BIG competition, has not stifled the resentment felt all these years later among US Olympic basketball fans (and 1972 team members).

But this was mere sports and political prejudice. Sadly, genuine tragedy would also mar the 1972 games.

Palestinian terrorists kidnapped eleven members of the Israeli team, both athletes and coaches. They held them hostage, demanding the release of 234 prisoners held in Israeli prisons. Negotiations took place, and a plan to overcome the kidnappers and rescue the hostages was implemented. However, German police posing as flight crew on an airliner that was to transport the criminals to a NATO airbase backed down at the last minute and refused to take part.

Snipers attempted to take out the kidnappers, but failed to get them all. One of them tossed a hand grenade into a helicopter that held the Israeli hostages and all were instantly killed.

Thus, the Olympics were also marred by much mourning and anger over the botched rescue attempt, which continues to draw accusations of governmental conspiracy all these years later. Mark Spitz, a Jew, left Munich before the closing ceremony for his own protection.

What will the Olympiad of 2008 be remembered for? It’s too early to tell. But it’s safe to say that Michael Phelps will be looking to greatly surpass the post-Olympic buzz that Mark Spitz managed to harvest.

Do You Believe in Miracles?

There have been some truly memorable sports calls over the years. I have sweet memories of Harry Caray hollering “It could be, it could be, it is! A home run!” during Cardinal games of the 1960’s. Russ Hodges, who might have otherwise been remembered as a competent but forgettable broadcaster of the New York Giants, cemented his place in history with his breathless 1951 call repeating “THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT!” over and over again.

But Sports Illustrated, which has long been the standard by which sports journalism’s excellence is judged, ranked Al Michaels’ “Do you believe in miracles?” call of the 1980 US Olympic hockey team’s victory over Russia as the greatest individual call of the 20th century.

The call was a perfect description of a perfect game, when an entire nation was ecstatic at the same time over a most unlikely victory.

I remember really getting into the Olympics that winter long before the actual event. I purchased a preview magazine that outlined the US’s best chances at medals. The hockey team, according to the prognosticators, would likely be a disappointment.

The team, composed of college players and other amateurs, looked pretty shaky. You had never heard of any of these guys, although many had starred for their various teams that you’d also never heard of. The US team was seeded seventh out of twelve.

The mighty Russians were expected to glide their way to gold. Their players were payed to play, only deviously around the Olympics’ then-rigid rules of amateur athletes only. They played in a well-organized league and had state-of-the-art training facilities. Today’s proliferation of successful Russian NHL players testifies to the deep pool of talent that the nation has long possessed.

The US was particularly angry with Russia over their invasion of Afghanistan. President Carter would go so far as to boycott the summer games in Moscow. So beating them in hockey was a sweet dream that would probably never come true. The fact that Russia had shellacked the US 10-3 in a previous exhibition game that month of February made defeating the Commies look impossible.

The US began with a 2-2 tie against a superior Swedish team. Hmm. That was followed by a most unlikely 7-3 victory against Czechoslovakia, whose government also took “very good care” of their “amateur” players. This was getting interesting, indeed.

Americans began tuning in in earnest as this upstart team added victories over Romania, Norway, and a come-from-behind nail biter against Germany to advance to the Medal Round.

Russia, meanwhile, was mowing down its opposition handily. They were undefeated heading into the Medal Round, as expected. Sweden and Finland made up the rest of the finalists.

The US’s next game would be against the Russians, and not many television sets were on any other channel but local ABC affiliates the night of February 22, 1980. The game had actually been played previously that afternoon, but in the days before the internet, it was easy to keep the results a secret. So most of us watched the contest as if it was a live affair.

The US was soon down 1-0, but the crowd and the team weren’t worried. They had come from behind before. Soon it was tied, and then Russia was back up 2-1. The US tied it up again just as the first period was expiring.

The Russians put their backup goalie in for the second period. They scored on a power play to go up 3-2. Again, no worries on the American side, as the crowd waved big flags and chanted “USA! USA!”

USA scored in the third to tie it again, then Mike Eruzione slipped one past the Russian goalie with 10 minutes left to give USA its first lead. The crowd was hysterical.

Goalie Jim Craig was relentlessly hammered with shot after shot, but his more and more miraculous saves just kept coming. Finally, the crowd counted down the last ten seconds, Al Michaels made his immortal call, and history was made.

They could have probably beaten the Montreal Canadiens the next night, but instead they just had to defeat Finland. No problem there, and the US had its second, but by far most celebrated, Gold Medals in hockey.

Thirteen of the twenty players played in the NHL, but none of them really starred. Oh well, who cared. They just had to settle for merely being immortal, at least in the minds of everyone who watched the game that Saturday night so long ago.

Black Power on the Olympic Pedestal

The 1960’s started off with school segregation still widespread, separate restrooms and water fountains for “whites” and “coloreds” all across the deep south, and much struggling to come to put all of this to a stop.

Such a process would have to be painful, and indeed it was. Martin Luther King was advising peaceful resistance to racism, while Malcolm X advocated killing the white devils. Fortunately, King proved to be a more effective leader.

By 1968, things had improved. Segregated schools were much rarer, but the solution of busing students long distances to integrate was not a good idea, and it was causing much anger and strife.

The Summer Olympics at Mexico City would prove to be a platform to make a statement.

There was a movement among black athletes to boycott the Olympics altogether. Fortunately, that didn’t happen. It’s never a good idea to skip the games for political reasons. Every time it’s been done, the only effect has been to diminish the Games themselves, as well as to cheat hard-working athletes out of what they have been striving for.

Sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos won the Gold and Bronze for the 200M. Friends and teammates at San Jose State, they agreed to make a very visible statement at the presentation of their medals.

Smith had a black glove on his right hand, Carlos wore one on his left. As the National Anthem played, they raised their gloved fists in the air. Silver medalist Peter Norman of Australia also wore a patch on his jacket supporting the organization that was seeking a black boycott of the games.

It seems pretty tame today, but it was shocking in that emotionally charged year. The gesture was met with outrage by many, admiration by others. The Olympic Committee was certainly not amused. The runners were banned from further competition and from the Olympic Village.

Smith and Carlos received death threats aimed at them and their families. Of course, so did nearly everyone else involved in the Civil Rights Movement. But history eventually judged their actions as admirable. They were honored in 1998, and there are plans to build a statue at their alma mater commemorating the incident.

Here’s to standing up for what you believe, even if it makes you unpopular.

The Year We Went to School in the Dark

The earlier Daylight Savings Time we experienced this year may have brought back memories of the year you went to school in the dark. A Mideast war had a domino effect that caused that particular memory for us one year. Here’s how it went down:

On October 6, 1973, Egypt and Syria crossed cease-fire lines and attacked Israeli-held land in the Golan Heights which it had obtained during the 1967 Six-Day War. This most recent conflict became known as the Yom Kippur War. When you have that many wars, you have to keep them straight.

Anyhow, Israel fought back and reclaimed its lands, and it was all over by October 26. Only it wasn’t over. For the United States and any other pro-Israel nations, it was just beginning.

Those lovable lugs who form the coalition known as OPEC decided we all needed a spanking. So on October 17, while the little Yom Kippur thing was still going on, they announced that any nation that supported Israel would thereby be cut off from receiving any more of their oil.

In so doing, they managed to accomplish several things. They ended up doubling the price of oil. They caused a recession in the US. And they caused inflation to surge dramatically.

In many areas, long lines formed at the gas pumps. Many stations ran out of gas altogether. In southern California, they had odd-even days. You could only buy gas on the day that matched your license pate number. Vanity plate owners were odd or even based on how many letters were used.

In my area of northwest Arkansas, we were small enough in population that I don’t remember lines of more than two or three cars. I don’t recall any stations running out of gas, either. But the prices nearly tripled. It took a while for gas to go higher than a dollar a gallon, but eighty cents was still a shock when you were used to paying around thirty.

Laws were passed to deal with the crisis. They were both stupid. One dropped the nationwide speed limit to 55 miles per hour. It basically turned a predominantly law-abiding nation into one filled with speeders who grew used to violating that law, and would likely grow used to violating others. It took 21 years before it was finally done away with.

The other silly law was year-round Daylight Savings Time.

In the northern United States, daylight wouldn’t arrive until well after 8:00 AM. That meant kids were going to school (walking, in many cases) in pitch black darkness. Did nobody in Congress or the Senate see a problem here?

We spent parts of two winters going to school in the dark. Then in 1975, the law was repealed. We were back to DST beginning in April and ending in October.

Interestingly, FDR instituted year-round DST in 1942 for the duration of the war. Complaints were fewer then, perhaps because the adjustment was called War Time, and patriotic fervor overrode any concerns for kids in the dark.

But there was no war in 1974, only a harried population already dealing with gas lines and closed stations. The last thing we needed was our kids going to school in danger of getting run over or abducted in the inky darkness.

The Embargo taught us that we shouldn’t depend on imported oil, because its flow could be affected by things like idealogical beliefs. For a while, we learned and got smarter. The huge gas-guzzling cars Detroit had been selling us for years began to get smaller and stingier with gas. Alternative power sources were explored. Fuel consumption went down.

Alas, today, it’s back up. We think we have to have four-wheel-drive to get around. Cars are getting bigger, although their overall mileage continues to improve. And while the hybrid vehicle is becoming more commonplace, research into alternative energy sources has slipped badly. We’re importing more oil than ever.

But at least our grandkids aren’t going to school in the dark.

Mr. ZIP and those Newfangled Zip Codes

Zip

Mr. Zip window painting at the Miami, Oklahoma post office which has survived for at least 50 years

We Boomer kids look back in wonder at what the world was like when we were children and compare it to the technologies we commonly use today.

But think about what our parents went through! Typically born early in the 20th century, they grew up with horse-drawn wagons delivering ice to keep their food cold. They would pick up a phone and tell the operator who they wanted to talk to. And they would address a letter with a person’s name and a town. That was all of the information that the postal service needed to see to it that it arrived.

This worked with small towns, but deliveries to bigger cities did require a bit more information, e.g. a street.

But by 1943, the situation had gotten complicated enough that the USPS instituted zone codes for larger cities.

Thus, sending a letter to a friend in, say, Los Angeles suddenly got more complicated for our parents. But they eventually learned to add the two-digit code to the address, being rewarded for doing so by speeding up the delivery by a day or two in many cases.

Mr. Zip informs the public about the new zip codes with this card, delivered to each address

Twenty years later, mailing a letter got VERY much more complicated. That was the year that the now-familiar zip code was introduced. Imagine the pain our parents went through having to add a five-digit number to each letter!

But the brains behind the postal service knew what they were doing. In introducing zip codes, they did so by means of a cartoon character that we Boomer kids saw every time we went to the post office, and also on innumerable commercials: Mr. Zip.

Mr. Zip’s familiar personage reminded us that we needed to put a zip code on our letters to make sure they got to where they were intended.

And we dutifully passed the reminders on to our parents.

Zip codes were voluntary when first introduced in 1963. By 1967, they were made mandatory for second and third class bulk mail. But while strongly encouraged for general first class usage, they remain voluntary to this day.

However, leaving a zip code off will typically add days to delivery time.

That, plus the fact that we’ve been using them since the year that JFK was killed, means that nowadays over 95% of letters mailed include a zip code. If you want, you can go the extra mile and add the optional four digits that were introduced in 1983.

However, Mr. Zip is long gone. But he retired (in 1980) with honor, having helped get a nation to voluntarily use a coding format which has greatly enhanced our mail delivery.

Oh, one last piece of zip code trivia: In 1964, Smokey Bear was getting so much fan mail that he was assigned his own zip code: 20252.

The Lights Go Out in 1965

1965 blackout in New York City

In 2003, the largest blackout in US history took place. Affected areas included New York City, as well as surrounding states and Canada all the way up to Hudson Bay. The world was stunned. But Baby Boomers, particularly residents of the affected areas, said “here we go again!”

On 5:27 p.m., November 9, 1965 (that would be the middle of rush hour), much of the same area was affected by what was then the greatest blackout in history. The event would go on to inspire a movie (and a new phrase for the English language), Where Were You When the Lights Went Out?

Traffic lights went dark, subway trains stopped in their tracks, and the world learned just how dependent we had grown on electricity’s being there when we needed it.

The power grid, long touted as a system with multiple failsafes that simply couldn’t and wouldn’t collapse, was revealed to be a long string of dominoes on edge. When a relay failed to operate at the Sir Adam Beck Station no. 2 in Ontario, Canada, a bizarre series of overloads began a chain reaction. The overload shot down the main trunk lines of the power grid, separating power generation sources from load centers and weakening the grid’s structure with each subsequent separation. As the outage progressed through the northeast, power plants in the New York City area automatically shut themselves off to prevent the surges from overloading their generating capability. Within a quarter of an hour the outage had wreaked its havoc, and the entire Northeast was dark and quiet. Well, except for about ten million car horns, that is.

In a scene that was replayed on September 11, 2001, New Yorkers pitched in and helped each other. Volunteers directed traffic, assisted firefighters and rescue teams, and generally refrained from looting.

So what did we learn from the great 1965 blackout? Not much, I’m afraid. The 2003 outage (greatly feared to be terroristic in nature) was attributed to untrimmed branches in Ohio.

Oh, and much more looting took place than in 1965.

But on the other hand, urban dwellers during both blackouts saw something they possibly had never seen before: a sky full of stars.

Saigon Falls

The last helicopter evacuating Saigon

We Boomers have a wealth of pleasant memories from growing up in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s. Those are memories that we wouldn’t trade for a million dollars. But, like all generations, we have our share of bad memories as well.

One of the most pervasive unpleasant memories that touched each and every one of us was the war in Vietnam. In this blog’s early days, I wrote a column about that subject. War seemed normal to Boomer kids, sadly, there is a whole new generation to whom it feels that way as well.

What made the Vietnam war so hard to deal with was that all of the deaths, the maimings, the psychological scarrings that happened to our nation’s youth were, it appears, all for nothing.

By 1972, the country was sick of Vietnam. The protesters had found many allies in the “establishment,” it seemed that there wasn’t a soul who wanted to spend any more lives to try to make a nation located on the far side of the world a place safe for democracy. The 1972 Presidential election featured a lot of talk by all candidates concerned about ending the mess once and for all.

Nixon really didn’t face much competition, though, and after his re-election, he set about getting America out of SE Asia.

Vietnamese tank breaches US embassy wall in Saigon

On January 27, 1973, the governments of the US, North Vietnam, and South Vietnam all signed a treaty effectively ending the war. It was a noble document, to be sure, calling for the US forces to withdraw, all POW’s to be returned, and an international military force protecting and enforcing the truce.

It was also a death sentence for South Vietnam.

Nixon called the withdrawal of troops “peace with honor.” That feel-good phrase belied the actuality, that as Americans withdrew, the Viet Cong rapidly moved in and took over.

The average American, eager to never hear the word “Vietnam” again, simply didn’t care. What was important was getting out of there ASAP.

What further sealed South Vietnam’s fate was the fact that the Watergate scandal had broken, and the news media were relentlessly covering the juicy story, to the detriment of the seemingly endless unrest in Indo-China.

Once Nixon’s resignation was a done deal, Gerald Ford continued to oversee the withdrawal, even accelerating it, despite the fact that South Vietnam was obviously being systematically devoured by the North as American troops departed.

Nobody seemed to care, except the increasingly desperate South Vietnamese, seen as traitors by the Communist North.

By spring, 1975, the withdrawal took on the appearance of a hasty retreat. North Vietnamese forces were pouring over the land like hungry locusts, and Saigon was the last “free” place left in the country. On April 30, Ford ordered Ambassador Graham Martin and all remaining American personnel to leave at once.

South Vietnamese civilians scale the 14-foot wall of the U.S. embassy in Saigon, trying to reach evacuation helicopters.

There were about 1500 hundred South Vietnamese loyalists at the American embassy, all of whom had been guaranteed protection, and they were looking more and more like they were to be tossed to the wolves.

The marines guarding the embassy perimeter were called inside the building, and an angry crowd outside the walls began to tear down the gates.

Refugees had been in the process of being evacuated, but as things got uglier, the directive was changed to transport American citizens only. Finally, at 0500 local time on April 30, the last helicopter took off from the embassy. Approximately 400 loyalists were left on the grounds, an angry crowd in the process of swarming over them.

Thus ended “peace with honor.”

The whole Vietnam mess put such a bad taste in the mouths of the American public and their elected officials that it looked like the country might never go to war again. Indeed, some 35 years later, SE Asia, despite continuing unrest, is far off the list of potential areas in which the US might get involved.

No, problems exist elsewhere, and once again, a war has drug on for many years, one that the public has grown very weary of. The helpless feelings of seeing body bags and knowing that the enemy is still very much in power is getting to have a sense of deja vu about it.

And while that feeling of having seen something before can often be pleasant, this time, it’s very much the opposite.

China Opens Up to the West

We Boomer kids grew up in a pretty consistent political situation: Better Dead than Red.

The communists, ANY communists, were our sworn enemies, that is if you lived in the United States, or most other democratic nations. Russia, Cuba, East Germany, North Vietnam, Red China, they were all the same. The bad guys. The other side. The force from which the world must be protected from further expansion.

That all began to take a turn another direction entirely in 1971.

Table tennis, or ping-pong, was occasionally featured on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. While it had its followers, it was far from being one of the more popular competitive contests in the US. But it was a different matter in the Orient. Ping-pong was a passion!

Despite its lack of serious fan base, the US had a pretty good ping-pong team in 1971. They were playing in a tournament in Japan that year when a chance incident of a player jumping on the wrong bus, coupled with a courageous act of generosity by one of his competitors, led to relations normalizing between China (notice we dropped the Red?) and the United States.

Glenn Cowan fist bumps Zhuang Zedong

US star player Glenn Cowan was late practicing one evening, and missed his bus back to the hotel. He spotted another bus and jumped on. It was occupied by the Chinese National Table Tennis Team.

Cowan was an outgoing fellow, and stood at the front of the bus as it left for the hotel and said a few informal words to the team. A translator passed them on in Chinese. The result were icy stares from the players who had been well-schooled in the decadence of the West, and the need to avoid contact with them at all costs.

Then, a player named Zhuang Zedong stood up in the rear of the bus, walked forward, and presented Cowan with a silk-screen portrait of the Huangshan Mountains.

Cowan was flabbergasted (in a good way) by the act of generosity. The rest of Zedong’s team were equally flabbergasted, but in a distinctly different direction.

When the bus arrived, there were photographers present who recorded the bizarre sight of an American competitor getting off of a bus full of communist Chinese rivals.

The incident received lots of airplay, and it eventually got back to Chairman Mao. With the Cultural Revolution (and the rumors of its horrible human rights abuses) winding down, he decided that it was time to make a friendly gesture towards the largest of the western nations. The end result: the US team was invited to visit China to play in a tournament just a few days after the Japanese competition was over.

The tournament was a success, even though the Chinese team seemed to be taking some dives in the name of diplomacy. A little less than a year later, Richard Nixon made his historic trip to visit Mao and Chou-En-lai (as he was known then). He also toured many parts of the country, and the TV shots of him standing on the Great Wall are burned indelibly into my memory.

Soon, we were doing business with China, and suddenly seemingly forgot that there existed a small island off of the nation’s east coast that we had once also called (nationalist) China. Such was the price paid for new political allies.

I was a serious juvenile philatelist in those days, and was delighted to learn that I could now obtain stamps from Communist China. I ended up with quite a few for a quarter or so from the Littleton Stamp and Coin Company.

Today, for better or worse, there are few items in the discount stores that are manufactured anywhere but China. Chinese-made merchandise has suffered a poor reputation for quality that is slowly being overcome. My son recently presented me with a very nice Kershaw pocket knife that was made over there.

But once upon a time, Red China filled a kid’s heart with uneasiness, imagining a vast communist army that was bent on destroying the American Way. After all, ALL communists were evil!

When We Thought All Leaders Were Assassinated

Watching Tom Brokaw’s 1968 on the History Channel, I had a memory spring back to mind that was buried too deeply for me to dig up without a little help.

After the unspeakable assassinations of that year, I, and many other kids, assumed that leaders were destined to die violent deaths.

My mother’s shock of JFK’s death was still fresh in my mind on April 4, 1968, when the local programming was interrupted to announce that Dr. Martin Luther King had been gunned down in Memphis. While the former caused her to be hysterical, her reaction to King’s death was more controlled.

It had nothing to do with racism. My mother was born in the Texas Hill Country to hard-working parents. My grandfather, who lost a lung to WW1 mustard gas, ran his own gas station. My grandmother was a schoolteacher.

My grandmother was also a paradox. The world she grew up in taught her to use the dreaded “n word” with no embarrassment whatsoever. Yet, the way she lived her life proved that she had no real animosity against any ethnic groups.

I thought it was hilarious that the taboo word would fly out of her mouth repeatedly in the course of normal conversation. But if my mother ever heard ME use it, I was beaten as hard as if I had cussed.

No, my mother’s resigned reaction to King’s death was because she had seen it coming. Many, many great men had died in the fight for civil rights, and she, and many other adults, knew that some racist peckerwood would get the unquestioned leader of the movement sooner or later.

But we kids weren’t so in tune to the events of the time. All we knew was that another famous leader had been gunned down.

The angst became heavier on June 8 of that year. After giving a speech in Los Angeles, and apparently heading for a Presidential nomination, Robert Kennedy was gunned down by some Palestinian nutcase who had an issue with Bobby’s stance towards Israel.

That did it for me. As Hubert Humphrey squared off against Richard Nixon, I wondered who would be killing them. I also wondered why anyone would even want a job that had a certain violent death sentence attached to it.

It seems naive, of course, but it was a real part of my world. According to Brokaw’s 1968, I wasn’t the only one, either. Teachers reported that entire elementary school classes held the same belief.

I really don’t remember if my own classmates felt that same way. But I would be quite interested in finding out how many of you Boomer readers once thought that all leaders were destined to be gunned down.

When We Converted to the Metric System – NOT!

1970’s posters advising us that we had better learn the metric system!

The things we Baby Boomers were destined to accomplish! We would be the generation that would usher in cheap, clean nuclear power! We would be driving flying cars by 2000! And we would take the lead in adopting the efficient, easy-to-use metric system!

OK, enough with the exclamation points already. Obviously, all three of these particular dreams were overblown.

However, it may surprise you to know just how close we are to being a metric nation. Read on.

It all started by those lovable masters of illogic, the French, who decided we needed a logical system of measurement. According to metric scholar Pat Naughin:

The metric system used all around the world has three parts. In France in the 1790s, it was named the “decimal metric system”. The system part came from John Wilkins in England, the metric part came from Burattini in Italy, and the decimal part came from the USA. Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington were very active in getting the French “philosophes’ to use decimal numbers for the “decimal metric system”.

US Dept. of Commerce brochure of the 70’s

OK, raise your hand if you knew that our founding fathers were part of the team behind the metric system. THIS history buff didn’t!

During the 60’s, Great Britain, Australia, and Canada all began a systematic conversion to the same system that most other countries had officially adopted: the metric system. This left the US, Liberia and Burma still using the English Imperial units. Thus, talk began spreading among legislators,educators, and manufacturers about switching over.

There was really no choice in the matter. Go metric, or lose every economic and intellectual advantage you have over the rest of the world.

Thus, the metric system began being taught to us Boomer kids in schools.

At this point, it would be good to point out that pharmaceutical manufacturers had been using the metric system since early in the 20th century. So had much of the tooling industry. When it came to teeny tiny amounts, it just made more sense to them to use grams and millimeters.

But it was in the 70’s that many others followed suit. For example, food manufacturers. Cereal boxes began being sold in metric weights, with the standard weight in parentheses. The implication was that the METRIC system was the preferred one.

The liquor industry was an eager adopter. I know that by the time I could legally purchase hootch in 1980, the half-gallon, fifth, and pint were gone, replaced by their metric equivalents. Wine was sold in metric quantities as well. Interestingly, the working man’s preferred libation, beer, stubbornly resisted change.

Indeed, it was stubborn resistance by the working stiffs among us (including, for the longest time, ME) that kept the US from jumping in headlong with the rest of the world and becoming an official metric nation. We cringed at the sight of kilometers on our speed limit signs. We rolled our eyes at temperatures given in Celsius. We were disgusted when our SAE wrenches that we might have inherited from our fathers and grandfathers no longer fit these newfangled nuts and bolts on our cars.

A flyer published in Singapore in the 70’s, shows an approach that might have made the transition easier. Children, teach your parents the metric system!

But instead, we tended as a generation to agree that our feet, pounds, miles, and gallons were just fine, thank you.

However, the metric system continued to be adopted despite our indifference and/or opposition. Our American-made cars began to sport speedometers that read in both MPH and KPH. Some gas stations extended the functionality of their old two-digit-price-limited pumps during the Arab oil embargo of 1973 by marketing the now-expensive stuff as liters. The Olympics turned us into begrudging experts into what constituted a meter, a kilogram, or a kilometer. Domestic cars even began to be manufactured with metric bolts.

That brings us to today. The US continues to be one of three blips on the world map that are still officially non-metric. But in reality, we are as much, or even more so, metric than some official countries. It just doesn’t say so on our company letterhead.

One last thing: for an inaccurate, but close enough, conversion from Celsius to Fahrenheit, just double the number and add thirty. Thus, 30 degrees Celsius becomes 90 degrees “Americun”. Actually, it’s 86 degrees, but at least you know it’s HOT!