the year the eighties died

IT DIDN’T OCCUR to me growing up that I was living through history. Only later, as I sat  in a classroom in Tartu, Estonia, listening to the professor recount the overthrow of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s Romanian regime to 18 and 19 year old students, did I realize that I could remember each moment of the event as it was reported, including the small details, such as the tidbit that hundreds of Romanians had volunteered to carry out the fallen leader’s execution by firing squad. It was Christmas Day, 1989. The Eighties were almost over.

But they weren’t. A few weeks later, in South Africa, a man who had been imprisoned for 28 years emerged from jail. His name was Nelson Mandela and I knew all about him from watching an HBO documentary called Mandela. It starred Danny Glover as the political prisoner.  It took me some time, upon his release, to connect the “fiction” of the 1987 film and the reality of the freed man holding the real Winnie Mandela’s hand {And there was a real Winnie Mandela? And it all really happened?} They looked less Hollywood in real life, but that was okay, because that thing called Apartheid was coming to its deserved end.

Apartheid. It was one of those words floating around when I was a kid, like Glasnost and Perestroika. Later I learned what each word meant and its etymology, but really they were words and ideas onto themselves. To me, Glasnost and Perestroika meant rock concerts in the Soviet Union. To me, Apartheid meant African kids chanting down the streets of dusty ghettos yelling slogans and carrying signs and meeting riot police. {Which looked a lot like the images broadcast from Israel in those days of the Intifada.}

So Nelson Mandela was but one icon of a decade known for big personalities and big words that were large and thick with unsaid messages. Images and words seemed more powerful then. There were fewer of them, and so they stuck with you.

There was soft poetry in that name — Mandela. It sounded like the gentle and grassy hills of the mystery continent. Even if he had backed guerrilla attacks against the South African government, no one saw him, heard of him, and thought of violence just because of who he was and how he looked and what he was called. To compare, think of Margaret Thatcher, the British iron lady, a woman whose very name brought to mind severity and harshness. Which is not to say that many Britons did not welcome it. Thatcher. It sounded like a weapon whipping through the air. It was in the ‘Th,’ the tight ‘a’,  the ‘ch.’ Its true meaning refers to someone who makes and repairs roofs, but it didn’t sound like a roof repairman to my ears. It gave you goosebumps.

Who preceded Thatcher? Wikipedia tells me it was someone named James Callaghan. Remember him? Me neither. And who came after? John Major, of course. But what else can you remember about John Major? Not much, really. No, there was a perfect constellation of personalities in Thatcher and Mandela’s era of charisma. Let’s not forget that the three most important American entertainers of the decade were Michael, Madonna, and Prince. Even older entertainers assumed single-named status. Bruce Springsteen just became “Bruce.” People would say, “I went to see Bruce.” And there was a lot of meaning in that one syllable, “Bruce.” Say “Bruce” or “Madonna” or “Mandela” or “Thatcher” to someone at that time, and a very certain mood would settle in and linger. It wasn’t like today, when a word like “Obama” can mean so many different things. One week it’s a website, the next week it’s a Kenyan uncle, the next week it’s a great speech.

Everything moves ever faster now, though. It’s blur and delirium. I find myself agitated by all the intelligence, the many images on the screens, the sounds of urgency my phone makes when a text message arrives. I crave simplicity, silence. Give me back my safe childhood of dependable names and images, of Apartheid, Glasnost, and Perestroika, of Mandela and Thatcher. Give me some sturdy rocks to latch onto while I am swept down the Information Superhighway. But Mandela’s gone now, Thatcher’s gone. It’s all been washed away.

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2 comments

  1. Jarmo

    Hello Justin
    Do you remember when Nelson Mandela was still in prison and people sung: “Free Nelson Mandela”.?
    Then he was released and a few years later her wife Winnie was arrested for something….
    And the song was changed to: “Free Winnie Mandela”….

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