"Test Tube Babies"
Every age has its anxieties and its obsessions, but the 1970s brought a special kind of menace — at least as I observed that decade from my perspective as an extremely nervous child.
Understand: this was a period when everything seemed poised to fall apart at any second. According to the increasingly pervasive news media, personal safety and health, as well as national security and stability, were under constant threat from sources both foreign and familiar. Every item in your cupboard caused cancer, legionnaires were croaking from air conditioning, bubble gum was made of spider eggs, Africanized bees were hours from entering the US, and, for some reason, everyone you knew was suddenly making macramé. Macramé, for God's sake!
This was all very confusing to me, and, as easy as it is to look back and laugh off our paper tigers, the drumbeat of imminent doom and chaos was impossible to ignore at the time. Especially if you were already an extremely nervous child.
Perhaps, this is why I so enjoyed being reminded of the contemporary media din over “test tube babies,” via American Experience’s titular documentary. I’d forgotten how everyone from the late, lamented Johnny Carson to every half-witted editorial cartoonist in the country had such a field day with that misleading buzzphrase (in the case of the latter, I suspect it might have been simply because test tubes are so easy to draw when you’re on deadline).
For those of you who were in the know at that time about the more, shall we say, traditional method of reproductive childbirth, this must all have been confusing in its own way. But imagine how it looked to someone whose understanding of the birth process was limited to speculation that a baby probably exited somewhere near where Mom’s penis would be, were she so equipped.
Thus, for the length of our nation’s test tube baby mania, I remained vividly convinced that scientifically-advanced tube-children were being grown in rows of gym lockers — each of which held an enormous test tube with a single shiny baby floating in a few gallons of mucus-y water. I reckoned that there must have been some kind of pneumatic tube system that could deliver the child milk, and later Cheerios, and finally hot dogs and Twinkies. Once the child became a mature toddler, I speculated, the locker door would creak open, the tube would tip outward, and a fully-formed Osh-Kosh-wearing youngster would come tumbling to the floor. Its new family would comb its hair, buckle it into the Country Squire, and carry it safely home, where it would be adequately instructed on the threat of Africanized bees, shown how to avoid air conditioning, and taught a few basic macramé knots. Thus, the circle of life would continue.
It wasn’t until seeing this documentary that I went back to re-examine those speculations (and that fascinating time) — to really see for the first time how technology, law, and raw emotion were colliding on so many fronts across the US — to see, in this case, how that complex collision was reflected on the faces of the Del Zios, in particular. It took me back to a decade when our ability to understand and synthesize a growing body of contradictory information was made even more difficult by the tumult of political side-taking — especially among the growing ranks on both sides of the “pro life” debate. So many of those battles are still being fought today.
Yes, every age has its anxieties and its obsessions, but there was something special and very weird and very compelling about the 1970s. Even if you weren’t raised in a gym locker. Even if you were just a very confused and extremely nervous child — silently praying that the bees would never get him.