Past LIFEs.

In another sign that the Great Spirit wants me to stare at a screen all day until I vanish, I was reminded today that Google Books keeps a free, open online archive of issues of the original LIFE magazine.

The archive starts at the end (December 29, 1972: Year In Pictures/Goodbye) … which is unfortunate for you, the reader, ’cause here comes a big pile of words on top of your head.


See, my maternal grandfather — not the Hope Street grandpa; the other grandpa — was something of a pack rat when it came to printed material. He saved decades of Popular Mechanics magazines, and decades of Reader’s Digest, and even decades of football-related sports sections from the Stamford Advocate.

(I can’t remember whether he saved the Saturday sections, which would have had the high school football results; the Sunday sections, for the college results; or the Monday sections, for the NFL/AFL results. I don’t think it was all three; I think it was one of the three. Out of this copious stash covering decades, I never saw him take one out to read.)

His personal archive also included nine or ten issues from the final three-plus months of LIFE, beginning with September 15 (Olympic Tragedy) and ending with the December 29 final issue.

Seeing those covers grouped together in the online archive reminded me that I always loved going through his stash of old books, papers, and magazines when I was a kid. And when I went to his house in Connecticut, I would often seek out and re-read this small stash of LIFE.

I’m not sure why in retrospect. Although the magazines were no more than a dozen years old when I found them, they seemed much older. Compared to the vibrant current magazines we got at home — Time, Sports Illustrated — they looked faded and distant.

They seemed to come from a period of pain and ugliness, too — a time of goodbyes and murdered athletes and familiar institutions gone bad and defiant, worn-down POWs and disabled victims of assassination attempts. (As a kid, I did not grasp the full pathos of a formerly high-rolling national politician trying to prove his physical strength — and thus cling to his electoral hopes — by posing in a jacket and tie lobbing tennis balls from a wheelchair.)

I learned about the bizarre, botched bank robbery that later became Dog Day Afternoon from the September 22 issue. Even the nation’s biggest winner of the season looked like a man with something malignant growing in his stomach.

(I was reading the latter issue once when my dad happened by. He took a closer look at the photo, then at the date of the magazine, and then said something like: “He’d just won a landslide victory and that was the picture they chose to run.” It was my introduction to media criticism. Thanks, Dad.)

Yeah, there was no logical reason to go back to the news of fall and winter 1972. None of the people in my family who’d actually lived through the period ever opened these magazines.

But I did, time and again. I guess when you feel disconnected or out-of-place in the present, you have to choose between the past and the future … and the past, at least, can be made to lay flat.

The weird thing about it is, I always assumed that LIFE must have announced its pending demise in September, and my grandpa started saving some (though not all) of the issues from then on, figuring they were special in some way.

But in the 21st century, with a Newspapers dot com subscription, I’ve discovered that the magazine’s closing was announced to its staff in a memo on Friday, December 8, 1972. The announcement began showing up in papers (presumably afternoon papers) that very day, from Biddeford, Maine, to San Rafael, California. So I have no idea why my grandpa would have started saving issues of LIFE magazine in the middle of September.

For whatever reason, he left a portal open for me. And although the sun on the other side was not shining and the trees were barren, I enjoyed walking through it.

# # # # #

The (re)discovery of this online archive allows me to walk through it again. And, in deference to the Mighty King Fives-and-Zeroes, I had a thought:

What if I read each issue of the final few months of LIFE, 50 years to the day/week after it came out, and blogged about it?

Not just the issues my grandpa kept — though those would have special resonance — but, like, starting right now, in early August.

My original plan was to begin with the August 4, 1972, issue, and post it today (y’know, on August 4.) It’s already late enough in the day that that’s not gonna happen. But maybe I’ll get to it in the next day or two, and try to get into rhythm with the August 11 issue.

I don’t get any print magazines at home now, and 2022 seems just about as barren and bitter as 1972 used to. So, who knows what I’ll think when I pass through the portal again?

One thought on “Past LIFEs.

  1. Another great Neck Pickup! Thanks.

    Your other grandpa, who worked for Time-Life mags, kept a few chosen issues of the later and a few of the historic LIFE magazines as well, which I’m sure you’ve seen (and possibly even taken!) in my cellar. Unless I’m way off base, LIFE was intended to be a photo-based magazine SHOWING what was going on in the world through pictures, as opposed to words and analysis. For a while, at least, it succeeded.


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