September 1, 1972: Bored on the job.

The latest in a series of posts we’re calling Past LIFEs, in which we revisit the final few months of LIFE magazine, issue by issue, 50 years later. We have reached the issue of September 1, 1972; you can read along here if you want.

Wha’? They put Michael Palin on the cover of LIFE?

No, this is a fender installer named Larry Walker, chosen somehow to epitomize the phenomenon of being bored by manual labor. It is obvious to suggest that being bored on the job might have been preferable to what came next for many American manufacturing workers in the 10 or 15 years after this issue was printed.

I am also piqued by (a) LIFE’s funereal choice of colors for the cover design; and (b) LIFE’s apparent choice to run the cover photos in black and white. (I assume the photos were shot in color; I guess we’ll find out soon enough.) It hits, I guess, though now I’m mentally playing with the design to imagine what it would have looked like another way.

Managing Editor Ralph Graves gives a promotional goose to a previously announced Bicentennial photo contest for amateur and professional photographers, called “A Declaration of Interdependence.” Entries are due December 31, 1972, he says, and winning entries will appear in the issue of LIFE available on the Fourth of July, 1973.

The entry deadline, as it turned out, was also the cover date of the final issue of LIFE. I wonder if Graves knew when he wrote this that the issue of July 4, 1973, would never be printed? Someone of his rank must have had at least some suspicion.

A quick Google search does not turn up any evidence that any other publication took on this contest after LIFE’s death. It must have been frustrating to at least a few amateur shooters in America to send their best shots to LIFE only to have them die a forgotten death in some file cabinet. (In the best of all possible worlds, LIFE would have sent the submissions back with regret; but we do not live in the best of all possible worlds, most of the time, and I tend to doubt that happened.)

“The Beat of LIFE” kicks off with a sequence of shots of Sammy Davis Jr. and newly renominated President Nixon onstage together in Miami. It ends with Davis, exuding thrilled-to-death vibes as only he could, hugging a beaming Nixon, who has the good grace to greet Davis’s physical embrace more openly than Archie Bunker did.

We also see Boris Spassky in Reykjavik, on the verge of defeat (how long until another chess match enters the American mainstream?); Christo hanging his latest installation under gorgeously blue skies in Colorado; lions killing a bull in Kenya; and a chain of lightning bolts menacing an observatory in Arizona. Christo and the lightning bolts come out best.

I’m really not getting into Hugh Sidey’s dissection of the political maneuverings of 1972. Maybe it’s because I read Hunter S. Thompson’s considerably woollier coverage of the campaign first. Or maybe it’s just that people inside the Beltway are just boring as hell when they write about the sausage getting made. Or all of the above.

I went on a Jean Shepherd mini-kick a while ago, listening to some of his old radio shows, so I was interested in Cyclops (the TV reviewer)’s verdict on “Jean Shepherd’s America.” He didn’t like it, for a reason that would play well today: Shepherd’s America was, to a fault, a nostalgic working-class white male vision. “It’s that sort of America for Jean Shepherd. I wish it were that sort of America for all of us, including women,” Cyclops concludes … and while I enjoyed the Shepherd I heard and would like to go back for more, I can feel in my bones that this is on target.

A full-page ad for Subarus is mildly nostalgic, as it reminds me of that generation of Seventies Japanese small-car design. I find the look pleasantly dashing, and I would buy one of the pictured cars tomorrow (probably the little station wagon) if it were new on the lot.

Book reviewers take on a work about Eleanor Roosevelt’s last years, as well as a fact-based doomsday fiction thriller in which Egypt’s High Dam of Aswan slowly gives way and the collected leaders of the world do nothing to stop it. A reprint of this would also probably do good business today, as each day seems to bring a new existential threat created by climate change, the pandemic, and/or resource exhaustion, and the world’s capacity to face the problems seems not to have gained any in the past 50 years.

Belair Menthol cigarettes advertise a free cassette tape recorder with the return of an unspecified number of coupons. I wonder how much disaster you had to inflict on your body to earn a free cassette tape recorder? It can’t possibly have been worth it just to be able to bring the Carpenters with you everywhere you went.

Film critic Richard Schickel characterizes Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, etc. etc. as a noble failure. I saw a couple Woody Allen films decades ago, before I completely turned my back on the cinema, but that wasn’t one of them.

“This Week in Life” we go back 32 years to see the Dionne Quintuplets on the cover, marking their First Communion. I don’t remember seeing news stories recently about women bearing great numbers of children, which I take as a positive sign in social development (though I also don’t read every news outlet in America, so maybe they’re still out there.)

There’s also a classic photo — it looks Hollywood but it’s real — of the long-forgotten Wendell Willkie being greeted in his Indiana hometown after getting the Presidential nomination. This is, quite possibly, the greatest single moment of Willkie’s life, and it looks it.

The letters are all over the map — though quite a few of them seem to come from Massachusetts, with the towns of Northborough, Dedham, Topsfield, and South Hadley all represented. (Euclid, Ohio, gets two letters; in a national publication, what are the odds?) A reader in Georgia didn’t enjoy the Sam Peckinpah mock-suicide photo any more than I did, so, three cheers for that much.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan writes at length about how Richard Nixon views his apparently inevitable second term following his renomination at a calm, well-managed convention. I didn’t scan it to see if Moynihan predicted Nixon’s intention to ratf–k his enemies … but the jump headline assures me that Tricky Dick “believes in a ‘Stevensonian’ concept of civility,” so I’m guessing not.

The cover story comes next, and it’s reasonably interesting: A new generation of young people on the assembly line is less willing to trade at-work drudgery for paychecks. Again, as it turned out, far fewer of them would end up being offered the choice.

The story package tells the interesting tale of a man (not the cover subject) who worked on an assembly line for 11 years while earning a psychology degree to better help him understand mental disabilities like his brother’s. For a time he taught the mentally disabled; but when that work left him a slim step above the poverty line, he went back to manufacturing. His father is a steelworker on the night shift who admits that his team does a certain amount of work each night and then knocks off to read books; I’m guessing his employer didn’t take kindly to seeing that in LIFE magazine.

The package ends with a piece titled “The will to work and some ways to increase it,” which looks like it might have some relevance to today’s burned-out semi-remote American workforce. But the analysis is tightly limited to automaking, so today’s corporations are going to have to find their answer to today’s malaise somewhere else.

After a classic Virginia Slims “You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby” cigarette ad (I use the term “classic” loosely and ironically), writer Paul Hemphill checks in with an essay on his brief attempt at a career on the lowest levels of minor league baseball many years before.

This aligns with my interests, and I scan-read it; it’s unsurprising but pretty good. I also go to Baseball-Reference to look up Hemphill’s record before realizing that his only professional appearance came in a preseason game. He has no official record in professional baseball … not unless you count seven pages in the September 1, 1972, issue of LIFE magazine.

Hemphill’s young son David, wearing a lower-case Atlanta Braves “a” cap, is shown playing with him in one of the photos. I look him up in Baseball-Reference too, just for yucks, and he’s not there, so he didn’t get any farther than his dad did in terms of getting somebody to pay him to swing a baseball bat in anger. No shame in that, though.

Kodak takes a full-page ad: For just $4.95 plus both end panels from three boxes of Kodak film, you can get your choice of a patriotic watch. One watch face shows a donkey; one shows an elephant; and one shows Uncle Sam pulling open his shirt to display the word “VOTE” on his bare torso. This is a look I associate more with Mick Jagger than with Uncle Sam, and I wonder how many of each watch Kodak ended up shipping out.

Two pages follow with a mini-profile of Richard Roundtree, tasting success in the Shaft series after years of scraping along. As of press time he is making a movie called Charlie One-Eye, which I have never ever heard of but would watch before I watched most of Woody Allen’s oeuvre.

A full-page Toyota ad boasts that the new Mark II is the first Toyota with six cylinders. It also has “leather-like padding.” Hey, those come in station wagons too, though they’re not shown in the ad.

Suddenly one of those random questions grips me: I wonder how many of each 1972 make of car is still registered in America today. How many ’72 Chevys are still registered and street-legal? How many ’72 Toyotas, or Saabs, or Volvos, or AMCs?

I am just barely smart enough to recognize that collectability plays more of a part in this than durability. There are probably more ’72 Mustangs and Vettes preserved than there are ’72 Toyota Mark IIs … but the build quality of each model is probably not the prime factor for that.

Another unexpectedly interesting essay follows. In 1964, LIFE had profiled Jill Kinmont, a former Olympic downhill skiing hopeful paralyzed in an accident, who vowed not to be limited by her disability. LIFE rejoins her as she leads a literacy class for children on a Paiute Native American reservation. I am interested enough to go to Wiki and find out what happened next; Kinmont apparently moved back to her hometown and taught special education for 21 years. She died in 2012. (Her Wiki article includes the following terse summary: “Known for: Ski racing, quadriplegia, tenacity.”)

Finally we reach the Parting Shots section. The guy who profiled Bobby Fischer a few issues ago turns in a page of copy on whether Boris Spassky will be able to return to Soviet Russia if/when he loses to Fischer. (Spoiler: Yes, he could, though he emigrated to France in 1976.) The rest of the section consists of Olympic absurdities from Games many years past. Sure, why not.

A Bell ad (remember Bell?) urges us to teach kids how to call the operator (remember calling the operator?) And on the back cover is an ad for Kent cigarettes and their Micronite filters, which reminds me of the tequila-soaked 1973 shows at which Neil Young introduced his band as Clark Kent and the Micronite Filters.

Sad to say, Tonight’s The Night — like the Bicentennial photo contest — will never make it into the pages of LIFE magazine.

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