We continue the PAST LIFEs series, in which we revisit the last few months of LIFE magazine, issue by issue, on the 50th anniversary of its departure. There are only seven issues left.
This week we revisit the issue of November 10, 1972, which can be read online here. My grandfather saved this one so I have seen it before, though not lately.
LIFE has turned its attention to numerous topics since I’ve been reading it, not all of which I agree with, but the issue of American prisoners of war in Vietnam is one they’ve returned to several times. It might have been genuine concern … or it might have been a way to needle President Nixon: No matter how many points he scored by promising the impending arrival of peace, here was an issue he hadn’t gotten his hands around.
Whatever reason they had for keeping the POW issue in their pages, it was the right thing for them to do, and a point in their favor.
(The 1972 Presidential election, incidentally, was held on November 7, three days before this issue’s cover date. So even if LIFE had been covering the POW issue to point out a Nixon Administration failing, this cover wouldn’t have been chosen as a final pre-election dig. Too late for that.)
Google tells me that the cover photo of Navy airman Ronald Dodge dated to 1967, and, unfortunately, he might have been dead for several years by the time it was printed on LIFE’s cover. His body was returned to the U.S. in 1981. I have also learned that Dodge played a season of minor-league baseball in his native Washington state at the end of the 1950s.
OK, let’s open the issue.
An ad for the Air Force provides a cut-out coupon that can be mailed to the U.S. Air Force Recruiting Service Directorate of Advertising, Randolph Air Force Base, Texas. The Directorate of Advertising sounds like an interesting place to work.
Managing Editor Ralph Graves devotes yet another column to a photographer profile — which I guess is not out of line for a photo-centric magazine. The subject this week is Bill Ray. Six years ago he’d visited Massillon, Ohio, clean-shaven, to photograph a story about the town’s first war death and residents’ attitudes toward the war. For this story he went back, now with long hair and a beard.
“The Beat of LIFE” features a formal portrait of the core members of the British royal family, taken on the occasion of the 25th wedding anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh. Mildly interesting to see the bushy-browed young man who would become King of England a scant 50 years later. Also from Blighty are two pages of photos from a guy who mounted an automatic camera at the base of a jump during a horse race, catching a jockey as he went flying from his mount. Finally, there’s a volcano in Zaire; thankfully the photographer there saw fit to shoot in color.
Hugh Sidey reports on peace being seemingly at hand. The tantrum bombings of Operation Linebacker II the following month must not be visible in the first week of November.
Benson & Hedges takes out one of its broken-cigarette ads, this one featuring a whale trainer, and the only thing I can think about is how much it must suck to crave nicotine so badly that you have to light up while you’re in the whale tank.
Buy a Frigidaire appliance by December 10, submit the proper info, and they’ll send you a poinsettia plant. Sure, why not.
Volvo gets all huffy that other car manufacturers are adopting disc brakes because people want them, whereas Volvo already offers them because they want you to be safe. The difference seems pointless to the driver; a set of disc brakes will do what a set of disc brakes does, regardless of why it’s on the car.
Encyclopedia Americana takes out an ad noting that its encyclopedias are “never used up” no matter how much you use them, and that your family will consult its copy for years and years to come. Well, sure … and every fact in the world will stay exactly as it was in 1972, so you can use the books forever.
Cyclops raves about the BBC production of Balzac’s Cousin Bette now showing on Masterpiece Theatre. Richard Schickel mostly criticizes “The Assassination of Trotsky” and “Young Winston.” GTE Sylvania offers a cameo, in a choice of three colors, to anyone sending in $1.25 and the bottom panel from a box of flashcubes before June 30, 1973. The ad notes that delivery cannot be guaranteed without correct ZIP code, which I didn’t think people still needed to be reminded about in November 1972, but I guess so.
Anthony Burgess raves about Cecil Woodham-Smith’s biography of Queen Victoria, and boy, there seems to be a lot of musty olde England so far this week. Maybe that’s why the issue bores me so much.
OK, here’s something piquant: Reviewer Maitland Edey praises Colin Turnbull’s The Mountain People, a book about the Ik tribe of Uganda. Changes in their ancient lifestyle have forced each member of the group to live completely and solely in their own self-interest; children and the elderly are cast out to fend for themselves. The description sounds too wild to be true, like the Tasaday, so 50 years later I go to the Wiki entry … which notes that the tribe’s established qualities also include an innate tendency to mislead Westerners. Hmmmm.
An ad by the American Gas Association praises natural gas as “the clean energy we need for a cleaner world.” “No smoke to ruin the air we breathe!” It will suffice to say that this is very much not how natural gas is viewed or presented 50 years later.
“23 Years Ago in LIFE” we saw a sewage mucker at work in the tunnels under New York City, and a re-enactment of a carful of teenagers playing chicken, which sounds like perfect raw material for the kind of what-are-the-kids-doing-now? mass panic that comes along every so often. At least they weren’t hopped up on goofballs.
The Letters section includes one of my favorites from this period, and something I hinted at a few weeks ago. Remember Jenifer Morris, the 12-year-old from Marin County featured in the spread about “Middle Age Children” aged 6 through 12? Well, a sharp-eyed reader in West Haven, Connecticut, looked closely at the photo of Jenifer practicing flute in her bedroom and noticed, on the wall behind her, the famous Rita Hayworth kneeling-on-a-bed pinup picture. Jenifer’s explanation: “She’s pretty, so I put her there.”
Another writer praises an unposed photo of a young student smiling up at her first-grade teacher and asks how the photographer got the shot — because, when the writer tries to take similar shots, the kids always pay attention to the camera instead of what they’re supposed to be doing. The pro photographer’s tips, paraphrased: Hang around until the kids forget you’re there, and watch for individual kids who are “into it” enough that you can catch them in an open moment. It’s a fun piece of shop talk that’s perfect in a photo-oriented magazine.
Still another correspondent asks why Neil Diamond charges $7.50 a ticket if he wants his fans’ love, not their money (a statement made by Mr. Diamond during his interview a few weeks ago.) Oh, buddy, I think. Let your friend from 2022 tell you about a little something called Ticketmaster.
On to the cover story, by Loudon Wainwright. It begins with an anecdote that drips with the frustration and pain felt by POW/MIA families, who are simultaneously eager for a peace that might bring their men home; concerned about the complex emotional challenges involved in readjustment to home life; and fearful that peace might instead bring them a firm confirmation of their son or husband’s death. (The piece tips its hat to the American families for whom a confirmed death in Vietnam is already a fact of life, but points out that POW/MIA families have their own distinct variety of pain to endure.)
We learn that a single photo of an American POW being herded out of the bushes at gunpoint has been identified, either firmly or tentatively, by 28 different American families. And, we read about the preparations the military has made to re-adjust these soldiers to their families and their society. The project is known, in classic impenetrable military-speak, as Operation Egress Recap.
LIFE talks to four wives of missing soldiers, and while the military appears to be drowning in doublespeak, they come across as sharp-eyed and acutely aware of the potentially rocky times to come: “It’s sort of like planning to get married again, only I haven’t seen the bridegroom in six years.” “He’s just not going to walk in that door and be the same man who left.” “The first time he opposes a decision I’ve made, it won’t sit well with me. I find myself thinking, if he lays one hand on one of the kids I’ve raised, God help him.”
The piece ends with a woman who has taken a leading role in a national POW/MIA organization, even though she doesn’t expect to see her son again, based on eyewitness reports of his helicopter crash. She has several unopened boxes of his clothing and belongings, sent to her after his disappearance; despite her hard-nosed exterior, she has not yet been able to open them and face the contents.
This is a clear-eyed, hard-hitting piece of work that swims in painful waters, and the finest thing I have read in these old magazines to date — rivaled only by the guide that told parents of children with learning disabilities how to navigate (nay, fight) the educational system to get help for their kids. Those have also been the only two pieces that made me think that America might actually have lost something substantial when this publication went to its rest.
From there we visit Massillon, Ohio, to find that 1966’s growing doubt about the war has been replaced, seemingly, by pure fatigue and a desire to move on, regardless of the needs or interests of those who have perfectly good reasons why they can’t.
In 1966, photographer Ray captured a haunting image of a shirtless boy on a bicycle watching a military honor guard carrying the coffin of Massillon native Robert Wuertz Jr. (It’s not reprinted here — you have to Google it — though the image reprinted here of Wuertz’s father clutching a folded flag will stay with you too.) In the fall of 1972, Wuertz’s embittered parents, dressed for the weather, visit his grave, in an image I remember from the first time I read this issue more than 35 years ago.
A handicapped veteran wheels his wheelchair down a city sidewalk. Ten others from Massillon who survived the war stand in a downtown intersection, arms around shoulders, holding up the one of their number who was badly wounded. A group of representative residents share their opinions on the war; none approach optimism. The final person heard from is the sister of a soldier missing in Vietnam for four years. She sits in half-darkness, hoping against hope. (Door gunner Ronald Stanton’s remains were identified by DNA testing almost 30 years later, in 2001.)
This is a powerful piece too … and I suspect that whatever comes next is going to seem pallid by comparison. A Lark cigarette ad and a photo of Sierra Leone’s biggest diamond confirm my suspicions.
The intermittent consumer column returns with an encouragement to all Americans, but especially pregnant ones, to wear their seat belts. The story notes that pregnant women tend not to belt up because they’re concerned the belt will injure their child in the event of a crash. But statistics show that the risk of injury to both mother and child is considerably greater when the mother is ejected from the car, which, of course, is much more likely when the mother is unbelted. I wonder if this advice reached a woman in the suburbs of Rochester, New York — not, to my knowledge, a LIFE subscriber — who as of November 10, 1972, might not even have known that she had a younger son on the way.
GM follows with a weird, blurry ad touting the fact that its regular, low-beam headlights now carry 25 feet farther than they used to. It’s good to know that their plans for 1973 call for actively contributing to fewer deaths.
Hiram Walker Cordials promotes three of the many drinks you can make with their products (the Sombrero, the Apricot Sour and the Blackberry Cooler, to be precise.) Pour me a drink and I’ll tell ya some lies.
One Judy Fayard follows up with a firsthand recollection of her experience on The Dating Game, which is expanded to serve as a contemptuous musing on the vacuity of American TV game shows. I guess it’s not LIFE’s fault that Ms. Fayard happened to wear a miniskirt on the set, but y’know, I was just thinking it had been an oddly long time since I saw a woman’s thigh. LIFE corrects its own imbalances.
(To be honest, I wasn’t actually thinking LIFE was overdue for a gratuitous leg shot; my mind is still about 10 pages back with those poor parents in Massillon looking at the bleak, black finality of their son’s gravestone. I semi-skim the article on game shows. In another time and place I might be more interested in a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of Safe, Inoffensive, Flirty Fun for the Masses. Not this week.)
Little-Brown Publishers of Beacon Street, Boston, Mass., takes out a full-page ad to promote The Wreck of the Penn Central, an apparently unflinching look at the remarkably rapid lurch into bankruptcy of America’s largest railroad. I might actually enjoy reading that. It is jarring to a newspaper buff to see a mention of the Philadelphia Bulletin in the ad. Once the largest evening paper — not just in Filthydelphia, but the entire U.S. — the Bulletin went under less than 10 years after LIFE did. I wonder if anyone wrote a tell-all about its failure. Maybe they did; they had a roomful of people with typewriters there, after all.
United Airlines begins its ad: “The men who are going places always know how to get there.” Interestingly, the ad is focused on flights to “there” (“there” being Chicago’s two airports) from “here” (“here” being two New York City airports, plus Newark.) I wonder if the assumption was that LIFE readers were heavily concentrated in the NYC area … or, more likely, if some numbnuts just re-used an ad from some more local setting without completely thinking through how it would play on a national stage.
As the Dating Game story wends on and on and on, we see a relatively rare phenomenon — ads of less than a quarter-page size. Since you pay less the smaller the ad gets, this opens the possibility of advertising in LIFE to a whole ‘nother group of businesses.
One of the advertisers is Roto-Rooter, the drain-cleaning people, probably getting their name out just before Thanksgiving. (Isn’t it a truism that plumbers are made extra-busy on Thanksgiving by people who think they can dump their turkey schmaltz straight down the sink?) The other is selling Rocky and Bullwinkle T-shirts that might or might not be licensed.
A Tampax ad begins with the assertion that “Cross-country skiing’s the new craze. Everything about it is different. … Just the sport for a girl like you. One who’s eager to try something new.”
I am curious to know whether cross-country skiing was ever, in fact, anything resembling “a new craze” in mainstream America, or whether it has plodded along for decades with a small number of adherents in the snowy regions. Nineteen seventy-two was a Winter Olympic year — remember when they held the Winter Games and Summer Games in the same year? — although I don’t think anything dramatic happened in Olympic cross-country skiing to create a “new craze.”
I did some cross-country skiing as a kid, and every time I think about it I ask myself why I don’t do it any more. It looks like terrific fun, and a low-impact workout besides. But this feeling has never pushed me quite far enough to go buy a pair of skis and have at it. My high school actually offered cross-country skiing as a wintertime gym class unit for a while, and I think that was the last time I was on skis.
The Postal Service takes out an ad urging people to use their ZIP Code. I learned from reading Hope Street that ZIP codes were introduced around 1963 and made mandatory around 1967. Surely people knew enough to use them by late 1972? I guess not. The ad counsels people to check the ZIP code section of their phone book; I can only imagine some labyrinthine section listing every five-digit code in the country. Yeesh,
“Part of the beauty of the new Plymouth Fury is the way it fights rust and corrosion,” an ad tells us. Nawwwww: Part of the beauty of the new Plymouth Fury was the way Telly Savalas would go rip-assing through New York City in them as if Abe Beame had given him exclusive license to use the streets. Who loves ya, baby?
This freaking story on game shows goes on and on and on and on and on. Apparently the Dating Game contestant and her chosen bachelor won a trip to Acapulco. By this point in the story they’re doing the cha-cha together down in Mexico. Could we leave them there? Finally we more or less do, as we learn that, while the guy was nice enough, the date didn’t work out.
I check Wiki to find out if the show is still on. Wiki tells me that it was relaunched in 2021 with celebrity dating guests, and Zooey Deschanel and Michael Bolton as hosts (I can only assume their names came up in a spirited game of Mad-Libs.) This version lasted eight episodes and was canceled, so we can have the comfort of knowing that we will go to bed tonight in an America that has no Dating Game.
Oldsmobile takes out an ad for two fine, fine, woodgrained station wagons. One of them has something called the Rocket 455 V8 and the “Disappearing Glide-Away tailgate.” Sweet Lord, take me downtown and let me rent one of these for two days on someone else’s card. I ain’t askin’ for much.
African jungle animals are shown living their lives in the harsh desert. While I enjoy the travelogue, I am not tremendously moved; the wonders of evolution have prepared these animals for the setting they inhabit, and while I couldn’t live there, they do just fine.
A two-page spread on UCLA quarterback Mark Harmon, son of former All-American quarterback Tommy Harmon, follows. I imagine that the core LIFE reader is probably a middle-aged man to whom the name Tommy Harmon sparks memories. Mark does not go on to play in the NFL — a smart, smart lad! — but you’re probably familiar with his other endeavors.
The Parting Shots column, so often superfluous, is doubly fascinating. First is a story about Olympic gold-medal marathoner Frank Shorter, hailed as a hero across the U.S. — except in Taos, New Mexico, where he trained.
It turns out that Frank had interrupted the attempted assault of two young women by a carload of locals, and since that time had become such a pariah that his father had to follow him on his training runs with a rifle to prevent people from running him down. When he won the gold medal, his father told the story to the media, leading to a civic eruption in Taos. I don’t know whether Taos ever came around to honoring Shorter; I’m also not sure whether, having conquered the greatest challenge in running, he particularly cared whether they did or not.
“All long-distance runners learn to expect snarling dogs and motorists’ taunts during their practice sessions along the highway,” the story adds. I guess I don’t run far enough to have experienced that. Either that, or I can give great thanks for living in the times in which I live.
The second anecdote is about Martha Raye, the Broadway veteran opening in a revival of No, No, Nanette, who has spent on average four months a year over the past seven years entertaining U.S. troops in Vietnam — or sometimes just visiting them and swapping stories in front-line language. No entertainer, we are told — not even Bob Hope — has spent more time or traveled more widely there. The piece ends with a great detail: Raye’s dressing rooms are often full of “ramrod-straight, crew-cut men awkwardly holding flowers,” whom she thanks with a crisp, “Yessir. Thank you, sir.”
It is perhaps a bad idea to form one’s opinion of a person based on a few inches of copy in a national magazine, but my image of Martha Raye — heretofore limited to denture cleanser ads in the 1980s — is at least somewhat deeper after reading this. (According to Wiki, she is buried at Fort Bragg in recognition of her contributions to the military.)
The section ends with photos of a British photographer who got kayoed after trying to photograph a boxing kangaroo up close. It strikes me as remarkable that they apparently had another photographer photographing the photo session … as if they expected the kangaroo to go all Smokin’ Joe Frazier on the shutterbug. This is a photo magazine, anyway, and what happens to photographers is news here.
(The shot of the kangaroo clocking the photographer while their camera goes sailing through the air is pretty priceless, I have to admit.)
The Smirnoff brunch-at-midnight ad and a Marlboro cigarette ad put the issue to bed. It must suck to crave nicotine so badly that you light up while you’re lassoing little dogies.