Wednesday, August 18, 1971, was a summer day like countless others on my grandfather’s calendars — humid and hazy, with a high of 88.
But on this day, the lurid orange sun had to share space in my grandpa’s hand-drawn sky with a foreboding sign of the times.
The threat of environmental pollution, so long ignored, was becoming inescapable by August of 1971.
News programs were making note of the growing crisis. On the very night of Aug. 18, David Brinkley reported for nearly five minutes on NBC’s Nightly News about a group of schoolchildren who wrote letters about pollution to U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin. (The kids presumably saw Nelson, the founder of Earth Day, as a sympathetic ear.)
TV watchers that month were also seeing one of the most famous public service announcements of all time, launched in April to coincide with the second Earth Day.
Seen through skeptical 21st-century eyes, the ad stumbles because of its lack of authenticity. It’s now known that lead actor Iron Eyes Cody was the son of Sicilian immigrants to Louisiana, and had as much Native American blood as Joe DiMaggio.
The use of Native American imagery to make a point also rankles. America has never really taken care of its original residents — in fact, we’ve kinda screwed them at every turn — but we’re glad to trot them out to make a point in a big ad campaign.
None of that seemed to bother viewers much at the time. The PSA resonated so well, and was so talked-about, that it ran for 15 years. I remember seeing it, and you probably do too:
Of course, the message about pollution’s dangers didn’t have to come via the TV. My grandfather might have noticed it just by looking out his window.
According to newspaper reports, the state health department issued an air pollution watch for Fairfield County on the 18th because of a stagnant high-pressure weather system extending from the Midwest to New York. It was the first such alert of the summer in the county; a similar alert was declared in New York City.
The weather system was expected to remain in place through the weekend, trapping pollution in the air.
Officials called on residents and businesses to cut unnecessary combustion — such as driving — and said they might require a major power plant in the area to switch to low-sulfur fuel.
I don’t know how long the alert lasted, or whether my family took any action to curb its infinitessimal share of Fairfield County’s smog.
I do know that my grandpa’s calendar entry for the following Sunday makes no mention of smog, pollution or clouds. I’ll take that as a positive indicator.
Man’s inhumanity to the environment remained a top news story well after the smog lifted in southwestern Connecticut.
Just two days after this calendar entry, a U.S. Navy refueling ship accidentally dumped 1,000 gallons of oil into the Pacific Ocean, fouling the beach at President Nixon’s oceanside California retreat.
And air pollution issues continued to show up on my grandpa’s calendars year ’round, not just in the thick of summer.