The Biggest New Year Celebrations 12/31/19

Recollections by Richard Bleil

The advantage of being as old as I am is that you haven’t died yet. In addition to telling tasteless jokes, it also means that I recall nearly half a century of history.

Half a century.

And it has been an interesting half century. I remember two very special new year’s eves, sadly, two that many people will never see the equivalent of in their lifetimes. Namely, I’m referring to the bicentennial celebration, the nearest of which will be the tricentennial that will occur in seventy-six years from this one. The other is the second millennial celebration. The next equivalent, the third millennial celebration, will occur in nine thousand, nine hundred and eighty ears after this one.

Sad, isn’t it?

The two celebrations were quite different affairs. The bicentennial was quite the patriotic affair. To set the stage, in 1976, there was no cable television, no cell phones, no internet. There were typically four television stations (CBS, NBC, ABC and PBS). Our information of the day’s news came from radio or television news shows, or newspapers. The closest we had to information mining was an Encyclopedia set, the premier being, of course, the Encyclopedia Brittanica.

The build-up to the Bicentennial was largely centered around the television stations, with many bicentennial specials celebrating the history of America (whitewashed, of course, without mention of things like the Native Americans, slavery or other historical atrocities carried out in the name of liberty and freedom). It was important to choose the programs to watch carefully as the technology to record television may have existed, but certainly was priced out of the market for humble families like mine.

I remember when Jane Fonda showed up on one of these celebrations. Broadcast live from a huge hall, the crowd “booed” as she entered the stage. For those who may not recall, in 1972 (just four years earlier) Jane posed on a tank to raise “humanitarian aid” for North Vietnam when the US was still at war with them (the US involvement ran from 1964 to 1973) earning her the nickname “Hanoi Jane”. Although some thought of this as a protest, many saw it as treason since any money North Vietnam was not spending on wounded troops, they were spending on bullets to use against American troops. She was on stage just long enough to eek out one sentence about living in a country where everybody had a guarantee of freedom of speech.

New Year’s Eve was, as always, accompanied by Dick Clark’s “New Year’s Rockin’ Eve” live from New York City. The “New Year’s Ball” was dropped, as usual, from the top of the Empire State Building. Here’s something that maybe not many people knew, but it was lowered (then) by hand and would continue to be done as such for a couple more decades. They were always the same two guys who did it. For those who remember, this is why some years it seemed as though the timing was off. If it was too quick, they’d slow it nearly to a stop sometimes, or speed it up if they were behind. More on that in a bit. The bicentennial was a celebration that went on for months.

I remembered the bicentennial, so when the millennial celebration was approaching, I was really excited about it. Sadly, here in America, it was pathetic. See, we were wrapped up in the Y2K paranoia. As it turns out, programmers, to save themselves TWO keystrokes, were programming years with two digits instead of four. In other words, 1976 would be reduced to 76. The fear was that when we went from 99 to 00, it would confuse the computer programs and we were all going to die. Airplanes would crash, utilities would shut off, nukes would launch themselves, complete disaster. The bright side was that programmers that knew Cobol (the programming language that was popular for business applications) suddenly were in demand again as other programming languages overtook Cobol for a short period of time. And, yes, there was a Y2K failure. Well, kinda. An EKG instrument was printing “1900” instead of “2000”, so the printouts had to be corrected by hand. Yep, this was the only failure of which I am aware.

The turn of the millennium was a huge affair all the way around the world. There were broadcasts live from different countries as the millennium turned in each time zone, and the events were off of the charts. In Australia, there were dancers on the OUTSIDE of the Sydney Opera House. In France, the Eiffel Tower EXPLODED with fireworks from the frame from top to bottom and in all directions. In America, we got a new crystal ball for the Empire State Building.

Yup, we were so paranoid about the Y2K “bug” that we literally planned nothing special. Okay, the ball was red and green instead of white, and computerized for smoother operation, but sadly, it also put those two guys out of work.

It was also my first New Year’s Eve living in South Dakota. I was excited to see what was planned in our own little time zone, and I was not disappointed. In South Dakota, the live feeds showed reviews of the celebrations everywhere else. If that’s not an indictment, I don’t know what is.

So, tonight we celebrate the turn of a decade. May the new year bring happiness, better times, and good things to all of my blog readers (and everybody else as well). I wish you all the health, love and happiness that I know you all deserve. Happy New Year!

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