By CAROL TANNEHILL, of The News-Sentinel
Christmas came to Fort Wayne in 1973, but without the sparkle.
That year, the 308-foot microwave tower on Spy Run Avenue was not adorned with strings of colored bulbs. Lincoln Tower's 2,500 electric candles were snuffed before they even made it into the landmark's art deco windowsills. Merchants at Northcrest Shopping Center and Southgate Plaza decked their halls -- minus the twinkling lights -- and Southtown Mall skipped exterior decorations altogether.
The psychedelic 1970s were a dark decade in Fort Wayne, literally and figuratively. A nationwide energy crisis and economic recession hit local folks hard, reminding some of the lean years they had endured during World War II. Political scandals in Washington, protests on college campuses and increasing international tensions left people feeling uneasy about the present and uncertain about the future.
"It was an uproarious time, a very unsettling decade," said Jean Hahn, a history and geography teacher at St. John the Baptist Catholic School in Fort Wayne.
In the 1970s, Hahn was a young wife with children in diapers, and the details of adult life -- raising her sons, teaching her students, paying the mortgage, buying the groceries, keeping the gas tank filled -- occupied most of her hours. But she was still close enough to her rebellious college years to be upset by the national headlines.
"Kent State terrorized me. I protested George Wallace when he visited here, and I participated in some marches, although I don't remember what for. I was horrified by My Lai. I was stunned by the Patty Hearst kidnapping. ... And I remember being very angry as I watched the slow, agonizing progress of (the Equal Rights Amendment) in Congress."
Fort Wayne heeded energy warningsHere at home, however, staying warm and getting the car back and forth to work seemed like more pressing issues.
In a TV address Nov. 7, 1973, President Richard Nixon warned Americans they were facing the worst energy shortages since the 1940s. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries had instituted an oil embargo, and America -- with just 6 percent of the world's population -- was using one-third of the planet's energy output.
While the country worked to develop other power sources -- such as nuclear reactors, the corn-turned-fuel known as ethanol and the Alaskan Pipeline -- every American would have to conserve energy in major and minor ways, Nixon told the TV audience.
Fort Wayne and Allen County officials immediately began practicing what Nixon preached. The City-County building's ventilation system was adjusted to bring in 40 percent less unheated outdoor air. Parents were instructed to dress students in sweaters so Fort Wayne Community Schools could lower classroom thermostats to 68 degrees. Then-mayor Ivan Lebamoff announced that the 35-foot Christmas tree in Freimann Square would shine as always, but for fewer hours each day than the year before.
But cold classrooms and lackluster holiday decorations were only the beginning. High gasoline prices and severe gas shortages hit Fort Wayne residents where it hurt -- right smack in their V-8 engines. Even after OPEC resumed oil exports to the United States in April 1974, there was no reduction in the prices, which had soared from $4 to $12 a barrel.
"I remember my husband saying he was going to put his car up on blocks when (gas prices) got to 39.9 cents," Hahn said. "But we only had one car in those days, and we walked a lot more. We've forgotten what our feet are for, I think."
Fort Wayne commuters were urged to car pool -- even pedal -- to their jobs. By federal law, the speed limit on Interstate 69 was reduced from 70 mph to a seemingly sluggish 55. Leisurely weekend drives and cross-country summer vacations gave way to family fun in the back yard.
Local gas stations had to mete out what little fuel they received. Dave and Stuart Trainer, who two years ago sold their Trainer Service Center at Lower Huntington and Bluffton roads, divided their meager monthly allotment into gallons per day.
Each morning, drivers could buy all the gas they wanted until the day's amount ran out, usually by noon or 1 p.m.
"After that, in the afternoons, we just worked on people's cars in the service area. Wasn't much else we could do. It was hard -- some customers were hostile in the beginning. They couldn't understand why we wouldn't sell them more gas. Eventually, they got used to it."
Gouty Servicenter on Broadway sold its supply in 10-gallon batches.
"We told people, 'If you want more than 10 gallons, go around the block and get in line again,' recalled former Gouty President Tom Christoff, who now serves as company treasurer. "There was a lot of frustration having to limit the amount, but we had to do it. Suddenly we had a lot of 'longtime loyal customers' that we'd never even met."
Most local gas stations began shutting down from 9 p.m. Saturday to midnight Monday. Others simply had no gas left by the weekend.
Even when the pumps were full, Fort Wayne drivers faced long lines and high prices. As the end of the decade neared, gasoline prices topped the dollar-a-gallon mark.
Customers weren't the only ones dreading the milestone, however. Some station owners had to cope with gas tank registers that went only as high as 99.9 cents. Proprietors' temporary solution? List the price for a half gallon.
In town, as in the rest of the nation, the troubled economy dominated water-cooler conversations and newspaper front pages. People got daily lessons in economics: Inflation. Recession. Unemployment. Double-digit interest rates. High demand and low supply.
"It was not a good time," businessman Christoff recalls. "Things got really bad there for a while, and it was scary. Nobody wanted to make any major moves. We were afraid to hire anybody. With interest rates near 20 percent, people couldn't expand or improve their businesses. They didn't dare."
Rampant inflation was a major concern for the decade's three presidents -- Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. Although many Americans were earning more money, the rising prices gobbled up their gains.
Nixon set up a Pay Board to stop inflationary wage and salary increases and a Price Commission to regulate price and rent increases, but prices skyrocketed again as soon as the controls were lifted. Before 1974 dawned, inflation had risen 8.8 percent nationally -- the largest increase in any year since 1947.
Gerald Ford's attempts to "Whip Inflation Now" -- the slogan of his unsuccessful 1976 presidential campaign -- did slow the increases, but unemployment quickly turned into the economic crisis of the moment. At one point, unemployment hit 9 percent, the highest level since 1941.
In 1979, Jimmy Carter confirmed what most Americans already knew: America had "probably entered a recession," he said. Unemployment and inflation raged on. Personal bankruptcies were the highest they'd been since 1974. Most economic indicators, such as production and housing starts, were abysmal. And double-digit mortgage rates made homeownership a struggle for many families.
Grocery shoppers suffered sticker shock. In 1973, a pound of bacon cost 69 cents. A year later, the cost was $1.19. Prices for the same quantity of ground beef and chicken increased, respectively, from 59 cents to 99 cents and from 43 cents to 89 cents.
In 1969, newlyweds Jean and Joe Hahn purchased their home in the Harrison Hill neighborhood for $6,300. Just three years later, similar houses in the same area were selling for three times that.
"We had a $130 mortgage payment each month -- about the same as our utility bills now -- but I remember wishing it were a lot cheaper," Jean Hahn said. "We were thrilled with what little savings we had managed to put away."
Fear of terrorism fueled local security efforts
It wasn't only economic realities that dampened citizens' spirits in the 1970s. Their American dreams seemed to be unraveling, too.
This collective "crisis of confidence," President Carter said, had worsened in the wake of John F. Kennedy's assassination, the Watergate scandal, energy crises and the Vietnam War. Problems with foreign relations -- including the imprisonment of American hostages in Iran -- fueled fear and mistrust.
In the wake of airplane hijackings and other terrorist acts overseas, the Federal Aviation Administration mandated weapon screening devices, secure concourses beyond the checkpoints and other airport safety measures.
Baer Field -- now called Fort Wayne International Airport -- began using simple metal detectors in 1972 to check passengers for weapons, said Roger Myers, a longtime airport employee and curator of the airport's Greater Fort Wayne Aviation Museum. X-ray machines designed to scan carry-on bags weren't employed here until 1980.
"Initially, (the metal detectors) were just two poles with a light on them that passengers would walk through. They were pretty inaccurate in those days," Myers said.
Until then, the airport had relied only on frisking passengers and searching their carry-on luggage by hand.
"We never really had a need for all this before (the 1970s)," Myers said. "We lost trustworthiness. Screening passengers is expensive, time-consuming and demeaning. There's something wrong about Americans checking Americans."