What's Nostalgia Got To Do With It? —
People Pay Good Money For This Sort Of Thing
Vol. I, Issue II - Oct. 2010

We didn't know exactly what to call it, even then. Some record players had changeable spindles so you could insert your own fat cylinder for the 45s. It had a little metal catch about halfway up so that you could stack up ten or twelve records and they would drop down one by one—Eddie Fisher followed by The Everly Brothers followed by The Four Aces followed by . . . Often the stack would begin to wobble and the last song would swing a little off its timing, slur just enough to sound a bit drunk. Most of the time, though, we fitted a thin plastic wafer into the hole in the record. If you lived through the era of the 45 rpm, you recognize that distinctive shape.

Snap in that insert/adaptor/thingamajig. It’s a far cry to the past. How do you re-view a generation? They say that old age robs you first of later memories, then of earlier ones, so I guess I’m stuck with the oldies (if not the goodies) even into senility. Stuck with Eisenhower in the White House and the Cold War in the world. Coonskin hats to the hula hoop, On the Waterfront to Gigi, the first issue of Playboy to the Barbie doll, James Dean to Fidel Castro, The Lone Ranger to Rosa Parks, Stalin’s death to the Edsel, Sputnik to the Peace Corps, the first golden McDonald’s arch to the demise of the Burma Shave signs—you only get about half a decade’s worth of involuntary memory. Five to seven years where just one note heard over half a century later will strike the chord of recollection. Mine spans “Mr. Sandman” to “Mack the Knife.”

* * *

This morning it was not the tried and true, the They asked me how I knew, my true love was true kind of melody, but something all untried and probably untrue in a next of kin to the wayward wind kind of way, which is probably something anyone born post-Let me hold your hand does not recognize. But I do. Anytime the radio features an oldy-but-goody from the fifties (something they do not do so often now that the sixties and seventies are also old and good), I find that I know every word. Every single word. Which is testament to how often I let those records spin on the turntable as I teased out the indiscernible, so much so that, once I knew each word, I knew the song complete. Oh! My Papa, to me he was so wonderful and First the tide rushes in, plants a kiss on the shore. That kind of drivel—and it’s all still there, still revolving in my brain.

Then, we wore crinolines and saddle shoes. We pincurled our hair. We were trapped in a vocabulary of romance. And a syntax. We believed in those songs. And I must say that those days before Orbison forced the high note of our solitude, even before Elvis lured us with his dusky muh muh muh I get so lonely, baby, I get so lonely. I get so lonely (pause) I could die or its flip side with its wail of IIIII’ll never know—those days had a kind of magic. I suspect it came from all that repression for which the fifties are now famous, but those songs contained a sense of I’ve hungered for your touch that has now gone out of style. Now, people just touch. Then, they hungered. And we hungered along with them. Hungered at each and every sock hop in the high school gym. Each and every varsity basketball game where we sat, girls in one row, boys in another, paying as much attention to the other row as we did to the game itself. We spent hours on the phone assessing the results of these events. Did he? Didn’t he?

Sometimes he did. He called and then you went bowling or to a movie, and sometimes in the dark there was a discreet reaching of his hand for yours. Or, if you were lucky, an arm casually draped along the back of the seat, a brush of fingers on your shoulder. That’s another thing gone the way of vinyl: dating.

A date began with an invitation. A declaration of interest. It was formal: it could be recorded on the calendar, referred to as something first in the future, then in the past. There was an etiquette to follow. No kiss on the first date. Or, if you cheated, you didn’t say. Definitely a kiss on the second, or you knew there wouldn’t be another. Then a tentative move toward more passion, what was called “necking.” This happened at the drive-in movies, or listening to the radio in the back seats of old cars on the back roads out of town—usually on roads with the now-obsolete yellow sign that seemed, somehow, appropriately cautionary:

Necking was essentially still just kissing, though it could begin to steam up the windows on cool evenings. That, in turn, carried with it the gentle fear—the almost-wanted thrill—of what was called “petting.” Petting was what your mother did not want you to know about. Or do. But of course you did.

Those were the pre-pill, pre-abortion days, so you lived with the sense that you, too, could have to spend a year “living with your aunt in East Aurora,” or, worse yet, might “have to get married,” which happened all the time. You’d see your ex-schoolmate walking down the sidewalk pushing a stroller, sixteen years old and already out of commission. Your life and hers had diverged—just like that. You were locked forever on one side of the divide. Luck, you called it.

But there was something magical in a time when the words of the songs held longing and loneliness, not violence and cynicism. When they held out the promise that things could be fixed with time alone. With time goes by so slowly, but time can do so much.

We’ve lost other things we lived with then. The playmates dead before their time. The iron lung, now who could miss that? The summer I worked for Dr. Gutierrez, we heard the new Salk vaccine had just come in to the hospital and each doctor would be allowed ten doses. He tossed me the keys to his precious Lincoln and told me not to let it get scratched. I still drive those five miles with trepidation. I got there, only to find I needed the names and ages of the people he planned to vaccinate. “Just make them up,” he told me over the phone. And I did.

Now kids lose their friends to drugs and suicide. Those are not half as instructive as polio about how sometimes fate is simply fate. How indifferent and indiscriminating luck can be.

Gone, too, some of what we took for granted. The supper hour—that time when families sat down and ate together. The Sunday-evening Jack Benny shenanigans. The Ozzie and Harriet world. That gave way to “just the facts, ma’am,” and, in perennially busy lives, food on the run. Of course innocence is not the only thing that’s gone. And it wasn’t even innocence, even then. It was the look of innocence. The look of what life was supposed to be—all lit up and tied with a bow—house and husband and smalltown ease. It was a sham, but we somehow wanted to buy into the deception. Wanted to make things better.

Is this nostalgia rearing its head? No, I think it’s reflection knocking at the door. Wondering why those songs are so indelible. So full of schmaltz, yet also something genuine. Something how-much-is-that-doggie-in-the-window real. As real as this feeling of make-believe.

It wasn’t all that long before that evening in Edinburgh when we—here, I mean “we,” a group of university students—attended a party across from the local theater where the Beatles were coming to play. With lofty amusement, we looked down as the street filled with a crowd of teenage screamers. We didn’t know a new generation had come, that we’d lost the right to judge. Despite our sophisticated scorn, we were forced to learn new words: Tangerine trees and marmalade skies and take a sad world and make it better.

And then—just like that—the single gave way to the album, the 45s vanished, the sixties hit us full-blown. Our former classmates were fighting in Vietnam, and there was violence in our streets. The Beatles churned out another kind of schmaltz—all you need is love—and we had grown old enough to know better.

But all you do need is a kind of love when those tunes float up and rekindle whatever it is that makes you remember what surely you want to forget. I’m talking about those tunes that ought to be eminently forgettable. Do we really need itsy bitsy teeny weeny yellow polka-dot bikini or white sport coat and a pink carnation going through our heads all day? Do we really need to conjure that Friday night at the diner when Mary Agnes ordered a hamburger, then remembered what day it was, decided to eat it anyway since Father Rogers would not want her to waste money? Meatless Friday has disappeared, yet we need to invoke it because we—here I mean “I”—need to remember Mary Agnes whose father just died, fifty-three years after she did, still mourning the loss of his beautiful sixteen-year-old daughter in an accident she herself probably caused. Put these on the list: bench seats; no seat belts. Memories are made of this:

Mary Agnes at the jukebox, belting out the words to songs she will never be in danger of losing because they are pure present tense.

Then summer turns to winter and the present disappears. And we—here I absolutely mean “I”—who escaped the fate of that tragic June night long enough to learn more slowly that her fate is ours, yet again hear the tight harmony of The Platters (Deepening shadows gather splendor) as swish . . . the spinning needle . . . swish . . . brushes away a lifetime . . . swish . . . a whole generation of lifetimes. Swish.

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