Monday, February 16, 2009

A previously unpublished memoir

``I am mortal,'' Scrooge remonstrated, ``and liable to fall.''
``Bear but a touch of my hand there,'' said the Spirit, laying it upon his heart,
``and you shall be upheld in more than this!''

I was only there by the merest of chances. I had been back to campus many times, but rarely while school was in session, and never for a football game. The Air Force game was hardly the most crucial game of the season, but I had lived in Colorado Springs for more than a decade, so I chose the Air Force game.

And I still would not have known to be there, but, because we have several college interns in our newsroom, I picked up a copy of The Observer to bring them an example of another college's newspaper.

Then, as I sat in my motel room Friday night, I leafed through it and came across an article: First Friday would be playing at the Senior Bar Saturday night, the reunion of a band that hadn't played in public in 20 years.

I called my friend Mike, who lives in La Porte. There was no question about whether we would go. First Friday was playing. We had to be there.

And so, Saturday night, we stood, Mike and me and Chuck and Lou and John and the people who had come back with the band, and there was our music again, there was our band again. There we were again, like old times.

It is not enough to say that First Friday was our band. It was our band, playing our music. This was not the cotton-candy golden oldies that have taken over the airwaves, certainly not the Top 40 ersatz-R&B they dragged back for "The Big Chill."

This was Cream and Spirit and the Yardbirds, music with depth and challenge, with screaming guitar solos and hammering organ riffs and driving percussion, demanding songs no lounge lizard or garage band would dare touch. This was Sixties music the way Artie Shaw is like Kay Kyser, the way Ella Fitzgerald is like the Andrews Sisters. This was the music that mattered.

It was music and it was more. It was the singular sound of a particular band that existed at a particular time and vanished with only the vaguest traces: One test album, pressed in limited quantities, my copy now so scratched and worn it barely plays at all. Nothing else: A recording contract fell through, the band broke up, the members graduated and were scattered across the country, 20 years ago.

So were we all, scattered across the country, leading our adult lives, until this October night when we were in the new Senior Bar, and there was First Friday, and it could have been the upstairs of the old Student Center, or the Coffeehouse at St. Mary's or even the front lobby of O'Shaugnessy, where I first heard them play.

There they were, and we were 19 and 20 again, rocking and flailing our air-guitars, frantically grabbing for notes while Norm stood impassively picking them out for real, fast and clean and like 20 years had never happened. It wasn't just nostalgia, either: First Friday really was that good, even now.

They really were: Out on the floor, the students who had filtered in out of curiosity, to see the old folks' funky old band, had become believers and were exuberantly dancing, alive and with the energy of 19 and 20.

I stood and watched them and it was 1969 again and my waist was thin and my hair was thick, I was full of dreams and visions of life. I was in love with almost everyone, I was free of wisdom and caution and strings and weights. The music was playing and I was young and there was no time, no space, no world but the music, and life stretched out before my young eyes in all its infinite promise.

And out on the floor, I saw one tall, dark, lovely girl dancing, smiling a smile that could only be smiled by a face unlined with years and unwrinkled by disappointment, and, as she danced, I thought of other girls, other times.

I thought of a beautiful blonde friend, twisting and swimming and hitchhiking the old dances on the sidewalk in front of Sorin Hall to the music of First Friday, laughing and twirling and flying across the concrete, dancing for sheer joy , her long, straight yellow hair and the brown fringe on her leather coat spinning out in the sunlight of a football Saturday, and nothing more than her joy was needed for that moment to stay forever in my mind.

And I thought of an evening before Christmas break, the snow falling on the steps outside LeMans, and a friend with her dark hair tied back with a hank of thick, red yarn, the collar of her wool navy jacket turned up, a single flake of snow on her eyelashes, our breath steaming in the cold air under the porch light as we exchanged a kiss not for love but for friendship and for the holidays.

And I thought of an almost-lover one summer, who could hold me but could not love me, and whom I could not keep, because she had to help the farm workers and had no time for love. I called her my Maud Gonne and told her I would be her silly Willie Yeats and would write for her and keep a candle, but she disappeared into the scene, the ever-present scene, and she never turned up again, leaving only a memory of her intense caring, and of her eyes, a light amber I have never seen since and would die to see again.

And as I watched and dreamt and traveled in my heart, the girl turned and gestured in my direction to join her on the dance floor.

Forgive me, spirits. Forgive me.

I looked behind me.

Before I even turned back, I knew I had just betrayed all those young girls, all those young dreams. I had forgotten youth and joy and music. I had lost my faith.

I had looked behind me.

In that fatal moment, I was again 40 and graying and balding and paunchy and standing flat-footed among a group of middle-aged men and women, watching children dance. And I saw a girl, a young, beautiful girl, her dark eyes still locked on mine, pointing at me, "Yes, you!" and pointing again at the dance floor in front of her, and I could not join her.

I feared she would tell me she was some friend's daughter. I feared that I would sweat and strain and look foolish. I feared that she would say to her friends, "You should have been there! All these really old people were dancing and everything!"

And so I stood, like poor, sad, frightened Ebenezer Scrooge watching Fezziwig's party, seeing the shadows of what I had once had, and what I had let slip away.

And the beautiful young girl, who only wanted to dance, finally gave up and turned away, and went on dancing alone, to the music, to our music, to the music that was mine.

I took my coat from the back of a chair and walked out into the night. I was 800 miles from home, and had to be back by Monday morning.


Anonymous said...

You took me there with perfect pitch.


Anonymous said...

that's beautiful and wistful.

ronnie said...

Beautiful, beautiful writing.

(When are you writing the full, published memoir, hmm?)

Anonymous said...

I've read this one before - and it is every bit as touching now. It also reminds me of the piece you did after the shootings at the college in Montreal - the girls in their summer dresses one. You really do have to do that book.


Nostalgic for the Pleistocene said...

Very nicely done! A sort of musical rhythm to it, and a little touch of humor. Am i right in thinking that hat is the same one as in the Szabo photo in your last post?

Mike said...

Indeed, ruth, it is the same hat. The pics were taken about six months apart. I had shaved a feeble attempt at a beard, but was otherwise much the same.

And, Mom, I looked and the 20th anniversary of that horrible day is this coming December. Watch this space. There are a few pieces I've done that I am proud of, and then there are the ones that win awards.

For any Domers looking in, this piece was rejected by the alumni mag, which had, up until that point, run everything I sent them, and paid handsomely. It was at that point I realized that there was a purpose to the journal, and making the Old Boys feel that they were getting old and were no longer hip was certainly not it.

Brian Fies said...

Hey. You're good.

Sherwood Harrington said...

Yes, Brian, he certainly is.

Selfishly, purely and entirely, there are two huge benefits that the intertubes have bestowed on me: wonderful expressional talents that I otherwise wouldn't have encountered (including yours and Mike's) and instant access to all human knowledge, if I can just formulate an appropriate query.

I actually value the former above the latter.

Sherwood Harrington said...

... and, following on to my comment above, another gift the internet has bestowed on me is the lovely talent of Jessamyn Smyth, who was born in the same hospital as my son, Doug, was (but six years later), and who plays joyfully with our language and our other modes of expression -- and who shares a love of dogs that grooves parallel with Mike's. I think that anyone who reads the Nellie Blog will find the below link enchanting and uplifting, especially if you have lost a four-footed companion:

online literary magazine.