Music at the intersection of past and present | Whale

It is a July day in 1969, and I am with my family at Lake Surprise. I have just finished first grade in Mrs. Foster’s class at North Auburn Elementary School.

I am 7 years old. I don’t know how to swim yet, so I’m busy in the sand. I’ve got a pail and a shovel, the fierce sun is beating on my back, and my grandparents’ metal cooler with a full load ice-cold Hires Root Beer is within reach, should the need arise, as I insist it does, often.

I’ve got everything I need.

The Seattle Pilots are playing a series with the Chicago White Sox and someone on a nearby blanket is listening on a radio to announcers Jimmy Dudley and Bill Schonely call the game. Up the shore a pace, the jump tower and the slide areas are abuzz.

At some point, a group of 20-somethings arrives and settles into the picnic area behind us. They’ve got a radio, too, but for about 20 minutes, it’s just putting out background noise. Everyone is having a good time

Then someone in that group cranks up the radio, very loud, apparently to share the noise with everyone there.

And everything changes.

I become aware that my father has gotten to his feet and is standing yards in front of me. He is turned toward the picnic area, and I cannot see his face. He doesn’t move at all, does not say a word, but I can feel his consternation, bewilderment and anger.

He is riveted to whatever sound that radio is putting out, and not in a good way.

Now I am listening. Suddenly, the words marshal into meaning. It’s the anti-war song. “Give me an F…”

Lake Surprise as a great place to spend a summer afternoon is long gone. Its shores, the old dance hall with its specks of summer dust motes hanging over a floor beaten smooth by generations of feet has given way to development, and has taken with it the pinball machines and the boat house and the canoes and the docks.

But to this day, whenever I hear that protest song, that brief moment on the beach rises up, shakes off the dust of years and drops me once more into the body of that bag-of-bones kid I was, missing teeth and all, watching his mortified father.

Funny thing, the mind. We may turn a corner, and a song, the fragrance of jasmine, perhaps a whiff of our mother’s perfume can work an instant incantation on us, summoning long ago events back to us, the good and the bad. Some sensations are linked to my earliest childhood memories, and I feel once again how it was to be small.

It’s 1973. My parents have decided it’d be a good thing to expose their brood of six to culture. On one gray, misty morning, mom and dad load us into the Oldsmobile. Turns out, we are on our way to something called the Frye Art Museum in Seattle. I’ve never heard of it, but I know my brothers and I — can’t speak for my sisters — are not exactly thrilled about this development.

As we pull into the museum’s parking lot, Don McLean’s tribute to artist Vincent Van Gogh is on the car radio. He is singing, “Starry, starry night.” For reasons I will never be able to explain, that moment and that visit to the Frye Art Museum are inextricably linked in my soul. Exactly why will always be a mystery to me.

I know that I am not alone in this linkage of time and music.

Below, a co-worker, Marie Skoor, explains her own profound connection to one song.

Skoor’s father, she said, an artist and a professor, had taken up tap-dancing in his later years. At an artists’ retreat that father and daughter both attended, her father brought his portable, snap-together tap floor, and at the weekend’s talent show performed an enthusiastic tap dance to, “I Will Never Let You Go” by Jackie Greene, a song featured in the film “Brokeback Mountain” and on the soundtrack.

“We videotaped the performance,” Skoor said, “and at the time I remember thinking he looked so much younger to me than his 65 years. He radiated joy during that performance. He was happy and laughing when he joined me in the audience after his one-man solo tap dance. I was so proud of his effort, and he was thrilled with the performance.”

Skoor continued: “It was only a year later that he passed away suddenly and quite tragically. We played the video of him dancing at his funeral, and amidst all the tears, there he was, John Skoor, reminding us all to live life and embrace joy. I will always see my father tap dancing when I hear this song. This memory is vivid, and so very real to me, even more than a decade later.”

Perhaps this sort of thing happens to us more and more as we get older and the years bank up. I know as I age, I find myself thinking more and more about the mystery of time, and all of us moving through it.

I think the poet T.S. Eliot summed this up in his musings on time in the Burnt Norton section of his Four Quartets:

“Time present and time past/Are both perhaps contained in time future

And time future contained in time past.

Footfalls echo in the memory/Down the passage which we did not take

Towards the door we never opened/Into the rose-garden.

My words echo/Thus, in your mind.

But to what purpose/Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves

I do not know.”

And neither do I. But you know, I’m okay with that.

Robert Whale can be reached at