Saturday, April 13, 2013

Radio Days

Last Saturday PE and I had dinner with our friend Irina and her son.  When the dishes were put away and our friends had gone, PE and I sat on the couch and watched the old Woody Allen movie, Radio Days.  

The years of live radio comedy, drama, and shows were gone even when I was a young child, supplanted by television and much later the Internet.  Nevertheless, radio and music have occupied an important role in my life, making up the soundtrack, the music and sounds that I associate with the times and events that make up that life.

It's the early 1960s.  I lie on a blanket at Lake Welch with my sisters in New York's Harriman State Park.  The Sun shines brightly in a cloudless sky.  The sand is hot to the touch as the cool sounds of bathers splashing in the lake wash over us.  My sister's 6-transistor radio is on, and Kyu Sakamoto is singing Sukiyaki.  Forevermore, Kyu Sakamoto and Sukiyaki are linked to that day in my memory.  I have but to hear the first notes of that song, and I am transported back to that childhood day.

I can never think of the letters C, K, L, and W as anything other than CKLW, the AM radio station from Detroit that was the backdrop of summers spent with my cousins, aunt, and uncle in Michigan in the 1960s and 70s.  Evenings on the front porch in the days before air conditioning and my cousin talking of "her Tigers" come flooding back.  I feel the humidity and heat of those distant summers.

For all that my career has been associated with technology, I like to hold on to those things that were good and that link me to my past.  I have a turntable and a small vinyl LP collection.  A rotary black desk phone sits next to my computer, and a rotary princess telephone like the ones my sisters had in those 1960s of long ago adorns the table next to my couch.  It brings back memories of the Telephone Hour from Bye Bye Birdie.  The feeling of holding that phone in my lap and dialing the number of a friend feels somehow more substantial than the same call made from the BlackBerry in my purse.

Radio has also provided the soundtrack of my transition.  In August 2010 I drove from Washington, DC, to Maine, all but certain that the secret of my life was becoming common knowledge and that my State Department career would soon be over.  (See Pacing the Cage.)  I had been a listener of WAMU radio at 88.5 on the FM dial in Washington, DC, for at least twenty years and had the car radio tuned to that frequency.  The signal began to fade somewhere around the Delaware Memorial Bridge, overcome by interference from a stronger station. A few miles into New Jersey, the impinging signal overwhelmed WAMU altogether with "the quiet sounds of Sleepy Hollow."  I have been a regular listener and member of WXPN from Philadelphia ever since.  Sleepy Hollow  is my favorite listening for Saturdays and Sundays, followed closely by The Folk Show and World Cafe.  The sounds of WXPN have been with me through my first winter of angst in Romania, my 2011 summer of expectation, and my 2012 year of dreams coming true.  It was my bedside listening as I recovered from surgery in Thailand this year.

In that same summer of 2010, I fell in love with another radio show, Down Memory Lane with Toby Leboutillier on MPBN in my home state of Maine.  I was driving from Bangor to Lincoln on a Friday afternoon when I first heard it.  An "oldies" show?  Well yes, but it's not your usual replaying of the standard hits of years past.  Each week the two hour show reacquaints us with the new songs that appeared on the charts this week in ten year increments beginning 100 years ago.  The magic of the show is that Toby Leboutillier is playing songs that might have appeared on the charts for only a week or two.  Many a time I have heard a song from 1962 or 1963 that makes me stop short in the realization that I had not heard the song in fifty years.  Once again, a simple sound transports me back to a childhood memory.

There are other stations and streams.  The sounds of Folk Alley can be heard frequently in my apartment.  Bucharest's SMART FM wakes me each morning.  Sometimes I need to listen to Radio Shanson or another Russian language station to reconnect with memories of my time in Russia.

I think we all associate music with a time and place, but I think Foreign Service Officers may form an even stronger link.  As we travel the world, it's the sounds of radio from home that transport us home.  When MPBN announced earlier this year that it would take Down Memory Lane off the air, my sadness was more than surface deep.  No longer would I hear a voice from Maine each Friday evening.  No longer would I be transported magically to my childhood by a song not heard in fifty years.  When MPBN reconsidered and announced it would continue to produce Down Memory Lane as an Internet stream, I was overjoyed to a degree greater than I would have been were I physically resident in the US.  My special link with Maine was preserved.

Radio Days.  It's not just an old Woody Allen movie.  It's the musical fabric of my life that weaves sound with memory and feeling.  A year from now when I am far away from Bucharest, I will be waiting for that sound that transports me back to the memories and people here who have been so much a part of my life's journey.

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