Sunday, October 24, 2010

More Memories Than Plans

Nostalgia has a bad name in literary circles. It has been relegated to the basement in the ivory tower. Yet not as bad as in the 17th century when it was considered a pathology serious enough to send a mercenary home for treatment or a sailor to get a pass back to port. Homesickness was regarded as a subset of melancholia. Try getting your HMO to pay for that today.

In any case, nostalgia is what we old folks do at a typical lunch with friends after the obligatory organ recital. Even if we don't start traveling down memory lane, our complaints about this new-fangled world and the degraded state of politics, is an implicit reference to those good old days.

For many of us the past looms not only vast but present. 1941 may be more vivid than last Thursday. Our own personal history can and should not be dismissed in the human shredder. It is only when those memories are romanticized that it falls into nostalgia.

Mark Twain said that as he got older he not only started to forget things but also remembered events that never happened. Nostalgia tends to conflate and polish the shards into jewels of past glories.

All of which leads me to get nostalgic about old radio. We all had favorite programs which kept our rapt attention and loyalty, never missing a single episode. My friend, Fred, recently told how a fifteen minute radio show may have saved his life. He never complained when feeling ill so his parents were appropriately alarmed when he announced that he wasn't going to listen to The Lone Ranger one night. They called the doctor who rushed him to the hospital for an appendectomy.

Radio left much to the imagination. We conjured movies out of voices, suspended our disbelief when the whole world tumbled out of Fiber McGee’s hall closet week after week. In fact, we waited for it along with Mr. Kitzel, Sen. Claghorn or Archie the manager to announce that Duffy ain't here. The fulfilled anticipation became our reliable clock and a measure of predictability. Another instance where the media itself, far more than the content, insinuated itself in our psyches in ways we weren’t aware. If they held a beauty pageant on radio we would imagine the contestants. We even presumed that Edgar Bergen's mouth didn't move when he became Charlie McCarthy.

In sensory terms, radio is a low-definition media. It gives us little and therefore demands more participation to complete the experience. Today's stations offer music and news but before TV it was our ready window to life. When Edward R. Murrow broadcast from London during the Blitz, his words became embedded in our hearts and minds. Just as FDR's fireside chats came into living rooms as families gathered around and stared into the gothic-designed speakers.

We were astonished at the quick minds of the panel on Information Please and celebrated the precocity of the Quiz Kids. We honored smarts back then. Paradoxically, with our Googling glut of information today we mock intellectuals and elect morons.

It may be the 7th inning of life or the 9th but we still have a few plans and hopes. One would be to re-visit our past to see where we went wrong to have ended in this sorry place. If it's innocence we lost we must have traded it for more jaded eyes.

Is it nostalgia that leads me here with its rosy lenses? I think not. Resistant as we are to looking backward, we are not well-served to ignore the values in the static of old radio even as they are encrusted with their own illusions and folly.


  1. Yet another gem. Your description of radio and that it made demands on our imagination is dead on. Sometimes we sit in front of the tube with a vacuous zombie like stare defying it to entertain us while our mind wanders. This was never so when listening to WJZ or WOR. We were forced to pay attention so we could bring a picture to our mind's eye.

    With my failing hearsight I never turn a radio on anymore but I do miss Raymond and the squeaky door, Let's Pretend, and please don't tell anybody but even Stella Dallas. Even my kimosabe with the silver bullets has ridden off into the sunset.

    Nostalgia ain't what it used to be.

  2. There is an African proverb that says when a person dies a library is lost. I believe our personal memories are very important. When I was growing up, most of what you remembered as radio had already disappeared. The only thing I listened to on radio beyond music was my beloved Cardinals of Stan Musial, Bob Gibson and Lou Brock. The only thing that saved me was that we did not get TV until I was a junior in high school so I missed Leave it to Beaver.

  3. Harley, your memories of Stan The Man bring to mind how I used to listen to re-creations of Dodger games when they played the Cardinals. The play-by-play came through on ticker-tape
    which we heard clicking on the radio. It was then re-transcribed by the announcer who sculpted flesh on the bone with added color to his words.

  4. Yes, they even had sound effects of "the crack of the bat" and crowd noises.

  5. That is amazing. I never knew about recreating the game for local listeners. Those must have been very interesting. How close did they come to reality?

  6. It seemed real enough to me though I suspect most of the images came out of my own head. If I concentrated real hard I could smell the green grass and hot dogs.