My memories of the early 70s include summers on the beaches of Hampton, New Hampshire and Old Orchard, Maine. The warm sand, cold waters, new friends and boardwalk amusements were the stuff this boy lived for! Oversized pizza slices, fries splashed with salt and vinegar, cups brimming with whole belly clams and cones of frozen custard were all prized…especially when you only got to choose one!
The backdrop to all this was the radio. Each blanket had its own battery-operated transistor radio – some small, some large – tuned to a favorite station wafting with the sound of the surf and seagulls circling overhead. As I walked along the beach, one radio’s programming would come into earshot as another faded away behind me. There was news radio, talk radio, sports radio and, of course, music radio. One never stopped to listen…that would seem rude…but whatever was playing became a part of me as I made my way through another lazy, fun-loving beach day.
There was James Taylor singing “Fire and Rain,” Carole King wailing “It’s Too Late” and Carly Simon insisting “That’s the Way I Always Heard it Should Be.” Chicago pumped out “Feeling Stronger Every Day,” Elton bopped on “Honky Cat” and Stealers Wheel mellowed out to “Everyone’s Agreed That Everything Will Turn Out Fine.” I received my pop music education on the beaches of New England! But it was more than that.
There were songs I didn’t like…but I still knew them…and the next blanket always promised something different. Of course, the chart-toppers kept playing over and over again from blanket to blanket, sealed in my mind, committing the lyrics to memory. It was a communal experience, every bit as much as the sand, sea and sun…a shared understanding of what it means to be alive…to feel…to belong.
I have the same experience when a show from a bygone era comes on TV. Even if I have the entire series on DVD, the fact that an episode comes up on some random channel in the cable-sphere gives me the immediate sense that I am sharing a memory with others of my age and ilk who just happen to be channel surfing at the exact same time. The same holds true when I am sitting with friends or family watching a favorite old movie together. We know every line and scene that’s coming next, but we revel in that shared experience… reliving it again in the memories and in the moment…adding an extra layer of magic I don’t get when I watch the DVD alone.
I miss the age of wafting music, energy and experience. Rather than customizing reality to reinforce personal preferences, it was wide-open…an unspoken confirmation of our common humanity. As a result, I grew as my world view expanded. I may have been limited to my parents tastes at home and in the car, but those beach days introduced me to a bigger world and a larger sense of belonging. We didn’t have to go find a tribe; we were the tribe and we were all in it together. What wasn’t accessible to me in my immediate circumstance was ascertainable through this invisible human bond.
I guess you can make the case I’m connecting dots that don’t form a straight line, but I believe we need more of this communal belonging. In an age of earbuds, personalization and playlists, there is a spike in conflict and a drop in empathy. Our communal identity has been supplanted by factions, and it’s a shame. We aspire to be more globally connected, but in reality we are far more exclusive. This having been said, I don’t believe all is lost…yet…let’s waft!
Walter McKenzie is Senior Director for Constituent Services at ASCD, leading its affiliate, connected community, professional interest community, student chapter and emerging leader programs.