Fifty Years Ago: The Summer of ‘72
It was an overcast day in June of 1972. I gazed out the backseat window of our new blue Oldsmobile Cutlass as we left 5 Arrowhead Trail on Lake Mohawk, in Sparta, New Jersey – for the last time. The cloudy sky cast a grey hue over the lake, as if it were a fading memory saying “goodbye.” The Mayflower moving truck was already southbound with furniture and all, including my "New Sound Police Car" which would never amuse me again (to my parents’ relief, I’m sure). Its batteries exploded in the summer heat somewhere south of the Mason Dixon line. We were moving from sophisticated northwestern New Jersey, home to New York executives and airline pilots, to provincial south Louisiana. We left behind a simple, two-bedroom ranch house with a picture window overlooking the lake across the street. It was a beautiful view, water glistening beneath the hills, which I still recall in living color. Our house looked like something hoisted from Levittown and misplaced among a mélange of Tudor and midcentury modern homes. Many of the homes along the lake and shops along the boardwalk have a distinct style, known as “Lake Mohawk Tudor.” As for our simple ranch home, I still wonder about the propane tank outside the kitchen. Was 5 Arrowhead Trail once a post-World War II summer cottage before I-80 – originally planned as the Bergen-Passaic Expressway – turned Sparta into a bedroom community in the 1960s? It’s a mystery buried in Sparta Township records. I occasionally detour by that house when I return from my annual retreat in the Catskills. The propane tank is still there, lingering like a useless old memory.
The ride south is a sleepy blur, save a few details. Our 1972 Oldsmobile had air conditioning – something new to me. Neither our previous 1966 Delta 88 nor 5 Arrowhead Trail had this. Despite the cooling, I slept soundly through Washington, DC and the environs of Our Lady of Lourdes parish, with no dreams of being Pastor there someday. I recall feeling the hit of heavy heat when stepping out of the car at a Carolina pit stop. Either the southern summer was hotter, or air conditioning made it seem so. We passed Stone Mountain near Atlanta. But I recall little more until arriving at my grandparents’ house, nestled in the sugar cane fields of Assumption Parish, Louisiana, where we stayed briefly before heading to our new home in Thibodaux. The 45-minute ride, meandering along Bayou Lafourche, through miles of sugar cane, to our new home seemed longer than it was. As we arrived in Thibodaux, I stared at the plain white wooden houses with front porches, slightly elevated on pilings, sitting on a levee above the bayou. It was unlike anything in New Jersey. “What are those round things with legs?” I asked. “Chickens,” said mom. Louisiana was free-range before free-range was cool. Sometimes progress is regress. For me, the whole experience was like going to a museum that turns into real life, with no going back.
Our rental home was on Pecan Street. It was white and elevated. I crawled under it, an adventure until I got a large tight tick on my head that dad had to dislodged with gasoline. The house was unlike anything in Sparta. It had high ceilings, wooden floors, and tall windows. The living room had a bay window – a hint of old Europe – which I liked, plus a small screened front porch on the front corner. During summer, we cooled it down with Friedrich window units. There was no garage or basement, but a white shell driveway curving left behind the house to a carport and tool shed. During winter, heat ascended through large floor grills, which once melted my sneakers. Speaking of which, the locals didn’t say “sneakers” but rather “tennis shoes.” They didn’t drink “soda,” but “Coke.” They drank regular Coke, orange Coke, grape Coke, cherry Coke, Pepsi Coke, and a locally brewed super-red strawberry “Coke” labeled Pop Rouge. Full of carcinogens, I’m sure. The only “non-Coke” soft drinks, that I recall, were Barq’s (root beer brewed in New Orleans) and 7-Up (which somehow didn’t translate into “Coke”). Dad was unaffected. He drank Jax and Dixie, until he upgraded to Old Milwaukee (known as Vitamin M). As for the outdoors, I had a 7-year-old’s ball catching little green dinosaurs called lizards.
Downtown Thibodaux was a “Vieux Carre” on the bayou, with Spanish ironworks and balustrades lining narrow “rues” downtown. A plump, uniformed meter maid – sporting what looked like a Pan Am stewardess hat – often appeared like an apparition writing a ticket right when your parking meter expired. She tri-located, so it seemed. One second late was not a negotiating point. Red, house-shaped fireboxes honked daily at Noon, or whenever there was a fire or a tornado warning. Thibodaux also had a nationally renowned volunteer fire department, supported by an annual Firemen’s Fair.
St. Joseph Catholic Church, with two baroque steeples and a red Spanish roof, was stunning inside. During our first Sunday Mass there, I was helplessly overcome with an ear-to-ear grin as its splendor elicited a mystical joy that I couldn’t resist, like a brief ecstasy. Its Romanesque-Baroque interior, with a gilded baldachin supported by marble pillars and high Altar, took me into another world. I recall the choir singing, from the loft behind and above me, “Praise the Holy Trinity” as Msgr. Francis Amadee processed up the aisle. It’s a sublime memory.
Our moving to Thibodaux created a mismatch of sensibilities, which took some getting used to. The locals didn't laugh at my jokes, and I didn't laugh at theirs. It was like a shooting battle in which no one got hit. However, I loved Rob’s Donuts sold from a mobile trailer on the corner of Canal Boulevard and Highway 1. But I wasn’t sure what to think when the scruffy sales guy called me "bra." Was he mocking me? No. He meant "bro." It was just what guys there said. Moreover, it was 1972.
The ‘70s began in ’72. That year is not often thought of as a simple time. The Watergate scandals broke. North Vietnam launched the Easter Offensive in the ongoing war in Indochina. Terrorists massacred Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. The U.S. Dollar was taken off the gold standard in August 1971, and inflation began to heat up. On the lighter side, tennis balls were officially changed from white or black to yellow as color TV became the norm (though we didn’t get color TV until 1975). Pong was introduced as a video game. President Nixon defeated George McGovern in a landslide. In 1972, I was too innocent to know the import of all this. But I recall seeing some black-and-white news reports about the Vietnam War and wondering what the word “ceasefire” meant. I knew something was wrong. I knew from overhearing my parents’ conversations, which were above my head, that we were hoping something wrong would be made right. But I was too preoccupied with backyard frogs and lizards to worry about it. Today, I have no such luxury. I can only pray for the grace to face the world as it is, to draw strength from Christ, and to find consolation in the thought of the “the choicest gifts of the ancient mountains and the fruitfulness of the everlasting hills” (Deuteronomy 33:15). Both of my loving parents have now preceded me there.
But down home on Pecan Street, country music was also transforming my atmosphere. In New Jersey, our radio and turntable played middle-of-the-road pop music from the '50s, '60s and early '70s. Dad inherited old vinyls from WNNJ radio station in Newton, where he disc-jockeyed until 1968. He had his own radio show, alias Marty Scott. When the station’s repertoire changed, he inherited some old records. We were frozen in a mid-century American time-bubble. But when we moved south, country-folk music catapulted us back to a rural but progressive vein of the ‘40s and ‘50s that was still being recorded in the ’60 and ‘70s. The new old music was in tune with the wooden floors and high ceilings of Pecan Street. I listened to Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, Charlie Pride and Bobby Bare as I sat in our '40s style living room, with a Friedrich window unit humming white noise in the background, reading Ranger Rick, and pondering my promising future as a racecar policeman. New Jersey was far from Louisiana. But Harpers Bizarre’s “Feelin’ Groovy” was even farther from Tammy Wynette’s “D-I-V-O-R-C-E.” What’s a rising second grader supposed to make of that?
While all of that was going on, country singer Tom T. Hall sat in an empty hotel bar in Miami, “pouring blended whisky down,” after gigging with George Jones and Tammy Wynette at the 1972 Democratic National Convention. As the bartender watched Ironside on TV, an elder Black porter with gray hair sat down with Hall and asked, "How old do you think I am?" “I don’t know,” replied Hall. “I turned sixty-five about eleven months ago,” said the old man. A monologue ensued. The old man “opened up his mind about old dogs, children and watermelon wine.” “Ain’t but three things in this world that’s worth a solitary dime, but old dogs and children and watermelon wine.” Hall listened. On his flight home the next morning, Hall wrote those words down on an airsickness bag. “That night I dreamed in peaceful sleep of shady summertime, of old dogs and children and watermelon wine,” he jotted down. He walked into a recording studio at 10:00 that morning, finished the tune on the spot, and recorded it. The song was released in November, hitting number one on the singles country chart. In the summer of ’72, I had no idea that was going on. Little did I know that “Old Dogs, Children and Watermelon Wine” would be one of my favorites almost fifty years later.
Back home, at St. Joseph Elementary School, I was preparing to receive my First Holy Communion. Something simple and pure and childlike: the Body of Christ. While Hall was singing the tale of a tired old gentleman, recollecting about perennial things – the care of old dogs, the innocence of children who are “too young to hate,” and the pleasure of watermelon wine – this child was in a peace that, on the surface of things, wouldn’t last. But there is the undying mystery of sanity in a world gone mad. Simplicity amidst complication. Peace amidst violence. Love amidst hatred. I was preparing to receive – beneath the illusion of bread – the concealed but simple peace that only suffering can disclose. The Sacrifice of our Savior. His Resurrection. Sacraments reveal themselves in suffering. And rarely otherwise. At the core of being, in life’s inner sanctuary, in the ordinary peace of ordinary things, the Church’s sacraments conceal a beautiful purpose for life. Natural and supernatural things, each flow into the other. It happens every day. In old dogs and children and watermelon wine. And in the Bread of Life. At every Mass. Even in 1972.