I Wish I Had a Time Machine to Rescue My Dad

by James Wallace Harris

One of my favorite idle fantasies is to imagine how I would relive my life if my current mind could reincarnate into my younger self. Variations of this fantasy have included using a time machine to jump back in time to warn my younger self about the future, although I doubt young Jimmy would have taken older Jim’s advice. This week I’ve been struggling to remember everything I could from 50 years ago, and a new fantasy has occurred to me.

What if I had a time machine so I could go back and rescue my dad instead of me?

I know such fantasies are impossible, so why waste my time on them? But the science fiction reader in me loves the idea of creating my own alternate histories by playing “What if?” The challenge to these fantasies is to find the right point in time to divert the time stream. It occurred to me this morning that the moment to rescue my father was in the summer of 1967, but first I guess I should explain why my father needed help.

My father died in 1970 at age 49 when I was 18. My mother and father were alcoholics. My father was a steady drinker, but my mother would only hit the bottle in times of stress from her bipolar swings. My father loved being in the Air Force but was forced to retire after 22 years when he had a heart attack in 1964. Sitting at home without work made him drink more. Dad recovered, went back to work and had another heart attack. Dad recovered again, went back to work, and had a stroke. He even recovered from the stroke before he died of his final heart attack.

My father also had emphysema in his last years, requiring oxygen. But he continued to chain smoke Camels, eat meat and potatoes, and drink Seagram 7 all day long. His death certificate reported that his liver, lungs, appendix, and stomach were shot to hell. I’ve always figured his heart was very strong to survive all that. It made me wonder if he had ever tried to get healthy if he could have survived into old age. Or at least long enough for the two of us to get to know each other.

But my dad was not a happy man. When I was a kid I used to ask myself, “Was my father a drunk because my mother bitched all the time, or did my mother bitch all the time because my father was a drunk?” I’ve never blamed my parents about my upbringing. I survived by being totally selfish, and I figured it was every family member for themselves. Now that I’m older I feel guilty for being so selfish. I know as a kid I didn’t know enough to help them, or even how to be a better person myself. I just survived the best I could. I really don’t blame my parents, but I don’t think they were suited to have children.

Over the last few decades, I’ve come to believe that I and my sister were the main sources of my parents’ unhappiness. We just weren’t what they expected, and any effort to shape us into what they wanted only caused them endless suffering. Of course, it wasn’t easy on me and Becky either, but our youth gave us a vitality to survive. My father just couldn’t handle the emotional conflicts. My mom got better after my father died, especially with 1970s anti-depressants, but she suffered endless unhappiness for the rest of her life, mostly from trying to make Becky and I do what she wanted.

The photo above is my only proof that my parents were ever happy. It was taken in 1949 before they had me and Becky.

Over the decades I’ve tried to reconstruct who my dad was from memories of the people who knew him, but I’ve had little luck. I’m not sure I’ve ever gotten to talk with anyone who really knew him, and that includes my mother, who died in 2007. My father wasn’t much of a talker. He might have been before I knew him, but I now believe my mother, sister, and I drowned him out.

I have just 23 photographs of my father. All but three were taken before I was born, and two of those were with me as a toddler. I have no photographs of my father with my sister.

1936---George-Harris-photoshoppedMy father was born in Nebraska, in 1920, but moved when he was a little kid to Miami by 1923. He attended Miami Edison High School, but I’m not sure if he graduated there. I have a photo of him dressed for graduation that was taken in Homestead, Florida. Dad graduated in 1938 and I have his class photo, but I’m not sure if he graduated from Edison. I know he attended Edison for a while because I have a newspaper clipping about his class project. I know he worked as a Western Union delivery boy in high school because I have a photo of him in uniform from 1936. I have photos of my father in the service in 1942, but I’m not sure what he did between graduating in 1938 and joining the Army Air Corp in 1942. My father stayed in the Air Force after the war and married my mother in 1945.

My parents were first stationed in Washington, DC, and then Puerto Rico. I have several photographs of my mother and father living on the island and looking very happy. And when I was young they often talked fondly of life in Puerto Rico. I was born on the 6th wedding anniversary on November 25, 1951. There are two photographs of me with my father when I was a toddler, probably in 1952. The next and last photograph I have of my father was from Thanksgiving 1969. It’s blurry and everyone is almost unrecognizable. He died six months later.

I remembered something this morning that made me think the perfect time to rescue my dad would have been in the summer of 1967. 1964-1966 were bad years for my parents, and they separated from September 1966 to March 1967. My mother took me and my sister to live in Charleston, Mississippi to be near her family. We returned to Miami in March 1967 to live on West Trade Avenue, in Coconut Grove, Florida. I guess my father was trying to get his act together. He also started computer classes. I remember him coming home from class and telling me about how punch card codes worked. However, it wasn’t long before my mother and father were fighting again. And my mother and father were both on my sister case, and she was having none of it. I remember a lot of family fights. I tried to stay as far away from my family as possible. I slept on the screened-in back porch with the clothes washer. I had my radio, record player and science fiction books.

This would have been a perfect time to have tried to get to know my father. I don’t know if I could have convinced him to eat right, give up smoking and drinking, and maybe even exercise, but maybe he would have considered it on his own if someone had shown any interest in his life. I think he drank because he was lonely.

Taking computer classes in 1967 was a great time to break into the field. I started computer classes in 1971. If I had studied with him I would have had a great headstart too. We could have gotten to know each other. Maybe he would have tried harder.

Generally, when I have my time travel fantasies I’m thinking of time periods to change my life. Over the years I’ve decided the best time for me was the fall of 1963. If I could have talked my parents into letting me live with my grandmother instead of moving with them to South Carolina I believe my life would have been significantly different. In the fall of 1963, I went to three different 7th grade schools. I’ve always wondered what my life would have been like if I had lived in one place from 7th grade through the 12th. But now I see the pivotal moment in time for my dad was the summer of 1967.

I know we only get one life to live. There are no do-overs. I’m not religious, and I don’t believe in heaven. But I’ve long thought the idea of reincarnation was a wonderful concept, but not how the Hindus imagine it. I’ve always thought we should reincarnate in our own lives and have another chance of getting it right.

My father always worked two and three jobs. I hope he had great friends in the service. I know he loved bartending at NCO clubs and VFW clubs. He loved running bars, and I got to visit in some in those bars. I hope he had friends. I often wonder if he and his buddies consoled each other about wives and kids that didn’t understand them. But I’m not sure. Sometimes I imagine my father always being tight-lipped. Just holding it in.

I can only remember a handful of conversations I had with my dad. One time we were watching The Today Show before he took me to school and he went to work. This was also in that summer of 1967. They mentioned The Hobbit and my father said he knew about Bilbo Baggins. I didn’t know who Bilbo was at that time but remembered my dad saying that name, Bilbo Baggins, later when I finally read The Hobbit. It made me wonder what books my father read, what dreams he had about the future. He grew up in the heyday of the pulp magazines and old time radio. I wonder what stories and heroes he loved.

My father loved the military, and in 1967 I was very anti-war. I remember once my dad calling me a commie-pinko-faggot in anger. His dream for me was to join the ROTC and become an officer. I was having none of that. I ruined his fantasy for me. I later thought he should have been mature enough to understand me because I was too immature to understand him. But that was all part of the great generation gap. If my dad had lived he would have been a Fox News kind of guy. I don’t think we would have ever bridged the generation gap.

However, if I ever get hold of a time machine, I would try.

1969---Last-photo-of-Dad

JWH

 

My Music DNA: The AM Radio Era

In an age of gadget addiction I look back and realize my first AM radio was my first personal gadget that changed my life.  TV will always be the gadget that raised us baby boomers to see the world, but it was a family gadget.  For me, it was a white clock radio I got for Christmas in 1962 that was my first in a long line of personal gadgets.  Sadly, I don’t have a photo of my much loved radio, but this one will do to inspire these words.

clock-radio

How do we become the people we grow up to be?  The other night I watched Transcendent Man, a documentary on Ray Kurzweil on Netflix streaming.   Kurzweil is an inventor and visionary who hopes to live long enough for medical science to discover immortality, but he also loved his deceased father dearly, and wants to recreate his dad’s personality in a computer.  Kurzweil’s assumption is if he could program a computer with everything his father was interested in, he could create an artificial being that has his father’s personality.  I think a lot about artificial intelligence and I’ve long wondered what programs our personality.  Are we the sum of our likes, loves and dislikes and hates?

The other day I told a friend at work that the music of the 1960s defined me.  She objected to the term “defined” but I couldn’t think of a better one.  If I tried to program a robot to act like me it would require figuring out how to program a love for the same music I love.  I don’t think that’s possible, but then how did it happen in the first place, with me?  How was I programmed to love the music that I do?  What are my music genes?

Some people are very sentimental about music.  Think about weddings and funerals and how we select songs that define us.  There’s that word again.  But we don’t play our favorite TV shows at our funerals, but songs we love.  Some couples mark falling in love with songs.  And what would movies be without songs to enhance our emotions?  Baby Boomers are very different except that most of us feel tied together by the music we shared growing up in the 1960s.

One reason I’m writing this is to remember.  Figuring out the answers to these questions helps me remember.  Writing about the past involves spelunking into the deepest caverns of my mind.  My first memories of music was from the 1950s, listening to songs on my dad’s 1955 Pontiac car radio.  Right from the start my Dad hated the pop music I was unconsciously drawn to.  But it wasn’t until I got that clock radio for Christmas, when I was 11, that the songs started burning into my memory.  My AM radio, with a tiny 3” speaker, was one of the most transformative gadgets of my life.  I wished I had a photo of it sitting in all the rooms I lived in during the years I owned it.  What a shame.  That’s another article to write:  what I wished I had photographed when growing up.

From the end of 1962 until through 1967 that AM radio programmed the musical foundation of my life.  I got the radio when I was living on Maine Avenue at Homestead Air Force Base.  I was in the 6th grade at Air Base Elementary.  I started 7th grade a Redlands Jr. High in September 1963,   We then moved back to our house in Hollywood, Florida probably late October, where I attended Broward Jr. High until just after JFK was killed, when we moved to New Ellington, South Carolina, for the rest of the 7th grade and part of the 8th at John F. Kennedy Jr. High.  Then back to Leisure City near Homestead, where I spent the 8th grade going to Homestead Junior High, and then we moved to Cutler Ridge, where I went to the 9th grade at Cutler Ridge Jr. High.  I graduated Jr. High in 1966, the summer they started advertising Star Trek.  By the time the show premiered we had moved to Charleston, Mississippi for the first half of the 10th grade at East Tallahatchie High School, and then in March of 1967 we moved to Coconut Grove, Florida where I finished the 10th grade at Coral Gables High School and started the 11th.  This is was 1967 and 1968.  It was around the end of 1967 that my white AM radio died.  In 1968 I bought a small console stereo with AM/FM radio, and that began my FM years I’ll write about in the future.

Through the magic of Rdio I’ve been assembling playlists for the songs that are etched in my synapses, making groovy grooves in my gray matter.  I played my radio whenever I wasn’t in school, and I even slept with the radio playing.  Is it any wonder that I imprinted on those songs.  I can even remember the radio stations I listened to when we lived in South Florida, WQAM and WFUN.

If you wish to listen to these songs, sign up for the free membership to Rdio and play these playlists.  You can view the lists without joining, but it doesn’t take much effort to set up a free account.

196219631964196519661967

Would I have been a different person if I had played different music for those five years?  What if I had gotten into jazz or classical music?  Would different music made a different Jim Harris?  Wouldn’t it be a fascinating experiment if we could raise ourselves over and over again, traveling back in time to our birthday to be born in a different country and culture.  Then compare how much of our personality stays the same and how much is differs?  If I had been born in China and immigrated to the US in the 1990s, would I eventually discover that I loved these songs on these 6 playlists?

I don’t think I’d love the music same way if I did.  There’s something about absorbing the pop culture around you when you go through puberty – that stuff sticks to you for the rest of your life.  1962-1967 seems very clear in my memories, while the rest of my life is a blur.

To illustrate how precise my memories are from this time, is how attuned I am to the sound of the original recordings.  When building my playlists I could tell almost immediately when a song was the original, or if it was a recreation, or even if it had been re-mastered tune.  I don’t mind some sonic improvements but I hate major changes.  Remember, I first heard this music in mono.  I usually don’t mind the stereo versions, but the re-mastering that messes with the sound levels, even when it makes the instruments stand out clearer, bothers me.  And I just hate when artists re-record their hits.  I know it’s because they lost the rights to the originals, but I want to hear what I heard over my white AM radio from late 1962 to late 1967.

The soundtrack for the film Pirate Radio re-mastered many classics, compressing the sound to modernize the feel of the songs because modern songs are much louder than oldies.  I can handle this to a degree, but it makes me want a 60s AM filter to change the sound back.  It’s not quite the same, but it’s somewhat like colorizing old black and white movies.

A lot of songs are missing from these playlists – songs I’ve forgotten, songs that everyone has forgotten and gone out of print, songs out of copyright, songs from The Beatles and other butthead artists that refuse to let their music play from streaming music services.  And there’s another group of missing songs, those I learned later to love, like folk music and jazz from that era that I didn’t learn about until after I switched to FM and LPs.

Also, there’s the problem that Rdio just doesn’t have all the songs it could.  For example, “Half Heaven, Half Heartache” by Gene Pitney is available from Rhapsody but not Rdio.  This is why I pay $9.99 a month to two streaming music services.

Finally, there’s the problem of my memory.  Even with national playlists I can’t remember all the songs I used to love because many songs were local or regional hits.  For example, in Miami back in 1963, my sister and I loved a song called “The Lone Teen Ranger” that I never heard again for decades.  I later I learned on the Internet this was Paul Simon singing as Jerry Landis.  But there are so many songs like this that I haven’t heard for decades that are still lost in the darks corners of my mind.

There’s a wonderful internet radio called Playa Cofi Jukebox that lets you play songs by years 1950-1989.  Nothing is required to play the music, and if you pick a year, you’ll get a link to the weekly record charts – for example here’s December 22, 1962, around the time I got my radio.  By the way, this goes to show you a flaw in my playlists.  Songs on 1963 have songs that first appeared in 1962.  If I was anal I’d remake the lists by absolute release dates.

cashbox-chart

The other night on the Grammys Maroon 5 and Foster the People sang two Beach Boys songs as a 50 Year Tribute.  Are songs from my youth still turning on young people after all these years?  I have no idea what these songs sound like without the nostalgia speakers I always hear them through.  Do they sound funny and quaint, or could they actually appeal to an eleven year old in 2012?

JWH – 2/20/12 (50th Anniversary of John Glenn’s flight into space)