Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Aqua Mustang 30 – THE SIXTIES FROM AFAR

In 1970, when I am back from abroad to finish my novel, Terri and her pleasant, new Social Register husband Rich, and Rich’s two teenage sons, long hair and bellbottoms, are singing the songs from the new Moody Blues album, just out now this summer. The singing is on the walkway between the two wings of White Wings, looking out over a field, the dirt road that is now called The Birches but is really Davis Road, out over the forest my grandparents had once owned, and out further to the mountains, which never change. Behind us is a forest-fragrant pile of neatly stacked wood such as has always lined the walkway. Along with us is Rich’s Cocker Spaniel, whom he takes around to dog show competitions. Rich is between assignments but on the payroll at IBM, and so has time on his hands.

They can all sing. Rich, Terri and the boys seem to have all been singing always, including in boarding school glee clubs and choirs, which was something I was told I could not do. And they seem happy to be in the swing of psychodelic music that would seem so subversive to their world.

At one end of the walkway is the formal wing that Terri’s parents had kept as a museum honoring my grandfather, the writer Ernest Poole, containing not just his books but the living room and dining room furniture from the past, even the old, yellowing wallpaper with Chinese pagodas on it, and the old screen porch and the kitchen that looked and had the comforting odors of kitchens from earliest times.

Peter and I had slept upstairs in a room over the walkway, where Gaga created a bedtime game that entailed hurling our stuffed animals across the room while shouting “Throw the baby!” In daytime downstairs Nana had sat at the piano singing songs to us from a French songbook that had pictures of people being decapitated in the French Revolution. This time with Nana was the most comforting time in my life as a baby.

Looking round this museum-like living room now in 1970, before it was put off bounds, I saw Terri still looking so pretty, and I felt it was is as if we were back in the distant past again, though the Old Guard people had noticed without enthusiasm how her parents had made subtle changes, improving the heating system, even, of all things, putting electric blankets in the bedrooms.

The other wing, where my grandfather had had his study, a place people had approached on tiptoe for fear of disturbing the writer, had been transformed by Terri’s parents into a bright white play place for her and her little brother. It was where Peter and I, when moving out of childhood, used to go in our attempts to get the attention of Terri, who was so smoothly tanned and so happily bright and flirtatious.

That was now years ago. And here I was in 1970 in this place of the past, a past that still overrode whatever was in the present.

The Moody Blues here in this actual present, one of the many music groups I had missed while I was away. So much of what I did know of the chronologically just-passed sixties had been from a distance. There were the literal minded journalists and the retrograde spies and whoring Vietnam War soldiers, who, like me, came face to face with what was happening at home by way of the erotic bars of Bangkok, where in the year I arrived many of the girls were putting aside their skin-tight gold lamé gowns in favor of mini-skirts. They still, in slow times, read pulp romances written in Thai Sanskrit, and you would still sometimes hear the singers in the bars do a phonetic version of the nice-nice "A doe, a doe, a female dear..." But everything was changing in this interlude between the old semi-professional if not amateur bar girl world oriented to foreigners, so appealing to G.I.’s over from Vietnam, changing already in the direction of more hard-edged commercial trade in sex. Also, some of the bars had light shows and most of them had the new Thai rock bands called shadow bands. And up in Laos, where many of us went periodically to get our Thai visas renewed, you could get all the marijuana you could carry away from the market for about eighty cents.

The foreigners in Bangkok, the crooks and spies, the lotus eaters and the marauders, getting the news of what was happening at home most graphically from the bars.

The night worlds of Bangkok and Manila and Singapore and Taipei, the places where I got my most direct news of the 60s and now I was getting it in places in the White Mountains that otherwise seemed farther away from the sixties than were the flesh pots of the Far East.

These unlikely places to experience the sixties: erotic, Boom-town Bangkok, huge new nightclubs filled with slinky-gowned girls wearing numbers who sat, looking seductive, behind one-way class waiting to be picked, and also huge new quasi-brothel massage parlors with similar viewing rooms, and slick new rich people’s hotels going up as fast as the nightclubs and massage parlors. As unlikely a place to experience the sixties as the White Mountains of New Hampshire, where nothing ever changed – this world of old formal summer people’s houses, and also the white picket fence year-round people’s places, and big old hotels with their wrap-around porches where genteel ladies from the South came in hay fever season. What I saw now in 1970 was precisely what I saw in childhood, and what I knew I would have seen if I had been here in the second half of the 19th century.

And it was nearly as true now in 1986 when I came in the aqua Mustang. White Wings from the outside, and in one wing from the inside, looked not very different from what it was, though now on the premises there were various farm animals Terri had rescued, including a stately old cow, a happy seeming lamb and a little pig who followed her around. Also, she had a dozen dogs of all sizes and combinations in residence in the wing that had at first been my grandfather’s workplace, and later was a play space for Terri and her brother.

The animals apparently were what caused the break-up with Rich, who liked formal rooms, not the sort of rooms Terri was preparing. She now, when I made my second summer trip over from Vermont, had a dog door leading out to a dog run. The walls now were bare, old, splintery wood, and there was a pot belly stove. Also the young handyman whom Terri had rescued from a bare bones farm.

As for the other wing, the formal, museum-like wing,her mother was now in constant touch by phone from Grosse Point with the Sugar Hill police, a basically one-man force, to make sure Terri would be arrested if she tried to get into it. It was in Terri's more comfortable wing that I stayed in the summer of ’86 on my second trip over from Vermont.

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