watching the wheels

Boom, like that


My friend Charlie Taylor released a CD two or three years ago called Once Upon a Time.
Since this is Nashville, chances are your postman also has a CD out, so the fact that Charlie released a CD may not be that big a deal, but trust me, this album is good stuff.
Charlie, whose day job is in Development at Vanderbilt, is a serious music guy. Consider this—on his album he was backed by, among others, Scotty Moore, who played guitar for Elvis; Dan Penn, who wrote several of the greatest soul songs of all time, including “Dark End of the Street;” and Spooner Oldham, the keyboard legend of Muscle Shoals, Ala., who has performed with Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Aretha Franklin and other close friends of mine.
I’ve listened to the album a lot—I should point out it is available at several online music retailers and you should definitely buy a copy—and I’ve decided my favorite song is “The Time That Was,” which Charlie wrote with Penn. Its opening lines are,

Daddy and his friends
smoked cigarettes

And chewed tobacco with
no regrets

We all rode in the back of
pickup trucks

Drank R.C. Colas and 7UPs

Let’s see: just in that first verse we’ve got smoking, chewing tobacco, and children (by “we” I’m pretty sure Charlie means his neighborhood cronies) riding around unsecured in pickups, swilling sugary, high-calorie, nutrition-free drinks.
You could sum the whole thing up as, We didn’t know any of this stuff was bad for us, and it sure was fun.
I’m not downplaying any of the risks—this Medical Center has people here every day who are sick or injured because they did the things in this song—but riding around in a pickup truck drinking 7UP out of a green glass bottle is a great pleasure to remember, if you happen to survive it. Which, of course, those of us who are around to remember it and feel nostalgic about it, did.
Charlie’s song perfectly captures the fond memory, but also has the necessary undercurrent of rueful knowledge of how lucky those of us who make it to adulthood are, given the dangers and tragedies, known and unknown, that can prevent that from happening. There’s a neat ironic distance between the gentle nostalgia with which Charlie sings the song and the litany of risk factors it enumerates.
Sometimes, though, nostalgia ends up in the wrong hands. Here’s an example that also concerns the way a lot of us grew up, courtesy of a pass-along e-mail that contained a list of differences between the lives of children of the baby boom and earlier, and today. A few of the items:
• “We did not have Playstations, Nintendos [sic], X-boxes, no video games at all, no 99 channels on cable, no video tape movies, no surround sound, no cell phones, no personal computers, no Internet or Internet chat rooms. We had FRIENDS and we went outside and found them.”
• “We drank water from the garden hose and not from a bottle.”
• “We shared one soft drink with four friends, from one bottle, and no one actually died from this.”
• “We would leave home in the morning and play all day, as long as we were back when the streetlights came on. No one was able to reach us all day. And we were OK.”
• “We made up games with sticks and tennis balls and ate watermelon seeds, and although we were told it would happen, we did not put out very many eyes, nor did we grow watermelons in our stomachs.”
After a bunch more things of this ilk, including one that points out that many of our mothers drank alcohol and smoked while carrying us because there was no knowledge 50 years ago that this was potentially harmful, this e-mail lore concludes with this: “You might want to share this with others who have had the luck to grow up kids, before the lawyers and the government regulated our lives for our own good.”
My reaction to this as a reader was, and I quote: “Huh?”
What does most of this stuff have to do with anybody regulating our lives? Most of these items concern only the passage of time and differences in technology and culture. (And some of them aren’t even real differences—don’t kids still drink from garden hoses and share soda bottles when adults aren’t looking? I’ll bet they do.)
I dislike the smug tone of the e-mail. It implies that somehow we are better than children today, when the truth is you don’t get to pick the world you grow up in, and have no right to feel personally superior because you came of age before the advent of video games or ubiquitous bottled water.
Was childhood better then or now? I suspect, speaking in extremely broad terms, we had more unstructured time and freedom, while children now have more opportunity and safety. Which is better? Who knows? I prefer my childhood because it is my childhood; would today’s average 12-year-old trade what he has for what I had? I doubt it.
Which is why the tone of Charlie Taylor’s song is so good and so true. Just listen to this verse:
Christmas time of ‘52
Santa brought me a .22
Squirrels and rabbits didn’t have
a chance
That was right before I learned to dance
The adult Charlie, looking back, knows that a loaded firearm was nothing compared with the dangers of the adolescence right around the corner, and he frames that fateful progression of life in four lines, sung with knowledge and gentle humor. “The Time That Was” is memory at its best, nostalgia in the right hands, as a source of wisdom.
I’m humming it right now.

(Wood is editor of House Organ, Director of Publications for VUMC, and author of Watching the Wheels: Cheap Irony, Righetous Indignation, and Semi-Enlighted Opinion, which is a collection of past columns.)


June 2006


Picking up the Pieces

This issue contains four stories of VUMC people who have one thing in common: their houses were destroyed by storms. The tornadoes that hit Middle Tennessee on April 7 destroyed the homes of Vanderbilt Police officer David Carey, Children’s Hospital Nurse Tanya Boswell and Plant Operations Electrical Shop employee Toby Hines. Each has a story of survival to tell, but they are more than stories of surviving a devastating storm, they are stories of how to pull the pieces of life back together when almost all material possessions have been lost.
The fourth story is of Thomas Lavie, M.D., whose house and almost everything in it was destroyed last August by Hurricane Katrina. He is a lifelong resident of New Orleans who couldn’t imagine living anywhere else until the assumptions of his day-to-day life were turned upside down in the floodwaters left by broken levees. The story of how he came to be at Vanderbilt is a compelling look at how one family worked to cope with the sudden and devastating loss.
These stories are compelling examples of human beings—people who are our co-workers—facing terrible destruction and, with courage, love and support, learning how to live again.



Car seat checks this summer

Faculty and staff with young children should visit the free car seat safety checks this summer, offered by the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt, Kohl’s Cares For Kids and Safe Kids of Cumberland Valley. Seats will be checked for proper installation—more than 80 percent of seats are installed improperly. Registration is required. To register, call 936-0322.

Upcoming dates:

June 22, 3-7 p.m.
Murfreesboro Kohl’s

July 21, 8-11 a.m.
Hermitage Kohl’s

Aug. 8, 8-11 a.m.
Clarksville Kohl’s

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