Songs have a way of rekindling those special memories

By John Toth / Editor and Publisher

I was all set to write a column about some current events when I muted the TV set, turned on Youtube and started playing Top 40 hits from the 1960s and ‘70s.

Hours passed by as I listened to one song after another. Each one transported me to a different period of my youth.

Certain smells do the same thing. When I smell pine trees, I think back of all the summers I spent in New Hampshire working at a summer camp. And even before that, when I was a camper in my early teens.

The first thing that hit me after getting off that smelly Trailways bus was the fragrance from all the pine trees. It was unforgettable. We took some deep breaths of that very special air, the kind that city life lacked.

Then, after a couple of days, we took it for granted, until the next summer when we got off the bus again and took a big whiff again.

But I’m here today to write about the songs, not the air.

“To Sir with Love” by Lulu in 1967 always has taken me back to the technical high school where I spent so much time preparing for an engineering career, just to change my mind in college and become a writer.

It was hot and muggy in that high school at the beginning and end of the school year when temperatures in the city soared into the low 90s at times. The school had no air-conditioning. We just opened the big windows and let some more of the hot air inside.

“Summer in the City” by The Lovin’ Spoonful was a perfect fit for these conditions. The back of my neck was getting dirty and gritty. Although they released the song in 1966, I didn’t become cognizant of it until a few years later. I was too busy country-hopping that year from Hungary to Austria.

One early summer night I was hurrying home from somewhere with my mother in Vienna. It was getting dark, and the bright neon lights of the city shined all around us. We were waiting for a streetcar and were talking with some friends when someone with a transistor radio walked behind us playing “Downtown” by Petula Clark.

You couldn’t order a memory-sparking scene like that one if you wanted to. The song came out two years earlier, but that was the first time I heard it. Ever since, it brings back the Vienna city center with all its lights and bustle, the amazing things I was subjected to for the first time in my life - like restaurants, movies on weekends, Coca Cola, and all the bananas and chicken I could eat.

I continued to like chicken, but it took a while to get my taste back for bananas after overdosing on them, sort of.

And milk. Lots of milk. I still like milk a lot, especially chocolate milk. I used to get that as a snack in grade school for a dime once I arrived in the U.S. and was learning the language and absorbing yet another lifestyle change.

“Those Were the Days” by Mary Hopkin, released in 1968, brings back memories of those early years. We played it at lunch on the pizzeria jukebox around the corner from the school, and one of our guitar-toting camp counselors played it at camp fires.

The counselor also knew a bunch of Peter, Paul and Mary songs. “Puff the Magic Dragon” and “Blowing in the Wind” continue to bring back memories of that very special summer in 1968 - learning to swim; passing the swimming test that allowed me to go to the big pier; and hiking up Mt. Washington.

The Mt. Washington part was quite an achievement for this city boy. I could not have done it without the constant nagging of my fearless counselor.

“Leaving on a Jet Plane” takes me back to that awful transcontinental trip in a propeller plane between Austria and the U.S. I was sick to my stomach when we landed, probably because I could have sworn that the plane was going to crash in a storm over the Atlantic.

The storm was real, but the plane wasn’t crashing. I was dreaming it while I was taking a nap on the bouncing rust bucket. I knew it was going to be a rough ride when one of the pilots walked by us on his way to the restroom, and I saw that the back of his shirt was soaked in sweat. Not a good sign.

But we made it safely, and I waited until I got to our hotel to throw up. There is no song needed to remind me of that.

“Memories Are Made of This.” Dean Martin released it in 1956, shortly after I was born. I caught up to it on “The Dean Martin Show” in 1968.

Color TV, first bike, looking out the window on a dirty old city that was my home and loving it, learning yet another language, making lots of friends, Decking a school bully with a chair.

Yes, songs bring back the best memories.

(Do you have a favorite song that transports you back in time? What is it? Drop me a note at john.bulletin@gmail.com. Or, mail it to The Bulletin, P.O. Box 2426, Angleton, TX 77516.)