“Back in 1899/When everybody sang ‘Auld Lang Syne’/A hundred years took a long,long time/For every boy and girl/Now there’s only one thing to know/Where did the twentieth century go?/I swear it was here just a minute ago/All over this world.” – Steve Goodman, “The Twentieth Century’s Almost Over,” 1977
Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1979. I gather my yellow legal pad and pen and smile as a compact, amicable young man sits down across from me. He is both energized and dehydrated after an hour’s performance and gulps several glasses of seltzer-water as he answered my question between mouthfuls of refreshment. As we sit down at an oversized maple sideboard, a gaggle of devoted members of the audience approach the young man, asking him for an autograph. He makes small talk with each of them, and signs his name, Steve Goodman, on assorted pages of the Living Section of a discarded Boston Globe.
At the time, I well knew the young performer’s music. Nine years previously, Steve Goodman had composed an American musical classic, “The City of New Orleans” – “the best damn train song ever written,” John Prine had gushed when he first heard it. It was Arlo Guthrie’s popular version of the ballad, which made it a cash-cow for the Chicagoan ever since. Throughout the 1970’s, Goodman had subsequently composed indelible memorable tunes for such musical luminaries as Joan Baez, Johnny Cash, Jimmy Buffett, Linda Ronstadt, Willie Nelson, John Denver, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Emmylou Harris. While his own cult status was mostly limited to the East Coast and his native Midwest, nevertheless, Steve Goodman had culled an enthusiastic and loyal following.
Steve and I ended up talking about the unforgiving entertainment industry, his recent Grammy for acoustic-guitar performing, and why he had unfairly remained a footnote rather than a star in the musical world.
Just before it was time for his second set, I asked Goodman a final question: “Why would you write and record a song about the end of the Twentieth Century when we have nearly a fifth of the century yet to go?”
The singer-songwriter smiled for a minute and then stated, “You know, there’s an answer to that which I will tell you after my set is over. Okay?”
“For sure,” I replied. Goodman then hopped up onto the stage.
“Does anyone remember the Great Depression?
I read all about it in True Confessions
Sorry, I was late for the recording session
But somebody put me on hold;
Has anyone seen my linoleum floors, petroleum jelly –
And two world wars?
They got stuck in the revolving door –
All over this world.”
Even thought he was barely 30 years old at the time, Steve Goodman recognized that time didn’t march on like some interminable battalion. Instead, it seemed to stealthily tiptoe on its own variable pace. As the singer-songwriter himself wrote, “All we have left are those memories/That are most deserving to recall.” It was obvious that Steve Goodman believed that fervently.
Exactly 40 years after I spoke with the seasoned musical performer in Cambridge, I found myself reminiscing with a twenty-something faculty member at school about the first “Armistice Day” Parade I attended as a six-year-old in Wellesley, Massachusetts. I smiled when I recalled my father, still young and vibrant, marching with a legion of his fellow World War II veterans. At the front of the parade, however, strode a beaming nonagenarian who still had a pronounced spring in his steps. I soon learned from my mother that he was a cavalryman in the Spanish American War. We showered him with hosannas as he passed by our perch near the Wellesley Town Hall. When I shared this antidote with my fledgling English teacher-friend, she looked at me with amazement. “Good God,” she sighed.
My late mother seemed to comprehend the essence of time and its bridge-like effect when, one day, she asked me to shake her hand. I then looked at her with puzzlement. She paused and then exclaimed, “When I was a little girl, my Great Uncle John Whiting purposely shook my hand and said, ‘Now you’ve shaken the hand of someone who fought at the Battle of Antietam.” Mummie then smiled at me and bellowed, “So you too can now say that you’ve shaken the hand of someone who shook the hand of a relative who fought in the Civil War!”
I then recalled that when I was a little boy, I used to cuddle next to my grandmother and ask her what life was like in “the old days.” She talked to me about horse-drawn milk carts, the fabled Blizzard of 1896, the brilliance of the night sky before Edison. To me, it seemed as if she had lived an eternity.
Now I know differently. When I took my oldest son to Fenway Park for the first time in 2003, Max asked me why the aisles and seats in the old ballpark were so narrow. “Because Fenway was built in 1912,” I replied. “It was designed for nineteenth-century bodies. People were much smaller back then. Our diets increased and improved over the years.”
Towards the end of the game, I glimpsed at one of the seats and imagined my grandmother, a tiny, fragile figure, a remnant of the 1800’s, sitting in her chair – quite comfortably – rooting for Cy Young and Babe Ruth in Red Sox uniforms.
“Winter’s getting colder, summer’s getting hotter
Our wishing well’s wishing for another drop of water
Mother Earth’s blushin’ cause somebody caught her
Making loving to the man in the moon.
Now how are you going to keep them
Down on the farm
Now that outer space has lost its charm?
Somebody just set off the burglar alarm
And not a moment too soon.”
Because of modern time’s population explosion, more than three-fifths of all human beings who ever lived were born in the past eight decades. Consequently, people did more living in this time period than in all the other centuries combined. On the downside, more humans died in war from 1914-1975 than in the previous thirty centuries of human existence. In contrast, billions of people live more substantive, energetic, healthy lives than ever before. Names, places, items, art, music, linguistic expressions, and fads – even nations and their governments – have come in and out of our lives like passing ships.
To those who lived through the past seven decades, the progress we have observed has been incalculable. In 1961, for instance, the United States launched its first astronaut into the cosmos, Navy Commander Alan Shepard. His Mercury 7 spacecraft spent just 15 minutes in space before splashing down in the Atlantic. A Mickey Mantle popup went higher than Al Shepard, quipped comedian Shelley Berman at the time. Just eight years later, three American pioneers ventured 226,000 miles into deep space, landed on the moon, and returned safely to Earth. Last week, I asked my eighth-graders how many of them had ventured to at least two continents in their short lives. Virtually everyone had. The new generation have become world-travelers as a matter of course.
Still, there are detriments to such progress. If modern times were given a motto which could capture the previous one hundred years, it would be… “With Progress – Nothing Lasts.” Consequently, each decade seems to be its own Brigadoon; it dissolves into the mist – never to be seen again. As those of us who have lived through the Twentieth Century know, the 1950’s were an extraordinarily different time from the 1990’s. We almost could have been living in different centuries. For most of the history of the world, however, progress was hardly noticeable. People perished in the same spot they were born in. For years, I taught a searing historical novel to sixth-graders called The Borning Room. It centered on the room off the kitchen where members of the same family were born, were sick, had children, and died as old folks in the same room. The only thing that changed was their age.
In our modern world, though, if one moves away from his or her hometown and returns ten years later, the place is hardly recognizable. Even change in the workplace is both exhausting and whimsical. In 1984, I began teaching with an authentic educational mentor, Mrs. Edith Whelden, who started toiling at The Fessenden School in West Newton, Massachusetts, the week after the Germans invaded Poland and World War II began. When she finally retired as a teacher in 1987 – Edith was a staple at the school for 48 years – she chuckled as she mimeographed her last math handout: “I began my first day getting purple on my hands, and here I am nearly 50 years later still getting purple on my hands!”
Like Edith Wheldon, I began with mimeograph-purple ink on my hands, but that was scores of changes ago. Today, I use Google Classroom, a SmartBoard M600, and a Lenovo PC as my teaching weapons by choice and decree. Edith Whelden’s professional career was framed within the context of a three-mile an hour world. In comparison, mine has been at Mach 1 speed. In the end, life today is not written in granite but in ever-changing sand. No wonder a lot of us have been clinging to the past.
“Old Father Time has got his toes a tappin’
Standin’ in the window grumblin’ and rappin’
Everybody’s waiting for something to happen,
Tell me if it happens to you.
The Judgement Day is getting nearer
There it is in the rearview mirror!
If you could duck down, I could see a little clearer –
All over this world.”
With the Cambridge audience singing and clapping along, Steve Goodman completed his second and final set singing the refrain of “The Twentieth Century’s Almost Over.” He then shouted out to the Passim crowd: “Let’s celebrate before it becomes passe!” Everyone instantly laughed and gave him a heartfelt standing ovation. Steve walked off the stage and motioned for me to join him at his table once again.
After he had drank a quart of fresh water, Goodman remarked to me: “Shaun, you asked me why I wrote ‘Twentieth Century’ with 23 years left in the 1900’s? I composed it because you never know if you are going to be around for such an event; you could drop dead at any moment. There have been so many crazy things that have happened our time, despicable, head-scratching things. That said, everything that I have ever loved in this world also existed during this time. When the clock strikes midnight on January 1, 2000, there will be a lot to say goodbye to then. Don’t you think?” The performer shook my hand briskly and then disappeared into his dressing room.
I did not know then that he was undergoing extensive chemotherapy in that fall in 1979. He would live five more years and die, much too young at 36, a victim of leukemia. Thus, Steve Goodman would not live to see the ticking of the millennium clock in Times Square on January 1, 2000.
For the past few weeks, I have thought about Steve Goodman. I have also thought about the scores of people who ended up touching my soul through the past 65 years. Many of them have passed on; many are still a vibrant presence in my life. All of us, however, are rooted in the times we experienced together.
Recently, when I visited my hometown, Wellesley, Massachusetts, I ended up walking around the local graveyard, Woodlawn Cemetery, as tranquil and beautiful a resting-place as there is in New England. I stopped and reflected at the gravesites of friends who died too young in car crashes, cancer, or various addictions. I paid my respects to a host of family and friends who had encouraged me as a child. I paused at the monuments of teachers who had seen something in me that I hadn’t recognized previously. I even weeded the grounded nameplate of one of my loyal customers when I was a bag-boy at the Wellesley Super Market. Unlike her venerated daughter, Sylvia, whose tombstone in England is an iconic spot for thousands who visit it each year, Aurelia Plath’s memorial has been untouched since I last weeded it the previous year.
As I turned the far corner of the cemetery, I stopped at a final resting-place, my parents’ gravesite, which overlooked the site of our family’s old house on adjacent Radcliffe Road. Suddenly, I could hear my parents ghostly laughter. After all, here was their youngest child standing above them now as an old man. “Welcome to the fold!” they seemed to say. “Enjoy it all while you can, and remember – enjoy the ride! After all, you’ll never know when it will end.”
As Steve Goodman told me during his interview with me forty years ago this month, “Our time here on Earth is the connective tissue for us all. That is why we should never forget that we’re all in this thing called life together.”
As Virgil once wrote: Omne momentum rei est pretiosum, habens in essentia finis. (Every moment is a precious thing, having in it the essence of finality.)