One of the few popular trends that permeated my largely cerebral shell during early to mid-adolescence was the “countdown” of top AM radio songs. Toward many other trends, I was either disinclined or outright oblivious. I didn’t know that opening or closing the rear-facing button on my collared shirt was supposed to signal whether I was “going steady.” Occasionally some friendly girl would remind me that I should button or unbutton that back button to avoid giving people the wrong signal. That was nice of them but unnecessary, as having a girlfriend was off my radar screen entirely.
I made mental notes and subtle comparisons and contrasts between the Beatles, the Dave Clark 5, the Kinks, the Moody Blues, the Searchers, the Zombies. I
Some parents of affluent high school peers on the north side of Indianapolis got very agitated at one point about their teen-aged kids’ obsession with clothes from an expensive preppie-style store called Rod’s. Some of the kids—I only heard this from my parents when they asked me about it– had even been stealing labels off clothes from that store and sewing them onto the cheaper clothes they purchased at other venues. The important point, I gathered, was to be seen wearing clothes with these labels on them. But I wouldn’t have ever noticed what label was affixed to anyone’s clothing, nor could I have easily stated which of my peers dressed more expensively or more preppie-style than others, nor did I have a clue what store they were talking about or where it was located.
But listening to the “top 40” hits and knowing which song was number one in a given week—yes! That was a trend I embraced. In my mind and mostly to myself, I made mental notes and subtle comparisons and contrasts between the melodies, harmonies, and lyrics of the Beatles, the Dave Clark 5, the Kinks, the Moody Blues, the Searchers, the Zombies. I noticed not only the words and tunes but the pauses—for instance, the long silence in “She’s Not There” by the Zombies that followed the lyric, “Her voice was soft and cool/Her eyes were clear and bright/But she’s not there.” It was a big deal to me when the Beatles song “I Feel Fine” opened with several seconds of a strange loud tone. I only learned decades later it was a deliberate use of feedback from an electric guitar brought too close to an amplifier.
Richard was a boy my age who similarly, so far as I could tell, was disengaged from the fads or trends of the age. He lived across the street from me and was in the same grade as I was, but went to Catholic school until 11th grade. Sometime after I went away to college, I would become aware that I had misapprehended the name of his school all those years growing up. It turns out it was not called “Chrysler King.” Living in a state that had the second most auto manufacturing jobs after Michigan, it had never seemed an unreasonable choice for a school name. I had spoken aloud the name of the school dozens of times while growing up (“Richard goes to Chrysler King,” “How much time do you get for recess at Chrysler King?” “When do you go back to Chrysler King?”) No one had ever corrected me. But it turns out I had it wrong. it was called Christ the King.
Richard’s parents and mine got on fine. The moms borrowed cups of sugar or flour from each other and talked about their kids (eventually, they had four and we had five). Richard’s mom was handy and could not only do sewing repairs but put up the best Halloween and Christmas decorations in the neighborhood. We ignored the fact that she occasionally got angry and told one of her daughters to fetch a switch off a tree so she could swat them with it. Richard was the oldest. He was quiet, stocky, lumbering, low-key, and straight-laced. He didn’t cross his mom and he didn’t draw her ire. His sisters, Kathy and Carla, and eventually their younger brother Johnny, were louder, with stronger personalities and more of a rebellious streak, so they were the ones that riled her up.
Richard’s dad Carlo was a black-haired, sturdily built, good-looking and friendly man who drove a pickup truck and worked long hours supervising a crew of Italian-speaking, immigrant terrazzo workers. I didn’t know what terrazzo was until I was in second grade. We expanded our house that year to add a family room, and mom and dad contracted with Richard’s father to lay a terrazzo floor in our new room. I don’t know if the men had an opinion about the 30 inch-diameter, six-pointed Jewish star that my parents had them embed into the floor, using reddish marble chips to contrast to the mostly grayish-white chips that dominated the color scheme in the remainder of the floor. Whatever comments they had were made in Italian, above the sound of their electric grinders. In any case, they were skilled craftsmen and did a superlative job. The floor remained pristine when we sold the house in 2018.
When Richard and I were each around 12 years old, he acquired a nickname. Our neighbor Jimmy McMullen, who was one year ahead of us in school, made up a song specifically for Richard, which he performed with great panache: “Gitchy Gitchy Gumbo! (followed by six beats expressed by clapping or tapping) /Little fatty Dumbo! (six more beats) /Little baby jumbo!” Immediately upon unveiling the song, Jimmy began calling Richard “Gitchy,” and the new nickname spread among the kids and even some of the parents in the neighborhood.
I didn’t have the impression Richard liked the name—but given his quiet and low-key nature, any objection he raised was passing and half-hearted and couldn’t withstand Jimmy’s evangelism in promoting and modeling the use of the new nickname. The name was widely adopted and stuck even to the point of being immortalized on the infamous winter day during Christmas vacation a few years later when Larry and Jim Ferguson were ice-skating along with Richard on a frozen pond that happened to be just across the highway from Chrysler King. Larry and Jim went through the ice, heavily clothed and with skates on. If Richard had not been there, a terrible tragedy may have struck the Ferguson family and the entire neighborhood. But in addition to being low-key, quiet, and lumbering, Richard was strong. And resolute. And loyal. When they eventually made the 30-minute trek back home on foot, shivering all the way, Larry and Jim’s well-remembered words to their mother were, “Gitchy saved our lives.”
Richard had been part of the neighborhood games that a bunch of us from five or six families played as younger kids running around after school. When it came to touch football, various forms of dodgeball, or forming groups for a special activity like trick-or-treating, it didn’t matter that he went to a different school from the rest of us. But those activities faded as we entered junior high and then high school, and thus our bonds to Richard grew weaker. We would still greet each other in passing, but we had less in common.
Richard transferred from a Catholic high school (Chrysler King had ended at eighth grade) to North Central, where I went, for his junior and senior years, but we had no classes together. While I was pursuing advanced math, French, and accelerated English, he was taking advantage of some of the more vocational-oriented parts of the curriculum, such as auto mechanics.
The one place where we did cross paths was in the school cafeteria. It was a huge school and close to five hundred students were assigned to each lunch block. I would see Richard wandering around with a tray in hand, not knowing many peers and feeling unsure where to sit. I would wave him over to join me and whatever friends were sharing a table that day. (I tended not to sit with the same peers every day—unlike many others—but I could always find somebody.)
At some point, eating together became an everyday routine. I would have guessed this occurred in the fall but I know it happened in the spring semester, because I have reviewed the notes that people wrote in my Yearbook. Richard wrote that he had eaten lunch alone for an entire semester when he first transferred—until our schedules changed and he was able to sit with me.
I don’t recall it ever being a problem that my other friends were all college-bound, while Richard was bound for a trade or for his father’s business. There probably weren’t a lot of topics to bind us together, but I’m sure that popular music and current “top 40” hits were among the subjects of those lunch table conversations, one part of the culture enveloping us that we all could share.
The chasm between Richard’s trajectory and mine could not have been greater as he planned to work for his dad’s company after junior year and I departed for France for nearly the entire summer. Along with 32 others from around the state of Indiana, I had won a competition that included oral and written language tests as well as character references and interviews. We were heading off to live with families and attend French instruction seven hours a day, five days a week in in Brittany, in the small city of St. Brieuc, not far from the Normandy coast of World War II fame.
Given my tenuous connection to most aspects of American adolescent culture, it was easy to leave it behind: I didn’t think twice about missing out on changing fashions, opportunities for parties or dating, or mastering the latest hip expressions. But one thing I did worry about was having popular song lyrics floating through my head all summer—in English. Back in Bloomington, Indiana, on the campus of Indiana University, which sponsored our travel and studies, we had raised our right arms and taken an oath to speak only French all summer, even when no teachers or grownups were around. We all took this commitment seriously and I did not want to accidentally find myself blurting out the words from “Love Potion Number 9.” On the bus to France–the one we boarded in Luxembourg when we landed there on an Icelandic Airlines charter flight–I was worried enough that I spent time translating the lyrics to “Don’t Bring Me Down,” a song by the Animals. I could easily imagine that song, which I liked a lot, getting stuck in my head, so I figured I should learn it in French.
By the next day, I would no longer need my newly translated song. From the moment I entered my French family’s home and my two sisters, Helene and Sabine, prepared me a snack of some fresh-sliced tomatoes with olive oil, I forgot about most things American, including the songs. The tomatoes were sliced in a manner I had never seen—not in wedge-shaped sections emanating from the center but straight across the fruit from one side to the other! Like their way of preparing tomatoes, every detail of my new life was interesting and worth noticing. That was equally true in the Guidon home and also at the school that I began attending right away.
Another reason I wouldn’t need the Animals’ song lyrics in my head is that I became enamored of the rockers popular in France at the time. One singer in particular, Antoine, who had a group called “The Problems” (in French, Antoine et les Problemes), captured the allegiance of all the boys as well as some of the girls in our cohort. We went around singing ‘”Je dis ce que je pense et je vis comme je veux,” which was both the name of a song and the opening lines of the song (“I say what I think and I live how I want.”) Once we were smitten with Antoine’s songs as well as his flowered neckties (which most of us went out and bought), there was no further danger of Eric Burdon’s or any other English lyrics spilling out inadvertently.
In the days after I arrived home and was regaining my bearings and my English fluency, friends from the neighborhood showed up at the house to welcome me back. When Richard stopped by he announced with a glimmer in his eye and a smile he was trying to suppress that he had something to give me. He hadn’t brought it over but if I was ready, he would be back with my gift in hand. I couldn’t imagine why he thought I needed a welcome-back present. But I told him, sure, let’s see it.
He returned from his home across the street with a stack of 45-rpm records and suggested I begin playing them. One of them was “Wild Thing” by the Troggs. Another was “Hanky Panky” by Tommy James and the Shondells. There was also “Li’l Red Riding Hood” by Sam The Sham and the Pharoahs, “Hungry” by Paul Revere and the Raiders, and “Sweet Pea” by Tommy Roe. And a few more. He didn’t say why he had chosen these songs at first, but as we listened together, I pressed him for an explanation. “I bought you all the songs that went to number one while you were in France. I didn’t want you to miss out.”
He told me I could keep them if I wanted; he bought them just for me. Knowing he had spent money he saved from his summer job, I said I would just borrow them and listen to them for a week or so and then bring them back. And that’s what I did.
For separate reasons, Richard and I each were out of step with many of the trends that were popular among our peers. But in pop music, we each found a place of comfort, peace, competence, and even excitement. I had helped him acclimate to the culture of our school. And now he was helping me re-acclimate to the culture of American adolescence.
Dale Borman Fink retired in 2020 from Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, MA, where he taught courses related to research methods, early childhood education, special education, and children’s literature. Prior to that he was involved in childcare, after-school care, and support for the families of children with disabilities. Among his books are Making a Place for Kids with Disabilities (2000) Control the Climate, Not the Children: Discipline in School Age Care (1995), and a children’s book, Mr. Silver and Mrs. Gold (1980). In 2018, he edited a volume of his father's recollections, called SHOPKEEPER'S SON.