There’s a scene from Aaron Sorkin’s Sports Night that contains of the truest things anyone’s ever said about how music functions in our lives. Dan feels a premonition of danger and says, “Eli’s coming.” Casey tells him he’s getting the song wrong. Dan says he knows that, “but when I first heard it, that’s what I thought it meant. Things stay with you that way.”
“Things stay with you.” Especially things from when you are very young. We’ve all got ’em: oddball associations that wouldn’t mean anything to anyone else resonate deeply with each of us, beyond our ability to explain the reasons why.
When we were very young, we’d pack into the car, sometimes on a Saturday night and less often on a Sunday afternoon, and drive down the road no more than eight or 10 miles to visit my father’s cousin and her family. They lived on a farm just over the state line. To my brother and me—maybe nine and seven years old at the time—this passed for exotic. We’d watch as the “welcome to Illinois” sign came in sight, and marvel that for a fraction of a second, Mom and Dad in the front seat were in one state and we kids in the back were in the other. (To this day, this kind of border-straddling still interests me.)
Dad’s cousin’s family was made up of a couple of boys about our age and a younger sister. Later they’d add a set of twins. So we had a lot in common with them, and many of the adventures we’d have were similar to the things we did at home—building forts out of hay bales in the barn or tramping around in the woods looking for whatever we could find. When we tired of that, or when it got too dark, we’d come inside and play in the basement or the boys’ bedrooms while our parents played euchre around the kitchen table or just sat and talked.
We loved these nights for a couple of reasons. First, we were allowed to stay up past our usual bedtime of 8 or 8:30. Way past. Many nights we wouldn’t get home until after midnight, and the long dark hours we did not usually see were fascinating to us. But there was also this: the boys were not disciplined quite as well as we, and they could get away with a lot. Ergo, we could get away with a lot, at least until our own parents caught on. For example, I can remember us trampolining on somebody’s bed, joyously leaping as high as the light fixture, something we’d never have been permitted to do at home.
It’s likely that the radio was on during these visits. It’s the sort of thing a young couple entertaining friends would have done in that place and time. Putting on a stack of records was probably too much trouble, or maybe too overt. The radio was a more casual way to set the mood for a few hands of cards.
So here’s the oddball association, remarkably vivid after so very long, and inexplicable. In 1969, Bobby Bare scored a major country hit with a Tom T. Hall song called “(Margie’s at) The Lincoln Park Inn.” It’s classic Tom T., a story told obliquely with an ending that will knock you flat, and a fine example of the countrypolitan sound of the moment. Some night that year, it must have played on the radio, there in the kitchen of that northern Illinois farmhouse, and somehow, nearly 45 years later, as I listen to it again, there I am, again. I can even hear the DJ back-announce it, smooth and resonant, “Margie’s at the Lincoln Park Inn.”
And I can’t remember what I had for breakfast yesterday.