Best and worst lists continue
Monday, April 21, 2014 3:06 AM
It takes awhile for the news media to get over the change from the old year to the new one. I say that because I am still hearing about the "best and the worst of" lists. Most recent (this last week) was a radio talk show, not just about the best of the last year, but the best of the century: what was the best invention during the 20th century, or what changed life, as we know it, the most?
About the same time, my treadmill reading was a fiction novel, "The Enemy," by one of my favorite authors for my leisure time, Lee Child (Dell, NY, 2011). In this book, the main character asked the question, "What is the 20th century's signature sound?"
I had not heard that question before, and I thought it must have more than one very interesting answer. In this book, the thought continued, "You could have a debate about it. Some might say the slow drone of an aero engine. Maybe from a lone fighter crawling across an azure 1940s sky. Or the scream of a fast jet passing low overhead, shaking the ground. Or the whup whup whup of a helicopter. Or the roar of a 747 taking off. Or the crump of bombs falling on a city. All of those would qualify. They were never heard before. Never, in all of history."
Everyone would answer the question in his or her own uniquely personal way, including me. We can only answer from our own experience, and therefore whatever we identified would be from our own span of life, whenever that was. It would be the soundtrack of our own lives.
Most people, including me, likely think in terms of music. When I hear an old familiar and well-loved song, I can immediately remember where I was and what were the circumstances.
There is a gap in my early adulthood and marriage where I was not familiar with much of the popular music; we were so broke that we didn't have a radio except in the car. And not having much money to go places, we didn't spend much time in the vehicle. But music still comes to mind as being an important sound track, songs recorded by Kris Kristopherson (not considered "country" back then) and Simon and Garfunkel and more recently Andrea Bocelli and Josh Groban.
In thinking about music in general as a soundtrack of my own history, I concluded that I like music that inspires and motivates me. I can't think of anything currently popular that fulfills that, however.
But what Child's book meant about a signature sound was not referring to music; that is too easy. So I started thinking about sounds other than music. I asked Spouse Roger what were the defining, or memorable, sounds of his life. His first thought was the sound of emergency vehicles when he was living in Germany: they sounded so different than here. I mentioned that we never hear emergency vehicles in Bangkok, and he responded that there was too much traffic so they couldn't get around anyway! It is also cultural difference.
He also mentioned telephones: as a kid, one long and two short rings meant a particular household on a party line. A different combination of rings meant a different household. Of course some people listened in on all calls! He said even dialing on the old rotary phones produced a different sound than we hear now on our digital equipment.
I recalled as a child living next to Highway 169 (the main north/south route prior to 35W) and having the constant sound of traffic in the background. That was punctuated periodically by the noise of freight trains passing through, the tracks being on the other side of my parents' property.
Another and longer, also more recent, sound in my life was the sound of racquetballs, bouncing, being slammed by a racquet and in turn hitting a wall, accompanied by the squeak of racquetball shoes against the floor. That sound represented our big family of r'ballers, a strong community of friends and many wonderful memories.
Now, having been living in the country full-time for more than 10 years, I think the signature sound of my life is silence. I am not talking about the "Hello darkness, my old friend" as in Simon and Garfunkel's "Sounds of Silence" recording. What I experience is the natural sounds of life as it goes on without a lot of human interference. Often there is even no background music, and the almost complete silence sometimes is so loud that it causes me to stop and listen to it.
Maybe someday someone will ask what is the signature sound of this century. I won't know, of course, because I won't be around to experience much of it. I can't even identify the most important sound of the century in which I did live for the first 60 years of my life.
I can, however, agree with author Child's character who concluded that "...the 20th century's signature sound is the squeal and clatter of tank tracks on a paved street....It's a brutal sound. It's the sound of fear. It speaks of a massive overwhelming advantage in power. And it speaks of remote, impersonal indifference. Tank treads squeal and clatter and the very noise they make tells you they can't be stopped. It tells you you're weak and powerless against the machine...That's the real 20th-century sound."
Sadly, that might be prophetic, although the "machine" of the 21st century is likely to be less noisy.
I prefer the sounds of silence.