Saturday, July 5, 2008

Dancing with the Stars

My collection of 45s didn’t grow much between 1967 and 1973. Uncle Tom stopped buying me 45s, and I started accepting that the radio was a good source of tunes. During this stretch of time, I had to love a song beyond measure before I would buy the single.

A couple of times, I was kept from buying 45s I wanted because I was summering at Good Fellow Camp in Porter, Indiana. That’s the camp that prevented me from seeing Neil Armstrong step onto the moon, but it’s also the camp that gave me very much-needed opportunities to explore life outside of my home.

What happened in these two cases was that, by the time I got home, a song I had enjoyed at camp had sold out and was not being restocked at Zayre, which was about the only place I could find 45s in the pre-mall days. When I was eleven, a single that was not in stock at Zayre was a single I would never find. In the case of today’s song, it meant I would never hear the song again.

The two weeks I spent at Good Fellow Camp in June, 1971 turned out to be a huge turning point in my world. It was my third year of camping, and I was far enough past the death of my mother to exert my personality a bit. Even so, the two expressions of who I was capable of being still surprise me by their daring. I took more risks that first week of camp than I tended to take in a year. I throw myself out there much more often now, but when I was eleven I had no perspective on the value of leaving my comfort zone.

One of my risks involved music, but the other one led to it, so I have to talk first about learning to swim.

After my first swimming lesson at age seven ended in disaster (lake plus boat plus short kid equals wake flattens kid), I didn’t take another stab at a deep pool until I was nine, at camp. There, the instructor was gentle, and all of us Beginners appreciated that but rarely tried to progress. I know I didn’t, especially after an ultra-pale kid named Brian splattered his hot dog from lunch all over the shallow end. He made this barking sound, then . . . never mind.

When I was ten, I fought the pool to a draw. I could hang onto the side and kick, as long as my head did not go under the surface.

When I went to camp in 1971, I had a new stepmother-to-be, and she was not kind about my fear of deep water. Never mind that I was a tree-climber after her heart, and that I loved to play baseball; I caught real hell for not being a swimmer.

You would think I would feed off the motivation of wanting to stick it in her face when I came home a swimmer, but I found her tactic demoralizing. When I came home not just floating but actually swimming after two weeks away, I had a different emotion to thank: I had fallen in love with my swimming instructor.

You know how that goes: you have a preteen crush on someone, and you see the person sometime later, and you are horrified at your poor taste. But I assure you, Beverly, the Good Fellow Camp swimming instructor that year, was a keeper. I was no dummy—she was six years older than I was, and there was no way she would want to have an eleven-year-old boyfriend. I kept my thoughts to myself, but it probably clued her in that I made constant eye contact with her when we were in the pool.

She had long blond hair, and she was wearing a bikini 90% of the time when I interacted with her. At first, she cupped water in her hands and had me blow bubbles in the water. Once, I kissed her hand. I don’t know if she caught on.

For Beverly, I would have done anything. And so, I let her erase my fears of the water, and I floated. Then I kicked. Then I swam.

On Tuesday, the second lesson day, I put my head underwater without panicking for the first time in my life. When I got back to Cabin 6, I was elated. A perky song was playing on my counselor’s radio: WLS was spinning “Do You Know What Time It Is?” by the P-Nut Gallery (Buddah 239). Alby, my counselor, was the first nurturing counselor I’d had; the previous two had been rough-and-tough types who hadn’t clicked too well with me. Alby really showed what a good guy he was this day.

When I stepped through the door and heard the song, I started doing a dance, which involved clapping my hands and stomping my right foot as I spun on my left. A couple of the boys were there as well, and they started clapping with me. I was the only one dancing, though.

As the week wore on, my spirit never wavered, and the guys demanded that I do my dance whenever WLS played “Do You Know what Time It Is?” The song peaked at #62 nationally, but in Chicago, it entered the WLS Top 30 at #21 on May 31, two weeks before it entered the Billboard Hot 100. On June 14 and 21, it ranked #9 and #8. It was in heavy rotation, which should have been a good thing on Thursday night, because that was when the boys called for a dance contest.

That could mean a lot of things in that social circle. Was I annoying them with my dancing? After the first time, I did it only by request. Other boys did the dance when I did. Did they want to show me up? These concerns barely crossed my mind, because we were all having great fun with the song.

After dinner, all the boys of Cabin 6 skipped other activities to attend the contest. Three others participated; they came up with something original and danced to whatever song WLS played. Then it was my turn, presumably to do my dance to “Do You Know What Time It Is?” But the song didn’t come on. Alby let me wait out two songs, but we agreed that I would have to dance to the third song. And the third song was the P-Nut Gallery tune. Thanks, WLS.

The vote made me a winner. Alby spent part of the day Friday making a plaque for me: “Best Dancer, Cabin 6.” We always had a bonfire and awards ceremony on Friday night. I was hoping it would impress Beverly when Alby handed me my award.

As it turned out, after two years without recognition, I got a number of awards: I received four certificates for my Nature studies, and I was named Most Enthusiastic Athlete, which I cinched by winning the running long jump. I didn’t win any Red Cross swimming awards, though, so all I could do was look at Beverly in the firelight while she doled out certificates to far better swimmers.

When she finished, she started talking about how she had never seen anyone progress as fast as one of the Beginners. She found it amazing, in fact, that someone could be afraid to get his face in the water and then finish the week by almost swimming a full lap. I still didn’t get it, until she said my name and called me the Most Improved Swimmer. I saw real pride in her eyes, and she gave me a hug.

So, what did I do at summer camp? I learned to swim, I allowed myself to cut loose and dance in front of people I barely knew, and I dealt maturely with a young lady I absolutely adored.

I stayed a second week and got even better at swimming. When they asked at home how my two weeks had gone, I said that I had learned to swim. Such was the disconnect between camp and home. And the record was off WLS, and it wasn’t available at Zayre, and I never saw Beverly again, and I never heard “Do You Know What Time It Is?” again.

Not, that is, until I was digging through some records in a vinyl shop in Douglas, Michigan. I wasn’t looking for it, but there it was: 28 years later, I bought that single. Instead of having to replay it from memory, I owned the 45. I consider my intention to buy the 45 sufficient cause to include it in this blog about my childhood 45s. Who knows if it would have survived the Great Meltdown?

When I bought the Buddah Box 3-CD collection, one song I was after was “Back When My Hair Was Short” by Gunhill Road. At the time, I didn’t know that the P-Nut Gallery song was a Buddah release, or I might have been irritated that they included a number of non-charting releases but ignored a song that made the Chicago Top Ten. Now, it annoys me. It’s not a spectacular song, but I really would like to have clean copies of all of my memory songs.

The guy singing this song is Tommy Nolan. The group seems to have been assembled to take advantage of the craze surrounding the return of the Howdy Doody show. The song’s writers and producers, Bobby Flax and Lanny Lambert, wrote nearly 80 songs together, including “White Lies, Blue Eyes,” a #28 hit in early 1972 for Bullet. Flax and Lambert did considerable work for Big Tree and Buddah Records.

I find the song to be an interesting hybrid, because it is aimed at kids, but it’s a song about a TV show that the parents of 1971 children had watched. If anyone were going to get the point of the song, it would be the 30-somethings of the early 1970s, not their children, who were just getting a taste of what Howdy Doody had meant to their parents.

I don’t know if I would have paid much attention to the song if I hadn’t stumbled into it while I was buzzing over my good swimming lesson and having Beverly cradling my face in her hands. At that moment, I could have danced to any tune.

Next time, I’ll bring you music by a no-name who actually scraped into the bottom of the charts, and I’ll try to figure out why he stayed there instead of climbing higher. See you Wednesday!

P-Nut Gallery, Do You Know What Time It Is?

1 comment:

whiteray said...

I was seventeen that summer, prime age for radio listening, and I recall watching "Howdy Doody" as it ended its run in the late 1950s (ending in 1960). So maybe it wasn't the parents of 1971's kids who were the audience but those kids of the Fifties who used to watch Howdy Doody and were now in college, or just out of college. Among the myriad worries of the day was the fate of friends and relatives or themselves in an undeclared Asian war. They were kids who were mostly grown-up but who likely could have used a good bit of comfort from a song that reminded them of a time when the world was simpler.