Josna Rege

95. Sail On, Silver Girl

In 1970s, Immigration, Music, Stories, United States on February 5, 2011 at 11:34 am
Back Bay and the Charles River, Boston, Massachusetts (Wikimedia Commons)

Back Bay and the Charles River, Boston, Massachusetts (Wikimedia Commons)

There is an image I hold in my mind’s eye that dates from the very first weeks of our arrival in America nearly forty-one years ago. More than just an image, its aura evokes not only a moment in time, but the exact atmosphere of the time and the vibration of my own being at that moment.

My mother, sister and I joined my father in the U.S. in early February, 1970, and I started school at Brookline High right away.  I had no time to miss what I had left behind, partly because, at fifteen and a half, I had attended three different high schools in the past  year and a half, and didn’t know which one to miss anymore.  After having spent 16 months in a kind of limbo in England, waiting for problems in our immigration process to be resolved, I was more than ready to embark upon this new stage in my life. Before we left London my Auntie Angy had taken me and my cousin Lesley to the Shaftesbury Theatre in the West End to see the musical Hair, in which  a colorful crowd of frenetic, free-spirited young people sang, danced, and ran up and down the aisles proclaiming the dawning of a new era. Having led a sheltered life up to that point, I understood very little of what I was seeing, but came away with the vague notion that the students of my new school would more-or-less resemble the cast of Hair.

In some respects, I wasn’t so very wrong. After having grown up with school uniforms and standing to attention when the teacher entered the classroom, I had a lot of adjustments to make. There was no longer a dress code at Brookline High, and with an open campus and young, liberal teachers it was one of the most experimental public schools in the country. Torn jeans and long flowing hair were the norm; we sat in circles rather than rows and called the teachers by their first names; and, within three months of my arrival, the students voted to join the nationwide student strikes in protest of the War in Vietnam and Cambodia and at home, the war on the Black Panthers, and the police shootings of students at Kent State and Jackson State Universities. Plunging into American student life at the deep end was exhilarating but also bewildering.

It can’t have been more than a month after our arrival when Roger, one of my new classmates, invited me to go to the movies with him. I accepted and, amazingly, my parents gave their permission, but I had no idea what to expect. Was this a date? I had never been on one.  Roger took me by trolley and subway across the Charles River to Cambridge, where an experimental movie by a French director was being screened at Harvard University. I don’t think I had heard of Harvard yet, even though I was to enroll there the following year.  I certainly hadn’t heard of Jean-Luc Godard and sat through his film, Sympathy for the Devil, in utter incomprehension.  At the end of it Roger asked me what I had thought of it, but must have taken in the expression on my face and taken pity on me. “I have absolutely no idea what that was about,” he volunteered, and I laughed with him in relief.

It was late afternoon on our return journey, as we took the Red Line from Harvard Square to Park Street Station, emerging from underground after Kendall Square and crossing the Charles on the Longfellow Bridge. The train was crowded, as I recall, and I was standing and holding on to an overhead strap as I looked out of the carriage window to the south and west, across to the neon triangle of the CITGO sign in Kenmore Square and the Boston skyline, over the still, wintry waterscape streaked with the colors of the setting sun.

How did the song reach my ears at that moment? It was a song that had been playing in the background ever since we had arrived in the States, but which had only partially filtered through the haze of my bemusement: Bridge Over Troubled Water, by Simon and Garfunkel.  Someone on the train must have been holding a  transistor radio to their ear, as they were later to wear a Walkman, and later still, an iPod. As there were no earphones, the song wafted through the carriage and merged with the sunset, instantly and forever becoming the soundtrack to the scene indelibly imprinted in my memory. It encapsulates my mood at that moment, my feelings about my rapidly changing life, and the entire tenor of the times.  I can never hear the song without that scene coming to my mind, and without feeling as I did at that moment: a dreamy, uncertain, not-yet-sixteen year-old girl on the brink of a new life in a new country at a turbulent time, drinking it all in, trying hard to understand.

Bridge Over Troubled Water (lyrics by Paul Simon)

When you’re weary
Feeling small
When tears are in your eyes
I will dry them all

I’m on your side
When times get rough
And friends just can’t be found
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down

When you’re down and out
When you’re on the street
When evening falls so hard
I will comfort you

I’ll take your part
When darkness comes
And pain is all around
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down

Sail on silver girl
Sail on by
Your time has come to shine
All your dreams are on their way
See how they shine
If you need a friend
I’m sailing right behind

Like a bridge over troubled water
I will ease your mind
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will ease your mind

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

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  1. Jo — I love this story. I love the song, and now I will associate it with this moment in your life. I had a similar experience some years earlier (1964) returning to the States as a junior in high school from 5 years in southeast Asia. I listened to the radio obsessively, looking for clues to what was at that time a foreign culture. The Beatles and the Beach Boys were my guides, and the the Beach Boys’ song, “In My Room,” resonated for me. I spent a lot of time in my room that year, doing my homework, reading “Seventeen” and “Esquire” magazines (quel combination!), just trying to get my bearings.

  2. Thanks for commenting, McN. I’m listening to “In My Room” now and can’t think why I’ve never heard it before—I love it. It was exactly the same time in your life, then, that you returned to the US from Bangladesh—I too was a junior in HS! I know you had told me that you lived there, but somehow I had gotten the impression that it was when you were younger. I imagine that the changes that had taken place in the States between 1959 and 1964 were tremendous, and junior year is a difficult time to enter a new school at the best of times. Knowing you, though, you didn’t take too long to find your feet. xo J

  3. ach, josna, thanks for this. aren’t we so much the same generation!and how is it that it is those years’ songs that will remain, and you can sing along after the first note hits your ear – amazing if one thinks about all the sounds, noise, music, voices and tunes constantly hammering away at one’s ear.sail on, indeed.

    • Bine, receiving your comment made me cry. It’s moving to think of our generation sharing ideals and sensibilities, vibrating in harmony around the world. More personally, your response made me feel the very real closeness of my far-flung circle of friends. (But don’t let that stop us making the effort to meet in person! I owe you a letter.) x J

  4. I don’t have as clear a memory of the first time I heard this song, but I loved it from the start. Still do. Your date Roger sounds like quite a nice kid, too, sensitive enough to notice what you were feeling. I don’t remember that quality standing out in my “dates” junior year!

    We have yet another biographical confluence. While you were being new as a junior in Brookline that February of 1970, I had just moved from Ohio to Leicester, England, with my parents and landed in the middle of junior year in Switzerland. Most of the students were Americans, but many had never lived in the U.S. but in exotic places instead, and others were quite rich, so I felt like a foreigner among them. Now you’ve got me going, I find my memories are vivid: dancing to “Magic Carpet Ride” in a dorm room, making a clay sculpture in the art room (and giving it to one of the cool kids in hopes it would make her like me — it didn’t), being in the school play (Marat/Sade, of all things!), and feeling very sophisticated eating beef fondue and drinking wine at a nearby restaurant on Friday nights.

    I’m sorry, my posts always seem to end up being about *me*, but you really do inspire these thoughts, for which, thank you!

    • I love your posts, Sarah, and they are exactly what I most hope for—your parallel and intersecting memories and reflections. How strange that school in Switzerland must have seemed, especially at first. I would have liked you, clay sculpture or not! The image of you feeling so sophisticated reminds me of a time when German sociologists visiting our high school invited some of us to their hotel in Cambridge and offered us kirsch. We accepted it nonchalantly, as if we’d been drinking it all our lives.

  5. One of my favorite songs of all time, as well!
    Isn’t it wonderful how one song can bring back so much in terms of memories and good feelings and how universal is the response to it.
    Thanks from me too!

  6. Josna, your story does really resonate! I love how you craft the moment-in-time so well that I am there with you, seeing, feeling the entire experience!
    Well, I too am reminded of those coming-of-age days when the culture was in such extraodinary transition. I had dropped out of college at University of Wisconsin in 1968 at the height of the anti-Vietnam protests and was living on the tiny island, Formentera, off the coast of Spain. The music of the times carried me through as well. There were so many, but the song I recall that spoke to my especially is: “Blackbird” by Crosby,Stills and Nash:

    I am sending a link of your story to my kids who attended Brookline H.S. in the ’80s. They will love it!

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