Two Intimations of My Own Mortality

I was a late convert to rock music. I can remember when my parents were taking my older sister to see the movie “Help,” and I refused to go; I didn’t want to hear any of that rock and roll stuff. And in junior high, at first, at least, I was probably the only kid who didn’t listen to WLS a.m. out of Chicago, the top 40 radio station of choice for the young, with Larry Lujack and Bob Sirott and John “Records” Landecker. I preferred WGN, which had more of a talk format.

My conversion was largely facilitated by the record collection of my sister two years older than I was (the one who had gone to see “Help” for her birthday), but way ahead of me culturally. She had a record box filled with 45s. For the kids reading this, 45s had a single song on one side and another single song on the other, with a hole in the middle the size of a 50 cent piece. You would put it on something called a “turntable” and set it to 45 rpm (long playing albums rotated at 33-1/3 rpm). Then you would position a stylus to the outer edge of the record, and the sound would come out of the speaker.

Anyway, over time I became sort of fascinated by the records in that box. There were some Beatles songs and Simon and Garfunkel and even a Bobby Sherman one (he was a teen idol of the time). But probably the ones that won me over the quickest were a bunch of Jackson 5 records. “I Want You Back,” “ABC,” “The Love You Save,” and others. I would listen to those records, and pretty soon I was listening to WLS, just like all the other junior high kids.

I was a teenager in the 70s. I was tall and skinny and wore an afro. And I loved to dance, and in all modesty I was pretty good at it. And you can imagine who one of my major influences was. I seem to recall that around my mission sometime Dancing Machine came out, and then of course in the 80s Michael achieved his greatest success. While in law school we lived in married student housing, which came with free cable. And as fate would have it, MTV was just getting started. At first their format was sort of album oriented rock, and so consequently you never saw black artists on the channel. But Michael changed that; who can forget Billie Jean, or Beat It, or Thriller? Sure, he increasingly descended into weirdness, but I’ve always chosen to remember the Dancing Machine Michael.

Michael is now dead. He was three days older than me.

In 1980 my wife and I married in the Provo temple and drove home to Illinois for a reception. One of my best friends got married at about the same time, and they let us stay in their trailer since they were then gone (on their honeymoon, I think). So we’re sleeping in the trailer, and late into the night the phone rings. I don’t know what time it was; I want to say maybe 1 or 2 a.m. To my surprise, it was for me. Hardly anyone even knew we were staying there. And it was a woman I knew. I had worked at the hospital before my mission sterilizing surgical instruments, and this woman was one of the head nurses at the hospital. She didn’t explain how she knew I was there, and she refused to tell me what was wrong; she just told me I needed to come to the hospital.

The trailer park was close to the hospital, and so we were there within minutes. I walked into the emergency room, and they ushered me into a little side room, and there was my mother, with several other family and friends, and I immediately knew. My father had died of a heart attack that evening. He had been out on the road with a couple of colleagues from the university when it happened.

I was so impressed by my mother that night. She was somber, but not shaken, and her first concern was for others. As people came to comfort her, she ended up comforting them. Each of my parents had rock solid faith, and I knew she had no doubt this would be but a temporary separation.

At some point we went back to the trailer, and I spent the rest of the night crying in my new wife’s arms.

The next day was my wedding reception. Someone, I don’t know who, had come up with a very thoughtful poster to place at the entrance, explaining that my father would have wanted the reception to go on. It was a very weird reception, however, with lots of attempts at feigned joy, but mostly somber awkwardness.

My father was 51 when he died. I will be that same age in about two months from now.

Comments

  1. I know it’s not a funny post, Kevin, but your choice to use “50 cent piece” to help your younger readers picture something unfamiliar was kind of funny. I think I’ve seen 45s more recently than 50 cent pieces.

    You and I are the same age. The very first time a boy asked me to dance, “ABC” was the song.

    My father had similar “intimations” as he approached 60, the age his father had died. His grandfather had died at 23. The omens didn’t get any better when he looked at the ages of his fathers as far back as I had identified them. 70ish was about the limit for Parshall men.

    Dad lived to 86.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    Heh, the 50 cent piece thing was intentional.

    All of my father’s siblings died of heart attacks at about the same age, so I’m hoping I got some of my mother’s genes…

  3. Kevin, um, get yourself in for a good physical, OK?

  4. Wow. I hope so too Kevin. Here’s to wishing you a long and happy life.

    I remember 45s. They were already on their way out when I was in junior high, but I remember them and their LP brethren fondly. Walking through a record store and seeing the LPs on the wall (posed in descending order of popularity on one wall) is one of my favorite memories of childhood.

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    I’m in great physical shape (my father was overweight), I take Lipitor and blood pressure medicine, etc., so it’s not a foregone conclusion that I will follow soon in my father’s footsteps. But Michael’s death made me think of my father’s and put me in a reflective mood.

  6. The is a touching post, with an appropriate smattering of humor, as Ardis points out. Thanks, Kev.

  7. I am to understand that 50 Cent was around before the Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel?

  8. CS Eric says:

    My father’s age when he died was 14 years younger than his father was at his death. Even at that rate, I’ve still got at least eight more years to go. I am hoping to get closer to my grandfather’s age than my father’s. My grandfathers on both sides each lived to their mid-80’s.

    Michael was about four months older than me. Like you, Kevin, I spent my law school years watching his videos on MTV. I did the same thing last night–staying up late, watching MTV and waiting for my favorite Michael Jackson videos. “Thriller” got all the press, but “Billie Jean” was my favorite.

  9. Gilgamesh says:

    rpm?

  10. Kevin, as luck would have it, just yesterday I finished listening to the Mormon Matters podcast of the panel discussion about “inoculating the saints” in which you participated. And so, my own intimation as I read your post this morning is that I certainly hope you’re around for a long, long time yourself. Thanks for this.

    P.S. “Stylus”?

  11. Kevin Barney says:

    rpm is rotations per minute; it refers to who fast the record spins. I don’t know if stylus is the right technidal term–it’s been so long I can’t remember anymore. I guess we called it a needle back then. I think the high quality ones were made from diamonds.

  12. Kevin, this post meshes well with you “Why I’m not an atheist” post from a couple weeks ago.

  13. #11: Ok, Mr. Smart: How many grooves on one side of a 45 RPM?

  14. Yikes, I’m just a few years older than you, so I remember 45s and LP albums. In fact, one of my sons rescued my collection of LPs from the garage, and bought a used turntable so he could listen to The Buffalo Springfield, Procul Harum, Traffic, and some of my other old 60’s and 70’s music.

    But as I get older, I feel the sense of mortality closing in. My patriarchal blessing has more history than future now, and both my parents are gone. I’ve tried to keep myself active and in good shape, but just got diagnosed with arthritis in my knees, which has stopped me from running and playing basketball. Even though I have been involved in computers and data communications for most of my adult life, my vocabulary still often smacks of growing up in the 50’s and 60’s. Statin drugs and blood pressure medications are now a daily regimen.

    Kevin, here’s to hoping that you have a long and healthy 30 more years. I figure that I still have much that I can contribute, so I fight the aging symptoms that I can, and ignore that my black hair is pretty much all gray now, or that reading glasses are just really the first step on the way to trifocals.

    A favorite stanza from Dylan Thomas:

    Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
    And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
    Do not go gentle into that good night.

    Rage on, Kevin Barney

  15. oh, geez, Kevin, I just saw this.
    And I just barely put up a post on my blog about the same thing, with almost the exact same title. SORRY!! But I believe we are on the same wavelength today.

    Hugs to you.

  16. Peter LLC says:

    How many grooves on one side of a 45 RPM?

    Depends on how long the song is and other characteristics of the recording such as bass and volume (a record groove is a soundwave and low frequencies and volume need space).

  17. #14: “..so I fight the aging symptoms.” Fight only the bad parts! Some are pretty good, play them for all the are worth. Get use to being called “sir” by all. Soon you will own all your needed junk, an dcan spend your money on what you want.
    I still play my records for my grandkids. Mostly old Jazz. The think it is some kinda magic trick, watching the record go round and round ( don’t tell Kevin there is only one groove), and the music is in the air! (No ear plugs).
    I like the line from Jackson Browne: “.. and fought for the things money can buy…but true love could have been a contender”.

  18. Matt W. says:

    C’mon, I’m 32 and remember 45s and LPs.

    Kevin, Thanks for sharing your life with us.

  19. Kevin, this was great, moving, and brought back a bunch of memories. I collected 45s like they were gold. I wonder if we were ever on the dance floor at the same time? I could disco with the best of them. No, that’s being modest, I could kill, John Travolta style, on the dance floor. I’ve been listening to Thriller and the Jackson 5 all day.

  20. Colin C says:

    Thank you for this wonderful post. With a father about to have his cancerous prostate removed, while his brother on the other side of the world is enduring his last days, inflicted with the advanced complications of the same cancer, I’ve had a bit of a mortality-check recently. It was good to read this.

    And I’m sorry, but I can’t leave the question about the good ol’ 45’s hanging; there is ONE grove on each side, just as there is on a 33 1/3, and on the really old 78’s! The needle starts at the outside, beginning of the groove, and follows it all the way to the end of it, in the middle of the record!

  21. Karl K. says:

    #16. One. It’s one long, continous groove. Kinda like the ’70s…

  22. Kevin Barney says:

    BiV, I just read your post and loved it. I’m glad we independently had the same thought!

  23. Molly Bennion says:

    Kevinf, The Buffalo Springfield? You were cool.

  24. I’m a few months older than y’all. April to your August. With lupus, immune deficiency and diabetes, I’m looking at the likelihood of a fairly brief mortality myself. Michael Jackson was truly great in the 80s, though. Billie Jean was the best.

    When I read (only now) about his tragic life and the abuse he endured as a child, I think I understood, maybe why he wanted to change his face. A distorted body image is often the result of such trauma as he survived, and many gorgeous people have considered themselves grotesquely ugly from far less.

    When I read about all the charities he supported and how many good things he did, I feel like he must have thought by doing enough good he could blot out the bad done to him. I understand that desire to make it up, to help others in the same position he once was in, so that nobody ever again would have to feel that way.

    I find myself far more touched than ever I would have thought. He will be missed.

  25. Thomas Parkin says:

    I’m reminded of something that made me laugh in a recent review of a Neil Young concert DVD:

    Turns out it’s better to fade away than burnout, after all. ~

  26. Neal Kramer says:

    For Father’s day I received a 78 rpm phonograph that allows me to make CD’s of old records.

    I went pre-Rock with Stan Kenton and Nat “King” Cole’s rendition of “Orange-Colored Sky.”

    My dad had a massive heart attack at age 58. I’m 56. Like you, Kevin, I take all the right drugs. Unlike my dad, I am overweight. I have a more than nagging fear that I will collapse at 58 and be gone.

    I cannot imagine the life a prodigiously talented and tortured person like Michael Jackson must have led. I am glad I’ll never need to know whether “it’s better to burnout than it is to rust.”

    Thanks for a lovely post.

  27. #26: My year was 54 for over 20 years ( my uncle’s death). Never happened. Listening to old Jazz will keep you alive.

  28. Lovely post. Here’s to a long and healthy life.

  29. Peter LLC says:

    #16. One. It’s one long, continous groove. Kinda like the ’70s…

    Lolz. Still, not all records are created equal and the space between the grooves is one indication.

  30. Michael Jackson was born two months before me, so his death was also a reminder of my mortality. My father is 80 and my grandfather was 79 when he died, but both had terrible dementia from 75 or so on, so I too am hoping I got my mother’s genes.

  31. Kevin Barney says:

    And now Billy Mays is dead—another 50-year old.

  32. Yesterday I was thinking that I kind of miss 45s, LPs, etc.

    A few of my favorite 45s (because they had great songs on both sides):

    B52s – Rock Lobster / Private Idaho

    Stray Cats – Stray Cat Strut / Rock This Town

    This was a fun, thoughtful and sad post, all at the same time. Thanks Kevin, for writing it up.

  33. #32: Ok other Mr. Smart: Which 45 had a #1 hit on both sides? Side ‘B’, being the bigger?

  34. Jim McComb says:

    I saw Kevin Barney with disco fever in the late 70s. Damn, he was good!

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