Ride On

For What It’s Worth


I sure hope every one of us has a 1972 to remember.

I was recently snapped back to that year by Pandora’s random selection of Three Dog Night’s song “Black and White.” If you haven’t listened to it for a while, or ever, I encourage you to do so. It sounds a little syrupy-sweet now, but I was absolutely taken back to the wide-eyed optimism of a suburban third-grade boy in public school.

“Black and White” was part of our annual music program in 1972. Each grade, first through sixth, would walk in single file and climb onto our assigned step of the three-level risers at Jessie Beck Elementary’s cafeteria/multi-purpose room. Our music teacher would — to the best of her ability — teach us the lyrics to a few songs, have us walk in an “orderly” fashion, take our spot on the risers, sing, and exit, again in an “orderly fashion.” I can’t imagine the depth of patience she had to possess to manage the chaos. I sure appreciate her sacrifice now.

Another song our class sang was “Top of the World” by the Carpenters. As I remember it, our version was mostly a solo by Gina, a cute girl in pigtails and missing front teeth. It also dripped with rosy optimism. Like most of my peers, I was smitten as Gina sang.

Those were good times. At least they were good times for most of us at Jessie Beck Elementary.

Decades later I think of the big picture complexity of 1972. Richard Nixon was president. The Watergate scandal was just breaking. The Vietnam War was getting worse. Racial tensions ran high.

The lyrics to “Black and White” were laughably and blindly optimistic for the 1970s. Lyrics to “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” by The Temptations vividly describe a completely different culture for some Americans.

Recognizing the divide in the late 1960s, Buffalo Springfield’s Stephen Stills sang a line as accurate now as it was then: “Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.”

Looking back, we were definitely not on “Top of the World.” Even though her voice was soothingly sweet, we would later learn Karen Carpenter was being consumed by anorexia, as a victim of the pressure of an unachievable image.

In 1970 James Taylor released “Fire and Rain.” It’s a poignant song of highs and lows. It’s a reflection of tragedy and perseverance. “I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end.” It’s another great song that warms your soul while putting a tear on your cheek.

Those were volatile years. It was an inflection point in American culture. The free press was raising the curtain on systemic injustice and government corruption. Musicians were using their songs to try to pry open the eyes of anyone listening. It worked.

America backed out of the war in Vietnam, which I’ve heard is now an incredible place to visit (and where the conflict is called the “American War”). Instances of police abuse and excessive force were starting to be highlighted and reviewed. Legislators put the country and ethics over party allegiance, forcing Nixon to step down before being impeached.

But how do two dramatically different versions of the same time coexist? How could I have been so blind to the real world?

I was 8. Like most of my peers, I was appropriately shielded from a lot of troublesome realities. The information we were getting had been filtered. Many of us were blissfully unaware of the complex, heavy, and often dark environment around us. Others chose to either keep their eyes closed or look the other way when confronted with some bleak topics. Either way, limiting what we heard, or ignoring what seemed unpleasant, didn’t mean it didn’t exist. It just made us unaware.

I admit it’s comforting to close my eyes and listen to the Carpenters. That feeling of blind optimism makes me happy. I smile inside when I remember Gina’s warbling voice. But it’s a bit like a scene from “The Matrix,” where a character realizes he — along with other humans — is being fed an imaginary life while being harvested by the machines.

Do we close our eyes tight to be artificially “nourished” while being used by whoever’s providing the information? Sure. Often it’s enjoyable. It’s easy to let others think for us. But, as part of a great community, we must open our eyes and understand “There’s something happening here.”

Mark Michel is a retired commercial airline pilot and a Key Pen Parks commissioner. He lives in Lakebay.