Friday, April 7, 2023

Jetting into the past

Renewing memories of a town I left decades ago

I took this photo last weekend from the window of our 737, moments from landing at Reagan National Airport. The vast gray sky's appropriate, as it mirrored my cloudy memories of the Washington D.C. area and my ambivalence about having left so many years ago.

I was born in Silver Spring, Maryland and raised in Wheaton, ten or so miles from the D.C. line, a boundary I traversed countless times in my adolescence and throughout college, at the University of Maryland. I never lived in the District proper, but it's always felt like home. My wife and I visited the area last weekend to see my folks (they're in their 90s, and going strong) and my sibs and their children who are still in the area, and so that my wife could attend a baby shower for one of our nieces, who currently lives in Arizona but who was born and raised in Silver Spring. A homecoming of sorts for a bunch of us. 

I had little hope that this photo would turn out well—I snapped it through a bit of turbulence while holding my anxious wife's hand. I figured it'd be a wash. Yet gazing at it now I'm amazed at the clarity of what it brings back for me. Our plane was approaching heading southeast, shadowing the Pentagon while hurtling past the Reflecting Pool and the sprawling Mall; in this moment we're passing the south end of the White House grounds; the Tidal Basin's emerging from the right, the Capitol at the far end of The Mall. As the plane approached the landing strip it flew mere feet (or so it seemed) over Gravelly Point, the tiny peninsula jutting off of Virginia into the Potomac River, where when we were kids my parents would sometimes take us to watch the planes taking off from and landing at the then-National Airport. I recall packed lunches, an afternoon made of it. If I close my eyes, I can feel the alarming roar of the immense, down-angled jets just over our heads, filling my ears and my chest with sublime, nearly overwhelming power. An early experience in their humbling majesty of pure noise. Lay a transparency over this photo from, say, 1972 or '73, and I'm just out of frame, staring upward, mouth agape, hands shut tight against my ears, oblivious to the nascent, darkening national drama  six or so miles away as the Middle Jet Age thundered all around and through me.

At the end of the visit we drove back to Reagan for our flight and to return our car rental. We had some time so we were able to take my favorite drive in the Maryland/DC area, along Beach Road and Rock Creek Parkway, moving briskly along the green floor of the city. We passed below the stately Taft Bridge on upper Connecticut Avenue, by the National Zoo, modest horse tables, and gently rolling banks, ending at the Potomac while gliding alongside the Kennedy Center. Traffic may be a nightmare on the VA/MD/DC highways, but the city did right by Rock Creek Park. While in college, after shows or closing the bar in the city, I'd drive back to Wheaton in the early morning along this very path, sometimes worse for wear, the single-lane road twisting and turning in the dark alongside creek, cutting a swath through the District and into Maryland.


The photo also brings me back to the Bicentennial and the long day my family and some neighbor friends spent at The Mall. In 1976, only four and a half miles of the sprawling, neo-futurist Metro subway system were finished, and so from Wheaton my family were obliged to board a jam-packed bus on Georgia Avenue a block from our home for the hours-long, oppressively hot trip down to the Mall. All I remember of the blurred afternoon are endless traffic jams, the swarms of thousands, and the fireworks later that night. Yet the photo of my family marching up Arcola Avenue that morning on the way to the bus stop endures. That's me in the middle, "with piccolo fife," rocking a red-white-and-blue t-shirt and getting in the patriotic groove. Despite the analog gauze of the snapshot, that block looks pretty much the same now.

The internal soundtrack that this photo conjures? "Silly Love Songs," "Don't Go Breaking My Heart," "A Fifth of Beethoven," "Dream Weaver," "If You Leave Me Now," "Convoy," "Island Girl," "Still the One," "Baby I Love Your Way," "Take the Money and Run," so many more, each evoking sunny afternoons inside of infinite summers, air-conditioned balm against the humidity outside, and bike rides through suburban woods where I conjured stories and fantasies, both light and dark, some of which came true.


Yesterday in my advanced creative nonfiction workshop we discussed a woman's draft in which she explored her obsession with 1980s music, how the songs from that era instill in her, absurdly, a nostalgia for a time when she wasn't alive. In fact, the music brings her back to long family drives between Illinois and Ohio when she was a child, her parents' CD collections soundtracking those trips and those years while also evoking a decade she knows only from those songs, yet a time in history she finds herself impossibly enamored of, and identifying with. In Magic: A Journal of Song, Paul Weller remarks that “The thing I have discovered is that music in its truest sense is beyond any trend or movement or category," adding, "I’m fascinated by that and the idea that it is, in the end, like folk music, people’s music." I might only add that music, though often time- and date-stamped, more often than not moves beyond the very era in which it's produced, allowing a young girl in the late '00s to hear A Flock Of Seagulls and feel both moved in the present and saturated by a past. Descending into Washington D.C. in the present, I also elevated through my past. Magic, indeed.


Sibbie O'Sullivan said...

Joe, thanks for writing about Wheaton. That bus down Georgia Ave, yes. Just a block away. Sibbie

Joe Bonomo said...


Anonymous said...

It is truly amazing how music is absorbed by both the body and our consciousness. The purest art.

Joe Bonomo said...

Indeed, anon

Jen Faiz said...

Fantastic article, Joe!
As a fellow transplanted Wheatonite, I have had similar experiences landing at National, BWI, and Dulles. We were lucky to grow up in the DC area!

Cheers from SoCal!

Joe Bonomo said...

Thanks, Jen. We really were!

G said...

I know it's a month late, but I just saw this:


Joe Bonomo said...

Whoa, thanks G!!