In the summer of 1964 my older brother, soon to be drafted for the Vietnam War, took off by himself more and more often. With the death of President Kennedy still fresh scars (the winter of 1963 was cold, pale, lifeless; a winter our nation stumbled through, reeling from the assassination) I thought nothing of his excursions into the woods. We were all disconnected, distracted.
So I let him go without my usual little-brother nosiness.
A few weeks went by, and then there came a day that changed my life.
Now, I recently wrote a diary that recounted many moments that changed my life, and the lives of millions of Americans.
I neglected to mention this instance in that diary, because I believe it deserves its own significance.
One evening my brother returned late for supper. Mom was in a fit, calling his excursions "tom-catting" and telling him he'd be "strapped" the next time he was late for supper. The "strapping" bit was a well-known bluff. Our parents never hit us once in their lives.
Still, George nodded and said he was sorry. He looked pale and nervous. His eyes were red, as if he'd been crying. I got his attention at the dinner table and mouthed You okay?
He gave me the barest of nods. Still, I wanted to follow him the next time he went out. The nosy little brother in me had finally won out in the end. I couldn't help it.
Later that night, before bed, I heard George sneaking downstairs. I kicked my legs over the side of the bed and crept after him, as quiet as I could. He slipped out the back door, making sure to close it without a sound. I opened it behind him and was immediately struck by a wonderfully cool summer breeze. I remember how the world smelled that night, sweet, wild; and I remember how the world felt that night, humid, but slightly cool. I remember there was a thumb-nail moon watching over the velvet of night that stretched sightless all the way to the edge of the woods. The trees stood like a line of soldiers, swaying slightly.
I ran after George and finally overtook him at the edge of the woods. "What..." I panted..."what are...are you doing out here?"
George turned, almost ready to fight, then saw it was me and stepped back. "What the fuck?" he wanted to know.
"I was just checking on you," I said.
George favored me as if he were judging whether or not I was worthy of this knowledge. He, apparently, judged that I was, because a second later, he took me by the hand and led me through the woods to a little shed dad built for wood-working.
"You come here?" I asked.
"Yeah, but you gotta hear this."
He led me into the shed. Dad had pretty much abandoned it, anyway. There was a little table in the middle of the room. On that table George had a record player with three or four records beside it. George went to the table, reached under it, and came up with a pack of Pall Mall cigarettes. He lit one and grinned.
"Yeah, but listen to this," he said, putting on one of the records.
It was Bob Dylan's The Times They Are A-Changin.
I will never forget that moment. My innocence was lost when John Kennedy was killed. That night, something new replaced innocence. That voice, so gruff and passionate. That guitar, so undeterred and marching ever-forward. And that opening line.
Come gather round people, wherever you roam/ And admit that the waters around you have grown.
It felt like being rocked with an uppercut. My anger was justified. My confusion was expressed. My mourning heart comforted. My bleakness replaced by a hope for something new.
By the end of the song my brain pounded with the lyrics..
Come gather round people, wherever you roam
and my heart beat with fierce passion and anger...
Come senators and congressmen please heed the call
and I was amazed because this one man expressed...
Don't stand in the doorway don't block up the hall
all my fears and anguish, and suddenly the old scars...
For he who gets hurt will be he who has stalled
were healing and there was a rebirth the rebirth...
There's a battle outside waging
of a generation of Americans, an awakening.
It'll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls/ For the times they are a-changin.
Who were shaken and rattled when they heard that song, mere months after Kennedy was killed? I smoked my first cigarette that night, shaken and rattled. And I cried that night. Yet the feeling that sticks with me, after all these years, is the gooseflesh that popped up on my arms when those words were sung
Come gather round people wherever you roam
Gather, black and white. Gather, gay and straight. Gather, all. Because no matter how many blocks there are in the hall, there's a battle outside waging. There's always that struggle. Great songs are relevant no matter how many dates or calenders pass in complacency. Truth doesn't change. It is as constant as the beat of the song in question.
As long as we gather, wherever we roam, and admit that the waters around us have grown, we will progress.
Bob Dylan remains my favorite artist. Thank you, Mr. Dylan.