Walter Mencken 12:34 p.m., July 24
- Community Blog
The Background Noise of Days Gone By
The movie American Graffitti closes with the scene of Richard Dreyfuss heading off to college, sitting in the seat of a propeller-driven airliner as short vignettes recounting the future lives of the movie's main characters flash across the screen. The drone of the churning propellers provides a powerful aural image consistent with the 1962 setting of the film, and it is quite remarkable to think that by 1973, the year of the film's release, that sound could contribute so strongly to a sense of nostalgia for bygone days. By the early seventies, afterall, the drone of propellers had been largely replaced by the arguably less dramatic sound of jets whooshing through a swift Doppler Effect of approach, passover, and fade. Sure, the avionics has changed dramatically since the early 1970s, but the dramatic leap in things was really the switch from propellers to jets. Nothing else compares.
For a kid like myself, growing up in the flight path of small and large military and civilian aircraft in the San Diego of the early 1960s, that sound of churning propellers was a part of everyday life and a stimulus to the imagination. From the backyard of our house on College Avenue, a bit north of University, we kids could observe the unusual sight of the Naval Radio Towers in Chollas Heights blinking their red lights at night and providing an impressive background to the southern skyline by day. The air raid siren on the northeast corner of College and University was tested at noon each Monday, as were the others around the major cities of Southern California, their sound an odd mournful harmony that I'll always insist must have influenced young Brian Wilson as he envisioned in his mind, a hundred miles or so to the north at his parents' house in Hawthorne, the initial, densely reverbed arrangement of "Surfer Girl."
There were any number of sights and sounds that impressed on us kids a world of wonder and mystery, but none more than the drone of propeller-driven planes passing overhead. Taking our cues from the Saturday morning TV show Sky King, we'd sometimes run out into the drainage ditch behind the houses on College Avenue and wave our arms at passing planes on their final approaches to Lindbergh Field or North Island, yelling at them to land on the hillside and give us a ride. During the traumatic first few weeks of kindergarten in the fall of 1960, my best childhood friend--a year younger than I and incapable of understanding why I had to go away to school every afternoon in the prime hours of daytime play--joined me in trying to build an airplane out of a red wagon, some scrap wood, and pinwheels for propellers. We were convinced that it would fly, and take us away from this kindergarten business, this adult dictate that daily interrupted our carefree routine.
Somehow, in that gradual way of many things, the propeller sounds became less over the decade of the sixties as the scream of jet engines became part of the ambient noise instead, until one day you found yourself surprised to hear a churning propeller at all. Then George Lucas made that movie, and the sound of a propeller driven airliner, by the early seventies, could come to be a symbol of nostalgia.
On a different plane of existence but in that same gradual way, I went from a carefree kid to a middle-aged adult with a peculiar attachment to the pleasant little things I remember about growing up in the college area of San Diego. Then one day, because of decisions and life choices made as an adult, I found myself sitting on the deck of the USS Midway on an afternoon early in the new millenium, part of the Japan Society of San Diego & Tijuana contingent as the ship was being formally dedicated as a museum.
This particular aircraft carrier was named for the most important naval engagement of the Second World War. A small American task force built around the carriers Hornet, Enterprise, and Yorktown ambushed a mighty armada of the Imperial Japanese Navy, preventing Japanese domination of the waters around Hawaii. The heroes of the Battle of Midway were navy pilots who had completed their initial flight training at North Island in the propeller-driven planes of that era. The fighters, torpedo planes, and dive bombers performed what is sometimes called a miracle, destroying three enemy carriers in an uncoordinated--almost random--attack, then later sinking a fourth and forcing the Japanese to retreat.
It was a bitter engagement, with no mercy or quarter given on either side. With little to return home to should they fail, entire torpedo squadrons of obsolete U.S. planes were destroyed as they bought time for the dive bombers, their crews gunned down after crashing into the sea by wavehopping Japanese fighters, who would later express astonishment at the bravery of the doomed American crews. Yet on that day, sixty-something years after their less than pleasant June 1942 first encounter, former pilots from both sides met again on the deck of a carrier named for that battle, thus proving that time heals all wounds. I noticed that the organizers had placed the Japanese characters for "navy" in the wrong sequence, and there were giggles and titters that a Japanese-speaking American would be the one to point it out and ensure that it was corrected before the start of the ceremony.
It was mentioned that the ceremony was a tribute to "two great navies", and concluded with the fly-by of a Japanese Zero fighter wing-to-wing with what appeared to be a P-47 Thunderbolt.
The familiar drone of propeller-driven engines, two distinct resonances born of distinctive design characteristics, crescendoed gradually from the south. I stood on the port side of the Midway, leaning on the deck railing, and saw the two planes come into view above the Coronado Bridge. An old man, surviving pilot of the battle, stood craning his neck in wonder. The planes passed over low, the once-familiar sound of the military aircraft of that bygone era again filling the sky. Then they were gone. I glanced back and saw the Japanese guests observing the sight and taking in the sound with equal amazement. The old man leaned over the deck toward me, trying to think of something to say. Rising to the occasion, I broke the silence with something to the effect that if you live long enough, you can come to see just about ANYTHING."
The old man nodded his head. I remember little else about the ceremony, or about walking along the innards of the carrier and finding my way out, then riding my motorcycle back home to the college area. That sight, though, I'll never forget. Or that sound.