Pivotal Bonfires

I have this memory of a twilit beach. I’m sitting on a driftwood log with my back to the ocean.  There is a campfire burning low; little remains but coals and the occasional adventurous flame licking the evening air. I’m eighteen years old in this memory. Behind me, between myself and the crashing waves in the distance slowly consuming the sun, a pair of teenagers are tossing a Frisbee back and forth.  They are barefoot, dressed in denim pants and t-shirts. In front of me, beyond the fire, past the rolling bank of dunes patched with sparse beach grass, is a small ocean-side town.

I’m not alone at the fireside. There are six of us, boys and girls on the cusp of adulthood, staring into the flames each wrestling with our own version of what comes next; what comes after this night? We are not anxious. In fact, quite the opposite. We each watch the fire with calm anticipation. It’s silent, but for the crashing surf and the soft notes issuing forth from an acoustic guitar; “Yellow Ledbetter” by Pearl Jam.

To this day any time I hear the opening notes of that song I’m immediately transported back to that beach, to that driftwood log, to that quiet reflection, to that moment of shared loneliness as the sun finally dipped below the horizon. It catches at the back of my throat and throws tingles down my spine.  There’s this release, a sudden relaxation and for an instant everything is right and I’m caught in this limbo between laughter and tears. It hits fast and it hits hard, and then it’s gone before I can react. The laughter never happens, the tears never come and then it passes and I’m back at my desk at work, daydreaming. Or, like this morning, on the bus staring through some uncomfortable stranger.

This memory is, without doubt, one of my strongest and most favorite recollections. Which makes it all-the-more strange that it never happened.

I’ve only sat at a handful of beach bonfires in my life, most of which took place long before I was old enough to recall any details. For the only one which occurred outside that period I was perhaps fifteen years old. My brother and I were on vacation in Seaside, Oregon with my grandparents and cousin. The three of us; myself, brother and cousin, joined a group of strangers around their fire for, maybe, ten or fifteen minutes because we wanted to talk to the girls that accompanied them.  That’s the entirely of that memory.

The people in my imagined memory are faceless and the town is nameless, and I only had two or three friends who played guitar growing up; none of whom ever played “Yellow Ledbetter” in my company, let alone on a beach. But for some reason, without fail, that song transports my back to a time and place that never was. Stranger still, it’s not the only phenomenon which has had this effect.

The cover art for Dinosaur Jr’s “Green Mind” album elicited the same laugh/cry reaction, the first few times I saw it, but that’s sine faded. I think because it never catches me by surprise. Typically, if I’m going to see that album cover it’s because I intend to listen to the album, which means I know it’s coming; the effect is diminished. But that doesn’t change the fact that there’s something about that photo, that young girl maybe eleven or twelve years old, stringy wind-blown hair, cigarette hanging from her mouth; it reminds me of something. Maybe? I don’t know, I can’t possibly think of what, but it elicits this visceral reaction which I don’t understand.

One might think it’s simply because I associate the album with my youth, that I love the songs and, as seen above, music has the power to do weird things to the brain. But that doesn’t work for a few reasons.  First, “Green Mind” was released in 1991. In 1991 I was eleven years old and I had no identity of my own. I followed the crowd, did what the people around me did, liked what the people around me liked, and I most certainly didn’t listen to Dinosaur Jr.. I did become aware of the band at some point in my teenage years, though. I have a vague recollection of someone around me, not someone I knew well not a friend, who liked Dinosaur Jr. and I remember rejecting it outright. In fact, I didn’t really come to enjoy or appreciate the music until I re-encountered it about five years ago, and I didn’t purchase the “Green Mind” album until 2012.

Second, it’s not by any means my favorite Dinosaur Jr. album, nor are any of the songs in my top ten.

And finally, there’s the picture itself. Though the album is quintessentially ‘90s, the photo, “Priscilla,” is by a gentleman named Joseph Szabo an was taken in 1969. So none of those dates line up.

For the last couple of weeks, my wife and I have been watching Madmen on Netflix. More interesting than the story itself are all the little details which place it so firmly in its time and place in history. We were discussing the other day how strange it is that, though we were both born in the 80’s, many of the outdated elements of the show are things we both remember from our pre-teen years. Little details which implanted themselves in our youth like vestigial remnants of a time we never experienced. Things which we can both remember seeing when we were very young that faded away with time and never made it into our teenage years.

Perhaps that’s where Priscilla fits in. Maybe she speaks to memories I don’t recall. I don’t know. Doubt I ever will. It’s from a photo collection called Almost Grown though, so, thematically at least there is some relation to my illusory beach memory.

I’d really like to understand the feeling that accompanies these things. I’ve always been interested in how people associate words with feelings and if we say something like “sadness” do we all mean the same thing when we say it? Perhaps “sadness” is a bad example. The major emotions; happy, sad, angry, we all seem to pretty much agree on those. I’m thinking of the more nuanced ones; ennui, depression, hate, joy, contentment…

What would I call what I feel? Nostalgia? Does everyone feel that release? Like they want to simultaneously laugh and cry and sneeze and just say, “Oh, shit” when they get nostalgic? And if it’s nostalgia, why do I feel it when something particularly awesome happens in a movie I’m watching? Something new, unrelated to my own personal experience; like the first time I heard Bill Pullman’s speech as the President in Independence Day. It’s a great speech in a goodish movie. I remember feeling it then, but it certainly wasn’t nostalgia. I was sixteen.  Or when the T-rex saved the day in the original Jurassic Park; I think I might have been twelve maybe thirteen at the time. What did I have to feel nostalgic about?

Regardless, those are one-time things. None of those three; Priscilla, Jurassic Park or Bill Pullman have the staying power or reliability to force the reaction like “Yellow Ledbetter” and I couldn’t begin to say why. They still give me goosebumps that play across the back of my head and temples, but they no longer make me want to choke. Perhaps it’s the memory, that association with a time that never happened…?

I guess if I really think about it, the beach bonfire could be a sort of amalgam of many experiences in my youth. A combination of many pivotal bonfires. Points in time where decisions were made and all points behind were set ablaze.

I remember throwing the Frisbee around with friends and relatives. I remember visiting Seaside beach fondly. The night I graduated I actually had a pivotal bonfire with friends where I literally burned everything inside my high school backpack; but it wasn’t on the beach, and there was no guitar. I can mentally drop lots of different people into the different roles and make it work, but that doesn’t make it any less fictional.

So why do I remember it so well? And why that song?