I’ll Fly Away
2020, Dean Bonner
The spinning disc glided along the beach, caught an updraft at the hill, and came right back to the grinning thrower. Just like the boomerangs we had heard about. It was magical. As quickly as it flashed on the little screen it was gone and Sonny and Cher were back.
We wanted a Frisbee, but even if we collected enough discarded bottles from the roadside we didn’t know where you could buy one. We’d never seen one. No one we knew had one.
When Sonny and Cher took their last bow, Daddy told Doris to turn off the TV. Daddy got up and put a stack of records on the record player spindle.
Music was important to our parents. They hit their teen years just as the first waves of Rock and Roll rose. They danced to records in our dining room some weekends. Not many years before, they had danced between ropes in the streets of Atlanta while Chuck Berry and others played live. The ropes were to keep the black kids and white kids apart while they all danced to the same music. They cruised around in his hotrod ’49 Mercury convertible back then.
On weekends, Daddy would ease his Gibson guitar out of its case and play for us. We tried to sing along as best we could. The only song simple enough to remember all the words to was Mockingbird. Daddy knew several more and played them pretty well when the guitar was at home. I rode into Atlanta with him several times to either put it into a pawn shop or get it out.
Sometimes his buddies would come over to play, too. Tommy worked on the docks at the same truck line and played bass for Marty Robbins once in a while. He came more often than Freddy James, who toured as a full-time musician. Freddy never hit the big time but got regular work for years. We went to Tommy’s nice house where he played in a basement studio — until passersby found him burnt to a crisp in his car outside his house. He had been drinking a lot and they were having marital difficulties. Tommy was really nice.
I don’t remember whether Doris’ portable record player was a wind-up or if we strung a drop-cord into the yard. But we sure wore out some records. Her favorite then was Cathy’s Clown. Every time it played, I pictured a circus clown. I guess I didn’t listen to the lyrics closely enough or maybe the sound quality coming out of the record player was lacking. Cathy hanging out with a circus clown was boring. They didn’t talk much.
Johnny Horton stirred our little minds with North, to Alaska and The Battle of New Orleans. Firing at the Brits with an alligator made us laugh. We easily related to the guy singing Whispering Pines — those were all around us. You could toss a rock and hit one from where the record player spun out tunes on a stump while we pulled each other back and forth across the yard in a metal rickshaw that Pawpaw bought somewhere.
Doris liked Puff the Magic Dragon, but I thought it was sickly sweet. I could tolerate it, for a while. But one we all liked — one we all sang along with — was This Land is Your Land. It was visual. If I Had a Hammer was so-so. I mean, who loses his hammer? Pawpaw never lost his — he slipped it into a loop on the leg of his pants unless it was in his hand. Sometimes he did cuss over a misplaced wrench, though.
Uncle Bert and Uncle Dave liked Let it All Hang Out, a sort of country-hippie song. It was funny and it had a catchy tune. We wore that record out.
Sometimes we made up better, funnier, lyrics to the songs as they played. Uncle Bert said I’d grow up to be a comedian or a professor; he wasn’t sure which. My few stints as a substitute teacher at age 19 settled that.
Daddy had a tape recorder and some reels that Tommy gave him. It was a nice one that professional musicians used. It was in a travel case and had a nice microphone. Daddy recorded us kids singing I Saw the Light, I’ll Fly Away, and some other songs. I rediscovered the recorder in his closet and borrowed it for a while when I was stationed in New Orleans. It was so weird listening to our thin little voices coming from the reel. Only one reel had survived thirty years of frequent moving. I returned it on my way to shipboard duty in Boston so it wouldn’t get lost, but it disappeared in the turmoil of Daddy replacing his house trailer with a new one upon his retirement.
Mama fussed. The 45 record was so worn that it skipped too much to play. She could live with the crackle and hiss that got increasingly worse but nudging the needle every few seconds got on her nerves. She went to throw the record out. She’d get a new one from the record club.
Actually, they were roped into two record clubs. For just a penny, you signed up for a subscription. They said you could just send back the ones you didn’t like. You could pick some from a list, but a lot of the time they picked for you. Then sent a bill. You had a very short time to send them back. Often, they never acknowledged getting the returned records and they sent a larger bill. Or you sent them just a little too late to satisfy them, and the bill grew some more. A few pennies grew into bills larger than our monthly rent. They wouldn’t let you cancel if you still owed them money. The records kept coming. For years. It would take a decade and a lawyer to untangle from those record clubs.
Before Mama could toss the worn record into the trash, Jake chimed, “Can we have it?” Mama paused.
“To play with.”
“Okay. I was gonna throw it out anyway.”
She gave us five or six worn-out 45s. We already knew what we wanted them for. Poor Man’s Frisbees. We flipped them back and forth between us. We tried to get them to come back to us, but that only worked if you threw them up at an angle and the wind was just right. It was a matter of time before the brittle records were “flying machines in pieces on the ground.”
I imagine those broken songs are still there where the tarpaper shack stood, but they also live on in our minds.
We snuck into the house and picked out a dozen more records. It wasn’t long before those met the same fate. Most had Decca labels on them, a few were Sun Records. Patsy Cline. Elvis. Fats Domino.
Mama hit the roof. We had picked her good records, favorites that she’d held onto for a decade. She’d reached the ripe old age of 26 by then, with four kids.
“Get me a switch.”
We were still inexperienced enough to break off little skinny ones from the privet bush to be flogged with. Later, we’d learn that the bigger ones didn’t cut and just made a dull whack.
“I’ll Fly Away.” It was on Daddy’s big Hank Williams records. It was printed in the hymnals that we sang from in the converted store that was our church. They might fly away but they were not likely to return. Or when they did fly away, they were never the same as before.