It's the summer of 1957, and the strains of "Over the Mountain, Across the Sea" throb from the cramped bedroom in the rundown south Philly row house shared by my 30-something parents, my older brother and me. The lyrics of that Rex Garvin ballad glide down the banister and tumble into the modest living room where my mom and dad are intently watching Your Hit Parade on a tiny, 14-inch, black and white TV. What they're hearing from our bedroom is not on their hit parade, and as they try to tune out the soulful duet of Johnnie and Joe ("Which one's the girl?" I relentlessly ask my brother), my parents begin to grow restless -- and pissed!
"Ronald, Douglas, turn that noise down! We're trying to watch television," my mother hollers back up the stairs to our bedroom. Our diminutive Albanian-Italian mother forever drew the short straw and was the designated parent whose job it was, at least initially, to bring us boys in line. But as angry as she sometimes seemed, little Lucy Basile Bradley just never quite struck the fear of God in the hearts of my teenage brother and me.
"You'd better turn that music down," I offered reluctantly to my brother. Being nearly five years his junior, I NEVER told my brother to do anything, especially anything that had to do with HIS life and HIS music. In prototypical older/younger sibling dynamic, he didn't even acknowledge the fact I'd uttered a word. He simply smiled and turned up the volume on his small 45-RPM turntable.
Tell all the sands and every blade of grass
Please tell the winds to let my love pass.
Over the mountain, a girl waits for me.
Johnnie and Joe -- I'm now convinced that Joe is the girl -- continue to croon to one another. They even start talking! I'm hypnotized. There's something about this sound, the rhythm of the music, their message -- overcoming any barrier to be with the one you love -- that have my 9-year-old head spinning!
"Darling, here I am, over the mountain," Jo tempts Johnnie (I think), all the mountains in the world couldn't stop your love from my heart"
I close my eyes and envision a tall, handsome man climbing, running and singing his way to his lover's side. Suddenly, he sees her, sitting on a ledge, in a white dress, high above the clouds. She beckons to him with her voice. His voice, in response, is louder, stronger. He draws close... closer. He's just about to reach out and touch her...
"Turn that crap down!" our father has burst into our bedroom and he's anything but happy. "What in the hell is that junk you're listening to?"
I'm scared and a little stunned, because I've come to know that nothing good comes of my father raising his voice and asking us questions he doesn't expect us to answer. My brother just smiles up at him and slowly, albeit too slowly, turns down the volume. Even with that, you can still hear Johnnie and Joe talking back and forth. Our father seems even more annoyed that these two young "colored people" are carrying on and having this conversation in HIS house.
"What is this garbage? he again demands.
"Relax, Pop," my brother offers consolingly. "This is one of the biggest songs on the radio right now. It's what they call a hit record. You oughta listen to it."
"If it's such a big hit, then let's see what we can hit with it!"
At that, my father yanks the small vinyl record off the spindle, walks over to our bedroom window and sets sail. The disc soars higher and farther than I'd imagined, crashing into the back of the Nagel's row house, clear across the alley. Talk about over the mountain!
Our dad stands over us, staring down at the small 45-RPM record player. None of us says anything. It's a good thing he's standing, I realize, because my teenage sibling has just this week grown taller than he is.
My brother sits there, smiling. Will he stand up and look my father in the eye? Will he apologize? Will he further provoke him?
Darling, here I am, over the mountain
All the mountains in the world
couldn't stop your love from my heart...
I'm still replaying the song, and the reverie that accompanies it, in my head. But now Johnnie is my father and Joe is my brother and they're waving their fists at one another and shouting...
"Don't you ever play that music that loud in this house ever again," our dad threatens, underlining his relative pronouns through clenched teeth. He leaves our bedroom as abruptly as he came in.
My brother says nothing. He walks over to his dresser, opens the top drawer and pulls out another 45-RPM record and waves it in my direction.
"I can get these for about 50 cents a piece, and there's millions more like them," he says, sounding like an authority on the recording industry. "Dad will never be able to throw them all away. It's just a matter of time before we wear him out."
I have no idea who my brother means by we and by wearing our father out, but I have a strange feeling that I've just witnessed the opening battle in what's likely to be a very, very long war.