A Social Psychology Experiment Set to the Tune of “Let Me Call You Sweetheart”
“While they meet to talk about the problems of aging in America, Charles Kuralt has found a young woman in Santa Cruz, California, who is doing something.”
A paraphrase of a remark made by Dan Rather on the CBS Evening News in 1971
At Athens during a dramatic festival, an old man entered the theatre; there was a huge crowd, but not one of his fellow Athenians, anywhere, offered him a seat. He pushed on until he came to the Spartans, who by virtue of their status as ambassadors, had been seated in a reserved section; they—so the story goes—stood up as one man and made room for the old gentleman to sit down. At this, they were applauded long and hard by the whole crowd; thereupon, one of the Spartans remarked that the Athenians knew what was right but couldn’t be bothered to do it.
Cicero, “On Old Age”
A One-of-a-Kind Experience:
How Singing “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” Derailed My Radical Activism
My career as a public intellectual began with a full-out failure.
And yet few successes have given me as much pleasure, satisfaction, and meaning as this failure.
It was the Spring of 1970, and the nation’s campuses rose in rebellion against President Richard Nixon’s expansion of the Vietnam War. At UC Santa Cruz, many of us joined the national student strike, stopped going to classes, and plunged into a variety of initiatives to protest the invasion of Cambodia.
By the time I got moving, organizers of these initiatives had recruited a surplus of volunteers, and none of the phalanxes, cohorts, and affinity groups needed me.
What to do?
Noting that Santa Cruz had been largely a retirement town before the University opened, I came up with a fresh idea that no one else had claimed: I would mobilize the elderly people of Santa Cruz to stand shoulder to shoulder with the students in protesting the war!
Of course, this would require some strategy and diplomacy, but I had that figured out. I resurrected my faded knowledge of essential guitar chords, and I studied up on the words to “When Irish Eyes Are Shining,” “Let the Rest of the World Go By,” and, of course, “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.” I would approach the social directors and activity coordinators at the nursing homes and senior residential facilities, and tell them that I would like to lead sing-alongs with the residents. Then, after two or three occasions of getting acquainted, I would be positioned to bring up Cambodia.
The singing proved very successful, and so did the storytelling afterward. In truth, I soon seemed to have reached my lifetime peak for popularity, becoming a catalyst for happiness the moment I walked in the door.
But the anti-war mobilization of the elderly lagged.
At the end of each session, the old folks would say, “We’ll see you next week, right?”
“Yes, you will,” I would reply, while thinking to myself, “next time, we’ll settle into getting the United States out of Southeast Asia.”
Long before the strategy called “adaptive management” gathered force in the world of land management, I had been forced to devise my own version of this practice: 1) I thought about my initial goal; 2) I saw that it was not working; and 3) I arrived at a far more sensible, but still ambitious goal: Keep showing up, and see if you can reduce some of the loneliness these people live with every day.
“Let Me Call You Sweetheart” had spawned an unsung and unspoken ballad called “Let Me Call You Fictive Kin.”
None of my new friends were my biological relatives, but, still, I had come into possession of the world’s most expansive network of adopted grandparents.
The 1970 national student strike ended, but I, along with friends who had teamed up with me, kept singing and listening to stories. While the war went on, we had apparently made peace with our ineffectiveness in shaping U.S. foreign policy.
The Cameras Rushed In
Suddenly, the old folks and I made a very brief, but very intense, appearance on the national stage. Apparently, the cascade of stories about college students flocking to protests had created a demand for “a good teenager” story in the local and national press. I was not very suitable for casting in this role: I had certainly attended plenty of protests and marches; I had cheered at many a rally; and I had a few incidents of what we will just refer to as “not the greatest judgment.”
But I got the part anyway.
Interviewed by an Associated Press reporter, I conjured up a name for my project: “The Spring and Autumn Alliance.” Counter to all probability and plausibility, the Associated Press story ran on the front pages of newspapers all over the country, featuring the photograph that you see on the banner for this blog. (That’s me and my friend Mrs. Bea Palmer, a British war bride from WWI who I never once beat in Scrabble). The article got me letters from all over the nation. Since I had never been further east than Utah, those return addresses gave me my first chance to believe that those other parts of the country actually existed.
And then I heard from CBS News. Charles Kuralt wanted to bring his “On the Road” team to visit for a couple of days. For two and a half days, I went everywhere with a very coordinated unit of the paparazzi. I walked on the beach with my friend Mr. Johnson who told me interesting facts about the birds we saw; I walked on the pier with Mr. McLeod who told me how he and his fellow soldiers in WWI had captured a bunker where the German troops had placed a piano. And my friend Ralph Houghton, born on the Fourth of July in 1876, and I sang some songs, with his foot in a wingtip shoe and my foot in a sandal keeping time together.
Youthful Certainty Receives its Comeuppance
Initially, I had joined my college housemates in happy anticipation of the fact that a famous CBS newsman and his film crew were going to have dinner with us. But by the time our guests arrived, my attitude had changed 180 degrees.
The moment he walked in our door, I began denouncing and excoriating the famous CBS newsman, telling him I should never have agreed to his visit. The old people who had become my friends were a vulnerable and fragile sector of society. With unthinking cruelty, I had set them up for misrepresentation by an invading squadron from broadcast journalism.
And then, with my roommates glaring at me, I finally quieted down.
The next morning, Kuralt and his team certainly sensed that I was charged up again, ready to defend and protect my elderly friends from this spectacle-driven affront to their dignity and intrusion into the privacy.
And then we walked into the big lobby of the Casa del Rey Retirement Hotel.
Every single seat in that big lobby was filled. Extra chairs had been deployed.
The vulnerable and fragile old people were all arrayed in their finery, waving at Kuralt and greeting him warmly.
Kuralt did not say a word about my fevered remarks the night before. This restraint, I think, permitted us to become friends.
But the inclination to defend the elderly never made a complete departure from my soul.
Reader, Be Warned.
I am about to shift from affectionate nostalgia to intemperate fury.
Hell Hath No Fury Like a Woman Desperate to Intervene When an Old Man Is Pushed, Injured, and Then Scorned
I spent two years making frequent visits to senior residence facilities, nursing homes, and hospital rooms. With that investment of time and attention, I earned the credentials to make the intemperate statements that you are about to read.
My days of cultivating innumerable friendships with old people left me with a conditioned reflex: when an old person takes a bad fall, I go straight to despair. Once, at the Casa del Rey Retirement Hotel, I stopped to hold the door for an elderly resident. He tripped on the threshold and fell forward. I was holding the door, standing behind him, and I could do nothing to catch him or break his fall.
It is the irreversibility of such a calamity that leaves a permanent mark in the memory of the bystander. (And, yes, if you are wondering about the strength of this conditioned reflex, I wept as I typed the preceding paragraph.)
So let’s say one of my elderly friends had taken a bad fall and was in the hospital in intensive care with a serious head injury. To give this scenario one more unit of intensity, let’s say that the injury came not from an accidental fall, but from the delivery of an intentional push.
And then let’s say that I then encountered a person who made a gratuitous, dismissive, cruel, and scornful remark about this badly injured old man.
Here’s what I know about who I was at nineteen.
I would have torn into the person who made that gratuitous, dismissive, cruel, and scornful remark with everything I had.
On June 4, 2020, at a protest in Buffalo, New York, Martin Gugino approached a line of police detailed to clear the area. As he stood in front of them, two policemen pushed him. He lay, unconscious on the ground, with blood flowing from his ear.
Seventy-five-years-old, Gugino is still in the hospital with a skull fracture, and may or may not regain the ability to walk.
On June 9, 2020 the President of the United States said that Gugino “could be an ANTIFA provocateur,” but there is no evidence to support this claim. “I watched,” President Donald Trump said, “he fell harder than was pushed.” The physics that would permit a person to deceptively add velocity or intensity to his descent—in mid-fall—is not easy to grasp. Still, the President found meaning in his characterization of Gugino’s unbearably hard landing: “could be a set up?”
Donald Trump is only one year younger than Martin Gugino. In my Santa Cruz days, I had plenty of occasions to see elderly people respond with intense compassion and empathy to the injury of a contemporary.
One final observation: neither the dignity of age nor the power of white privilege did a thing to protect Martin Gugino from a shove from the two Buffalo policemen or from the scorn of the President of the United States.
Hell Hath No Fury Like a Woman Having to Stand By and Watch While an Injured Old Man Is Scorned by Someone who Should Know Better.
The Road Not Taken, and the Expertise Still to Be Acquired
I enrolled at UC Santa Cruz in 1968, three years after its founding. No one could miss the tension between the retired people who had considered the town to be theirs, and the newly arrived students who were evolving from clean-cut into long-haired in real time.
When I chose my outreach project in 1970, I was thinking of this tension, and I was saying to myself, “I think I could help with that.”
For two years, I was a self-appointed emissary and ambassador, a shuttle diplomat between the retired people in town and the professors and students on campus. And yes, (for all you readers who are catching my drift here), the Center of the American West was coming into view on that distant coast.
As graduation approached, my plan was to pursue the formal study of the issues that had taken possession of me in my time travel between generations. In my applications to graduate schools, I declared that I wanted to study the history of aging in the United States, tracing the processes that led to the twentieth century’s segregation of the elderly.
Of course, I recognized that caring for frail invalids, especially when dementia was in the picture, was beyond the capacity of families, presenting an urgent need for help. And yet most of the people I had come to know were far from frail or mentally disordered. But somehow American society had decided that they should live apart from the rest of us.
And I knew that I could not take the conditions I had observed to be “just the way things are.”
In 2020, in the coronavirus pandemic, in many parts of the country, nursing homes are at the center of attention as the sites of the most concentrated affliction. Nearly every institution or facility where populations of the elderly are concentrated has been placed under rigid rules that prohibit visitors. And yet the reports of calamitous contagion continue.
If I had stuck with the intention that powered my applications to graduate school, I might now be a credentialed expert in gerontology and in a much better position to be helpful. And yet, for a half century, I have carried with me a different kind of expertise: a sharp sense of the sorrow and pain that social isolation and segregation by age can foster.
Here’s the historical framework that I did not glimpse fifty years ago, but which occupies my mind now.
Long before the coronavirus pandemic, with the creation of the institutions known as nursing homes, retirement hotels, senior residential complexes, assisted living facilities, and gated retirement communities, the United States embarked on a major experiment in and trial run of the arrangements we now call “social distancing.” In unintended and unforeseen ways, this experiment proved to be a breathtaking achievement in expanding the reach and power of loneliness.
Despite my preposterous ambition to seek out the elderly and bring out the “anti-war activist” hidden within, I actually adopted a far more compelling historical role. I was trying everything I could think of to serve as a counterforce, corrective, and remedy to the epidemic of loneliness that age segregation had unleashed.
When I and my young companions walked in the doors of those buildings, the warmth and the cheer, the merriment and the relief, that greeted us registered as a tidal wave.
The force of that wave was its own measure of the burden that this vast experiment with social distancing had placed on old people.
As we envision a post-pandemic world, the habits, customs, and conventions that have governed our societal response to aging deserve a thorough reassessment. The high death rate in nursing homes makes a clear statement that segregating the elderly has delivered uneven protection and may even have concentrated their population in ways that left them more vulnerable to a public health calamity. As we look at the future, we have a providential opportunity to ask ourselves, “Is this really how we want to live?”
In 1970-1972, as the core of my sing-along repertoire, I chose the songs that the old folks of that time associated with their long-ago life phase of flirtation and courtship.
From time to time, singing “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” my mind would wander to the songs of my life phase of flirtation and courtship, moving quickly from there to contemplate the mysterious passage of time.
If the future’s young people, generously volunteering their time to visit with aged babyboomers, followed my selection criterion and chose the songs associated with the peak of their audience’s youthful vitality, what on earth would they sing?
Would the good-hearted young folks of the 2020s find themselves leading sing-alongs of “Let’s Spend the Night Together” or “Come On, Baby, Light My Fire”?
These weird thoughts did deliver a benefit: they stretched my sense of time in a way that proved very helpful to a historian-in-chrysalis.
“These people now look very old, but their stories reveal that they were once young,” I would think to myself. “This is making me begin to suspect that I will not always be nineteen.”
It may not have been the deepest insight I ever had, but it certainly proved to be the most validated.
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Banner Photo: Patty Limerick and friend Beatrice Palmer in Santa Cruz, in intense, hyper-engaged conversation. Photograph from the Associated Press that appeared on the front page of newspapers across the country in 1970. Photo credit: Pete Amos.