Strange Attractor

 

Every day is Spring, while we’re young.
None can refuse, time flies so fast!
Too dear to lose, an’ too sweet to last!
―”While We’re Young,” featured in
    Barry’s Hollywood Bowl show

 

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      slide_5718_82044_largeFor two thousand years wealthy Romans have fled the summer heat of the city for the cool breezes of the Circeo peninsula, which juts into the Tyrrhenian Sea with miles of rock and sandy beaches.  The emperors Domitian and Tiberius had villas there.  In 1947, a mile west of the village of San Felice and some sixty miles south of Rome, Godwin Spani created Club Spani, a retreat for his Roman and American friends.  The luminous white villa sat on the side of a hill, its long terrace looking out under grape vines to the deep blue of the sea, stretching away to the edge of the world.  Narrow steps led down to a reach of warm, flat rocks awash in the tide.  Down the road was a lighthouse and a long sandy beach on which one could walk, we were told, all the way to Rome.

Tim and I had met Barry that summer of ’59 on a ship packed with students headed for Europe.  With Tim’s five-string banjo and our three acoustic guitars, we formed a folk trio on the boat, entering the talent show with an ill-chosen “Sinking of the Titanic,” a dour captain perched in the front row.  Debarking at separate ports, we agreed to meet Barry and his friend Jerry in Zurich in three weeks.  Meanwhile, a message from their friend Doug, who had worked his way to Italy on a freighter, lured them to Club Spani, where the advantage of retrieving the trio became immediately clear.  So they fetched us in Zurich and the four of us headed south.

In return for our nightly imitations of the Kingston Trio, Mr. Spani found us sleeping space and provided meals at the long communal table on the terrace.  The warm Mediterranean nights, the good food and wine, and a young exuberant audience were far more than we had expected of our offhand notion to spend a summer in Europe.  By day we went down to the sea, wandered down the road to an ice cream shop, or off to the sandy beach with our instruments and a group that included the Spani daughters, Mila and Maghi, and a Norwegian girl named Tove who was a friend of the Spanis and the reason for Doug’s long trek to Italy.  Song-filled, sun-drenched days by the ocean now seem a core image of that summer of ’59, a world apart, a dreamscape outside of time.

Neither Tim nor I could have carried the audience at Club Spani.  Their enthusiasm mirrored the affable energy and endearing humor of Barry himself, who seemed pivotal to everything memorable about that summer.  But having just graduated from USC and conducted a hugely successful choral show before ten thousand people in the Hollywood Bowl, Barry was at what would sadly remain the apogee of his life. 

His father insisted that he forego law school and come to work for his insurance company.  When his father died in 1966 the partners turned against Barry, who managed to start his own company.  But in 1976, when his wife of fourteen years took their three children and left, he began drinking, lost his business and his friends, and drifted through the next twenty-five years on borrowed money and failed schemes.  At age sixty-eight, he went into recovery and tried to launch a clothing business that never got off the ground.  His depression and drinking returned, a suicide attempt in 2010 failed, and he died the next year in a Los Angeles parking lot.  In his last years he had contacted Mila Spani and begun an e-mail romance, his near-daily notes idealizing a girl he had barely known those long years ago.  Fixated on finding the money to go to Italy, it was a fantasy that time had stood still, that the mythic aura of Circeo awaited only his return.

In the flurry of e-mails after Barry’s death were some old photos of our group in Circeo.  There was Barry a half century ago, on the beach in his prime, holding up something indistinct, and Mila Spani in her risqué get-up for the Ferragosto festival.  But photos could never capture the time or place that was Circeo, which endures only in our heads—fugitive memories, fleeting images carried into old age as the measure of all remembrance.

Barry’s fantasy was only an acting-out of what we all carried with us across the decades: a yearning, a loss of what seemed in gauzy memory some vital center of our youth.  Through the years and in different ways―like the “strange attractor” of chaos theory (a system toward which things evolve regardless of starting conditions)—we all seem to have been drawn back to the place and the people, brought together again in lifelong, or life-changing ways.  Doug and Tove, who had broken up after that summer, actually achieved what Barry had fantasized, finding each other again after thirty-four years and marrying.  Tim and I became lifetime friends, while Jerry, with his detailed recollections, cache of old photos, and even a copy of Barry’s expense record, seems to have become curator of that legendary summer.

Perhaps it was simply the music and the place.  Perhaps it was the camaraderie of like souls, in limbo for a glorious instant between innocence and responsibility.  Perhaps it seemed the defining moment in that interim of youth when the future lay open to infinite possibility.  For whatever reason, Circeo became the strange attractor to all nostalgic memory, drawing the whole span and aura of our youth into a single image.

The luminous white villa still stands on the side of the hill, the long terrace still looking out on the sea.  Mila Spani, the radiant young girl now a grandmother, still summers there.  But the mythic summer of ’59 recedes in the mist of time as the players age and die.  On an old reel of tape, Barry, Tim, and I still sing.  The old songs soften the insistent present, and for a moment we’re back with Barry on a sun-baked beach, the future reaching away to forever.

Memory always plays to music.

 

Comments

  1. Tove Power says:

    Wyn, I love it! Am sending this to brother, Knut, and a hard copy to Sarah.

    Ciao, Tove

  2. bruno velani says:

    Dear Wyn, I was also at Mila’s villa in the summer of ’59 as her schoolmate.
    I vaguely remember your ebullient group and your songs, which started a craze among us.
    You will certainly not remember me, then a lean, smallish, bespectacled, shy boy, much attracted by the radiant beauty of Tove.
    But last year, still being the best friend of Mila, I started reading your books and writings which she reccommended to me.
    Let me express my admiration for the depth of your considerations, your command of a beautiful English. All the topics you choose are very interesting to me, because my hobbies are history, science, and their interrelations (I am an oil geologist).
    Please accept my warmest congratulations. Hoping to read more of your works.
    Sincerely,
    Bruno Velani

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