Sounds of summers past

LAST week, while driving to work, I spotted an old push lawn mower out by the curb. It was trash day, and the mower was destined for the junk heap. I pulled over to take a closer look. I seized the old wooden handles and pushed the mower along the sidewalk. I must have looked odd doing it in a suit. But the whirling metal blades made a nice sound that reminded me of my childhood. I swung the mower up into my jeep and drove off.

When we throw out our old technologies, we also throw out their old sounds. Most of the time we don't notice the sounds are gone until much later, when by some chance we hear them again. They seem to grab us by the ear and yank us back in time.

At my in-laws' beach cottage in Maine, last season saw the installation of a microwave oven and the demise of the old electric coffee percolator. The percolator had its own unique song. After the first bleary-eyed riser plugged it in, it would sit silent for a few minutes. Then a few faint gurgles would come, followed by a long, Wagnerian crescendo and diminuendo of gurgles until a final few minutes of silence were capped by the illumination of a small red light. Replacing this heroic theme is the whirring motor sound of the microwave followed by three staccato computer beeps.

One of my favorite memories of summer is the sound of a baseball game on AM radio. As a child I used to hear the games coming through a little transistor radio on my grandparents' front porch. The game would drone on like summer insects in the trees. Occasionally the noise would rise with announcers talking excitedly over the applause. Condensed into the tiny three-inch speaker, the applause of thousands sounded like rolling surf. My in-laws have a nice big portable radio in the cottage. But the fidelity is too good - nothing like the old transistors.

Another sound gone from the Maine cottage is the slamming of the wood-framed screen door. The door used to be on a long spring - the kind you could hear stretch as the door closed. Impatient children would open it wide and let the door slap back against its frame, by which time they had bounded down the steps and were half way across the yard. My father-in-law finally installed an air piston on it. The door's better off, but we've lost another sound of summers past.

Most of us could make a list of fond old sounds. Yet many were thought to be disruptive when new. That distant locomotive whistle that sounds nostalgic to us now once disturbed Henry David Thoreau on Walden Pond. The corollary is that some of today's disturbing sounds will someday be remembered fondly by our children or their children. Will they miss the sound of their mother's electric blow dryer, or the whirls and beeps of their home computers booting-up?

Perhaps in some future summer my grandson will pass by some junk, and like his grandfather, rescue it because he likes its old song.

Steven Leveen is a free-lance writer, and president of Levenger Design Co., a mail-order firm specializing in home technologies.

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