LETTER FOUR: COLLEGE DAYS
Love is but a song we sing fear the way we die
You can make the mountains ring or make the angels cry
Though the dove is on the wing you need not know why
Hey, people now smile on your brother
Let me see you get together try to love one another right now
Welcome to Songs and Stories from Home. That’s the first verse of a song from the 1960’s, an anthem from back in the day called Let’s Get Together. This particular recording is one from December of 1967. It’s Mike McCoy and I along with two friends, John Buller and Mike Dwyer. We were all juniors in college. McCoy and I begin the song by trading lines back and forth before combining our voices. That’s something that he and I have been doing now for more than 50 years. In this Dear Partner letter, I’ll be talking about the early days of a friendship that began on a Saturday night in September of 1965 trading mild insults instead of lines in a song.
We were a couple of small-town kids drawn to the big city and the University of Washington on football scholarships. Back then freshmen ballplayers didn’t work out or play with the varsity. The first freshmen practice wasn’t until after school started the end of September. One my earliest memories from that time was walking around campus a few days before classes began. It was one of those blue sky late summer Seattle days. President Lyndon Johnson had sent the first combat troops to Viet Nam six months earlier. Everyone assumed that day the distant war would soon be over. I was down by the Drumheller Fountain better known as Frosh Pond. Mount Rainier shimmered in the distance. Someone had their radio up loud. Barry McGuire was singing Eve of Destruction. When the song ended the DJ said The Brothers Four would be returning that afternoon from a tour of Japan, and we were all invited to come down to SeaTac airport to welcome them home. The fact The Brothers Four, a folk group I’d grown up listening to and learning from their records, had come out of the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity was a selling point but not a deciding factor in my choosing to become a member of that living group.
The setup in the Fiji house, as it was known, was everyone had their own desk and closet in a room with two or three other guys. Then a bunch of bunkbeds down the hall in what was called a sleeping porch. On the third floor there was small cluster of rooms known as the Maids’ Quarters. Each room had a bunkbed, small closets, and a couple of desks. Freshmen shared those room with upperclassmen. Fall quarter the freshmen were mostly football players, and wouldn’t you know it, my room was next to yours. Late that first Saturday night you came back from somewhere, I would later learn your hometown, Sumner, and turned your music up so loud there was nothing to do but knock on your door and tell you to turn it down. You opened your door wearing a fedora cocked at an angle and a smile that quickly turned into a laugh that I would soon learn was your way of saying, I’m not so sure that’s a good idea. Soon the door shut, and I swear a few moments later the music got even louder.
You quickly acquired a nickname. The Golden Boy. Besides laughing a little louder and wearing your hair a little longer than most you also had that walk as well as the look. You also happened to be the quarterback so it often didn’t matter that you could spend as much time getting out of doing something as it would have taken to have gotten that something done in the first place.
For some reason you and I decided to bond by engaging in fierce but never angry wrestling matches. We staged those tussles in what was known as the Big Room. It was just to the left of the entry hall. Your speed. My bulk. I don’t remember us ever getting mad. I don’t remember a winner ever being declared. We would just push back the furniture, go at it until we got tired, put the furniture back then be on our way.
That is until the Saturday night that changed everything. A few of us were in Mal’s room singing out of a Tom Paxton songbook. Maloof and I were playing our guitars and holding down the melody. Buller was adding a lower harmony. Dick McAuliffe was sitting in the corner tapping on a desk smiling and taking it all in. I don’t remember anyone looking up when the door opened. We just kept on singing. And then this voice adding a perfect and unusual harmony. It wasn’t the voice of a teenage kid, like the rest of us. For us it was the voice of someone who had been somewhere and discovered something that once we heard that voice we all wanted to go and find it but didn’t know how or where to begin. And when the song was finished, we all turned toward the door. It was you. Smiling. This time as if to say, “What are you looking at.” McAuliffe finally said all that needed to be said. “Huh, he can sing, too.”
And sing we did. Along with Buller and Dwyer we made our group official by giving it a name, the Mourning Ryde. Where the name came from I can’t tell you. But we enjoyed it. We serenaded sororities. We sang at musical events at the Student Union Building. Then in June after our Junior year we were invited to compete on a nationally syndicated TV program. Your All-American College Show hosted by Dennis James. They filmed two shows over a two day time period in LA. Four acts competing in each show. Celebrity judges. We surprised ourselves and won a trophy, a thousand bucks, and a chance to come back and compete against other winners. In the semi-finals we were competing against the woman who would ultimately win it all named Linda McClure and a young woman named Karen Carpenter who played drums and sang Dancing in the Street while her brother, Richard, played piano. Two of the four acts from that show competed for the championship in the finals. We weren’t one of them. If you go on YouTube and search “Carpenters Your All-American College Show 1968” at the end of the clip we are four guys in UDub blazers behind them in the back.
A few months later The Mourning Ryde auditioned at a ski resort on Snoqualmie Pass. They were going to let us ski for free that winter. And on Saturday nights they would also feed us, and in return we would sing. Before we got started The Brothers Four asked me if I would like to join their group. Which I did. Which was it for the Mourning Ryde. You keep telling me to this day how one day you may get over the fact that I abandoned you and the other guys. It just hasn’t happened yet. You’ve kept saying this even after joining me in The Brothers Four in 2004. Maybe we’ll just have to push back the furniture and decide this thing once and for all. Before we do here’s one of my favorite songs the Mourning Ryde ever recorded.
Wise men say only fools rush in
But I can’t help falling in love with you
Should I stay would it be so wrong
For I can’t help falling in love with you
Like a river flows surely to the sea
Darlin’ so it goes somethings are meant to be
Take my hand take my whole life, too
For I can’t help falling in love with you