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FIRST PERSON

Thank You, Signore Modugno

August 18, 1994|JAY BERMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

He who drives the car controls the radio.

That was the single most important rule of the road as three fellow college sophomores and I made our way from Los Angeles to the Pacific Northwest in the summer of 1958 on a six-week camping trip.

We switched drivers every hour, moving all the passengers around as well, since we had taken out the bottom cushion of the back seat of my 1954 Chevrolet two-door sedan to make room for the sleeping bags, tent and other gear that wouldn't fit into the trunk.

Sitting on a sleeping bag atop a tent atop a cooler isn't exactly luxury travel. So we had this rotation, the way volleyball players move during a game. You moved from right rear to left rear to right front to driver. One move per hour.

Ortwin Wersel, who was from Germany and had moved to the United States in junior high school, liked to listen to jazz. Senny Takahashi was a classical music fan. Ted Furr and I preferred rock, and my particular interest was in trying to find Buddy Holly's newest single, "Maybe Baby," on as many stations as possible.

In those pre-FM days, radio playlists were limited. And these stations were playing actual records, remember. No tape, no discs, no lasers. Superhighway? It was the information footpath.

And 1958 was the summer of Domenico Modugno and his huge hit (30 million copies), "Volare." It was "Volare" in San Francisco, "Volare" in Portland, "Volare" as we pitched the tent in snow on the Fourth of July at Crater Lake and looked for a flat site on the side of Mt. Rainier.

It was one of those moments that meant little as it passed--yet, 36 years later, is clearer to me than where I put my car keys Monday night.

I mention this because Domenico Modugno died the other day in Italy. His death at 66 of an apparent heart attack was worth seven sentences in this newspaper.

Our trip wasn't one of those "rites of passage" experiences that become motion pictures. Other than a transmission-related breakdown east of Vancouver and a muffler that decided to stay on a rock in a park near Portland, there were few crises--not counting my bout with some tainted canned pears.

We weren't searching for ourselves or celebrating the last days of our youth before marriages and jobs would take us into reality and the 1960s. We were just four college kids who had gone to Marshall High School in Los Angeles and thought it might be fun to go on a camping trip.

After all these years, I still remember certain moments. Hearing on the radio the news that Congress had approved statehood for Alaska. The embarrassment of being denied entry into a Portland theater because we were wearing gym shorts. Putting on a sock in a campground restroom at Mt. Tamalpais near San Francisco, only to discover the world's largest and most malevolent looking beetle had gotten there before me. Feeding animal crackers to a raccoon, the first one I had ever seen. Swimming in the icy Merced River at Yosemite. You can do that at 18.

And, of course, "Volare." Modugno's song was actually named "Nel Blu Dipinto di Blu" in Italy, but it was the often-repeated word volare that everyone knew.

It was the time of Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly, Fats Domino and Chuck Berry. A guitar instrumental called "Raunchy." The garage-band sound of "At the Hop." An awful pop novelty called "Flying Purple People Eater."

It was a long time ago. Ortwin Wersel died from exposure to some kind of chemical while working on his doctorate in chemistry in the East in 1967. The last I knew, about the time of our 20-year high school reunion, Senny Takahashi was a reporter with a television station in Spokane. Ted Furr is a metallurgist with Bethlehem Steel--or at least he was about 10 years ago.

I can picture a whole generation of people who might have seen Modugno's obituary and said to themselves, "Domenico who?"

Ciao, signore. Thanks for taking me back to 1958 for a little while.

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