A Liberal Nod to Richard M. Nixon

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Here’s to the government of Richard Nixon
In the swamp of their bureaucracy they’re always boggin’ down
And criminals are posing as advisors to the crown
And they hope that no one sees the sights and no one hears the sound
And the speeches of the president are the ravings of a clown
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of

Richard Nixon, find yourself another country to be part of

- Phil Ochs, from his song “Here’s to the State of Richard Nixon”

 ______________

In my 5th grade class I volunteered for a mock presidential debate. It was 1968, and the U.S. presidential election was nearing. The candidates were Republican Richard Nixon and Democrat Hubert Humphrey.

I didn’t know anything about politics. I supported Nixon’s candidacy only because Joe Devereaux and some girl had already picked Humphrey. It was me and Kurt Carson in Nixon’s corner. I don’t remember much about Kurt, except that he was nearsighted and sported a crew cut. I do remember our parents were happy that we were stumping for Nixon.

Long story short, Kurt and I lost the debate. But only because most of the kids had parents who were Democrats.

It was the first and last time I stumped for Nixon.

 ________________

I don’t like to disparage the dead. Most of us already know Nixon’s legacy. He abused his power multiple times in attempting to cover up clandestine and illegal activities by members of his administration. Staring impeachment in the face, he resigned in disgrace, the only American president to do so. Had he not resigned, his forced removal from office would’ve been deserved.

Nixon’s resignation was 40 years ago this weekend. nixon resignsIt seems our media loves to drag out the details of Watergate every time its anniversary rolls around. Certainly, it was one of the severest crucibles in American history. But it was also a high point, and turning point, of American journalism. It ushered in an age of so-called “gotcha journalism.” And every time the word “Watergate” is mentioned, the precocious microphone-fondling progeny of Woodward and Bernstein begin to salivate.

Had Watergate never happened, Nixon’s presidency would’ve received mixed reviews. He ended the Vietnam War, but only after escalating it. He expanded Johnson’s progressive Great Society domestic reforms, but his war policy stimulated inflation and caused large budget deficits. Nixon had a golden opportunity to unite a country plagued with a generational and ideological gap. But his paranoia prohibited him from reaching out to his opponents. Instead, he did just the opposite: he compiled an “Enemies List” to target his critics.

But here are four areas in which Nixon deserves high marks:

Conservation: Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and signed into law the Endangered Species Act of 1973. He was the first president to make environmental protection a priority.

Foreign Affairs: Nixon normalized relations with China. His tentative friendship with the Communist nation forced the Soviet Union to the bargaining table, resulting in the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I) and Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

Civil Rights: Nixon endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972 to prevent gender discrimination, and ushered in large-scale, racial integration of public schools in the South.

Health Care: Long before Obamacare, Nixon proposed health insurance reform, including mandated health insurance by employers and federal funds to create Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs).

Nixon also deserves praise for resurrecting himself after he left office. He was a tireless American statesman, meeting with numerous foreign leaders, including those in the Third World. Along with Jimmy Carter and John Quincy Adams, he was one of our greatest “ex-presidents.”

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Just a guess, but if Nixon were around today, I’m not sure he’d gain traction with the Republican Party. Not because of his “dirty tricks,” but because he’s closer to the center than the fringe. He’d probably end up like Jon Huntsman during the 2012 Republican primaries: the first to end his candidacy, after being accused of moderation and for being bold enough to utter the word “compromise.”

Nixon may have been morally vacant, but he wasn’t dumb. I can’t see him surviving in the current political climate, where nearly half the voting public views climate change as a vast liberal hoax, and universal health care as an idea hatched in the bowels of Hades.

Gerald Ford’s controversial pardon of Nixon included the famous phrase “Our long national nightmare is over.”

But looking around today, isn’t there a different sort of national nightmare?

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It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Leaving): Touring Bob Dylan’s Hometown

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I cross the Fond Du Lac Reservation on Highway 2 and approach the little town of Floodwood. The road’s empty save for one car about a football field behind me.

I wonder if the driver sees my out-of-state plates. It’s a long way from southern Ohio to northern Minnesota. The driver’s probably rolling his eyes right now. Another tourist wanting a piece of the local celebrity.

I’m in Minnesota to do the popular Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, located north of Minneapolis on the western rim of Lake Superior. Only a short distance northwest is Hibbing, a small mining town tucked away in the piney woods. Hibbing is also the hometown of one Robert Zimmerman, who later became Bob Dylan. It’s ironic such a musical giant emerged from this tiny, isolated place. And also a bit surreal, like the man’s songs. Dylan was a reluctant pied piper for a generation. Much of his appeal stems from the fact that the man and his music can be difficult to grasp. That, and because he was writing song-poems in his twenties with the wisdom of one who’d lived a hundred years.

When did Robert Zimmerman become “Bob Dylan”? At one time he was just a pudgy Jewish kid whose dad worked in an appliance store. There must’ve been some kind of epiphany here in Hibbing. Maybe I can conduct my own mining expedition and unearth it. But I feel more than a little self-conscious about invading this town, half-asleep with ghostly memories. Hibbing was, at one time, a major exporter of iron ore. But the mines dried up long ago.

Interviewer at 1965 press conference: Do you consider yourself a musician or a poet?

Dylan: I think of myself more as a song and dance man.

I make a right onto route 73. “Hibbing: 38 miles” reads the road sign. Now I have the road to myself. I only see two cars the rest of the journey to Hibbing.

The first thing I notice when I enter Hibbing is the usual nauseating commercialism: a Home Depot, a Kentucky Fried Chicken, an Apple computer store, etc. Then I see a sign pointing to “Downtown.” Yeah, this is what I want. The town as it was in the 1950s, when Bob Zimmerman was chewing bubble gum underneath a streetlamp.

The buildings grow closer together, and I start seeing people on the sidewalks. I’m looking for a restaurant I read about in my old Rand McNally road atlas. It’s a tourist trap with Dylan memorabilia plastered on the walls. But it supposedly has good food. Maybe I can locate someone who knew Dylan as a kid. Not sure what I would ask him, though.

I drive slowly down First Avenue, but no signs about the “Z Man.” Then I make a right on Howard Street. Lots of old, dirty buildings with large, painted letters stenciled on the brick and which have faded over time. A few restaurants, but nothing related to Dylan. Half of me anticipates a huge billboard announcing Hibbing as “Hometown of Bob Dylan.” I’m surprised I haven’t seen this yet, but also a little pleased at the town’s restraint.

At the end of Howard Street, on the corner, I finally see something. A large sign, “Zimmy’s,” with a huge photo of early ‘60s era Dylan. I quickly swing into the side street and find a parking spot.

But it turns out that, although lunchtime on a weekday, Zimmy’s is closed.

Bob Dylan's Boyhood Home

Bob Dylan’s Boyhood Home

I need to talk to a local. Someone who might know where the Dylan sites are. I duck into a Goodwill store. Too crowded. I don’t want the customers to hear me ask the clerk “Excuse me, where can I find…?”

I find a sporting goods store with one employee. She’s a teenage girl. An easy target. When I ask her, she says there’s a street named after him, but that’s all she knows. I pretend to be interested in the Hibbing Bluejackets t-shirts that are on sale. Then I thank her and saunter out the door.

Feeling hungry, I decide to find a restaurant for a burger and beer. Walking down Howard Street, though, I glance down a side street and see an odd sight: a white camper trailer sandwiched between buildings, with a patio table and blue-and-white striped umbrella in front. A sign on the trailer advertises “GYROS.” This gyro trolley seems so out of place, I just have to give them some business. I approach an elderly man and a young girl who are chatting underneath the umbrella. When the girl sees me coming, she jumps up excitedly and asks if she can help me. I order a gyro. Then I start a conversation with the man.

Hibbing Gyros Trolley

Hibbing Gyro Trolley

“Nice little restaurant you have here. I didn’t know there was a Greek restaurant in Hibbing!”

“Yep, yep. We got ‘em all. Yessir, anything you want.”

He has a thick Minnesota accent, reminiscent of one of the extras in the movie Fargo.

“I’m up here from Ohio to run the marathon in Duluth” I tell him. “But I had to stop by Hibbing to see Bob Dylan’s hometown.”

“Oh, that’s a big race, yeah, real popular. You gonna win it?” he asks with a chuckle.

“Well, I doubt it, but I’ll try!” I laugh. Then I get back to the subject at hand.

“Are there any Bob Dylan sites in town?”

“Oh, I think there might be something in the Memorial Building. I was never a big fan. Not my type of music. I was more, uh, sort of…”

“Country?” I venture a guess.

“Yep, yep. Country. Dylan just wasn’t my cup of tea. I was in the Air Force, then on the police force. Can’t say I’ve heard much of his music.”

The girl hands me my gyro, which is gigantic. She’s been smiling the whole time. Despite making very little progress regarding Zimmy, I like the people in Hibbing.

“Does he ever return to Hibbing to visit?” I ask.

“No, I don’t think he ever has, at least that I know of. He sort of turned his back on us.”

“He’s pretty private, from what I hear,” I offer. “Maybe he’s tired of being a spectacle.”

“Yep, yep. That’s probably it.”

“Well, guess I’ll check out the auditorium. Nice talking to you!”

“Yep, nice talkin’ to you too! If you win that race, bring back some of that prize money to Hibbing!”

I tell him if I do, I’ll buy a dozen gyros, which gets him laughing.

I soon find myself on another side street, where a cop is getting out of a car. He looks like he’s in his late ‘30s or so. I walk up to him.

“Excuse me, sir, do you know where I can find Hibbing Memorial Building?”

He gives me a quizzical look. “Straight down this street, then left at the third intersection. What exactly you want there?”

Typical suspicious cop. “I was told there might be something there about Bob Dylan.”

“Oh. Well, the historical society’s in the basement. They might have something.”

“Are there any other sites in town associated with Dylan?”

“Well, there’s 7th Avenue – or Bob Dylan Drive, the street he lived on. There’s also Zimmy’s, a restaurant. But they closed down for some reason. I don’t think the owner was paying taxes. Other than that, I don’t know of anything. I was never a fan.”

“Ok, thanks.” I can’t understand the indifference of these people. Even if you don’t like his music, HE’S BOB DYLAN FER CHRISSAKES!!

(People) walk up, they think they know me because I’ve written some song that seems to bother them.  So they walk up as if we’re long lost brothers or sisters or something.  Well, that’s got nothing to do with me.  And I think I can prove that in any court.

On the way to the Memorial Building, I see the town library. I make a beeline for it. If they don’t have anything on Dylan, it’s a lost cause.

The library is small, just one floor. There are scattered posters in the glass lobby, including one advertising Gary Puckett and the Union Gap, scheduled to appear at Memorial Building in July. A smaller poster advertises a Bob Dylan Exhibit in the library basement. Hmm.

I wind my way through the glass in the lobby and find a staircase. Down I go. In the basement, there’s a long hallway with a wooden door at the end. I follow the hallway, past a room with three or four people seated in front of computers. They glance up at me as if I shouldn’t be here. They must be either hunting for jobs, or wasting time on Facebook.

I reach the door. In the center at eye level is a shabby photo of Dylan with the words “Bob Dylan Exhibit” taped underneath. I turn the door handle. Locked.

I climb back to the main floor and shyly approach the woman behind the main desk. She’s 30-ish, gangly, long black hair, thick black glasses. Very librarian-ish.

“Yes, I’d like to see the Bob Dylan exhibit, but the door is locked.”

“Oh. Ok, just a second.”

She picks up a phone. “Chrissy, could you please unlock the exhibit room?”

She looks at me and says “Chrissy will let you in.”

I go back downstairs, past the Facebook people, down the long hallway, and stand in front of the door. Soon, the door opens, and I see an attractive blonde girl.

“You must be Chrissy!” I say.

“Yes!” she responds with a smile.

Chrissy lets me in, then disappears into another room. I wander around the exhibit room. On the walls are about 50 or so photos of Dylan during various phases of his life, from the time he was in kindergarten on up to his being presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama. There’s also a life-size dummy, a giant Dylan-and-guitar scarecrow. A large rectangular conference table occupies the middle of the room, but nothing’s on it except a small binder with identifiers that describe the photos.

Zimmy and Me

Zimmy and Me

I spend about 45 minutes here, concentrating mainly on the pictures of Dylan while he was in Hibbing. It turns out he led two rock bands as a teenager, the Cashmeres and the Golden Chords. He was also a big Little Richard fan, judging by the remarks in his high school yearbook. Also a member of the Latin and Social Sciences clubs.

There’s also a photo here of a beautiful, Nordic-looking woman with creamy blonde hair. She looks a little like the French actress Brigitte Bardot. I soon learn this is Echo Hellstrom, whom Dylan dated. They spent a lot of time watching movies together at the Lybba Theatre, which was named after Dylan’s grandmother. In fact, his mother’s side of the family lived in Hibbing as far back as his great-grandmother.

I wonder what this icy beauty saw in young Robert Zimmerman, who wasn’t exactly the handsomest teenager. She must have seen a few kernels of genius beyond those chubby cheeks.

I spend about 45 minutes reading the “exhibits,” then sign my name in the visitors’ register. “Don’t follow leaders/Watch the parking meters.” I peek in the back room to ask Chrissy a few questions, but she’s nowhere to be seen. No other visitors have joined me.

I leave the library clutching a pamphlet, the “Hibbing Historical Walking Tour.” I learn that Boston Celtics center Kevin McHale, Yankees great Roger Maris, Manson Family prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, the guy who started Greyhound Bus Lines, and various distinguished politicians and hockey players are also from Hibbing. Most importantly, the pamphlet has a mapped walking tour of Bob Dylan sites: the aforementioned Zimmy’s and Lybba Theatre; his boyhood home; the synagogue where he worshipped with his parents; the Androy Hotel where he had his Bar Mitzvah party; even the bowling alley where his bowling team, The Gutter Boys, won a local competition.

The walking tour makes my Hibbing visit worthwhile. The townsfolk may be short on information, but the pamphlet guides me through Dylan’s past. “Positively 4th Street” wafts through my head as I gaze at the odd-looking blue house where Dylan lived as a kid. I stand on the street corner and stare at a second-floor window. Here, 60 years ago, the budding poet/singer was tuning a cheap radio to a distant Southern station, picking up the alien sounds of Blind Willie McTell and Dock Boggs.

***

The volunteer at the historical society is a rugged-looking ex-miner wearing a red and white plaid shirt.  He has little to say about Hibbing’s most famous citizen, but he gives me an informative lecture on the importance of the mineral taconite to the area. Although I greatly respect people like him, who worked so hard for so long at a dangerous trade, I’m not all that eager to honor his request that I visit the large open pit at the edge of town.

Similarly, the elderly tour guide at historic Hibbing High School is extremely knowledgeable. He’s anxious to explain the architectural history of the building, called the “Richest Gem in Minnesota’s Educational Crown” when it was built in 1924.

The volunteer peppers me with information about the school’s architectural opulence, as we watch a video about the building in the principal’s office. This is all very impressive. But isn’t the main goal to educate young people?

The only time he mentions Dylan is when we enter the ornate school auditorium.

“This is where Bob Dylan was booed offstage” he wryly notes.

The tour guide looks to be about Dylan’s age. And he definitely knows a lot about this school, almost as if he has firsthand familiarity.  Hmm.  It’s certainly possible. I take the plunge.

“Did you attend school here?” I begin my query.

But he shoots me down midstream.

“No, I’m from Minneapolis.”

Hibbing High School

Hibbing High School

Mississippi Freedom Summer: The Chaney-Goodman-Schwerner Murders, Part 2

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(This is the second part of my two-part profile of the Freedom Summer of 1964 and the brutal murders of three civil rights workers in Mississippi)

The lynching of black Americans had a long history, going as far back as Reconstruction. In the early 20th century, particularly in the Mississippi Delta, lynchings rose dramatically, in direct proportion to African Americans finding a foothold as sharecroppers and small landowners. It’s a fact that most lynchings occurred late in the year, when cotton accounts needed to be settled.

By June 1964, the state of Mississippi had the highest rate of lynchings in the country.

On August 4, 1964, after 44 days of searching by the FBI, civil rights organizations, and the U.S. military, the bodies of missing civil rights volunteers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Mickey Schwerner were located. They’d been buried in an earthen dam on a farm near Philadelphia, Mississippi. Both Schwerner and Goodman had been shot in the chest at close range. Chaney had been severely beaten with a metal chain, then shot in the abdomen and head.

Later testimony showed that they had been followed in the night by the KKK and local officials, then stopped and terrorized before being killed. One of the killers had asked Schwerner if he was “that nigger lover.” Schwerner, drawing on skills he’d learned as a leader in the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), tried to defuse the situation by responding “Sir, I know just how you feel.” But he was shot nonetheless.

Ten complicit in the murders

Ten complicit in the murders

The murderers moved the bodies to Old Jolly Farm, owned by one of the killers, ex-Marine Olen L. Burrage. They then set the victims’ station wagon ablaze near a river along Highway 21.

***

The Chaney-Goodman-Schwerner case was the most sensational incident of what’s known as the Mississippi Freedom Summer. The three CORE volunteers were part of hundreds of college students, mainly white and from the North, who fifty years ago traveled to rural homes in Mississippi to register blacks to vote. Voter registration was focused on because Mississippi was largely rural, so busing and lunch counter desegregation weren’t big issues. Also, due to intimidation and chicanery by white officials, Mississippi had the lowest percentage of black voter registry than any state in the country; only 6.7 percent of eligible black voters in Mississippi were registered.

Along with registration, the Freedom Summer volunteers established Freedom Schools to educate black children and adults (white Mississippians had a vested interest in keeping black Mississippians ignorant). They also established a Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to challenge the all-white, segregationist delegation scheduled to appear at the 1964 Democratic Convention.

They did all of this within a dark vortex of violence. Beatings, burnings, and bombings were a reality in 1960s Mississippi.

While the disappearance and murders of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner made national headlines, Mickey Schwerner’s widow Rita was quoted as saying that, had not two of the victims been white, the killings would never have created such commotion. In fact, during the search, Navy sailors who dragged local rivers uncovered at least eight bodies of young black men who had also been lynched. But their disappearances had not been deemed that important (see “Mississippi Cold Case,” a documentary about two of these murders).

The deaths of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner were not in vain. Only a year later, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, which enforced the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution and ended racial discrimination at the voting booth, including eliminating literacy tests and poll taxes. Today, Mississippi has the highest percentage of African American elected officials of any state in the union.

President Johnson, Martin Luther King, and Rosa Parks at signing of Voting Rights Act

President Johnson, Martin Luther King, and Rosa Parks at signing of Voting Rights Act

(Note: only a year ago, a conservative majority in the U.S. Supreme Court, in Shelby County v. Holder, weakened the Voting Rights Act by effectively nullifying Section 5 of the Act.  This section had required certain states with a history of race bias in voting to submit any election changes to the federal government for approval before they went into effect)

***

Freedom isn’t free. It has to be fought for, and not necessarily on the battlefield. James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Mickey Schwerner were foot soldiers in a non-violent crusade to secure basic human rights for blacks in the most vicious corner of the Deep South. They tragically lost their lives, but their efforts, and those of the other young volunteers in the Mississippi Freedom Summer, put a massive stake in the heart of the idea of white supremacy.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder, it’s obvious the fight isn’t over.

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A Chill in Mississippi, 1964: The Chaney-Goodman-Schwerner Murders

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Summer nights in rural Mississippi can be oppressively hot. The heat makes your skin stick to your clothes. Unfolding your arms and legs is like pulling Scotch tape from your skin. You always seem to be thirsty.

The Mississippi woods are filled with noise at night. As soon as the sun sets, the crickets and bullfrogs begin a loud, rhythmic chant. The sounds continue unabated for hours, long into the dark, until just before sunrise.

On the night of June 21, 1964, three young men drove a Ford station wagon through rural Mississippi. By sunrise they lay dead, buried like field compost by their killers. One can only wonder at the agonizing fright they experienced in the minutes before they were murdered. Did they smell the alcohol on their killers’ breath? Did they have an inkling of their fate?

Perhaps, by the time the shots finally rang out, they actually welcomed death.

What happened to James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner on the night of June 21-22, 1964, at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), was horrific, and their brutal deaths shocked the nation. The racially motivated crimes were just several of thousands of beatings, lynchings, and shootings which had been occurring in the Deep South since slavery ended. But it was their deaths 50 years ago that sparked a firestorm of outrage which finally helped eradicate the state-sponsored, legalized racism known as Jim Crow.

freedom summer

Other than being white males, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner had little in common with their killers. They were educated, Jewish, and from New York. Goodman had been a classmate of singer Paul Simon at Queens College. “Mickey” Schwerner was an experienced social worker and had attended Michigan State, Cornell, and Columbia University graduate school. As a boy he’d befriended Robert Reich, later U.S. Secretary of Labor, and protected him from bullies. Members of the civil rights organization Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), Schwerner and Goodman had volunteered during the Freedom Summer project to encourage Southern blacks to register to vote.

The third, James Chaney, was also a member of CORE. He started volunteering in 1962 when he signed up as a Freedom Rider, traveling on interstate buses in the South to fight segregation. He also organized voter education classes, and had recently introduced Schwerner to black congregants of a Baptist church in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where Schwerner hoped to set up a voter education drive.

Chaney did have something in common with his murderers: he hailed from a small town in Mississippi (Meridian). But, unlike them, his skin was black.

On Memorial Day 1964, Schwerner and Chaney met at Mt. Zion Methodist Church in Longdale, Mississippi. They talked to the audience about setting up a Freedom School for blacks. A very different audience, an aggressive wing of the KKK known as the White Knights, later heard about the talk. Doing what they did so well – spreading hatred and terrorism – the White Knights decided to set fire to the church. After the burning, Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman traveled from Meridian to Longdale to view the church’s charred remains, and also to reassure local blacks.

On June 21 they began the return journey to Meridian.

But early in the evening of June 21, a tire on their station wagon went flat in the town of Philadelphia. This stroke of bad luck enabled the Neshoba County cops to jail them on a trumped up charge of speeding. The threesome were eventually released, but they were refused permission to make their legally permissible one phone call. Worse, by the time they started on the road again, a mob of about 18 members of the White Knights had formed. The mob included the so-called protectors of law and order – the police – as well as a so-called minister. They’d heard about these three CORE workers stirring up trouble around Neshoba County. One of the Knights referred to them as representatives of a “nigger-communist invasion of Mississippi.” [Don Whitehead (September 1970). "Murder in Mississippi." Reader's Digest: 194.]

Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner left the Neshoba County Jail at about 10 pm. It was dark. The crickets and bullfrogs had begun their nighttime chorus.

Later testimony revealed they initially traveled south along highway 19. They were hoping to reach Meridian without further incident. For some reason, however, they turned westward onto highway 492. Maybe they’d made a wrong turn.

Or maybe they were trying to elude the headlights behind them.

(continued)

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The Rain, the Trees and Other Things

yosemite

Any fool can destroy trees. They cannot run away; and if they could, they would still be destroyed – chased and hunted down as long as fun or a dollar could be got out of their bark hides, branching horns, or magnificent bole backbones… God has cared for these trees… but he cannot save them from fools – only Uncle Sam can do that.

- John Muir, from Our National Parks (1901)

In Austin, Texas there’s a Southern live oak tree (Quercus virginiana) called the Treaty Oak. Its branches stretch 127 feet across and it is believed to be over 500 years old. The tree was sacred to the Comanche and Tonkawa tribes. According to folklore, Texas icons Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston paid respects here. In 1989, a vandal dumped buckets of herbicide around the base of the Treaty Oak. Two-thirds of this monumental tree is now dead.

In Trinidad, California a mighty redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) known as the Crannell Creek Giant stood for an estimated 3,000-plus years. Until a few decades ago, it was the largest living tree known to man, estimated at over 400 feet tall. But in the mid-1940s it was cut down by a logging company.

In Birmingham, Michigan, a patch of woods stood at the corner of Cranbrook Road and Lincoln Street… just across from Seaholm High School. In 1968-‘69, my friends and I box trapped small animals there. Some of these traps we built from scraps of particle board and coat hanger wire. Seaholm Woods was one of the few wild enclaves near our suburban Detroit neighborhood. We formed a “Safari Club” and spent countless hours scrambling through the hardwoods, feeling the scrape of briars on our skin, and peering into a small murky swamp abundant with strange, hidden creatures. But like so many other wooded glens in the ‘burbs, Seaholm Woods fell victim to a housing development. The raccoons, foxes, opossums, crows, grackles, and bullfrogs have long since disappeared.general-sherman

Tree and rock, bird and mammal, swale and swamp. Wild places provide nourishment to the soul. Fraught with hidden activity and complexity, the rainforests, alpine meadows, deserts and rivers also give us tranquility and space. Whether we realize it or not, wildness is an essential antidote to industrialization, commercial and residential sprawl, and an increasingly mobile and high-tech culture that seems to be dragging us further away from not only each other, but also the earth.

Long-distance hiker/folksinger/wilderness activist Walkin’ Jim Stoltz was once asked by the “Wall Street Journal” how he defined the term “wilderness.” Stoltz thought for a moment. He then offered this: “Wilderness is a place where things happen the way they’re supposed to happen.” I can’t think of a more appropriate definition.

But the term “wilderness” also has a legal definition, at least in the U.S. It was interpreted by Congress 50 years ago, on September 3, 1964. Although it took eight years to happen, eventually the Wilderness Act was signed into law by President Johnson. It established the National Wilderness Preservation System and declared that:

A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.wolf

The Wilderness Act is one of the most significant environmental achievements in the U.S., just as important as the national park system. It designated nine million acres for protection from commercial and recreational use. This has since expanded to about 108 million acres, managed (and sometimes mismanaged) by four agencies: The National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Land Management.

Designated U.S. wilderness areas contain 157 ecosystems with extensive flora and fauna, including such endangered or threatened species as whales, wolves, polar and grizzly bears, caribou, and numerous migratory birds. The ecosystems encompass national parks and forests, grasslands, wetlands, trails, wild and scenic rivers, monuments and cultural sites.

The 50-year-old Wilderness Act may not have saved the Treaty Oak or my own Seaholm Woods. Had it been around in the 1940s, though, it certainly would have prevented the murder of the Crannell Creek Giant.

But as significant as the Act is, there are still millions of acres of mountain, forest, glacier, and other fragile eco-habitat without protection; magnificent public lands that are susceptible to drilling, mining, logging, over-grazing, damming, and road-building. And the money-changers won’t rest. If they can’t turn a profit by gouging the planet one way, they’ll find another.

So if you’ve had the stamina to read this far, and value the concept of “wilderness,” try to make a difference. Sign a petition, make a donation, plant a tree, invest in a rain barrel. Trade in your gas hog for a fuel-efficient car. Avoid synthetic lawn chemicals. Cast a green vote.

America is blessed with some of the most awe-inspiring biodiversity on the planet. We all share the bounties of this ecological Eden: tree huggers, free-market junkies, Democrats, Republicans, top 1% and lower 99%. In the long run, it’s about our own physical and mental well-being, but it’s also about the other 21,714 vertebrates and plants in America who share our “home.”

HAPPY EARTH DAY!

centennials

Ghost Patrol: The Strange Disappearance of Flight 19

flight 19

We all love mysteries. Edgar Allen Poe knew this. So did Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. So do those intrepid ghost hunters who propagate the idea of a deadly “Bermuda Triangle.”

The inexplicable disappearance of five U.S. naval bombers and one rescue plane in the Atlantic Ocean in the year 1945 is one of the most gnawing mysteries of the 20th century. Hundreds of ships and planes have “gone missing” throughout modern history. But how could an entire fleet disappear, only a hundred miles off the coast of Florida, with merely a few panicked radio signals to serve as an epitaph?

It happened.

December 5, 1945 was a seemingly routine day when U.S. Naval Lieutenant Charles Carroll Taylor climbed into the cockpit of his Grumman TBM Avenger torpedo bomber at 2 PM on the tarmac of the U.S. Naval Air Station (NAS) at Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Taylor was a qualified senior flight instructor with 2,500 flying hours under his belt. His job that day was to lead four other Avengers, piloted by trainees with between 350-400 flight hours, on a standard navigational training run over the Atlantic. They were to participate in a mock bombing exercise, and practice how to calculate current position using predetermined coordinates. There’s a navigational term for this: “dead reckoning.”

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Lieutenant Charles Carroll Taylor

Taylor was 28 years old. He’d graduated from Naval Air Station Corpus Christi in February 1942 and had served in WWII. Photographs show him to be slim, unimposing, with languid eyes and bright white teeth. Definitely more Audie Murphy than John Wayne.

Taylor was an experienced WWII combat pilot. But he’d distinguished himself for something other than bombing Dresden: he’d ditched two planes in the ocean.

I don’t know where we are.

The Avengers left base at approximately 2:10 PM. The flight plan was to fly due east 53 miles to Hen and Chickens Shoals, unload their bombs, continue east another 67 miles, turn sharply left and fly northwest 73 miles, then turn left again and fly 120 miles southwest back to the station. A triangular pattern, not too far offshore.

The weather was a warm 67 degrees. Surface winds were 20 knots, with gusts of 30 knots. Average conditions for a training mission. But there were also scattered showers.

The low-level bombing practice at Hen and Chickens Shoals went according to plan. But at 5 PM an unidentified radio transmission was picked up at NAS. An unknown Flight 19 crew member asked U.S. Marine Captain Edward Joseph Powers, who was senior to Taylor but had less Avenger flight time, for his compass reading. Powers responded “I don’t know where we are. We must have got lost after that last turn.”

A second squadron, FT-74, had followed Flight 19 on a similar training mission that day. Lieutenant Robert F. Cox led FT-74. He requested clarification from Powers, and picked up a series of confused suggestions from Flight 19 crew members as to their exact position and flight path.

Then Taylor came on. “Both of my compasses are out,” he transmitted, “and I am trying to find Fort Lauderdale, Florida. I am over land but it’s broken.” Taylor mistakenly concluded he was over the Florida Keys. He was, in fact, hundreds of miles northeast… over the Bahamas.

By this time weather conditions had deteriorated. Heavy rain, darkness, transmission static, and radio interference from Cuba created a spiraling frustration, as evidenced by one crew member who transmitted “Dammit, if we could just fly west we would get home… head west, dammit!”

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NAS Ft. Lauderdale pilots with a TBM Avenger aircraft in back

 

FT-74 radioed NAS that Flight 19 was lost. Acting on Taylor’s assumption he was over the Keys, NAS advised him to put the sun on his port wing and fly north. Taylor did, indeed, head north. Further into the black Atlantic.

We all go down together.

A British tanker, the SS Empire Viscount, was near where Flight 19 disappeared, northeast of the Bahamas. It radioed that it was experiencing turbulent seas and billowing winds. Taylor’s last transmission was at 7:04 PM. “All planes close up tight … we’ll have to ditch unless landfall … when the first plane drops below 10 gallons, we all go down together.”

The five planes were never heard from or seen again. It’s believed they had enough fuel to remain in air till 8 PM. After that, they’d be at the mercy of the roiling ocean.

Two PBM Mariner patrol planes were dispatched to perform square pattern searches in the area west of 29 degrees N, 79 degrees W. Only one returned. A tanker, the SS Gaines Mills, testified later about seeing an explosion and a large oil slick on the water’s surface, near where the one Mariner disappeared. Like Flight 19, the missing Mariner was never found.

Altogether, 27 men died.

And the sea gave up her dead which were in it. (Revelation 20:13)

There have been attempts to locate the remains of Flight 19. So far, however, what little wreckage that’s been found has proven inconclusive. Although the navy ultimately attributed the disappearance to “cause unknown,” Lieutenant Taylor’s own mother may have influenced this decision. She accused the navy of unfairly blaming her son, basing this on a specious argument that, if no bodies or wreckage could be located, how could blame be attributed?

The mysterious disappearance of Flight 19 may never fully be explained. But it’s certain that several crucial factors contributed to six planes plunging beneath the ocean waves: bad weather, malfunctioning equipment, and most of all, human error. Flight leader Taylor clung to the notion he was over the Keys, when in fact he and his pilots had turned away from the mainland while over the Bahamas.

They landed in the center of  The Twilight Zone.

Lost Squadron

The 14 men of Flight 19

Edward Abbey: An Anarchist Who Fought the Good Fight

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In 1956 and 1957, a young, iconoclastic writer with a GI Bill education and an FBI dossier found employment as a park ranger at Arches National Monument in remote and desolate southeast Utah.  While working there, he lived alone in a trailer.  He met and conversed with tourists and a few rangers and ranchers, but he was alone for most of the time.  His solitude allowed him to do a lot of observing and thinking.  Ten years later he published a book about his time at Arches, entitled “Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness.”

I just finished reading the book.  It’s been a long time since I’ve read something as evocative and hard-hitting.  So I’m devoting this post to “Desert Solitaire” and the philosophy of Edward Abbey, who died 25 years ago Friday at age 62.

Wilderness is a necessary part of civilization and it is the primary responsibility of the national park system to preserve intact and undiminished what little still remains.

Abbey’s writings contributed to modern radical environmentalism; he was a spiritual father to both Earth First! and Greenpeace.  But he was around long before the word “environmentalist” even existed.  Blunt in his opinions, a man whose pen was both poetic and fierce, and who raged against government, the military-industrial complex, unrestrained technology, industrial tourism, and agri-business, Abbey recognized as far back as the 1950s that America was rapidly losing large chunks of pristine wilderness areas… and that desert wilderness isn’t just barren wasteland, but it possesses its own unique vibrancy, mysticism, and spirituality.

Motionless and silent (the desert) evokes in us an elusive hint of something unknown, unknowable, about to be revealed… Once caught by this golden lure, you become a prospector for life, condemned, doomed, exalted.

cartoon abbeyAbbey found grandeur everywhere he looked: in the “red-walled canyons” and “smoke-blue ranges” that stretched out hundreds of miles around him; in the constellations that provided a canopy at night; even in a lone juniper tree that grew outside his trailer.  He was one of the last humans to raft the Utah stretch of Colorado River before “bureaucrats” and “pencil-pushers” erected Glen Canyon Dam so that motorboats could buzz over what used to be ancient grottos, natural tunnels, emerald pools, and the pictographs and petroglyphs of mysterious, indigenous societies of long ago.

Half the beauty of Rainbow Bridge lay in its remoteness, its relative difficulty of access, and in the wilderness surrounding it, of which it is an integral part.  When these aspects are removed the Bridge will be no more than an isolated geological oddity, an extension of that museumlike diorama to which industrial tourism tends to reduce the natural world.

solitaireAt the end of “Desert Solitaire,” Abbey talks about meeting a park visitor who accuses him of being opposed to civilization, science, and humanity (familiar accusations levied at those of us who feel wilderness should exist on its own terms, and not on man’s terms).

We were not communicating very well.  All night long we thrashed the matter out, burning up half a pinyon pine in the process… With his help I discovered I was not opposed to mankind, but only to man-centeredness, anthropocentricity, the opinion that the world exists solely for the sake of man; not to science, which means simply knowledge, but to science misapplied, to the worship of technique and technology; and not to civilization but to culture.

Regarding the difference between civilization and culture, Abbey offers some analogies:

Civilization is Jesus turning water into wine; culture is Christ walking on the waves;

Civilization is a youth with a Molotov cocktail in his hand; culture is the Soviet tank or the L.A. cop that guns him down;

Civilization is the wild river; culture, 592,000 tons of cement.

(Ed. note: regarding the second quote above, longitudes does NOT endorse acts of terrorism against living things)

There are many sections of “Desert Solitaire” that left me with my mouth agape.   I was astonished at the John Muir-like care and detail that Abbey took when discussing desert flora and fauna; what he termed the “rare furtive creatures of incredible hardiness and cunning,” and “weird mutants from the plant kingdom, most of them as spiny, thorny, stunted and twisted as they are tenacious.”

__________________________

After burning up those pine logs and parting with his tourist friend, Abbey says the man disappeared from Arches sometime before the following evening.  But he did leave “a forged signature in the registration book which wouldn’t have fooled anybody – J. Prometheus Birdsong.  He won’t be back.”

Then Abbey closes the chapter:

“But don’t get discouraged, comrades – Christ failed too.”

Although Abbey may have sent this tourist packing with tail tucked between legs, I wonder how quickly the guy returned to his job in the city – emboldened with blueprint dreams of monolithic dams and soulless asphalt thoroughfares.

Regrettably, comrades, many are the J. Prometheus Birdsongs in this world.

desert

A Best Friend’s Unconditional Love

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(I submitted this essay to the NPR series This I Believe several years ago, after our dog Brownie died.  Anyone who’s lost a beloved pet knows how difficult it can be)

 

I open the front door and step onto the tiled hallway floor.  I grasp the brass doorknob of the coat closet, turn the handle, then reach in and shuffle the hooks on the coat rack.  Before draping my jacket over the wire, I hear a flurry of rapid clicking sounds on the porcelain.  By the time I hang my jacket, he’s lunging at my waist, panting heavily, gaping jowls and eyes afire.

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While he was alive, I never thought of Brownie as being my best friend.  He was the one, more than anyone else, who anticipated my arrival home. Sometimes, instead of accosting me at the coat closet, he’d rush into the den, and I’d hear his big paws thumping the carpet, in joyful harmony with the sound of his favorite squeaky toy.  Happy because I’d finally returned.

Brownie and I both loved to run, and he treated every evening jog like an exotic vacation. There were all sorts of smells to be investigated, squirrels to be corralled, fenced-in dogs to strut in front of, shrubs and street signs to be marked. As we approached home, I always felt refreshed, but also relieved that my exercise was over. I’m not sure how Brownie felt. But I have a feeling he’d delay even his evening meal to do it all over again.

One often hears the expression “unconditional love.” I believe that phrase was coined over a dog. Yes, children too offer love without condition. But eventually they mature, lose their innocence, and often grow distant. One time my temper got the best of me after Brownie became, shall we say, “casual” with the carpet. He patiently tolerated my yelling until I made the mistake of grabbing his neck fur. Then, only in defense, he let me have it (I still bear the scarlet letter, on my right palm). But only seconds later, he was nudging up to me, pleading for my love and forgiveness.

Brownie was an Australian Shepherd, or “Aussie.” This breed is very family-oriented and protective. Brownie was happiest when the whole family was together. He expressed his contentment by laying at the nucleus of our little circle in the den and licking the carpet. “Brownie, stop licking the carpet!” my wife would scold. It didn’t bother me. Perhaps this was his way of licking all of us at the same time.

We didn’t know Brownie had cancer until it was far advanced. One evening I led him out the front door on his leash.  But this time he didn’t prance in front of me.  The leash suddenly became taut.  I turned around, and saw Brownie sitting like a lump on the front walk.  Something was wrong.  “I’m leaving Brownie inside tonight,” I yelled inside to Lynn.  “I don’t think he feels good.”  As I walked down the driveway, Brownie gazed after me through the glass, his fluffy ears upright as if to say “Why aren’t you taking me with you?”  I walked slowly until I was outside his range of vision.  Only then did I start to run. When I returned home, he was waiting for me by the driveway.  While I stretched my legs on the grass, he ambled over to me, his head lowered. The vet later said that the moisture under his eyes was probably caused by a fever. But I don’t know.

So now I’ll be running alone. I knew this day would come.  But, as when a close family member dies, I never expected it to hurt so much. My partner, my compatriot – my best friend – is gone.

I believe that, even though I didn’t know it when he was alive, Brownie knew he was my best friend. That thin little pink line on my right palm reminds me. Strangely, the scar doesn’t elicit a bad memory. The brief anger I felt toward my friend – a very human moment of weakness – was obliterated by what transpired immediately afterwards.  Something far more powerful: Brownie’s unconditional love and forgiveness.

Canine Madonna

Ladies and Gentlemen, THE BEATLES! Let’s Bring ‘em Out!

50 years

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U.S. Press: Are you embarrassed by the lunacy you cause?

John: No, it’s great.

Paul: No.

Ringo: Marvelous.

George: (giggling) We love it.

John: We like lunatics.

Thus started the first of many U.S. press conferences for the Beatles.  John’s witty remark “We like lunatics” was typical of the cheeky humor the band used to win over so many Americans, both young and old.  But the humor wasn’t necessarily strategic.  Although different personalities, all four really were fun-loving and outgoing, and excited as can be to be in the home country of their rock ‘n’ roll idols.  And throughout their career, they never let success get to their heads (just a few illicit drugs, that’s all).

The stamp of approval in middle America came when Ed Sullivan introduced them on Sunday night to a then-record setting 73 million television viewers.  Sullivan was respected and admired around the country.  If someone of his age and stature could showcase four long-haired English musicians with their amps cranked… well, they must be alright!beatles6

Before Sullivan could even finish his introduction, he was drowned out by the screams of the New York studio audience (their biggest fans, at least in the beginning, were 94.3 percent young and female).  Those of us watching on TV at home were transfixed.  Finally, we get to see them.  And they’re more exciting than we’d anticipated.  Dressed in tight-fitting, matching suits.  Paul beaming and bobbing.  George a little nervous, but harmonizing with Paul (he was actually recovering from the flu).  John stoic and in command.  And Ringo sitting high in the back, tossing his mop of hair to the beat.

The first song was “All My Loving.”  Next came “Till There Was You,” a tune from “The Music Man,” and which further endeared them to parents.  Then “She Loves You.”  Later in the show they did “I Saw Her Standing There,” and closed with their No. 1 hit, “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”

The Beatles’ first live appearance in America was an unequivocal smash.  A week later they did a second show in Miami Beach, where they posed with another cultural icon,  Cassius Clay (Muhammed Ali), who was training for a fight with heavyweight champion Sonny Liston.  A third show was aired on February 23 (though it was actually taped early in the day of their February 9 show).

***

A lot of people, primarily of the World War II generation, considered the Beatles a fad.  How could four kids from Liverpool with a fan base of fainting girls sustain any kind of artistic credibility?  The naysayers can’t be faulted too much, though.  Musical fads were around going back to the 1920’s and the Charlston, and they happen today every few years.

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But the Beatles had sustainability because they wrote their own music, it was pioneering, ever-changing and had popular appeal, and they wrote a lot of it.  And, they had a visionary leader in John Lennon (and producer in George Martin).  Their appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” sent a shock wave throughout music and popular culture that continues to this day.  Folkies like Bob Dylan and the Byrds suddenly bought electric guitars.  Leonard Bernstein started dissecting their musical structures.  And thousands of kids across America started garage bands to emulate the British musicians that, after February 9, 1963, U.S. record companies were signing to contracts right and left.  Here are just a few of the musicians who followed the Beatles to American shores in the “First British Invasion”:

  • The Rolling Stones
  • The Kinks
  • The Who
  • Petula Clark
  • Gerry and the Pacemakers
  • Herman’s Hermits
  • The Yardbirds
  • Dusty Springfield
  • Peter and Gordon
  • The Small Faces
  • The Troggs
  • The Zombies
  • Tom Jones
  • Chad and Jeremy
  • The Moody Blues
  • The Spencer Davis Group
  • Van Morrison and Them
  • The Animals
  • Lulu
  • Dave Clark Five
  • Donovan
  • Georgie Fame
  • The Hollies

***

I hope you’ve enjoyed this three-part 50th anniversary tribute to the Beatles as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it (and reliving my childhood).  If you don’t have any Beatles records (hard to believe, but I guess it’s  possible), I urge you to treat yourself to some great music.  The Beatles are one of only a few artists whose music can be said to be “timeless.”  They appeal to all genders, ages, cultures, socio-economic classes.  The one message they stressed over and over was Love.  That’s really what it’s all about.

And in the end

The love you take

Is equal to the love you make.

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How a Teenage Girl from Maryland Helped Launch the Beatles in America

50 years

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The term “Beatlemania” was being tossed around in the United Kingdom several months before February 9, 1964. The Liverpool lads already had hits in their homeland, starting with “Please Please Me” from a year earlier (see Beatles’ “Please Please Me” Single Released).  They’d released two albums, the first named after their debut single, the second titled “With the Beatles” (“Meet the Beatles” in the U.S.).  They’d performed tirelessly in Hamburg, Paris, Sweden, Scotland, Wales, and all over England (two of their tours included American singers Roy Orbison and Tommy Roe).  They’d appeared on English regional television and the BBC.

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Brian Epstein, manager of the Beatles

On October 31, 1963, Ed Sullivan was at London’s Heathrow Airport when the Beatles returned from their Swedish tour.  He witnessed firsthand the swirling circus – earnest journalists with their stencil pads, dozens of flashbulbs popping, hundreds of shrieking, prepubescent girls.  Sullivan later claimed he hadn’t seen such hysteria since Elvis.  He contacted Beatles manager Brian Epstein, and the two worked out a deal for three headline appearances on Sullivan’s show.

The U.S. frenzy over the Beatles started like a slow-moving freight train in December 1963.  First, the “New York Times” printed a Sunday feature article on the band.  Next, a London news bureau offered a piece on the Beatles to Walter Cronkite, who aired an in-depth profile on the “CBS Evening News” on December 10 (and received an immediate phone call from his buddy, Sullivan).  Most importantly, genius manager Brian Epstein launched a $40,000 media campaign in the U.S.  It included heavy radio rotation for the recent English hits “She Loves You” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” then a U.S. re-release of “Please Please Me.”

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WWDC-AM disc jockey Carroll James, with fan Marsha Albert (later photo)

But here’s an interesting footnote: a 15-year-old girl named Marsha Albert, from Silver Spring, Maryland, helped kick-start the radio blitz.  She’d seen the Cronkite broadcast, and wrote Washington D.C. disc jockey Carroll James with words to the effect “Why can’t we have music like that in America?”  James was impressed by the letter.  He secured an import copy of “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” then let Albert herself introduce the record.

Ten years before, Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips played a record, “That’s All Right (Mama),” by an unknown truck driver named Elvis Presley.  It ignited the first wave of rock ‘n’ roll.  Well, the same thing happened now.  Before long, WWDC phone lines were lighting up.  “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was soon a hit in greater Washington D.C.  Then other U.S. stations took the cue.  Then Capitol Records lifted an eyebrow.  They rush-released “I Want to Hold Your Hand” on December 26, three weeks ahead of schedule.  The song was all over the radio throughout January ‘64, and on February 1 it was the No. 1 single in the country.  The freight train was now out of control.

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Paul McCartney and John Lennon

(Personal note: a very hip girl in my kindergarten class named Dana Moriarty brought the record in for Show-and-Tell.  After so many sing-alongs of “My Country Tis of Thee” and “This Land is Your Land,” this amazing new Beatles sound was revolutionary to our 5-year-old ears.  Wherever you are, Dana… I am forever in your debt)

And that’s why 5,000 fans invaded JFK airport on February 7 to greet four “mop-topped” boys from merry olde England, who looked like cheerful aliens, but blended melody, harmony, rhythm and electricity like nobody before.  After the JFK assassination, a dreary nuclear Cold War… and Pat Boone… Americans wanted an upbeat, refreshing diversion.  The Beatles provided it.  All the band needed now was the proper venue to push them over the top.  And “The Ed Sullivan Show” provided that.

Ladies and gentlemen, stay tuned for a “Really Big Shoooo!”

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