Thursday, December 08, 2005

A look back at the night John Lennon died

Can it really be 25 years since that awful night that John Lennon died?

We remember it so well. It was a Monday but we weren't at home watching Monday Night Football, so we didn't hear the Howard Cosell call. Most Monday nights we could be found in the newsroom, at the editor's desk, punching up the AP wire on the computer (what a piece of junk that thing was compared with today), and waiting for reporters to check in from their various assignments. Clattering away around the corner was the wire printout, which we kept mainly as a backup in case the computer failed, which it did with some regularity.

Can't even tell you what the big local stories (or even the national ones) were that night. Not after the wire printout hiccupped and the bell rang. Curious, we read the printed words as they crept out from behind the machine's housing. John Lennon had been shot outside the Dakota Apartments, it said. John Lennon was pronounced dead at New York's Roosevelt hospital.

What had been a pleasant evening turned into a gloomy watch. We turned the radio on, hoping for more details, but the wire was quicker than the radio reports that night, for some reason. We kept hoping against hope that there was a mistake. Someone else who looked like John, perhaps. A hoax.

The radio began playing one of the new songs off John's latest album, "Double Fantasy." "Starting Over." A hopeful song with its throwback '50s rock n' roll structure, now a bittersweet soundtrack to hope betrayed by a madman with an itch to make his mark on the world. The waste.

And then it occurred to us, like it occurs to so many people when someone dies and we begin thinking of our own selfish needs, that the dream was dead. The dream that the Beatles would put aside their differences, get back together, record a few tracks. Give us one more taste of the mania and the magic.

Not starting over at all, we realized. Just over.

And we wept. Not rend your shirt, tears cascading weeping, but the kind of weeping where your eyes fill up and turn red, and your voice chokes if you try to talk, so you look away and don't say anything and your heart is twenty pounds heavier than normal. The kind of sadness where the anger is just below the surface somewhere and you'd like to be alone with that crazy SOB who shot him, just for a few minutes.

Then you feel shame and the need to offer a prayer for John's soul, and for those closest to him; his sons, his friends. You even pray for Yoko, and that's stretching your religion but you do it anyway 'cause it's the right thing to do.

Then the editor part of your brain regains control and you begin thinking of what you are going to say in tomorrow's edition, the one you've been working on already. A redesign of Page One is in your head but you don't have the artwork you need. So you call home and have your Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album brought over because you're going to take it back to the press prep guys and have them copy John. Just John. It's a cool pose, even if it's not recent, and it's one of your favorites.

And thus you have a project to keep you going for awhile, a mission that allows you to become a part of the event, a contributor to the tribute to an old friend you never met but even at 1,500 miles felt a kinship. A mission that lets you feel like a part of the the group planning a candlelight vigil outside the Dakota.

And the next day you put out the Tuesday edition, and time passes on.

Since the era of modern communications began there have been a few gut check moments when we all got the news together: The assassination of JFK, the Challenger shuttle disaster, 9/11. Most of them changed something essential in the way we go about living. John's death was different. He had already help change the way we thought about music and pop culture. His death reminded us that we had to grow up and accept the fact that the world wasn't a big playground. It's full of people who aren't all that nice, and we owe it to our loved ones to protect them and enjoy their company while we can. John had learned the lesson himself, after five years of seclusion with his newborn son, Sean. He was trying to tell us with his new record. Mark David Chapman put an exclamation point on it.

Over the years we wondered what would happen to the soul of a man who once boasted that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus, and who wrote lyrics that imagined "there was no heaven ... no hell below us ... and no religion too." Not to say that we lost a lot of sleep over it, but John seemed like such a nice guy at heart, with maybe a bit of a temper at times, who had trouble suffering with fools but who had learned a lot in his domestic years about accepting himself and others.

Recently we read a book called "Get Us Out of Here," which features an extended interview with the late Maria Simma, an Austrian woman who for God only knows why had the gift of being able to converse with the souls of those in Purgatory. It's a fascinating read. Most Protestants do not accept the idea of a way station to heaven, but Catholics believe that it is often a necessary step for a cleansing of the soul before entering into the pure (holy) realms of the Living God.

Maria was not a medium, by the way. She did not seek out contact with the spirits of the dead, a practice which is forbidden by the Church (and by scripture). Instead, the souls of the dead in purgatory would seek her out at times of their choosing. In making their requests known to her, usually involving the seeking of prayer on their behalf from relatives, they would occasionally impart small bits of information about others who had gone on from Purgatory.

One of those souls that was now in Heaven, she was once told, was John Lennon. (Unfamiliar with most popular culture, she actually had to ask someone to find out how famous John was.) Maria says she was told that the murderer (Chapman) was suffering from demonic possession at the time of the shooting, and was relieved of his condition while in jail through an exorcism. Lennon, who had little religious training while growing up, was still a man who sought to see the good in his fellow human beings, and was the recipient, after his death, of countless prayers. God listened and had mercy.

We take great comfort in reading that. If John Lennon can make it to heaven, there's hope for the rest of us.


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