A Last Game of Catch

“How would you like to meet a former major league ballplayer?” my great Uncle Herman asked me one morning in July, 1967, when I was visiting him in his hometown of Saranac Lake, New York.

“Really, Uncle Hermie? That would be wicked cool!” I screeched to him in my preadolescent, Bostonese vernacular. Twelve years old at that time, I lived for the game of baseball, and my Northern New York relative, a retired local postman, knew it.

“Well, my friend hears that you’ve got a pretty good left arm for someone your age, and he’d like to meet you as well!” My eyes became two Europas when Uncle Hermie announced, “Come on, Shaunie, let’s get into my car and go over to greet Mr. Larry Doyle! And remember to bring your baseball mitt!”

Lawrence Joseph Doyle, a celebrated player for the old New York Giants, was nearly eighty-two years old at the time when I first saw him waiting calmly for me on his front porch not far from Saranac Lake itself. During our drive over to his friend’s modest bungalow, Uncle Hermie explained to me on the drive over that Larry Doyle had played in the big leagues for thirteen years, from 1907 to1920 and was considered the finest second baseman in the National League during the nineteen-teens. He had such apparent people skills that legendary Manager John McGraw made Doyle the Giants’ captain in just his second year in the majors. In Uncle Hermie’s edition of Baseball’s Book of Quotations, Larry Doyle had a solitary entry, which seemed to encapsulate his ebullient personality: “It’s great to be young – and a Giant!”

His blue eyes, the color of the North Atlantic, brightened visibly when I finally alighted onto his rickety front porch. As I approached the former big leagues baseball star, Larry Doyle ambled up from his rocking chair, held out his beefy right hand, and said, “So this is the ballplayer you’ve been talking to me about, Hermie!” Despite his somewhat arthritic hands, his handshake was firm, sustained, and authentic.

When I informed him that my name was Shaun Kelly, Mr. Doyle began to giggle. “We have more in common than I thought!” His laughter brought on a cough, a rasping shrill sound that echoed off the porch and caused the spidery hanging plant that hung between us to quiver. “Excuse me, Shaun; my cough sometimes sounds like one of the old Pennsy trains we’d take to play the Cardinals in St. Louis. Yep, you can hear it for miles!”

On the drive over to Mr. Doyle’s house, Uncle Hermie had explained to me in his quaint, long-about way, how Larry Doyle, a native of the Midwest, had ended up residing in the clutches of the Adirondack Mountains for quarter of a century. The old Giants’ captain had been the legendary Christy Mathewson’s longtime roommate and had loved “Matty” like a brother. During heroic service to his country in The Great War, “Mathewson, baseball’s first genuine superstar, had contracted tuberculosis in 1918 after being gassed in a trench attack in France. Matty had come to Saranac Lake after the war to recover at the internationally renowned Trudeau Sanitarium, which had been opened in 1884 as a long term-care hospital for tuberculosis patients.

The founder of the sanitarium, Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau, became friends with my great grandparents, who were local residents. My great-grandfather, Walter Rice, had even helped Dr. Trudeau run the sanitarium in the early years. Ironically, Larry Doyle eventually contracted TB in 1942. His old Giants roommate, Christy Mathewson, had succumbed to it in 1925, but Laughing Larry had stubbornly fought the disease for twenty-five years by the time I had I met him. Although the Trudeau Sanitarium closed down in 1954, Mr. Doyle still made Saranac Lake his home. For over a decade, he had been residing in a little abode near the town’s center, overlooking the famed lake itself.

When I informed the former Giants’ second baseman that my middle name, Livingston, was in honor of Dr. Trudeau, Mr. Doyle’s eyes shone like a beacon. “You are carrying the namesake of a genuine hero, Shaun. Yes, people like Matty and me brought joy to many people by playing baseball well, but what Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau did for people in our society was so much more.”

Over the next thirty minutes, Mr. Doyle reminisced about his playing days, rocking back and forth in his chair as I listened intently. His eyes twinkled when he recalled that…“if you hit the ball high up in the air towards centerfield at the Polo Grounds, it was most assuredly an out. That darn fence out there was at the 483-foot mark – and this was in the dead ball era! Let’s say that I learned to go pull the ball down the rightfield line or go with the pitch to left.”

He recalled the legendary brusque John McGraw, who was, in reality, a deeply sensitive, misunderstood man. “Our old Giants’ manager would come up to Saranac and hold Matty’s hand for hours when Matty lay dying at the sanitarium. Old John McGraw would be caring but resolute when he was with Matty, but as soon as he left the room, he would sob like a baby.”

Because Larry Doyle knew that I was a passionate Red Sox fan, he recollected his experiences playing in the 1912 World Series, which Boston won on two errors by the Giants Fred Snodgrass and Fred Merkle at the newly constructed Fenway Park. “That was the hardest loss any of us ever experienced,” he recalled, “but you move on. You have to in life.” He then added with a laugh, “Wouldn’t you know that when I retired from the Giants in 1920, they proceeded to win the next two World Series! I guess that says something about me!”

After a spell, Mr. Doyle said he wanted to stretch a bit, but before we began a short walk together, he scurried inside his dwelling and brought out a threadbare baseball mitt with him. He then steered us out back to an expansive lawn that was shared with a gaggle of other neighbors, each of whom checked on him daily. In the golden sunshine of Northern New York, with the indigo waters of Saranac shimmering in the background, Mr. Doyle then patted me on the back. “I’m glad to see that you brought your baseball glove with you, Shaun, because I think I have one more game of catch in me, and I want it to be with you.”

He smiled at me and then pointed to a patch of grass about sixty feet from where he was standing. I walked slowly to the designated spot, turned around, and noticed that he had placed his own ancient glove on his left hand. “Okay, Son, fire away! I might be old, but I still have a little left!” he said reassuringly.

When I commenced throwing an official Little League baseball to him that I had brought with me, he laughed heartily, “Well, it’s good to see that you’re a southpaw like the old Bambino!”

While we continued to effortless toss the baseball back and forth, Mr. Doyle recalled: “You know, Shaun, I played catch with many of the greats because a lot of us used to barnstorm together in the South and the West after the season was over. Of course, I regularly played catch with Christy Mathewson, but I was fortunate to also toss a few with such legends as Shoeless Joe Jackson; Homerun Baker; Tris Speaker; Cy Young, Ty Cobb – even a young Babe Ruth.”

Mr. Doyle then showed be how he used to flip the ball to Giants shortstop Art Fletcher to start a double play. He then imitated Fletcher’s throw to first, which I caught with an elongated stretch. “And there’s a 4-6-3 in the books!” Mr. Doyle bellowed. “You’re catching a ball with some ghosts today, Son!” he chuckled.

Of course, Mr. Doyle was right. Here I was playing catch with a person who had first thrown a baseball back in 1892. Almost as if he was reading my mind, Mr. Doyle chirped. “You know, Shaun, I used to play catch with one of our neighbors back in my hometown of Caseyville, Illinois, and he was a proud Civil War veteran who began playing ball in the 1850s!”

For the next forty or fifty tosses, neither of us made a bad throw. It was almost as if the specters that guided our throws were making sure that in a rare perfect moment, errors were nonexistent

When we put down our gloves a few minutes later – Mr. Doyle being tired and winded from the exercise – I thanked him profusely and informed him that playing catch with him had been one of the greatest honors of my life. “Well, Shaun, thank you, but really, the pleasure has been all mine.” He rubbed my left arm and exclaimed, “You’ve got some talent, Son. Keep at it.”

“Yes, Sir, I promise!” I exclaimed as we strolled back to his porch before saying our goodbyes.

Laughing Larry Doyle died seven years later at the age of 88. According to a weathered yellow copy of the local newspaper, all of Saranac Lake wept. By that time, I was pitching for the Jacksonville University Dolphins. After my collegiate playing days had ended, I  coached baseball for  forty years and played catch with literally hundreds of boys and a few girls along with the way.

Every spring, when the wind blows in from the Long Island Sound, and the sun glistens like a jewel in the splendor of the grass, I tell my players about the time I played the last game of catch with a legendary second baseman for the old New York Giants, and how I plan to do the same thing down the road when the time is right.

These days, if you should saunter into my classroom, you will notice that on the shelf behind my classroom desk lies a tattered baseball glove. A hazel-colored Wilson A-2002. It had so much usage over the year that there is now a hole the size of a quarter in its center. Of course, it is my glove, the one I first wore as a senior high school first baseman and reliever in Wellesley, Massachusetts; and then as a pitcher for the Jacksonville University Dolphins. As the years passed, I used it when I played in the outfield in the Wellesley Fast Pitch Softball League; as a starting pitcher for the Cobham Yankees of the England (UK) Baseball Association; as a veteran reliever in the Boston Park League; and as a utilityman for the Greenwich Indians of the Greater New York City Men’s League.

An ivory-colored baseball from the Cape Cod Baseball League is nestled inside my mitt, a ball which was given to me after I was asked to throw out the first pitch in a game between Orleans and Chatham in August, 2005.

In the mystic fog of the future, when I play that last game of catch, it will be with that glove and with that ball.

When that time arrives, I will then share with that boy or girl what the great Larry Doyle told me just after I caught the last ball he would ever throw on earth. “As my father and neighbors passed the game onto me, I am passing the game onto you. After all, the game endures – even if we don’t.”



I’m The Guy Who Pulled You Out of the Cocoanut Grove Fire

“Given what he experienced in the South Pacific, it’s best that you not ask your father anything about the war,” my mother frequently reminded me over the years. She said it with such solemnity that I kept my mouth shut, even when we watched World War II documentaries together on television.       

Thus, when Channel 5, WCVB Boston, advertised an upcoming special on the fortieth anniversary of the infamous Cocoanut Grove fire in 1982, I was stunned when Dad turned to me and blurted, “Did I ever tell you the incredible story I heard on the USS John C. Fremont?” When I shook my head, no, Dad continued, “At the time, I was on the amphibious transport ship in the South Pacific in October 1944 when I heard it. Here we were off the coast of the Philippines, and all I could think about was Cocoanut Grove nightclub in Boston.”

When I shot him a baffled look, he exclaimed, “I’ll get to how the Fremont and the Cocoanut Grove connected in a moment, but you do know about the fire, right?”

“Yes, Dad, I read a long piece about it years ago in The Globe. How nearly 500 patrons perished in less than seven minutes while hundreds more were gravely injured. If I remember correctly a sailor had removed a light bulb in order to kiss his date, and a young bus boy dropped the original light bulb, and it smashed on the floor. The poor kid then used his lighter to screw in a replacement, but the ceiling material was highly inflammable, and it caught fire immediately. Most of the dead died of smoke inhalation.”

My father nodded as I repeated the story to him. “You’ve got the details right for the most part,” he replied. “We lost 10,000 men from the Commonwealth in World War II. Incredibly, we lost 1/20th of that number in less than ten minutes in the safest street in Boston in 1942. It makes you wonder.”

When I shot him an astonished glance, he switched gears and began to reminisce: “Your mother and I regularly patronized the Coconut Grove once she was old enough to drink legally. Oh, yes, we saw Tommy Dorsey and an impossibly young Frank Sinatra at the Grove in 1940. We danced to Artie Shaw, Sammy Kaye, and Glenn Miller there. The Cocoanut Grove was the preeminent nightclub in Boston in our day. Except for the Totem Pole in Norumbega Park in Auburndale, it was our favorite hangout as a young couple.”

“Where was the Cocoanut Grove located?” I asked.

“In the Bay Village section of Boston on Piedmont Street off of Stuart – a couple of blocks south of the Common,” my father responded.

“So what does this have to do with the USS Fremont, Dad? I mean you implied that two years later – and thousands of miles away – that you were somehow confronted with the Cocoanut Grove fire once again!”

“Well, here is where it gets really interesting!” he laughed. “We were heading for what would become the largest naval battle in World War II – the Battle of Leyte Gulf – and our ship included a number of journalists who were covering the war for various US newspapers. I was at the Officers’ Club one afternoon and heard a patron with an unmistakable New England accent ordering a drink at the bar. I introduced myself, and the gentleman said his name was Marty Sheridan and that he was a reporter for The Boston Globe! Needless to say, we were both delighted to meet one another so far away from home.”

My father paused and glanced out our den window and then continued.  “As I got closer to him, however, I became very curious because he was wearing white gloves. He was a civilian, it was hot, and there was no reason for him to be wearing protective gloves on a simmering tropical day.”

Dad then recollected the gist of a conversation he had had with the young reporter thirty-eight years previously. “Marty could sense that I was appraising him. He gulped down a gin-and-tonic and said, ‘I nearly died at the Cocoanut Grove. My hands were almost burned to the bone.’”

The Globe reporter then described going to the nightclub nearly two years previously – it was during the evening of November 28, 1942 – and Sheridan, then a freelance writer and public relations man, was at the club with renowned cowboy star Buck Jones, whom he had accompanied to Boston that weekend on a war bonds’ tour. Sheridan’s young wife, Connie, was with him when the fire started in the Melody Lounge. The couple and Buck Jones tried to bolt from the building, but they all collapsed on the floor after inhaling a veil of toxic fumes and smoke. Later that evening, Buck Jones, Marty Sheridan, and his wife, were listed among the dead.

In the Officers’ Club of the John C Fremont, The Globe journalist then recounted, “I could hear people moaning, the sound of breaking glass; the sound of water running. I was shaking. I lay there … then someone half-dragged and half-walked me out. I then felt somebody pull me to my feet and put me in a cab outside. This mysterious and obviously heroic individual literally saved my life, and I never discovered who he was. He disappeared in the smoke – probably to help others in the Grove. When the driver asked me where I wanted to go, I said, ‘Mass General.’ Fortunately, I knew they had a new burn unit there because I’d done a story about it.”    

Marty Sheridan then told my father that Buck Jones and his wife, Connie, perished from smoke inhalation that night, but that Sheridan spent the next two months at Mass General – and another four months receiving skin grafts for burns on his hands. Because of his extensive injuries, he was physically ineligible to enlist in the military. Eventually, he was hired by The Globe as a war correspondent. In the summer of 1944, Marty Sheridan was sent to cover the war in the South Pacific.

“I looked at Marty and informed him that my brother, your Uncle Joe Kelly, was a doctor on call that night at Mass Eye and Ear and that perhaps he had treated him when he arrived at Mass General a little before midnight!” my father recalled.

“Marty smiled, and said, ‘Small world, Lieutenant Commander!”

Dad then looked at me and added playfully, “Of course, a day later, we would find out how small it could truly be.”

I asked Dad what happened to make a somewhat implausible story even more incredible.

“Well, that’s when this tale gets very eerie. Twenty-four hours later, Marty Sheridan stumbled into the Officers’ Club seemingly in shock. I instantly asked him what had just happened.”

“’You won’t believe it, Commander,’ replied Marty. “I was interviewing a few of the boys on your ship for the paper,” Sheridan said, “when an electrician’s mate, first class, named Howard Sotherden, who said that he was from Rhode Island, asked me if I was Martin Sheridan from Boston. When I replied that I was, he said, ‘Well, Sir, I’m the sailor who pulled you out of the Cocoanut Grove fire!”

When Marty Sheridan recounted the tale to him, my father shook his head and said, “Jesus, Marty.” Sheridan then told Dad that he was going to write about it for The Globe. “That will be one hell of a story,” my father said to him.

A day later, Sheridan composed his piece that eventually ended up being circulated in almost every major paper in the country. From a cubicle in the Officers’ Club on the USS Fremont, Marty Sheridan wrote: “I was stunned beyond any words to describe it. Here in the Pacific, nine thousand miles from home, I have suddenly found the man who saved my life.”

A few days after Dad told me this improbable story, we viewed the special on the Cocoanut Grove fire together in our family den in Wellesley. We learned that Marty Sheridan made sure that when he returned from the war that he donated blood regularly until he had given back all that he had received while being treated at Mass General. The tragedy that he experienced was so galvanizing to him that Sheridan only wrote about once after his surreal rendezvous with Howard Sotherden. In an article he composed for The Boston Globe, which commemorated the fifteenth anniversary of the fire, Marty Sheridan wrote, “I shall never forget the screams and cries of the trapped, the crash and clatter of overturning tables and chairs, the smashing of dishes and glasses.”

Both Howard Sotherden and Marty Sheridan outlived my father – who died in 1986 – by more than a decade. A few years after Marty Sheridan passed in 2004, his daughter, Meg, informed readers at a Cocoanut Grove website that her father and Howard Sotherden “stayed in touch for the rest of their lives. My father saw to it that he was given a medal for valor for his actions at the Cocoanut Grove that night. He pulled several victims out before he went back one last time and found Dad.”

In the end, Marty Sheridan, who could have perished at twenty-eight but instead died at eighty-nine, learned firsthand that when things are at our worst, people are usually at their best.


Liz Conquers Fear

A longtime friend admitted me recently, “I wake up at night consumed in mind-numbing terror. It wraps me up like up like a quilt and refuses to let go. I am now in my sixties, and while I am in perfect health and could live another thirty years or more, too many contemporaries have died over the years for me to ignore death anymore. The finality of it brings peace to many, but to me it is the great unknown.”

She continued, “My heart begins to beat, my hands quiver, and I stare into the night with my eyes wide open.”

“Is there anything you do to combat such dread?” I inquire.

“Yes,” she chortled, ” I started letting my dog started sleeping with me! However, the funniest thing started to happen after that. Occasionally, I’d wake up and see my dog sitting there on my bed, his eyes wide open, and I know that he’s been thinking the same thing!”

When I told our mutual friend, Liz, about it, she responded that “fear doesn’t shut you down; it actually wakes you up.”

I’ve known Liz for more than fifty years, and I innately know that she’d understand. After all, she’s a master teacher, a world-class mother, and an unpretentious lover of life. Not surprisingly, Liz’s emotional IQ is off-the-charts. Despite the fact that she’s a profoundly deep thinker, her self-effacing humor has always framed her.

Typically, Liz processed it and then responded: “Think about all of the students you and I have taught over the years, Shaun – fear is what defines them. They might fear anything from math to failure. For some pupils, it motivates them to greatness. For others, however, fear can morph into an emotional Jersey barrier. It’s our job to have them acknowledge it – and then have them move on somehow.”

As someone who always admired Liz’s sagacity and quietude, I then ask, “You’ve had fears in your life, haven’t you?”

“My Dear!” she guffaws, “I have had more than I could count! For years, my fears defined me, kept me in my place – consumed me to such an extent that I was stuck in neutral. Oh, yes, Shaun, fear and I have known each other very well over the years!”

For as long as I can remember, Liz has always been a high achiever. She was in the top academic levels at our local junior and senior high schools in Wellesley, Massachusetts; she excelled in college, and eventually became a revered elementary school teacher who was beloved by both the children and the parents of Stratham, New Hampshire. Liz’s enduring esprit de corps is such that she essentially organized the last two reunions our high school class has had. Her passion for reading, music and travel has long appealed to her sense of creativity. When she scolded me for not taking a vacation outside of New England for more than a decade, Liz bellowed, “I have known you for almost fifty years, Shaun! It’s time for you to live life for the moment because everything else is, at most, an uncertainty!”

When I remind her that she and I are in the giving business as teachers, Liz scolds me. “You need to start giving to yourself as well! However, it shouldn’t be some kind of temporary piece of cake, but something that will open your eyes beyond your little classroom!”

I nod and take it all in. Coming from Liz, I realize that she’s looking out for me. She’s like that – and that’s why I’ve routinely turned to her over the years. “We knew each other when we had pimples for God’s sake,” Liz cries. “Now we have wrinkles. We’ve been around the same block – and back!.”

Not surprisingly, Liz and I customarily communicate without the presence of any period at the end of a sentence. For us, there’s never been much of an introduction or a preamble. I might receive a simple, “Did you see that?” from her after a presidential debate, a Red Sox game, or a newsflash.

Consequently, when the subject of fear came up a few years ago, I knew that Liz would deal with it scrupulously. She did not disappoint: “To rid yourself of fear, you can’t avoid it; you have to go right through it. Our friend you mentioned is terrified of death – who isn’t – but if you look at life as a cycle similar to the seasons, it all makes sense. What frightens most people is that they don’t know how long that sequence will be. It would be much more convenient if we all lived for a hundred years. But no one knows when they’re winter will come. Thus, the fear. Ultimately, you have to acknowledge it and then move on. You can’t let it control your life – or it will. Instead, you need to drive your own bus – and not let it drive you into a ditch.”

Music, literature, and sports have often provided us with a constant flow of communication back and forth. For instance, we’ve long been fascinated by what the other person has been reading. In recent years, Liz has become increasingly obsessed with young adult fiction, and, as a result, I eventually began reading books by John Boyne, Jodi Picoult, John Green, and Suzanne Collins. When I read Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale last April and posted it on Goodreads, Liz contacted me and asked, “Is it as good as they say it is?”

“Yes,” I replied.

She began reading it that weekend.

We also made a handful of music CD’s for each other, especially during our summer vacations. She began the last one she sent me with Jeff Buckley’s incomparable rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” In a brief explanatory note, Liz wrote “We’ve talked a lot about the notion of timelessness in art. I can’t think of anything more sustaining than this version of ‘Hallelujah.’ Crossing the barriers into creative immortality must be such a rush!”

When she was fortunate enough to attend Game 6 of the 2013 World Series, Liz sent me a Facebook message the following morning: “There I was sitting at our beloved Fenway with my son about to watch our beloved Sox clinch a World Series championship at home. Can it get any better? I think not.” A passionate New England Patriots fan, Liz has actively supported Tom Brady from the beginning of Deflategate – and never let go. Indeed, she was the first Facebook user I know to have posted an article defending the Pats’ superstar quarterback, which was composed a year ago this week by the recent Patriots’ signee, Chris Long.

Nevertheless, the subject that has consumed much of our correspondence has been education. Over the years, Liz and I have shared the challenges, the intensity, and the all-encompassing delight that comes with being a veteran classroom teacher. “How do you explain to those who don’t inhabit a classroom what a gift it is to teach children?” she once wrote to me.

Liz especially relishes the special joy that comes with teaching first and second graders. In a phone conversation a few winters ago, she described the sound of pencils racing across the paper – learning by doing – as more powerful than the unrelenting clapping of an appreciative audience.  Liz relished sprinkling her magical dust on “the strugglers” – especially those fortunate souls she so patiently worked with in one-on-one situations. Albus Dumbledore once said to Harry Potter, “We teachers are rather good at magic, you know.”

Liz has always been that kind of instructor.

Accordingly, I habitually contacted her whenever a teaching job opened up at my school for the following year. “Liz, I know for a fact that you’d love it here. It’s so close to Manhattan; the kids are incredible, and the opportunities for you here are limitless.”

For a week or two, Liz would hem and haw and then respond with a message that was heartfelt, unpretentious, and unchanging. “Shaun, I know I won’t be offered a contract with my public school district until the late spring or early summer – that’s the deal here. Yes, maybe I will finally be axed for economic reasons, but I think not. The spotless quality of your independent school, the ideal setting, and the incredible support system at Greenwich Country Day is so tempting to me, but I would be letting down the next batch of kids who I would teach here. I can’t do that to them. They need me more in Stratham, New Hampshire than the children of Greenwich; Connecticut needs me. It’s as simple as that. I know you ‘get it.’”

As her adult children began to enjoy success on their own in recent years, Liz began to shake off the cobwebs of habit and began to travel extensively. Of course, very few friends of mine have seen more of the world than Liz. We would have occasional discussions about that, especially because she knew that I had hardly traveled anywhere for nearly two decades. “My Dear, you need to branch out, see the world, not be so content with your little nook and cranny. God, you’ve always been such a creature of habit! You were a townie in Wellesley, and now you’re just a townie, period!” I laugh heartily because childhood friends can say anything to one another. It’s one of the joys of knowing and trusting someone for more than half a century.

Much to my amusement and wonder, Liz’s Facebook page began to turn into a veritable travelogue. From Bali in the South Pacific to the canyons of Utah, Liz took advantage of her newfound freedom and ventured beyond her comfort zone. “I am evolving,” she emailed to me in 2015, “and the one thing I do recognize is that if I remain stagnant, I stall out and then wither away like an old Buick. I am now at ‘full speed ahead’ mode!”

When I admitted to her later on that I found comfort in “compliant stagnation,” she giggled and said, “Ah, Shaun, you need to put such doubts to bed. Do you get it? You too need to be a fear-buster!

Fairness has been another long-standing issue for Liz; and so on May 20 last year, when she posted a news item on Facebook, which reported that the top 25 hedge fund managers earn more than all of the kindergarten teachers in the US combined, I immediately checked off the Like button. “It’s really very sad ….” Liz wrote after posting the link, “because I guess that their ability to earn all that money started out with a great education provided by those underpaid teachers ….”  

The following day, I informed Liz that I was finally visiting our high school’s new building that she had visited not long after it opened in 2011. “It’s about time, Shaun, to show your Wellesley Red Raider pride once again!” she replied. “And have a great time at the Cape afterward. I would love to walk with you on Nauset Beach this weekend!    

Two days later, on May 23, 2015, Liz canceled a dinner engagement with a Statham friend and informed her that she was feeling a little under the weather.

Sometime that evening, Liz died.

For those of us who loved her, it was if we had experienced a collective car crash. Subsequently, Liz’s Facebook page became a memorial to an individual who lived life with every solitary breath, even as she equivalently enriched the lives of those around her. As our fellow classmate, Nancy Gubellini Cook, wrote to me a few weeks ago, “Liz was a deeply spiritual, humble woman who never realized how she touched more people that she knew. Accordingly, her loss has been immeasurable.”

It’s been nearly a year since Liz has passed, and yet I still think of her in the present tense. I guess for anyone who conquered something as palpable as fear; I have a strong sense of what Liz would want all of us to do. It’s almost as if I can hear say – move forward.  Face life straight on. Know that whatever time you do have is an indeterminate gift that has neither a clock nor any limitations.

I get it, Liz.

I finally get it.




The Wearin’ of the Green: An Irish-American’s Perspective

Franklin Roosevelt was seldom at a loss for words. Three days before, he had nominated the most prominent Irish-American at the time, Joseph P. Kennedy of Massachusetts, to be the United States Ambassador to the Court of St. James. The president was amused that he had appointed “someone so Irish” to the second most prestigious position in the State Department as the new Ambassador to England.

Much to his chagrin, however, FDR soon began receiving a plethora of outraged phone calls disputing his controversial appointment, mostly from indignant Irish-Americans. Roosevelt looked baffled as he took still another call from an irritated Irish-American official.  

He glanced over at his very Irish-American secretary, Missy LeHand, and muttered, “What is the matter with you people? The minute one of you accomplishes anything – there’s always another fellow behind him with a rock, more than eager to bring him down.”

Missy LeHand merely smiled.

As we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day around the globe, those of us who are Irish would surely nod their heads in an endorsement of Roosevelt’s allegation if his testimonial could be magically circulated throughout the Irish world. A case in point: some years ago, I ran into my elderly, Irish-American father as he was coming out of our local high school to vote in an important general election in Massachusetts. His eyes twinkled as he glanced at me.

“Shaunie!” my father hollered, “are you here to cancel my vote?”

“I am, Dad,” I replied.

Without even so much as a hint of irony, he barked, “Good for you!” He gave me a thumbs-up as I strutted into the polling place to negate all of his political preferences that year.

“The Irish,” H. L. Mencken once observed, “have a logic all their own.” There is a famous story often told among Irish circles concerning the famed dual clock towers situated in Ballyhough. The two clocks disagreed at the correct time – one was six minutes faster than the other. When a visiting American asked one of the community’s locals why the town would have two such splendid clock towers that told conflicting times, the man replied, “And what would we be wanting with two clocks if they told the same time?

Legendary British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli once stated, “You never know what is going to spew forth from an Irishman’s lips. They are a completely unpredictable lot.”

Disraeli’s thesis could certainly be applied to an incident that occurred in June 1963 during President Kennedy’s visit to Europe, which included stops in Germany, England, and Ireland. Pope John XXIII had died suddenly during JFK’s first stop on the trip – West Berlin. By the time Kennedy neared the end of his stay in Europe, Pope Paul VI had already been installed as the latest Bishop of Rome. John Kennedy decided to pay the new pontiff a  visit. The nation’s thirty-fifth president contacted his old friend, Richard Cardinal Cushing of Boston, and instructed the Catholic leader to meet him as Air Force One rolled onto the runway at Rome’s international airport. Ultimately, Cushing drove to the airport with two aides; all of the other cardinals in the American delegation had already returned to the United States. As President Kennedy stepped into view from his plane, he noticed Cushing standing alone at the bottom of Air Force One’s ramp.

“Jack!  Jack!” cried out the cardinal to his most famous parishioner. “The American cardinals have all left! They’re all a bunch of goddamn Republicans!”  President Kennedy, according to eyewitnesses, nearly collapsed in spasms of laughter.

“The Irish don’t get back – they get even,” stated Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, the legendary Boston congressman, in his spellbinding autobiography, Man of the House. The notion of the famous “Irish grudge” could best be summed up with the words of a traditional Irish curse which goes something like this: “May none of their race survive/May God destroy them all/Each curse of the psalms in the holy books/Of the prophets on them fall. Amen.”

Simply put, the Irish have always loved a good fight.  When the Irish fought the English hundreds of years ago, the legend has it that the Anglo-Saxons could not believe how the Celtic Warriors absolutely delighted in the all-consuming passion of hand-to-hand combat. “Their savagery was beyond normality; waves of ecstasy shone from their eyes,” wrote a mystified English chronicler.

In modern times, James Michael Curley, the legendary Boston Irish politician who was immortalized in Edwin O’Connor’s classic novel, The Last Hurrah, embraced the Irish ferocity mindset throughout his colorful fifty-year political career. Curley, who was elected twice from jail, was the proverbial Robin Hood. He stole from the rich and gave to the poor – but took ten percent off as a surcharge. Loquacious, opinionated, and flamboyant, the Mayor could charm sny bird off a tree.

Despite his obvious rascality, however, Jim Curley was, according to legendary Speaker of the House, Congressman Tip O’Neill, “a man who did a tremendous amount of good for the people of Boston. As mayor, he provided thousands of jobs while improving the schools and the playgrounds, paving streets, expanding the subway, establishing public beaches, putting up affordable hospitals, tearing down slums, and doing favors for an untold number of people who truly needed help.”

According to O’Neill, however, James Michael Curley detested the ruling Yankee aristocracy, pronouncing them as “our Brahmin overlords.” Obviously, the mayor loved to get back at them whenever he could. Once, when an important project that would benefit the poor in Boston was blocked because the local business establishment, virtually all of them controlled by “Yankees” at the time, the mayor personally visited one of them, the defiant owner of Filene’s. “I want you to know,” Jim Curley informed the Filene’s CEO, “that the city’s water ‘main’ goes right under your fancy building here. If you don’t know where it is, your building manager can surely tell you. If I don’t have that money by this very afternoon,” the mayor exclaimed, “then I’ll open the valves and flood Filene’s Basement in an instant.” 

The City of Boston received its loan that afternoon.

“God bless the Irish,” observed Charles Dickens, not after the infamous famine that gripped Ireland, “amid the squalor of their existence, they somehow manage to find humor in the most wretched of situations.” Millions and millions of people have come to relish Frank McCourt’s powerful tome to the indelible nature of the human spirit, the Pulitzer Prize-winning tract, Angela’s Ashes. Despite poverty, hardship, ignorance, and bereavement, McCourt’s account leaves most people shaking their heads at the humor he spewed forth throughout the a text that is ladened with poverty, trauma, and pathos.  

After his “drunken, loquacious, shiftless father” had finally abandoned McCourt and his family to pursue a life of drink and indolence in England and then in Northern Ireland, the McCourt family was left to fend for themselves.  Two decades later, after the four surviving boys had left Ireland for the United States, McCourt’s mother, Angela, who by this time was residing in New York, heard from a relative that the long-lost father was working near Belfast as a cook in a monastery.  According to the information that she had received, the elder McCourt was lacking in drink – and filled with great remorse.  “Ah, the poor friars,” Frank McCourt stated to his mother when she told him the news, “food must be their penance.”

In 2005, when Frank McCourt published his second sequel to Angela’s Ashes, the vastly underrated Teacher Man, I attended a book signing of McCourt’s at a local bookstore in Stamford, Connecticut. When a member of the audience asked him about the indifferent response of the English in connection with The Great Famine, he replied, “Ah, yes, it was the English version of the Final Solution.”

When I finally sauntered up to the desk that he was signing his newest tome, McCourt asked me my name. When I told him that my name was Shaun Kelly, we looked into each other’s blue eyes.

“God forgive you, son,” he sighed.

Self-effacing humor is another quality that is held dear by most Irishmen. In the quaint vernacular of the Irish, a wheelbarrow is called an Irish ambulance, a diaper is known as an Irish flag, and a rock is sometimes referred to as an Irish diamond. Two of the most popular modern presidents used self-effacing humor to disarm their political opponents.  It is no coincidence that John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan were both proud Irish-Americans. When an infuriated reporter tried to nail President-elect Kennedy as to the meager qualifications of his then thirty-four-year-old brother, Bobby, after JFK had appointed Bobby as the nation’s new Attorney General, Kennedy replied, “I don’t see what’s wrong with Robert gaining a little government experience before he goes on to establish a practice in law.”

In 1963, when Congress continued to block important New Frontier legislation, a prominent journalist asked President Kennedy, “Sir, don’t you need to have a heart to heart talk with Senator Goldwater and the other Republican leaders in order to iron out your differences?”

Kennedy quipped, “I think those discussions would probably begin at a lower level.”

President Ronald Reagan possessed the same talent for self-mockery.  After he was shot in an assassination attempt in March 1981, he told a friend, “I’ve been shot at many times in my life, but in Hollywood they always used blanks.”

When Reagan entered the operating room to remove bullet fragments from his chest, he proclaimed to the chief physician, “Let’s just hope you are a Republican!”

Both Kennedy and Reagan could laugh at themselves because they both possessed such obvious self-confidence and panache. Politicians in both parties have tried unsuccessfully to emulate them since their presidencies but have been unable to capture the magic of their particular brand of drollery and wit.

“The Irish,” observed T. H. White, “are rank sentimentalists.  Their prose and verse drip with a mawkishness that would be unsettling to most other cultures.  And yet, I continue to find myself deeply moved by their poems, novels,  and lyrics. “Danny Boy,” for instance, still brings tears to even the most stoic of individuals.  

The following prayer was recited at the christening of John F. Kennedy, Jr., in 1961:

                   We wish to the new child

                   A heart that can be beguiled

                    By a flower

                         That the wind lifts

                    As it passes.

                   So fleetingly, so fragile.

                   If the storms break for him

                   May the trees shake for him –

                             their blossoms down

                   And in the night that he is troubled

                   May a friend wake for him

                             so that his time be doubled,

                   And at the end of all the loving

                             and all the love,

                   May the Man above

                             Give him a crown.

Thirty-eight years later, the same poem was recited at his funeral by his grieving uncle.

May the wayward winds be with you. Happy Saint Patrick’s Day!


Wayne the Wall

Throughout my years growing up on Radcliffe Road in Wellesley, Massachusetts, street hockey framed our lives and filled our afternoons after we returned from school each day  during the winter months.Thanks to the generosity of Jim and Betty Fay, we played all of our games in the Fay’s sloped driveway at 51 Radcliffe Road. For safety and monetary reasons, we used tennis balls for our pucks. While we first used old shoes as the borders for our goalposts, we eventually began to construct a series of self-made wooden net largely thanks to my older brother, Mark.

Our sticks were normally provided by our neighbor and close friend, Lynn Patrick, whose sons, Craig, Glenn, and Dean were frequent participants until they moved to California in the summer of 1965. Mr. Patrick, who was then the General Manager of the Boston Bruins, regularly gathered leftover broken sticks from the NHL games played the night before at old Boston Garden and brought them to us to use for our pickup games. On any given winter afternoon, you could find one of our players rifling a tennis ball towards the crease of the net using an authentic Bobby Hull stick with a slight nick at the base of the blade. The shot then would be stopped by the opposing goaltender, who was handling a cracked Jacques Plante goalie stick. Lightning doesn’t normally strike twice. Even then, we knew how fortunate we were.

One blustery afternoon, while we were in the midst of some furious play in the Patricks’ driveway in the fall of 1962, Mr. Patrick slowly drove into his driveway, stopped, got out of his oversized Buick, and handed us all a handful of used sticks. “Boys,” he said, “we recently signed a young man who’s not much older than you – he’s fourteen – and the kid just might become the best player we’ve ever had here in Boston.”

That was the first time I ever heard about Bobby Orr.

Our neighborhood street hockey games turned out to be our first experience in American democracy. We instigated and then enforced the rules and even traded players in the middle of games if the score became too lopsided for one side. Thanks to the explosion of children of all ages and sizes on our street, our daily skirmishes regularly involved over a dozen kids, ranging in age from 5 to 17. We tried to set up the little ones to score and let them park themselves in front of the net. The older you were, the more the rules were germane. As we soon discovered, armed neutrality made it much easier to detect duplicity. In reality, compromise lay at the cornerstone of it all.

And we played hard.

Mr. Jim Fay, who witnessed hundreds of our contests from his family’s adjoining kitchen, once described being caught in front of our net as the equivalent to caught being in the epicenter of a nor’easter. Although we had much younger kids playing with us regularly, the talent level over the years was notable. Several of our players went on to play at the varsity level in high school. Two of them,  Craig and Glenn Patrick – eventually played in the National Hockey League.

Because we had only one net (our backboard, after all, was either the Patricks’ or the Fays’ garage door), the only player that actually played for both teams was the goalie.

For nearly ten years, I was that goaltender.

Originally, I inserted myself there because I owned a right-handed first baseman’s glove, which served as a proficient foil because the assorted balls that were hurtled onto the net routinely soared above ground. If truth be told, my stick side was slower than the second hand of a Bulova watch. Accordingly, I eventually adjusted and began to hug the left side post. I ended up adopting a decidedly simple mindset: Let’s see if you can score on my catlike glove that could, in my mind, stop anything.

Thankfully, of course, the various participants weren’t firing rock-like pucks. Nevertheless, I was pelted each winter for more than a hundred days with an arsenal of tennis balls heading towards me at Mach 1 speed. Of course, whenever it was below 20 degrees – we played in virtually all kinds of weather – the balls would inevitably freeze, which would create moon-sized welts on my legs, stomach, and shoulders.

By 1967, I began wearing a simple goalie mask, which I purchased for $7.99 at Olken’s, a local sporting goods store in Wellesley. It took me two weeks to save up my entire earnings as a paperboy to but the mask, but it was well worth it. The mask ended up saving me a few stitches and several broken noses over the years until I finally “retired” it when I ventured off to college years later.

We all adopted nicknames based on NHL stars at the time. As our neighborhood street hockey goalie, for instance, I soon became known as “Rogie,” for Rogatien Vachon, the then acrobatic Montreal Canadians netminder who later starred with the Los Angeles Kings.

Because we spent hundreds of hours playing street hockey against one another, we eventually developed our own vernacular over time: a “lapper” for a slap shot, a “tipper” for a deflection, and a “pickle” for a glove-save. “Flick” as in “flick my lobe” became our acknowledged curse word that wouldn’t offend very young ears. Not surprisingly, however, an occasional “f-bomb” would be dropped if a player was stung by a lapper. As a goalie, of course, the one thing I dreaded was being hit with a “cube shot” as we came to call it, a slap shot or a deflection, smack in the gonads.

I clearly remember one time when that occurred just as Mrs. Fay was turning her car to drive into her driveway. I was still sprawled, face down, on the cement driveway in agony when a ball struck me in the no-no place just as she began her ascent up to her garage. I finally rolled myself over and over like a seal in the surf so that Mrs. Fay could then drive her car to her appointed spot. She chuckled softly to herself as she drove by my still prone body.

In the end, however, our most beloved expression that we coined over the years in street hockey occurred was the result of a major blizzard that hit New England like a blitzkrieg. On Sunday evening, February 10, 1969, an unyielding winter storm brought thirty-four inches of wet snow to the region. The historic tempest, the most notable to hit the Commonwealth until the infamous Blizzard of ’78, was accompanied by high winds, which blanketed our streets to such an extent that Massachusetts Governor Frank Sargent ordered public schools to be closed for a week.

Virtually no one had a snow blower on Radcliffe Road then. Because each family had a gaggle of kids due to the Baby Boom, everyone old enough began to shovel when the storm finally subsided Monday afternoon. It took most families the next twenty-four hours to push the impossibly heavy mush to the side.When we finally finished shoveling our driveway by Tuesday  around noon (the event was so traumatizing that my sister ended up moving down south for good), I crossed Radcliffe Road and in order to see if the Fays had also excavated themselves out as well. As I got closer, it was obvious that at least five of the seven Fay children had purposely shoveled the vast amount of snow off to one side of their long driveway. Hence, a white-capped Berlin Wall now framed the left side edge of the entrance. At its apex, the barrier was over nine feet in height!

The intimacy of being fenced in by snow was mesmerizing after we commenced playing street hockey that Tuesday afternoon. I soon began to knock away shots on goal with my stick by ricocheting tennis balls towards the wall. Each ball would vault off the rock-hard barrier and spring down the driveway and away from the players bunched up toward the net. “Now that’s what I call icing!” I bellowed.

Because the backup center for our Boston Celtics, Wayne Embry, had been given the nickname, “Wayne the Wall,” by Boston Celtics broadcaster, Johnny Most, for Embry’s prowess on defense, we quickly named the gigantic snowbank after him. 

Over the next six weeks, “Wayne the Wall” stood tall in every sense of the word. The offensive players used the wall as the ultimate deflector; they would intentionally aim for it at an angle in hopes that it would then reverberate off the bank and on a certain unsuspecting goaltender. When I mentioned one time that “Wayne the Wall” should be credited with the goal if it was scored on a “snowbank deflection,” my peers readily agreed with me. As I learned to use it as a clearing spot away from the offensive players, the wall as my most conspicuous defensive weapon that winter.

Thankfully, a prolonged cold spell maintained the breadth and elevation of the barrier. Still, we found it almost miraculous that it stayed so prodigious for so long. Each morning, “Wayne the Wall” seemed as renewed as we were that winter. It shimmered like a prodigious ice sculpture in the glacial sun and stayed strong and resolute for us until we got back home from school.

When the inevitable spring season finally came to New England later on, “Wayne the Wall” predictably began to melt away. Betsy Fay and I had a burial ceremony for it one April afternoon when the snowbank had shrunk to a mere two inches off the ground. As Mrs. Fay said to me at the time, “We shall not see the likes of such a wall again.”

Although we continued to play street hockey over at the Fays for a handful of years afterward, the winter of “Wayne the Wall” proved to be our Finest Hour. By the time we had puts our sticks away, and the snow had vanished into the promise of spring, our beloved barrier reminded us that life had no pleasure unless it was shared with one another and that fairness didn’t mean that everything was going to be parcelled out equally. We learned about being part of something larger than ourselves, and that life has no pleasure unless it was shared with others.

Thirty years later, I stopped by to visit the Fays one summer afternoon when I was in the area. I ended up sitting in Mr. Fay’s beloved porch as a forgiving summer breeze swirled around us. After we had reminisced for a spell, I asked him, “Do you remember ‘Wayne the Wall?”Mr. Fay’s laughter echoed through the porch, “ Shaun, I remember it like it was yesterday!”

“Well, Mr. Fay, I remember when you used to peek out the kitchen window and watch us,” I responded. “The amazing thing was that the wall remained so solid for so long that winter!”

Mr. Fay looked at me with a quizzical expression, “I thought all you kids knew. You see, during that time, any time it was freezing outside at night, I’d go out and turn on the water, point our hose at ‘Wayne the Wall,’, and let nature take over.”

“Oh, my God,” I answered, “So that’s why it always seemed as good as new every morning!”

Mr. Fay beamed at me from his lounge chair.

As I said goodbye to him a few minutes later, I said, “You know, Mr. Fay, ‘Wayne the Wall’ was one of the best memories I had here!”

Mr. Fay, who would die within a year, smiled knowingly at me.

“Me too,” he replied.



The Goofy Years – The Laughable Patriots of Yore

I attended nearly every Boston/New England Patriots game from 1964 until I ventured off to college in the autumn of 1973. For nine seasons, I saw the Pats play in four different venues in four different communities within the confines of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.  Some might say I was a glutton for punishment, given the perpetually wacky state of the Patriots in those days. Perhaps I enjoyed a healthy dose of tragicomedy with my football.

When I started attending their home games as a nine-year-old, the Boston Patriots were prominent members of the American Football League, a league absolutely despised by the NFL. By the time I was a senior in high school, the New England Patriots were part of the AFC East, a conference within the greater National Football League.

Change in professional sports came faster in those days.

As a child, I attended home games at Fenway as the grateful guest of my father. By the time I was fifteen, I was, according to longtime Patriots beat writer Ron Hobson of The Quincy Patriot Ledger, the youngest season-ticket-holder in professional sports. In 1970, after my father had given up his own season tickets because he could no longer be subjected to the pathos that had come to define the team, I secured a job at the Wellesley (MA) Supermarket in order that I could pay my own way as a solitary Patriots season-ticket holder. In the end, I would spend sixty dollars yearly out of my $1.60 an hour job in order to follow what could only be depicted as disorganized insanity.

Legendary Boston Globe columnist Will McDonough, the most acclaimed chronicler of the franchise in its 55-history, once famously called those seasons that I saw them in person as, “The Goofy Years.”        

Indeed, they were. In fact, that may have been an understatement.

In the first seasons of my Patriots adventure, Dad would usually drive us to their games in the Back Bay. Occasionally, however, we would take the MBTA from Woodland to Fenway Park. The local transportation authority never had extra subway cars for the team when they played at the Fens; the Pats then were deemed too inconsequential by the most Bay Staters in the 1960s. If truth be told, the New York Giants were the region’s number one football team at the time. From 1952 until the end of the 1969 season, every Giants contest was televised live on Channel 5, WHDH Boston. Most football fans I knew growing up in the Boston area referred to the Giants as “us.” 

Not me.

Of course, when we finally sat in our seats in Section 12 at Fenway Park, my father would invariably recite from Shakespeare’s Henry V, “We few; we happy few…”

Temporary bleachers covered the left-field wall at the Fens during the football season, room for about 5,000 fans. The left end zone stretched from short left field to the Red Sox batter’s circle. The other end zone was situated between mid-centerfield to the right field corner, fifteen yards beyond the legendary Pesky Pole. 

When I began following the Patriots, nearly one-third of the team was either from BC, BU, Holy Cross, and Northeastern. To save expenses for the financially-challenged Patriots, those local colleges and even high schools in the area would alternate their marching bands for the halftime entertainment. Not surprisingly, Harvard always found an excuse not to have its own celebrated band perform for the people at Fenway. As Dad explained one day, “Harvard probably doesn’t accept payment in green stamps.”

If you sat in the temporary bleachers covered the left-field wall, at the end of the game, you could actually walk across the field in order to get to the exits behind the Red Sox dugout. In a game against the New York Jets in 1965, I did just that, getting very close to Jets quarterback Joe Namath for the simple reason that I wanted to see if his famed white cleats were painted that way – or had he instead taped them? They were taped on. his cleats white. I’m sure that wasn’t the juiciest secret from his playing days.   

Because of where the Patriots played in those days, the Boston Red Sox’s shadow was everywhere. Sox legend Sherm Feller supplied his distinctive calls as the public address announcer for the Patriots in the mid-sixties. In addition, the great Ned Martin served as the team’s primary play-by-play man. Such Red Sox play-by-play announcers as Art Gleason, Bob Starr, and Curt Gowdy also broadcasted Patriots games through the years. The regular Fenway ushers worked the same sections during Patriots’ contests. It felt like old home week every time you walked into the old ballpark.

When I started to attend football games in the Back Bay, Dom and Emily DiMaggio had season tickets a few seats from my parents. At the time, Dom, a former Red Sox outfielder and the younger brother of the legendary Joe, wanted to buy the Patriots outright from Billy Sullivan. In 1964, Dom DiMaggio was a part-owner of the team.         

Don’t get the idea, however, that the Red Sox rolled out the carpet for their neighboring football brothers. The Patriots inevitably practiced at decrepit White Stadium near Logan Airport because Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey refused to let them use Fenway for anything but games. In actuality, “Uncle Tom” tolerated the Patriots during those years, thus mirroring his views on African-Americans at the time. They were allowed on his field, but only at his expressed invitation.

The ever-popular Twins’ Souvenir Shop, situated on what was then known as Jersey Street, was open before all AFL games and did sell a few Patriots jerseys and banners near the famed front entrance. However, their Patriots section was pitiably small as compared to their sizable Red Sox inventory. Nevertheless, I did purchase a Jim Nance jersey there one Sunday afternoon prior to an important Bills game in 1966.  

In my first year as a fan of the Boston Patriots, the team ended up with an impressive 10-3-1 record, tied with the hated Buffalo Bills for the AFL Eastern Division. That year, they were led by such veterans as quarterback Babe Parilli, wide receiver and placekicker, Gino Cappelletti, local linebacking legend Nick Buoniconti, and the four members of “The Boston Pops,” defensive linemen Houston Antoine, Jim Hunt, Bob Dee, and Larry “Ike” Eisenhower.

Thus, the Patriots hosted an AFL game in mid-December against the rivals, the Bills, in an unforgiving blizzard (yes, we took the Green Line in for that game). In a contest that would decide the AFL East Division Championship, over fifteen inches of snow fell at Fenway that afternoon. Sadly, we lost by 8 points to a Buffalo team led by their intrepid quarterback, the late Jack Kemp, who would later serve in Congress and as the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Reagan Administration. Kemp was pretty successful in his first career as well. The ’64 Bills went on to defeat the San Diego Chargers in the league championship game, and, with a 13-2 overall record, they are still regarded as one of the most dominant AFL teams of their time. Such was the Patriots luck.

During the Fenway days, backup offensive lineman Justin Canale used to kick off Lou Groza style. That’s straight-on, boys and girls. Ol’ Justin’s kicks would inexorably soar and then tumble out of the sky. One time, he struck a pigskin so long that it landed deep in the end zone and one-hopped into the Red Sox bullpen where it was retrieved by the legendary usher, “The Whale,” a three-hundred-pound behemoth from Southie. Needless to say, he did not attempt to return the kick.

Because the Pats were members of the American Football League, their games were sometimes covered nationally by NBC with Curt Gowdy and color man Al DeRogatis at the mike. The AFL officiating staff all wore orange and white striped shirts – the league’s official colors at the time. It was said that Al Davis chose the fierce black, silver, and white colors of his Raiders because he was so embarrassed by the AFL’s pastel color scheme.

In 1965, I witnessed the Patriots play in a classic, wide-open style AFL game – a 42-42 tie with the Oakland Raiders at Fenway that featured thirteen touchdown passes, a game that renowned AFL raconteur Angelo Coniglio of Buffalo once called, “The quintessential AFL game.”

In 1966, Billy Sullivan, the Patriots principal owner, a man who had once been the Boston Braves publicity director, made a big deal about having two former Heisman Trophy winners on the squad – Joe Bellino and John Huarte. Because quarterback Babe Parilli got hurt at the end of a game, Huarte was announced as the starter for the next contest. Sullivan did a big PR push on “our two Heisman winners in the Pats’ backfield.”  

Of course, the first time that Huarte got the ball, he flubbed the handoff to Bellino who promptly fumbled it. One can imagine how loudly Sullivan must have groaned at that moment.

Nevertheless, for the first three years that I saw them play at Fenway Park, the Patriots were one of the two or three most respected AFL franchises. From my vantage point, they were probably the best team in the league in 1966 until they were derailed on the way to a championship by Joe Namath and the Jets on the last game of the season at Shea Stadium. “Broadway Joe” later admitted that he played that important game in a drunken stupor, a pre-Suzy Kobler moment for the legendary quarterback. If Namath had been sober for that game, the Pats might well have gone to the first Super Bowl. Instead, it was the Kansas City Chiefs who represented the AFL against Vince Lombardi and the mighty Green Bay Packers of the NFL. Once again, the Pats were merely a footnote in history.

In an AFL contest between the Patriots and the young Cincinnati Bengals in December 1968, the city of Boston would host its last professional football game.  At the end of that season, the Red Sox unceremoniously kicked the Pats out of Fenway. The rumor was that Tom Yawkey had had enough of Billy Sullivan’s shenanigans, but the public explanation was that the Red Sox field was getting too torn up as a result of some “challenging autumnal usage.”   

Thus, Boston College’s Alumni Field became the Patriots home for the 1969 season with the capacity at their new venue listed as 26,500. Because the fortunes of the team had taken a turn for the worse the previous two seasons, the team had less than 14,000 season-ticket holders at the time. Therefore, the franchise would not be inconveniencing anyone with a move to nearby Chestnut Hill. As my father said when the Pats relocated to BC, “At least they are still situated on the Green Line.”

In those days before it was entirely rebuilt, Alumni Stadium was little more than an outsized high school field. In reality, when NBC used to show a Patriot or opposing player punting the ball, all one could see on TV was the football spiraling in the air with a veritable forest of evergreen trees in the background. Yes, the stands were that low. When a family friend from Ohio witnessed a game on TV at Alumni Field back in Cleveland, he remarked, “The Patriots really do play in the sticks.”

By that time, we could only shake our heads. After all, despite the fact that the team had played pretty well over the previous five years, the rinky-dink element that had always defined the financially-challenged owner of the Patriots, invariably worked its way down – with unexpected consequences – no matter who was representing the organization on the field. As the Pats entered a period of unswerving ineptitude that would come to define them, humiliation and embarrassment would ultimately form the emotional bookends for all Patriots fans.        

It all began to truly unravel in 1969, when the late Clive Rush (pronounced Cleeve – not Clive), ended up coaching the team. The former offensive coordinator of the then World Champion New York Jets, Rush brought in such ex-Jets as Randy Beverly and Bake Turner to bring “a winning attitude” to the Pats.

He should have brought an electrician instead.

At a press conference introducing new General Manager George Sauer, Sr., Clive Rush almost died when a live wire he touched electrocuted him to his very core. According to those who knew him, he was never the same man again. He would last 21 games as the Patriots coach, losing 16 of them.

As the Patriots began to sputter pathetically that season, the volatile Rush began to drink – heavily. When the Pats lost a blowout game in San Diego late in the 1969 season, ol’ Clive actually ordered the bus driver to drive down the off-ramp of a California freeway in the opposite direction in order to punish the players. “We hung on for our lives,” reported one survivor of the experience. “The BC and Holy Cross graduates on the team began to say ‘Hail Mary’s’.”

Ultimately, Rush’s devotion to Scotch coupled with a team ladened with mediocrity had become a heady concoction for disaster.

The next season, 1970, the team announced that it would play its regular season schedule at Harvard Stadium, the Crimson having acquiesced on their previous disdain for the Patriots after the team offered to front the university a rental fee in cash. However, the Stadium was not available for the preseason as the university’s president, Dr. Nathan Pusey, did not want the NCAA to somehow think that a professional team would corrupt his Harvard varsity players through repeated exposure.“Perhaps Pusey means that he doesn’t want the Crimson to play like the Patriots,” my father surmised.

Accordingly, the Pats played a well-attended game against the mighty Washington Redskins on a blistering August afternoon at BC’s Alumni Field that turned suddenly hotter.

Yes, I was there – running for my life after some malcontent had discarded a cigarette in a trash heat under the stands which had then ignited the wooden structure that served as the frame of Alumni Stadium at the time. In a scene out of a Mack Sennett short, some ten thousand of us hurled ourselves onto to the field while the game was still being played, literally running for our lives. The play was immediately stopped, and we all began to mingle with the stunned players. I ended up chatting with Skins’ quarterback Sonny Jurgensen as the smoke engulfed much of the field.

When I returned to my seat that still felt hot to the touch, I turned on my transistor radio to find out what had happened. It has been left on to the local rock station in Boston at the time – WRKO. When I heard what Dale Dorman, one of the station’s deejays, was playing when I returned to my seat, I could do nothing but smile.  Yup, it was “Fire,” by the Crazy World of Arthur Brown. Even our local rock station that the Pats were a joke.

Needless to say, the Patriots never played at BC again.

However, they did play a preseason game in Alston at the Stadium – due, of course, to the Alumni Stadium fire – against the Philadelphia Eagles in which “access” to the locker rooms was denied because the Harvard varsity squad was conducting preseason tryouts. Consequently, the two professional football teams had to dress for the game at the Colonnade in Cambridge.

Imagine if you were a guest in the hotel when two completely dressed NFL squads began to show up in the lobby, waiting for a bus ride to Harvard Stadium. When both teams began to alight from the buses outside the Stadium for the game in full dress, my father began to shake his head.

A week later, at the opening game at Harvard Stadium against the Miami Dolphins, one of the Patriots special team players, Bob “Harpo” Gladieux, who had been cut by Clive Rush the previous Thursday, decided to make a sentimental visit to see his old team play. He had partied hard the night before, had smoked a lot of pot with a girl from the Back Bay, and was finishing his sixth beer in the stands before game time when he heard a blaring announcement over the Stadium’s PA system, “Bob Gladieux, please report to the Patriots locker room!”

A shout came from the stands as “Harpo” stumbled to the locker room below the stands. He had been one of the more popular players the previous season – his long, stringy blonde hair was instantly recognizable and thus, he been given him the nickname, “Harpo” – after the third Marx Brother. For the previous hour, Gladieux who had been cavorting with the fans in the stands; now found themselves erupting in laughter as he rushed to get dressed for the game. Within five minutes, ol’ Harpo raced onto the field just as the team lined up for the opening kickoff.

Gladieux, wobbly, pale, and completely looped, ended up making a solo tackle on the opening kickoff. The entire section at the Stadium where Harpo had been drinking shouted out in unison, “Holy shit!”

For years afterward, longtime Patriots fans would bellow out, “Would Bob Gladieux please report to the Patriots locker room,” before the start of every game.

When the great Johnny Unitas and the World Champion Baltimore Colts came to Cambridge to play the Boston Patriots in October that year, the Pats inexplicably played their best game of the season. With less than a minute left in a spirited contest, Gino Cappelletti struck a field goal to make the score, 7-6, Colts. Coach Clive Rush then logically called for an onside kick. To his enormous surprise, the kick went to one of the up-men, Tom Matte, who picked up the ball and ran untouched for six points – and the game.

        How had that happened?  Because the entire Patriots kickoff team had overrun the ball. The Colts fan sitting next to me laughed so hard that he cried. The concept of tears of joy remained unfamiliar to Patriots fans.

Later that season, when Patriots Owner Billy Sullivan decided to sign holdout Joe Kapp, the celebrated former quarterback of the NFC Champion Minnesota Vikings, he had the temerity to put Kapp in a Patriots’ uniform after arriving in Boston two hours before game time in front of forty thousand drunken louts at Harvard Stadium.  

For the next two hours, Pats fans continuously screeched and bellowed for Kapp to get into the game. When quarterback Mike Taliaferro had his bell rung in the fourth quarter, the people in the stands began to scream for Kapp to come onto the field, simultaneously cheering when Taliaferro was helped to the sidelines on a stretcher.

Of course, ol’ Joe entered the huddle not knowing a solitary Patriots play. Thinking quickly, Kapp fingered in the Stadium dirt where each receiver and running back should go. As Dad remarked at the time, “Only the Patriots would reintroduce the concept of pick-up football to the professional ranks.”

For the rest of the 1970 season, Kapp proved to be a failure, probably inevitably. While he was a determined leader in Minnesota, he was a mediocre (at best) quarterback with an arm that reminded me of noodle-armed Red Sox utility man, Jose Tartabull. As Dad exclaimed after watching the Patriots’ quarterback warm-up before a game, “Kapp’s throws look like kickoffs and move like hanging sliders.”

Ironically, Joe Kapp’s best game as a Boston Patriot occurred against his old Vikings team the day after a raging snowstorm in December when he nearly knocked Minnesota lineman Alan Page out after tackling him following an interception.

Another funny thing about that game: the employees of Harvard Stadium forgot to plow out the ancient concrete stands. Thus, we all sat in three-foot snowdrifts, which made snowball throwing that day a must. The referees almost called the game for the Vikings when entire sections of fans decided to target a solitary Viking and hurl their snowballs at the unfortunate player – quarterback Gary Cuozzo. When the gun finally signaled the end of that contest, another Patriot loss, it would prove to be the last game for the Boston Patriots.

For the previous five years, there had been some talk that the city of Boston would build a stadium for the Patriots in the South Boston. In fact, a design for a domed stadium in South Boston had even been approved by the Massachusetts Legislature in 1966, only to see funding halted when the local reps came to their senses.

By 1969, legendary sports icon, Bill Veeck, who ran Suffolk Downs at the time, actually offered the infield of his racetrack to be converted to a playing field for the Patriots. “We could have a series of horse races at halftime!” Veeck exclaimed to stunned reporters one afternoon. Never a man to say no, Billy Sullivan actually considered the idea for a spell.

However, by 1970, the wheel of fortune had turned for the franchise.  When Phil and David Fine offered a generous land grant on the grounds of the Foxboro Racetrack, the Pats announced a move to that Southeastern Massachusetts community for the 1971 season.

One day, my brothers and I decided to scout out the team’s new location as construction began that winter. We soon noticed a sign on the Bay State Racetrack that proclaimed proudly, “Welcome – Bay State Patriots!”

Yes, Billy Sullivan had impulsively changed his team’s home name in order to honor the racetrack that had saved his franchise. Thankfully, it took an intervention on behalf of NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle to have Billy Sullivan change the name from the Bay State to the New England Patriots. 

We were there in August of 1971 for the opening game – a preseason contest against the hated New York Giants. A stadium that had been built in less than two-hundred days and cost only six million dollars had a myriad of problems that day, not the least, of course, were toilets that would not flush and a traffic flow that would not budge. The two season-ticket owners next to me finally arrived midway through the third quarter after fighting traffic for three hours on Route 1. Not surprisingly, there was a flood in one underground restroom which seeped out of one of the exits and began slowly to spill onto the field – on the Patriots side, of course.

When Schaeffer Stadium officially opened up with a regular season contest against the hated Oakland Raiders a few weeks later, some Pats fans hired a local airplane sign firm out of Norwood Airport that flew over the Stadium with a banner that read, “Keep Gayle Knief!” At the time, Gayle Knief was a hardworking, overachieving, diminutive wide receiver who had just been cut earlier that week by Head Coach John Mazur.  

“Who the hell is Gayle Knief?” a Raider fan asked me when he saw the plane’s sign lingering overhead.

Mazur, who took over when Clive Rush resigned in November 1970, had his problems with bigger-name players as well. Enigmatic running back Duane Thomas of the Dallas Cowboys was traded to the Patriots early on in Mazur’s tenure. When, during the training camp of the 1971 season at Amherst, Mazur insisted that Thomas get down in a three-point stance, something Thomas had never done since junior high school. Mazur kicked Thomas off the field, and Thomas then returned to Dallas on the next plane where he later helped them to a Super Bowl win.

While 1971 saw the team improve with its heralded pair of Stanford rookies, quarterback Jim Plunkett and wide receiver, Randy Vataha, the team suffered another setback the next year. In the end, former Green Bay Packers Coach Phil Bengtson replaced John Mazur as the interim head coach in the middle of that horrendous campaign. Bengston, who had been Vince Lombardi’s number one assistant and had even replaced him as the Packers coach, quit as Patriots head coach at season’s end saying, “That’s it. I am never going to do anything connected to pro football again.” A man who had devoted his life to the sport for almost four decades refused to associate himself with football on any level ever again. Like many people, the Patriots had killed his spirit for the game.

One of the most popular players on the team during the Mazur-Bengtson years was Steve Kiner, the team’s own version of the Red Sox’ iconoclastic pitcher, Bill Lee. Kiner also happened to be an outstanding linebacker at the time. Steve was a long-haired, mustached Californian who actually lived in a VW bus in the Schaffer Stadium parking lot along with his hippie girlfriend. According to people in the know, he and his babe used to smoke pot mixed with granola in the bus and then take long walks around the parking lot at dusk. It was well known that Kiner was a Deadhead – his music could be heard blaring from his VW bus all hours of the day. When you walked by Kiner’s digs in the parking lot back then, it invariably reminded you of Woodstock.

In 1972, in their first foray in Foxboro on ABC’s Monday Night Football the day before the presidential election, the Pats decided to hire a circus performer named “Jumping Joe” Garlick to jump from three hundred feet above the stadium and free-fall to a large ballooned mattress in the middle of the field during halftime. Just as the circus aerialist jumped, a gust of wind picked up, and his descent suddenly seemed out-of-kilter, Jumping Joe ended up landing half on the edge of the mattress and nearly died. After Garlick staggered off the field, the fan next to me muttered, “I wonder if that guy works for the McGovern campaign?”

At the end of the 1972 season, I gave up my season tickets, knowing that I would be heading thirteen-hundred miles south for college the next season. While I had seen the Patriots in triumph, it had been the lovable losers – the Mel Witts, the Ike Lassiters, the Halvor Hagans, and the John Outlaws who had won over my heart, beginning with the first time I saw them in person in September 1964. They might have been hapless, but they were mine.

And, so, when I see what the franchise has achieved over the last sixteen years – talk host Colin Cowherd recently called them the greatest dynasty in professional sports’ history since the dawn of free agency – I still shake my head in wonder.

What would my late father, who died thirty-one years ago this January, say about all of this?

Probably something along the lines of…”Well, son, it’s a long way from ‘Bring Back Gayle Knief’.”



Their Music Belongs to Everyone – The Beatles in Our Time

 The 1960’s really began on Sunday evening, February 9, 1964, at 7:30 pm EST on CBS television when the Beatles made their first North American appearance in front of seventy million Americans who watched them on The Ed Sullivan Show. Just seventy-nine days after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, four impossibly young musicians from Liverpool, England, reminded every American under twenty-five that we all had so much to live for.              

My parents’ generation, to put it mildly, was not pleased by the featured performers who dominated America’s airwaves that night. My father originally thought that the Beatles were some sort of a Soviet plot to take over the Western world. We kids just thought that the band was incredibly “boss”.

Within a week, I had purchased their initial US release, Meet the Beatles at the Music Box, a local record store in my hometown, Wellesley, Massachusetts. Within a month, my first Fab Four record had received enough scars in its grooves to receive a Purple Heart. (In reality, a palpable series of scratches in the bridge section of “Not A Second Time” of my copy of Meet the Beatles was so embedded in my memory that I was stunned to hear an uncluttered version of the tune, sans skips, when I finally purchased it as a cassette eight years later).  

Over the course of the next two Sunday evenings that February, the Beatles continued to be featured on the Sullivan Show. During those moments, an entire generation of Americans sat utterly transfixed in front of our TVs when the magic played itself out on live TV. At school the next day, my classmates and I couldn’t wait to compare notes with one another. The girls all loved Paul; we boys adored John – although a handful of others preferred George or Ringo.

By the end of that month, one of my neighbors, Jimmy Fay, had purchased the first Beatle wig on our street. Within five years, an entire generation of young people was sporting long hair – including myself.  Ultimately, the Beatles were not just a musical phenomenon; they shaped our culture and altered the course of their time. When they officially broke up as a group in April 1970, the Beatles’ dissolution was the lead story on the front page in every newspaper in the world including The New York Times. Even now, more than a half a century after “the four lads from Liverpool” suddenly appeared out of nowhere like a scorching comet, the memory of those times still seems to light up the sky.

At my fortieth high school reunion, one of my classmates marveled at how fortunate we were to have literally grown up during the era of the Fab Four. “Do you remember, Kell, when we stood in line outside the Music Box in June 1967, and waited for the store to open because they had just received the first copies of Sergeant Pepper in town?” I smiled broadly and then reminded my buddy that we did the same thing for The White Album a year-and-a-half later.

For most people today, however, they were either too young or not even born when the Beatles made their mark in history. What remains, in the end, is their music, which sounds as fresh and vibrant as it did when it was first released a half century ago.

So how do you scratch the surface on a musical facade that was as deep and as broad as the Great Plains? You randomly pick and choose and then dig deep down – as I attempt to do here. I could literally compose a chunky book on the band’s 186 recorded songs over a nine-year span – and still not do it justice.  After all, the Beatles’ staggering range – a Whitman’s Sampler of delectables that set them apart from any other rock band in history – is partly what made them so unique. Here I will try to educate the novice and enlighten the well-informed in order to taste a few of the delicacies that can be found in the margins of their wondrous songs.

“Penny Lane” – Recorded in seven separate sessions commencing on the morning of December 29, 1966 and concluding in the late evening on January 17, 1967, the idea of “Penny Lane” as the subject of a song began during the Rubber Soul sessions sixteen months earlier when John Lennon, looking for ideas, began jotting down assorted places that had framed his life early on. When he showed the list to his band mates, “Penny Lane,” a road situated three blocks north from Lennon’s childhood home, immediately struck a chord with his longtime chum, Paul McCartney.

As teenagers, McCartney and Lennon often met at the Penny Lane junction in the Princes Park area of Liverpool in order to catch a bus to the center of the city. “As a lad, John was habitually late, so there were many times when I waited for him at the shelter in the middle of the roundabout,” Paul explained in a Rolling Stone interview in 1997.

In its final form, the tune works as a kaleidoscope of images that McCartney remembered as a child – the bank, the fire station, and the nurse who sold poppies at the shelter of the roundabout on Remembrance Day. While the sun shines brightly in the first half of the ballad, later on in the song when “the fireman rushes in from the pouring rain,” it reminds the listener that McCartney’s lyrical patchwork, like time-lapse photography, is not framed at a solitary moment – but over time. Indeed, when I first visited Liverpool in the fall of 1982, Penny Lane was mapped out exactly as Paul had described – a veritable time capsule that seemed stuck in its own personal Brigadoon.

In addition to the inspired lyrics, there are also a number of sound effects throughout the number; most memorably the fireman’s clanging hand bell in the fourth stanza and the little roadster that can be heard spinning around the communal roundabout. Lastly, the ballad’s jaunting triplet melody is impeccably supported in the final verse by David Mason’s soaring piccolo trumpet solo. (Mason, a Royal Philharmonic Orchestra legend, was paid 27 quid for his work; his horn that he used for the recording sold for a hundred times that amount in 2011.)

“When ‘Penny Lane’ was recorded in 1967,” remembered Paul McCartney, “we were no longer four blokes from Liverpool. Instead, we were arguably the most famous people in the world. And yet we longed to go back to those simpler days. It had all happened so fast.” This is most evident in the middle of the ballad when Paul states that the Nurse: “…feels that she’s in a play…she is anyway…”

Interestingly, the one part of the tune that gave McCartney fits was how to segue from one verse to another. Lennon, who always saw life through the broadest possible lens, came up with the inspired bridge refrain…“Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes/There beneath the blue suburban skies/ I sit – and meanwhile back…” As Paul said later on, “It was the perfect interlude that connected the separate elements of the song altogether.”

At the crossroads of recording Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Beatles’ poignantly admitted in “Penny Lane” that their once normal lives had literally gone helter-skelter. In January 1967, each of them seemed to be living in a state of suspended animation.

“All I’ve Got To Do” – Recorded on the afternoon of September 11, 1963 at Abbey Road Studio Number 2, “All I Got to Do” was a song that John Lennon had composed back in the summer of 1961, which the boys had then performed live hundreds of times to audiences both at the Cavern Club in Liverpool and at scores of venues across Great Britain – from Plymouth to Leeds to Newcastle. “Because we could play the ballad in our sleep, it actually took about fifteen takes for us to get the right sound. We were really tweaking it that day in the studio,” remembered John years later.

After extensive experimentation with time and chord changes throughout the three-hour session, the band, according to commentator Ian MacDonald “…was very pleased when they heard the final product – with its downbeat atmosphere, and the hurt, halting mood of its nervy, rhythmic interplay of damped guitar chords and hi-hat strokes.”

Unlike the other two relatively dated, forgettable songs that the Beatles recorded that afternoon in London – “Little Child,” and “I Wanna Be Your Man,” – “All I’ve Got to Do,” is a lingering plea to an unidentified woman – most probably Lennon’s first wife, Cynthia. In the end, it is a 3:00 am kind of song in which regrets can be as personal as fingerprints. “I had a Smokey Robinson fetish at the time; I idolized him – still do,” the composer admitted a few weeks before his death. Ultimately, “All I’ve Got to Do” was John Lennon’s attempt to write and record the kind of susceptible, beseeching ballad that Smokey Robinson would have written for his group, the Miracles, in the early 1960s.

Of course, most listeners had no idea about that at the time. All they knew was that John Lennon seemed to bare his brittle soul for the entire world to hear.  I have always felt that “All I’ve Got to Do” could well have been included on Rubber Soul.

It was that good.

“Long, Long, Long” – Recorded between October 7 and October 9, 1968, “Long, Long, Long,” one of the most undervalued and sustaining of all Beatles’ songs, was recorded at Abbey Road Studio Number 1. In its final form, the track originally concluded Side 3 of the Beatles’ magnum opus, The White Album. After one listen, it is obvious that this haunting, affecting tune is pure George Harrison, who was then developing into such an accomplished songwriter that his forthcoming songs would actually surpass John’s and Paul’s work during the next half-decade.

A searing, poetic confession, the composition is really a draining, heartfelt reconciliation with God, which is matched by a “sighing, self-annihilating coda,” according to author Ian MacDonald. The accompanying musical ambiance emits a blanketing fog of redemptive longing throughout the piece – an impressionistic painting in musical form. Harrison, a longtime Dylan aficionado, borrows the chords from “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” turns it down a notch to 2/4 time, sprinkles in a recognizable chord change from “A Hard Day’s Night,” and ends up creating an ingenious, inspiring work.

In retrospect, most Beatle fans point the ending of the number as the track’s haunting centerpiece – and it all happened purely by accident. As the group recorded the original conclusion of “Long, Long, Long,” Paul McCartney, who was playing the band’s customized Hammond organ, hit a bottom G, which caused a sudden vibration in the empty bottle of wine that had been standing carelessly on the top of the instrument’s cabinet.

Listening to the instantaneous, eerie rattling of the bottle on his headset, Paul immediately turned the sound of his organ into a ghostlike C minor; Ringo instinctively began a prolonged drum roll; George intuitively changed his chord to something mirroring “A Hard Day’s Night” in ¼ time, and John commenced emitting a plaintive vocal wail – all completely spontaneous and unrehearsed.

Of all the songs on that unparalleled double album, “Long, Long, Long” is the one that I continue to play for its ambiguity, its profundity, and its resonance. It will stick with me for the rest of my life.

“Ticket to Ride” –  John Lennon, the chief composer of this classic song from the movie, Help, long claimed that “A Ticket to Ride” was “one of the earliest heavy metal records ever made.” Although they were actually trumped by the Kinks, who, a year previously had come out with Ray Davies infectious, “You Really Got Me,” the group’s recording of “Ticket to Ride,” according to musicologist Steve Turner “was the first Beatles’ track to feature an insistent, clanking riff underpinned by a heavy drum beat while using a fade-out with an altered melody.”

While most British fans at the time assumed that the ballad referred to a Brit Rail ticket to the town of Ryde on the Isle of Wight, John Lennon had a quirkier response, according to Don Short, a London journalist who traveled extensively with the band throughout their Beatlemania days. A play on words – one of John’s favorite literary tricks – lay in the cornerstone of “Ticket to Ride.” As Short later remembered three decades later, “John told me that the phrase referred to the girls who were working the streets of Hamburg, who had a clean bill of health when the Beatles worked there. Thus, the medical authorities would give them a card saying that they didn’t have a dose of anything. John told me that he coined the phrase, ‘a ticket to ride’ to describe those cards!”

The sexual connotation notwithstanding, what is known is that on February 15, 1965, the Beatles met at Abbey Road Studio Number 2 in order to work on the soundtrack of their latest movie project, Help! During the afternoon, they ended up recording “Ticket to Ride.” A mid-tempo rumba whose music was punched out rather than simply played, it was the first single by the band not to make it to number one, probably because the song seemed so out of sequence at the time. Instead, it would be the Beach Boys conventionally cheery, “Help Me Rhonda,” which would achieve that honor. Given “Ticket to Ride’s” pronounced amplification that lay within the context of a mid-tempo ditty, the avant-garde single directly influenced rock ‘n roll thereafter, particularly the enlarged guitar sound of the Yardbirds, whose band members included Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, and Jimmy Page.

In the end, every great work of art has two faces – one that is timely and that represents its own era, and one that is timeless and looks beyond the present to something approaching eternity. When I recently checked the number of times that my iPod had played the Beatles’ song catalog, it was “Ticket to Ride” that had the most plays. Nearly fifty-one years after it was first recorded. This vastly underrated single remains an enduring masterpiece.

For No One,”  – written by Sir Paul in the bathroom at the Swiss ski resort at Klosters in March 1966, “For No One” turned out to be one of his McCartney’s most evocative songs. A ballad based on a once passionate relationship between two lovers, written through a series of flashbacks of their lives, the vocalist realizes that the love that had once united them both is now gone.

At the time, Paul was in the final stages of a three-year relationship with Jane Asher, a ravishing, red-headed beauty who had been a renowned child actress in Britain. Asher ended up serving as the muse for such classics as “Things We Said Today,” “And I Love Her,” “You Won’t See Me,” “Here, There, Everywhere,” and Keith Richards’ “Lady Jane.” While Paul and Jane would not break up until a year later, John Lennon always claimed that “For No One” was a subliminal foreshadow of what was to come for McCartney.

As both a human being and as an artist, Paul could be incredibly coy. His decided ambivalence – an almost existential acceptance of the inevitable – contrasted exquisitely against the backdrop of John’s quirky temperament. Thus, in “For No One,” McCartney ends up focusing on a partner whose love had finally ebbed – and the effect it had on the cohort. In a clinical, detached way, Paul writes, “And in her eyes you see nothing/No sign of love behind the tears/Cried for no one…” The only real sentiment that frames the number comes in the last line – “A love that should have lasted years!”

As Beatle historian, Ian MacDonald, wrote, “’For No One’ is one of McCartney’s most faultless pieces, a tune constructed with the author’s customary logic that methodically moved through its classical steps like a chess player.” It is one of those rare Beatles’ songs that feel as if the songwriter and vocalist are leading the rest of the band, a virtuoso conductor who knows what moves he wants his group to make. Here, McCartney creates a lush, divergent melody here that is so interesting that I have never tired of listening to it. While John Lennon was a pure rock and roller, Paul McCartney often produced his most substantial numbers outside the margins of the genre.

By the spring of 1966, the band was firmly planted on top of a musical Everest, when they asked famed French horn player Alan Civil to play in the piece, he instantly accepted. Ultimately, Civil’s incongruous solo that serves as a borderline between each stanza and the bridge. The distinctive chords of the track were played by Paul on producer George Martin’s clavichord, brought to the Abbey Road studio from his house on Richmond Hill. The drawing room effect of “For No One” is baroque-pop at its finest. No other rock band in the world could have produced such an eclectic sound.

The entire affair was recorded on May 16, 1966, at Abbey Road Studio Number 1 and was later featured in Revolver, which was released two months later. I once played “For No One” to a student who had never heard it before. “I think I just heard my favorite song,” she said in wonder.

“One After 909,” – On July 6, 1957, John Lennon and Paul McCartney met for the first time at a late afternoon concert at the Woolton County Fair in which Lennon’s band, the Quarrymen, played. At the time, Lennon was sixteen; Paul a year younger. A few days later, at John’s invitation, McCartney had joined the group. The Quarrymen then began rehearsing with their new band mate by playing the usual standard fare at the time for most British rock groups – a Chuck Berry tune here, a Little Richard number there, with a smattering Buddy Holly and Carl Perkins mixed in as well.

At the first rehearsal, Paul introduced to the group a song that he had just written; a lingering ballad entitled “In Spite of all the Danger,” which the band then dutifully recorded on a friend’s tape deck. Not to be outdone, John countered Paul’s composition a week later with an original of his own, the effervescent, “One After 909.”

Based on Lonnie Donegan’s 1955 hit, “Rock Island Line,” a British skiffle rendition of the traditional American ballad first popularized by Leadbelly, “One After 909” was “the first song I ever wrote on my own,” Lennon told television host Tom Snyder in 1975. In the early years of the Beatles, it was a standard that would often be played “to rev the audience up – we played it with the same pattering style as Lonnie Donegan had on ‘Rock Island Line,’ but our guitar work in the very early days was pure Carl Perkins – all rockabilly,” Lennon told Snyder on NBC’s Tomorrow Show.

On March 5, 1963, the Beatles recorded “One After 909” at Abbey Road Studio Number One, but it “just didn’t seem right – and we argued over it after recording three or four takes of it,” Lennon admitted. The problem was that the composition sounded downright mechanical mostly because they played it in the characteristically rhythmic style of the early rockers. Even though they actually recorded two alternative takes of “One After 909” by day’s end, the band ended up shelving the number.

 Fast forward to the Let It Be sessions six years later. The Beatles, who had just completed the mesmerizing but polarizing White Album four months previously, were brought back together in January, 1969, by Paul McCartney, who believed that the band needed to play in front of a live audience once again in order to remind one another of the camaraderie that had always served them in years past. The group began rehearsing some of the old songs from their Hamburg days while interspersing their playlist with hot-off-the-press originals.  

During one lengthy session in Abbey Road Studio #2, John impulsively broke into “One After 909,” and the rest of the Beatles instinctively began to support him. “Even after all those years, we still could play that number in our sleep,” said Ringo in The Beatles Anthology. However, George, who had been hanging around Eric Clapton throughout much of that winter, mischievously commenced playing the lead guitar as Clapton would have – unfettered, resourceful, and bluesy. On a famed Let it Be bootleg, George can be heard saying, “Here’s how Eric would play it…”

“That’s it! That’s it!” John shouted, “We’ve got something here now!” In subsequent rehearsals, they added the keyboard work of Billy Preston, who added a jazzy trill to the entire affair.

On the afternoon of January 28, 1969, the Beatles, plus Preston, ended up performing their new version of “One After 909” on top of the Abbey Road Studios in what would become their legendary rooftop concert. Ultimately, the band was able to capture the fizz of their Cavern Club days in the early ‘60’s before they were famous and updated it to make it sound as if it had just been written. Where once the tune had sounded both confining and perfunctory, it now had an exhilarating, spontaneous feel to it.

I have never tired of hearing the obvious joie de vivre the group felt as they finally got “One After 909” right twelve years after it was first written. They literally just “let it fly” that chilly day in January almost forty-six years ago. Like an old friend, the song has never failed to boost my spirits.  

Rain,” – recorded in two separate sessions between April 14 and 16, 1966 in Abbey Road Studio Number 3, “Rain,” a John Lennon number, was supposed to be the B-side to Paul McCartney’s “Paperback Writer.” For many Beatles fans, however, “Rain” was the A side in every way, an energetic rocker from the old days that had an additional, neo-psychedelic quality to it.  

In most of John Lennon compositions, there was a decidedly connected quality that was difficult to miss. Three years earlier, in the first verse of his “There’s A Place,” Lennon had sung, “There’s a place/Where I can go/Where I feel low/ When I feel blue/ And it’s my mind/And there’s no time/When I’m alone…”

Now, at the height of Beatlemania, as the group began to ponder whether to stop touring and just concentrate on their music, John Lennon in particular began to experiment both musically and socially to such a degree that in “Rain,” he actually extends the thought process beyond the borders of one’s own life. In this new world, the good and the bad happened regularly; it is up to the individual to rise above the daily circumstances of one’s existence in order to be free of such restrictions. John, who had come to serve one of the spiritual guides of his generation, ended up guaranteeing in the ballad that “…it’s just a state of mind.” After all, he promised,”…I will show you.”

As in much of their later work, there was a number of production-studio tricks integrated into “Rain.” Because they were now the most renowned band in the world, they became indifferent to booking expensive studio time. Indeed, if the Beatles wanted to record in one of the three Abbey Road studios, they would simply block-book it – and not fret about the cost. This allowed them to dabble as novice producers with the unsung George Martin graciously providing a wellspring of sagacity along the way.

As a result of such heady collaboration, “Rain” was actually recorded at a slightly faster tempo at Martin’s suggestion, John slowed the track down “slightly” by hand in order to give it a clanging feel. The band also decided to amplify Paul’s bass, which served as the lead instrument. Ringo’s superb backbeat skills were also at full throttle throughout the tune, creating a density of sound that sounds almost improvisational at a first listen. The coup de grace, of course, turned out to be Lennon’s decision to spool the opening lines of the song backward – and to use it instead as the inimitable closing of the number: “Sdaeh rieht edih dna nur yeht semoc niar eht fi…”

When I was in eighth grade, my English teacher formally introduced Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” to us by printing out the lyrics to both “I am a Walrus” as well as the last stanza of “Rain.” When she played the ending of each in class, she asked somewhat mockingly, “So what is John really saying here?”

It is that Lennonesque blend of nonsense and perception that continue to delight and fascinate even the most casual of listeners. Ultimately, “Rain” turned out to be the Beatles’ first stab at suggesting a weighty, transcendental state of consciousness.  In 1963’s “There’s a Place,” John sings in a rather dull-grey world. In 1966’s “Rain,” the entire affair is all in dazzling technicolor.

Hey Bulldog,” –Because of the simultaneous demands of a musical soundtrack, a movie that was in post-production, and the fact that the Beatles needed a B-Side to “Lady Madonna,” the band spent ten hours on February 11, 1968, composing and recording one of their more unheralded numbers, “Hey Bulldog,” a filler that turned out to be something much more. Because they were clearly under the gun, the recording was actually a joint effort between John and Paul, based on a lick that Lennon had previously worked on but hadn’t completed entitled, “Hey Bullfrog.” The songwriters ended up consciously writing it in the style of Barrett Strong’s legendary 1960 soul twisting, “Money,” famously covered by Lennon in a kick-ass Beatles recording five years before. “We wanted to really rock out on that track as we had in Hamburg and at the Cavern Club. We wanted to blow out a tune, no holds barred,” Lennon told journalist Lester Bangs years later.  

To further emphasize the truly accidental ambiance of the song, John scribbled down some lyrics while Paul furiously worked on the remaining musical chords. At the beginning of the session, when Paul played a Paul Jones’ rocker to John called “The Dog Presides,” which featured a series of dogs barking, McCartney began to howl playfully as well. Lennon liked it so much that they changed the title and then added the yelping at the end of the number. “The producers of Yellow Submarine were clamoring to us to finish the song in order to put it on that album, plus we wanted to get ‘Lady Madonna’ out as a single, so we were in a full-out sprint that day,” McCartney admitted in The Beatles Anthology.

For one line in “Hey Bullfrog,” Lennon had scribbled, “Some kind of solitude is measured out in news.” When they sang from the lyrics’ sheet as they recorded the tune, the band misread John’s chicken-scratch as “some kind of solitude is measured out in you.” Because they were working against the clock, they kept the mistake in the final version, much to the delight of Lennon, who loved the unintentional mistake.

Paul’s bass line on ‘Hey Bullfrog’ was probably the most inventive of any he’d done since Pepper, and it was really well played. Harrison’s solo was sparkling, too – one of the few times that he nailed it right away. His amp was turned up really loud, and he used one of his new fuzz boxes, which made his guitar absolutely scream,” wrote Geoff Emerick, the Beatles’ longtime engineer in a memoir written four decades after the group had disbanded.

Ultimately, they had patch-worked a tune that reminded us all that they could still rock with the best bands on the planet. “Hey Bulldog” would be a precursor to the heavy rock they would produce in both the Let it Be and Abbey Road sessions. As Mick Jagger later exclaimed, “When we first heard the song, I thought, ‘That’s a record that we would have made.’”

“Girl” – On November 11, 1965, the Beatles laid down the last track of arguably their best album, Rubber Soul, with John’s emphatic answer to Paul’s “Michele,” a brazen forerunner to the 1980s Europop style entitled simply, “Girl.”  If Paul’s fantasy woman was decidedly French, upper crust, and sophistiqué, John’s dream girl was distinctly German, working class, and resembled the very real Astrid Kirchherr, a doe-like, flaxen-colored beauty from Hamburg who, during the band’s time in Hamburg, had not only helped the Beatles with their image but pushed them into such previously unexplored areas as existentialism. A photographer by trade, Kirchherr stumbled upon the Beatles one spring night in the spring of 1960 – when they were performing as the house band at the Kaiserkeller Club – and became immediately smitten by “their talent, humor, and charm.”

      Within a month, Astrid began dating Stuart Sutcliffe, John’s best friend from Liverpool Art College, who had joined the group as its bassist three months previously. By necessity, the Beatles had let their hair out – they were continually in short supply of cash overseas – so Astrid decided to give them stylized cuts, which shaped their unwieldy manes into mop-like locks. Thus, the legendary Beatle hairstyle began in Hamburg in 1960 because of the artistic flair of Astrid Kirchherr!

Over the years, Beatle fans have pointed out that both Cynthia Powell and Patti Boyd, John Lennon’s and George Harrison’s first wives, eerily reassembled Astrid Kirchherr, who ended up living with Stuart Sutcliffe in Hamburg, until he tragically died of a blood clot to the brain a year after the Beatles returned to England for good. “All of us liked Astrid – and were in love with her as well,” admitted George Harrison three decades later.

Musically, there’s a lot to love about “Girl.”

The tune moves from a C minor verse to an A major chorus, with a whiff of an accordion provided by the irreplaceable George Martin. The ballad almost sounds like a waltz – it had an oompah quality to it that harkens back to the band’s fifteen months that they spent in Germany in the early sixties. The “tit tit tit” vocals that frame each bridge in “Girl” are decidedly sophomoric and teasing. “We were just trying to see how far we could go to pull another fast one on the censors at the time, and the song was about a girl after all” Harrison admitted in a 1987 Rolling Stone interview.

However, the girl that John sings about turns out to be intelligent, in control, and is both elusive and confounding. Because Lennon’s untamed mother, Julia, and his steadfast Aunt Mimi, his two most significant female figures growing up were exact opposites, women, in general, remained both ambiguous and imperious to him. Ending up with someone as paradoxical as Yoko Ono, then, was actually no surprise. “It was as if you put Julia and Mimi in a blender, it out came as Yoko,” Paul McCartney once famously commented.

Of course, John and Paul have a particularly inspired duet on the refrain of “Girl, “which is accompanied by a series of audible intakes. There is a story there. According to John, Astrid Kirchherr used to shampoo her hair using strawberry extract, a forerunner to the fruit-scented shampoos that would come out on the market a generation later. John so loved the aroma that whenever he saw Astrid, he would race up to her and begin impulsively smelling her blonde locks.

John later claimed that “Girl,” a haunting ode to an unknown woman, was actually his subconscious reminding him that there was a female out there who would one day match the object of desire he sang so reverently about. Incredibly, John would meet that individual, Yoko Ono, a year to the day that this ballad was recorded.

On September 22, 1980, at the Hit Factory Studios in Midtown Manhattan, a follow-up to the tune entitled “Woman,” an elegy to the “girl who had grown up” was recorded. It would be the second-to-last song that John Lennon would produce before he was shot by a crazed lunatic a decade after he and the Beatles broke up.

“The Fool on the Hill,” – Paul McCartney got the idea for “The Fool on the Hill” in March 1967, on the day the band completed recording, “With a Little Help From My Friends.” During a protracted lunch break from the Sargent Pepper sessions, Paul began humming the song with nonsense lyrics. (He had done so previously when the working title of “Yesterday” was hysterically called, “Scrambled Eggs”). As McCartney looked out onto Cavendish Avenue in the Saint John’s Wood section of London where he resided, John, who had accompanied him to his house, stated, “You better write the song out, or you will forget it.” Paul assured him that he wouldn’t.

Six months later, on September 25, 1967, the group began to record “The Fool on the Hill,” which would then be a featured number on their Magical Mystery Tour album. The tune describes a savant, whom most outsiders view as an idiot but who, in reality, is filled with enormous wisdom. At the time, Beatle fans thought that Paul was singing about the Maharishi Yogi, the Indian guru whose transcendentalism had vastly influenced the group that year. (The band then spent ten days with the Maharishi in Rishikesh, India five months later, where they observed him disingenuously hitting on an impressionable Mia Farrow. Lennon then penned the uproarious “Sexy Sadie,” in response).

According to Beatles publicist Derek Taylor, however, the song had a few different genuses. “Paul, his dog, Martha, and I had an early morning walk on Primrose Hill in the winter of 1967. We watched a particularly beautiful sunrise from the very top of the hill when Paul suddenly realized that Martha was missing. We turned to try to find her when suddenly there was a middle-aged man, very respectfully dressed in a brilliant raincoat, who smiled at us. We were sure that he hadn’t been there a moment before – we were rather startled to see him – but we greeted him, and he greeted us back very warmly. A moment later, we saw Martha come bounding up the hill to rejoin us, and so we ventured back to where we had just been. To our astonishment, there was absolutely no sign of the man. Because we were on top of the hill and could easily see down on all sides, this was an impossibility. Paul and I then tried to speculate where he had disappeared to, but we couldn’t make any sense out of it. Of course, we immediately felt that something mysterious, even spiritual, had just occurred. Paul began to work on ‘The Fool on the Hill’ later that night. The next day, he began to hum the song to John and completed it later on that spring.”

The ballad that they recorded captured nearly all of the band’s most innovative musical elements that they had perfected as a studio band for the previous six years. In the final version of “The Fool on the Hill,” the Beatles incorporated eight strings, a trio of flutes, a standup bass, an acoustic guitar, a mouth harp, a set of maracas, finger cymbals, and a harpsichord.

George Martin, who constantly prodded them to explore the vast reaches of classical musical, stood in awe in the producer’s sounding room in Abbey Road Number 2 Studio as they commenced to build musically upon the song. “It was the group at their very best,” Martin commented in The Beatles Anthology, “They played off each other, experimented, added things, pared things down, and created a masterpiece together. It was Paul’s song, but they all played a big part in it. It was obvious they had now transcended rock and roll and had entered a territory that no rock band before or afterward has ever visited.”

In his voluminous book on the Beatles, Revolution in the Head, writer Ian McDonald comments, “The timeless appeal of ‘The Fool on the Hill’ lies in the paradoxical air of childlike wisdom and unworldliness, an effect created by a melancholy revolving harmony in which the world turns in cycles and rest, shadowed by clouds drifting indifferently across the sky.”

For longtime fans such as me, I distinctly remember hearing “The Fool on the Hill” for the first time in mid-December,1967, and thinking, “So this is what they are now up to these days!” For all of us under their spell at the time, each single and LP release was the musical equivalent of Christmas morning.

“Think for Yourself,” – for some Fab Four fans, this number was an afterthought, a little ditty buried within the brilliance of Rubber Soul. But it turned out to be much more than that. In John Lennon’s most personal Beatles album, “Think for Yourself” was a subconscious love letter from George Harrison to John himself.

For George, the youngest and most impressionable of the Beatles, Lennon not only filled the big brother/mentor role the moment he met him at fifteen in 1957, but John turned out to be “the best teacher I ever had.” From the time he joined John’s band, the Quarrymen, in the summer of 1957 – when he was just fifteen – George Harrison absolutely idolized Lennon. For George, the most spiritual of all four musicians, Lennon was his first guiding light before he found God in the late 1960s. “John was the center of my world for more than ten years,” George wrote in his autobiography. Despite Lennon’s vast contradictions – “he unknowingly hurt me with his sharp tongue hundreds of times,” Harrison once admitted – Lennon was, after all, the individual who wrote, “Love is a promise, love is a souvenir, once given, never forgotten, never let it disappear.”

“John could be idiosyncratic, unpredictable – but his heart was almost always in the right place,” Paul McCartney told Dave March in a much-quoted Rolling Stone piece fifteen years after Lennon’s death. Not long before he died of cancer in 2002, George wrote, “In a world in which violence and misunderstanding and war were often the final result, it was John who wrote, ‘All You Need is Love.’ It’s a pretty astonishing legacy to leave to the world.”

Not surprisingly, then, George’s first stabs at songwriting consciously mirrored Lennon’s lyrics – ponderous, ironic, substantive. However, in “Think for Yourself,” recorded on November 8, 1965, the good student now yearns to sprout his own wings after latching onto John’s back for the previous decade. As in the best works of both Lennon and McCartney, Harrison’s subconscious prevails in the number: “Although your mind’s opaque/Try thinking more for your own sake/The future still looks good/And you’ve got time to rectify/All the things that you should.”

Musically, as far back as George’s 1963 tune, “Don’t Bother Me,” Harrison often overlapped major and minor harmony with an emphatic circle progression that made his own sound distinctive from both John and Paul. He does so as well in “Think for Yourself,” a warm-up to his first authentic masterpiece, “If I Needed Someone,” which George would compose nine months later.

Fifteen years after “Think for Yourself” was first recorded, I ended up playing it over and over again in the early morning hours of December 9, 1980. Like millions and millions of lifelong Beatles’ fans, sleep was an impossibility when I learned that John Lennon had been senselessly murdered a few hours previously. Filled with pathos, I played Rubber Soul – John’s favorite album, over and over again until the dawn light sifted through my bedroom curtains. I mourned when I listened to “Girl” and wept when I played Lennon’s searing “In My Life.” But when I got to George’s “Think for Yourself,” I ended up listening intently. Through the ghostlike presence of John Lennon, George Harrison left a calling card for all of us to ponder on the day that the leader of the Beatles had perished: “Do what you want to do/And go where you’re going to/Think for yourself/’Cause I won’t be there for you…”


In March 1999, Elvis Costello received a late-night phone call from Paul McCartney. “I was sound asleep,” Costello remembered years later, “but when one of the Beatles wakes you up from a sound sleep, the adrenaline rush is immediate.”

Sir Paul then asked Costello if he would perform at an upcoming tribute concert for his wife, Linda, who had recently died. Six weeks later, Elvis met Paul at the Royal Albert Hall in London for a rehearsal for the concert.  McCartney asked Costello to perform his legendary Beatles’ song, “All My Loving,” with Elvis singing John’s harmony part in the familiar refrain:

Close your eyes and I’ll kiss you

Tomorrow I’ll miss you

Remember I’ll always be true.

That evening, when they played the ballad at the actual concert, the audience started singing the lyrics – totally drowning out the musicians’ vocals. “I suddenly realized why the Beatles stopped recording,” Costello remembered later on. “Their songs weren’t theirs anymore. They belonged to everybody.”