Remembering The Beatles, John Lennon, and December 8

Author’s Note: I originally told this story to a few friends in an email in November 1995 when The Beatles Anthology was airing on ABC Television. That email is nowhere to be found, so I decided to rewrite the tale here, with another fifteen years of nostalgia and hindsight.

In the summer of 1979, I was about to turn six years old. In my six year old world, there were a few very important things that my world focused on: First of course were my parents and brother Brian; second was the band KISS. Apart from food, the list pretty much stopped there. I discovered KISS two years before, and I listened to all of the KISS albums I had up to that point, almost on a daily basis.

Summers when I was young always involved my grandparents. My brother and I always spent a week with my father’s parents while my mom and dad went on a small vacation of their own. My dad’s parents, Bill and Ocie Hall were extremely active for seniors, so they took my brother [who was almost four in summer 1979] and my cousin Henry [two years older than me] on day trips to Yorktown, Jamestown and several trips to ‘The Mall’. They did that last bit because my hometown of Staunton, Va didn’t really have a mall yet, and I know Henry’s home city of Amelia didn’t have a mall in 1979. They may not have even had a mall in 1989 but I’m not sure.

So, we had a fun week every year with Grandma and Granddaddy Hall because we were almost always busy. So busy in fact that my brother and I didn’t really have time to fight one another, something we used to do often when jockeying for space and attention.

Not as routinely, but usually for at least a few days every summer, my brother and I would spend time with my mother’s parents, Ruby and Jon Vaden. Whereas my dad’s parents were active, at this point in their lives, my mom’s parents had become very sedentary. They had their routine, and it usually involved a very early dinner, and then the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite and that was followed by crime dramas. I remember Granddaddy Vaden liked Kojak, Columbo and the like.

What that meant for a soon to be six year old in a relatively large house with many bedrooms was that there was plenty of time to go exploring around the house, since my grandparents were going to be in the front room watching TV…and I knew even at that young age, that you did not dare interrupt Granddaddy Vaden while he was watching TV. Don’t misunderstand, I loved both sets of grandparents dearly, but since my mom’s parents were not nearly as active, it gave me an excuse to get into mischief.

One night that summer of 1979, I went upstairs in the house and went into what used to be my Aunt Dale’s bedroom when she was a child. It was the bedroom that was designated as mine during these summer visits, and, it was obvious that not much had changed since Dale used it as a bedroom. This is where I made a truly life-changing discovery.

Keep in mind that, wherever I went, if I was going to be spending the night, I took along my record player and several albums and 45s. That summer, I was listening to KISS’ latest record, Dynasty. I spent many hours listening and staring at this album cover:

While that record played in the background, I found a yellow round foot stool. Since it didn’t have a back, I couldn’t use it as a chair, even though I tried. Me being my normally clumsy self, I fell off the stool. I fell one way, the stool fell over on its side in the opposite direction. The fall didn’t scare me, I was more than used to falling. What did surprise me though was that, when the stool fell, I heard something rattling around inside. So. the obvious next move was to remove the top –even though I didn’t have anyone’s permission to do so–to see what was inside.

Waiting inside this nondescript foot stool were about seven or eight 45s by this band called The Beatles. I had no idea who the band was, I didn’t know the titles…all I knew was that in my hand was undiscovered music! The first single I picked up was ‘Twist And Shout / There’s A Place on the Tollie label. I put on ‘Twist and Shout’. I picked it, if I’m being honest, because it had ‘Shout’ in the title, like one of my favorite KISS songs, ‘Shout It Out Loud.’

As the needle dropped and the record spun, my world opened up, and my life changed forever.

I think I played Twist and Shout three or four times before turning the single over to listen to There’s A Place, which is still one of my favorites. Before I go any further, here’s a list of the singles that I found that evening. I think I have most of the A and B sides matched up right, but my memory may be wrong on some.

*Twist And Shout /There’s A Place
*Please Please Me/ From Me To You
*I Want To Hold Your Hand/I Saw Her Standing There
*Help!/I’m Down
*Ticket To Ride/Yes It Is
*We Can Work It Out/Day Tripper
*Ballad of John and Yoko/Old Brown Shoe

These 45s were in pretty good shape, considering when I found them, some had been in a foot stool for 15 years. All of them had some pops and crackles, but none skipped. The only record that was warped badly was ‘Ballad of John and Yoko’ and that was okay. I was too young to know what the lyrics were describing and it wasn’t as catchy on first listen as the songs I would later find out came to make up ‘Beatlemania’. Some of the records had the letters ‘DV’ in pencil on the label, circled. That let me know that these records were my aunt Dale’s, and she bought them when she was only just a few years older than I was at the moment I found them. Add to this the fact that, when I was all of three years old, she let me listen to her ‘Frampton Comes Alive’ and Steve Miller records and, it’s no wonder she’s always been the person I call ‘My Cool Aunt’, because as much as I love my other relatives, she really was the only older influence in my life that ‘got’ rock and roll, and I wanted to tap into that as much as possible. That understanding all came as I grew up. When I was that young though, she was just ‘cool’, and that needed no further explanation.

I played those records for the rest of my stay at grandma’s, and I think she was just happy to hear something besides KISS coming from my temporary bedroom. On my last morning there, as I was awaiting my parents’ arrival, I began packing up my record player and began stowing the Beatles 45s back in the foot stool. As I was doing this, grandma stuck her head in the bedroom and said, ‘You know those records you found? You can take them home if you want. All they’ve been doing is sitting there for years. You can have ’em.’

I couldn’t thank her fast enough. That small gesture remains one of the most important moments of my life, and one of the best ‘gifts’ anyone has ever bestowed upon me. I saw Granddaddy Vaden in the kitchen as I was getting ready to leave. I don’t remember him being very talkative, but as I sat at the kitchen table with him that morning he said simply, ‘I’m glad you like the records,’ and left it at that. I know that I saw him again during Christmas 1979, but that’s the last conversation that I have in my head. He died in April 1980.

When my parents arrived I couldn’t wait to tell them about this new group I discovered, and please be careful taking the records because none of them have sleeves and please don’t scratch them because they don’t skip…

By this age of almost six, I was already a drummer, having started on my mom’s kitchen pots and pans and by 1977 graduating to a paper drum kit. So, once Dad realized I was now into The Beatles, he called me Ringo for weeks. Once we got back home to Staunton that night, dad showed me a song book called ‘Meet The Beatles.’ It was a songbook for guitar and piano of The Beatles first US album, complete with pull out ‘info cards and pictures’ of the band, all still in tact and in near mint condition. Dad never used it because he played accordion and well, even he admitted that most of The Beatles stuff didn’t sound that good on accordion. He gave me the book later that summer. It’s still one of my prized possessions, and still in near mint condition.

I think for my birthday in September 1980, I got a vinyl copy of Rubber Soul [US Version]. Apart from that, The Beatles to me were still those six unwarped 45s, and, as singles go, that’s a pretty great foundation to begin discovering a band. I wasn’t really in a hurry to find out everything The Beatles did yet, I was happy with those songs and I loved those songs. I think my dad knew that as I got older, I would explore their music more in depth, but he didn’t force it on me. It was a great, wonderful time.

My morning ritual in elementary school involved my mom coming in my room to wake me up, and then setting out my clothes for the school day. As I lifted my head to start my day on the morning of December 9, mom said quietly ‘John Lennon was killed last night.’ It didn’t register at first, then she added, ‘of The Beatles.’

That’s when it felt like I had been slapped in the face.

I ran to my dresser and looked at the song book and pointed at his face on the songbook cover and asked ‘That one? He’s the one who…’ Mom nodded so I didn’t finish the sentence. I don’t remember crying at that moment, but I do remember just wondering why.

When I got to school, everything seemed normal and so I fell into my routine. When you’re in second grade, sometimes being able to forget is a nice attribute. It wasn’t until lunch time, when the second and third graders went to the cafeteria, that the morning’s news affected my school day. I remember seeing a teacher crying at her lunch table. I went up to her and without even saying hello I asked her, ‘Are you crying because of The Beatle who was killed last night?’ She looked up at me and said ‘Yes, how do you know about The Beatles?’ ‘I have some of there records and I like them,’ I said.

I’m sure that we said more to each other, but that’s what I still remember. I remember feeling very grown up because I was one of the few who knew why most of the grown ups in my world were upset that day. It’s a feeling I’ve never forgotten.

It’s been thirty years since that day. That’s hard to believe. Since that day, I’ve lost all my grandparents and my father. But there’s something about that day, December 8, every year, that still feels like a slap in the face and, for a moment, I’m still that kid walking around the lunch room. Maybe it’s because I was so young when it happened. I mean, the previous April I had been to my Granddaddy Vaden’s funeral, but that loss didn’t resonate with me simply because I was not old enough to ‘get to know’ my grandfather as more than just the man in the easy chair watching Kojak. But with John Lennon, I had heard his voice on record every day for fifteen months. I never knew him as a person, and I would always have the records, but the fact that he was now suddenly gone…that was probably my first lesson that not only old people die. Anyone can die, at any time.

I’ve seen the movies, read the books and of course bought all the records, so now I know a lot about John Lennon. On this anniversary, I will play his music, remember my grandparents, and remember the sheer euphoria of hearing that opening riff and Lennon’s “Well shake it up baby now…’ for the first time.

Very few moments in life will ever top that.

 In the summer of 1994, my mother and her family were going through my grandmother’s estate. Aunt Dale and I were up in the bedroom where she used to sleep as a child, and where I discovered The Beatles through her 45s. She said out loud to no one as we were going through some boxes in a closet, ‘Ya know, that foot stool over there…there used to be some records in there. I wonder whatever happened to them.’

‘I have no idea Aunt Dale, I wish I did.’

Thanks for reading, and special thanks to Aunt Dale. I still have your records…and you can’t have ’em back! 😉

‘There are places I remember all my life, though some have changed…’