The Night John Lennon Died

It has been forty years since John Lennon was assassinated. I’m not sure what’s more difficult to believe seeing in print (other than the word “assassinated”): writing the word “forty,” or writing the numeral “40.” Either way, it’s a disturbing thought on a number of levels.

On December 8, 1980, I was 19 years old, in college at the University of Maryland in College Park, not too far from downtown D.C. Late that evening, I was skulking around the fairly dilapidated guys’ dorm, which must have been designated as a dormatory decades earlier to break our spirits and wear down our resistence.

I was a hardcore Beatles fan, as were several of my closest friends from my hometown in New Jersey (and, as I was discovering, some of the guys in the dorm were big fans, too). We had attended the weekend-long Beatlefest conventions each year, listened to and analyzed each album and song almost daily, and pretty much immersed ourselves in the Beatles day and night.

On that December 8, sometime between11:30 p.m. and midnight, I wandered into a friend’s room down the hall (we all kept our room doors open whilst receiving random visitors) and saw the breaking TV news bulletin about John.

My life for next 24 hours or so, which went through an unexpected and troubling turn even as I had barely begun to grieve John’s death, is recorded in one of my spiral notebooks, as I scribbled the following day (I’ve put excerpts in italics). As I wrote at 4:20 a.m. on December 9:

“It was all said in one breath. I was, and still am, in a state of shock. I didn’t know what to do, what to say, or who to say it to.”

I called Joe, one of my fellow Beatlemaniac friends, at his college dorm on Long Island. “He came to the phone crying his eyes out. He couldn’t speak a word. ‘Are we having the same nightmare?’ I babbled, not knowing what else to say…” Oddly, at the same time, as I now notice while re-reading the notebook, I also questioned why I wasn’t crying my eyes out, too. I knew how I felt, but the tears just didn’t come, and I didn’t know why.

It somehow immediately became important for me to grab some cassette tapes and ask another guy in the dorm, who had an enviable stereo system, if I could tape the local rock radio stations for an hour or two. I just felt I needed to record and preserve the moment, as horrific as it was (I still have those tapes to this day).Then I called my parents at home. Then I began receiving calls from several friends and family members who had heard the news, and wanted to make sure I knew what had happened.

“All radio stations were playing Beatles and Lennon songs. I decided not to bother sleeping tonight. I took the car out for a drive, to continue listening to two DJs discuss the impact of the Beatles on the world.”

I was driving down a dark, quiet road not far from the campus; the road actually cut through fields owned by the U.S. Agriculture Department. Since I didn’t know the area well, I didn’t want to get lost, and there was nowhere to turn around, so I stopped to make a 3-point turn, intending to head back to the campus. As I backed up, the rear wheels of the car slipped into a ditch along the edge of the road. I couldn’t get the car out. It was about 2:00 a.m. What a time for this to happen. I eventually flagged down a car and told the people of my dilemma, and they promised to get help. I only half-believed them, but it turned out that they actually did keep their promise.

“It was so ironic that I had so much Beatles and John Lennon music to listen to on the radio while waiting for help. A county cop and tow truck came and got me out for $30.00. At least the people I stopped on the road told someone. My mind wasn’t on getting stuck, or losing the $30.00. My mind was on losing the closest thing to an idol that I’ve ever had.”

Once back at the dorm, I continued listening to the radio stations, still numb to it all. One of the stations asked the D.C. Parks Commission for permission to hold a memorial service at the Lincoln Memorial. I knew I would be there.

I also wrote, “I sometimes had passing thoughts of what it would be like in the future, when one of the Beatles, as an old man, dies. How would the media treat it? How much coverage, how many tributes? It’s not happening in the future — it’s happening right now.”

“5:00 a.m. — I’ll listen to WAVA (FM105) until the newspapers come out.”

I’m not sure how I spent the rest of December 9, but later that day, I made note of how the three major network newscasts had the tragedy as their lead story, and devoted a great deal of their programs to it. CBS aired a half-hour special to John later that night, as did ABC.

The vigil at the Lincoln Memorial a day or two later began as a “silent” vigil, but as more people arrived, most of them about my age, and local TV news crews began filming the event for broadcast later in the day, the silence gave way to phrases such as “I love you, John” spoken softly at first, but eventually leading to chants of “Give Peace A Chance” and other Lennon creations, interspersed with spontaneous, emotional speeches — some bordering on deifying John in that moment of grief. The crowd grew, and the “silent” vigil eventually became a full-throated rally of sorts, although the wording of the pronouncements shouted out in that act of emotional purging escapes my memory. People didn’t seem sure of what to do — sit silently, cry, sing, shout — so they did everything.

At times, with the press having arrived, it almost felt as if we were on display, to be gawked at by passers-by visiting the monument, and, later, by TV viewers. I was both heartened and a tad resentful to see so many camera crews covering the moment in such a matter-of-fact manner. But that was their job. Such was the swirl of my emotions that day.

A week or two later came a number of protests for handgun control. I was there for those, too.

In time, the mourning of John’s death eventually reverted back to the celebration of his life and music. I still have the newspapers and magazines I saved from that shattering week, but I don’t go out of my way to look through them much. More importantly, I still have the music, as we all do, to which I return often — although I’ve really never left it, not for even a fleeting moment in my life. And it has never let me down.

Until next time…

Pop Culture historian, Freelance Writer, Author, specializing in American comedy history in films, radio, and TV. Beatles and jazz enthusiast, animal lover.

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