My dad once told me I had “cart-before-the-horse mouth.” After a certain press conference about 12 years ago, he now jokes that I have “orgy of the senses” mouth, but that’s a whole ’nother story ...
Have you ever had one of those childhood times you said something and realized that what sounded “exciting” to you had a much more dramatic effect than you could have imagined? I had two gigantic times I’ve blurted something out like that. The first was when I was coming to school from a dentist appointment as a 10-year-old and heard that the President had been shot.
(Now, in my defense, just a few months earlier I’d watched my grandpa stand at a microphone in front of 600 employees at a company Christmas party and announce something I had already heard on the radio an hour earlier: John Lennon had been shot and killed. The prism of a 10-year-old reporter. ’Nuff said. Even though he wasn't a John Lennon fan, grandpa stood up and handled it with grace and dignity.)
As I signed into Shining Mountain Elementary School that morning in 1981, I kind of shouted to the office staff, basically, “Hey, by the way, did you hear the President was shot?” Well, they hadn’t.
I didn’t really know about JFK ... hell, I wasn’t even that aware of what being President meant in general -- I just thought it was cool that, really for the first time, I comprehended that there was this huge event going on outside of school, and I, me, knew it before all the grownups in school.
The secretary of the school burst into tears.
My filters didn’t get any more refined, though.
The second time was in 1985, when I was 15 and we were going to a friend’s New Year’s Eve party. As we drove to the party, the first news flashes came over the radio that Ricky Nelson had died in an airplane crash. I asked my dad who he was, because it was obvious by the way we sat in the driveway outside the party that he was important; dad and mom were just stopped for a moment. Reflecting. Dad kind of gathered himself and said, “Well, when Elvis went into the army, Ricky Nelson was bigger than Elvis.”
Hmm ... here were all these grownups sitting inside at a New Year’s party, my parents were sitting in the car, and I simply asked if I could go inside because I had to pee. I went inside, and all the usual party stuff was going on and I was pretty much unnoticed while I went into the bathroom. When I came out, my parents still weren’t out of the car. Bob, the party’s host, asked where my mom and dad were, and I said, “They’re sitting out in the car because they just heard Ricky Nelson is dead in an airplane crash.”
(Cue the sound of a vinyl LP ripping to a halt.)
And then I kept firmly entrenching myself in the bastion of all things insensitive.
“Yeah ... he got his big break when Elvis went in the Army.”
Silence. It was like Benjamin Braddock at the bottom of the pool.
I was standing there in front of a roomful of Baby Boomers who grew up in the Ricky Nelson era. They heard him on the radio, they watched him on television, and they went to his Garden Party in the 1970s. I mean, this guy was everyplace as they all grew up together.
(Side note: Never let your young teenagers think they can ever, EVER be the life of the party.)
I was thinking about all of this the Saturday before. I was doing a museum tour, and the son of somebody on the tour -- couldn’t have been more than 12 -- said to my little tour group, “Did you hear that Ronald Reagan just died?” There was a long, long silence (we hadn’t), and the kid finally said, “Yeah, he was president before Bill Clinton.”
Elvis left the building in both instances, I guess. (Does that make George W. Bush into Fabian?)
Even though there is nothing truly tragic about 93-year-old humans dying, I admit I was sad. Reagan wasn’t there for the last 10 years, publicly, or by some accounts, most of that time, mentally; this kid just told me we lost someone that had been a part of my culture -- if not physically, but by legacy -- for almost two-thirds of my life.
I awoke at 6 Friday morning and watched the services. I also came home that night just as the plane was landing at Point Mugu and watched those services. I cried both times. I might be a Reagan Democrat, or, by old accounts a Rockefeller Republican, but, even at such a young age, I didn’t agree with some of the things he did domestically. So I’m a Reaganfeller Somethingerrather. Doesn’t matter. But wasn't that the way it was in the 1980s?
Anyway ... all the pomp was done and I sat down to look at a box of stuff that my wife had taken out of storage before she left for New Jersey. On the top was a letter, handwritten, dated May 4, 1981, from the White House:
I was very happy to hear from you. You were a very nice young man to think of me, and I want to send you all of my thanks and good wishes always. Sincerely,
Agree? Disagree? Like him? Hate him? Liberal or conservative? I sent the guy a get-well card as a 10-year-old. He sent a handwritten note back.
Damn he was good.
And now that he’s gone and buried ... maybe, no matter what, it’s time to say to him:
“My thanks and good wishes always, too, Mr. President.”
It took me a week to blurt that out.