Being a 14-year-old putz wasn't easy for someone who'd never planned on being one. But the mysterious introduction into my teenage body of strange hormones, the sudden emergence of an outsized honker, a generous splash of zitz and the resultant blast of teenage lonlieness provided lessons I believed I'd have to learn from or die:
Never let your emotions show. Forget you even have them. Meet everything you don't like, can't understand or feel threatened by with a mask of sarcasm.
So I became the Sneering One. The Smart-Ass. The (secret) Hypocrite who disguised his jealousy of all things good and sweet with sour mockery. And my mockery was never so pronounced as when I heard my younger sister Karen play her Beatles albums. I might have brought her to tears one day with my unsolicited dismissal of the group and their music.
No one in my large family knew that when the sun went down and everyone went to bed, I would steal into the living room and lie on the floor, my head pressed between the removable twin speakers of my parent's stereo, the better to enjoy "Beatles '65" or "Meet the Beatles" at a barely audible level. My intense listening pleasure was salted by my fear of being discovered -- yeah, I was hiding my love away. But I was lonely and unhappy enough to build an entire day around the chance to get lost at night in those bouyant, simple songs of lost love, threatened romance, and the sheer sonic joy that two electric guitars, an electric bass and a drum kit can bring a kid who finds himself alone in a world that seems stacked against him, that wants to keep him confused, resentful and fearful.
But I was a putz and The Beatles were a girl band and no self-respecting he-manly teenager of the day could admit his love of The Fab Four. Even, in the beginning, to himself. Real manly teenagers dug The Stones.
I had reason to remember those teenage days while lying in a hospital bed nearly two years ago, recovering from abdominal surgery and beginning to feel the tendrils of depression reaching out for my sleepless, intubated body, a body that had been slapped by circumstances as unexpected as adolescence into a dismal room that featured a second-floor view of a scrawny treetop and a TV screen controlled by a fellow sufferer with an insatiable taste for the Food Network.
Food -- real, chewable, fragrant food -- was what I craved most of all and it was what I was denied in the early days of my confinement. I asked -- almost begged -- for it every day, knowing full well that once I was off the IV, the best I could hope for would be a noxious farago of over-cooked vegetables, mystery meat smothered in dead-white gravy and a square of glutinous "dessert" as edible -- and tasty -- as a sponge. This was not my first hospital interment. I craved greasy, hot and most of all familiar stuff like cheeseburgers and fried chicken and hot apple pie a la mode. But no amount of pleading worked. I felt like a Death Row prisoner denied his final meal.
Watching Rachael Ray gad about her TV kitchen, whipping up a skillet full of sizzling Italian sausage and peppers while babbling about her busy, busy day as my "lunch" was coursing through a vein attached to a plastic bag of sugar water was about all I could take. Come the fourth day of my incarceration, the tendrils were beginning to take root.
At lunchtime that day, I received not the bagel-and-cream-cheese of my dreams but something better: my daughter Annie's laptop computer, which the hospital room itself did its best to defeat: there were only so many electrical outlets available in my space-capsule-sized room, and most of them were plugged into some part of my anatomy. But Annie's laptop had a wi-fi card. Miraculously, the hospital actually provided wi-fi. Flawless wi-fi. Wi-fi that did what the hospital's menu couldn't do: provide blessed nurture for one of its ailing occupants.
It was there, on an otherwise sodden July afternoon, that I re-connected with my closeted teenage past. In place of those big gray stereo speakers, a pair of tiny white ear buds. In place of my sister's platters, YouTube. For secretive volume, substitute full-blast sound.
At YouTube, I typed in "beatles hard day's night." A blank screen finally gave way to that bizarre opening chord -- SPLANG gggg--that signaled the beginmning of the running, jumping, standing still opening credits of Richard Lester's great movie. A thrill ran through my battered body. I felt like I was watching history being made --- my own, and the rest of the world's -- as I watched those grinning young men being pursued by a mob of screaming, delirious girls.
Lying in bed, I took notes in a shaky hand. I couldn't help myself, couldn't stop making my own sort of delirious sense of what I was seeing and feeling:
"Three of them in deep focus running down a narow sidewalk toward the camera. George trips, falls, then Ringo. John throws head back, breathless delight written all over face. They're all up and grinning. It's a game. Everyone's running, running, running in their buttoned-down-and-tied-up suits, racing through a black-and-white world of hand-held movie motion, always a step ahead of a screaming horde of girls."
I played that clip a dozen times that day. Maybe two dozen. Every time I did, my hospital cell melted away, replaced by a remembered living room floor. I was my long-ago, skinny, secretive self again, no longer constrained by the fear of discovery.
Alone in my cell, I was being nourished as I had been so long ago. That opening chord was the moment everything changed for me -- and arguably, the rest of the world. I snapped the computer closed that evening, when I finally and for the first time during my incarceration felt satiated.
There I was, nearly half a century later, tears in my eyes, resembling no one in the movie more than Paul's grandfather, knowing as much as it's possible for a man to know how thrilling it must have been to be a lovesick teenage girl back then, screaming her head off for her favorite Beatle, sobbing at the pure mysterious pleasure of the chase she knew she could never win but running just the same, unleashing an innocent passion in an otherwise cold world, a passion that should never have been sneered at but rather treasured for the tender moment it was and the nourishing food it had just become for me.
That song, that film clip, those screaming, guileless were as inspiring to me as any of the great freedom songs of the Civil Rights era. I felt utterly refreshed, ready for anything, ready to make my own mad dash down the dismal hallway outside my door, down to the streets below, running, running, running away from the misery and self-pity that had nearly taken me over. It had been a hard day's night, yeah, but I'd get out of that damned hospital no matter what, I'd get home and I would feel all right.
But not before swearing to myself that I would confess my sins to my sister Karen in the name of all those lovely, gawky, bewildered girls like her who threw their love so fearlessly to their smiling idols, however briefly, innocently or hopelessly.
I begged then, as I do now, all you no-longer-young ladies, to please accept the abjecty apologies of a once-callow, no-longer-young man who didn't -- couldn't -- see you for the angels you were.