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Thursday
Feb172011

Two Families, the Beatles and a Rabbit Named Paul

I am over the moon to welcome a new guest columnist to Go West Young Mom. He’s Don Babwin, a former co-worker of mine, and he’ll occasionally be contributing stories here. I’ve read the following piece at least 10 times and it leaves me misty-eyed every single time. If you’re a Beatles fan, you’ll love it. But no matter what your musical tastes, this essay will make you ponder what warm family memories your children will treasure long after you are gone. -- Tara

It was my father who came home with the news that we would not be watching the second half of “Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color” on Sunday night. Instead, he announced, some of his buddies at the sheriff's office said there was something on “The Ed Sullivan Show” we just had to see. And he promised my brothers and I would like it.

The author with his father, Ed Babwin, in the summer of 1957.We'd seen Topo Gigio, Senor Wences and Robert Goulet too many times to think there was anything that would justify turning the channel a half-hour into Disney, but both he and my mother insisted. 

Nearly a half-century later I remember our family sitting in front of the black-and-white TV watching in disbelief what was unfolding in front of us. It wasn't just that we couldn't believe what we were seeing. It was that it made us – all of us – so happy. Two years later my father would die of cancer and three years after that my older brother would leave home for college, beginning the kind of splintering all families go through. But on that night, we were all together. We were a family. We were watching the Beatles.

Now it is happening again. Not in a living room, but in a car. Late last year, my wife decided we'd been trapped long enough in the car with the likes of the Jonas Brothers, Hannah Montana, Demi Lovato and the cast of “High School Musical,” that something had to be done to regain control of the radio and CD player from our 8-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son. Just drawing the line at singing chipmunks was no longer enough.

So she put in the CD player the Beatles' greatest hits, the one with every one of their songs that reached No. 1 on the charts, from "'Love Me Do" to the "Long and Winding Road."

And they liked it. Not all of it, of course. "Yesterday" was too slow for my son. But soon, they were asking for their favorites, my daughter requesting "Yellow Submarine" over and over and my son insisting on "The Ballad of John and Yoko," and then belting out "Christ, you know it ain't easy," along with John.

This was a huge deal. And not just because it meant we didn't have to listen to the "Camp Rock" soundtrack. My wife and I were older when we had our daughter – she was 40 and I was closing in on 50 – so we were big enough fans of the Beatles to count the night John Lennon was killed as one of those you-know-exactly-where-you-are-when-you-heard-the-news moments.

But for me, there was more. The Beatles aren't just part of history, they are, starting with that night in 1964, a chapter of my family's history.

I can still hear my mother, as we waited for the Beatles to appear, saying what a clever name that was for a band. It may have cool to name a band after some bugs, I thought, but clever? No, she explained, Beatles, as in musical beat.

Photo courtesy of Amazon.Sullivan, so impossibly stiff that it was then and still is hard to believe he was on television, came out, waved his arm toward the stage, and shouted, "Ladies and gentleman, THE BEATLES."

There they were. Four young men wearing suits that didn't fit or look like any suit my father wore, their hair impossibly long. And the noise. The girls in the audience were crying, singing, pulling their hair, shrieking, smiling, mouthing the names Paul or John or George. If any of them said Ringo, I don't remember it.

They kept screaming throughout the first song, "ALL MY LOVING," and into the next one. And they kept on screaming.

We joked about the girls, especially the crying ones. What was that about? And the Beatles hair, especially when they shook it during "She Loves You."

But then the music took over. It was joyful. It was fun. Not just for my two brothers and me, but for my parents, too.  They were smiling. They liked it.

We all may have liked it for a different reason, the kids because it was like nothing we ever heard, certainly nothing like the Perry Como albums my parents had. There was no mistaking that this was OUR music, not theirs.

At the same time, for all the screaming and shaking hair there was no denying that the music made all of us feel good. It wasn't scary or threatening. The Beatles looked like they were having fun, too. They were smiling. They seemed as amused by all the screaming and shrieking coming from the audience, as if they were in on the jokes we were making.

It was maybe the first time in years that music actually brought families together instead of revealed a divide the way Elvis Presley had in the days when cameras – apparently operated and controlled by men my parents' age – refused to let the lens stray south to reveal what the King's hips were doing.

Nor would there be any more family gatherings for the sneering Mick Jagger and the rest of the Rolling Stones, the Doors, the Byrds.    

The Beatles even gave me and my brothers something to brag about when, a few months later, they appeared at the Cow Palace, a huge barn-like arena that, luckily, was on the San Mateo County side of the San Mateo County-San Francisco border.

That meant my father, a San Mateo County sheriff's deputy, would be part of the security force whose job it is would be to keep the delirious teenage girls – some of of whom, it was reported, actually ate some grass the Beatles ran across when their plane landed at San Francisco International Airport – from ripping the Beatles apart.

The author's parents, Ed and June Babwin.Not only that, but his post would be directly in front of the band. As time passed, I kept putting him closer and closer to the Beatles, and by the time I was in high school five years later I practically had him playing the tambourine and not where he actually was: on a platform below the front of the stage. That was close enough to be pelted by jelly beans that girls inexplicably threw at the band. (He even picked up a few and gave them to us. I'm not sure we believed they hit the Beatles as he'd claimed, but a teenage girl in the neighborhood did, and was willing to pay cash for any that actually hit George, which, it turned out, a couple of mine had.)

He was close enough to get into one of the photographs on a wall at the Cow Palace showing some of the site's biggest events, from the Grand National Rodeo to the 1964 Republican National Convention. I could for years point to my father's head at the bottom of the picture of the band. The bald Beatle, I'd joke.

After the show, my parents had no problem letting us go see the Beatles' movies. I don't remember if my mother went in the theater to see "A Hard Day's Night," but I clearly recall her dropping us off to see "Help" by ourselves – an obvious seal of approval.

My father died in 1966, so he didn't see the Beatles as they evolved, how their hair grew long by anyone's standards, how the beards made them look a bit like garden gnomes, or how they discarded their matching suits in favor of something more conducive to the psychedelic age the band and most everyone else their age was entering. 

But my mother saw it. If she was bothered by any of those changes, she never let on. I never asked her about it, but I think she was OK with it all. It could also be that the Beatles made it easier to cope with the sight of her sons' hair inching its way down their backs, sideburns crawling down the sides of their heads and beards sprouting on their faces. She knew what was underneath. She'd seen it that night on television. The Beatles already had assured her that no matter what they looked like, she could trust them, that her kids were safe listening to their music.

Because of all the interviews and movies, she, like her kids, could easily imagine these were just four best friends who looked out for each other and wrote songs together in a way impossible to imagine with some of their counterparts. (Hey, Keith, what rhymes with Lucifer?)

Which brings me back to our car. As I listen to the songs, I have a renewed appreciation for what the Beatles did. The music IS really good. It is joyful. It is mostly about what is important: love. There have been questions and our answers – Day Tripper is someone who takes day trips – are lame. But they seem to satisfy the kids. 

The Beatles were so clever that they never sang us into a corner – considerate  enough, for example, to give us a story about the artwork of a friend of John's son when they ask about "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds."  And JoJo had some, well, California grass. As an adult I now appreciate "Eleanor Rigby" as one of the simplest, yet profound songs about loneliness there is. As a parent, I find "She's Leaving Home" both beautiful and almost impossible to listen to.

The kids have taken to do what we did, announce their favorites.  Our daughter likes Paul and our son favors John – to the point we just learned that he has organized Beatles games at his pre-school that consists of the other kids chasing him, John, around the park. He's even named a rabbit that has taken up residence in our backyard Paul. He's said my wife has to call it Ringo and I have to call it John. And because our daughter stubbornly insists on calling it Fred, he calls the rabbit George as well. Just as I'm sure we did, they butcher the lyrics, especially our son, who can't figure out what is so funny about "B.S., I Love You."

We've also checked out "A Hard Day's Night" and "Help" from the library, and watched them together. I doubt it will leave the impression on them like it left on me when I first saw the Beatles on television. Then again, it might. Growing up on talking ogres, penguins and toys that come alive whenever a kid leaves the room, maybe the decidedly low-tech movies will stick in their heads.

Or maybe those movies will become something they can see in their heads years from now, not so much because what was on the screen as who was sitting in front of it. Because the more I think about it, the more I think the reason I remember that night so long ago so clearly is because my parents stuck around. While I'm pretty sure I still would remember seeing the Beatles for the first time no matter who was in the room, I'm absolutely certain it would not be one of those memories that reminds me of what it was like to be a kid in that house at that time in that family.

Our kids just might remember seeing something unlike anything they'd ever seen on television. "A Hard Day's Night" was even in black and white.

Or maybe they will remember what it felt like when we turned all the lights off to make the house feel like a movie theater, sitting between my wife and I and how good it felt to be part of a family.

As for long drives, they are as enjoyable as they've ever been, and the fear of getting stuck in traffic not nearly as strong as it once was. And I don't have to hope that somewhere out there, there is a Yoko poised to break up the Jonas Brothers.

Don Babwin is a journalist who lives in Oak Park with his wife and two children. His favorite Beatles album is “Rubber Soul.” He used to favor “Revolver” but he says his son’s insistence on playing “Taxman” over and over and over has turned him into a “Rubber Soul guy.”

Note: When this piece was first published on the home page, it attracted some lovely comments from readers. You can read those by clicking here.

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