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Everybody Has a Beatle

By Elinor S. Wikler

 This is the way the Beatles came to our house the first night.  Upstairs in our bedroom, the television set hopped, and the three teen-agers in front of it, Joanie and her two best friends, Judy and Melanie, looked like characters at a Roman orgy.  Judy was rolling on the bed, moaning, Melanie was on the floor, chewing my pillow which was shedding feathers fast, and my own grave Joanie, her mouth stuffed with her knuckles, looked like Hamlet seeing his father’s ghost. On the screen, Ed Sullivan, arms out-stretched, was pleading for quiet, and the camera began to roam over the audience, over the girls’ faces all twisted and wrung, all piteously uncontrolled in a mélange of agony, ecstasy, joy, despair – all of it, everything there is.

 I had come to shush them, I suppose, calm them, make some brisk gesture of authority.  But somehow, standing there, I felt that these rites, whatever they were, were private.  I felt that I should have knocked.  And when the three heads turned around, I knew that I didn’t belong there.

 The next night, doing dishes, Joanie said, “Mother, aren’t they sharp?”  We had been discussing existentialism, and I asked idly, “Who?”  She gave the plate a kind of caress with the dish towel and said, “You know – them!”  Just the way, not too far back, she had never been able to name Santa Claus.  I got the awe.

 “Those Beatles, you mean?”

 “Uh-huh,” she said, not raising her eyes.

 “I understand about most feelings,” I began, “but you love Tchaikovsky and poetry…and…But why the Beatles?”

 She put down the plate, moved to the window and pulled back an edge of curtain.  She turned around. 

 “What did you hang your dreams on, Mother?”

 Clark Gable carrying Scarlett up those stairs, I thought.    The eyes of Charles Boyer, the voice…Slow, smoke-breathing Humphrey Bogart…I dried my hands.  “They’re not around any more,” I said, feeling a little empty.  “They’ve sort of vanished, I guess.”

 Joanie was fiddling with the radio.

 “Oh, they’re around,” she said idly, “on the Late Show. With plastered-down hair, making out with those girls in beaded dresses and no eyebrows.”

 “In big limousines,” I added, stuffing garbage into the disposal.  “Top hat, tails, and a moon over Central Park.  Doesn’t that seem at all romantic to you?”

 “It’s different now.  That’s corn now, Mommy,” she said.  She touched my arm gently.  “I’m sorry.”

 She switched on the radio.  My old secret longings were gurgling and grinding down the drain.  Hers filled the room:  “I wanna hold your hand, I wanna hold your hand…” She grinned.

 “Doesn’t that get in you, Mother?  That’s George,” she said with a bemused, delicate bounce.  “Oh, Mother…oh, Mother…”

 She looked just the way I used to feel in the enchanted Saturday afternoon, gilt-and-plush movie houses of my girlhood.  What matter, I thought, that these four jumping jacks were named after bugs and had too much hair?  The “Why?” I had asked Joanie had no answer in the mind, I realized, but in the times – in the heart of a girl who had little choice of heroes – scowling young doctors on television – bored, angry youths in movies.

 I grew from curiosity to acceptance to approval.  And, as the days and months and the records and pictures and fan magazines and T-shirts and dolls piled up, and the living room rug became more and more ground down in Beatle sessions after school, I began to be a fan.  Not for myself, but for Joanie.   Because I had begun to understand.  The fun of it, the excitement, the dream of it, the adventure…

 The latter began one day in March when it was announced on the radio that on a certain Thursday afternoon in May, starting at 4:30, tickets would go on sales at Philadelphia’s Convention Hall for a live Beatle performance four months hence, in September.  Joanie withered.

 Convention Hall is an hour away.”  She groaned.  “School isn’t over till 3:30.  I might as well be dead!”

 “Cut school,” I offered.  “Skip.”

 “You’re kidding!  You’re not serious!”

 “I mean it.  I’ll send in a note saying you were sick.”

 Incredulous, she was staring into my face.  “But you’re my MOTHER!”

 “I wasn’t always your mother.  I was fourteen years old once, too.  And it won’t be a lie, the note; you are sick – with Beatle Mania.”

 She clapped a hand over her mouth, and with her eyes still glued on mine, began backing toward the phone.  We agreed that nobody but the Beatles, Judy and Melanie and their mothers were to know.  Judy, whose marks were not up to snuff, was forbidden.  Melanie’s mother gave a “maybe” which meant a probable “yes,” as I expected, since Melanie’s mother had seen Gone with the Wind twenty-eight times when she was fourteen and had named her daughter Melanie Olivia.

 By nine thirty on that morning in May, they were off on the trip to Convention Hall, armed with lunch in paper bags and two old, collapsible artists’ stools which we had found in the attic.  Plus a transistor radio each (to listen to the Beatles while waiting).  I had given them a rough map of the area of Convention Hall, pointing out the University of Pennsylvania campus and the Commercial Museum nearby.

 Several hours later, I was worrying about what to say if the school should happen to inquire after Joanie’s health, when the phone rang.  I heard Joanie’s faint, anxious, “Mom?”  I looked at my watch.  Noon.

 “What is it, darling?  Are you lost?”

 I tried to keep my voice calm.  Rapists, I told myself sternly, rarely stalk at noon.

 “It’s the fuzz, Mom.  They’re all over the place.  What shall we do?

 “Fuzz?”  I echoed dimly.

 “Police!  Mom, they’re everywhere!

 “Joanie,” I commanded.  “Get out of there!  Leave!  Quick!”

 “But we’ll lose our place in line…”

 “Go!”  I shouted.  “Go to the Penn campus…act like a student…”  She could pass.  The was tall, filled out…she could pass…

 “But our place!  In the line!  We can’t…”

 “Where are you now?”

 “In the Commercial Museum.  Hiding in the ladies’ room.  We tried following some groups studying Indian art, but Mom, the fuzz are all over!  They say if we don’t leave, they’ll have to take us away in the wagon.  Somebody’s saving our places, and…Mom, I’m hanging up!  There’s one outside the phone booth!

 Click. When I could breathe, I called my husband at the office.

 “Fred – it’s Joanie!”  I sputtered.  “The police…”

 “Joanie!  Is she hurt?”

 “No, no!  But the fuzz – I mean, the police…the wagon…the tickets for the Beatle thing…”

 Silence.  I could almost hear his mind shifting gears.

 “The what thing?”

 “Beatles!”  I wailed desperately.   “You know, hair…guitars…yeah, yeah, yeah!”

 “Honey,” he asked quietly, “are you all right?”

 “Oh, I’m grand!” I snapped.  “I’m a great, fine mother!  I suggested this!  I handed your daughter straight into the arms of the law.  Now, listen to me…”

 “…and that baby,” I finished, “surrounded by cops at the Commercial Museum!”

 I heard a chuckle begin and rise and grow to a roar.  I could see him throwing his head back.

 “Pinched!  My Joanie!”  he choked.  “Never thought I’d live to…”

 “Ah, Fred,” I moaned.  “It’s not funny.  She must be terrified.”

 “Joanie?  Relax!  She’s having the time of her life!”

 We left it that if the police should call, I was to phone him again, and he would take care of everything.   I felt better then, but not much.  I spent the afternoon drinking coffee beside the radio which was turned low so I wouldn’t miss the phone.  There were reports of a growing mob at Convention Hall and riot-ready police.

 At five o’clock the phone shrilled through me.

 “Joanie?  Where are you?”

 “The station, Mom.”

 “Police station?”

 “The train station, Mother – Jenkintown.  Could you maybe please pick us up?  We’re sort of crippled.  And Mom, guess what! – We got the tickets!

 They hobbled to the car, sweaty, smudged, each with the wan but satisfied look of a woman who has just given birth.  Flopped in the back seat, with their four bare feet poking over the front, they cradled those green tickets -- $4.50 apiece, baby-sitting money, and an extra one for Judy.  In my old, red-velvet movie days, “Hail to the Chief” would have been playing softly on the organ.

 The story came out in staccato bursts.  By the time we had dropped off Melanie, Convention Hall had become the Coliseum, and I couldn’t decide whether the bad guys were the fans (climbing over people’s backs to get to the ticket window), or the police.  (“We hid in the ladies’ room until they let us in line.  They acted mad but they laughed a lot.”)

 The goal had been to get your money to the ticket booth fast.  Joanie, barred by a policeman under whose arm Melanie had ducked, had to toss her pocketbook to Melanie, who made a perfect interception and a touchdown at the ticket window.  In the meantime, a boy (there was a sprinkling of these) had tried to shove past Joanie, who was holding a post for support, bending her arm backward so that she screamed.  (But then, who heard?  Everybody was screaming.)  The management, fearing a riot, had opened the ticket window an hour before the announced time and had sold out in two hours.  Hundreds of ticketless teen-agers were left yelling on the steps.  The victors, with top-price seats, now lolled in my chariot.

 Everybody had been there.  Just everybody.  From all over the world.  Like Allentown.  Like Harrisburg.  Some had slept on the steps all night.  They sang together.  They sang “We Love You, Beatles.”

 So, everybody had everything in common – they had Ringo and George and Paul and John.  Girls like Joanie and Melanie, who were not yet cheer leaders or class presidents or captains or prom queens, were right in it.  They were living in The Crowd – the great swelling ocean of the world.  And, if they could just keep on breathing until September, then, then, they would be breathing the same air, the very same air, as George and Paul and Ringo and John!  (John was generally mentioned last; he was married.)

 The tickets were put into an envelope, inside of another envelope, in Joanie’s jewel box, the key to which was put into an envelope in my jewel box, and that key in the locked drawer of Fred’s desk.

 September 2 was ringed with stars on the kitchen calendar.  But, in May, September can seem a planet away.  The girls passed the time outside, listening to the radio, letting the sun bake away stray pimples, discussing what they would wear on the big day, arranging each other’s hair, and making nail-chewing speculations about how it would be just their luck if the world ended September 1.

 The nights were pierced with phone calls.

 “Have you heard…?”  Shriek.  “No!  Paul?  Engaged?  He wouldn’t!  Not Paul!  Who?  That model!  That tramp!  She’s just a– a– I can’t say it; my mother’s here.”

 Everybody had a Beatle.  George, the quiet, brooding one (she said) was Joanie’s.  Melanie, lusty and extroverted, had Ringo, the clown.  And Judy, who had never known her father, took Paul, handsome and kind.  The one with the wife, John, was regarded with respectful admiration.

 They picked up a flurry of puzzling British colloquialisms, such as “Oh, cor, it was really gear!”

 They trailed The Movie (starring The Beatles) from center city to far, outlying neighborhood theaters, and met a girl who had a cousin who had a friend who had once touched Ringo.  Since Ringo belonged to Melanie, this gave her a kind of aura and was woven into a story in which Ringo spots a blonde in black (Melanie, bleached) at Convention Hall and has an usher deliver a note, “Luv – meet me after.”  This was presented, written and bound in gold paper, by Judy and Joanie to a squealing Melanie on her birthday.  They called it “A Vision.”

 The kernel of this vision swelled, burst, flowered.  Through the rest of the summer, vision after vision popped onto paper like corn over flames.  And always, it was a gift from one to the other.  Joanie might compose a vision of Judy and Paul.  Or Melanie one of Joanie and George.  Or Judy one of Melanie and Ringo.  The unspoken rule in this was simply that you were never your own heroine.  You gave, so to speak.  And these girls gave!

 Settings started quietly enough in Convention Hall and its environs.  But, as the summer waned and September loomed closer, the visions grew in abandon.  From Philadelphia, they went to New York, to Liverpool, to London – and on to Siberia, where Joanie and George found each other in a salt mine.  They were rescued at sea -- Ringo carrying an inert Melanie onto a beach (never mind Gable and Scarlett!!) -- and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation which somehow progressed into something more intimate.  Judy got marooned on an island in the South Pacific (a plane crash), wearing “a few sexy little rags” (leopardskin), and was sighted by Paul from a helicopter.

 Vision dialogue ran from the airy, “Hi, luv!” to teeth-clenched, “Let the bloody world go hang!…it’s you I want!”

 Vision etiquette demanded blushes and lowered lashes of the recipient who, so easily, so naturally, began to wear the grace and bloom of a woman in love.

 Toward the end of August, when it began to look as if the world was not going to come to an end on September 1, there were endless discussions about what to wear, how many days before the performance to shampoo their hair, whether to wear earrings and if so, dangling ones or not.  (This I happened to overhear; the mothers, understandably, were not consulted.) 

 On the night of September 1, we had to give Joanie a tranquilizer so we could get some sleep.  It was a silent, nervous trio I took to the railroad station on September 2.  Judy, out of her mother’s sight, applied eye shadow on the way (I pretended not to notice), and Melanie, who had sneaked a pair of gold hoop earrings into her pocketbook, kept stealing glances into the rear-view mirror, trying to get them to stay on.

 Joanie had chosen the pale look:  ghost-colored lipstick, and a dot of eyebrow pencil on the beauty mark next to her mouth.  She work Greenwich Village sandals and had painted her toenails silver.

 They said nothing but an occasional, “Oh, Brenda!”  “Oh, Tarleton!”  “Oh, Brigid!”  These were secret British names they had given to one another along with the visions.  They kept checking their pocketbooks for the tickets.

 I began to have my own visions – of the mob, of the push, the crush.  I prayed silently that every policeman in the city of Philadelphia would show up at Convention Hall.  The performance would not start until 8:30, but they boarded the 3:30 train to town, the old map and bags of supper clutched in their hands.  They wanted to “just sort of hang around in clumps with everybody,” waiting for the arrival of the Beatles in Philadelphia.  They’d be sure to phone me to pick them up at the station later.

 At home, that night stretched out as endlessly as the girls’ summer.  I kept switching channels on TV – news, weather, sports.  I picked up the nearest magazine and leafed through it, unseeing.  It was a Beatles Magazine.  Fred chuckled and patted my shoulder.

 “Those boys got you, too, honey?”

 I raised his hand to my cheek.  “I’m nervous, Fred – I don’t know why.  Those kids…They looked so – well – vulnerable.  Fred, do you think…?”

 “Stop worrying, honey.”  He grinned reassuringly.  “They’re having the ball of the century, these kids!”

 Had something – excitement, anticipation – crept under my adult skin?  I tuned in Jimmy Stewart on the Late Show and curled up, only slightly warmed by the old glamour.  Something about him looked different – he looked like a man with “plastered-down hair”!

 The last train home was the 12:15.  At one o’clock I moved to the phone which had sat there in black silence all evening long.  A door slammed outside.  “I’ll call you!”  I heard.  Joanie!  She floated in.

 “How…” I began.

 “A cab,” she said dreamily.  “We missed the stop.  It’s O.K., Mother.  On the train, there was this man who had touched the lens of the camera that…”

 She sank to the couch and leaned back her head and closed her eyes.  There was a big, spreading bruise up and down one leg.  She held out the green ticket stub in the direction of her father.

 “Keep it for me, Daddy, in the locked drawer.”

 Then she turned limply on her stomach, buried her face in the cushions, and moaned.  We looked at each other.  Fred knelt beside her, stroking her hair.  The bruised leg was swelling fast.

 “Joanie,” he asked quietly, “are you all right?”

 She raised a wet face.  “So…happy!  That’s all, Daddy.  They were there.  In the same room.  With us!  If I died now, if I was struck dead this minute, I wouldn’t care.  September second has come…” her voice was solemn, “…and gone!”

 Fred wiped her face with his handkerchief.  “Gone, all right!  Come on pixie, you’ve had it!  All of it, and then some!”  He took her hand.  “Get to bed now.”

 “Oh, Daddy!”  She protested.  She raised his hand to her cheek.  I saw, in his startled glance, what he saw then – more of the woman, less of the child.

 “It was like a dream, like magic…,” she said, sitting on her bed, in her pajamas, sipping skim milk.  “So…special…so wild…like we wanted it to be.  Lights flashing and popping.  The dark hall.  The curtain parting.  Everybody standing up on their chairs and screaming.  And everybody so together.  It felt like…like…fireworks!  And, Mom, we saw them, we saw them, the real, living them.  And then, oh, Mom, look…”  She opened a fist which held a wrinkled piece of aluminum foil.  “Do you know what this is?”

 I shook my head.

 “The cake,” she said with eyes blazing, “the cake they ate at the press conference was in this!

 “Really?”

 “Uh-huh,” she answered, not raising her eyes.  A policeman told us.  He got it for us.  From the trash.  That was really kind of him, wasn’t it, Mom?

 “Yes, darling,” I said, “Now, sleep tight.”  She slept until noon.

 “How do you feel now, Joanie?”  I asked over the lunch dishes.  She sighed, stretched, and looked past the curtain into the bright afternoon.

 “Fulfilled,” she answered, lingering over the word.

 “Sorry it’s over?”

 She stood there, half-smiling, a dream still in her face.

 “Over?” she echoed.  “Over?  Nothing’s ever over.  There’s always a next time.”

 Next time, I thought.  So many next times at her age.  What will they bring, the next time and the next, at fifteen, at sixteen?

 “Nothing’s ever over…,” she had said just now at the window.

 I remember, I thought.  I remember believing that too.

 Over?  The Beatles?  Soon, probably, for Joanie.  Over, and brought bubbling to surface again someday, in her own kitchen, with her own daughter.

 But if ever, in Joanie’s big, swelling ocean of the world, I should find a long-haired Englishman named George, or Ringo, or Paul, or John, I’d thank him for allowing her to scream when she felt like it, love because she had to, laugh because she wanted to, cry when she couldn’t help it.  I’d thank him for giving her the warmth of a crowd, and for easing, with bouncing music, the pain, the awe, the loneliness, the delight of growing up.

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Editor’s note:  This article was published originally in the January–March 1966 issue of Counsel magazine.  It was subsequently published in condensed form in the October 1966 issue of the Reader’s Digest.  The Digest translated the article into many different languages and distributed it in many countries, bringing the beauty of Elinor S. Wikler’s writing and the legacy of her warmth and wisdom to millions of people around the world. 

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