Tag Archives: jfk

Will America’s Best Idea Please Stand Up

When the books close one day on the “American Experiment,” I hope history will remember us more for our great ideas and accomplishments than for the Manhattan Project or the thousands of cubic miles of landfills that we left behind.

Hopefully, people will still be benefitting from some of our most worthy contributions to world culture, like the Internet, rock and roll, and Andy Griffith reruns.

Another of America’s best ideas began 50 years ago this week with the debut of the Peace Corps, which was created on March 1, 1961, during the first six weeks of JFK’s administration.

Kennedy first proposed his idea for an agency of American volunteers who promoted peace through labor in undeveloped countries while campaigning for the presidency in 1960. Many critics knocked the idea, including Kennedy’s presidential opponent Richard Nixon, who felt that it would simply be “a haven for draft dodgers.”

Over the past 50 years, over 200,000 Americans have served as Peace Corps volunteers in over 140 countries, including the mother of President Jimmy Carter.

I signed up for the Peace Corps a decade ago and was selected to spend two years teaching English in Kazakhstan. I ended up not going, as a nasty little thing called 9/11 happened at about the same time. This made me think that being stationed in a ‘Stan at the request of the U.S. government was probably not the smartest career move.

I ended up staying stateside and joining Warner Bros., where I met my beautiful wife Kimi, so everything worked out for the best. I still hope to serve in this or a similar organization at some point later in life, but only with my wife at my side.

Just as the “myth of America” sometimes doesn’t jive with the “reality of America,” the Peace Corps has not always lived up to its ideals, and has been accused of being a governmental tool used to advance the American agenda more than to aide the host countries.

This kind of thing often happens whenever bureaucrats get involved. But on a personal level, I have rarely met anyone who ever volunteered who wasn’t positively enhanced by the experience or who didn’t feel that they had made a worthy contribution.

I hope that when America is remembered by future generations, that the discussion won’t focus simply on our addiction to Big Macs, or the dozens of dirty little wars we fought to keep the oil flowing, or why we were too busy to cool down the atmosphere because Dancing With the Stars was on.

Maybe if we get our collective ca-ca together, we’ll be remembered for helping start a worldwide trend of global volunteerism. If so, the American Experiment may ultimately be deemed a successful one.

What Do They Want Us For?

Did you know that the first stop for the Beatles in America was not the "Ed Sullivan Show" but actually this yellow house?

We’ve all seen the black-and-white footage of the Beatles arriving at the airport in New York to the accompanying screams of thousands of fans during this week 47 years ago. And if you didn’t happen to be one of the 73 million Americans who watched their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964, you have undoubtedly caught the clip on YouTube. (BTW, was John’s mic working that night?)

But while the trip to New York was the group’s first official foray to America, a little known fact is that this was not the first time a Beatle had been to the States.

The scene was quite different a few months earlier when George Harrison became the first Beatle to ever step foot in America. There were no screaming fans, no police escorts, and no press conferences. And while the Beatles were feted at luxury hotels during their first stay in America, George spent most of his time in a small house in Southern Illinois.

In his book Before He Was Fab, George Harrison’s First American Visit, author Jim Kirkpatrick tells the story of the two-week vacation the young Beatles guitarist took with his brother Peter to the small town of Benton, Illinois, during mid-September to early-October, 1963.

At the time of the trip, She Loves You was firmly perched at number one in England. The Beatles were working on their second album, With The Beatles, at the time, and George had just completed recording the song Don’t Bother Me a few days earlier. The group decided to take a much-needed vacation, and Ringo and Paul took off to Greece, while John and his wife Cynthia accompanied the group’s manager, Brian Epstein, to Paris.

George used the break to come to southern Illinois to visit his sister Louise who had earlier moved to the coal mining town of Benton with her husband, who was a mining engineer.

George was said to have loved his time in the Midwest, and befriended some of the locals who accompanied him to record stores, where he was said to have purchased a copy of the single Got My Mind Set On You by James Ray. Harrison would later record a cover of the song in 1987, which went to number one.

George found time to sit in with a local band called the Blue Vests at a VFW Hall, where he wowed the crowd with his version of Roll Over Beethoven and a few other early Beatles standards. He even appeared on radio station WFRX, which had earlier become the first station in America to play a Beatles song when they aired a copy of From Me To You which had been given to them by Louise.

George ended his visit to America with a brief stop in St. Louis and a couple of days in New York, where a story persists that he actually saw JFK’s limousine go by.

The home where George stayed at 113 McCann Street was saved from demolition in 1995, and is today the Hard Day’s Nite Bed and Breakfast.

When the Beatles were flying to New York to appear on Ed Sullivan a few months later, George told the journalists on-board about his trip, and commented about America by saying, “They’ve got everything over there. What do they want us for?”

Benton has had other encounters with celebrities. Former NBA star Doug Collins is from the area, as is former game show host Gene Rayburn, and renowned actor John Malkovich.

The Beatles and JFK

There was quite a contrast between the overall mood of the citizens of the US and the UK during the latter part of November 1963. While America was dealing with the grim task of burying a popular young president, over in England, the Brits were rocking out to I Want to Hold Your Hand.

As I wrote yesterday, both C.S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley had the sad luck of dying on the day that JFK was assassinated, thereby having the news of their deaths missed by the general public. In England, another cultural coincidence took place on that day that had different results. November 22, 1963 was also the day that the Beatles released With The Beatles, their second studio album.

Perhaps because the release of the album took place in the UK and not in America (the US version, Meet The Beatles! wasn’t released until January 20, 1964), the album’s sales didn’t seem to suffer a bit from the grim date of its release. Over a half-million copies of the record were pre-ordered in England and sales  topped a million on the island during its first year of release.

With The Beatles was released only eight months after the group’s phenomenal debut album Please Please Me. Seven of the fourteen tracks on the record were Lennon/McCartney compositions, with covers and George Harrison’s songwriting debut, Don’t Bother Me filling out the rest of the record. Despite the fact that the album is arguably one of the group’s weakest releases, it still manages to contain some gems, most notably All My Loving, It Won’t Be Long, and the band’s version of Chuck Berry’s Roll Over Beethoven, with George handling the lead vocal duties.

I Want to Hold Your Hand didn’t appear on the With The Beatles album. It was released as a separate single on November 29, and the response was phenomenal. It would knock another Beatles’ single, She Loves You, off the top spot two weeks later, becoming the first time the same act had consecutive number one singles in British history.

With The Beatles edged the Please Please Me album from the number one spot in Britain, where it had been securely perched for 30 weeks. With The Beatles remained at number one for an additional twenty-one weeks, meaning that the Beatles just missed holding the top spot on the charts for an entire year. With The Beatles was eventually succeeded at number one by The Rolling Stones’ self-titled British debut record.

While all of this was taking place America mourned. The malaise didn’t seem to lift until Beatlemania hit the American shores the following year. It can be argued that the unofficial Kennedy mourning period ended the night the Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964.

Passing Under the Radar

As if death isn’t bad enough, it seems an added insult to expire on the same day as a more famous person. Just ask Farrah Fawcett. Her death on the morning of June 25, 2009 was all but forgotten by the world a few hours later when Michael Jackson died.

Something quite similar happened 47 years ago today when not one, but two famous British men of letters, Aldous Huxley and C.S. Lewis, passed away on the same day that President John F. Kennedy was murdered in Dallas.

Aldous Huxley, the oldest of the three men, was born in 1894 into one of the most brilliant and talented families in British history. He was considered by many to be an intellectual of the highest order, and is best remembered today for his 1932 dystopian novel Brave New World, which has been required reading for generations of American school children. Another of his works, a collection of essays entitled The Doors of Perception (1954), got its name from a poem by William Blake; the same poem that later gave Jim Morrison the name for his band, The Doors.

Aldous Huxley

Huxley was a major proponent of the use of hallucinogenic drugs in the study of mysticism and parapsychology. Of the three men, his death was undoubtedly the most pleasurable, as his wife administered LSD to him on his deathbed to aid him in his passage.

Clive Staples Lewis was born in Ireland in 1898, and later became a faculty member of Oxford University where he developed a close friendship with J.R.R. Tolkien, of The Lord of the Rings fame. After an agnostic youth, Lewis became a leading advocate of Christianity during his adult years.

While it’s likely that Lewis’ strong religious views would have precluded him from having much in common with the lifestyle of his fellow countryman Huxley, he did share an additional commonality with JFK: to their friends and family members, both men were known as “Jack.”

Lewis is best known for writing The Chronicles of Narnia, a series of seven children’s fantasy novels that he penned over five years, beginning in the late 1940s. Since 1949, over 100 million copies of the books in the series have sold worldwide. The land of Narnia is currently being introduced to a new generation of youngsters on film. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the third offering from the series, will be arriving in theaters on December 10.

C.S. Lewis

Huxley’s most famous work will soon be finding a new audience. A version of Brave New World, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, will debut next year.

This bizarre coincidence between the deaths of the three famous men and the date November 22, 1963, became the subject of a novel in 1982. In Beyond Heaven and Hell: A Dialogue Somewhere Beyond Death With John F. Kennedy, C.S. Lewis, and Aldous Huxley, author Peter Kreeft introduces us to the three men in Purgatory.

I suppose dying on the same day as JFK has one advantage: An entire generation knows what they were doing on the day that C.S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley died.