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When the birds flew

I have a jukebox in my brain that starts playing as soon as I get out of bed. It plays all day long unless my mind is occupied. Music at the start of the day is not necessarily a good thing, because sometimes I hate the song. This morning, for example, it was a song by Olivia Newton-John. It’s gone, and only now can I mention Ms. Newton-John, having purged the earworm.

Later today while I was driving, my shuffling brain cued up the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood.” I’m not a Beatles fan. Hadn’t heard the song in years. But there it was as I motored along:

I once had a girl
Or should I say, she once had me.
She showed me her room,
Isn’t it good, Norwegian wood?


The song did not make me think of a long-ago tryst. It made me think of death.

I was a high school senior the first time I heard “Norwegian Wood.” It was at a party suffused with wanna-be ’60s sincerity, a handful of people in a circle on a living room floor while a guy our age with an acoustic guitar sat in a spare wooden chair, playing and singing. He looked like Donovan, a wisp of a fellow, the Sunshine Superman, the Hurdy-Gurdy man.

We all were trying so hard to be groovy. The guitarist—James, I think his name was—was digging his part. Go through some Google images of hippie clothing from the late ’60s, and James was wearing most of it—much of it paisley, as I recall. His brown hair waved over his shoulders.

She asked me to stay and she told me to sit anywhere,
So I looked around and I noticed there wasn't a chair.
I sat on a rug, biding my time, drinking her wine
We talked until two and then she said, “It's time for bed.”
She told me she worked in the morning and started to laugh.
I told her I didn't and crawled off to sleep in the bath


There was nothing out of the ordinary going on at the party: no candles, incense, pot, hash, acid, draft-card burnings or student occupations of city hall. No one stayed to sleep with anyone. I can’t remember James playing any other songs. I never saw him again.

Here’s where the mist of yesterdays fogs my memory, but I’m pretty sure I’ve got the story right:

James, as it turned out 10 years later, developed mental health problems. His mother had him admitted to the local hospital’s mental health unit. But one day, he simply walked away.
Somebody called the police. An officer came by in a squad car and spotted James. James probably still looked like Donovan. At the party where he had played a decade earlier, he struck me as a guy who would lose a boxing match with a butterfly. The officer approached James, and James, this hurdy-gurdy man, this butterfly boy, threw a punch that freakishly struck the officer just the right way in just the right place.

The officer died.

I was a cops-crimes-courts reporter at the time. I went to the funeral home for calling hours, not because I was after a story, but because I saw this officer every morning when I stopped at the police station to check the blotter. He was helpful, sometimes when he didn’t need to be. I was there to show what respect I could.

On my way in, a lieutenant from the force was standing on the funeral home’s porch, just off to the side. I stepped over to offer quiet condolences. The lieutenant—the epitome of the tough cop, the hard-nosed guy with the seen-it-all callousness that only cops have—kept looking at his shoes as if he could find answers in their shine. He shook his head.

“So senseless,” he whispered. “So senseless.” I stood there for a couple more minutes. He never said another word.

I don’t recall the resulting court case. My memory is that a police officer, a good man, was killed, but not by a bad man. He was killed by a confused young man who ten years before had epitomized the peace-and-love attitude of the ’60s. And dammit, that peace-and-love mantra wasn’t just drug-addled claptrap. We really thought we could change the world, all of us, a little at a time. Without even planning it, James changed two worlds: his and the police officer’s.

And when I awoke, I was alone, this bird had flown.

Comments

( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
strwberryfizz
Jul. 10th, 2012 04:14 am (UTC)
What a tragic story, both for the cop and for James. A beautiful piece, pjv.
patrick_vecchio
Jul. 10th, 2012 12:18 pm (UTC)
Tragedy is the right word. Everybody saw it for what it was: a one-in-a-million, freak occurrence—which may have made everyone's sadness deeper, not that I think about it.
sahlah
Jul. 10th, 2012 04:27 am (UTC)
You tell a good story. Funny as I was thinking about Norwegian Wood - jai guru deva om played on the reverse track...
patrick_vecchio
Jul. 10th, 2012 12:15 pm (UTC)
I never knew the name of that song. Like it!
nodressrehersal
Jul. 10th, 2012 03:24 pm (UTC)
I love stories that are interwoven with lyrics of a song - it adds an extra layer that really strikes a chord with me. I don't remember this event but yes, tragic is truly the perfect word for it.

...kept looking at this shoes as if he could find answers in their shine. Love that line.
patrick_vecchio
Jul. 10th, 2012 08:14 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Jamie. I was wondering if using the lyrics was a tad too previous.

And thanks for the catch on "this shoes" sted "his shoes."

nodressrehersal
Jul. 10th, 2012 08:58 pm (UTC)
Ah, but I didn't catch it. I just copied and pasted the line because I really liked it; my eyes never saw and my mind knew the intent, I guess.
patrick_vecchio
Jul. 10th, 2012 11:08 pm (UTC)
First rule of the newsroom: Never turn down credit for a catch.
(Anonymous)
Jul. 12th, 2012 01:35 am (UTC)
James perceived as a peaceful man spreading the message of peace through his music…the police officer, whose job is first and foremost to keep the peace, a unique and senseless irony. I am sure no one could have ever predicted the action and result that occurred that day. While James may physically sit behind bars for his actions, his real prison, his mind is one where they are not necessary but very real. The police officer is frozen forever in time to his family and friends by an act that can only be described as tragic fate.
REST IN PEACE TO BOTH MEN
Holiday#
patrick_vecchio
Jul. 12th, 2012 01:49 am (UTC)
I'll second that.
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )

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“Filling this empty space constitutes my identity.” – Twyla Tharp

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