The year I graduated from high school was a banner year. Not due to my graduating, which was due less to my effort than my teachers' charity.
No, 1964 was a banner year because that's when the Beatles invaded America.
Actually, they hit our fair shores in December '63, when some American radio stations played their songs. I didn't hear any, but I did hear things about the Beatles themselves. A few were in a small article in Time magazine; another was from a kid in my class who said they were cool.
It wasn't much, but it piqued my curiosity enough so that at 8 o'clock on Sunday, Feb. 9, 1964, I was perched in front of the tube waiting for Old Stone Face to introduce the lads on their American debut. And I wasn't alone: In addition to my mother and me, the show was watched by 74 million Americans, a full third of the U.S. population.
It was unreal. When the heralded moment arrived, the audience erupted into something I'd never seen on Ed Sullivan or anywhere else - hysterical screaming. The screamers were of course teenage girls, who if I'd have been reading the New York dailies I would've known had been tracking the Beatles' arrival more closely than NORAD did the Soviet's long-range bombers.
So there they were, the Flower of American Girlhood, all those upright, uptight, Debbie Reynolds wannabes, shrieking, sobbing, tearing out their hair, falling into dead faints and over what? Four scruffy Limeys in tacky suits with peg pants and pointy-toed shoes, that's what!
I was furious at such low-brow hysterics. It offended my lofty sense of propriety and highly cultivated decorum. Since infancy, I'd been constantly lectured that women were delicate creatures, like orchids perhaps, who thrived only with the most chivalrous and gentle handling.
Yeah, yeah, I know that's all patriarchal bumpf. But I know that now. Back then, I didn't know it. I only knew that guys opened doors for girls, helped them on and off with their coats, held their chairs, walked on the outside, paid for the dates and so on. And in return, girls acted like ... well like girls!
Or at least they had acted like girls till the Beatles landed, when they instantly became shameless hussies and wild-eyed, drooling maniacs. I had all I could do to finish watching the show.
Of course, to be honest, I wasn't outraged at the girls' behavior so much as insanely jealous of the Liverpudlian puds who elicited it. But as much as I knew that, I couldn't admit it - at least not to anyone else.
"I can't believe that," I said to my mother when the show ended, my disgust evident.
"All those girls screaming their fool heads off."
"They screamed over Elvis; they screamed over Sinatra. They even screamed over Rudy Vallee," my mother said. "And believe me, Rudy Vallee was nothing to scream over."
"Yeah, well, I don't like it," I said. "And I don't understand it, either."
"So," said my mother, in her usual Zero Tolerance manner, "take a psychology course, Miss Priss."
Oh, lovely, I thought as I stalked out of the living room - I can't even get sympathy from my own mother. I should've expected it, since she never indulged me in my self-pity, but in my hour of need it was a letdown nonetheless.
But if I couldn't get support from my mother, I figured I'd be able to get it in school the next day. Unfortunately, I figured wrong.
All Petrova was abuzz with how wonderful the Beatles were, as if they'd just repaid Lend-Lease, with interest. I was completely disgusted.
All alone and out of the zone
After school, my boon companion Ralph Carlson and I went to Wells' candy store to drink RC Cola and gab. We were leaning on the soda machine at the back of the store and had just taken a few healthy swigs when Ralph asked the inevitable question.
"So," he said, "what'd ya think of the Beatles?"
"They were OK," I said. "But nothing all that great."
"Hey," he said. "You gotta admit, they've got their own sound."
"So what's the big deal about that?" I said. "The Kingsmen have their own sound, the Beach Boys have their own sound, the Ventures have their own sound. That's what makes 'em bands - they've all got their own sound."
"Yeah," Ralph said, "but-"
"Hey, I've even got my own sound," I said, cutting him off. "Listen to this."
Then I blasted a thunderous RC-powered belch.
From the front of the store, Mrs. Wells yelled, "If you can't behave decently in public, mister, then you can leave right now!"
"Sorreeeee," I sang out in a clearly insincere falsetto.
Then I pointed at the wall, lined front to back with men's magazines, all of whose covers featured variations of the same motif - a fat Nazi whipping a half-dressed woman.
"Behave decently in this joint?" I whispered to Ralph. "Like I'm gonna embarrass the classy guys who read those rags?"
Always one to avoid conflict and not wanting to jeopardize his RC privileges, Ralph moved the conversation to safer ground. I can't remember exactly we talked about, but it was not the Beatles. That was just fine with me, and we chatted amiably till we finished our sodas.
After Ralph said goodbye and left, I stayed and bought a Bonomo's Turkish taffy for the walk home. Nibbling contemplatively, I went to the front of the store, where I passed the newspaper racks. On the front page of all of them were pictures of the Beatles.
And of course the Beatles weren't alone in the pictures. Instead they were surrounded by hordes of girls - reaching, pleading, begging. For what? For a smile, a nod, a kind word, a pat on the head like the family dog - for anything!
As I looked at their pictures and gnawed on my taffy, a thought gnawed at me: What did those guys have that I didn't?
It was the first time I asked myself that question.
And it should come as no surprise that it wasn't the last.