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Strawberry Fields. . .forever

In the cold of January, fifty-plus years ago, I sat in a car full of guys, my cased-up 16-gauge double-barrel in my hands, heading out to some woodland to hunt. Rabbits? fox?–I don’t remember.

I have no idea who else was in the car, but we were somewhere north and west of town—that I know. It was mid-winter, and the DJ on WOKY, Milwaukee, 920 on your am dial, was doling out prophecies about a new 45 he was about to spin–“in just a little while,” “coming up soon,” “don’t touch that dial”–and how it was already turning the world stark, raving mad, a tune cut by a red hot foursome called, oddly enough, “The Beatles.”

In the backseat of some guy’s car, holding a shotgun is where I heard the Beatles for the first time, a tune titled “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” It’s a memory forever alive with any replay of that old headliner, or its flip side, “She Loves Me”–yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s amazing how music carries us places, isn’t it?

I missed the Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday night because we always went to church. But I was 16 in 1964, and I sure didn’t miss the group Brits called “the Bay-tils.”

Bob Keeley’s Beatles retrospective here a couple of days ago put me back in some kid’s car, listening to a tune that was going to change the world, not all that many miles off mark. Liverpool’s pride-and-joy created a sensation I bought into, even though my collection of Beatles albums is now (let me grab a Kleenex) long gone.

Just a year later I went with my parents to a rental cabin somewhere around Shawno, Wisconsin, the last time I’d ever go along. Not that far from that cabin, some girl—I know it was a girl because my imagination created her—cranked up the volume on her hi-fi and played, “I’ll Be Back Again,” often and loud enough to make a boy in a rental place just up the beach—me! —want to be a man. While my parents and their friends poked marshmallows at a campfire and sang “Trust and Obey,” I sat in the dark on the lakeshore, listening to that lilting Lennon melody and falling in love with a girl I never saw.

Just about exactly fifty years ago, while finishing my freshman year at Dordt College, I went to Palos Heights, Illinois, on a weekend, to visit a high school girlfriend who’d gone to Trinity Christian College when I went west to Iowa. On Saturday, I walked through an art show, where some Trinity kid used “Strawberry Fields Forever” as a backdrop for her work. Amid the paintings and drawings and sculptures, that sweet, tripping tune played over and over, most of the afternoon.

I was amazed to hear it, though I wouldn’t have told anyone, certainly not my girlfriend. Something was brewing on that campus unlike anything happening on ours, some force, I thought, that put the consecrated piety of my youth in a rear-view mirror. That some kid at Trinity could air tunes from an album smoking with references to dope seemed amazing. After all, that kind of worldliness couldn’t have happened at Dordt in 1967, wouldn’t have, not simply because the administration would have kept a lid on it, but because most kids of parents like mine considered the whole Sgt. Pepper album some kind of sinful hippie hymnal.

I don’t remember anyone’s drawings from that Trinity art fest, but when “Strawberry Fields” plays in my memory today—or “Penny Lane” “in my ears and my eyes”—I’m brought back to an art show for reasons I’d never unpacked until Keeley brought up Sergeant Pepper’s fiftieth birthday.

Sometime in the 90s, the denomination of which I am a part, asked me, neither a theologian nor a historian but a writer, to tell the story of the Christian Reformed Church. When I tried, I found it helpful to talk about separate wings of the denomination, two of which were the pietists and the Kuyperians, species of believers who lugged distinct perspectives (a useful old word) into the world God loves, at least if you pay heed to John 3:16.

Affix other names to those two lines of thinking if you’d like; after all, we’re talking about a task at which all of us work every day. Some mount impenetrable defenses; others come out the huddle and go long, even if they’re playing on Strawberry Fields.

That Trinity art fest comes back today, a half-century later because Sergeant Pepper created a forever-image in my soul of the way we negotiate the dilemma of being “in, but not of.” What blew me away that day was not a girlfriend (the relationship died not long after), but my own first sense—I was 19–of significant and thoughtful differences about how believers approach life in the world.

For me at least, a child of the Sixties, memories replay with just about every one of the Beatles all-time greats. But until last week I’d never thought about why that Trinity moment returns so magically, why that particular spring Trinity art show-afternoon suddenly appears when those tunes emerge from that goofy, flowery cover.

By the way, did you know “Strawberry Fields” was Lennon’s all-time favorite song? It was. I’m sure he had his reasons.

And I know mine.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

One Comment

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Oh, nice. My “reading” in my Office of Readings at Matins for the Friday before Pentecost. I always associate “I wanna hold your hand” with a girl name Rose who was playing it on her radio outside Grace Lutheran School in Teaneck NJ on a snowy afternoon.

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