My first visit to New York would be short because I had a plane to catch.
"So, what do you want to do?" Craig asked. "The Statue of Liberty? Little Italy? The `Vampire' State Building?""This may sound crazy," I told my brother, a frequent flyer to New York, "but I really want to see John Lennon's place." A kind of pilgrimage, I explained, to where John lived - and died. "It's been almost 10 years, you know, since he was killed."
Six years older than I, and 15 younger than John Lennon would have been this year, Craig knew and understood. But he probably doesn't remember giving me my first Lennon album, "Mind Games," 17 years ago for Christmas. Already a fan of the Beatles, I listened to the tape over and over on my Panasonic recorder while I pursued my passion of building model jet fighter airplanes. It didn't take long for me to get Lennon's message and soon I was blowing the warplanes up with firecrackers. The airplanes are gone, but I still have the tape.
We set out the morning of Sept. 20, walking up Seventh Avenue to Central Park. The sky was sunny, but the telltale signs of autumn - crisp air and falling leaves - swirled about us. I hummed a few verses of "Imagine."
"You may say I'm a dreamer . . . ."
Strolling in John's favorite park, we passed the huge outcroppings of granite, the foundation of Manhattan. On our right was a homeless man checking the sores on his feet; to our left was the upscale Tavern on the Green. A few minutes later, we arrived at the gothic Dakota apartment building, the home of John Lennon and his wife, Yoko Ono.
A very ugly thing happened here a decade ago:
Mark David Chapman, 25 - a pudgy, deranged ex-security officer and an obsessive Lennon fan - loitered most of Dec. 8, 1980, in front of the Dakota. He had a copy of "The Catcher in the Rye" and Lennon's new album, "Double Fantasy." Concealed somewhere on his person was a snub-nosed .38-caliber revolver. As John and Yoko came out of the building, en route to photo and recording sessions, Chapman asked John to autograph the album. John obliged, not knowing it would be his last autograph. About 11 p.m., John and Yoko returned home, stepping out of a limo and walking across the Dakota courtyard. Chapman called out, "Mr. Lennon," then crouched into a combat stance and fired five bullets into Lennon's chest and arms. Saying only, "I'm shot," Lennon staggered about six steps and fell to the ground, mortally wounded.
The day we visited the Dakota, a mask of scaffolding disguised it as just another building under repair, so we walked back across Eighth Avenue into Central Park. My brother suggested we visit Strawberry Fields, a quiet section of the park dedicated to Lennon and named after the song he wrote as a Beatle.
A round mosaic - about 10 feet in diameter - is embedded in the center of a small plaza and bears a single, simple message: Imagine. Someone had placed some flowers on it earlier. Rumor has it that Yoko pays a local florist to place a flower on the mosaic daily.
Sitting on a park bench, I removed my camera to capture a scene of a small crowd looking at the memorial. As I focused, I caught her through my lens: Yoko Ono. It really was her!
Other than John and a few close friends, nobody, it seemed, ever loved Yoko, whom he married in 1969. To many, she was the force behind the breakup of the world's greatest rock band. Others - mainly women - scorned her for "stealing" John away from their generous and numerous offers of affection. Still others despised her for racial reasons. She's been called a "villainess," the "Dragon Lady," and the "Iron Butterfly." Most recently, a national magazine labeled her "The Merry Widow." Despite what the world thought and despite his eccentricities, John loved thewoman immensely. To this day, no critic has been able to prove otherwise.
Yoko was in Strawberry Fields that morning with a film crew from London to tape the opening for "A Tribute to John Lennon," which airs Saturday night, Dec. 5. She didn't mind that a handful of people, like me, stopped to take her picture. In fact, she invited me, some older ladies and a mother with children to sit by her for some of the filming. Though busy doing take after take and somewhat stressed by having to speak John's name to the cameras over and over, Yoko seemed at peace.
Which is exactly what John preached the last 10 years of his life - peace. The message was simple and optimistic: "Imagine nothing to kill or die for. There's no problem, only solutions." Was it too simple for a world too bent on bloodshed and destruction? Is the message too simple today?
John would suggest it be given a chance.
- Yoko, who still lives in the Dakota, has released five Lennon albums since his death and continues to spread her late husband's legacy through art shows and broadcast productions.
- The couple's only child, Sean Ono Lennon, 15, attends a private school in Switzerland.
- John's killer, serving a life sentence in Attica Correctional Facility, becomes eligible for parole in December 2000.