Category: John Denver

Christmas Memories

Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree 2008The Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center this year (2008) is from my hometown of Hamilton, New Jersey.  My father was a friend of Bill Varanyak, whose family donated the tree, and I know Bill too. My son works right down the street from where the tree stood for 77 years. I must have driven past this tree a few thousand times. You can read a story about the tree and the Varanyak family here in a Daily News article.

The photo of the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree above was taken by my friend Jody Marchin. Double-click on the photo for a larger view.

The Times of Trenton has a nice article too, but it no longer has a picture of the tree. When the tree is taken down after Christmas, it will be used to help build a Habitat for Humanity home. Scientific American has a nice story about that and a picture of the tree lit up by its 30,000 LED lights.

I’m listening to a John Denver CD, “Christmas in Concert” to get me in the Christmas spirit. It was originally recorded live at the D.A.R (Daughters of the American Revolution) Constitution Hall in Washington, DC on December 19th and 20th, 1996. I listen to it every Christmas. The World Children’s Choir sings with John on some of the selections including “Jingle Bells” and “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer.” The National Symphony Orchestra accompanies John on this CD too. “Please, Daddy (Don’t Get Drunk This Christmas)” and the story of “Alfie, The Christmas Tree” are two other interesting tracks. John talks with the choir and the audience and tells a few stories during the concert. It is a great live album. Does anyone besides me still say “album?” The CD that I bought years ago contains a booklet written by Joseph F. Laredo that gives some background on the concert and each song that is played. Add this CD to your collection of Christmas music.

My favorite song on the CD and one of my favorite Christmas songs, period, is “A Baby Just Like You.” The song was inspired by comments that Frank Sinatra made to John after Frank became a grandfather. It was written about John’s son Zachary. I have always loved this song.

A Baby Just Like You by John Denver and Joe Henry

The season is upon us now
A time for gifts and giving
And as the year draws to its close
I think about my living

The Christmas time when I was young
The magic and the wonder
But colors dull and candles dim
And dark my standing under

Oh little angel , shining light
You’ve set my soul to dreaming
You’ve given back my joy in life
And filled me with new meaning

A saviour King was born that day
A baby just like you
And as the Magi came with gifts
I come with my gift too

That peace on earth fills up your time
And brotherhood surrounds you
That you may know the warmth of love
And wrap it all around you

It’s just a wish, a dream I’m told
From days when I was young
Merry Christmas little Zachary, Merry Christmas everyone
Merry Christmas little Zachary, Merry Christmas everyone

Taking the Train to Philadelphia

When I was in elementary school, my grandmother and grandfather used to take me, my brother and my cousin on the train to Wanamaker’s department store in Philadelphia. My grandfather would pick us up at school and take us to the Pennsylvania Railroad station in Trenton, New Jersey. My grandmother worked for the railroad and sold tickets at the station. As soon as she finished work, we would hop on the train. I have always loved riding on trains, perhaps because of this Christmas tradition.

We would go to the Wanamaker store as soon as we arrived in Philadelphia. It was always beautifully decorated for Christmas. My grandmother would go Christmas shopping and my grandfather would take us to the toy department. We were told that if we ever got lost, to come back to the giant eagle near the entrance to the store.

There was a monorail train, called the Rocket Express, that ran around the ceiling in Wanamakers and if you were a little kid, you could ride in it. That was always a lot of fun. The monorail is now at the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia.  When my grandmother was done shopping, we would go out to eat at a nice restaurant in Philadelphia and then take the train home again. My sisters and girl cousins would have their own trip to Philadelphia on another day.

Grandma Dunham’s Gift Package

One Christmas, I couldn’t think of what to give my grandmother who was 80 years old or so at the time. I decided to get her a bunch of different “treats” that she wouldn’t normally buy for herself. I basically went to the supermarket and created my own gift basket for her. There was candy, fruit, crackers, a jar of jelly, nuts, etc. I packed it all in an ordinary box with tissue paper and wrapped it up. We always opened our presents on Christmas Eve at my parents house. When my grandmother opened her present, she was delighted. She acted like an eight year old getting a new favorite toy. She was almost as giddy as Scrooge on Christmas morning after the three spirits had visited. Just seeing the happy look on her face was priceless. She told me that when she was a small child growing up in Stoke-On-Trent in England, she would get a single apple or piece of fruit for Christmas. That was it. I continued to give her a box of treats every Christmas as long as she lived. She always loved what I got her.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to All

Thanks For Having The Courage To Be Here

In January of 1980 I met Larry Lewis and he changed my life. At the time, I was a meter reader for Public Service Electric & Gas company in central New Jersey. Dr. Lawrence D. Lewis lived on Mt. Lucas Road, in Princeton, NJ in a house he called “Ivy Stone Manor.” It was a small house made of gray stone.

The Andromeda Galaxy as seen by the Hubble telescope.

My meter reading route started about a mile down the road. It usually took me about an hour to get to his house. While I was working my way there, a John Denver song would be going through my mind. It was called Farewell Andromeda, (Welcome To My Morning). It begins, “Welcome to my morning, Welcome to my day, Yes I’m the one responsible, I made it just this way. I’ll get back to this song a little later in the story.

The image is a picture of the core of the Andromeda Galaxy (M31) taken by the Hubble telescope.

A lot of times when I went to Larry’s house he wasn’t home. This particular day, he answered the door and let me in. I went down into the basement to read his electric meter. I’m not exactly sure why, but I had a very strong thought that I wanted to say something to him. It might have been that, at the time, I didn’t know what kind of doctor he was. When I came back upstairs I said to him, “You look different. Did you shave off your beard?” He said that no, he hadn’t had a beard in a very long time. He had a stack of photos nearby and showed me one in which he had a beard. We started chatting. Although I can recall a lot of this as if it was yesterday, I don’t recall the whole conversation. He eventually told me that he was a psychologist and led a workshop called RelationShop.

He started telling me about RelationShop and handed me a pamphlet that I could take with me. I told him that was really interesting because I had just separated from my wife a few days ago. I sat out in his driveway for a few minutes in my gray Plymouth Valiant and read the pamphlet. One of the things it said was: The purpose of RelationShop is to provide the participants with the opportunity to experience the truth about love, sexuality and relationships so that frustration, effort and scarcity in these areas can be supplanted by mastery, spontaneity and fulfillment. I still remember that after 28 years.

I went to a couple of “Prospectives” in the area. They were events that graduates of the workshop put on in their homes so that you could get an idea of what the workshop was like. I signed up at one of them and was scheduled to take the workshop the first weekend of March in New York City. That was one of the first obstacles for me. I didn’t particularly like going to NYC, even though I only lived an hour away. The city was too crowded for me and everyone was in too much of a hurry.

RelationShop took an entire weekend. It started on a Friday night and went into the wee hours of the morning. Then you had to be back at 9:00 AM Saturday morning and it went late into Sunday morning. On Sunday, it would start at 9:00 AM again and it didn’t end until the early morning hours of Monday. There were a few short breaks each day and a longer dinner break in the evening. It was held in a hotel ballroom.

Over the course of the three days,  Larry and his co-leader Dr. Michael F. Valente talked about love, sexuality and relationships and guided the group through various “experiments” to help you to experience what they were talking about. There were probably around 70 people in my “class.” There was discussion and sharing  before and after each experiment. You had to raise your hand to talk and someone would run over and hand you a microphone. People shared some very personal stuff.

At the time, I was pretty terrified to say anything at all in front of a group of strangers. I listened to everything that was said on Friday and Saturday and participated in every experiment, but I never raised my hand and I never asked for the microphone.

At the end of Friday night, people who were assisting at the workshop, helped people like me who didn’t have a place to stay, share a room with other participants. I ended up staying in a very nice apartment with a great view, somewhere on the east side of Manhattan. Saturday was a particularly difficult day in the workshop for me and by the end of the day, I really did not want to be there.

The apartment had a nice balcony that looked out on the street from 10 or 15 floors up. Saturday night after the workshop, I went and sat on the balcony and chain smoked cigarette after cigarette ( I finally quit smoking 7 years ago). I was thinking about just going home the next day and not finishing the workshop on Sunday. I  was trying to figure out how I would explain all of this to Larry the next time I saw him. I did not want to spend another day in the workshop. Finally, the other person that was staying in the apartment
that night came out to the balcony and said that I should probably get some sleep because it was going to be another long day tomorrow. I went to bed still thinking about how I could get out of the final day.

I went back to the workshop Sunday morning. At one point I was speaking to the woman sitting next to me. She thought that I should share it with the group and grabbed me by the arm and raised my hand for a few seconds. Now, I know that Larry and Michael had to see this because they didn’t miss a thing and it was right in front of them. They didn’t call on me though and no one handed me the dreaded microphone.

Sometime after that, the group did another experiment. I think it was called the “Be With” experiment. In it, you just walk around the room and go up to the other members of the group, one at a time, and be with them. You don’t say anything. You just look into the other persons eyes and “be with them.” It might last 10 seconds or a minute. It’s not a staring contest.

I went up to Larry who was standing on the stage and did the experiment. He looked me in the eyes and after a few seconds, held me by the shoulders and said, “Thanks for having the courage to be here.” That is one of the nicest things that anyone has ever said to me.  “Thanks for having the courage to be here.” His timing was perfect because it just lifted me up. He must have known what a difficult time I was having and how hard it was just being in that room.

We did one particularly heavy duty “experiment” late Sunday and there were more discussions and sharing. After that experiment, we were sent on a dinner break. Larry told everyone that the “worst” was over and to make sure to come back after the break. He said that in some previous RelationShops, people had failed to return from the break thinking that they couldn’t take anymore.

I went to dinner. I think the dinner experiment instructions were that you couldn’t ask any questions. When the break was over and I went back to the room, there was some instrumental music quietly playing. I listened to it for a minute and I thought that it was Farewell Andromeda, (Welcome To My Morning), the song that I used to sing to myself while reading meters on the way to Larry’s house. The second verse of the song goes like this:

Welcome to my happiness, you know it makes me smile
And it pleases me to have you here
For just a little while
While we open up some spaces and try to break some chains
And if the truth is told
They will never come again.

I kind of thought that John Denver had been telling me my future. I have always thought that the line should have been, “And if the truth is told, we will never be the same.

When everyone was back in the room and the workshop started again, I felt as if a giant burden had been lifted. I felt giddy, like Scrooge on Christmas morning, after the three spirits had visited! A lot of other people seemed to be in good spirits too. I’m sure part of it was knowing that the weekend was almost over! I actually raised my hand and took the microphone. I asked about the song and no one seemed to know if it was in fact Farewell Andromeda. Someone did volunteer though that it was the first time I had shared all weekend. Larry then explained our relationship and how I had found out about the workshop.

That weekend changed my life. One of the things I realized is that I wasn’t as separate from other people as I thought. Many people share the same feelings that I do about a lot of different things. The words that come to mind are, “once I was different, now I’m the same.” I have a lot more in common with everyone else than I do differences. My son was born in December of the same year. I left my job within two years of the workshop, looking for something more meaningful. I started reading authors like Louise Hay, Wayne Dyer and Jane Roberts.

I went on to become a volunteer assistant at some of the workshops. I repeated the workshop as a participant, to experience what I had missed the first time, when I was afraid and just trying to survive the weekend. I made some interesting new friends and spent a lot of time in New York City.

RelationShop was similar to, but not the same as, Erhard Seminars Training (est), a very popular workshop in the seventies and early eighties. I never experienced est, but I did go to Newark, NJ one night with Larry to hear Werner Erhard speak. John Denver was an est graduate and on their board of directors. His song “Looking For Space” was written about est.

I am so glad that I acted on my impulse to talk to Larry that January day.

Remembering John Denver

This Sunday, October 12, 2008, is the 11th anniversary of the death of John Denver. He is among the greatest singer/songwriters who ever lived and I still miss him terribly. I have been a John Denver fan for almost 35 years. It seems like yesterday that I was a young man driving along a country road, in the autumn of 1974, watching the leaves turn and listening to “Back Home Again” on the radio. Although I never met him, I had the good fortune to see him in concert at least three times at the Spectrum in Philadelphia and once at the Garden State Arts Center in Holmdel, NJ. I also saw him perform solo at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. He always gave a marvelous performance and I always felt inspired about myself and the world after one of his concerts. He was, and is, an inspiration to millions of people all over this planet that he respectfully called “Spaceship Earth.

John became famous and had a lot of popular hit songs on the radio in the 1970’s. I think he did some of his best work though in the 80’s and 90’s. Usually, if you hear one of his songs on the radio today it’s a song from the 70’s, “Take Me Home, Country Roads”, Rocky Mountain High, Annie’s Song, Thank God I’m a Country Boy, Perhaps Love, Sunshine on My Shoulders or maybe “Calypso.” Somewhere in the 80’s or 90’s radio stations stopped playing his new songs. I’m familiar with his later work, because I bought the record or CD, but many people aren’t. They are missing some of his best material. I will mention a few that I love:  It’s About Time, If Ever, Whispering Jesse, A Country Girl in Paris, Alaska and Me, A Baby Just Like You, Amazon, Seasons of The Heart, I Want to Live, To The Wild Country, The Wings That Fly Us Home, For You, What One Man Can Do… I can go on and on. JohnDenver.com has a list of all of his albums and the songs on them. “The Wildlife Concert”, filmed and recorded in 1995, is available as a video and a 2 CD set.  I highly recommend it. It is John at his absolute best.

“Flying for Me” is a wonderful song about the space shuttle Challenger. John volunteered to fly on the shuttle, but was turned down by NASA. He could very well have been on the Challenger when it exploded on January 28, 1986, if his wishes had been granted. “What One Man Can Do” is about Buckminster Fuller, an author and inventor who John knew and admired.

In 1976, John Denver and Tom Crum founded Windstar. Located in Snowmass Colorado, it is a not-for-profit foundation and a lasting legacy of John’s work. John said about Windstar, “Nothing would please me more than to know that there is an ever-expanding group of individuals who are working together each in their own way to improve the quality of life for all the life here on Spaceship Earth. That is what the music is about, that is what my life is about and that is what the Windstar Foundation is about.” Visit their website for more information about the work they are doing.

John also founded Plant-it 2020 in 1992. Plant-it 2020 is dedicated to “properly planting, maintaining and protecting as many indigenous trees as possible worldwide.”

Bill Danoff, who along with Taffy Danoff, co-wrote “Take Me Home, Country Roads” with John, has an interesting website with stories about John at the Cellar Door in Washington, D.C. in the 1960’s. One story on the website explains, among other things, what inspired the song and how it came to be written. You will probably be surprised. I was. I saw Bill and Taffy perform many years ago in a small theater at Mercer County Community College in West Windsor, NJ. They put on a great show, but it was lightly attended. I thought it was awfully nice of them when they invited the audience to stay for the second show for free.

The Rocky Mountain High Fan Club is run by Emily Parris. It has a wealth of information about John and links to all kinds of John Denver related websites, including The Wildlife Conservation Society.

John’s autobiography, “Take Me Home” was published in 1994. At the end of the last chapter in the book he writes, “I find myself thinking so often of the words to “On The Wings of a Dream,” which I wrote shortly after my father died.” “On The Wings of a Dream” is from the album “It’s About Time” released in 1983. I have always loved this song and shared it with friends. The lyrics of the song follow.

Yesterday I had a dream about dying
About laying to rest and then flying
How the moment at hand
Is the only thing we really own
And I lay in my bed and I wonder
After all has been said and is done for
Why is it thus we are here
And so soon we are gone

Is this life just a path
To the place that we all have come from
Does the heart know the way
And if not can it ever be found
In a smile or a tear
Or a prayer or a sigh or a song

And if so then I sing for my father
And in truth you must know I would rather
He were here by my side
We could fly on the wings of a dream
To a place where the spirit could find us
And joy and surrender would bind us
We are one anyway
Anyway we are more than we seem

There are those who will lead us
Protect us each step of the way
From beginning to end
For each moment forever each day
Such a gift has been given
It can never be taken away

Though the body in passing must leave us
There is one who remains to receive us
There are those in this life
Who are friends from our heavenly home
So I listen to the voices inside me
For I know they are there just to guide me
And my faith will proclaim it is so
We are never alone

From the life to the light
From the dark of the night to the dawn
He is so in my heart
He is here he could never be gone
Though the singer is silent
There still is the truth of the song

Yesterday I had a dream about dying
About laying to rest and then flying
How the moment at hand
Is the only thing we really own

And I lay in my bed and I wonder
After all has been said and is done for
Why is it thus we are here
And so soon we are gone

John Denver left the world a better place. He entertained us, taught us and inspired us with his songs. He challenged us to take better care of the earth and each other.

He will always live in my heart. He is here. He will never be gone.

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