Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Walnut Ridge, Arkansas

Friends: It is "Can Forgiveness Month," at the Walnut Ridge, Arkansas library. Bring in a can of food and one is able to "can" one dollar's worth of library fines.

As odd as that scheme might be, it wasn't the oddest thing I encountered in Walnut Ridge. As I sat outside the library putting some calories into me making a dent in the two-pound tub of macaroni salad I'd just purchased at the local Sav-A-Lot before going into the library, an older gentleman stopped by to warn me I was in for some rain this evening. He also asked if I had seen the Beatles sculpture a block away. I hadn't. He told me it commemorated the Beatles landing at the Walnut Ridge airport in 1964. "Some people think it's the most significant thing to have happened in the town's history," he said.

The sculpture was a black metal silhouette of the Fab Four prancing along, emulating the Abbey Road album cover. It was behind the "Imagine Artist's Gallery," which featured individual paintings of each of the Lads from Liverpool on its front window. The shop's proprietor, Carrie Mae Snapp, was delighted to tell me every detail I could have hoped to know about the Beatles visit. She was a 14-year old girl at the time and a Beatles lover of the first order. She gushed with as much enthusiasm telling me all about their visit as if it had happened day before.

Walnut Ridge had the only airport within one hundred miles large enough to accommodate the Beatles private jet. They had a couple days between concerts and wanted to take a break from their hectic tour at the ranch of a friend in Alton, Missouri, a town that Don Jaime and I passed through a week ago. They landed at Walnut Ridge at two a.m. after a Friday night concert in Dallas and then flew on to Alton in a puddle jumper, all that is except for Paul, who was leery of small planes and preferred to be driven.

A boyhood friend of Carrie Mae's happened to be at the airport when the Beatles made their surprise landing and immediately called Carrie Mae, waking her family up in the middle of the night, to tell her that he had hung out with and drunk whiskey with the Beatles. The next day, Carrie Mae and her parents drove out to the airport to see if the Beatles jet was truly there. Not only was it there, but Carrie Mae and a couple of her girl friends were able to sneak aboard the jet, climbing up on its wing and slipping in through its emergency exit, which they noticed was ajar. They made off with five small pillows. Her father found out later that day and made them return the pillows, though she kept the slip it came in, which she still has.

They learned that the pilot of the jet was staying at a local motel. They searched him out to see if he would tell them when the Beatles would be flying out. He said he couldn't say, but if they wanted to see them they shouldn't go to church on Sunday. That's all they needed to know. They were among about 300 people at the airport Sunday morning, about ten per cent of the town's population.

When the small plane landed, only John and Paul exited, rushing straight to the jet, hardly acknowledging the crowd. "Ringo looked tipsy, as if he were drunk," Carrie Mae said. "And then right after they boarded the jet, a red GMC Suburban, that had been parked a little distance away, drove up right where I was standing and out hopped first Paul and then George. Paul passed me before I could react, but I was able to touch George. This very hand touched George," she gushed, as if she were still that 14-year old girl who had experienced the dream of a lifetime.

From the plane John glanced out once and gave a wave, but Paul gave the crowd a prolonged look. "Every girl there claims he made eye contact with her, but I know I'm the one," Carrie Mae said.

I wondered if Alton acknowledged the Beatles visit as did Walnut Ridge. Don Jaime and I spent a fair bit of time circling about the town late one Sunday afternoon trying to find a six-pack of beer for The Don and hadn't noticed anything commemorating the Beatles. Carrie Mae confirmed there wasn't, though the ranch they stayed at has tried to auction off every bit of its content that it can connect to the Beatles.

The 1962 GMC Suburban Paul and George were given a ride in is still around. It was in Walnut Ridge this past Sept. 18, the 47th anniversary of the Beatles landing, when the Beatles sculpture was unveiled. Carrie Mae said the "Wall Street Journal" had a front page story on the event. Google "Carrie Mae Snapp and the Beatles" and you can read much much more. Carrie Mae has been featured in quite a few articles over the years. "I give a good interview," she said. Yes indeed.

She added that a documentary was made of the Beatles visit, but because of rights problems with some of the footage, it has never been released. Someone else is working on a feature film of that momentous weekend.

Later, George

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