The NCC swim teams spent more than a week at the Horizon Motor Hotel in Fort Lauderdale, waking up early to do grueling three-hour workouts in the mornings, and then spending the afternoons recovering. That involved a lot of lying on the beach and some swimming in the ocean. It was my first time to see an ocean, and I actually figured out the body-surfing thing over the course of the week; the key, someone told me, is to keep your body stiff, as stiff as, well, a surfboard.
In the evenings, we’d hang out. Sometimes we’d walk down and find a nightclub, but a lot of nights we just stayed in the hotel room, watching TV. We were all college kids; there might have been some alcohol involved, I can’t remember. 😉 Actually, one of the features of the Horizon was that they would have a “rum punch” party by the pool on Monday afternoons for all of the guests. As I remember, it tasted awful. But, true to its name, it did pack a punch.
After a week, we were all pretty much exhausted. On the last Monday, the folks who had driven to Florida left to drive back to Chicago; they probably took off after that morning’s workout, but before the rum punch party. The lucky ones, myself included, were flying back, so we got to spend an extra day or so. Maybe it was the cumulative effect of a week-plus of intense swim workouts, or maybe we had a little extra punch that afternoon to make up for those who had left. But we were all pretty wiped out as we settled into our suite to watch whoever was playing Monday Night Football. Even our coach, who—that day, had uncharacteristically partaken of some of the punch—was looking groggy when he staggered in to hang out with us for a while.
So we were watching the game, probably trying to keep a conversation going without much success, when ABC broke into the football broadcast with an odd news bulletin; a man had been shot in New York, and they thought it might have been John Lennon.
And then back to football. We weren’t quite sure what we’d heard; it was one of those nights when you weren’t certain of anything five minutes after it happened. It wasn’t like TV news today: you couldn’t instantly switch over and check out what the three news networks were reporting—you pretty much got what they gave you. As the game went on, more news bulletins, with increasing levels of certainty: yes, there was a shooting at the Dakota in New York, and John Lennon was there; then news that Lennon was taken to the hospital, and then, ultimately, confirmation that the former Beatle had in fact been killed outside of his apartment.
Stunning news, to be sure. We probably called it a night long after that, with another workout coming up early the next morning.
We flew back to Chicago the next afternoon or the day after, then had a week of workouts at school before the Rockford Relays, and I went back home to St. Louis for the rest of our “interim” break. All you heard on the radio for a few weeks was Beatles music. I can’t remember if I had bought Lennon’s and Yoko Ono’s new album, Double Fantasy before that trip or after he was murdered, but I did buy it, and loved exactly half of it — it featured alternating John and Yoko songs and, well, hers never really did it for me. His songs, though, were great, and of course were hugely poignant following his death. After reinventing music and culture in the 1960s, and rebelling against the world in the 1970s, Lennon had seemed to be settling down with a family in the 1980s, and now he’d been cut down by a lunatic with a handgun.
The Horizon Motor Hotel is long gone now, undoubtedly replaced by something way out of the price range of a college swimming team. But I’ll always remember the scene in that hotel suite, watching through bleary eyes the news that a Beatle had died.