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With the Beatles, in Paris

I like to say I knew them when. The catch is, I can’t prove it.

The Beatles wave to fans after arriving at Kennedy Airport on Feb. 7, 1964.
Library of Congress

I like to say I knew them when. The catch is, I can’t prove it.

In the summer of 1963, I was a 19-year-old college student traveling across Europe with a friend, on our way home from a study program in the Middle East. We had gotten as far as Paris, and on this particular day, we had set out separately, to explore the city on our own.

I wanted to see the paintings of the French Impressionists, displayed at that time in the Musee Jeu de Paume. To get there, I had to cross the expanse of the Place de la Concorde and had just stepped off the curb when a Volkswagen Bug shot past me, cutting the corner so close that I had to jump back to avoid being hit.

In one of those shocked, near-miss moments when every detail is clear and permanent, I could see that it was packed with young men, at least four, maybe five, counting the driver. The ones in the back seat had a big bass drum jammed in with them.

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A rock group, obviously. The band’s name was on a big white sign taped to the VW’s side door, but it went by me so fast I wasn’t sure I’d read it right.

When I met up with my friend later, the first thing I told her wasn’t about the Monets or Cezannes, it was my near collision with the rock band. It was the closest I’d ever been to one.  

“They’re named for an insect,’’ I told her. “But they spelled it wrong.”

My 20th birthday fell on a Sunday that winter, and I normally would have spent it at home. But because the weather was about as bitter as the winter we’re having now, my parents let me spend the night with friends on campus.

Which was why I was in the basement of a University of Minnesota sorority house, watching television with a flock of girls, most of us with our hair up in rollers, when Ed Sullivan crossed his arms, swayed to one side and introduced what would become his most unforgettable act.

Everybody gasped, at least one girl started shrieking, and I shouted: “That’s them! That’s the guys who nearly ran over my foot in Paris last summer!’’  

Decades after the band broke up and John Lennon had been killed and the world had changed, I looked up the Beatles’ performance schedule for 1963. It turns out they didn’t play in Paris that summer. But their earlier history had involved Hamburg, so maybe they’d been doing the same thing I was that summer — crossing France on their way to catch a ferry back to England.   

Maybe. In any case, I can’t prove it. But I’d still stake life and reputation on that memory. What I staked at the time was my hair – the heavily teased, lacquered helmet of hair that everyone was wearing back then.

“Cut my hair like Ringo Starr’s!’’ I begged one of the friends who saw the Beatles’ first live U.S. TV appearance with me. And she did. Did it well, I might add. I was the first person I knew who dared to wear her hair in a Beatle cut, which made me briefly noticeable at college beer parties and, once that winter, on the street.

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I was at Seven Corners, waiting for the city bus that would take me home, when a total stranger walked up, leaned in close, kissed me on the cheek and announced, “I love Beatles!’’ I never saw him again, but the flattery lasted for days.