For as long as I can remember, I have had a small lamp hooked over top of the headboard of my bed. It is a treasured reading companion — a companion that has helped develop a love of the written word that has remained with me my entire life.
I must admit, however, my reading choices are unusual. I am particularly partial to biographies and autobiographies of classic entertainers from the early days of show business.
Almost every Christmas, Brenda places a special, usually hard-to-find book under the Christmas tree as a gift for me. One year she gifted me a 1948 autobiography written by Burl Ives, titled “Wayfaring Stranger.” John Wayne’s, Bob Braun’s and Hank Snow’s books showed up various years. And, so it goes.
A couple of Christmases ago Brenda bought me a book by Ozzie Nelson simply titled “Ozzie.” He wasn’t a renowned author, but unknown to many, he had earned a law degree from Rutgers University in 1930. Ozzie wrote well.
Each page conveyed a man who was happy, humorous and full of warmth, with a strong love for his family. The kids in our family had grown up watching the Nelsons. We felt like we knew them.
I had the opportunity to meet Ricky Nelson when he played at the Murphy Theatre in the 1980s. Four years ago, Brenda and I saw Ricky’s twin sons, Matthew and Gunther, in person at a tribute concert at the Ritz Theatre in Tiffin, Ohio. The concert was held a week after the death of David Nelson, and the twins delivered a moving, beautiful tribute to their uncle.
The other day a friend, Bret Dixon, and I were talking about the Nelsons.
“Did I ever tell you about seeing Ricky Nelson a few days before the plane crash?” Bret asked me.
Bret went on to say that on Dec. 28, 1985, he and John Settlemyre had attended an Ohio State game at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Fla. John and Bret had graduated from Ohio State in the spring of 1985, and Bret’s two brothers, Brian and Jeff, were still in the OSU Marching Band.
“Brian played the big bass drum and Jeff the trumpet, and our buddy Jay Sewell stayed in school to play a fifth year in E Row. We wanted to support the team and the band,” Bret said.
Bret said they arrived a few days early to attend some of the planned events. The City of Orlando was having a street fair, where some of the streets were blocked off downtown. The weather was very cold, and the events were not well attended. Bret went on to say that he and John were wandering around one of the side streets when they encountered a lady who told them they needed to come to the stage across the street to see Ricky Nelson perform.
“About that time Ricky Nelson came out of a trailer behind us and joined the woman, so we walked over to the stage to watch him perform,” Bret said. “At first, we were the only ones there until people realized who he was, then the crowd began to gather until it was packed. After the concert, we went over to Ricky and told him how much we enjoyed his music,” Bret added.
Bret said two days later, they heard Ricky had lost his life in a plane crash some two-and-a-half hours northeast of Dallas, Texas, en route to a New Year’s Eve performance at the Park Suite Hotel.
“The news was a complete shock. We were sad to think we had seen him at one of his last public concerts. I know we were both very grateful to have been there,” Bret said.
Some years ago, The New York Times featured an article about the Nelsons. The piece highlighted a time in America when mothers, fathers and children lived happily together.
As part of the Times article, the reporter joined David Nelson for a trip to the old Nelson home place in Hollywood. It was not a Hollywood set; it had been the Nelson family’s actual home.
The reporter said he walked to the front yard to look more closely, but to his surprise David stayed in the car. David has been the one to see the family through its darkest times. He was inside this house, in the room with Ozzie when he had died. He was in this house they had received word of Ricky’s death. When Harriet died, David was holding her hand.
After Ozzie died, Harriet lived alone in this house until she finally decided to sell it. On the last day before the new owners moved in, Harriet took one last look inside. She broke down.
Maybe she heard the knock of neighbor “Thorny,” asking if Ozzie could come outside. Maybe it was the smell of the pies she was always baking drifting back into the kitchen. Maybe it was the voices of her family: ”Hi, Mom. Hi, Pop.” ”Oh, hello, boys.”
Or maybe she heard the voice of Ozzie tenderly calling out to her one last time: “Harriet, I’m home.”
Pat Haley is former Clinton County commissioner and former Clinton County sheriff.