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The Death and Life of John Lennon

4. THE LONG AND WINDING ROAD


The long and winding road that leads to your door,
Will never disappear, I’ve seen that road before
It always leads me here, lead me to your door.

—Lennon and McCartney

His name was Mark David Chapman. The pictures show us a suety little man, with a small nose, porky jowls, lank hair flopped forward. Those pictures, drawn on the run while Mark David Chapman was being arraigned for homicide, don’t tell us what was teeming around in his brain. Neither do the details of his life.

“He was a people person,” said Paul Tharp, community-relations director of the Harold Castle Memorial Hospital, in whose printshop Chapman had worked for two years. “He was a man who liked to be with people, and got along well with co-workers. He was a good worker and a go-getter. He was an all-around good guy.”

Yeah—and the details of his life tell us other things. That he was born May 10, 1955, in Fort Worth, Texas; that his father was named David Curtis Chapman, originally of Connecticut, then an air-force sergeant stationed at Carswell Air Force Base; that his mother was Diane Elizabeth Pease Chapman, from Massachusetts; that he was brought up in Decatur, Georgia; that his father left the air force to work for an oil company, then a bank in Atlanta, and that along the way he had taught his son how to play a box guitar.

The details tell you all of that, and how young Mark David Chapman collected Beatles records, graduated from Columbia High School in Decatur, Georgia, where he briefly played guitar in a rock band, went to work for the YMCA, and in 1975 traveled to Beirut at his own expense to work in the YMCA’s International Camp Counselor program, was caught in the Lebanese civil war, escaped death, and returned to Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, to help process refugees from Vietnam.

“The staff was pretty close,” said Gregg Lyman, who worked at Fort Chaffee with Chapman and now lives in Oak Park, Illinois. “We talked a lot about music, rock ’n’ roll. Mark came to my apartment and looked at my record collection and picked up an Allman Brothers album. I guess you can’t live in Georgia without being an Allman Brothers fan. But I can’t really recall any specific comments about the Beatles or John Lennon. Mark really wasn’t into the Beatles that deep.”

Chapman apparently used a lot of drugs in high school, but, according to Lyman, that phase was over by the time he got to Fort Chaffee. “He was the straight member of the group. I knew he had Christian convictions. We’d all be having drinks, and he’d be sitting there with a Coke.” Rod Riemersma, who was also at Chaffee and is now executive director of the Lamar YMCA branch, in Baton Rouge, agreed. “He was more straitlaced than we were,” he said. “If I told an off-color joke, he’d give me a little smile, and I’d lay off out of respect for his feelings.” Chapman had become deeply involved with Christianity in the last two years in high school, carrying around his own personal Bible and making entries in a “Jesus notebook.” Riemersma said that he and Chapman stayed in touch for a couple of years after the Fort Chaffee project, “and he concluded his letters to me with a quote from the Bible or a music lyric.”

Lyman said that Chapman grew very close with a young Vietnamese kid at camp. “The child would do what he could to help Mark,” he said, “sweep out his room, that sort of thing. Mark would sit him on his lap and talk with him, even though the child couldn’t understand what he was saying. Mark was very sad about the departure of that child. We let him lean on us that week.”

Chapman confessed some deeper troubles to another staffer named David Moore, now the 40-year-old executive director of the Duncan YMCA, in Chicago. They shared a room at Fort Chaffee.

“He was in the drug scene and had done some barbiturates and amphetamines and maybe even heroin,” Moore said. “But then he met this woman who changed his life. He was madly in love with Jessica, and she kind of straightened him around. She made him a Christian.” Under her influence, he enrolled in Covenant College, in Lookout Mountain, Tennessee. But he couldn’t hack it, either at college, where he flunked out after a semester, or with the girl, who soon left him. “He was a real bright kid who just didn’t have the discipline,” Moore said. “And he was in love with this woman. But he became unglued when he couldn’t cut it in school, and the girl told him to pack off.” Then he added, “He blamed it on himself, the breakup. He tended to blame himself for everything that went wrong. In clinical terms, he had a very low self-image. The girl was very nice: young, cute, a devout Christian. She is going through hell now more than anyone.”


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