By Mary Cucarola – 8/11/22 (I dedicate this blog to my brother, who passed away on July 17th, and left a massive hole in my heart.)
“A dragon lives forever, but not so little boys. Painted wings and giant’s rings make way for other toys.” By Peter Yarrow of the band Peter, Paul, & Mary
Puff, the Magic Dragon is a song written by Peter Yarrow from the 1960s. First released in 1963, it is based on a poem written by Leonard Lipton, who was Yarrow’s roommate at Cornell University. Both Lipton and Yarrow have said that Puff, the Magic Dragon is not about drugs as most people thought. The song is about losing the innocence of childhood and the hardships of growing older.
This song reminds me of my brother in so many ways, literally and in ways that are more nuanced. First of all, he ran for class president when he was a senior in high school in 1965 with his campaign slogan of “Huff, the Magic Dragon”. I remember helping him with painting the big banners and poster board when I was 11-12 years old. I had no idea what his slogan meant, but I knew it was cool, because he was very cool.
He was smart, athletic, funny, handsome, and had the prettiest high school girlfriend, named Carolyn. He drove a light green and white car with side fins and a push button transmission. I think it might have been a Dodge, but I know nothing about cars. He played football, basketball, and baseball. And what a baseball player he was – playing for the USC Trojans in college when they won the NCAA championship in 1968 as a 3rd baseman!
To say I idolized my brother is an understatement. I looked up to him, even though he teased me relentlessly and brought me to tears most days. He was my hero.
The loss of innocence is a coming of age and becoming affected by the change adulthood brings, struggling with the fact that everyone has to grow up and realizing that protecting the purity of childhood is unattainable. It pretty much sucks for everyone.
I think my brother may have experienced this loss of innocence while away at college. From growing up in a small western Colorado town to living in the middle of L.A. (Watts) on the USC campus was an extreme experience for him. I think it’s good to reach as a kid, and boy, did he reach, and in that experience, he realized there is no stopping adulthood and all of its messiness.
I think he may have gotten stuck there, emotionally not physically, because innocence is a time frame, not a place. His college experience was so deep for him he remained tethered to it his whole life. It was a profoundly good experience for him, but it was also when he realized he couldn’t protect his innocence nor the hardships and disappointments adulthood brought. These were opposing truths, and it is when and where he found another way to cope with the difficulties adulthood brought – an effective way for a long time.
He returned home after he graduated from college and in a way ceased his fearless roar, like Puff, the Magic Dragon did when his friend Jackie Paper came no more. He had to admit growing up in life was indeed necessary and messy. He did try to protect his innocence – he hated dark, immoral movies and series like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad (which I loved). He preferred the good guys in NCIS and Law and Order. His favorite word was “fun”- he said it and lived it often.
He was always up for playing games, grilling and salting things, partying, fishing, golfing and talking about his days at USC. I heard his USC stories so many times, it felt like I was there. And, I actually was there when I visited him one time! He wouldn’t let me go out of his apartment by myself nor let his friends get too close to me. He was very protective of his little teenage sister, and I loved him for it.
Grieving is many things – memories, regrets, reminders – each of which bears its own weight in our sorrow. Each has to be gone through, patiently and painfully. I am in that process now. Healing, too, is many things – smiles as days pass, good remembrances, blessings. As I know well, a day will come when there is more healing than grieving.
“Oh, Puff the magic dragon lived by the sea, and frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honah Lee.”
I know you are roaring and frolicking and embracing your childhood innocence now, my dear Billy, and it brings me peace. You are free.
Mary Cucarola – 8/11/22