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How did your life collide with the headlines in 2007?
Iraq, the subprime crisis, Facebook, immigration, oil prices - 2007 had no shortage of hefty headlines. We'd like to hear about how these and other major news events of the past year affected you. Where did your life collide with the news in 2007?

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Does Puff Need Parental Advisory? December 08, 2007E-mail this story E-mail this story
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Bill and Suzanna
Weekend America host Bill Radke spends his weekends introducing his child to lots of things, including music. Recently, he was given a copy of "Puff the Magic Dragon," for his daughter and he found it to be a rather bleak song for children. So bleak, in fact, that it made him cry. See, the song is about abandoning your imaginary friends, which Bill feels is too much reality for little ones. Bill speaks with the writer of the song, Lenny Lipton, about his downer of a kid's song.

- - -

by Bill Radke with Suzie Lechtenberg

I was driving home listening to a children's music CD that a friend had given me, when I heard:

Puff, the magic dragon lived by the sea
and frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honah Lee

You remember the tune, it starts out very happy. In fact, I've been polling my friends and almost everyone remembers this as a cute little kiddy song. But as I kept listening, my car turned into my parents' living room circa 1972. I could see the wooden cabinet stereo with the record spinning inside.

See, I was a troubled little kid, and I lived in my imagination. This song lured me in to Honah Lee and then, it crushed me. Little Jackie Paper abandons his best friend. And Puff collapses.

Without his life-long friend, Puff could not be brave,
So Puff that mighty dragon sadly slipped into his cave. Oh.

So I'm driving down the Hollywood Freeway, not "misty-eyed," but with actual tears running down my face. And I realize I'm not crying for Puff; I'm crying for a little boy who I couldn't protect...who didn't know any better than to die a little inside, as he found out that even your imagination is painful.

So as I drove, I made two resolutions. One, I'm going to protect my daughter from ever hearing the most heartless children's song in history. And two, I'm going to find the son-of-a-bitch who wrote it and make sure he knows what he did to me.

Well, what do you know? It turns out the son-of-a-bitch lives a few miles from me in Los Angeles... and he's a really nice guy. His name is Lenny Lipton and he invited me to his home and showed me his original poem from 1959 and the handwritten edits made by his friend Peter Yarrow, who later made the song a hit with Peter Paul and Mary.

"Oh we found it, okay here it is. This was lost for years and Yarrow found it, so very few people have ever seen this. So here you can see the typed script, that's mine; I typed this in the typewriter," said Lipton.

"See 'Green scales fell like rain,' that was from the original. I wrote that! I never liked 'Green scales fell like rain' and I blamed it on Yarrow, but I can see I wrote it, " he said with a chuckle.

Lenny told me the whole story. He was a freshman at Cornell University when one day he read an Ogden Nash poem called "The Custard Dragon," and decided to write a dragon poem himself.

"Why?" I asked.

"I don't know," he answered, "It was the inspiration."

By the way, you may have heard that Puff is a lightly coded reference to marijuana. Lenny says that's not what it was about.

"I think it's what I was feeling. I think what I was feeling was that my childhood had ended and this was sort of a metaphor for that. I think the song is about creativity, about the creativity of youth. And how when people grow up, it goes away," he said.

Now, I could relate to all of this. Kids do grow up and they leave behind their imaginary friends and it's sad. But ... where was the redemption? Why did Puff fall apart? Why is this song so hopeless?

And this is when Lenny showed me the last line of his poem, which Yarrow had crossed out. It reads "Puff the Magic Dragon slipped into his cave..."

"... and waited the eventual coming of little Tommy Knave," he recited, " So Tommy Knave has been assigned to oblivion and obscurity, but Jackie Paper lives on."

He's laughing about it; I couldn't believe what I was hearing. You mean... it's not over? Puff finds a new friend?

"Why did you let Peter Yarrow, Peter Paul and Mary record the song without your hopeful ending?" I asked.

"They didn't do anything to hurt the spirit of the song. Because the song stops doesn't means the story stops," Lipton said.

"I'm thinking about this because I'm a new father, a first time father. And, as of right now, I would protect her from that song, Lenny," I said.

Lipton reasoned with me, "Oh, I don't know if you would do that, think about it. It'd make her life a little bit better not worse."

"Why do you think it would make..."

"Cause all literature and art is important. It helps you make sense out of your life. Crying about Puff the Magic Dragon is practice for the loss of your first love or your parents dying," he said.

"I also don't sing to my child about her cradle falling out of the tree," I said.

"I think you may be creating a Buddha. Buddha's father tried to keep him from all misery. So if you keep doing that, one day your kid is going to discover that there is mortality and sorrow, and that may be quite a shock," he said.

"Everybody who goes through that may not become a Buddha. They may become crazy!" he laughed.

Well, I thought about it, the man does make sense. I don't want Susanna to get sucker-punched by the fist of life. But on the other hand, I also don't want to land the first blow with this song. And I know I shouldn't run her life according to my childhood sorrow... but then, isn't she supposed to benefit from my experience?

Well, I guess it's OK to be undecided for a while... she is only 10 months old.