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The shockingly interconnected lives of JFK, Lincoln, Johnny Cash, and John Ritter

Kennedy, Lincoln, Cash, Ritter. Come on, people! Can't you see the connection? For some, the second anniversary of 9/11 passed quietly this year. Though many chose to observe the date by driving all day with the parking lights on and pasting a fresh patriotic bumper sticker on the back of the car, others of us grieved in private, during commercial breaks of Temptation Island, which we watch only to hold us over until Monday's Paradise Hotel. But as the long day closed, a star fell out of the night sky; if you didn't watch TV or get on the Internet after midnight, you may have missed it. The beloved actor John Ritter passed into eternity after battling a strange, undetected flaw in his heart's architecture: a dissected aorta. As the dark night unfolded, Ritter would be joined in the afterlife by another beloved icon: Johnny Cash. Music's "Man in Black" had fought a host of illnesses in his last year, but his passing was officially attributed to complications from diabetes.

Not only is this dual expiration statistically deviant, but its arrival on the tail of the anniversary of arguably the most shocking event in modern American history left me -- though I'm typically insensitive to such coincidences -- scratching my head. I wonder if you, perhaps after giving your own head a good scratch, were thinking what I was thinking: The deaths of Ritter and Cash parallel the Lincoln/Kennedy assassinations. Yep, this whole thing stinks like Harvey Keitel with his shirt off.

The facts speak for themselves. Lincoln and Kennedy were both killed on a Friday; Cash died on a Friday and Ritter died right before one. The names "Kennedy" and "Lincoln" both have the same number of letters: seven. The names "John Ritter" and "Johnny Cash" share the same number of letters: 10. The names of both assassins, John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald, each contain 15 letters; "dissection of the aorta" and "diabetes complication" both contain 20.

Now, follow the strand further into the web of familial and social links. John Wilkes Booth's brother, Edwin, once saved the life of Abe Lincoln's son, Robert Todd, during a train accident. Johnny Cash's brother died as a teen in a grisly power-saw accident, while Ritter's brother nearly died from cerebral palsy. Not to mention that John Ritter was the son of Tex Ritter, who was a country music star, and Johnny Cash was a country music star whose father was probably a Texan. Lincoln visited Monroe, Md., a week before he was shot, while Kennedy was a friend to Marilyn Monroe a week before he met the magic bullet (maybe even earlier); Ritter was a friend of Henry Winkler, and Cash was known to have identified most with Henry Winkler's character the Fonz on the popular sitcom Happy Days.

But here's the real zinger. In another momentous September, President Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation against the will of the Confederacy, that coalition comprised of 10 states. Lincoln then led the Union to victory over these 10 states in the Civil War. Johnny Cash spent his life battling for the emancipation of his tortured soul through music, and won 10 Grammies doing so. The main political event of Kennedy's career was the chilling Cuban Missile Crisis, which lasted eight October days. John Ritter's last performance was as a father on ABC's chilling 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter. Ten states, 10 Grammies. Eight days, eight rules. This is cosmic symmetry of the highest order.

Much as both Kennedy and Lincoln were bound by, and to some extent perished as a result of, their civil rights convictions, Ritter and Cash innovated in the staid face of tradition. Cash shunned the bling-bling of his peers' rhinestone duds for his characteristic black shirt and black coat; he used the monotone dress to symbolize the forgotten and the downtrodden. John Ritter starred as a man pretending to be gay on Three's Company way before there was any character on television who was really gay. Both were trailblazers in their own right whose work enabled the careers of a parade of impersonators. Marvel for a moment at the cascade effect of each artist's oeuvre: Without Johnny Cash's dark confessionals ("I walk the line"), there would be no Trent Reznor ("I hurt myself today"). Without John Ritter's portrayal of Jack Tripper, an apparently gay man who nevertheless got chicks, there would be no Justin Timberlake. Timberlake recently won an MTV Video Music Award, beating out Johnny Cash, who was nominated for his cover of a Trent Reznor song -- worlds collide once again.

While Sept. 11 was a day of mourning, it was also a day of celebration -- a celebration of freedom: that ideal which America strives to protect; that ideal so embodied in the life's work of John F. Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln, Johnny Cash, and John Ritter -- each, now, a star glowing brightly in heaven. If you take off your RayBans, you can connect all four (the constellation looks like a baked potato -- who knew?).


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