Thursday, November 21, 2013

A Warm November Day

It was a warm Friday afternoon, especially for November, in Washington, D.C.  Our sixth grade class was engaged in copying spelling words or some such busy work.  It was silent in the room except for the hum of the fluorescent lights.  The blinds were drawn to cut the glare from the sunshine.  Many of my classmates had their heads on their desks, fighting sleep.  I couldn’t wait to go home, get rid of my starched white shirt and neck tie and run down to the neighborhood playground and see if anyone was there for a pick-up basketball game.

The principal at my school, St. Ann School in Arlington, Virginia, was Sister Joseph Marie (or “JM” as we called her).  We all lived in mortal fear of her.   We were never summoned to her office because we had done something really good.  She never came to the classroom.   We were all shocked out of our reverie when the door exploded open and JM stormed in like her habit was on fire.  Her face was crimson and her hands were trembling.  She glared at us.  She thrust her hands on her hips to try to calm herself.  She was stooped over and looked suddenly very old.  What in God’s holy name had we done to incur this wrath?

She collected herself finally and in a cracking voice announced: “Your President has been shot and you better pray!”

That was it.  She twirled around and stomped towards the next classroom.  Our homeroom teacher was a younger nun. (Exact nun ages are hard to guess.)  She calmly told us to take out our rosaries and we recited the requisite “Our Fathers” and “Hail Marys”.  Lacking any other direction, we lapsed into an even more intense silence.  My eyes focused on dust that was floating in the air and highlighted by the afternoon sun while questions bounced around inside my brain:  “Who? Why? How bad?”  Dismissal time came and we walked silently, singe file, into the coat room.  Contrary to every other day in the coat room, there was no chatter or banter.  I looked at my best friend Danny and our eyes locked.  He then rabbit punched me in the shoulder, wheeled around and returned to his seat.  I grabbed my jacket and lunch box and returned to my seat as well, trying to ignore the throb in my deltoid.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy was the first Roman Catholic president.  He was young and therefore in direct contrast to the men he had followed.  He had a beautiful wife and little kids.  He was an idealist.  We all idolized him.  My Republican parents bought a new television (which was extremely out of character) to watch his inauguration.  My older sister had volunteered for his campaign.  JFK was bigger than life.  We felt like we knew him.  We trusted him.  We felt safe with him in the White House.  (It had only been a year since he called the Commie’s bluff in Cuba and made Khrushchev back down, after all.)  He audaciously promised Americans would walk on the moon by the end of the decade and, for some crazy reason, we all believed him. 

I walked briskly home, noticing that there was very little traffic.  The brilliant sunlight brought out the vivid reds and yellows in the crinkly leaves on the sidewalks.  When I got home, the house was empty.  My Mom didn’t work or drive and I don’t really remember where she was.  I had a house key and let myself in.  I ran for the TV in time to see Walter Cronkite take off his clunky black glasses and, fighting back tears, announce that John Kennedy had just died. 

We lived the rest of that day and night in a numb cloud.  My mother came home shortly thereafter and my Dad drove home early from work in downtown D.C.  We hardly spoke.  I don’t remember what we ate for dinner, but being Friday, it was probably frozen Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks. The meal was eaten off of unstable aluminum TV tray tables as we were assaulted with images of a frantic Jackie Kennedy scrambling on the back of the black Lincoln limousine for a fragment of her husband’s skull, a somber Lyndon Johnson taking the Oath of Office on Air Force One and anguished mourners on the streets of cities around the world.  Most of our food went uneaten.

Saturday was an even more spectacular weather day as was Sunday.  We went to Mass which should have helped but didn’t.  Back at home I finally had had enough funereal television viewing and needed to go shoot some baskets, run around the block, do anything but sit stunned in front of the TV.  I stood up in our small family room, stretched, and was about to depart when they announced that Lee Harvey Oswald, the suspected assassin, was to be transferred to another jail.  While watching that, a man named Jack Ruby emerged from a cluster of bystanders and fatally shot Oswald at point blank range on live television.  At that point I was sure that the world had gone officially mad.

I had similar feelings over the ensuing years.  Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated and rioters nearly destroyed my city.  Bobby Kennedy was killed while running for President, ending the hope of a quick resolution of the Viet Nam war.  The war itself escalated and too many of my contemporaries were killed or wounded.  Images of dead and maimed teenagers in the jungles of Southeast Asia emanated from the same television screen which had shown me Jackie Kennedy in her pink coat stained with her husband’s blood. The nation was then deceived and nearly destroyed by Richard Nixon and his cronies as the drama painfully unfolded, again, on national television. 

Even the cumulative shock of all of those events pales, however, compared to the warm November day that my president was shot.

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