Sunday, April 27, 2008

Things we didn't know we'd learn; 1963

I know what you're thinking. I know I've waited many years for this post, two to be exact, and I've hesitated for two or three days thinking about what else to say about 6th grade and the fall of 1963 but really this is the thing that matters most. It's some time around the middle of the afternoon on a lovely late fall afternoon. It was warm. I remember that. We were in Mrs. Fuller's math class. God knows what we were learning. Some dim precursor to Algebra? It couldn't have mattered. Mr. Campbell walked in and pulled Mrs. Fuller out and they talked, like adults do about things that matter to adults, and Mrs. Fuller walked in to tell us the President had been shot. President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, Texas in the afternoon of November, 22nd, 1963 and we were shocked. Huh.
That seems stupid saying that but we were. Shocked. Stunned. Only one other event in my life made me feel like this and that was in September of 2001 when I watched two airplanes hit the World Trade Center. But back then this was something you didn't even know how to acknowledge. What did it mean? Why was he shot? I mean, really? Why would anyone shoot the President of the United States. It wasn't a Russian. It wasn't like we had just ended a great Civil War. So we all sat in class like little fools and looked at each other and then we were sent home. After an hour or so our teachers sent us home. To be with our parents.
They were no better than us. Ed Campbell who had witnessed the slaughter of Korea and who rushed out like a hero to put out fires, Mrs. Myers who seemed stalwart and brave and strong, Mrs. Ferrera who laughed with us and told ribald jokes, they all looked like little puppets who had had their strings cut and they said things and did things but they didn't know why or what they were saying and we walked home.
When I got home my mother was sobbing.
When I got home my mother was sobbing.
Her ironing board was in the living room and she was in the first living room and she was crying. I don't believe I am making this up. This is what I remember. It was embarrassing but she was in tears. The tv was on and there were people talking about the President and by now it was clear he was dead. He'd been shot in Texas by a man and he was dead.
It seems so stupid from this great remove to say we loved this man. We did. He was a joy. He and his family were funny and real and just like our own even if later we were to find out this was all a fiction. He was like my father. He played touch football. My father did. He had back problems. My father did. His wife was beautiful. She looked like my mother and my aunts and my beloved Irish cousins. Jesus.
My mother had been watching a soap opera. She never watched another to the end of her life.
The facts played out on television like nothing we had ever seen; though they would play out that way again and again over the next several years. We were exiled to play but everytime we ducked into the house the President was dead.
You could make up lots of dumb shit about this. We were, after all, only sixth graders. We knew absolutely nothing about politics. To us he was like God. We admired and loved him and his family. We had not had the tragedy of WWII or WWI or the Civil War or any other horror brush up against our stupid little lives. This was like getting smacked really hard with the hand of reality and no one tells you it is reality.
I would imagine there are worse things than public tragedy. I know my mother's death affected me more than the death of the young man who was President. But I know that this event marked my childhood just as clearly as the two towers falling marked my adulthood. That's an odd thing. How public events become private events. How you can remember every smell and hesitation. The ironing board. The quiet streets. The shocked looks of adults. The newsreels, the tv news, the man with a gun the twisted body of Lee Harvey Oswald, the smoke drifting across Brooklyn, the candles burning in doorways all over Jersey City, the ironing board, the gun, the smoke.


Jim Maddox said...

Great post, Jack. It was so somber. We didn't know how to act. We wanted to play and watch TV, but it felt wrong for us to want to do those things; the joys of childhood had to be put on hold for several days. We had to sit back and watch our parents and the nation grieving. There was nothing we could do.

Paul said...

I was in Mrs. Ferrara's 4th grade. We were making turkeys by tracing our hands and then coloring the thumb as it's head and the other fingers were its feathers. It is like it was yesterday. I wasn't aware of Mrs. Ferrara leaving the room, but I remember her coming back in, crying and telling us the the president had been shot and we were being dismissed and we all had to go straight home. My mother was ironing and watching Walter Cronkite who had just announced that the president was dead. Being the stupid little good Republican boy that I was, I asked if that meant Nixon would become president. That weekend is emblazoned on my memory.

I still measure my life before the assassination and after the assassination.