grapevineWhere Were You? November 22, 1963grapevine
November 22, 1963


It was a Friday, the favorite schoolday of the week.

I was seven at the time, but my eighth birthday was in a little over two weeks. Next Thursday would be Thanksgiving Day, and we had already decorated the classroom with construction paper turkeys, Pilgrims and Indians, and had colored in innumerable ditto-paper cornucopias bursting with fruit and vegetables. I was in Mrs. Grady's second grade at Stadium School and making my way daily through math, reading, geography, and all the other normal second grade subjects. Mrs. Grady trained student teachers, but I have since forgotten who was doing our instruction at the time.

The day had been typical of all schooldays. Our coats were hung in the coat closet, then the teacher would turn the pivoting doors closed to reveal the corkboards with their fluttering displays of the week's best papers. At eight fifteen Mrs. Sinnatt would tap with her pencil eraser to make sure the public address system was working. That magnified "tap-tap-tap" was our signal to get ready. Then came the hiss of the needle falling into the groove of the record player that played the National Anthem. We sprang from our seats and stood up as the first notes boomed, facing the front as an instrumental version of "The Star Spangled Banner" played, then faced the flag with hands over our hearts to say the Pledge of Allegiance. Finally we had a moment of silent prayer (you were not required to pray, only to respectfully stay quiet for those who did). And then the day began for the thirty of us, the girls in jumpers or woolen dresses or skirts and sweaters, the boys in pants and shirts or sweaters.

Besides being the final day of the week with the wonderful weekend coming up, Fridays were also special because we had art and music, and that day we had sung autumn and Thanksgiving songs and "America the Beautiful" from our horizontal-set music books; the most delightful days were when the music teacher came and accompanied our music on her autoharp. We were now too old for the treat, but in first grade the prize for the week's best behavior was to sit on the lap of the music teacher and help her pick out the notes on the fascinating instrument.

Outside the weather was typical of November: chilly and probably a bit windy. The trees already wore their winter skeletons, shorn of their leaves which lay faded and brown, made brittle by the usual autumn rains on those unkempt (according to my dad) lawns of people who did not rake. It was a sunny day, I'm pretty certain, the sun a comfort against the chill November wind that chased us as we played tag at recess. It's hard to recall precise details back then; it's more like one of the chalk pictures from Mary Poppins, still bright but the details having run in innumerable showers.

I was looking forward to getting home as I always did. Mom would be finished doing housework--although she might be ironing or mending--and watching her soap operas. There were game shows in the afternoon that we could watch together, Match Game with Gene Rayburn and You Don't Say with Tom Kennedy, and I would tell her about school. My dad would be home from work about four o'clock and she'd have to start cooking dinner soon after, because we ate at five. From about 2:45 when I got home until four was our special time together on schooldays.

We lived ten minutes from the school. The neighborhood was not greatly changed from what it is today, but there were some differences. The "cigar tree" with its long, untidy seed pods still stood in front of my godmother's house. Margaret Mangarelli and her husband Pat still farmed the big lot next to their house where a two-story home now stands. The Farrentes and their big English setter Buttons still lived in the tiny home some houses down from us. There were a few more trees, the cramped split level house near the Crescent Avenue end of the street didn't exist, there were more clapboards and no vinyl siding, and no wire fence surrounded the corner property at Appleton and Crescent, so Rex, the big sable collie who lived there could come out and greet all the schoolchildren who passed. We had "neighborhood dogs" who wandered about at will in those days; while our parents always complained about them fouling our yards, we kids were friends with all of them. We never had to worry about anyone having a vicious dog; dogs were pets, not watchdogs in our neighborhood. Heck, in the summer we didn't even lock our doors if we took a quick run to Tom's Superette or Joe's Spa for a loaf of bread or some candy.

Rex was different, though. He looked a lot like Lassie, who was my favorite television star, although without the blaze, and like Lassie, he never left his property without permission. He would stand at the edge of the concrete embankment that raised the corner lot up from the sidewalk below and allow us kids to pet him, but he would never come down to play.

I'm not sure if Rex was out that day; it depended on the whim of his owner. If he was Maria and I probably dawdled to fuss over him.

Because I was only seven, I walked to and from school with Maria Angelone from across the street. Maria was a "big girl," probably in fourth or fifth grade. I was great pals with her little brother Danny, who I believe was in kindergarten at the time. He would come to the edge of his lawn and call me to come play with him and we'd have great fun in their big tree-shaded backyard or in the large unfinished basement with its collection of old furniture, a crib, and other odds and ends.

I was always glad for Maria's company, although I'm not sure she always enjoyed mine. Now I wonder if she wouldn't have been happier with some kids of her own age instead of walking little me home. Still, she made some of the "bears" easier to handle.

Sure enough, as we passed the Florio house, one of the "bears" came out.

Michael Florio was one of the big boys who used to scare me. Even as an elementary school kid he was solid and well-built, your typical Italo-American boy with a big voice and a big ego. He lived about halfway down the street in a little house with his parents and siblings, and he was a great trial to us because he always rushed home in the afternoons just in time to torment us when we passed. He called Maria "buck teeth" and other hateful names; luckily Maria had a lot more chuzpah than me and would just call him names back, even though I knew it bothered her.

Today Michael wasn't out just to insult Maria--he had news.

"Hey, Buck-Teeth, guess what. Someone just shot the President."

Maria assumed this was another jibe to get her goat. "Oh, shut up, Michael. You're lying."

In the gruesome way of all boys he continued, "I am not. Someone shot the back of his head off. His brains were all over the place. They said so on the news."

Maria called him a liar again, told me not to believe him, and we walked on, tossing our heads with little girl dignity, two small figures walking down Appleton Street in cloth coats buttoned tight against the November cold.

Maria crossed the street just as we came to the lot next to my godmother's house, which was next door to ours. Maybe I might have noticed my godmother was home from work early, or that my godfather's car was there--or perhaps Dan Angelone's car might have been already parked in Maria's yard. But they often came home early. My godfather was our oil man and came home when his work was done; Maria's dad was a car salesman and occasionally did come home during the day.

But as I came abreast of my godmother's house, I could now see that my dad's black Chevy Impala was in the driveway.

What was Daddy doing home? It wasn't busy at work--in fact he'd probably be "on stagger" (working week on, week off) in a few weeks--but they never sent anyone home when it was slow. All the Christmas orders for the stores would have been filled and overtime would have been finished for that year at Trifari, where he worked as a jewelry polisher. It wasn't an easy job, but it was a fascinating place to visit with really nice people: the big glass windowed building was near Broad Street, and I remember toiling up and down the steps visiting with him to the different departments: plating, gluing in, linking and looping, racking, shipping. "This is Mike's daughter," I'd be introduced, and while the adults talked about me I'd look at all the big metal machinery about me, or toy with what the "girls" in the different departments had on their benches. I already knew Betty, who was my mom's old boss in the gluing-in department back when she worked there before I was born. They were the most fun to visit because they'd have the little rhinestones and aurora borealis beads and other colored stones in old cups before them and I would stir them with my fingers, careful not to spill them, and watch them glitter.

And Daddy couldn't be sick. He did get bronchitis every winter because he still smoked, but it wasn't winter yet and anyway, you usually knew when Daddy was sick. He waited until the last minute to stay home because no work meant no pay.

Mommy couldn't possibly be sick, could she? So sick she'd called Daddy to come home? No, she would have called the doctor first and he might have been there instead, since doctors still made house calls back then and didn't force you to drag into their office and infect all their other patients...

I ran up the driveway and into the house. I might have even banged the old wooden porch door in my haste. The front door was for company and little used, and before Christmas we would shut it for the winter and stuff the cracks with rags to keep the drafts out of the house until spring, like the good New Englanders that we were. No, it was into the kitchen one always came after school, the kitchen smelling of coffee and scrupulously clean, maybe warm with the odor of "the gravy" simmering on the stove or a chicken already slow-roasting in the oven.

No one was in the kitchen. I dumped my lunchbox on the table and ran into the living room.

My Daddy was sitting on the couch facing the big old GE console TV we had then. It was black and white, of course, probably the screen no bigger than 20 inches, with Bakelite knobs and a big fabric covered speaker box as big as the screen below, as big as a hearth in our living room. Mommy was next to him, or maybe she was in her armchair next to the attic stair. It was hard to remember her for once, because what I saw was frightening and astonishing.

My Daddy was crying.

Daddies didn't cry, except when someone they loved died. Maybe he'd cried during World War II when he was in the Black Forest and didn't know if he'd ever get home to Silver Lake and his family. I know he'd cried when his mother died, but I didn't remember because I was only two at the time.

But Daddies don't look at the TV and cry.

This was probably about the time my mother took me aside and told me the awful truth. Big-mouthed Michael Florio, who Maria had told off in such wonderful bravado, had not been lying. President Kennedy had been shot and was dead.

Today it's probably hard to understand what John F. Kennedy meant to people. By now we've all read the stories about how he had extramarital affairs and how he was probably sick with some type of kidney disease, and after politicos had dissected all the bad decisions he made. But back then they called his term of office "Camelot" and for a lot of people it was if he were a real King Arthur come to help his country, even if they did joke about his broad Massachusetts accent. He was young and something was "always doing" in his world, just like in Scollay Square in his native Boston. Young people listened to his Peace Corps speeches and volunteered in the hopes to make the world better. His space program goals made children want to study the sciences and become the explorers of tomorrow. His pretty wife Jacqueline made the tired White House look beautiful and her cool beauty was copied by all the teenage girls and young women in the country with their "Jackie" haircuts and clothes. We children envied Caroline and "John-John" and their pets and ponies and fun in the White House, all documented in big beautiful pictures in the magazines. "Look, Mommy," I'd say. "Caroline Kennedy has a dog and she's younger than me," and then Mom would explain that Caroline also had people to look after the dog and I would have to be able to be old enough to look after it myself.

We New Englanders were proud of him, but President Kennedy was even more special to some of us because he was Catholic. Some Catholic families even had his picture in their homes, as the Depression-era families had done with Franklin Delano Roosevelt 30 years earlier. Way back since Al Smith ran for president, people had jeered and said no Catholic was ever going to be president. No one wanted a Catholic president, they declared; if he got into office, he would let the Pope take over our country! That was nonsense, we knew. This was the United States of America. There was no one religion here and having a Catholic president wasn't going to establish one.

I suppose we had supper that night. I don't remember much of the evening except that once the phone rang. It was someone from the school, telling my mother that tomorrow they would be holding a one-hour memorial ceremony for the children. So it was that on Saturday morning once more I was walking to school, gathering with the rest of the kids, including a strangely silent Michael Florio, to pay our respects. We were all dressed in our Sunday clothes and Sunday coats and hats, and gathered in the auditorium looked strangely unlike the corderoy and cotton crowd that appeared during the week. In that place where we normally enjoyed ourselves with plays and Veteran's Day ceremonies and "Our Mr. Sun" and other films, we said the Pledge of Allegiance and sat quietly as the teachers spoke. Many of the older children cried--at eleven and twelve they had already been dreaming of the New Frontier.

At church on Sunday many people wore black or had black armbands. We prayed for the President's soul and for Jacqueline and the children, and for our new President, Lyndon Johnson, who even back then wasn't well-liked. It was a strange weekend, as if a clock had stopped. Television covered nothing but the assassination and its aftermath. There were no football or basketball games, not on TV or at the high schools and colleges. Everything was pre-empted, from Perry Mason and College Bowl to Lassie and Ed Sullivan. We watched White House preparations, reports from Dallas and the Texas Book Depository, and one shocking, retina-burning moment when the suspect in the assassination, some "Communist" named Lee Harvey Oswald, was shot and killed being escorted by the police. The fellow with the gun was named Jack Ruby, another stranger who had turned things upside down.

No one went to work, unless they were essential personnel like policemen or firemen or nurses. They spent their time watching a lot of television because crime and accidents fell to almost nothing. Everyone was at home watching television or listening to the radio.

On Monday morning there was no school, no work. The television clicked on and families sat silent or crying as we watched a funeral cortege, the black horse with the reversed stirrups, John Kennedy Junior saluting his father's casket, Jacqueline Kennedy in her widows' weeds with the other members of her family surrounding her. It was a surreal world where we saw newscasters cry and our fathers and mothers sit mesmerized by the same "idiot box" that they kept telling us to get away from and go play outside.

On Thanksgiving Day the world was still subdued. How many families, I wondered, on that dark Thursday, held hands and gave thanks simply for being together again another year, the ghost of a young widow and her children all too fresh in their minds?

And we kids said thanks, too, that our Dads were home and safe.

 

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