Thursday, November 22, 2007

11/22: That other awful day

The ornate condolence certificate, autographed by the President, arrived two months after the sudden death of my father—a combat veteran who helped overthrow the Japanese in the Philippines but never discussed it with any of his four inquisitive children.

That letter brought radiance into our home on an otherwise dreary late November day.

So, suddenly transformed into a proud 8-year-old, I pestered my mother for the honor of bringing the document to school the following day. My pragmatic Irish mother denied the request--worried I could lose or damage the precious parchment.

Friday began as unremarkable as a hundred before: Morning prayers chanted effortlessly, the Pledge of Allegiance parroted as we stood with our right hands over our hearts facing an American flag.

I was having trouble concentrating on the curriculum, typical for a Friday when the weekend beckoned. But this time all I could think about was a letter that had arrived just yesterday from a revered man who could have met my father less than a generation ago.

With only an hour of captivity remaining, a high-school boy suddenly entered from the right door bearing a message. Snatching the note from his hand the nun appeared almost angry at the interruption. I could, however, see her face suddenly turn white—matching the mask-like habit all ‘Sisters of St. Joseph’ wore.

She crumpled the memo with one hand while reaching back to grab her desk with the other, slumping as though absorbing a blow from a heavyweight boxer. With a trembling voice she said, “Please stand.” Although puzzled, we responded immediately.

“Now extend your arms sideway, shoulder high, and hold them there,” she said still struggling to gain control. So there we stood, 26 of us, rooted near our desks like cemetery crosses wondering, as our shoulders started to ache, what could possible cause such a break in routine?

She regained the commanding voice of authority to announce, “President Kennedy has just been shot” Tears trickled down her cheeks as she concluded, “He needs our prayers.”

At St. Michael’s school in the year of our Lord 1963, President John F. Kennedy was fourth on the list of most beloved: just under the Holy Trinity and tied with Pope John. And in my home he was tied for second with St. Patrick just under my recently deceased father.

The big yellow bus rumbled back to Amherst with an interior as quiet as a crypt. The astonishing event blurred short-term memory like one too many drinks. I began to question whether the letter from the now martyred leader was actually real, or did I simply imagine it?

Bursting thru the front door I quickly spied the prized possession lying on a cluttered kitchen table. With relief and reverence I held it aloft, taking in the brilliant gold calligraphy etched on a pure white background: “It is with deepest sympathy…”

A feeling the entire nation now shared.


O'Reilly said...

I spent my school days 3rd grade through 6th in the same classrooms at Saint Michael's and on the same bus - Amherst to Northampton and back - driven by Ed and furnished by Western Mass Bus Lines. I often wonder about my St. Mikes classmates, friends and teachers.

Funny, Saint Mike's mascot was The Saints and Hamp High was and is the Blue Devils. That was a joke. We were the devils... probably because we thought we had some catching up to do.

Before school started in the morning we'd stop at Charlie's - State Street Fruit Store - to spend our milk money on candy.

Growing up, my parents protected me from news like Kennedy's assasination and the body count in Vietnam on the nightly news.

Like you, my dad was a WWII vet. He saw no benefit in exposing us to such awful news. I wonder if he wasn't just a little over-protective when it came to the news but I'm certainly not complaining.

I know my dad lived with his war experiences throughout his life, saying little. He pushed them down as far as he could but they took their toll on him. He wouldn't let it get in the way of what he wanted to accomplish but they took a toll, nonetheless.

Kennedy came to Amherst October 26 1963. I was 3 1/2. I waited alone at the end of my street for two hours to see him drive by in his motorcade. The President and the Poet

O'Reilly said...

The men who create power make an indispensable contribution to the nation's greatness, but the men who question power make a contribution just as indispensable, especially when that questioning is disinterested, for they determine whether we use power or power uses us.
JFK 10/26/63

LarryK4 said...

With the advent of the Internet and other technology advances we talk about the instant speed of communication.

But in 1963 perhaps only an hour had gone by from an event in Dallas being reported by an old fashioned messenger to my classroom in that sheltered brick building in Northampton. Bad news travels fast, even back then.

As you may know St. Mike's closed in 1973 and is now a retirement community. We still have reunions every five years.

O'Reilly said...

I didn't know about the reunions at St Mikes. Do you know when the next one is? Do folks from all classes attend? How about students who would have graduated from high school in '78? I also meant to say but couldn't find the words I'm sorry for your loss.

LarryK4 said...

Thanks, it was a long, long time ago (although my mother live another 30 years and never got over it).

I think the next St. Mike's reunion is in 2010 (not to coincide with Senator's Kennedy's book debut of course)