Friday, November 22, 2013
A Half Century Ago ...
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.
Originally published 11/22/07