Tuesday, November 22, 2005

November 22

I was a 5th grade band geek. Hard to believe, but I was. I played the flute (badly). The best thing about being a band geek was getting to skip class for practice.

On that day in November, when we were finished, I packed up my flute in its velvet-lined case, and trudged back to Miss Stanke’s room. Usually I walked in on a boring lesson about comets or early California history. My fellow classmates, their eyes glazed over (except for Lance—whose eyes were bright and alert, his hand permanently stuck high overhead) would briefly glance toward the door as I entered, then go back to their self-imposed stupor.

Not this day.

Today the natives were restless. Some sat forward in their chairs, others exchanged quizzical looks. Miss Stanke’s cheeks were flushed and she kept blinking rapidly.

As I slid behind my desk, someone whispered that the principal had walked in and murmured something in our teacher’s ear which had prompted her to burst into tears. A visit from the principal was odd enough, but to have made our teacher cry? My heart went out to her as I wondered what had happened. Had her mother died like mine had just two months before?

That afternoon, Miss Stanke escorted the entire class to the library for a research project. By this time, uneasiness had settled in my stomach. Something was wrong. I didn’t know what it was, but a sense of unarticulated fear permeated the school, although I seemed to be alone in noticing it. I couldn’t concentrate. I was a good student, but my mind was elsewhere.

When Miss Stanke asked why I wasn’t looking for research material, I answered that I intended to use the public library over the weekend.

“I don’t think it will be open for awhile,” she cautioned.

My throat went dry as I watched her turn to help another student.

Libraries wouldn’t close just because a relative of Miss Stanke’s had died. It must be something much worse. And then I knew.

We must be going to war with the Russians. With each growing minute, I strained to hear the air raid sirens. Why hadn’t they sent us home already?

Now I thought I might get physically sick. In all my school years, this was the only time I asked to go the nurse’s office. Once there, I wasn’t sure what to do or say. I’m not one to feign illness nor cause a scene, so I ended up going back to class.

A short time later, I boarded the bus for home. In front of me, two girls chatted in what I would describe years later as a manic fashion.

“Did you hear the news?” one asked the other. “President Kennedy is dead!”

This came as a total shock. I didn’t know whether to believe it, and I didn’t understand her glee at all.

Soon enough, I learned the news was true, and with it my fear disappeared. The death of a man so far away, who I only knew from television, couldn’t affect me personally.

I didn’t know then that a lot more than a man had died that day.

A nation’s innocence, for one.

Because, isn’t that when the 60’s went to hell? Here I’d believed in the romantic comedies where women dressed stylishly and life was about love and laughter. Instead I got more assassinations and riots. I’ve always felt gypped by that.

In July of 2004, I visited Dallas and went to see Daley Plaza where the event that changed the world occurred 42 years ago today. Like everyone says, it’s an eerie place and not the parade route you’d expect. Just one quick turn, really. And yet, so close to the building from which Oswald took aim. As I heard Jack Valenti say this morning (he was six cars away at the time) you could have thrown a baseball from that window and hit your target with ease.

I was barely ten at the time it happened…my strongest memories are of Jackie Kennedy’s blood-spattered pink suit and of John-John saluting the casket as it passed.

Other than that, it’s just another one of those moments to measure time by.

You know…like when I ask a guy where he was when he heard the news, and he answers with a blank stare and says, “I wasn’t born yet,” I know to move on.

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