The author and first wife, The Bronx, autumn 1963
Ever the same,
unchanged by hue,
cherry blossoms of my native place.
Spring now has gone.
LIVE the questions now. Perhaps, then, someday far into the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
---Rainer Maria Rilke
I wish that every human life might be pure transparent freedom.
---Simone De Beauvoir
In June of 1963, I was just out of university, didn't have any money left to speak of, hadn't ever held a "real" job in the world, had no set prospects for one, and was getting married. Five years later, that wife and her mother concluded I wasn't really ready to be a married person. A judge in Bridgeport agreed, so they took our 2 kids and went away. But that summer in '63, I felt ready and eager nevertheless. I remember red roses everywhere in full bloom and beautiful.
A job came through, in The Bronx. The principal of the school hired me to teach English to the upper grades at secondary level. In July he called to ask if I could teach some social studies. He knew I had taken courses in a number of fields in college. Frankly I had chosen English finally, because that thesis was the easiest to do. So I said OK. In August, a couple weeks before we were to have moved in our first apartment, the man called again and said the English teacher had decided to stay. Could I teach all social studies? Just married, my first job, I was nervous. I said I'd do it, but I needed the department chairman to get me materials immediately so I could prepare. He said, "You are the department chairman."
Thus did I stride into the wonderful world of love, marriage, and work---at least work in the weedy field of education. But there was much more to learn. In 1963, the New York World's Fair was getting started over at Flushing Meadows in The Queens. Elvis made a movie about it. Part of the place would end up the ball park for a new major league team in New York. Our school decided to take a field trip over to see it. We took the subway, a rather long ride. The principal had decided to come along. When we changed trains in Manhattan, he spotted a beggar at the stop and nonchalantly remarked, "There's one of my former students." I think I said something about government programs to enable the poor to enter the work force. The boss replied, "Oh, so you're a Kennedy pinko."
I remember just where we were when he said that to me, as one does when one's illusions are shattered. I had grown up during the McCarthy era and knew how serious a charge along those lines could be. This guy was kidding just a little bit, but I never had been called anything like that by someone in authority. I didn't tell him this, but the fact was I didn't even support John Kennedy particularly. I had seen him once, in 1960 during his campaign for the presidency, but the voting age wouldn't be lowered for another 10 years...so I couldn't vote and didn't feel particularly committed one way or the other. A professor drove me to wherever it was in Maine that he appeared, and I know we waited forever for him so show up. But there was no doubt about it: the man absolutely radiated charisma.
I had participated in picketing his White House in March of '62. We were protesting his policy of continuing above-ground nuclear bomb testing---or at least I think that's what it was. We were up to our ankles in slush in Washington, and most of us wore beatnik tennis shoes with holes in them back then. Pete Seeger led the march from the Washington Monument to the White House. There we walked up and down, back and forth, had to keep moving. We were freezing as the sleet continued to fall. My fiancee had come along, and this was her first real dip into the world of radical politics. We knew Kennedy was inside, and ultimately a van came down the driveway and a guy in a suit got out. He said the President sent his greetings and wished us well. And here were cups of hot chocolate for everyone. That's how JFK dealt with protest.
Ten years later, Nixon would surround our White House with school buses to "protect" him from ongoing dissent by students. I guess we didn't know how good we had it with Kennedy. When we got back to Bates, where my girl friend and I were in college, she was asked to report on our trip in front of the entire school. I think the people who asked her knew she had been moderately normal up til then, and would be more respected than the rest of us. She accepted, the morning came, and she began her talk. Midway through, she was interrupted by an alarm clock going off. She stopped, and we all looked high up into the rafters of the building to see what was going on. Lowering down, wound around the knob on the back of the windup clock, came a thread, on the end of which was tied a brassiere. The place exploded in hilarity. Dean Zerby walked across the stage, removed the article of female apparel, and her talk continued. I guess the part about Kennedy's gift of hot chocolate was lost to the significance---and brilliance---of the prank.
I took it personally. I don't want to be grandiose, but the fact is my girl friend had been the special pet, before I came along, of the guys who I'm sure had pulled that off. They lived in a particular dorm, were mostly pre-law and business students, and were incubating a new brand of conservatism. The name William F. Buckley was bandied about and that man was declaring something called the Culture War against the "liberal arts." The bra on the alarm clock may have been an opening volley in that war.
The bra and the pinko remark could have tipped me off as to how much and what kind of resistance there was to John Kennedy and to folks thought of as liberals. But it didn't. And I guess most other people weren't on any kind of alert either. No one had tried to kill a president since an attempt made on Truman in 1950. It's true a 73-year-old man had packed some dynamite into his car and was going to ram into Kennedy's car a month after the election, but he changed his mind---and I don't think people even heard about it. No president had been assassinated since McKinley in 1901.
On the morning of November 22nd, I was teaching a class at 11:30 Eastern Standard Time. At about 20 til noon, I happened to glance out the window and I saw everybody in the junior high school across the street was running out of the building. Once out there they weren't really doing anything, just standing, some talking, others looking up at the sky or into blank space. At that point, someone came to my classroom door and announced the President had been shot. I turned on the radio, heard that he was dead, and then we too felt tragedy transform our bodies and being into something new, something we had no idea how to manage.
School was dismissed, students went their way and I went mine, home to my new wife. I guess we heard on WQXR or somewhere that people were congregating at Carnegie Hall, so we got in the car and drove down. Leopold Stokowski came out and conducted a concert with an assembled symphony. We went home and, like everyone, spent that Thanksgiving in front of the TV. But it was only the beginning of the shootings. Malcolm X would be gunned down in 1965, and an attempt made against civil rights leader James Meredith a year later. Martin Luther King was killed in April 1968, and Robert Kennedy two months later.
After that, no American president has gone through his term of office without an assassination attempt. There were threats made against Nixon in 1972 and 1974. Ford survived two in September 1975. A plot against Carter was foiled in 1979. Reagan was wounded in March of '81. A group allegedly employed by Saddam Hussein brought a car bomb into Kuwait where George H.W. Bush was giving a speech in April 1993, 3 months after leaving office. Clinton ordered a missile attack on Baghdad in retaliation. Two attempts were made on Bill Clinton in 1994, including the guy who landed an airplane on the White House lawn. At least two tries were made at George W. Bush.
It's hard to believe there have been 45 years since our bright prince was blown away in the streets of Dallas. All the bullets and bombs have kept us busy. Did we ever take the time to come to terms with tragedy? The ancient Greeks advised there are profound lessons a civilization should learn from it. The world stops and everyone just looks around, stunned, as we did that morning in 1963. One can lash out in rage, as perhaps happened in Viet Nam---and here at home in protest. On 9/11 2001, we went through it again. Maybe it was anger and resentment, instead of the wisdom in tragedy, that brought us to bully the entire world...a world that at first offered only condolence and support. Now, finally, have we learned something? Are we at a new beginning?