On my way to buy underwear is the answer.
Where were you on November 22, 1963 when you heard John F Kennedy had been shot? is the question.
I was obeying my mother’s command. Other mothers admonished their children to always wear clean underwear lest they be hit by a car and taken to the hospital and be found to have on dirty undies. For my mother, it was preparation for any trip I took. “Go buy new underwear.”
Th trip I was about to undertake was not an exciting one. Part of the senior year experience at my Catholic Girl’s high school was a three-day retreat at a monastery in New Jersey during the short school week preceding Thanksgiving. We had been dismissed after lunch the preceding Friday because ????????????I have no idea why since we wouldn’t be departing until Sunday. Maybe it was so we could all go buy new underwear!
At any rate, there I was walking west on East 75th street toward 5th avenue to take a downtown bus to EJ Korvette’s on 47th and Fifth. It was a cold blustery day, much like today, and as I rushed head-on into the wind blowing east from Central Park, a doorman stepped out of the polished wood shelter of an apartment house lobby and called out
“The president was just shot.”
I don’t recall what I said. Probably “oh no.” The next half hour or so is a blank. I probably headed on in disbelief and waited for the bus.
My next recollection is visual – looking out the window as the bus headed south and noticing the clusters of people planted outside stores windows on Fifth Avenue, watching news accounts on televisions that had been placed in the windows.
The next memory is aural – the eerie sound of all the church bells on Fifth Avenue – St Patrick’s Cathedral, Thomas Episcopal Church, and others – all chiming in discordant symphony. No words were needed. Everyone knew what they meant. Our young president was gone.
I had not intended to write about this but a serendipitous occurrence urged me on. A classmate of mine with whom I’ve reconnected via Facebook posted a question for me on her timeline. She seemed to recall that we’d been dismissed early but didn’t know why. In replying to her, my mind took another weird hop, skip and jump and I realized the spot where the doorman stepped out to tell me of Kennedy’s shooting was half a block away from where three years earlier, JFK, then a presidential candidate, had waved to me, a 13-year-old schoolgirl standing on the median of Park Avenue; he, on his way to his first debate with Nixon, and I, waiting for all the motorcycles and limousines to pass so I could catch up with my friends on the other side of the street. If you missed that post, here it is.
And now, fifty years later I’m flying to San Diego in the morning to spend Thanksgiving with an old friend. And I’m taking a very bold step. I’m packing old underwear!
See you when I get back!
Tonight we’ll see the first of the Obama-Romney debates. As expected the media has their shorts in a knot trying to come up with every bit of minutia out there: practice debates and who will play whom; where the wives are, how they feel; pitfalls to which each candidate is prone; pundits pondering “just how important” this debate will be; and of course memorable moments from past debates.
Of course no one mentions my memorable presidential debate moment. But that’s because I’ve only revealed it to a chosen few. Also because until recently, I forgot it ever happened. But happen it did. To be precise it was a pre-presidential debate occurrence – literally. Although it means pinpointing my place in time, it happened just before the very first debate, as in Kennedy/Nixon 1960.
I was a high school freshman. My high school was on Lexington Avenue on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. My bus home ran along Fifth Avenue, a three block walk to the west. I was strolling with friends en route to said bus, crossing Park Avenue. For non – New Yorkers, Park Avenue is a wide boulevard consisting of three lanes northbound, three lanes southbound and a wide shrub-filled median dividing the two.
As we were about midway across the first three lanes, the northbound ones, a cavalcade of police cars and motorcycles, sirens blaring, lights flashing, was approaching, preceding a limo in the southbound lanes. My friends chose to hightail it all the way across the avenue. Although I was to grow into an avid long distance racer, at this time, I saw little point to running, and avoided it whenever I could. And with the wide median sitting right there, I chose to wait it out.
Now I need to stop and explain the logistical circus we traversed every day. It was early October, the time the UN’ general assembly is traditionally held. Add to this the fact that my school neighborhood was, and is, home to countless foreign embassies, in the language of the day, Commie embassies, whose streets were cordoned off with police posted on corners for security. This happened to be the year Khrushchev was pounding his shoe on the desk at the UN,
UN and Fidel Castro had chosen to stay at the Hotel Theresa in Harlem, bringing in live chickens for who knew what purpose. Get the picture? Then you’ll realize why I took the police cars and sirens for granted, all part of growing up in NY.
So…..back to me. There I was, assuming it was some crackpot diplomat on his way to the UN. They were headed in that direction. But as the limo passed,
I caught a glimpse of the unmistakable thick brown hair and white-toothed smile of John F. Kennedy, and he was waving —-waving at me, only me, solely me. I looked around; I was the only one there on the median. As the last of the cars passed, I found reason to run to my friends waiting on the other side, and screech, as only a thirteen year old can
“That was Kennedy, It was Kennedy. He was waving at me! Just me.”
Do you think they believed me? Of course not.
That evening I realized he’d been on his way to that first debate, the one where Nixon sweated and grew a five o’clock shadow right before our eyes and Kennedy shined brightly.
At the time, my family used to spend summers on Cape Cod and we’d make sure we were nowhere near Hyannis Port when President Kennedy was there. It was a given that crowds would clog the streets, waiting for a glimpse and a wave.
Ha I’d think. I already got my wave, and I didn’t have to go out of my way.
History would soon bring the president to Dallas, and it was never lost on me that Kennedy’s last moments were spent waving from a limousine. So what deep point am I making? I haven’t a clue! So I’ll end by saying may the best speaker speak his peace tonight. And I’ll be here in New York if either one wants to stop by and wave.