Sunday, November 23, 2008

Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye

Imagine for a moment, a five year old boy. He is terribly skinny, has blonde hair cut short. He is in his first grade class. His teacher, Miss McCaffery, is a tall, willowy woman, fragile to even look at.

The class has just returned from lunch and is beginning preparation for art class. The ceilings are high in his room, which is in a schoolbuilding built just about thirty years earlier, in a time when education was considered holy, and schools looked like cathedrals. A place of training for a world about to change dramatically.

The boy puts on his apron, carefully tying the laces behind him since he still really hasn't mastered shoelaces even. The apron is blue, flecked with dots of tempra paints, the paint of choice for schools worldwide. One by one, in rows, the class is called to the back of the room to get a tray of paints and paintbrushes.

In another universe, on another earth, the boy will paint a masterpiece that will begin a long career in art.

In this universe, the PA system clicks on as the boy returns to his desk along the aisle by the coat rack.

"Teachers, students...we've just learned that President John Kennedy has been shot today in Dallas. We have called your parents and are making arrangements to have them come pick you up, boys and girls. For those who's parents we cannot reach, we will remain open until 3."

The benumbed boy, the budding artist, drops his tray. His masterpiece lies on the floor in its component splatters.

Next, the principal places the mic near the radio (or TV) to broadcast Walter Cronkite's voice to the school, describing what is happening.

The rest of the afternoon is a blur. He remembers finding his sister in the schoolyard. They come together and she hugs him, even if he is too young to fully comprehend what is happening. He remembers walking home past Sloan's Supermarket, his mom holding his hand for the first time since his daily trips to the skating rink in kindergarten. His sister's sobs still ring in his ears to this day. She never cried!

He spent that weekend and that Monday glued to the television set.

Little did I know how that event would twine and intersect my life in so many ways, but that's a different post.

I saw Oswald shot, live. But the most harrowing image of the weekend for me was the symbolic horse, Black Jack, the soldier's boots placed backwards in the stirrups.

Black Jack represented the fallen commander. There was a moment in the funeral procession when Black Jack bridled and in that moment, an electric horse could summon the feelings of a nation. His reluctance to move forward with the procession echoed our own disbelief that someone so young and vital could be cut down so summarily.

It was then, that moment, that I truly began to understand what was happening. And it terrified me.