WHERE WE WERE
by Tom Teti
It is 1:58 on a Friday afternoon in November. It is a nice day for November in Pennsylvania, weather-wise. We are standing by our desks, waiting for the dismissal bell. Fridays run earlier than other days. Last period, Religion, Life of Christ. We are 9th grade boys eager to leave. Father McDougall finishes early on Friday, a reward for us, maybe for him, too. He regards us with his long, young, gentle face; his hair is thick and black and so are his eyebrows. We have gathered our books. We hold them in a heavy stack in one hand, braced against the hip. There are forty-five of us. It is 1963 and the Catholic schools are bursting to capacity.
It is 1:59, when the bell usually rings and we usually make an energetic migration into a happy, weekend-ready line and exit. On this Friday, instead of the bell, the loudspeaker crackles and our eyes go to the square box high on the spring green-painted cinder block wall, next to the round clock. They say light green is the easiest color on the eye. A radio broadcast is being played through the speaker.
“… President Kennedy has been rushed to a Dallas hospital
and is in critical condition. No information is yet available on what
medical measures are being taken-“
Voices around the room surmise, “plane crash!”, “plane crash!” accompanied by confident nods of agreement. The broadcast is interrupted by Vice-Principal Father Flynn, who always does the announcements. His voice is saturnine, low and nasal.
“That is a news broadcast; the President has been shot, he is in a hospital in Dallas, Texas…” Father Flynn stops and his microphone, a beehive-ish metal component about the size of a fist, clicks off. We’ve all passed his office and seen him on it. Priests rarely close their doors when school is in session.
Father MacDougall tamps down the chatter pushing both his palms toward the floor and quiet descends on the class as he directs us into line. His eyes are dark and look dead. The hallways are now a sound wall of footsteps as all the classes are dismissed. Priests and lay teachers line the halls, sentinels, defying chaos. Father Dixey stands in the center, a small man of few words, he utters: “Quiet,” at regular intervals. He is balding with some strawberry blonde curls on the sides. His expression is, as always, calm. He is purported to have been a boxer in the seminary. Mr. Glackin, a pasty-complexioned man of some height, not young, leans against a row of lockers smoking a cigarette. Many teachers smoke in school, even in class. As we near the metal exit doors, Father Sevick, a very small priest with piercing blue eyes, who harbors fury close to the surface, holds the door open and glares at each of us, daring us to talk before we are officially outside.
Outside, we walk five hundred feet down to the trolley stop, where most of us catch the Red Arrow line to the 69th street terminal in Upper Darby. Our voices launch into the air. “This is crazy!” someone yells. “Gallimore was cryin'” shouts another. We are all boys, two and a half thousand of us. Next to our school, not more than the width of a driveway separating us, is the girl’s high school, and several thousand of them are also exiting their building. They wear uniforms of navy jumpers and white Peter Pan collars. Some are in stockings, some in knee socks, many in saddle shoes. We wear jackets and ties. Together, both high schools blend onto the asphalt walkway threatening to weave into a single wedge, like two flocks of Canada geese. But the weaving together never fully takes place; our separate realities are maintained as long as we are on school grounds.
Voices rise and flourish. Rumor cannot be distinguished from speculation.
“I hear he’s dead!”
“He’s having a brain operation-“
“Some other guy got shot.”
“He’s dead, the other guy, a cabinet guy.”
We board the trolley. The ride is surreal. Everything looks normal which, on this day, is bizarre: students talk quietly of the shooting; students make clamorous declarations of the death of the President; girls cry; girls talk of nothing important as if nothing has happened that’s important; boys and girls predict what their parents will say or feel; boys and girls wonder if the mixer will still be held. The faces that stand out are the ones staring ahead at nothing.
At 69th street, the terminal, we disembark and go our ways. Some walk to their homes, some take another trolley, we head for the bus, which we get outside the terminal on the street. But we must first walk through the concourse. A downward ramp takes us to the center via dingy walls, yellow on top, pickle green on the bottom, the colors of the Philadelphia Transportation Company. The hall leads to a restaurant counter and a bar. A neon sign laden with dust on the upper side of its scrawled letters reads The Terminal Bar. Plastic food models are visible in the case: a lobster, a steak, a fish, a drumstick and a sprig of parsley – the parsley may be real. We have never seen anyone eating there. People are always at the bar, people who work nights, having a beer after work, even if it’s eight in the morning; people who just drink, anytime. They stare at the television behind the bar. A newsman in a suit is speaking on the screen. Nothing seems to move, not even the glasses with beer in them. There are four men sitting there, three in work clothes, one in a shabby suit, and a woman in a coat that covers her completely, and an old hat. She smokes and, at least twice in the time it takes for us to pass by her, laments: “Oh, my God… Jesus…” We find out then as we pass that television, that the ‘other guy’ who was shot is the Governor of Texas. He is wounded, but alive.
Across from the bar, just before the hall and ramp that takes us outside, is a Nedicks hot dog stand. It is small, only three stools; customers usually eat their hot dogs standing. Hot dogs roll in slots on the stainless steel grill and smell appetizing. The smell combats the acrid mix of smoke and the backup from old plumbing. Behind the counter are a large black man and a thin black woman. They are dressed in white, pants and shirt and a paper cap for him, a dress and a nurse-like hat for her. They do not have a TV and they are staring across the concourse at the one in the bar. He stands motionless holding a broom. She is leaning her backside against a refrigeration unit. A cigarette burns between her fingers, a tear drops from her eye.
The hall to the outside, where we will board the bus, has a slight uphill slant. In this hall, a small man sells newspapers, the Inquirer in the morning, the Daily News in the afternoon. He is notable for wearing an patch on his right eye and very thick, Coke-bottle, glasses over that. He normally stands with his hands in his jacket pockets, his right arm making a triangle, his elbow the point, and when we walk past him, he swings his arm at whomever is closest, whacking them on their arm and chest. We don’t know why he does it: Because we get too close? Is he marking a boundary on his territory? Is he evil, because he looks evil? Has he been messed with so many times in his life, made fun of so relentlessly by the cruel young, that he doesn’t trust anyone under eighteen? (Nobody under eighteen is buying his papers.) We don’t know. He never speaks. But he inflames us, he fosters immediate vitriol. We spit invectives at him and shout hollow warnings of retribution. Usually.
On this day, however, on Friday, November 22nd, 1963, the newsy , as our fathers call all news sellers, sits on a two-foot stack of the Daily News, holding his glasses in one hand and massaging his forehead and temples with the other, looking at the ground, unconcerned with us passing him.
Outside, we boys and girls who are traveling to Yeadon, we Yeadonites, board the bus that is headed to 67th and Woodland Avenue in West Philadelphia. We don’t go that far; we get off at any of six Yeadon stops. As we sit waiting for the driver to get on, one of our fellow students, not riding the bus, comes out of the terminal shouting: “He’s dead!” He is grinning like the Phillies have just traded for Willie Mays. Another fellow student leans onto him and says: “Give me a smoke.”
The first boy repeats: “He’s dead!” He extracts a Marlboro from the red and white box and gives it to the other, who says: “I know he’s dead, man, I just heard it. That’s fucked up.”
First one says: “I know!” He still grins. He can’t mean it, we say, watching through the bus windows. He’s acting happy, he can’t be happy the President is dead, it’s just the way some people are with bad news, we say, they laugh because they are uncomfortable. We make his excuse because we are uncomfortable.
The bus driver gets on and sits in the driver’s seat. We know him well; he drives this bus at this time every day. He has black hair and black glasses and his name is Howard. Howard has a GE transistor radio and is playing the news. The President is dead… The President is dead. Howard shakes his head. The governor of Texas has wounds but will survive. An older woman on the bus, sitting right behind the driver’s seat asks, of no one in particular, why the governor couldn’t die instead.
The bus proceeds on its usual route, people board, disembark. It is a bright, sunny world outside the bus’s window. It looks like a sanitized, bleached array of lower middle class streets. The faces of those who walk or ride or stand seem not to have enough that is tragic about them, but how could they have. What could they do that would make them more sad?
We go to our homes and change clothes. Our normal plan is to gather at the field and play touch football and some of us do, but not all show up and some do not stay. The six of us who are friendly with each other stand around and talk. One of us is always taking a turn going out for a pass and one of us throwing Danny’s official pro football, the ‘Duke’ to him. His big brother gave Danny the ball for his birthday on Halloween. A game never develops. John, Dan and Mike leave for Richie’s Deli to get Tastykakes and RC colas which are 16 cents for 16 ounces; Coke only gives you 12 ounces for 16 cents. The rest of us walk home.
Dinner at home is the usual fish fest on Friday: cold shrimp, calamari with onions, breaded flounder, baked escarole. Friday is a special day for Catholics who may not eat meat, because Christ was crucified on Friday, they tell us. Most hate it, but we don’t; Mom loves to cook seafood and is really good at it. Newspapers are everywhere, and everyone is quiet, chewing. Occasionally the silence is broken by someone asking someone else to pass a dish.
“Word got around the office and everything stopped,” says Uncle Frank.
“We kept watching for anybody to come along with news… Nobody could work,” says Dad.
“Edith came over to tell me, who else,” says Mom.
Somebody says they arrested a sniper in a movie house. Lee Harvey Oswald.
“Bad look on that guy,” Dad says.
The Daily News, the paper with the latest edition, lays on the yellow, vinyl seat of the kitchen step stool. It has a tabloid-style format, and it’s oblong front page has a seventy point headline reading: PRESIDENT SLAIN. The word ‘slain’ has been an antique until today, only seen in history books, removed and distant, factual. On this Friday, it has life to it, blood and panic.
Three of us meet at Danny’s house after dinner. We have nothing else to do. There is no television except more news. The radio plays no music, it also is filled with the expansion of the day’s news. Death in 1963 is a very somber affair; it is not uncommon for families of someone who dies to spend a week without going out or watching television or listening to music. We decide to play a board game called Verdict! It unfolds to four times the box size. There are characters and a crime and a trial and witnesses. The company that makes these games (we also play Gettysburg and D-Day) boast a realism and, most times, great length to the playing time, which is welcome this night.
Danny’s brother Jack, who is five years older, enters the kitchen and tries to find music on his mother’s Philco kitchen radio. His teeth almost angrily clench a lit Lucky Strike and he squints against the onslaught of upward smoke as he turns the dial back and forth saying: “Anything, Christ, somethin’, somethin’, you kiddin’ me?” His search is unsuccessful. He twists the radio dial to off, beaten and unhappy.
“Anything I can play in that game? Judge or somethin’?” he asks.
“Yeah, judge!” We are honored and amazed; he has never asked to spend any time with us. We brief him on the case. He laughs and makes fun of the characters, whose names reflects their occupations.
“Clyde Dipstick, mechanic,” he snickers. “Carla Charleston, dime-a-dance girl.” The game occupies us for a couple of hours, until it gets close to midnight. It is a catholic Friday night, and Danny’s family eats nothing but soft pretzels until twelve o’clock, when they raid a pot of meatballs that has been sitting like a fortress on the stove. Most families don’t enjoy Fridays as much as ours does. Rolls are passed around and sandwiches are devoured. For ten minutes, the news of the day is only a backdrop.
But the next day, Saturday, the country returns to the story. Information about the Kennedy family, about Jackie, the children, about the new President, Mr. Johnson, and the continuing opaque answers to the “how-did-this-happen” questions saturate us, we Americans, we of the row, twin, and split-level homes across the nation. It is a fall weekend spent under a gray shroud. Neighbors visit each other. Saturday night sees people gravitating toward one another; we shall not be alone at this time.
Sunday promises a balm. The churches swell with faithful and unfaithful both. Sermons are unified around our tragedy and our need for solace. At nine o’clock Mass, at Saint Louis’s, we see the aisles filled, hear the wailing protests of infants brought for the first time to holy service in all likelihood, seeming to understand and be able to give unfiltered expression to what we are all too buttoned up to do. Church bells toll throughout the morning; a bell in a spire articulates exactly what the hearer feels. It is not joy.
The day’s dilemma is addressed on exiting the church: the family has tickets to the Eagles game, Eagles-Redskins. The NFL did not cancel its games; it is decided, against our preference – we will go. Everything about the excursion is surreal, not the least of which is the sunny weather, reminding everyone of the motorcade in Dallas on Friday, the day of the shooting, the day of the killing, the day of the assassination, a word that forty-eight hours ago was merely a yellowing-page’s historical storytelling tool. The walk to Franklin Field through the Penn campus is quiet, like all other things about the weekend.
The stadium concourse hosts many fans all saying the same thing, “I didn’t want to come here. What the hell is this?” The stadium is morgue-like. There is a moment of silence that is truly silent, sixty thousand people making no noise, not even the rustling of coats, not even the clearing of throats. The National Anthem has a sonorous force to it. The game that follows is funereal. Cheering, at the start, is muted and reflexive. Soon it is not heard at all. The Eagles win.
People file out of the stadium with morose dispatch . In the car, a 1957 Pontiac Chieftain, the radio tells us that Lee Harvey Oswald, the man arrested as the lone sniper who shot the president, has himself been shot and killed by a man named Jack Ruby. Ruby charged through the crowd as Oswald was being escorted by the Dallas police from his jail cell to, wherever, shoved a gun into Oswald’s midsection and fired. “Oswald’s wife is Russian!” Mom had said the day before. Good riddance, the nation seems to say.
“Wow,” says Dad.
Dad and Uncle Frank seem in shock. They relate the story of driving to Washington D.C. to see the Eagles play the Redskins in December of 1941 and learning about Pearl Harbor the same way, in the car on the ride home from the game.
It is on television at home. A real murder televised, probably the first. The mood becomes even more glum. The family eats the post-game Sunday dinner; except for football season, the big meal is usually eaten at 1:00. It is spaghetti, meatballs, sausage and brasciola, salad, bread. There is talk of the craziness of the world, but it doesn’t look crazy juxtaposed with the safety and normalcy of family. Fruit comes out, apples and pears and, because it is November, dried figs and roasted nuts. Tomorrow will be a national day of mourning, schools will be closed, and we will all watch the funeral procession.
It is sad. Black and white television and people in black and white clothes. Mrs. Kennedy wears a black veil. The children are the only ones in lighter colors; Caroline in dress coat, John-John in a short suit with a short coat that, because of his short pants, leaves the impression that he wears a dress, too. The body has lain in state in the capitol rotunda for three days. A procession goes on foot to Saint Matthew’s Cathedral. Burial is at Arlington National Cemetery. An Army band sergeant plays taps on the bugle. Just before he begins, Dad says, “Boy, this guy better not screw up-” And the bugler’s second bar is nerve-wracked and cracks like a student player in a school talent show (it becomes known as the ‘broken’ note) then back up to where it’s supposed to be. From there on, it is perfect. We accuse Dad of jinxing him. Dad takes an Old Gold filter out of the pack and shakes his head. “Christ,” he says.
Tuesday morning is the first day of return to routine. We hope it’s real. Homeroom is abuzz with what happened over the weekend. Many comment on how hard it was to watch news for three days. Some relive the garish excitement of seeing Oswald shot – no one says murdered. Our homeroom teacher, Mr. Foley, enters disgruntled, irritated, a Salem dangling from his mouth. He removes the cigarette with two fingers and says: “Alright, quiet…” The loudspeaker crackles; he points to it.
Father Flynn announces that we will be attending a Mass for the late president John Fitzgerald Kennedy this morning. We Freshman and the Sophomores first, in the gym; the school is too overcrowded to get all four grades in at once. They set up an altar and we are regimented into the gym space, being told to sit on the bleachers or on the hardwood floor. The basketball team plays here and the Mixers are held in here. We are quieted and the principal, Father Mahoney, addresses us. He says what we expect; it is not specific, yet he is a forceful speaker, a man who is not in doubt. The Mass begins.
In the end, it is just another Mass, except that when the celebrant, our chaplain, whom we rarely see and whose name is not readily known or remembered, raises the wafer to change the bread into the body of Christ, and the chalice, which has wine in it, to change it into the blood of Christ, when the chaplain performs this act of transubstantiation, his hands tremble, and it all seems less automatic than usual. For this day, at least, for this Mass, our offer to heaven feels true.
Tom Teti is well-known as an actor, director and teacher in Southeast Pennsylvania. Less well known is Tom’s writing over his entire career of more than 40 years. He lives in Malvern, and is a founding member of Malvern Arts.
Poignant telling of an indelably etched life experience for all of us who are “of a certain age.” This suburban Philly public school girl knew nothing until our 7th grade Home Ec teacher entered the room with tears streaming down her face and announced that the President had been shot and killed. The suddenness of it was perhaps harder to absorb compared to the gradual revealing of the news that you describe.