A Grey November Afternoon
The afternoon was grey in that penetrating, depressive sort of way that November afternoons in New Jersey can be, and if you’ve ever been in New Jersey on one of those November afternoons you know the kind of grey I’m talking about.
Well, that’s the kind of grey that November afternoon was, and we were let out of school early that particular Friday since that night was our school’s Military Ball, the big social event of the year. You got to understand that my high school wasn’t in New Jersey. It was in New York City on 15th Street and I commuted into the City every day, riding the PATH trains or the Erie-Lackawanna, which we called the Weary-Erie or the Weary-Lackatrains, wearing my uniform since it was a military school.
Anyway, we can talk about my high school later. The only important thing to know now was the afternoon was grey in that New Jersey November sort of way and I was home from school early. And I was locked out of my house because my parents were still at work and I didn’t have a key to the house. So here I was, locked out of my own house in my school military uniform, hanging out in the front yard on this November afternoon, when some of the local kids starting coming home from school. And they were coming home early, too, even though they didn’t have any Military Balls or anything to go to that night.
They were coming in groups of twos and threes, walking through the shortcut across the Laceys’ backyard, their school bags in hand, trooping along like kids let out of school do.
“What are you guys doing home so early?”
“Didn’ja hear about the President?”
“What about the President?”
“He’s been shot. They shot the President, and the Governor of Texas. The President’s dead. They told us about it at school and then they sent us home.”
“C’mon, really, what’s going on?”
“No, really. No kidding, President Kennedy was shot, and so was the Governor of Texas. No kidding. Kennedy’s dead.”
They say it’s one of those moments you always remember, like where you were when you heard about Pearl Harbor being attacked. Or where you were when Germany surrendered. Or, now, where you were and what you were doing when you learned that JFK had been assassinated. And I guess that’s true since I still remember it after all these years. And that’s where I was, in my front yard in Kearny, New Jersey, on a grey November afternoon, home early from school and locked out of my own house.
“Wow, man, I can’t believe it. That’s terrible. Do they know who did it?”
Little did I know that would be a question people would be asking for years after that grey November afternoon. But for the moment, I was in shock.
When John Kennedy ran for President, it was the first political campaign I took any interest in or probably was even aware of. Sure I knew we had a President, Ike and all. And Nixon was Vice President, Nixon who was running against Kennedy. But that was about it. Later on I learned my mother liked Adlai Stevenson, at least I think she did, but she never had any use for Truman after he dropped the Bomb on the Japanese. My Dad, who was a life-long Republican, didn’t adhere to that opinion, though, since he said it ended the war sooner and saved a lot of American lives.
Now even at the age of 10 I knew I wanted Kennedy to win. Part of it was that he was Catholic, the first Catholic to run for President, and of course the nuns in grade school all wanted him to win and told us why we should want him to win, which in the end came down to his being Catholic.
But for me it was more than that. He was young and appealing, and he had some good ideas, though I would have been hard-pressed to tell you exactly what they were. I even started wearing my hair like him, kind of puffy and combed over in front, in what was called “the Kennedy cut.”
And I actually got to see him, too. The March before the election I happened to be with my family in New York City when John Kennedy the candidate came out of Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and waved at the crowd gathered across the street from the enormous, staid, grey Cathedral, and got into a black Cadillac limousine waiting by the curb. I actually got to see him, even snapped some pictures with a little black box camera I had, and for a 10-year-old Catholic boy from New Jersey, that was like the biggest thing that ever could have happened. And of course he was “my candidate” – I called him that, “my candidate” – and he just had to win.
Now I had a kind of bad track record with famous people. I got to see Pope Pius XII at the Vatican in Rome when I was 8, and then he upped and died a few months later. So much for that claim to fame. And in later years I killed off more than one Pope, got to see them at the Vatican or out at Castel Gandolfo and, bang, they’d die shortly afterwards. And now John Kennedy, my candidate who became my President, was dead, too, and I had seen him that March day at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
So here I was out on the lawn on that grey November New Jersey afternoon as kid after kid trooped by, telling the same terrible story. The President, my President, was dead, and the Governor of Texas, Governor Connally, was wounded, and the Governor’s wife, too. Jackie wasn’t shot, though.
I was still in shock, and still locked out of my house, when Mrs. Allen came home. Mrs. Allen was our neighbor and her husband, Don, was our town clerk, which seemed like a very important office to me. And Mrs. Allen, Helen Allen, saw me out there and invited me into their house which was next door just up the hill from ours.
Mrs. Allen knew the gravity of the situation and must have thought how it was affecting me, and she turned on the TV in their living room and we both stood there and watched the news, both watched in silent disbelief, as Walter Cronkite related the details as they were known, in minute detail and in dribs and drabs as the reports came in from far-away Dallas.
Names that would become part of the history of that day began to filter in. Lee Harvey Oswald was believed to be the assassin. Officer Tippit was killed as he tried to apprehend Oswald outside some movie theater. Jackie Kennedy, alive but silenced, trying to flee the motorcade limousine as her husband was hit and slumped over. Lyndon Johnson, LBJ, who would become the next President to succeed JFK. There was little that Mrs. Allen and I said to one another or could say to one another as the reality came across the TV in black-and-white and tones of grey and sank into our consciousness.
And then suddenly my parents came home, late in the afternoon, while it was still light out. Both school teachers, they knew the news, had gotten out of school, and then went grocery shopping. Grocery shopping!
We heard the car arrive in our driveway, or they came to get me at the Allens’, I can’t really remember, but I was outside and in shock as much that they went grocery shopping as at what had just happened that afternoon in Dallas, Texas.
“Did’ja hear what happened? The President is dead and the Governor of Texas has been shot! Did’ja hear about it?”
I sounded like the kids who first broke the news to me, and I repeated the same unreal words.
“Grab a bag and help with the groceries!”
It was my father speaking, barking out an order in the annoyed, impatient way he had.
The groceries? The darned groceries? Is that what is important at this moment? More shock set it.
“Of course we heard about it. Now help get the groceries in the house.”
I don’t think I ever saw my father and mother the same way again after that, and a little later, the groceries in the house and the car trunk shut, that’s all I could think of as I stood there watching the news, this time in our living room, was how the groceries were more important to my father and my mother than that the President of the United States had just been shot and killed in Dallas. How could this be?
The big question now was whether the Military Ball would still be held tonight or canceled. And the decision, relayed through phone calls from the school and then from parent to parent, was made to go ahead with it since it was being held at the Waldorf-Astoria and the room and the entertainment had been reserved and paid for and it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to change everything now.
So now it was time to tear ourselves away from the somber news coming across the TV screen and to put on my dress uniform and get ready to pick up my date for the evening, my second cousin Patty Lynn.
I wasn’t much into girls yet, even at 13 and all, and as a freshman in an all-boys military commuter school I didn’t have anyone to ask to the Military Ball. So my parents came up with the idea of asking Patty Lynn to go with me to the Ball.
I actually hardly knew Patty Lynn, even though we lived in the same town, and it seemed a little odd to me to go out with my cousin, even a second cousin. She was okay, cute and nice enough and all that, but the real issue was that I was in the ninth grade, in high school, and Patty Lynn was still in the eighth grade, still in grade school. Or so my parents thought. As it turned out, Patty Lynn wasn’t in the eighth grade, which would have been bad enough. Oh, no. Patty Lynn, as I came to learn, was still in the seventh grade. I was going to my first high school Military Ball with a girl who wasn’t just my second cousin, but who was in the seventh grade!
And so we went, me in my dress blue uniform, Patty Lynn in her nice white dress-up gown, my parents and me in our car, Patty Lynn and her parents in their car, and we drove over to New York, through the long fluorescent tube of the Lincoln Tunnel, to Mid-Town Manhattan and the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and the Military Ball which was, as one might expect, all a-twitter with talk of what had happened that day in Dallas.
I don’t remember how or why it got out, but it did get out that Patty Lynn was in the seventh grade, and from then on all I heard from my classmates was, “Eh-heh, Yacenda went to the Military Ball with a seventh grader! Eh-heh!” Again and again and again, for weeks if not months afterward. Oh, the ignominy! Oh, the humanity!
Patty Lynn and I actually had a kinda nice time at the Military Ball, and we even got away from our parents, all of whom sat around the big round white table cloth-covered tables talking about what had happened in Dallas, who was behind the assassination, who this Lee Harvey Oswald was, did he act alone, how this could happen, what would happen to the country, and I got to put to use the dance lessons I had to take at the Cotillion, mostly the fox trot, and Patty Lynn and I got to hang out some and enjoy each other’s company. But overhanging everything, besides the shooting of the President, was the thought that I was at the Military Ball with a seventh grader who also happened to be my cousin. And that and the taunting of my classmates for weeks afterward meant that I would never ask Patty Lynn out again.
Patty Lynn eventually grew from a slightly reticent and okay seventh grader into something of a very cute and attractive young woman. But by then it was too late, and years later when I happened to be back visiting home and we went to see Patty Lynn and her parents she was still living in that same town, was married to a fireman, had kids of her own, and was living what to me was this totally boring, uninspired fixed life. And I felt bad that I had let the fact that she was a seventh grader stop me from asking her out again and, ultimately, saving her from this dull, boring life, married to a fireman and living in some cramped little place in her folks’ house in that dull, boring town. But by then Jimmy Carter or somebody was President and it all came too late.
Sorry, Patty Lynn. And sorry, JFK.
Featured Image: JFK shot, one-sixth of a second after. Mary Ann Moorman/Wikimedia Commons. Used under Fair Use.
This story is from my Growing Up New Jersey collection. Read more stories from it here. It also is posted to my Substack. Comment, share, and subscribe here, and there.