From Camelot to Kokomo
“Fifty years ago this November, the classroom speaker delivered the fateful news to Bucky Beaver and Miss Fishberg’s fourth grade class in Kokomo, Indiana: ‘The President is dead.’”
By Don Kenton Henry
We quickly approach the fiftieth anniversary of that fateful day in Dallas when our young and handsome President, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, was shot and killed by an assassin’s bullet. Each of us who heard the news – “our President is dead” – remembers where we were, our sense of loss and our country and the President’s family’s attempt to cope as the drama unfolded. We watched as it played out like some Greek tragedy before our eyes on black and white televisions in living rooms across America. For me the place was Kokomo, Indiana. This is the story of “the speaker” that conveyed the news – “Camelot is No More” – to Miss Fishberg’s fourth grade class and keeps me connected to that day we lost our innocence.
FROM CAMELOT TO KOKOMO
22 NOVEMBER 63
22 NOVEMBER 13
Our world consisted of rising on Saturday morning to Hector Heathcoat and Tennessee Tuxedo cartoons, then racing off to Duncan Yo-Yo contests at the Sycamore Plaza. “Dick the Bruiser” ruled the world of “Big Time Wrestling” and kept cold war Kokomo and the rest of the western world safe from the eastern evil embodied in – “The Sheik”. And no one–especially his 50 million female fans–would ever have guessed that actor Richard Chamberlain, the young “Dr. Kildare”, was … gay. Not that – at age nine – my best friend or I would have had a clue as to what that meant. “Queer” maybe but not . . . “gay”.
The friendship had been forged when I opened the door of our new home on North Forest Drive. I was the new kid on the block in Indiana’s version of Levittown. Fresh from the cornfields of Rensselaer, this neighborhood of cookie cutter homes, all seemingly occupied by 3.7 blue collar brats – like the one standing in front of me – was more than a little intimidating. He stood in the heat of the August afternoon clutching a large red and white wax paper Coke cup of the variety so frequently dispensed at school athletic events of that era. A wicked grin stretched across his face like a mile of white fence along the frontage road of a Kentucky horse farm. His brown eyes were charged with a devilish and electric glee. “Yes?” I asked, thinking I must have missed some verbal statement, on his part, as to the purpose of his visit.
In an instant, the mile of white fence became five as he exclaimed, “Welcome to the neighborhood!” and thrust the cup upward, halting it abruptly just short of my face. Its warm and yellow contents closed the gap, flooding my nostrils; engulfing my face, eyes and ears.
“What was that?” I sputtered, discharging what I could of the liquid that found its way into my gaping mouth.
“Piss!” he said. And with that … I knew Larry was not like every 3.7 brats in every house in Kokomo in 1963. He was far worse.
Three times I would beat him up for that. Three times until the salty taste in my mouth was replaced with the laughter of a kid who went from victim to conspirator with the other half of a duo which would wreak a reign of havoc on teachers, parents and delinquents less demonic than ourselves.
My name? Oh … kids called me, “Beaver” – “Bucky Beaver”, that is. They called me that because, as my own father said – “That boy’s teeth are so bucked – he could eat corn through a picket fence!”
But this story really begins much later … in 1986.
In from the “big city” of Indianapolis, we had taken our seats at the bar, Larry and I, after an intense closing in the adjacent restaurant named, I believe, The Gold Rush. For three hours the experienced mentor, Larry, and the novice insurance agent, myself, had practically beaten my old college buddy into buying a whole life policy. My buddy, now a client, had gone home exhausted and, for Larry and I, the bar seemed the place to be. Especially, on a cold and foggy, November night in Kokomo.
How was I to know, while I visited the men’s room, Larry had collaborated with the buxom bartender. Having returned, and staring from atop my bar stool into the vast crevice of her ample and endless cleavage; I contemplated her query, “Are you going to join your friend in a shot of schnapps?” It was a persuasive sales pitch, given the prodigious assets she brought to the table.
Doing my best to appear reserved, reflective and somewhat reluctant – “Sure!” I said.
I might have noticed that old electric look of glee in Larry’s eyes were my own not so distracted.
“I’m not driving,” I explained to the princess bartender as she poured my first shot. It would not be until the next day as I nursed a giant Altoid Hangover I learned the look I mistook for romantic interestin her eye, was the light of insight into the fact that– while Larry’s schnapps was standard proof – mine was “Rumplemintz” – some two times more potent.
Four shots later, I felt compelled to ask Larry, “How can you maintain so well?”
“Years of selling insurance!” he grinned.
“I guess!” I said, acceptingly. “Well … that’s enough for me.”
Then, the conversation began to turn where conversations so often turn when long-time friends get together over drinks: “Glorious days and deeds of yesteryear”. And with the recall of such, came a sudden revelation.
I turned on my stool and looked Larry in the eye, “Do you know it’s past midnight?” I implored.
“Yeah. So what?”
Do you know what day that makes this?” I almost begged.
“No … November twenty-second.
A blank look was his response until, finally, another, “So?”.
“It’s the anniversary of the assassination of J.F.K.!”
“Yeah–it is!” he said, with a somewhat dazed look of acknowledgement.
“And come this afternoon do you know where we were twenty three years ago?”
“Yeah. We were a few miles down the road from here – in school.”
“That’s right – we were sitting in Miss Fishberg’s fourth grade class at Lafayette Park Grade School.”
“Wow … that’s true!” said Larry, running an index finger slowly around the rim of his shot glass absorbing the obviously profound impact of this disclosure.
I would only attend Lafayette Park one year before my family moved to another town in north central Indiana. And I would have only one teacher like Miss Fishberg. Fresh from Ball State University, our class was her first teaching assignment.
My mind was a blank slate in terms of many matters. Not until the Sears Christmas catalog arrived at our door as it did every door in Forest Park, and America for that matter, later that fall – and Doug Arnold, a year older and infinitely wiser – explained the stimulus response elicited from making my way through the women’s lingerie section on the way to board games and Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots in the toy section – did I realize why Miss Fishberg caused such a reaction in me. Enlightenment was months away.
That first day of school, she walked along the row of windows, which ran the entire length of the left side of our classroom. She turned at such an angle the sun slipped its warm rays through her silk blouse and illuminated her womanly form, which gave rise to things not yet understood. Her jet-black, shoulder-length hair cascaded, casting a blue black, radiant and angelic aura. I knew she must be heaven sent and sat transfixed to the point of apoplexy each time she entered the room. Apparently she had the same impact on my father for my fourth grade was the only grade of my academic career he never missed, or–for that matter–ever attended a parent teacher conference.
Leaning into Larry’s face and still looking him in the eye, I asked, “When you think of the moment the class heard the news of the assassination, what is the first thing which comes to your mind?”
“Miss Fishberg crying.”
“No! … Before that. When you recall the squelch of the intercom coming on and Principal, H.E. Adams’ words, ‘Students and faculty of Lafayette Park Grade School, it is with great sadness I announce to you that the President of the United States has been shot and killed by an assassin’s bullet in Dallas, Texas.’ What do you recall?”
His brow wrinkled in consternation, he repeated, “Miss Fishberg – all the girls started crying!”
“No!” I said, in exasperation, “What comes into your mind? What image is frozen there? Freeze-framed in your mind. What do you–see?”
He paused, staring toward the ceiling as if the answer were somewhere in the rafters. “Ahhh!” … the sound came almost as slowly from Larry as the image of twenty-three years prior had returned to him. His eyes lowered to meet mine again and, without a trace of doubt, he answered–“The speaker.”
“That’s right,” I smiled, “The Speaker. That old, brown, glossy wood speaker with the shiny, gold tinsel speaker cloth.”
“It looked like an old Victrola – like something out of the forties!”
“Yeah,” I agreed. “Like something Thomas Edison invented!”
We laughed, but it was thoughtful laughter, as each of us soaked in the image of that mournful moment.
“And then-Miss Fishberg and the girls began to cry.” Many of us began to cry. But it is the image of her: a Jewish teacher weeping for a Roman Catholic President, I cannot get out of my mind. She seemed so very young and vulnerable. At that moment, there seemed so little difference between her and us, her nine-year-old students, who had never known tragedy. She just sat, turned to her side, her face in a tissue held in both hands; hands which trembled as gently as her shoulders. She never said a word.
Though it would take days, and probably even years, before we, her students, could fully appreciate the full gravity of the event, no adult had to explain that this was something not even “Big, Marshall Dillon” or “Moose and Squirrel” could make right. Our President was gone and, with him, our innocence.
Then the Principal came back on the intercom and told us we were all dismissed for the remainder of the day. “May God be with you and The United States of America,” he said, as we quietly filed toward the door at the left rear of the classroom.
Larry and I sat without speaking, each apparently lost in his own recollection of that gone but never to be forgotten day. Inextricably etched in our memory-a memory our entire generation will take to their grave.
“Do you think it’s still there?” I asked.
“Do I think what is still there?” Larry replied.
The meaning of the question seemed so obvious to me, I was incredulous at his need for clarification.
“The speaker of course–what did you think!”
“The speaker? … Oh, no way! Not that speaker. Dang, that thing was 50 years old when we were there!”
“The school wasn’t even that old!” I countered. “Still, you’re probably right. They probably threw it out years ago.”
“Well, they wouldn’t if they knew its significance! What it meant to us.”
“That’s for sure,” I said.
The temptress bartender had since checked out, and left our tab to be closed by some college kid closing the bar down, when I posed the definitive question: “But what if it were there?”
“Well … that would be really cool. But, no, it couldn’t be.”
“But what if it were? What if it were just waiting for us? Waiting for us-possibly the only two people in the world who realize its significance-its place in world history. It’s a defining artifact of an era! It’s a freaking icon of our youth.”
“Yeah – but it can’t be there,” he said.
“Well … there’s only one way to find out. Let’s close this tab. Think you can find the school?”
“You gotta be crazy!”
“ Let’s go,” I said, as we pulled on our London Fog overcoats, cashed out and headed out the door. Larry’s Porsche was parked outside and as we slid into our seats, we looked at each other.
“You’re kidding right? This is crazy. Besides – the place will be locked up like Fort Knox at this hour.”
“It’s not guarded like Fort Knox. Now drive.”
Larry knew that tone in my voice. He had heard it all too many times before. And trouble always followed.
“Oh no,” he muttered and put the car in gear.
Not since Watergate had two guys in white starched shirts and ties had more to lose. Larry was the proprietor of a successful financial planning and insurance business in Carmel. I was newly licensed in the industry and had returned to Indiana to pursue a new profession after a rough five years in Houston, Texas after the oil bust. Still, the fact a felony conviction could cost us our professional license-and consequently our entire careers–did not enter my mind as we drove slowly into the parking lot of the school. Judging from his white knuckles and the beads of perspiration on his brow – it had not escaped Larry’s.
“See – it’s locked up! Look at that janitor pushing a cart down the hallway. Let’s get out of here!” he exclaimed.
“Not so quickly. Let me try the door. Park the car,” I instructed.
I climbed out and made my way to the double doors at the end of the hallway which led to our classroom. I reached them, stood to the side of their vertical glass windows and slowly peaked within. His cart stood unattended in the middle of the hall, but the janitor was nowhere to be seen. I quietly, but firmly attempted to pull the doors open. They gave only slightly and the padlocked chain wrapped around the lever handle (which opened the door from the inside and was visible to me) made it clear I was not going to gain entrance here.
I trotted back to the car and slid again into my seat.
“See – it’s locked up – closed. Now – let’s get out of here!” pleaded Larry.
“Not so fast. Let’s not give up just yet. Whatever happened to that cocksure little kid who threw piss in my face?”
“That was then and this is now,” was his reply.
“Do you remember the baseball field just down the street?”
“Yes,” said Larry, deadly serious at this point.
We slowly exited the parking lot and made our way down the street to the ball field. Larry parked the car against the curb and turned off its lights.
“What the heck are you going to do?” Larry pleaded.
“As I recall, our classroom was the third from the end, on this side of the hall. I’m going to go take a look.”
“You’ll never get in,” he said. “What am I supposed to do while you’re gone? What if the cops come by and ask me what I’m doing?”
I remembered a Rand McNally Road Atlas was on the rear seat. I grabbed it, opened it to “Indiana” and handed it to him. “Act like you’re looking at this and, if the cops come by, tell them you’re from out of town, got lost and are trying to find your way back to the freeway.”
His look was one of stunned disbelief as I stuck the map in his hands and exited the car. I made my way across the field and instantly disappeared into the fog, which had only gotten worse over the course of the evening. I felt like Napoleon Solo, in “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.”, trotting in the dark fog. Larry hardly reminded me of Illya Kuryakin. We could title this episode: “The Lafayette Park Speaker Affair”.
It was pitch black. I couldn’t begin to see the building until I got within twenty feet and the lights of the hallway were all that made that possible. The last ten feet, I felt myself instinctively moving on tiptoes in the wet grass. I looked to the end of the building, on my right, and edged toward it. Then I started counting backward from there.
“One classroom, two classrooms, three classrooms–this was the one!” I said to myself. “This is where I spent the fourth grade! This is where we heard the news!”
I pressed my face against the glass window and cupped my hands around my face to get the best look possible. It was too dark inside to make out much of the classroom. Only the brightly illuminated hallway was visible through the open door on its far side. But, “Oh no!” as luck would have it–the janitor’s cart was directly in front of the open door! “But where was the janitor?”
I began to jog, still on tiptoes, up and down the course of the building, peering into the rooms and open hallway for any glimpse of movement, any view of the janitor. None was to be had. At last I returned to the third classroom.
At this point, my heart was racing. The effects of four shots of super schnapps were wearing off. No doubt the massive adrenaline dump flooding my veins contributed to this. This was no time to get sober, I thought. In reality, it was a perfect time to get sober–and to get the heck out of there! Yet, I was so close! I thought I could make out the dark outline of the speaker on the wall–about nine feet off the floor and seven or eight feet in front of the door to the hallway. I couldn’t give up now. I couldn’t let Larry down. I had to complete my mission. But how to gain entrance to the classroom?
The row of windows contained several horizontal ones, each approximately waist high, three feet in length and about a foot and a half in height. Not wanting to leave fingerprints as I knew mine were on file with The Security and Exchange Commission I clutched the bottom edge of my London Fog overcoat around the tips of my fingers and pried the edge of the window directly in front of me–in hopes some teacher or student had been remiss in locking it. No such luck. I tried the door through which students exited the classroom to the playground, on which I stood. Again, no luck.
Now this was what you could you could describe as a defining moment. Not defining to our nation–as the assassination. But to me-that one-time “buck toothed’ version of “Dennis the Menace”, who spent eight years in the orthodontia chair of Dr. Gillis at the Armstrong-Landon Building–this had the potential to be a life-altering event. On the one hand, to return with the trophy-“the icon of lost innocence”–would win me the undying admiration of my best buddy. And convince him–in our life long odyssey to top one another in Olympian stunts of imbecility and risk–he would forever finish second to this. On the other-I was certain Larry would be nothing but relieved if I just got back in the car and said, “Let’s go home.”
I had come too far to turn back now. Pendleton Prison would be a good place to write my memoirs. It would lend itself to a “martyr” motif–“Good Presbyterian Boy Does Prison Time for Patriotism”. The speaker spoke to me: “Come for me. Come Bucky Beaver … Come rescue me, you who know my true place in history. Do not fail me. Take me with you and give me my due–if not the Smithsonian–a place with you.” Its siren call was not to be denied. With that, I stepped back approximately four feet from the window. I measured the distance with my right hand then turned my left side toward the window; raised my left knee to my chest and executed a perfect sidekick to the center of the window. My thirteen years of Japanese karate was put to a use for which my Sensei would never have anticipated. Mas Oyama, the founder of my style, would have been proud. The glass fell from the window like ice from a tray. I retracted my foot with nary a scratch on my “wing tip” Florsheims.
Then I froze like a pheasant in a Hoosier corn row. And listened … Turned to the right, toward the car–ready to run at a moment’s notice. And I waited. Not breathing, I looked for a sign of the janitor and listened for any sound. The pounding of my heart was all to be heard.
After what seemed a lifetime, I came to believe the crashing glass had gone unheard. And with that I approached the window. With the edge of my overcoat again wrapped around the fingers of my left hand, I reached inside the window and found the silver metal lever, used to open windows of this type, and pulled it down. I pulled on the upper edge and the window opened without resistance.
What was my plan if the janitor returned to his cart after I had entered the classroom? What if he found me? I had to have a plan. It was so simple; the Israeli Army would have loved it. I would knock him cold with one punch and run from the building. “That would work,” I thought. Napoleon Solo made it look easy.
I again raised my left leg and ever so slowly eased it through the window. I stretched it as far as it would go and began to pull my right leg up and through. My left foot made contact with the floor and I proceeded to draw the remainder of my right leg and foot inside. I stood on my left and slowly lowered my right to the floor. I was in. I had penetrated the sanctum sanctorum. Now, to get the speaker and get out.
I approached the far wall where I could see the speaker exactly where I recalled it being. I stepped lightly in a crouched posture. Only when I got within a few feet, could I see – to my utter and absolute horror – this was not “our” speaker: Not the glossy wood speaker with gold tinsel speaker cloth – this was some silver metallic box with a black cloth cover. “Oh no!” I gasped. I had come all this way–breaking and entering-twenty-three years in time–for nothing. Our icon had been relegated to a landfill! Replaced by a sterile box of characterless chrome … No history – a metal mouthpiece announcing school lunch menus and spelling bee winners.
But wait! As I turned to my left, to cross the room again and exit through the window, I faced the end of the classroom–the end where the blackboard should be. But there was no blackboard! Where was the blackboard? What school bothers to move an entire twenty-foot blackboard? I spun on my feet to face the opposite end of the room. And there was the blackboard–on the opposite end of where it had been my fourth grade year. I looked to the far wall and the door leading to the playground–the one I had tried from the outside. It was on the right end of the wall. The door in our classroom had been on the left. Why hadn’t I caught that while still outside! This meant our classroom was either to the right or left of this one. I couldn’t be off more than that!
I had to make a decision and decided our classroom – the correct classroom – must be the next one down, second from the end. I quietly made my way to the doorframe of the room I was in, the third, to make my way to the second. Was the janitor in the hallway? I listened for any sound of him. Hearing none, I slowly peaked out and to the left, toward the center of the building. No sight of him. The hallway was empty except for his abandoned cart. I slipped into the hallway and quickly, stealthily slid down the hall into the open door of the second classroom.
Inside, I immediately looked to my right, where the blackboard should be. And there it was. Tentatively, I looked over my right shoulder to the place, nine feet above the floor and eight to ten feet in front of the door I had just entered. There was a speaker, where one should be. Only one who has heard news of something tragic and life changing knows the sensation I felt when I saw another chrome imposter where the real thing should be. My stomach dropped level with my wing tips. The air was sucked from my lungs, causing my torso to prolapse. The blood ran from my head and a wave of nausea overcame me to the point of fainting. I placed my hands on my knees and slowly pushed myself into an upright position. I drew a long, deep breath and, as consciousness returned, my eyes focused on the row of windows across the room. And there it was: The door. A door like every door of every classroom, except this one–like the last–was on the right side of the windows. This one would have been directly to the right of Mrs. Fishberg’s desk. And that was not at all where it had been in ’63. No, our door, the real door, had been at the left rear of the room-opposite the blackboard. This was the wrong room. Again! “Curses!… And worse!” I said to myself. The marines have the perfect term for the point to which this situation had deteriorated!
My heart began to pound. A Niagara of perspiration poured from my brow As a man on his deathbed, my breathing came in a rapid and shallow manner I knew could be heard the entire length of the hall. Could I possibly push this any further? I knew our classroom was not the last one in the hall. I knew unequivocally it was not. And if not the second … If not the not the third. It had to be the fourth. That left me two doors down from the correct room. I would have to exit; pass the room in which I’d entered; and enter the fourth classroom from the end and my third of the evening. Then, out and onto the playground again.
This amount of exposure; this much time in the hallway – would surely prove my undoing. Surely, I would encounter and be forced to grapple with the janitor. Would he be small and spindly, like Barney Fife? Or would he be a hulking countenance with forearms the size of Cheyenne Bodie’s? A Neanderthal janitor, with a vigilante mentality, it would take all my martial art expertise (and then some) to overpower?
I concentrated on the image of Barney (“Andy! Andy!”) as I drew a deep breath, exited into the hallway and skated silently into the fourth classroom.
Time stood still. As though in slow motion, I turned to my right. The chalkboard was there. Where it should be. Check one. Now I looked to my left. I sought out the dark outline of the door to the playground. Almost to my disbelief–it was there–in the left, rear corner of the room. Check two. As if seeking to brace myself, I placed my hand on a student’s desk near the end of the row of seats closest to the door I’d entered, and in the exact location I used to sit! (Could this have been the actual desk at which I’d sat so many years before? If so–the speaker would be at about two o’clock from where I stood as I turned and faced the blackboard. I raised my eyes.
And there it was: The Holy Grail. The Golden Fleece. I saw its glossy wood in all its splendor. I saw the gold lame cloth glittering like a king’s fortune in jewels. Even in the dark, it sparkled – like eyes twinkling – eyes wide and waiting for me all these years. Cecil B. DeMille could not have made it appear more grand. “Oh Moses!” it seemed to beckon, “You have come for me. Come hither, my long lost friend … come hither and take me home”. Check three!
It was not to be denied. I approached and, in one vertical leap, snatched it from the wall. The speaker wire was still attached and dangling from the wall. I jerked it from the speaker and let it fall to the floor. The “Mission Impossible” theme song played in my head, as I wrapped up the “operation”. Tucking my trophy, like a football, under my arm, I made my way to the door to the playground. It was locked and I was unable to open it. I would have to go out the way I’d come in-through a window. It might as well be one of these to my right. No need to risk going in the hallway again. I pulled the silver lever down on the window closest to me and, to my relief, it opened smoothly and quietly. I tucked the speaker under my right arm; raised and placed my left leg, then foot through the window, repeating the same form I had used to enter, what seemed a lifetime ago. As my left foot made contact with the grass, in one fluid move the right came out; I turned toward the street; tucked the speaker under my left arm, inside my overcoat, and loped into the night.
I ran, not certain where I was going. The fog was as thick as the proverbial pea soup. I could not have seen my hand in front of me. Still, I continued to run in what I felt was the direction of Larry’s car – the “getaway car” … fifty yards, then seventy-five. Finally, I could see the opaque glow of a streetlight over the area where Larry’s Porsche should have been. But it wasn’t. Just like the speaker, it was not where it was supposed to be!
I came to the curb and stopped. Stunned, I looked first to my right and then my left. There was no sign of his car anywhere. Where had he gone? Had the police come by and given him a personal escort back to the freeway? Or had he finally decided our friendship had become a liability and deserted me? I would “Brand” him-like Chuck Conners – when I found him! Had he gone for a cup of coffee? Perhaps he’d been the victim of an alien abduction! We had talked about the ballpark, so I started to walk toward it, ever watchful for parked or moving patrol cars. I certainly didn’t want to be caught after coming this far.
This was long before I had a cell phone and I was thinking I’d have to make a 45-mile walk back to Indy when I came to the high fence behind home plate. I stopped for a moment and thought I caught the scent of hotdogs and popcorn. I put my fingers through the mesh of the fence and leaned against it. Looking down, I saw a red and white, wax coke cup in the grass. When I looked up, I saw the glow of a light inside a car, up and around a bend in the road. I jogged toward it, praying it was Larry. There, illuminated by the dome light, sat Larry, reading his Rand McNally Road Atlas. As I tried the locked door, Larry jumped so high, he almost knocked his head through the roof of the car. “Let me in,” I said.
I opened the door and slid, once again, into the passenger seat. “Let’s get out of here. Drive slowly and carefully, but get us the heck out of here and back to the freeway!”
“Where have you been, man! I’ve been scared to death. You couldn’t get in could you – you couldn’t get it!”
Only then, as our “Argo” cruised out of our old neighborhood, did I allow myself a smile. And I smiled a real smile. I turned to look straight at Larry and I smiled a “Hollywood”; “Pepsodent”; “won the lottery”; “married the girl of my dreams”; “smile by which all smiles shall hence be measured”, smile. And–without saying a word–I reached under my pile-lined London Fog overcoat and produced the speaker. I presented it to him, like Lancelot returning “Excalibur” to Arthur.
Stupified was he. I could have put the speaker in his mouth – that’s how wide it was! Flabbergasted, on the verge of being drawn into a first stage coma, he inhaled, then-with his mouth still agape – continued to hold his breath until he turned white. I was certain he would pass out. His eyes were off the road and on me for what seemed forever, when at last, he howled a laugh hyenas would envy and teach their pups henceforth. And I am certain they heard it–even in Africa!
“You got it! You crazy man–you got it!” he wailed.
“We got it, Larry! We got it! It’s back with us!” I screamed at him.
I proceeded to recount the story of how I entered three classrooms: “one–two Clashing Islands; two–two brazen footed, fire-breathing bulls; and the third–a crop of armed men prepared to smite me. All this adventure to capture the speaker and bring it to our world. “I bring you the Golden Fleece, fellow Argonaut!” We opened the sunroof of his car; cranked up Springsteen on the 8 track; rolled the windows down and waved our arms in the fog and wind. We laughed until we cried, the entire way back to Indy.
The four days following the killing of our President unfolded in black and white on our Philco television like a “Shakespearean Tragedy”. The images, accompanied by the words of Walter Cronkite of CBS and Chet Huntley of NBC, were surreal and their effect was to draw each of us into the epic drama, as much participants as those onscreen.
That Saturday morning, I did not awaken to the sounds of my favorite cartoons or strains of “Happy Trails to You …”. Instead, it was the voice of Pope Paul, from Rome, as he prayed that, “the death of this great statesman may not damage the cause of the American people, but rather reinforce it.” My mother cried.
The weekend unwound like the newsreels, which preceded our movies at the theater. The happy scenes that created what became our “Camelot”; scenes of “our” Presidential family – which so captivated us during J.F.K’s mere thousand days in office–the image of Jackie, in all her elegant perfection, entertaining heads of state; the pictures of the President playing with his children on the floor of the oval office; Caroline with her pony–would now be replaced with darker scenes we did not care to see, but from which we could not turn: Scenes of the President’s casket in the East Room of the White House, on the catafalque where Lincoln’s had lain almost a hundred years before; the caisson drawn by seven white horses and four riders carrying the flag-draped coffin down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol; a distant shot of Washington monument; and Blackjack, the riderless horse, sword strapped to the saddle, boots reversed in the stirrups, led by a tall, solemn private. In the commentary of newsman, Edward P. Morgan, “History saturates these pavements …”
Sunday noon brought an event almost more than a nine-year-old mind could process– the President’s assassin was himself assassinated before my eyes on live television. “Did that really happen, Dad?” I asked imploringly, from my seat on the floor of our living room. “It did, son,” was all he said, leaning forward in his seat, elbows on his knees, cigarette in his hand, never removing his eyes from the picture tube.
The day ended with an endless procession of mourners filing past the President where he lay in state in the Capitol rotunda. Morgan intoned, “It is the mood of mutinous, somber sadness.”
Monday morning brought the caisson, this time carrying the President to the White House, for the final time, and from there, up the steps and into St. Matthew’s cathedral. For me, and countless others (I am certain), the curtain call for John Fitzgerald Kennedy, our thirty-fifth and youngest President, came as the pallbearers placed the casket back on the caisson for the trip to Arlington National Cemetery. The President’s three-year-old son, “John-John”, saluted his father.
The tum-tum-tum-ta-tum of muffled drums and clacking of hooves accompanied the President’s casket as it crossed Arlington Memorial Bridge. The bagpipes of the Irish Guard wailed as it slowly approached the gravesite. Silently, we sat transfixed as our young and handsome President, whom we had watched campaign, debate and be elected, on the same television screen, was laid to rest. Fifty jet planes – one for each state in the United States – flew overhead, followed by “Air Force One”. It dipped its wings in tribute to a dead President. And with him, Camelot died.
The holidays would come and go. I would hear my father singing in the shower, “Paladin, Paladin – where do you roam …” – the words to his favorite western which had been canceled the previous spring, and I knew, at a certain level, things had returned to normal. February of ’64 would mark the arrival of the “British Invasion” and The Beatles would appear on The Ed Sullivan Show three weeks in a row. My “Beatle wig” purchased at the Sycamore Plaza did not survive March-as my father burned it in our barbeque grill. “English pussies that’s what they are!” he proclaimed, as the smell of lighter fluid and burning acrylic hair filled the air and black smoke rose from our back yard, “Frank, and Deano!–Now that’s music!”
That “ever informative”, Doug Arnold, would further enlighten Larry, my little brother, and I, on the facts of life by explaining – my parents procreated in the same manner “King” my dad’s bird dog produced puppies while we watched in horrified amazement in that same back yard.
Taunted by the mantra, “Bucky, Bucky Beaver!” I was in more fights that year than Sonny Liston; and (once he was defeated by Cassius Clay) had a better record! (“Put a whompin’ on ’em, Bucky!” yelled Larry, from my corner.
He and I were paddled (that’s sixty’s talk for a form of behavior modification-then known as “discipline”–now referred to as “child abuse”) twenty-one times together – in the manner of “joint executions”).
“… grab your ankles!” Larry would say, before Principal Adams could even finish his command to, “Bend over and …”. Nothing at King’s Island provides quite the exhilaration of having your feet lift four inches off the floor- your body in a pike position-propelled by a thousand pounds of thrust applied directly to your buttocks!
Many of our escapades centered on entertaining Miss Fishberg, and our classmates, with a collection of dead things. But we learned things could go even worse when we worked with live animals–like the day I was maimed in the most private of places after bringing my rabid hamster, “Woody”, to school in the front pocket of my jeans (which were far too tight, due to a huge growth spurt I was experiencing). Larry would be maimed in the same place, also, after I passed Woody off to him. After his screams forced Miss Fishberg to drag us both from the classroom, she demanded Larry be forthcoming with the source of his agony which was performing what were obviously gymnastics in his front pocket. Such were the number of bites he suffered-as he pulled Woody, snarling; flaying the air with his claws and gnashing his teeth–it took Larry forever to remove the rapacious little carnivore from his pocket. I immediately suggested we call animal control. Miss Fishberg saw fit to call the Principal.
I moved away in the fifth grade, but Larry and I continued to visit each other until the infamous “ghost-busting bomb” incident, nearly burned a city landmark to the ground. With that, our parents forbade us to ever see each other again. That lasted until Larry turned sixteen and got his driver’s license.
The world turned. We grew up and I watched John-John grow up also right behind me on television and in the papers. I watched Jackie move on with (at least in front of the cameras) a stoic grace. I watched her marry a wealthy, much older man in order to keep her children safe from a world which had taken her husband. The fiftieth anniversary of the assassination draws near. Dad is gone; mom is gone; Jackie is gone. Now-even John-John is gone. For all her efforts, Jackie could not guarantee his safety. Who knows where Miss Fishberg has gone? Now Bucky Beaver is beyond the half-century mark. In another quarter of the same, I may not be around to tell this story. And even if I am – I may not remember it. Soon, everyone who can remember where they were the day J.F.K. died-will be gone. Like Lincoln at the Ford Theater, it will be a story told only in textbooks.
“The Speaker” is mounted on the wall above the door in my office. Woody is stuffed and sits atop my desk in a classic “grizzly bear attack” pose, a tranquilizer dart protruding from his flank. I avoided arrest and have located my insurance business in a state far from Indiana; in a state from which extradition would prove difficult. Larry remains in Indiana where his practice has flourished. We reunite about once a year to terrorize spouses, waitresses, offspring and punk teenagers at crosswalks. Each day, I look at the speaker and am reminded of that November afternoon, forty-seven years ago when a little bit of each of us was taken forever. Perhaps it prepared us for things to come … Vietnam, Watergate.
Sometimes, working late, and in a reflective, somber mood, I worry about the current situation in Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran and Korea; terrorism; “weapons of mass destruction”; “drive-by-shootings;” corporate and government scandals and their effect on the market. I worry about the impact of television on my young daughter’s psyche and our nation’s decaying moral fiber. Like Richard Nixon roaming the White House speaking to pictures of Presidents past, I find myself speaking to the speaker: “Wasn’t the world such a better place when you squelched and welcomed me to that first day at Lafayette Park Elementary? Wasn’t my “Dwight David Eisenhower World” a safer, braver, bolder, more confident and honest world? Wasn’t it more innocent? Didn’t a boy scout uniform and the flag stand for so much more? Wasn’t the sky bluer and didn’t the sun shine more brightly?”
And the speaker answers me, “We survived that mournful day in Dallas, “Bucko”; civil rights atrocities that delivered us a real “King” – then took him from us; Vietnam; Watergate and 9-11. We survived all that and so much more . . . you know we have. You were there! You were there with me when this all began. You were there with me in Camelot and Kokomo … You were there with me in 1963.”