WHERE WERE YOU WHEN YOU HEARD?
The fiftieth anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination has revived the question that has meant only one thing to most Americans over the age of fifty. More recently, 9/11 has taken on the horrific role for a younger generation. Still others, with their focus on other aspects of the American experience, may apply the question to the OJ Simpson verdict, the Space Shuttle explosion or Magic Johnson’s first retirement from the NBA.
I heard about President Kennedy’s shooting during morning recess from second grade on the playground at Gompers Elementary School in West Philadelphia. A first grader interrupted my idle pondering of a frozen puddle with my friend Bruce Levin to announce “the president got shot.”
“Did not,” said Bruce, who was inclined to disagree with anyone’s pronouncements, especially those of a lowly first grader. If the kid had told him three plus three was six, he’d likely have responded: “Is not.”
When we returned minutes later to the classroom, however, we instantly knew the report was correct. Our teacher, Mrs. Stein, who we thought was about eighty, but was probably forty-five, appeared ashen before us.
“Something terrible has happened,” she said, daubing a handkerchief to her eyes.
I don’t remember what else she said, exactly, but I do remember Eileen Johnson, a tall dark-skinned girl with two stunningly long pig-tails on either side of her head, collapsing with hysterical grief. It was as though the President were her father. I have a vague recollection of school closing early, and my mother retrieving me that day, just as I was to retrieve my fifth and sixth graders thirty-eight years later when violence again rained from above to sear our collective sense of security. I knew the assassination of John Kennedy was a bad thing but I could not comprehend how it affected my immediate life.
The 1962-1964 years were not bad from the perspective of my youthful self. I knew there was a “Cold War” going on and the opposition was vaguely called Communists. I recall huddling in the hallway at Gompers during drills attached to the threat of their attack. But I didn’t know what a Communist was, exactly, and I couldn’t comprehend how the scary photographs of Hiroshima I’d seen could possibly have application to leafy West Philadelphia. My father listened to news radio each morning and I detected tension, especially when the talk was about Cuba, where I knew my parents had traveled for their honeymoon. But I was more interested in the dire performance of the Phillies; what could be worse than rooting for them?
We occasionally assembled in the “audio-visual room” at school to watch films of nuclear testing taking place out west, somewhere. These newsreels seemed to involve a lot of our soldiers hunkering down in ditches wearing sunglasses, watching a mushroom cloud and the resultant windstorm sweeping over them. More often than not, the film broke or the projector malfunctioned, and we were returned to our regular routine of arithmetic and reading.
Bruce was my best friend at school, but he did not live within walking distance of my home and my mother did not yet drive. At home, the ONLY kids near my age in the neighborhood were Danny and Stevie O’Malley. They were my exclusive playmates after school, on weekends and during the summer. They were one year older and one year younger than I, respectively. In appearance, picture Dennis the Menace and Timmy from the Lassie show, both bountiful in blondness and freckles. My neighborhood and Gompers Elementary School were populated almost entirely by Jewish people and black people, but the O’Malley family was Irish Catholic. As such, Danny and Stevie did not attend public school but instead went to a school called St. Mathias. It was located on the other side of City Line Avenue, “in the suburbs,” and may as well have been across the ocean.
Danny and Stevie’s house had pictures of the Pope and President Kennedy in every room, along with a cross that I knew had something to do with their religion. My parents were both upset when President Kennedy was killed; I observed my mother wipe her eyes and saw my father’s grim and sad expression, but I was warned that the O’Malley’s felt grief beyond the ordinary.
“Be sure to behave quietly at the O’Malley’s today,” my mother told me shortly after the assassination. “The President was very important to them.”
“Wasn’t he important to us?” I asked.
“Yes, very, but he was like a…” she hesitated, and continued, “…a special family member to them.”
Their stone-clad house was larger and older than ours, and it held several major, intriguing attractions. A huge swing set dominated their large, grassy yard, and we could fly “to the moon” and “over the mountain” to our hearts’ content. Even better, they had an old, detached garage containing an abandoned coal pit along with several rooms that were grist for our imaginative mills. We could be cops and robbers or cowboys and Indians. In the pit, we could dig towards China. We did not have a plan for what we would do when we arrived on the other side of the earth, but we dug deep enough that Mrs. O’Malley eventually made us cease, lest the foundation of the structure be undermined.
“What do you boys think you’re doing?” she asked. “You could bring down the entire building. Don’t make me have to tell your father about this.”
We obeyed her thankfully; I rarely saw Danny and Stevie’s father. When I did, he was a non-speaking, gruff-appearing presence behind a newspaper and a pipe. I recall thinking I would not like to see him angry. Their mother was nice, though. She made grilled-cheese sandwiches just the way I liked them and sometimes included a slice of Taylor ham I would never have been served at home. The boys and I never discussed religion, but I knew mine was different, and food had something to do with it.
In the basement of the O’Malley home was a huge bar, carved to resemble a ship’s prow. We spent hours and hours fighting pirates there. A shadowy water stain on the ceiling brought to mind ghosts and goblins and further inflamed our fecund minds. If we chose to watch television, my house had a rabbit-eared set in the basement where we enjoyed the Three Stooges and cartoons like Mighty Mouse and Underdog. I was not a fan of Felix the Cat, but Danny and Stevie were, and this difference provided one of our only bases for dispute.
The most tangible evidence of the Cold War for me was that at some point in 1962 or 1963, the O’Malley family constructed a bomb shelter in their backyard. That was the coolest thing ever! A green, square metal hatch, adjacent to a ventilation pipe, signaled its location. For several months, after the shelter was finished, the garage and swings and ship-bar were nearly forgotten in favor of this play-space from heaven. Danny, Stevie and I used our combined muscle to pull open the hatch and climb down twelve feet or so (it seemed like thirty) on a metal ladder to the concrete floor below. There, constructed in the same stark, green metal as the entrance door, were six bunk beds screwed into the walls and shelves holding cans of food.
I am not certain we were “allowed” to play in the shelter. But we were not expressly forbidden, either, as far as I knew. In that space, we could be space travelers, or soldiers, or explorers, or the meanest prisoners in Alcatraz. We could survive for years on the cans of food that surrounded us, we imagined, while we beat back the Communists or space aliens, or whoever it was that might attack us. I don’t recall there being a specific plan for HOW we were going to fight back from our subterranean position, but the seven-year-old mind need not necessarily work out all the details.
Perhaps, it was the innocence of the times, or the lack of complication from such a small trio of friends, but Danny, Stevie and I were self-sufficient in our play. Parental involvement was non-existent, in stark contrast to modern-day parenting, where the parent/chauffeur/coach is integral. It was only when we decided to take off the wrappers from the canned food that we got in trouble. Mrs. O’Malley was not pleased when she happened to come down and notice it was now impossible to tell canned corn from baked beans. Even after we explained that we were trying to find a secret code that spies might have written on the cans, she was not satisfied.
“I won’t tell your father about this,” she warned the boys. “He would be EXTREMELY angry. But you can’t play in the shelter anymore, or he will hear about it.”
“Please don’t tell dad,” said Danny and Stevie. “We won’t go down here again.” I noted how fearful they were of their father’s wrath. Duly chastened, we returned to above-ground activities. One hot day in the summer of 1964, Mrs. O’Malley set up a sprinkler on the lawn for us to play in. After she went inside the house, we found some metal supports from an old badminton net underneath a bush. We wielded them ecstatically from opposite sides of the stream, slashing through the water as though each drop of water were a fly to be swatted.
“I hit one to the street,” I yelled.
“I hit one even further,” shouted Stevie.
“Whoa, I clobbered that one,” said Danny.
Our shouting and laughing reached a crescendo when I swung as hard as I could through the sun-splashed stream and connected with a solid object that felt like a watermelon; Stevie and I stood in stunned silence when Danny collapsed to the ground clutching his head. He began to moan as Stevie dropped his stick and ran towards the house. “Mom, mom,” he shouted. “Stuart hit Danny with a stick.”
I dropped my stick, too, and ran towards my house in the opposite direction, experiencing my introduction to the effects of the adrenal gland. No one was home when I arrived, my heart pounding. I went upstairs to my room and shut the door.
“I’ve killed Danny,” I thought to myself. “I’m going to jail. I’m going to be punished by Mr. O’Malley.” I wasn’t sure which fate was worse.
My mother came home shortly thereafter. I said “hello” but didn’t tell her what had happened. I thought a police car would show up at any time. I stayed in my room picturing terrifying scenarios, with Danny dead, his father chasing me around the block. I tried to concentrate on studying baseball cards, but I was trembling with fear. Once, the telephone rang, and my heart pounded anew, but I heard my mother engaged in normal conversation with my aunt. An hour or two later, my father came home from work, and I was called down to dinner.
“Is everything alright?” my mother asked me, apparently noticing my discomfort.
“Yes,” I said, trying to appear nonchalant.
“Did you play at Danny and Stevie’s this afternoon?” she asked.
“Un-hunh,” I said.
The conversation turned to my father’s day at the store. Now, I was starting to wonder if we would ever hear from the O’Malley’s or the police. Not hearing was almost becoming worse than hearing. Finally, after dinner, while I was upstairs trying not to think about Danny’s demise and my new role as a murderer, I heard the doorbell ring downstairs. I heard my mother open the door and exchange greetings with a man.
“Oh, no,” I thought. Either a policeman or Mr. O’Malley had come for me.
The adults spoke for several moments until my mother’s voice sounded from the bottom of the staircase.
“Come down here, Stuart,” she said. “Someone is here to speak with you.”
I exited my room and approached the stairs like a prisoner going to the gallows. At the bottom, looking up, were my mother and Mr. O’Malley. He was dressed in a short-sleeved white shirt, with black glasses and a blond crew-cut that matched the severity of his expression.
“Did you happen to hit Danny with a pole this afternoon?” he asked, his tone neutral, when I reached the third step from the bottom, and met his gaze.
“Yes, I did,” I said. It occurred to me that he did not look grief-stricken, just angry, but I didn’t know him well enough to be sure. Perhaps, Danny was still alive. “I didn’t mean to,” I added.
“I’m sure you didn’t,” said Mr. O’Malley. “You must have been scared when it happened.”
“I am, uh, was, uh, am, uh, scared,” I stuttered.
“He has quite a bump on his forehead,” said Mr. O’Malley.
“He’s alive?” I said, feeling a huge boulder of worry lifting off my head.
Mr. O’Malley’s face dissolved into laughter.
“Did you think you’d killed him?” asked my mother.
“I wasn’t sure,” I said.
“His head is harder than you’d think,” said Mr. O’Malley, smiling. “How ‘bout if you come over and tell him you’re sorry. I’m sure he’ll appreciate it.”
“That’s a good idea,” said my mother sternly, clearly unhappy I had not told her what had happened.
I followed Mr. O’Malley through several yards to his house, taking the short-cut that Danny, Stevie and I usually used. We didn’t exchange any more words. When we arrived, he ushered me into the living room, where Danny was laying on a couch as though he were a knight on a casket in Westminster Abbey. A bag of ice clung to the side of his head. I noticed that Mrs. O’Malley and Stevie were on another couch watching television. The Pope and President Kennedy gazed down upon us from their photographs on the wall. Stevie gave me a small wave.
“Sorry I hit you,” I said to Danny.
“It really hurts,” he said, grimacing.
He pulled down his ice-pack to reveal an ugly knot just below the hairline.
“I was afraid you were dead,” I said, my nervousness making me begin to giggle.
“I thought so, too,” interjected Stevie, laughing.
“It’s not funny,” protested Danny, fighting hard to sound angry, before he started laughing, too.
“Oh,that hurts,” Danny added, catching himself.
The incident of the hit-in-the-head is the last I remember from my relationship with Danny and Stevie. They moved to the suburbs shortly thereafter. I’m sure it wasn’t because I hit Danny in the head, though it probably didn’t help, either. My mother arranged for me to play with them two or three times after they moved, but we were in different orbits. They had tons of new friends and I felt awkward. Life changes a lot in just a few months when you are seven.
The former O’Malley home fell into disrepair over the years. The shrubbery around the property grew out of control, and the yard was not even visible for a period of decades. But in my last visit to Philadelphia, I saw that a new owner had recently renovated the house and brought the landscaping under control. I stopped my car adjacent to the side yard and gazed in. The swings were gone, of course, and the garage was rebuilt nicer than it had ever been, to match the main home, like a formal carriage house. But poking up in the middle of the yard was the green ventilation pipe from the bomb shelter, the last vestige of a time gone by. It summoned memories of a dangerous time for our country, of a world scary and on edge. I pondered the hugely important incidents which took place, largely beyond my comprehension, and I recalled a less earth-shattering, but seriously scary incident for me, too.