Tuesday, November 22, 2016

A Black and White Memory

As I recall, we had already had lunch and recess on the closed off portion of Division Street. The grammar school had been built less than three years earlier in what had been a vacant lot near the high school on the city block in New Brunswick that St Peter's Parish owned.

The church, flanked by the convent on the far side and the rectory on the near side, was actually two blocks away, down the street and up the hill from the railroad overpass across from Makaronis' Town House Restaurant and next door to Albany Wines and Liquors, at the train station where my father and hundreds like him congregated workday mornings (and for my father, Saturdays, too) to travel first by Pennsylvania Railroad, later (after the merger of two failing lines), Penn Central and still later (when Uncle Sam 'rescued' rail travel in the Northeast Corridor) on Amtrak into "the city'. 

I was in fifth grade of St. Peter's School (I learned years later, despite the name carved in marble on the front of the building, the possessive case was inaccurate and incorrect. But no one has invented industrial Wite Out and when I first returned to the USA, I drove through my old hometown one weekend while my family was still in Germany, looking perhaps, for myself and the person I was then in the hopes of better understanding the man I had become. The school name, in all its incorrectitudeness was still there. There have to be some constants in the universe, I suppose.) and our classroom was in the basement, on the Division Street side of the building (as opposed to the courtyard side, facing the high school). 

We had been practicing our penmanship. Our school was a firm practitioner of the A. N. Palmer method of cursive writing. Those of us in third through fifth grade loved the name of the writing style and found it incredibly funny for what it almost sounded like. We assumed the Sisters of Charity (a misnomer of some magnitude I should note), our teachers, weren't in on the joke.

I can still see the classroom. Sister Rosita's desk in the front, centered and in front of the blackboard that took up the entire wall behind her, facing in the far corner, to her left, the entrance and exit door in the back of the classroom. Our desks faced her, arranged in academic order. That is, the student with the best report card was in the far upper left corner at the head of column with everyone to and through those who failed lunch and recess at the far lower right hand side of the room, as defined by Sister Rosita. Fifty two students of varying abilities and enthusiasms--all blank slates waiting to be drawn upon. 

Everything in that classroom was defined and controlled by Sister Rosita with the occasional support and intervention of Sister Immaculata, the principal, whose office was upstairs (no talking in the stairwells! no running in the halls!) who existed, aside from report card day, as a voice on the cloth-covered speaker in the upper left corner of the classroom, above the blackboard alongside the American flag to which we pledged Daily Allegiance. 

If you are left handed, as one of my brothers is, the Palmer Method is a trial since it assumes and presumes all of us write right (in Latin, left is the word 'sinistro' from which we have derived sinister; do you sense a bias here?) but even for right handers, the capital Q is challenging. It's a fine line between a cursive Q and a very pretentious number 2. There's also the two variants on the lower case 't', one for in the middle of a word like 'little' and the other for when it's at the end of a word such as 'variant.' When you're in fifth grade, these are matters of great concern. 

Earlier in the week, before lining up to board the buses that took us home (and there was always a snobbery of those who walked home, the townies from New Brunswick, towards those of us from the developments in Franklin Township, beyond the city's borders) we had all watched, again, the Civil Defense film on what to do in the event of an Atomic Attack. 

I remember the sound of the film threading through the projector gate almost drowning out the assault music soundtrack laid down by the 101st Airborne String Quartet over the ominous narration of someone like Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. (no one had ever heard of Sr.; which being a Junior, I had more than casual curiosity as to how that had happened. To this day, I still use the Jr., even though my father died decades ago). 

Orchestra crescendo, vivid orange flash that filled the screen and turned it red and then black, and something about turning away from the windows and putting our heads under our desks. Most of us were ten and eleven and hadn't spent a lot of time confronting thoughts of our own mortality. We weren't thoughtless-we just hadn't thought about it. It made for a quiet ride bus ride.

All of that evaporated as the loudspeaker crackled as Sister Immaculata activated the microphone at her desk. We waited and then waited some more as, instead of her usual imperious summoning of a hapless miscreant student for a punishment for a real or sometimes imagined offense, there was the hum of an open microphone and the sound of a radio or television, whose volume was very low.


Sister Mary Immaculata was, for the first time in my time at St Peter's, at a loss for words. We all leaned forward, as if willing her to speak and perhaps thirty seconds on our efforts were rewarded. She started slowly and softly in a tone of voice I had never heard from her, or I think, from anyone. As I was to learn later in my own life, and use myself, it's the voice used to explain events and occurrences that have no explanations.

She started by telling us that the President of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy with whom every child of the Roman Catholic faith in the United States had an unspoken and unbreakable bond; he was our President-the first Roman Catholic, the first President who didn't look like our grandfather, a President with a pretty wife whom our moms liked a lot with small children (younger than us in the fifth grade), had been shot in Dallas, Texas. 

All of us at St Peter's School in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and (very probably) across the United States and (maybe) around the world, bowed our heads and clasped our hands as Sister Immaculata led us through The Rosary--the entire Rosary, not just a decade. That was how I, at least, knew something more horrible than what she was telling us had happened, was really happening.

I'm not clear if we had finished when she interrupted herself, struggling to remain composed, to tell us the President had now died. We said another Rosary for the repose of his soul, but my heart wasn't in it. I don't think I'd wondered until then why God didn't answer every prayer the way a petitioner wanted (I'm pretty sure I didn't use the word 'petitioner') but as the afternoon abruptly ended and we all went home to participate in the national seance provided by the three TV networks (no cable news, no satellite, no video on demand, no Internet) almost all in black and white (color television was a luxury), I knew, without knowing, the world as I had lived in it had ended, not changed. 

I looked at the calendar this morning with regret and incredulity, in equal measure. I and everyone who was born, lived and died, in the USA in the five plus since President Kennedy's murder, will never know what we and our world would have looked like had we prayed harder or longer or louder. I'm not sure I ever prayed again, or in the hope of my prayer being answered. And after so many years and tears, I'm not sure I no longer know how.

I do remember that child, head bowed, at the front of room and I envy him for the strength his faith gave him at such a dark hour, knowing, as he had to, that the darkness was not only beginning but winning
-bill kenny

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