It was a slow Friday in late November, the week before Thanksgiving vacation, and our teacher Miss Roach was trying to maintain the class’s flagging interest in Spelling. My thoughts, as usual, were on the upcoming weekend: watching Frances Farmer’s afternoon movie show on Channel 6, listening to WIBC’s Rockin’ Reb Porter spin the latest hits from Duane Eddy and Sam Cooke and getting ready for tonight’s field trip with my Boy Scout troop to the Indiana War Memorial military museum downtown.
Suddenly, the voice of our principal, Sister Mary Vigil, crackled from the intercom speaker above the crucifix at the front of the room. Her usually crisp, authoritative tone was noticeably subdued. “Boys and girls,” she said haltingly. “Our president John Kennedy has been shot. This is the only news we have at this time. Please say a prayer for his speedy recovery.”
There was silence for several seconds as we looked questioningly at each other and then at our teacher. Hands rose tentatively. “Miss Roach, no one’s allowed to shoot a president, are they?” “Isn’t shooting a president a mortal sin?” “If someone shoots a president and then makes an act of contrition, would they still be put in hell or maybe limbo?”
A tall, slender, red-haired woman with a quick smile and lilting voice, Miss Roach was a popular teacher — a wise big-sister figure to the girls, an object of secret pubescent desire among not a few boys. When our questions subsided, we knew she’d provide a sensible explanation for the disturbing news we’d just heard.
Her voice shaking, she told us to start the next story in our reader. Then she hurried out of the room, head bowed, shoulders hunched. For the next half hour some of us read, others whispered, and all of us glanced anxiously at the intercom, the crucifix and the rain outside.
Just after two o’clock the intercom thumped on, and we were told to prepare for immediate dismissal. We quickly packed our things and clustered at the doorway just as Miss Roach returned, eyes red and clutching Kleenex in her hands, to lead us out. Filing through the halls, the usual skitter of bantering child voices was absent, replaced by the wordless shuffle of tramping galoshes and squeaking raincoats. Outside it looked as if twilight had fallen; the buses had their headlights on, and weird flickering shadows danced on the stained-glass windows of the church, reflections from banks of candles freshly lit inside.
Urged on by mutterings of thunder, I ran the six blocks home alone, dodging puddles that were fast becoming gushing rivulets and small ponds. It’s this rain, I thought. God is sending this rain to punish the human race for its wickedness. I suddenly envied my cousins who lived in New Jersey near the ocean. At least they’re close to where they can get hold of a boat.
“Grandma Igoe just called,” my mother said as she began defrosting our Friday evening supper of fish sticks and macaroni. “Uncle Larry is very upset.”
My mother’s family was from back East, and in addition to Igoes, our relatives included Doyles and McDermotts and Manions and Healys and Murphys and Tracys, all of them Irish, all of them Catholic, just like the President who’d just been shot. Hardworking sons and daughters of immigrants still struggling to live the belief that in America in 1963, your worth as a person shouldn’t be based upon where your family came from or what house of worship you attend. Just like the President who’d just been shot.
She closed the oven and gazed out the window at the rain. “They hate us,” she said, her voice quiet but fervent, as if in prayer. “They still hate us. Dear God, why do they still hate us?”
I thought I saw tears welling up in her eyes, but she turned away toward the oven. I didn’t have an answer, and I didn’t feel like eating any more cookies, so I went up to my room and snapped on my transistor radio. Instead of the Chiffons and Dixie Cups pining about teen love, the station news director was gravely reading the list of events around the city that would be cancelled this weekend.
Restless, I opened my closet, and a plastic toy machine gun fell onto my feet. It was a cap-loading replica of the kind they used in all the World War II movies on TV, and it was a favorite in the arsenal of pretend weaponry my friends and I used during our neighborhood-wide sport of “playing war.” I put it back on the shelf, wedging it between a box containing dozens of miniature Revolutionary War soldiers, a Civil War battle set and a board game called Strategy, where your super-power pawns tried to outflank and demolish the other super-power pawns opposing you.
The phone rang, and I ran to my parents’ bedroom to pick up the extension. Maybe this is Dad, and he’s calling to tell us he’s got a boat, and we’re going to ride out the storm in California and live with surfers and maybe even The Beach Boys.
“Hey, Mac,” came my friend Rick’s voice. “The field trip to the museum got called off. Our patrol leader said we’re gonna go next week.”
“I heard they got a Mauser rifle on display just like the one that guy used to kill the President. Neato, huh?”
“Wonder how much one of those babies cost? Wow! Bam-bam! Bam-bam-bam!”
“I don’t know. I gotta go.”
“Me, too. S’long.”
I hung up and cocked my ears toward downstairs, but I didn’t hear anything except my mother’s usual dinner-making sounds, so I went back to my room and stood in front of my closet and stared at my soldiers and guns and war games for a while as the radio talked on about what had happened in Dallas.
I tried to visualize what a real Mauser rifle looked like and what somebody in a tower shooting the President of the United States might look like, and then I thought of my dad and mom and I driving along in our DeSoto on some dark highway where it was raining and suddenly a shot ringing out and smashing through the windshield and hitting my dad in the neck and then ricocheting into my mother’s head and her screaming and the car going out of control and crashing into a tree in the rain in the dark out in the middle of nowhere in the rain and the dark for no reason at all, and all I could do was just sit in the smashed-up back seat and cry as a chorus of radio announcer voices chanted, “Bam-bam! Bam-bam-bam! Bam-bam! Bam-bam-bam!”
The phone rang, and I heard my mother answer and tell my dad to hurry home and be careful. I turned off the radio and shut my closet door and then turned off the light and laid back down on my bed, listening in the dark to the rain tapping on my window pane like bullets.
The next weekend, my dad helped me collect all my guns and soldiers and war games and load them into a box we drove down to the orphanage in Vincennes, where they’d still be appreciated, said my dad, “by kids that don’t have anything else.”
I was just glad that on the way back home, it finally stopped raining for a while.