Posts Tagged ‘Thanksgiving’
November 22, 1963 was a Friday.
I was a typical shallow, self-possessed, care-free teenage male in the first couple months of my first year in high school at Mount Pleasant High in Providence, Rhode Island.
On Friday’s, my last class of the day was gym. In 1963, gym class for males was an active, athletic program to prepare young men for military service and which required students to develop skills on the parallel bars, pommel horse, horizontal high bar, still rings and for rope climbing. The gymnasium also served as the school’s basketball court, so the space was cavernous and the class was noisy. Consequently, we couldn’t hear messages being transmitted over the school’s loudspeaker system.
So, on that Friday, after I’d showered and walked along the typically noisy corridor to my locker, I was in a good mood and oblivious to what was going on around me.
I was in a good mood because that night was scheduled to be opening night for the Mount Pleasant High School Dionysiac Player’s production of Thornton Wilder’s classic play, “Our Town” and my theater debut as a member of the stage crew manning the main spotlight.
My original plan had been to try out for the football team but, at the last moment, I wisely changed my mind. The football coach was also my Geometry teacher and, for some reason, there was an unsettling level of antipathy between us.
So, instead, I decided to join the theater group at the urging of my friend, Mike Grace. It was a decision that, to this day, I’m glad I made.
Arriving at my locker and fetching my things for the bus ride home to Smithfield, I was blithely mocking the sweet young woman I’d befriended whose locker was to my right. She was emotional and, because I couldn’t hear what she was saying, my initial thoughts were that she was laughing. But then I realized that it wasn’t the sound of laughter but of grief that I was hearing.
When I asked her what was wrong, I presumed that she was reacting to a misunderstanding or breakup with her boyfriend. The usual stuff of adolescent drama. So, when she told me that the President was dead, it didn’t register. I laughed thinking that she was telling me some sort of sick joke. Then, I looked at her face…and I knew.
John F. Kennedy was a mythic figure in Southern New England. In 1963, Rhode Island’s population was heavily Roman Catholic Italian and, although JFK was Irish, he was one of our own. His was like a death in the family.
The first reaction I can recall was wondering how this tragic event might affect the play.
Our theater group had worked hard, rehearsed and devoted much of our lives for the previous two months in order to be ready for this moment. The school wouldn’t cancel opening night, would it?
Other than the moment when I was told about the assassination and the overarching sense of loss and sadness which enveloped the school, there are two incidents that I most vividly remember about that afternoon. The first involved one of the wise guys who, like me, was bused in from Smithfield and with whom I’d shared classes since elementary school. He started laughing and making jokes about Kennedy’s assassination. I was appalled and, frankly, embarrassed for him. Over the years, I’ve wondered if he sometimes stopped to consider how he’d reacted and, if he did, how that affected his life.
The second incident occurred when we discovered that the school administration had, indeed, canceled opening night for our production of “Our Town”. Of course, it was the appropriate decision under the circumstances. But, we were emotionally invested in our work and had difficulty accepting the decision. What shocked me was when the student who played George Webb, one of the play’s primary characters, lay down on the stage and while pounding his fist sobbed “Why did he have to go get killed on opening night?” I understood the kid’s angst but found his self-absorbed attitude embarrassing.
The Mount Pleasant High School Dionysiac Players production of “Our Town” did go on as scheduled on Saturday night. And, as I recall, the show was well-received by an audience which was probably affected more than usual by the play’s story of day-to-day life, youthful love, premature death, sorrow and grief. That play continues to touch me to this day.
On Sunday afternoon, while continuing wall-to-wall commercial-free live coverage of the weekend’s sad events were being broadcast on the existing three television networks (ABC, NBC, CBS), Mike Grace and I were doing a project for Mike’s aunt and uncle in the living room of their home when I happened to glance over at a TV and noticed the Dallas police escorting Lee Harvey Oswald down a corridor. It all seemed pretty mundane until, all of a sudden, a man in a black hat stepped out from the crowd, shoved his hand towards Oswald’s stomach and shot him. The black-and-white photo we’ve all seen over the intervening decades of Oswald crumbling in pain is still shocking. But, to see an actual murder occur live on a national TV broadcast as it happened was stunning. At first, it seemed unreal. And, thinking that I might be imagining it, I asked Mike if he’d just seen what I saw.
The 48 hours from the moment when JFK was killed on Dealey Plaza until the moment when Jack Ruby’s bullets ended Lee Harvey Oswald’s life, were surreal and shook America’s sense of order and complacency to its core. This was a time in American life when we lived daily on the brink of nuclear holocaust in our conflict with the Soviet Union. We were all subconsciously concerned that, at any moment, we might get word that the missiles were coming in.
Leading up to this anniversary, journalists have been focusing on how coverage of the events of that weekend changed news because it was on TV. I would argue that it changed America.
For the first time, we were able to not only hear but to see events as they happened. Radio had provided us with theater of the mind. With TV, we were there…watching Jackie grieve at her husband’s coffin, watching little John-John salute the passing caisson, seeing Lee Harvey Oswald murdered in cold blood.
On that weekend leading into Thanksgiving and the Christmas holidays, we were shaken to the core.
When World War I began, we got our news on time delay via newspapers.
When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, we learned the news from radio.
John F. Kennedy’s assassination was the first calamitous event which we Americans shared communally through television.
It remained the most significant historical event of my lifetime through the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy in the late 1960s, the Kent State Massacre, the murder of John Lennon and other tragic events which we experienced through the years.
For me, a change began to occur when I watched the Challenger disintegrate as Dan Rather was covering its launch live in 1986. It became obvious to me that I was going to continue to witness these occasional tragedies through my remaining days.
Then, of course, came September 11th.
PS- A fellow Rhode Island native, Bill Flanagan, has an interesting insight on how the death of John F. Kennedy affected our parents who were his contemporaries in the World War II generation. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/jfk-assassination-when-a-nation-coming-of-age-lost-its-youth/
Just prior to the Thanksgiving holiday, my brother’s Hotmail account started sending out one of those “I’m stranded in Spain, my wallet’s been stolen and I need you to send me $$$ so I can get home”– email scams to contacts in his address book. I learned about it from friends who contacted me to ask if my brother was aware that his email had been hacked. Oddly, I never received the email directly from him because, as we learned later, somehow my address had been deleted from his contact list.
The situation became more complicated because we were both visiting my mother in New England and her home is equipped with only dial-up internet service and also because my brother, who also only has dial-up service at his home, had signed up for his Hotmail account on a computer at his local library several years ago.
Consequently, when my brother attempted to change his Hotmail password, the system didn’t recognize my mother’s computer and asked my brother for the answer to his secret question. However, the automated Hotmail system didn’t remind him about what the question was and it had been so many years since he’d joined Hotmail that he didn’t recall the question. So, throughout the day on Thanksgiving and continuing through Sunday night, he kept trying to contact Hotmail customer service but the automated system kept giving him the runaround and bouncing him back to his original screens.
When I returned home, I Googled Microsoft customer service and found an 866 number. However, when I called that number there was no option to connect with a Hotmail CSR nor one to connect with a live body. Considering all the criticism that Microsoft has been getting in the techie world during the past several years, I was amazed as well as frustrated.
Fortunately, when my brother returned home on Monday night, he received an email from Hotmail which helped him to change his password. As far as we’re aware, no harm was done however we still find it astonishing that it was such as hassle and took five days to rectify a pretty simple problem. Given 21st century CSR technology, we would have been happy to talk with a live body in the Philippines or Mumbai rather than to just go round and round with an automated customer response system.