November 22, 2013
50 Years Ago, I Saw Grown-Ups Cry
By Stephen Jay Morris
On September 11, 2001, I was on driving south on Bandini Avenue in San Pedro. I’d spent most of the morning watching CNN and, now, I was headed to a job interview. The National Anthem was playing on the radio. It was eerily like Pearl Harbor in 1941, except, this time around, the USA hadn’t been attacked by another nation. Some rag-tag terrorists had just blown up one of the world’s tallest buildings—in New York City! All sorts of paranoid thoughts hit my mind—even the thought of a nuclear holocaust!
I do not have any remembrance of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, as I was just eight years old then. However, I do remember the day JFK got assassinated.
When I arrived at my destination, I parked my truck on the street. I saw children between the ages of five and nine, playing on their front lawn as if nothing was happening. I was that age the day Kennedy died. I invite you to step into my time machine…
Zap! It’s early morning on November 22, 1963. I was sharing my room with my five-year-old brother, Irwin. It was 7:00 am and I had to be in front of my house at 7:35 for the small school bus to pick me up. Earlier, I’d been dreaming that I was a star pitcher for the L.A. Dodgers, when the milkman, making his 5:00 a.m. delivery, awakened me. I could hear the clinking of the glass bottles in his handheld, metal crate. After that, I was unable to fall back to sleep. I was happy it was Friday. I was going to spend the weekend at my grandparents’ place—an apartment at 1051 ½ South Orange Grove—located below Olympic Boulevard in Los Angeles, California. They were my father’s parents; Russian-Polish Jews who spoke Yiddish to one other. They’d talk about me while I was right next to them, but I never understood a word. They spoiled me rotten and it was always great fun to get away from my parents’ neurotic guidance for two and half days!
I hated my school clothes, especially my Wing Tip, brown shoes. While the other boys were wearing their Keds sneakers, I was stuck wearing these nerd’s shoes! My dad never wanted to hear about what the other kids were wearing. He emphasized “Individualism” over not copying what others were doing. “Don’t follow the crowd! Be yourself!” However, his rationale of not following the crowd was just an excuse for being a cheapskate. The kids in my family wore cheap, JC Penney’s clothes. What defied logic to me, though, was how I could possibly be an individual when my father was constantly dictating to me what to wear! I did have this pullover sweatshirt with a hood—yep, we were wearing so-called hoodies in 1963. But, I only wore the hood when it rained. I thought the hood looked dumb, like the Grim-Reaper.
I was 9 going on 10—a single digit soon to become a double; I would be 10 in four months. I thought I was becoming a mature adult. The school administration had been freaking out my parents, telling them I was too stupid to advance to the next grade. As it turned out, I had to repeat the 3rd grade, which alienated the living hell out of me. I hated school that year!
But today was my day. I loved Fridays! I always did. On Friday, the whole world could kiss my ass! My mom had left my brown-bagged lunch on the kitchen table with my milk money. She always wrote my name on it in crayon—“Stevie.” I hated it when she packed a tuna sandwich for my lunch. Sometimes it would leak, making the bag wet and causing my entire lunch to fall out. Plus, the tuna fish would smell up everything in the bag! The other kids all had lunch boxes with thermoses, colorfully designed with popular kids’ show themes, like “The Flintstones” and “Rocky and Bull Winkle.” But, me? I had a crummy paper bag!
I grabbed my lunch and milk money, and waited outside on the front lawn. The lawn was a major embarrassment to me. All our neighbors had lush, green, manicured lawns. But us? We had this yellow lawn that wasn’t grass at all; it was actually weeds! My dad had justified this as another statement on being an individual. However, the truth was, he was too cheap and lazy to maintain it.
The bus arrived on time. The driver, Miss Morton, lived down the street from us. Every weekend I’d see her in a big white hat, tending her garden. She was a thin, white woman in her 40s who lived alone, and had a part time job driving the school bus. She opened the bus door with a hand crank and, when I stepped inside, she begrudgingly said, “Good morning” under her breath. I think mine was the last stop on her route. I sat down and stared out the window. The bus smelled like fuel and the windows would not open. Miss Morton was always in a foul mood. Whenever we kids laughed or talk loudly, she would yell out, “Shut up! Sit down!” She was a drag! From my house on Martel, the trip to school took twenty minutes.
Martel Avenue was a tree-laden street with Sycamores and London Planes. It was a cool autumn morning of about 50 degrees. All the leaves had fallen, leaving the branches exposed and tangled. Thanksgiving was a week away and we were to attend a family dinner at my other grandmother’s house on nearby Vista Street. She was my mom’s mother and a widow. It was going to be four-day holiday, and one which I was very much looking forward to.
On the northwest corner of 3rd and Martel was the new Park Plaza Lodge Hotel. I remember when it was built in 1959. The hotel workers were standing around outside, sipping their steaming hot coffee in the crisp, early morning. 3rd Street still had wires strung overhead, left behind from the old electric buses that were discontinued in 1962.
The bus stopped on Colgate Avenue, on the side of the school. When we disembarked, all of us gave Miss Morton the raspberry to piss her off.
Hancock Elementary included an old, 1932 building, that faced west, toward Fairfax Avenue. A newer addition, which had been built circa 1949, faced north. My classroom was in the old building on the second floor. Each classroom had a so-called “cloakroom,” which was where we were required to hang our jackets and set our lunches on a narrow shelf.
My 3rd grade teacher was a young woman in her early 20s. I think her name was Miss Fullier, but I’m not sure. She had straight, shiny, chestnut hair that she let fall to the middle of her back. She wore those 1960’s butterfly glasses and low cut blouses, but, she had very little to advertise; she had very small breasts. Miss Fullier was a devout Roman Catholic and wore a dainty, silver crucifix that lay perfectly on her chest. One day, I remember joking with another student and we were chanting, “Lord, have mercy!” She became indignant and stated, “I will not tolerate blasphemy in my classroom!” This teacher was evidently clueless and had no sense of humor. She would take role while sitting at her desk. There were only twenty students in my class, and most of their names were those of Ashkenazi Jews: Bernstein, Levine, Goldberg—and so on. This was a predominantly Jewish school and we had a Catholic teacher! I think that this teacher had missed her calling to be a nun, teaching in a Catholic school. After role call, we stood up to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. We all faced the United States flag, suspended from a wooden pole in the front corner of the room, our right hands over our hearts. Since I had un-diagnosed Dyslexia at the time, I would always place my left hand over my heart.
Today, the first lesson was reading. We read aloud from this silly book for kids called, “Fun With Dick and Jane.” Afterward, we had a spelling test. I always failed that. Two and a half hours later—around 10:35 a.m.—a teacher from across the hall, Mrs. Berman, motioned to Miss Fullier to speak with her in the hallway. She left the door halfway open. Mrs. Berman told her something that made her instinctively place both of her hands over her gaping mouth. I heard her gasp. I thought that her family had been injured in a traffic accident. There were tears in her eyes when she came back into the room. She stood in front of the class, choking back her tears, and said slowly, “Boys and girls, I’ve got some sad news for you. The President has been shot. I… I… please read Chapter 2 and I’ll be right back.” I asked the kid seated next to me, “Who is the President? The kid told me, “Boy, Morris, You don’t know who the President is? You are one stupid jerk! It’s Kennedy, dummy! You know, as in John F. Kennedy.” I did feel stupid.
Miss Fullier came back into the room and stood in front of the chalkboard. She announced to the class, “Due to this national tragedy, the principal has canceled all classes today, so you could all be with your parents. Class is dismissed.” We all started to cheer joyfully, but this didn’t sit well with “Miss Thing.” “Stay in your seats!” she shouted. “Don’t move! Silence! How dare you cheer when your president has been shot! This is a solemn day! I don’t want to hear a sound from any of you! You will stay seated for 10 minutes and pray for our President!”
The room was quiet and I listened to the wall clock tick, ever so slowly. Outside, students were running in the halls, screaming and laughing. Ten minutes finally passed and Miss Fullier said, “Class dismissed.” We went to retrieve our things from the cloakroom and then we all filed quietly out of the room. When we got into the hall, however, we broke out in cheers! I threw my lunch in the trashcan. I soon decided that I wasn’t going to wait for the school bus, and started to walk home.
Usually, I would hoard my milk money so that I could buy candy after school. I walked up Colgate Avenue and heard tenants in the Park La Brea townhouses playing their television sets loudly. I saw an old man with a transistor radio to his ear, walking as if he were in a trance, tears streaming down his face.
I reached the Rexall Drug Store and there was a sign on the front door that read: “Closed for today.” Next to Rexall was a supermarket called, Market Basket. The place was empty, as was the parking lot. As a matter of fact, it looked like a Sunday; nobody was on the streets. I passed the Gilmore Drive-In and, on the marquee, it read “Closed today.” When I got to Martel and 3rd, the hotel was completely inactive. I saw a middle-aged black woman on a bus bench, weeping uncontrollably. As I walked up Martel, I saw neighbors talking to each other, which was quite odd. Nobody talks to their neighbor In Los Angeles.
When I arrived home, my mother was on the telephone. I soon realized that she was getting calls from relatives whom she hadn’t spoken to in years! She spent the rest of the day on the phone. In the living room, our black & white Zenith T.V. was on all day, up until midnight. In hindsight, I’m astounded that it didn’t blow a tube! She informed me that the Helms Bakery man had told her the news about the President. My mom acted strange any time there was a public tragedy; she seemed to enjoy it. Most of the time, she was a depressive. But on that day, when everybody was in shock and grieving, it seemed to make her feel better. After she hung up the phone, she told me that the President had died in a Texas hospital, 56 minutes after he’d been shot. I didn’t really care because I didn’t know who he was.
All of my favorite T.V. shows were canceled and there was no music on the radio except for classical. I found myself with nothing to do. I went across the street to Syd’s Pharmacy and the newspaper racks were filled with screaming headlines, “Kennedy Shot!” In those days, the daily papers, especially the Herald Examiner, had four editions in one day: the Early Bird, Mid Morning, Afternoon, and Final. When I walked through the door, Syd announced, “Sorry, we are closing now. Come back Monday.”
I returned home and went into my bedroom. Who was this Kennedy guy and why are people around here so in love with him? I remembered the previous year, when the President wanted kids to exercise more at school and how we were all positioned in the schoolyard to do jumping jacks, sit ups, and push ups. It was about physical fitness. Other than that, I didn’t know who JFK was.
That night, my dad drove me to my grandparents’ apartment. He had the radio on and was glued to the broadcast. I tried to engage him in conversation, but no dice. When I asked him if he was going to take me to the Cub Scouts meeting in two weeks, he snarled, “Do you know what is going on?! If they find out the Russians shot the President, we could have World War Three! So, who cares about your stupid meeting!” That was all he said to me the entire drive.
When we got there, the sun had set and it was dark. My grandfather was waiting for us in front of the apartment building, a 1920s Spanish style, two-story duplex. My dad handed my overnight bag to him and drove off. My grandfather took my hand and we walked up the stairs. The rest of night, my grandparents watched their RCA T.V. I remained alone, in another room, reading my stash of Superman comics.
What a day that was. Like millions of Americans, my grandparents sat gawking in disbelief and shock at their T.V set. This was reality T.V. at its finest. I remember there was a photo shown of LBJ being sworn in as the 36th President of the United States while on Air Force One, en route to D.C. Next to him stood Jackie Kennedy, still wearing her bloodstained pink suit. I kissed my grandparents goodnight and the long day finally ended.
Flash forward to now. Here I am, a middle-aged man. Over the last 50 years, I read books, saw documentaries and viewed T.V. specials about J.F.K. I fell in love with the 35th President and I see now why so many Americans were weeping that day. If I’d been 10 years older then, I would have cried, too.
Sometimes, I worry about President Obama. I perceive a lot of hatred directed at him over A.M. radio by Right-wing broadcasters and on the Internet by Left-wing bloggers. There has been an unsettling amount of gun violence on school campuses, at shopping malls, and even in movie theaters. I would hate to see a repeat of what happened on that autumn day in November 1963. However, this is the USA…anything that should not happen, does. When is it ever going to stop? When?