Friday, November 22, 2013

My day 50 years ago

There's a ton of retrospectives going on right now. Each, for better or worse, is a momentary slice of history frozen in time. And memory.

Time is indelible. Memory a little less so. Both can be profoundly personal.

So what was I doing 50 years ago today — which also happened to be a Friday?

I was 12 years old in 1963, caught in the throes of the seventh grade. Just three months earlier, I'd made my debut at Nitschmann Junior High School, which was a big deal. It meant I was an incredibly naive pre-adult. I was being taught sex education in a class conducted by a phys ed instructor who was so crude he'd probably be decertified, if not actually incarcerated, in today's world. But I think we thought he was funny back then.

The seventh grade was our first introduction to assembly-line education. As students, we'd actually go to different classrooms for different subjects instead of staying in the same room with the same teacher all day long. Bells rang every 45 minutes or so (the outer limit of our attention spans, no doubt) to announce the next class change.

On this particular Friday, in mid-afternoon, we were in home room. The weekend was nearly upon us — heck, the holiday season was almost here, which in Bethlehem, Pa., (the Moravian community's self-style "Christmas City") is huge — so we weren't paying much attention to anything else other than going home. Dismissal was about an hour away.

Then came an announcement over the PA system. This in itself wasn't unusual. We'd get PA reminders for the coming week on Friday's — but this one was decidedly different. We were asked to bow our heads in prayer for the president, who'd been shot. School was over for the day.

And that was all.

In retrospect, I guess at that point in the day, that's about all anybody knew. The 24/7 news cycle was still decades away, but I remember wanting to know more.

I lived about two miles from school, and walked it each and every day. It was not as tough as you might think. The neighborhoods protected their children in those days. I could use a sidewalk the entire distance, from my front door to the school entrance (although sometimes we'd cut through yards, or use alleys and, occasionally, lived dangerously by walking the trunk railroad line to the Durkee's spice plant, which always smelled deliciously of cinnamon. It was next door to Nitschmann, across the athletic field.)

I ran home. I might have stopped once or twice to catch my breath, but I had to know what was happening. Even as a 12-year-old, I could sense something enormous was unfolding. A government — our government — was in trauma. We couldn't know it then, of course — we still had to live it —but our national contentment, our innocence, our expectations were about to change.

But on that day, I was electrified. I was glued to the black-and-white Philco as history paraded itself before us, and I was mesmerized.

What is hard to comprehend now is that this happened 50 years ago. It hardly qualifies as recent history anymore. Now, as I watch the events unfold, I want to reach out and warn the Kennedys. I want to stop time. "Don't go, don't go," I shout to myself, and it has nothing to do with politics, but everything to do with saving a life.

And I fail every time. How could it be any different? In the moment, I'll always be 12 years old.

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