The Kennedy Dark Days: How Did They Know What To Do?

It’s true: If you’re of a certain age, you know where you were on November 22 in 1963, the day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

Television

Television (Photo credit: Medhi)

I was at school, a 9-year-old kid on a Friday afternoon, looking forward to a weekend of hanging out with my friends in the rec room, playing my sister’s records, enacting little dramas that starred my Barbie and Ken dolls.

But that was the weekend that wasn’t.

Teachers started moving from classroom to classroom. They whispered to each other. They held crumpled tissues in their hands.

We were led into the school’s “Materials Center,” and under the watchful eyes of the red-headed librarian, we sat quietly, focused on the flickering black-and-white tv.

The president has been shot. He may be dead. He may not be dead.

It was then official: “The president of the United States is dead.”

When I got home, the television was on. My mom had been ironing and watching As the World Turns when she heard the news.

I can still remember those images on the television set, Walter Cronkite’s face, the sound of his voice, Jackie climbing out of the back seat of the limo to reach out to the Secret Service agent.

How did she have the courage to do that? I imagined that if I were in that situation, I would have covered my head and scrunched down on the floor.

I remember being so moved by her heroic reaction. Would I ever be able to do something like that?

The strange, stinging drama played out on the screen, almost in slow motion although everything happened so fast.

One hour after Kennedy died, Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as president, while Jackie looked on, dazed, still wearing her blood-stained suit.

I remember thinking that it seemed harsh and callous to swear in a new president while we were all waiting for the old president to come back to life.

My dad said that the new president was sworn in right away because there had to be a leader in place. This made me afraid, as if something darker, more evil could be on its way, and someone needed to be in charge to shout out orders.

A few hours later, at 5 pm, we watched the televised landing of a coffin arriving in Washington D.C. How did everyone get packed up and fly across the country so quickly?

Before midnight, we learned that the police had arrested a gunman named Lee Harvey Oswald. How had that scenario happened?

We went to bed, stunned, trying to sort out this new reality. We got up in the morning and turned on the television, hoping for answers.

The new reality was still baffling: There was a flag-draped casket in the White House. President Kennedy’s famous rocking chair was unceremoniously rolled out through a side door.

We stayed glued to the tv set and watched other people watching tvs in front of department store displays, people gathering in town squares and in churches, people marching with torches and carrying signs. The entire world was grieving, some weeping, some with blank expressions.  We were all on the same channel: There was not one person alive who did not know—could not not know–what was happening during this place in time and history.

I learned new words: Catafalque. Cortege. Caisson.

On Sunday, November 24, there was more pomp and circumstance as the casket went from the White House to the Capitol in a dramatic, slow-moving procession with funereal drums and the clip clop of horses. Then there were eulogies and proclamations, dignitaries and condolences,  kneeling and whispers—all quiet and controlled.

In contrast to that solemnity, we got to see a live murder on tv as Jack Ruby pulled out a gun and shot Oswald right in the gut.

I didn’t know it then, but we were ushering in a new era of watching people get shot on television. It was going to be different from the usual fare, which included shows like Dick Van Dyke, The Flintstones, Mister Ed, and Andy Griffith.

The world had gone mad, yet there was an order, a surreal serenity. I still wanted to know: How did so many people know what to do?

On Monday, November 25, we watched the funeral, a solemn parade led by a jumpy, riderless horse named Black Jack. In his stirrups there were black boots, facing backwards, a symbol of a fallen leader.

I wondered how all of this was put together, so impeccable and calibrated, so dramatically arranged. Was there a plan laid out in a secret folder that had been labeled: “Here’s What We’ll Do If the President Is Assassinated”?

How did Jackie decide what to wear? When did she have time to shop for mourning clothes? I remember the voices on tv talking about her choice of veil.

The performances of both man and beast were nothing short of mesmerizing—even the one from little John-John who raised his hand into a salute as his father’s casket passed by. He was only three!!! And here he was making a perfectly innocent, sweet, and painful gesture that moved us all to tears. How in the world did this precious boy in the double-breasted coat know that he should do that?  Most three-year olds I knew would have been all wriggling and squealing.

The summer before the assassination, our family took a road trip to Washington, a sort of homage to the Kennedys, I suppose. They were rock stars! We got to walk around the White House, the place where they lived! Caroline’s pony Macaroni was eating grass in the yard!

As part of our trip, we visited Arlington Cemetery, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and graves of WWII vets my father had known from his time in the war. It was such a sad and moving day. As we stood on a hill overlooking the fields of white headstones, my mom said, “Somebody important is going to be buried here.”

My whole family felt a bit unsettled, especially my mom, when we saw that they were burying the president in the exact same place where we had stood on that hill.

I was confused and scared during those days, and I also felt inadequate. All I could do was sit there and watch television…and wonder how so much calm could be happening while the chaos of loss swallowed us whole.

But something was coming to light: If everyone knew what they were supposed to do during times like these, maybe it was because such devastating things happened before. Maybe Tragedy was always in the wings, waiting to make another entrance when you least expect it. Maybe I was learning lessons about life a little faster than I wanted to.

Five days later, on November 29, The Beatles released their single “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” How in the world did John, Paul, George, and Ringo know that was exactly the song that I wanted–and needed–to hear?

Day of the Dead Sets the Scene — An Excerpt from Human Slices, a Love Story

Español: tradicional ofrenda del dia de los mu...

Photo credit: Wikipedia

On a rainy first of November many years ago, my friend Anne took me to Chicago’s National Museum of Mexican Art for its Dia de los Muertos celebration. I was immediately smitten by the altars, those skeletons, the offerings, the colors. That first Day of the Dead experience still dances in my bones. (Thank you, Annie!)

When I was working on the closing scenes of my novel Human Slices, I imagined my female protagonist heartbroken and numb at Halloween. Then she went off and created a Day of the Dead altar.

Whenever this day comes around, I think of this scene with Salm — which is her odd little nickname for her longer nickname, Little Salmon. Here’s an excerpt from the last chapter of Human Slices.

Happy Dia de los Muertos!


As the wet autumn leaves squeaked underfoot, Salm lugged four small pumpkins up the stairs to her apartment. She spread several Sunday papers onto the kitchen floor and sat down, putting the pumpkins between her legs. She cut deep wounds around their stems, and after pulling off the tops, she settled in for the best part of the job—digging her hands into the cold slime and separating the stringy innards from the seeds.

She spent the early evening washing the pumpkin seeds, salting them, and baking them in her oven. She was going to take the seeds to Sylvia and Reed’s tomorrow. They had just moved in together, and they were having a Day of the Dead celebration in conjunction with their housewarming party. Reed had told her he had a mild addiction to pumpkin seeds. While the seeds cooked, Salm sliced unhappy geometric expressions into the pumpkins’ faces.

Sylvia had introduced Salm to the Day of the Dead rituals—Dia de los Muertos—years ago. It was the day the dead came back to visit the earth. Creating an altar with candles was essential. The altar honored their memory, and the candles guided their way. 

After the pumpkins were carved, Salm lined them on top of her kitchen table. She went into her pantry and dug out the voodoo candles she bought at Maxwell Street last year—thick, round candles encased in sparkling glass. Her cats followed Salm from room to room as she roamed her apartment, picking up assorted mementos—photographs, bits of memorabilia, postcards, souvenirs, a book of poetry, letters, holy cards.

On her bureau, she found Luke’s dog magnets. She arranged and rearranged everything until the memories were in their right places. Then she sprinkled the entire creation with glitter. Satisfied with the altar’s look, she rummaged through the cabinet under her sink to find an old bottle of mescal and poured herself a double shot. She lit the candles and turned off the overhead light. 

She sat at the kitchen table and watched the candles flicker. “To the dead,” she began, lifting the shot glass to her eyes and squinting through it. She threw the fiery liquid down her throat. 

Salm toasted to the pumpkins. “To Dad.”  She sighed. 

“Aunt Elaine, Grandma and Grandpa Collins, Big Fred, Grandma Penszak.”  She sat in silence. 

“To Sandy, my guardian angel, Bobby Kennedy, Uncle Walt, Theresa, Peter.  Jennifer, Cal, Les, Stuart, Rick, Terrence.”

As always, Luke was on her mind. “To Luke’s parents, his Uncle Jerry, Greg, Anne Marie and all the rest.”  She felt a certain numbness from the mescal overtaking her fingers and toes. 

“To all of the lovers and friends who are dead…really dead…and the ones who are dead to me from absence.”  She felt tears burn in her eyes. 

“And, of course, to Luke.” She spoke quietly and solemnly. 

The candle flames quivered and swayed, catching and reflecting the light of the raindrops on the window.

Salm sat still for a long, long time. 

She thought she heard a knock at the back door, but it must have been a branch, or a tipped garbage can being blown down the alley.   

“It’s open,” she thought to herself. She remembered saying that to Luke so many times.

There was another knock. She looked up to the back door and thought she saw Luke’s image through the screen.  She wondered if the mescal could cause such a hallucination. 

“Salm?” Luke said quietly. 

Human Slices is available for Kindle and in print on Amazon.

The Grand Poobahs Speak — Who’s Right?

English: Stephen of England Česky: Štěpán z Blois

English: Stephen of England Česky: Štěpán z Blois (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was chatting with a writer friend the other day, and we got on the subject of adverbs. Exciting, right?

During our conversation, I tried to remember something clever I read about adverbs — about not using adverbs, that is — in Stephen King’s memoir On Writing.

I found the book on my shelf and flipped through it until I found the bit where King opined, “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs.” I can imagine King writing a story one day about a demon road in a battle with evil…in the form of words ending in -ly.

While I was searching through the book looking for King’s adverbial wisdom (with which I mostly agree), I ran across this statement: “Informal essays are, by and large, silly and insubstantial things; unless you get a job as a columnist at your local newspaper, writing such fluffery is a skill you’ll never use in the actual mall-and-filling station world.”

“Informal essays are, by and large, silly and insubstantial things.” — Stephen King, 2000

Tell that to the gazillion bloggers in the world.

King’s On Writing came out in 2000. According to Wikipedia, the word blog was coined in by “Peter Merholz, who jokingly broke the word weblog into the phrase we blog in the sidebar of his blog Peterme.com in April or May 1999.”

King missed the boat on that one. What’s “fluffery” to some can be brilliance to many.

Thinking of King’s non-prophetic statement, I recalled when I read The Icarus Deception by bestselling author and super-blogger Seth Godin. Godin wrote in his 2012 book that analysis is what we need to write for the ether world. “Do it every day,” Godin opined. “Every single day. Not a diary, not fiction, but analysis.”

I remember when I read that, and how sad it made me. I was late to the blog party, but I was envisioning my blog as a place for me to experiment with short fiction. Godin’s statement took the wind out of my sails.

Nonetheless, contrary to Godin’s rule, I have posted some micro fiction here on this blog in the form of my 259-word stories, and these little bits of story usually get some traction.

The Lesson Learned: You can’t believe everyone all the time, even the Grand Poobahs. And absolutely, that’s the truth.

Shirley MacLaine Was There: The American Revolution

This image was selected as a picture of the we...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Pardon that this post about the Fourth of July is not perfectly timed to the holiday.

But I discovered only last night that Shirley MacLaine was there at the birth of America.

As MacLaine explains in her 2001 book, I’m Over All That: And Other Confessions, two authors writing on past lives “claimed through channeled sources” (whatever that means) that Ms. MacLaine is the reincarnation of Robert Morris, the patriot who personally financed a big chunk of the American Revolution.

(I myself learned of Robert Morris’s identity when I started teaching at Robert Morris College — now Robert Morris University — many years ago. To add to your bucket of Revolutionary trivia, there is a statue of Morris on Wacker Drive in Chicago.)

But back to the book: I picked up this MacLaine book a few weeks ago in the laundry room in my building. We have an informal  book exchange on a shelf above the washers. How could I not pass up this book by Shirley? I never read one before.

Of course I had heard of MacLaine’s belief in reincarnation, synchronicities, and all of the related woo-woo. Note that I am not making fun of her spiritualism and convictions. The older I get, the more I am drawn to these ideas myself.

This odd little gem of a book is organized into chapters of things that Shirley is “over,” and things she is “not over” as well. For example, she is over going to funerals and having sex, but she is not over being frustrated by packaging that she can’t open. I can relate.

In addition to her mundane issues, she also writes about not-so-everyday ruminations, like how she committed “cosmic suicide by cutting the silver cord attaching my soul to my body” during the destruction of Atlantis. She is regretful of this act and calls it “cowardly,” wishing that she would have gone through the devastating experience with everyone else. Someone should make a movie about that whole scenario.

And on this Fourth of July weekend, I discovered that Shirley  is “not over the Founding Fathers.”

Citing a passage from another book she wrote, Shirley says: “The men who signed the Bill of Rights and drew up the Constitution said they wanted to form a new republic based on spiritual values. And those values they believed in went all the way back to the beliefs of Hindu scriptures and Egyptian mysticism. That’s why they put the pyramid on the dollar bill — in fact the dollar bill and the Great Seal are full of spiritual symbols that link way back to long before the revolution…” She goes on to say, “They (the Founding Fathers) believed that cosmic truths could be applied to creating harmony in a new society. They believed that people could be self-governing and self-correcting. They warned us against being ignorant of ignorance. They cautioned us against losing the foundations of our spiritual identity.”

She continues with a commentary about the Founding Fathers feeling a “chromatic link between music and the rainbow and the scales of sound and color,” and the connection between the Iroquois Nation and the signs of the Zodiac.  That’s where I got confused.

But her connection to the American Revolution doesn’t stop with her having actually been there in a past life. According to the book, Shirley was once allowed the privilege of sleeping overnight in Jefferson’s bedroom in Monticello. There, she felt his presence, “quiet, but commanding.” And she heard him whistle, just as the guards do every night. One of the curators gave her a lock of Jefferson’s hair. She is so connected to those guys!

I can understand why Shirley  worries about our country wandering “far off our transcendentalist track.” Nonetheless, we are lucky here.

Right now, right this morning, I look out my window and see people strolling toward the beach, relaxed, calm, free (except for the big coolers they’re dragging behind them), and looking forward to a lovely day in the sun to do what they want to do with whomever they want with a relative sense of security (unless some teen throws an M-80 at them). And right now, somewhere else, people are at war, dying, fighting for their own existence, struggling passionately for their unalienable rights, for their own ability to pursue happiness, their freedoms.

Our Founding Fathers were really something. It’s good to be reminded by Shirley MacLaine that their spirits are still alive and with us. We sure do need them.

Seizing the Solstice

solsticeI have the grand luxury of being able to watch the sun rise over Lake Michigan.

It’s quite astounding to me  — and I never get tired of noticing — the way the sun appears at a different point on the horizon each and every morning. There were 20,000 revelers gathered at Stonehenge to celebrate the longest day of the year. I sat in my living room and drank coffee.

Hail, Great Hot Pink Ball of Fire! Today’s sunrise was a stunner. Happy Summer Solstice!

From where I sit, our Constant Sun rises every June 21 at a point on the horizon at Montrose Harbor, a spot north of downtown Chicago. Starting tomorrow, the sun will appear just a little south of that point and move a little farther south every day until, at the end of summer, it will show up on the horizon around Fullerton Beach. By the Winter Solstice on December 21, it will look to me as if it’s rising downtown near Navy Pier.

And so it goes. The sun travels up and down the horizon, making its way back and forth, step by step, day by day, inch by inch, over and over and over again. It does what it needs to do. It seems like such a relentless trooper. How crazy the spinning Earth must look to the Sun.

Sometimes I try to tilt my body the same way I imagine Mother Earth is tilting so I can better understand where I am in the universe. And then the realization sets in that I am spinning around really fast in the solar system. It’s too big of a concept for me to get my head around. I feel both painfully inconsequential and absolutely thrilled to be part of such a vast space-time continuum.

Nonetheless, welcoming the longest day of the year is always fun, especially when there’s a little ritual thrown in.

At dawn, I paid tribute to the sun with a made-up pagan prayer and my own extremely awkward version of a yoga Sun Salute.

Tonight I’m hoping to dance around a Maypole or a bonfire — someone will have something going on in the park tonight if it only stops raining. If it doesn’t, I may have to settle for  an indoor spin around a collection of burning candles. But yes, a dance is absolutely in order for the Summer Solstice….and a sunset cocktail, too, a summery one with fizz and fruit.

Frivolity aside, the reality of the Solstice is this: We’re already six months into the year.

And the Giant Shining Life Source in the Sky seems to be asking, “What’s left on your TO DO list? Tomorrow I start setting a little bit later every day. Time’s a’wastin’!”

Yes, Mr. Sun, you’re right. It’s time to seize the day.

_________________________

Related articles:

Yoga Sun Salute: http://www.wikihow.com/Do-the-Sun-Salute

Stonehenge Party:  http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2345638/Summer-Solstice-2013-Revellers-rise-dawn-celebrate-drumming-dancing.html

Solstice Cocktails:  http://www.ahistoryofdrinking.com/wordpress/2012/06/20/an-excuse-to-drink-summer-solstice-cocktails/

Burst, Pop, Go!

yellowfleursThe first buds of spring pop open and here we go — the unfurling of leaves! the burst of flowers! Most palpable is that resurrection/birth buzz in the air that fills us with a sense of urgency to scrub, to plant, to do.

A big part of the fun is seeing the Moms and Dads stream into the park with their aspirations, sporting gear, and kids in tow.

“Let me show you something,” they say. Kids are lucky when they have parents who teach them how to do things.

This weekend, I saw one man trying to teach his son how to catch with a mitt. (Dad also needs to help the poor kid learn to throw.) A father of red-haired twins demonstrated soccer ball passing techniques that were way beyond his kids’ abilities, but they were having the time of their lives.

One cool mom ran around with a kite, her young ones chasing after her, sharing a collective groan when the kite nose-dived to the ground, hurrahing in a collective cheer when the wind swept up the kite so far and fast that it became only a speck against the blue sky.

And then I saw a young dad teaching his daughter how to ride a bicycle.

My dad was one of those dads willing to take the time and effort to show and share. Over the years, he taught me how to ice skate, swim, read a map, play horseshoes, drive a car, love books, hit a baseball, do crosswords, laugh at the Marx Brothers, polish shoes, mow the grass, put up a Christmas tree, make people feel welcome. He taught me to sing out loud with abandon and ignore the people who might squelch your enthusiasm with their critical looks.

But the day he taught me how to ride a bike? That was especially magical.

We were in the park across the street from our house. My sister, reluctantly, let us use her dark blue Schwinn. Perched on the seat, I could barely reach the pedals.

My dad said, “Don’t worry. I got ya.” He held the back of the bike seat with one hand, the handlebar with the other.

“Ready?” he asked.

I nodded, but not ready at all.

“Go!” he said, still holding the bike while he ran alongside of me.

I tried to stay steady but the bike was tippy and out of control. I felt helpless. I wanted to cry and quit. My dad laughed and rubbed my back. “That’s OK,” he said. “You’ll get it.”

He would buoy my spirit, take a deep breath, and do it again.  And again.

At last, in a surprising momentous second, a miraculous moment in time, I felt some kind of internal trigger kick in and connect me to a weird power of the universe. Balance!

As soon as this shocking awareness of balance hit me, I felt the sudden rush of another sensation. Trust! A giddy, I-can-do-this belief in myself that filled me with unbridled Hallelujah joy.

Wide-eyed, I looked over at my dad. “Don’t look at me!” he said. “Keep going!”

I looked away from him and set my sights straight ahead. “Atta girl!” he kept saying, running next to me. “Atta girl,” he said, clapping. Clapping? I realized he had let go of the bike. I was on my own.

Freedom! Exhilaration! Independence! With the wind in my face, hair blowing behind me, I pedaled that bicycle for all I was worth, full speed ahead.

“Atta girl,” I heard my dad shout from somewhere behind me.

I felt like I could fly.

Learning to ride a bike may be one of the greatest moments in any kid’s life.

And that little girl in the park. I had to stop and watch. She was about 10, sitting on an adult-sized bicycle, barely able to reach the pedals. She wore a brand new bike helmet on her head.

Her dad steadied her, talked her through it. Over and over. Finally, she got it. I saw her dad let go of the bike while he kept jogging alongside of her.

I’m not sure she noticed he had let go.

When she passed me, I shot her a big smile. She gave me a sideways glance and smiled back, then quickly refocused her eyes on the path ahead. In that split second of our shared smiles, I saw in her eyes a combination of fear, triumph, surprise, optimism, and what-the-hell-just-happened? That jubilant moment of balance and trust when you realize you can believe in yourself. And with that bit of knowledge, you can do almost anything.

So spring bursts open for us about this time every year.  If we’re lucky, we can be transformed.

Ivan Drives

259words_01.jpgIvan drives the #36 bus route, a long, lurching stop/go, stop/go ride between downtown and north side neighborhoods. Up and down State Street. Back and forth on Broadway.

Ivan is close to retirement and a good pension. He has seven grandchildren who call him Poppa.

Most of the time, he doesn’t pay attention to the rush-hour crowds. They heap in, mournful and glum.

“Move to the back, please,” he says into the loudspeaker. Rarely does anyone listen. He has stopped trying to understand people who choose to bunch up in the front. Ivan makes sure the passengers pay their fares. Sometimes, he’ll deny someone with an expired transfer. Not always, but sometimes.

He’s been a dutiful driver, acknowledged at Transit Authority lunches for his complaint-free record. He’s received special awards too, one for delivering a baby and another for nabbing a pickpocket. He takes only a few sick days every year.

Sometimes, after he’s loaded passengers, he’ll see out of the corner of his eye a commuter running down the street, frantically waving to get his attention so he’ll wait and pick him up.

Sometimes, Ivan will stop.

Other times, he’ll pretend not to see, adjust his seat perhaps or check his schedule.

Then ever so slowly, he’ll apply his foot to the gas pedal and cruise through the intersection, leaving the would-be passenger behind. Ivan will look into his rearview mirror and watch how the mad dash turns into slow motion and resignation. He lip reads the spewed curses and knows he would never use language like that.