Friday, November 22, 2013
I can’t resist the call. I was an 18-year old sophomore at Brooklyn College, living at home in a quickly changing East New York section of Brooklyn. I finally had my driver’s license and didn’t have to take the train from Pennsylvania Avenue, change at Franklin for the Flatbush line - an hour trip. By car I had a special route that got me to school in 17 minutes – followed by a half hour search for parking.
I was a 2nd year Air Force ROTC cadet in 1963 – the freshman class a year before began with about 50 but had dwindled to around 20 and would end with only four (me not included) by our Junior year as stories from Vietnam emerged. On Fridays at noon we marched and did drills for an hour on what was known as the Girls’ Athletic Field across from Roosevelt Hall. We wore uniforms, which even in the early ‘60s led to some reactions from a nascent leftist fringe at the college. At times we were heckled and leafleted by anti-military protesters – my first consciousness that some people opposed American policies.
As we walked off that day 50 years ago, a buzz went up about a shooting in Dallas. ROTC had a lounge in the basement of Ingersoll Hall with a TV, one of the few on the campus, and we were herded into a very packed space that was filling up with people from around the college.
Uniforms prevailed, including Air Force officers on active duty, for news about our Commander in Chief.
Walter Cronkite said Kennedy was wounded. I had a vision (a hope) of Kennedy at a press conference, his arm in a sling, laughing about it. Within 10 or 15 minutes or maybe 30, there was Cronkite taking off his glasses and announcing JFK’s death. That image of Cronkite’s glasses coming off is seared in my brain.
Then hours of wandering the campus was in a state of shock. A young student trips in front of me on the steps and I get her some water to wash off her knee. I’m holding my uniform cap in my hand when an officer walks by and glares at me — I point to the young lady and he gives me a “good job” wave. I’m also pledging a fraternity and I carry a paddle with me at all times. That night the six pledges were supposed to be kidnapped — taken out somewhere late at night and left with no money to find our way back. The kidnapping is cancelled and we all gather at a somber frat house, actually an apartment on Foster Avenue and Flatbush, to mourn together. Larry, my politically sophisticated pledge brother who worked in the 1960 Kenney campaign at the age of 14, is still stunned.
Some drinks come out and people liven up a bit. Someone puts on the music – Beatles, I think.
Then something astounding – it gets louder and louder and wilder and wilder as people let go. Someone is sitting on the window sill with his legs out the window. The music is blasting. A couple are walking by, arm in arm, looking up at us in disgust.
No one seems ashamed. I don’t either. I have rarely suffered from deep depression over these 50 years, but that was as bad as it got. The next few days are hell.
Saturday must have been awful – I have no memory of the day. Monday of course was the funeral. But Sunday was almost as crazy as Friday. That morning it is so bad for me I have to leave the house to be with people (other than my parents). So I go across the street to my friend Barry’s house. I ring the bell and his brother Larry answers the door, screaming, “Someone just shot Oswald.” “Good,” I say and I race after him down the hall to watch the mayhem that never seems to have gone away.
Read Norm’s follow-up, “JFK, Political Thoughts,” in his next column. Norm batters the English language daily at his blog: ednotesonline.org.