There we were. Sheila and Kathy, smug in their green uniform jumpers, and I with my little clip-on St. Patrick’s Institute tie, the peak of eleven-year old intelligentsia, pitting our burly, burgeoning cerebra against one another and the English language in a battle over who could correctly align letters into concepts that would register as building blocks of discourse in futures irrevocably altered that afternoon by a knock on the classroom door and a whispered exchange between Sister Mary Someone and Mother Superior The Other.
With a face as starkly white and stiffly starched as her wimple—in the middle of calling off the spelling contest, which I was a lock to win, and a throat-catching, out-of-nowhere, low and left Our Father kick-off of a rosary session, something usually reserved for May—Sister told us. All around the classroom, the kids wrestled with confused tangles of thoughts and rosary beads because this was November, a week until Thanksgiving, another odd weekday stuffed with prayer, and Presidents never were shot.
Then the girls began to cry. Staring dully at his desktop, Dennis Mullin turned his dark face sideways to me in its usual position of conspiratorial whisper. This time he breathed a confused statement of a boy of twelve’s coming to his best conclusion, “There’s gonna be a war.”
And, sure enough, there were wars to follow, some of us even grotesquely baptized in them, but not over this. Not a shoooting one, at least. Just wars of jockeying conspiracies Dennis would never dream in his most imaginative moments. These wars were fought with tawdry syllogisms that would arc over the horizon, blaze for a second and then fall to darkness, fewer and fewer over the next half-century.
The nuns sent us home to weepy moms only a few minutes earlier than usual that Friday, after they received word the President had died. They followed us out of school and I looked back from across Central Avenue and saw their faces, framed in their black veils and habits, shining mostly white in the cold afternoon sun. Most of them clutched tissues to their red noses and eyes as they filed into St. Patrick’s, like it was a Good Friday or something.
And, as would be the case for most of the next fifty years, I wandered around, numb to anything but that calm, cold voice within me poring over the information I’d sucked in. All that night and for the next few days I also listened to Uncle Walter’s sad but consoling voice feed me more news from that wooden box with the window of grainy moving newsprint.
At first I had to wrap my head around the fact a cool young President had been shot and killed by what they said was some sad sack Commie mook with a black eye. And then, on Sunday morning, the only person sitting in front of the TV at the time, I witnessed the very real murder of that mook by a better dressed one who all the cops knew. I even heard one say his name…Jack.
That was all kind of a weird final punctuation for me, really. A period rather than an exclamation mark. Some dark nothing of a Jack killed the even lesser nothing of a guy with three weird first names who they say killed the sparkling Jack with the killer smile and Givenchy-draped wife.
I felt cheated that there would be no fair-is-fair end to the game, like my spelling bee on Friday afternoon. No logical finality where the good guys would eventually win and the bad guys sent to their seats. I know that sounds cold, especially for an eleven-year old, but that weekend the whole world turned very black and white to me, not just what I saw for days and weeks and years thereafter on the TV. Even when we got the color RCA.
I read the next day my Giants lost to the Cardinals by a touchdown in the vacuum of that Sunday. And the newspaper confirmed some new theories I developed over the weekend. First, if I ever was asked to spell it— though I never was— there are two groups of double S’s in a-ss-a-ss-i-n-a-t-i-o-n. And second, the lives of millions of people can drastically change in the time it takes a bullet to fly 265 feet. Or even two.
The newspaper never did run a story about how lives changed for any, or even one, of those sixth-graders in the time it took to open a softly knocked door.
So I do.