Shortly after noon on Friday, the big yellow Thompson school bus rumbled down Monte Vista Street to drop me off in front of my house. The sun was perched at the top of the hill like a giant fuzzy peach, warming me as I trudged up the gravel path to my babysitter’s house–a duplex attached behind ours. I turned and noticed my braids flapping on my elongated shadow stretched behind me. I tried to dance with myself, careful not to drop my damp artwork still smelling of Elmer’s paste. Thanksgiving was around the corner and in Miss Capell’s morning kindergarten class we had traced our hand onto tan-colored construction paper to make a turkey. I had colored the finger spaces red, orange, green and yellow; the colors of the fallen leaves from the massive sycamore tree in our front yard. I felt my salivary glands squirt as I thought about turkey, yams with marshmallows, and apple pie.
“Hello, I’m here,” I said opening the screen door and stepping into a world that seemed to have turned black and white like the television that was on in the living room playing nothing except the boring news with that robot man in the black horn-rimmed glasses and a small moustache; the man whose name was Walter and who also looked to me a lot like Walt Disney.
I expected to find my babysitter, Mrs. Trundle, a trim woman in her thirties with a stiffly-lacquered beauty shop hairdo, planted on the couch with a Lucky Strike dangling from her lips watching As The World Turns. If she wasn’t watching, then it would be my two little sisters and Mrs. Trundle’s daughter, Pamela, watching cartoons.
“Hello?” Had I walked into the wrong house? I tiptoed down the hall, straining to hear signs of life. A radio blared from the back room just as a pale Mrs. Trundle came stumbling out. Behind her cat-eye glasses, her eyes were watery. Her nose was runny. She didn’t acknowledge me as she rushed to the television to turn up the volume.
“Where is everyone?” I asked trailing behind.
“Dead!” she screamed as she pulled at her hair.
My skin felt like millions of little bees stinging in unison. I exploded into tears and then started to hyperventilate.
“He’s dead!” she said.
“He who?” The only “he” I knew was my daddy. I started to choke up and before my throat closed, I squeaked out, “Who’s dead?”
She pointed to the man on T.V., Mr. Cronkite, who kept removing his glasses then putting them back on as he was reporting things like motorcade, assassins, bullets, and then he announced, “…bulletin has just cleared…Dallas ….two priests … emergency room …President lay…where he was shot…he is dead…”
Our President? The President of the United States of America– one nation indivisible! I looked into the television set as a picture was being shown from only hours before of a smiling Mrs. Kennedy in her pillbox hat and the President sitting in the back seat of a boat-sized convertible.
“Dead Aim. Shot in the head,” Mr. Cronkite said.
What’s going on? I didn’t understand.
“The New York stock has closed…prices began tumbling,” Cronkite was saying. “…across the floor of the Exchange… event in Dallas…New York Cotton and Wool Exchanges…American Stock Exchange the Coffee and Sugar Exchanges are closed.”
What does cotton, coffee or sugar have to do with anything? I wondered.
“Can we come in now?” my sister Francine asked from outside. She gasped when she saw Mrs. Trundle’s pale face, started crying and ran back outside. Mrs. Trundle continued to sob until my mom came to take us home.
Except for the Santa Ana Winds that had started to stir during the night, the grey cooing doves on the telephone wire, and the mourners on Monte Vista Street, the world seemed mute the next morning.
“Go check on Grandma,” Mom said. Grandma lived across the street from us. She had “the diabetes” and it was up to me to go over every day to check on her. (One time I went over and found her in a diabetic coma. The paramedics came. She didn’t die.) This time I took a deep breath and walked in to find Grandma on her knees praying in front of the picture of the President; the one hanging next to Jesus and the Pope.
Monday morning, there was no school. I sat home with my parents, my grandma and my sisters to watch the procession on T.V. The rain had washed the street as a colorless parade without music proceeded like a party without balloons. There were flags, soldiers and horses marching toward a building that was shaped like a giant birthday cake filled with air. I noticed Caroline, the President’s daughter, and I touched my hair I like her haircut. When the carriage rolled by carrying a box with a flag draped over it my dad said, “Salute.” I mimicked him and the President’s son, JohnJohn, and cupped the side of my right hand to my forehead.
I was surrounded by adults who spoke a different language and who didn’t take the time to explain what was going on. In the days that followed, I heard things like “shot from the grassy knoll” and “Bay of Pigs.” Was our President shot by some hairy troll in a bay full of pigs? I had no idea what was going on. What made matters even worse was when my father proclaimed, “The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming!” My sisters and I knew the drill. We ran for cover and hid under my bed.
On Thanksgiving Day, the only turkey around was the one I’d colored and taped to the refrigerator door. At the age of five, I was blessed not to have experienced death first hand. But on the day our President was killed, all of the colors in my little crayon box world seemed to have faded to black and white.