Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A Memoir of This Date in History

I wrote this memoir in November 2009, to commemorate 22 November 1963.

Le Mort d’Arthur

Mr. Dilley’s bulk obscures the diagram of intersecting lines as he labels the intersecting points. The shoulder of his tweed jacket is smudged with chalk dust where he brushed against the chalkboard.

“With lines MG and VY being parallel and line CL bisecting the lines at a 70 degree angle,” he drones as he finishes the last label with a flourish, “indicate on your paper which angles are the corresponding vertical angles, alternate interior angles and alternate exterior angles, if, of course, there be any.”

A review quiz! We haven’t looked at this angle stuff for weeks, and now he throws in a quiz. I think I remember this, but I confuse congruent with corresponding; or are they the same? I hate this; I hate this; I hate this. Just don’t call on me when we correct it. I know he will! I hate geometry!

Muffled static erupts on the speaker over the door, as someone fumbles with the microphone in the office broadcast center. Mr. Lucas’ voice is faintly heard urgently speaking to somebody else out of microphone range. Mr. Dilley frowns at the interruption, and we students take a break from paper and pencil with audible sighs.

“Students and teachers,” intones Mr. Lucas hesitantly, at last speaking into the microphone. “There is … we ... we feel that an announcement needs to be made at this time. The president … President Kennedy was shot in Dallas just a few minutes ago.” There is gasp, a shout, a moan from various students as Mr. Dilley slumps into his chair like he himself were shot. “Everyone remain calm. He has been rushed to a hospital. We have no more details at this time. We will try to play the radio broadcast over the intercom to keep you informed. Please stay in your rooms until lunch. School is not over; no one is excused to leave the campus.”

The fuzzy radio news bursts through the speaker that rattles with the volume. They adjust the volume down and up and down until we can actually hear what the commentator says. “Dallas … President’s motorcade … Texas school book depository building … three shots … Governor Connally … approximately 12:25 p.m. … sniper… Mrs. Kennedy … blood covered dress.”

The class numbly stares at the speaker over the door as if it were a television set. We struggle to visualize the horrendous event 1200 miles away while the limited details are repeated over and over by this reporter and that witness. The chaos and hysteria reminds me strangely of the old news reels of the Hindenburg disaster or the bombing of Pearl Harbor I have seen on television.

I do not like Kennedy or his silly Camelot thing everybody is hyped-up about, but I certainly don’t want him shot. I am a sixteen-year-old Republican, born and bred, but I don’t want the President dead; I just want him voted out of office. What kind of person would even think of shooting the President, and who would be stupid enough to actually do that?

As time creeps slowly on, the radio becomes a blur of background noise. I am only hearing part of it. Girls are comforting one another while crying and blowing their noses and parading back and forth to the waste basket to deposit used tissues and grab a few more from Mr. Dilley’s desk. Mr. Dilley has said nothing about no one working on the quiz. Leaning back in his chair, fingers peaked at his chin like Dürer’s Praying Hands, he stares reflectively at the ceiling listening to the radio.

The other boys in the room seem stoic. I don’t know how I am supposed to feel right now, maybe they don’t either. What I do feel is empty, hollow, disconnected from everything around me: lost. Maybe that feeling is from shock or disbelief or maybe just plain sadness mingled with fear for what comes next.

Just after 11:00, the broadcast cuts to an official news release, and someone named Malcom Kilduff speaks into the microphone. Through the jostle of bumped sound equipment and garbled voices and an airplane fly-over he says solemnly, "President John F. Kennedy… died at approximately 1 o’clock … Central Standard Time today … here in Dallas. He died of a gunshot wound … in the brain. Dr. Berkley told me it was a …a simple matter of … a bullet right through the head.”

The bell rings. It’s time for lunch, but nobody moves. Mr. Dilley pulls himself up from his chair and walks to the door, and we follow like sheep. I shuffle through the hall of silent whisperings and exit the building into the cool air of a glimmering gold, fall day. So, what do we do now?

Friday, November 11, 2011

Veterans' Day Memoriam 11.11.11

I dedicate this Veterans' Day to the memory of my friend, Warren Guthrie Harding ,Jr., who died in Vietnam in 1968. I wrote two memoirs about Warren during the six years that I  participated in a memoir writing workshop sponsored by the Jordan School District. The first was written in 2007, and the second in 2010. I present them here in memoriam with pictures I took at the Vietnam War Memorial and the only photos I have of Warren.

At The Wall

It was a physically stressing position, leaning into the polished, black granite wall trying to hold the strip of newsprint with one hand snug against the third name from the bottom of the panel and rubbing the graphite pencil over the incised letters with the other hand. I could feel my face reddening with the strain of holding my body at that awkward angle. My eyes teared with a flood of sorrow, regret, anger, and maybe a twinge of survivor’s guilt as the W-A-R-R-E-N appeared on the paper. The paper shifted slightly as I rubbed the pencil over the G, but I finished the name even though it was crooked.

I took the second strip of paper and smoothed it over the letters, but this time I held the strip on the left side with my knee giving me a free hand to hold the paper straight as I rubbed over the letters again.

When I stood, my legs were a little unstable, my face was flushed, my eyes were wet, and my breathing was shallow. Looking at my reflection in the black, mirror-like stone of the wall, I took a couple of deep breaths and steadied myself. Backing away from the panel, I almost bumped into a man who had been watching me; watching me and the dozens of others along the angling gash in the grassy slope on the north side of Constitution Gardens.

“Oh, excuse me,” I stammered as our eyes met.

“No harm done,” he said with a mild British accent. He was about my height, a few years older, but thinner. He wore a brown plaid shirt, a light tan blazer, blue jeans, and a bemused smile that was very close to a smirk. “Tell me,” he said, glancing leisurely left and right along the 54,000 names. “I don’t quite understand. What does all this mean to Americans?”

Looking at him with my mouth open, I couldn’t even explain what it all meant to me, or what I was feeling at that moment let alone what all this means to millions of other “Americans.” How do you give an answer that covers ten years of friendship with the very first kid you met when you moved to California: or guilt at not having time to talk the last time you saw him when he came by the house to say good bye; or unspeakable grief standing by an ugly, black gash in the cemetery grass on a beautiful hill above San Diego Bay; or the vague thought that your name could be on that wall if an ulcer the size of a small bullet-hole in your gut hadn’t been enough for a jocular corporal to stamp your selective service papers with a 4F? How do you meaningfully answer “What does all this mean?”

“I can’t say. I don’t know,” I said haltingly, with my pencil in one hand and two WARREN GUTHRIE HARDING rubbings, reverently held in the other, fluttering slightly as the afternoon cooled. “There’s no easy answer.”

“Hmmmm,” he said, frowning at me like a tourist disappointed with his tour guide. Losing interest, he pivoted smartly to the left and ambled down along the wall shaking his head.

Turning to the wall, I had one last, long look at myself reflected among the names; one last, lingering touch of the incised letters; one last, wavering breath and sigh before returning to the top of the slope and my patient wife.

That Boy

I try to focus on the words, but my attention is drawn to the ships and small boats plying the San Diego harbor far below the slope of close-cropped lawn I stand on. The chaplain’s words mingle with the chittering of the black birds in the towering pine trees that shelter the endless rows of cold white headstones resting in peace in the bright early afternoon sun. My thoughts wander.

“What are you doing in here?” my mother asks. She can plainly see that I am watching television. It is a warm, late August afternoon outside, and it is cool in the den with the lights off and the curtains pulled shut.

“I’m watching television,” I answer innocently, though with an underlying twinge of rebellion.

“Why aren’t you outside playing with that boy that came to the door?” She demands.

“It’s hot outside and I don’t want to go play football in the street with a bunch o’ kids I don’t know!” My sister and I are still miffed about being ripped away without warning from our friends in Hobbs, New Mexico, to be plopped down in a rental house in Westminster, California, three weeks before school is to start. The only advantage we can see to the move is that now we have twelve television stations to watch instead of three.

“You get out there right now,” she commands as she flips the off switch on the television. “That boy made an effort to come over here and invite you to play with the kids in the neighborhood, and you are going to play!”

“I don’t want to!” I protest, as I reluctantly drag my carcass off the couch.

“I don’t care whether you want to or not. Now, get out there,” she insists while pushing me out the door. She probably locks it so I can’t sneak back in later. I can feel her eyes glaring at me from the living room window as I slowly meander up the street, glowering with head bowed and hands jammed into pants pockets, toward the noisy kids.

That boy that came to the door is the first to see me shuffling up the street. He leaves the knot of kids and comes over to stand in front of me on the sidewalk. He is tall like me and stocky, but still thinner that I am. He has thick, dark, wavy hair, a round face and a beaming smile.

“Changed your mind, huh?” he says, thrusting out his hand. “I’m Warren. Warren Guthrie Harding, just like the President.” I shake his hand and we become best friends for the year I live in Westminster, and good friends for another seven years after that.

Warren is a simple, honest country boy transplanted to California from South Dakota. He is four months older than me, and we are in the same grade at Johnson Intermediate School, eighth. When school starts, he shows me around and introduces me to kids he knows from the year before. We don’t have any classes together, but I stop at his house every morning, and we walk the three blocks to school. After school, we hit his house for a snack or a drink. We can’t watch television at his house because his mother usually has laundry stacked in the living room every afternoon with the ironing board stationed in front of the television and American Bandstand. We go to my house to watch the reruns of adventure movie serials. My favorite is about two Boy Scouts lost in South America; his are the Westerns. We go trick or treating together this year for the last time, and our families join together for Thanksgiving and Fourth of July.

When I move five miles away to Huntington Beach, Warren and I ride our bikes back and forth on weekends. At least once a month we stay over at one or the other’s house on a Friday night. I like him staying over at my house because we sleep out in the camper shell and don’t have to be quiet, and we each have our own bunk. When we stay at his house, we have to share a double bed in his room. He thinks he is being funny by poking me in the ribs at all hours of the night. He calls it tickling; I call it torture. But a few bruised ribs are worth it because his mother makes the best buttermilk pancakes in the entire known world: thin like crepes with a slight rubbery texture.

We see less of each other as we go through high school, and his family moves to Long Beach for a few months. But at least once a month we go to a movie, or a football game, have a sleep over, or spend a Saturday at Knott's Berry Farm or Pacific Ocean Park. Our high schools are rivals, and we have to be careful when going to football games. I am almost beaten up at one game when I raucously cheer for Huntington Beach as the team makes a stupendous touchdown play while we are sitting in Westminster’s section of the stadium.

After high school, we don’t see each other very often. Warren joins the army. I start college, go on a mission and return home to my job at Disneyland. The last time I see Warren he is on his last day home from Vietnam on a two week furlough to visit his ill father. Warren spends most of his visit talking to my father in the kitchen. I am distracted, rushed to get ready for the closing shift at the Disneyland Main Street Camera Shop and don’t have time to sit a chat. We shake hands as I usher him to his car and wave as he drives away.

“Well,” says my father as I return to the kitchen, “he came to say goodbye.”

“I know,” I say, glancing at the clock and snatching my keys.

“No,” he said. “He came to say, ‘Goodbye’.”

A volley of rifle fire jars me from my reverie. The shrouding flag is lifted from the casket enclosing his shattered body, folded and presented with solemnity to his mother. The small clutch of mourners ambles to the waiting limousines that have driven us the hundred miles from the mortuary to this lovely slope of grass in the Rosecrans National Cemetery. My legs are stone; they will not move. My thrumming heart is strangling me; I cannot breathe. My vision blurs staring into the black gash in the earth. Waves of grief entomb me, and my weeping is like retching with dry heaves. Warren’s uncle returns from the limousine and tenderly rests his arm across my shoulders. Whispering comfort, he gently draws me away from the pit and that boy.

Warren G. Harding, Jr. 11 July 1947 - 28 February 1968