By some anomaly of my birth date, I was in first grade when I was just five. I never felt unable to keep up with kids who were, at least from a percentage point of view, significantly older than I, but looking back on being the youngest, I suppose there was a lot I just didn’t get. I don’t know if that had to do with my age and level of development or if I was just not that interested in what was going on around me. I think I spent a fair portion of my time tuned out or tuned into my head. I remember looking intensely at the reading books we had in class and studying the coloring of the drawings—the very dot patterns--and the curves of the serifs in the type.
Maybe if I were a kid today I would have been poked and prodded, analyzed and pronounced ADD or ADHD or even mildly autistic. But whatever the case, I survived being lost in my world probably better than I would have survived participating in most other worlds. Once I remember holding an oval ceramic ashtray over my head in my parents’ living room and letting it drop to the linoleum because I wanted to study its path on its way down. That experiment got me more than a few whacks on my ass though the ashtray still sits to this day in my mother’s house, neatly glued together and barely showing its breaks.
When John Kennedy was shot I was sitting in school in first grade and the principal’s voice came on over the loud speaker announcing that the president was shot. I heard it wrong, or misunderstood what was said, and pictured the president being stood against the bright blue doors at the end of our elementary school hallway and executed. I didn’t understand why or what. But the next thing I knew, we got to leave school early to go home. (This was a simpler time. We could walk home or run—at five years old—without a parent or guardian, even past a small swamp that was overgrown and scary with skunk cabbage.)
The television was on when I got home with my mother watching. My brother and I watched, too, grainy tel-star beamed images from Dallas alternating with sonorous announcers from just miles away in Manhattan. We weren’t allowed to change the channel. My mother was watching.
Usually my brother and I watched after school a show of cartoons hosted by an actor pretending he was a charming and affable Irish cop. He called himself “Officer Joe Bolton” and he bored us with little anecdotes and admonishments to behave and do our homework between playing Dick Tracy cartoons with villains like “the Frog” or “Joe Jitsu” or “Hemlock Holmes.” Or he played old Popeye the Sailor cartoons, with Popeye vanquishing Bluto to win Olive only to have to go through the whole thing again in the next cartoon, though Olive always seemed like a whiner and a two-face to me. But this day we would watch no cartoons. The president had been killed.
My father got home late that night and sat in the living room dominating our sole TV and whispering about the end of everything with my mother. My brother and I ran around the house, trying to figure out how to be busy and silent until bedtime with no TV to watch and no noise allowed.
The next morning was Saturday and my father woke me up early, poured some hot chocolate down me and wrapped me warmly in my brown corduroy Mighty Mac winter coat. We got into his 1949 Studebaker and drove into the country. Weeks earlier, long before someone gunned Kennedy down, my father’s boss had invited my father and me to go skeet-shooting.
I’m sure my father protested this. I’ve never even held a gun, I can hear him saying. But it was something his boss wanted, it, therefore represented a chance to get ahead, and my father complied. I was along as his companion, in case he got bored or needed a hand to hold.
I don’t remember much of that morning except that the sky was gray, the color of a wet newspaper and I felt the cold despite the advertised promise of my Mighty Mac. I remember picking up the red cylinders of shot from the ground and being surprised. They weren’t at all what I thought bullets would look like. I remember seeing black discs in the air and then the loud firework report of someone’s shotgun smashing a clay pigeon and taking it down. I remember walking over the ruts of the farmer’s land the men were shooting on and stopping to pay close attention to the dried out and ploughed over detritus of what used to be living stalks of corn.