And climb the stairs to the beach...

Friday, November 22, 2013

Remember An Afternoon

I have this book called "A Writer's Book of Days". I turn to it whenever I am stuck for a topic. It has a chapter for each month of the year and suggestions for each day. For example in November one of the suggestions is "You're eating breakfast." or  "Returning takes too long." They are just little phrases that spur on the muse a little. Another suggestion for November was "Remember an Afternoon" and I didn't have to reach far this year for that one.

It was warmer than usual for November. It was the Friday before Thanksgiving and it was sixty degrees outside. The leaves were for the most part off the trees and some that hadn't been raked up yet were swirling in the wind across the still green grass of the school yard, landing in a small pile against the stone wall of the old bandstand that sat between the two buildings that we used for our Junior High.
The bandstand between the two school buildings today. Photo, courtesy Melinda Connor

I had just left the white building, a tall wooden two story school that my parents had attended before me, although in their day it housed all 12 grades. I was on my way over to the Center School, a low long brick building built for us baby boomers. I was in the 7th grade and in November we were only a couple of months into our Junior High experience and changing classes was still a bit of a novelty. Our little town was growing so fast that the two buildings could no longer even hold the two grades at Sudbury Junior High School. My homeroom and most of my classes were in the white building. The Center School was where I had "new math" with Mr. Joyce and gym and lunch.

But on Fridays, one of the last classes I had was chorus. It was held in the cafeteria in the new building. The cafeteria also served as a fallout shelter, a phenomenon my kids will never understand. The yellow and black civil defense signs along with the aroma of vegetable soup, clung to the walls and guided us down the steep winding stairs which turned at the landing before heading down another half flight. It was mostly below grade, except for one wall with small high windows and a door that opened out to stairs that went back up to the school yard.

I rushed to get a seat at one of the half a dozen tables that were left up for us, situated against the one wall with windows. All the other Formica  tables and their attached benches had been folded up and stowed away by the custodians. The vast expanse of the tiled floor already cleaned and polished in preparation for a weekend of emptiness, gleamed in the pale autumn afternoon sunlight.   

Mr. Ingersoll stood at his music stand, tall despite being bent over his sheet music, focused entirely on making notations.  I took a seat and quietly chatted with friends, waiting for the bell to ring. Mr. Ingersoll was still new to us and not really one of those charismatic teachers that I associate with music. He was all business as he stood up straight and raised his baton without a word, waiting for us to give him our undivided attention. We warmed up our voices with a few scales and ran through "Autumn Leaves" and "I Believe" before he asked us to pick up our copies of "Shoheen".    

This was a song, based on an old Irish lullaby with a haunting melody. It was a beautifully arranged piece with lovely harmonies and we enjoyed singing it. Just as Mr. Ingersoll raised his arms to begin, a teacher came into the room and whispered something to him. At the same time the voice of Mr. Mayor our principal, came over the intercom and announced that President Kennedy had been shot. We were told that they did not  know how badly he was hurt, but the buses were already on their way to the school and we would be taken home within the next ten minutes.

Mr. Ingersoll waited for the murmuring to end and looking at us all in the eyes as he spoke, something he seldom did, said to us "Before we leave, I think we should all bow our heads in silence and say a prayer for the president." A moment later, he said to us, "We will end today's practice by singing "Shoheen" and dedicating it to the president." And some of us sang with a lump in the throat or tears on our cheeks, but we got through it and silently picked up our books and jackets and headed for the buses. 

Still unsure of the details of the shooting, we all boarded our buses with hushed conversation or in silence. By the behavior of the adults around us, clearly it was very, very bad,. The buses were packed back in those days. We had three in a seat and an aisle full of standing students, hanging on to their books in one hand and the back of a seat with the other. One boy had his transistor radio with him, something we all had at the time, but seldom brought to school. He had it up to his ear and was repeating what he was hearing to a busload of silent junior high students. One report said he was shot in the arm. Another said he had been shot in the head. It was unconfirmed, but he was reportedly dead and what would happen now? Jackie was unhurt. Governor Connolly had been shot, too.' It went on like that for the remainder of the ride home, but somewhere along the way, we all knew our president, the young one from Massachusetts, my own state; the one with the really pretty wife who wore pill box hats; the one whose little baby had died while I was at camp the summer before; the one with the two little kids, was dead.

When I got off the bus, I practically ran all the way home from the bus stop to tell my mother what we'd heard. My dad's car was already in the driveway, something unheard of in the middle of a weekday afternoon. I found them both watching our black and white television in the den, a place we would all be for the next three days.

After thoughts:

This is what I looked like at about 12 years old, 50 years ago.
I thought more about life and death in those next three days than I had in the previous 12 years. There was a lot of fear around the whole thing.  After all, if the president isn't safe, who is? But it was also a time with my father I will never forget. He explained everything  as we watched it unfold and I learned so much from him as he helped me understand what was going on and what the significance was of certain rituals and traditions. I wasn't concerned with politics or current events at that age. But I was very swept up in the emotion, the respect and the patriotism of it all.
I remember the crowds at the rotunda waiting to pay their respects. 

And I remember John John's salute.

I remember Jackie's black veil and wanting to see more of her face, but being so sad when I did.

I remember the redundant drums and the casket being brought down the stairs, while my dad explained that the pall bearers were supposed to keep it level the whole time, and just how difficult that was. Such respect.

It was the first time I ever saw a flag being folded and presented to the widow that way.

There are other flashes of footage that have been replayed over the years that I remember well. But the riderless horse, following the casket, being led by a soldier who never broke stride and looked only straight ahead, is what I remember the most from those three days.
The horse was called Black Jack, named after General Pershing. He was born in 1947 and during his 28 years in the military he had participated in the funerals of three presidents, Herbert Hoover, Lyndon Johnson and JFK, and General Douglas MacArthur. He is one of only two horses buried with full military honors. The man leading him that day was PFC Arthur Carlson from Mobile, age 19. The day after the funeral, Private Carlson was summoned to bring the horse's tack, saddle, bridle, blanket, etc. to Jackie. It all remains in the Kennedy Library today.
The horse walked quietly for a time, then his head would bow down low and he'd pull it back up quickly, and dance and prance sideways, showing everyone how spirited he was, and maybe that he'd just like to get away from there. He was never settled, really, appearing defiant and fearful at the same time, pawing the ground protesting his being there. The only thing moving fast and out of line in that slow procession. To my twelve year old mind, the horse knew why he was there and was simply reacting to grief. And the soldier leading this poignant symbol of his fallen Commander In Chief carried out his duty, never wavering or losing control of the powerful animal and it made me feel proud of our country and I knew it would be okay. That image was very touching to me and is forever burned into my memory. It was poetic. 

This week I searched the web and found the song we sang in the president's honor that afternoon in chorus as we waited for the buses to arrive and prayed for the life of the president. It took me a long time to find the arrangement we sang but I found it.  It was written by Perry Starr and Frank Wells, names I can't find anywhere else on the web. Here is a link to a Youtube video of a group performing it followed by a transcript of the lyrics. Some of my fellow chorus members who read my blog may well remember it.
Click Here if Video Doesn't Open

Sleep little loved one, safe and warm.
Shoheen, Shoheen lo.
Little dark head in the crook of my arm, God's youngest angel, guard thee from harm.
Shoheen little loved one, sleep.
Dark thou art and thy father is dark.
Shoheen, Shoheen lo.
Wild and free and swift as a lark
Lovely and strong as the bright moon's arc.
Shoheen little loved one, sleep.
Soon he will come to us over the sea.
Shoheen, Shoheen lo.
For sweet and true is his love all to me
A gold bud of love that blossoms to thee.
Little dark head, sleep, loved one sleep.
Sleep little loved one sleep.


  1. I was between the old white building and the red brick school when I heard the president had been shot - never forgot that moment. Innocence died that day.
    Larry Dugan

  2. My brother sent me this comment via email. It's so funny that I don't remember telling him about it.

    "I remember that afternoon, too, though not with the detail you have. I do remember that I had Science with Mr. Martinsen in room 8 on the second floor of the White Building which I guess was your homeroom. As we were being released you were in the hallway just returning to your homeroom. I don't think we had a PA system in the White Building because you were the one who told me the news there in the hallway. I certainly remember the way we were glued to the TV for the next 3 days, and seeing Ruby shoot Oswald, and I remember the funeral in much the same way you do."

    1. Larry, if you remember hearing about it between buildings, it makes sense to me that we had an intercom in the brick bldg. but not in the white bldg. You're so right about innocence gone that day.

  3. You remember so many more details than I do, but the overall feelings are the same. It was such a sad day.

  4. Sherry Peterson@yahoo.com5/11/14, 2:06 PM

    I have to tell you how wonderful it is to find your sharing of this. Our mother just passed away and she sang this to us as babes and then to her grandbabies, yet none of us knew what it was called, how it was spelled, or the rest of the lyrics. Finding this means the world to me as it is a extremely fond memory of my mother...I am grateful to you!


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