November 22, 1963
I generally enjoyed Miss Izak’s class, brightened as it was by her effervescence, even though I was failing, just as I’d previously failed Latin. Gene, a born smart ass, and Billy, his frequent target, were involved in something silly in front of me, and I was tuning out Miss Izak’s instruction to watch. This memory may be misplaced in time, but I believe that, out of nowhere, Gene reached across the aisle to hold hands with Billy. Billy reacted in three distinct phases: first, pleased with the touch; an instant later in homophobic shock; then, finally, in panicked, comical withdrawal. This stuff eased the monotonous days of high school repetition. You might say Miss Izak didn’t have her class properly tamped down and under control. Tiny, inclined to dress young in short tight skirts that cheered me with a view of her legs, only a few years older than some of us, she sometimes laughed along.
(…a chapter from The Garden of What Was and Was Not)
A few years after this and while I still lived in Binghamton, the local newspaper headlined a story about her body being found in some underbrush at the bottom of a ravine along the Adirondack Northway. Her car had been abandoned on the side of the road above. An investigation showed that a New York State Trooper had stopped her for speeding along the Interstate on her way to Montreal. He took her down the embankment before raping and strangling her.
As we sat in her classroom now, however, nothing predicted that killing. She was still short and cute and bubbly and hopeful that guys like me might still learn the language of love. We all still took for granted, then, a certain assurance about the benignity of the future. Bad things, in the world we’d been shown, actually didn’t happen to good people until after November 22nd, 1963. This was Camelot, and scripted. We believed in King Arthur, George Washington and Jesus Christ. Things turned out okay.
At my high school on the East Side, the public address system had never called us to attention in the middle of a day. I don’t recall even being aware that we had a working speaker. The wooden box with its fabric cover, mounted on a wall behind our teacher’s desk, tilted forward and painted the usual institutional green, crackled to life. I’m not sure anyone really knew what it was at first, brittle sounds popping out from the anonymous wall. The first recognizable voice came up midstream in a radio broadcast. Miss Izak froze and the rest of us with her. No one prepared us.
Downstairs, in the Principal’s Office along the main corridor, the staff, usually occupied with papers, typing and files, reacted mechanically to an event raining down unlike anything before it. In a shock that hobbled rational thinking, they defaulted, hooking a radio up to the public address system and letting the details flow like gravel down a calamitous mountainside.
Gradually, the message came across that someone shot President Kennedy. In Dallas. There was a motorcade. Bullets ripped over the crowd. Limousines sped toward a hospital. Others were wounded, but there was confusion over who and how many, the Governor of Texas, for sure. In class, a few looked around the room for some sort of confirmation as facts tumbled out, raking reality. Most, including Ms. Izak, sat looking straight ahead, listening. Our teacher had a blank, almost puffy look. Even the goof-offs, like Gene and Billy and me, shut up.
As the live newscast kept coming, my skin tingled. I felt fear, cold and amorphous, like in a horror show just before the danger identifies itself.
Then, I think it was Cronkite: “Our beloved President, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, is dead…”
The impossible had happened. In ways we seldom recognize, the profound and comprehensive damage, healed only along the edges, endures to this day.
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One of those days we never forget…