Thursday, November 23, 2006

43 Years Ago: The Day When No One Would Ever Laugh Again

This may seem like an odd offering for our readers on Thanksgiving Day. But give it a chance. It's something that arose from a meditation experience I had early Wednesday morning, the 22nd of November. I wrote it down later that day, and then looked around the major news sites online and was astounded to find—on a day when the assassination of a political leader in Lebanon was front page news—no mention of this moment in the lives of those of us who were around then, right here in America.

Personally, I think this experience also highlights the value of meditative practice: it's full of surprises, just try it. Here, then, is what I saw, felt, and remembered about a day 43 years ago.

I was pulling a booger out of my nose when the door burst open and it all started.

Maybe you don't remember it. In spite of what you may hear, not every moment is memorable to everyone. Or maybe you just weren't alive yet then to remember it now.

I was six. My family had moved that summer from a filthy, crime-ridden city of New Jersey to a tiny farming town in upstate New York—as I found out later, because my old man's drinking had gotten so bad that he couldn't hold down a job and needed to try again someplace where he wasn't known for what he was, a drunk.

So I was a scared, skittish little runt. This new town was too strange and silent for me—no noise, light, or dreams to it. I was pulling the booger out of my nose in Mrs. Dunham's first grade classroom, intending to add it to my collection underneath the desk, when Mrs. Leslie, the second grade teacher from next door, pounded into the room, one hand over her chest.

"Bea, something terrible's happened—get the TV." She made a gasping sound and then, as if just realizing that the room was full of small children, dropped to a whisper as she bustled toward a massive black box with a round screen on a gray metal cart with wheels.

I didn't hear anything they talked about as they set up the TV, switched it on, and waited for its gray light to fill the box.

Mrs. Dunham listened to a few whispered words from Mrs. Leslie and then looked as if she'd been hit with something. They stood in front of the box on the tall steel wagon and whispered some more. One of them sobbed. I wiped my booger onto the bottom of the desk, forgetting to roll it up as I usually did.

The rest I don't clearly recall, because everything happened in a blur after that. More grownups came by, some entering the room and whispering, some just standing in the hallway outside and speaking in a serious, repressed monotone. This was big and exciting—something totally outside the normal flow of non-action and the prim, quiet march of normal life at the Mary E. Dardess Elementary School.

Announcements came over the loudspeakers: the principal said something about buses and order. But it was too early to leave. Mrs. Dunham told us, in a shaking voice, to be good and quiet and that we all had to go home to be with our families. Everybody in the class was excited at the grownups' strange behavior; we all wanted to know what was happening on the TV that had caused all this.

But we were quickly lined up and marched out in the usual way into the yard where the buses also lined up to collect us. The talk started in the yard; everybody was happy and excited. But nobody knew what was going on, why we were leaving so suddenly.

Someone on the bus, an older kid from third grade, told us that the President had been shot and was maybe dead. I didn't understand, and didn't want to admit it, but the kid must have seen that we didn't get it. "He's the Principal—'cept for the whole country...the whole world! And he got shot...with a gun."

The following days are another blur of people—men, women, and children—crying; muttered undertone conversations in semi-darkness; and the television a constant stream of gray light showing the same images of black cars and running people and serious men talking. It seemed as if no one would ever laugh again anymore.

I was allowed to watch. I remember the dark beauty of it all: the neat, flattened flag in the center of the big domed cave with thousands of silent dark people walking by; the horses pulling that wagon with the flattened flag on it—they were the most beautiful animals I'd ever seen; and how much I wanted to be that little boy in the short pants who saluted his dead father and was held by the pretty woman with the darkened face. That woman was beautiful—prettier than my Mom, I had to admit.

I asked my sister questions about it all, because it was so exciting and I didn't understand what was really happening, except that someone died. But I didn't even understand what that meant. She was much older, in 9th grade. She told me, "when you die, you go to sleep and don't wake up, ever."

This was the first explanation of death that I'd ever received. I still didn't get it, but I knew that death, and this particular death, were very, very important. Superman never died, but my sister said he wasn't real, just a fake person made up by somebody as a story. She showed me a picture of a man who she said was my grandpa, and said he was dead. Then she told me that everybody dies and that you go to heaven after you die, but nobody sees you there. That's why everyone's sad when a person dies, because even though they know you're in heaven, they can't be sure because they can't see you or talk to you when you're there.

It didn't make any sense, but it was all very serious for a long time. You even had to play seriously, and grownups would look at you very severely if you played too much or too happily.

That gray mood lifted slowly, perhaps never really completely. You learned that if you walked in a straight, quiet line, like the people following the wagon with the flattened flag pulled by the beautiful horses dressed in gleaming shrouds, you weren't punished, and sometimes were even rewarded. It is a lesson that, four and a half decades later, I still work regularly to unlearn.

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