After ten weeks in grade 4, I had figured out a pattern that made me popular or at least not unpopular. Being a teacher’s kid wasn’t as bad as a pastor’s kid but I was always viewed with a little suspicion. ” He might tell his mom.” ” Bobby is coming, don’t let him see it”. It made it difficult to be part of a group and impossible to get a girlfriend (whatever that meant). Patty and Diane, two very cute girls, didn’t reciprocate any of my clumsy advances but there were a couple of other boys who would run to the far corner of the playground with me and sit watching the girls giggle at us oogling them. Crossing the monkey bars, two hand holds at a time and shinnying up the swing standard had given me some credibility with Brian and Allan and instilled some awe in the grade 2 kids. For north end kids, all we had was name and reputation.
Life for kids was far more disorganized then, and way more fun. No teacher picked teams at recess for baseball or hit fly balls for Shag or explained the rules for freeze tag or fretted about boys being boys (or girls being boys). Life was simpler. You knew who liked you. You knew who you hoped would like you. You knew who didn’t like you and you shunned them just like they were avoiding you. Feelings got hurt all the time. Kids pushed each other and name called. Kids got knicks, and bled and bumps and bruises appeared and disappeared. Kids learned a lot.
November 1963 had been chilly, dipping to -20C ( 4 below on the old scale) and winter felt like it was edging in early. Well, maybe not early because my memory serves up many Halloweens with snow covering the lawns and eggs freezing on windows. Regardless, the weather hadn’t gotten frigid enough to confine the 200 kids in the basement at lunch and recess. That only happened when they were really afraid that one of us would get frostbite or stick our tongue to the bootscraper, on a dare. After all the teachers needed a coffee and a smoke in the teacher’s lounge and 15 minutes away from their charges. For Mr. Berg there wasn’t any respite. He had grade 5 kids asking inane questions, getting on his nerves, not listening to instructions and yawning in his classroom and then did supervision so his wife could get new curtains, or slipcovers, or dishes or something. “Every little bit helps”
At morning recess, he faced south leaning against the greying brick at the ready to pick up the pieces if a humpty dumpty incident happened, like when Harvey parachuted off the big swing and broke his left leg. Like the all the King’s men, he wasn’t responsible for stopping the carnage just repairing the damage and watching for true craziness and listening for potty mouths. He could hear Kevin say “shit” from 200 yards and knew that if Adele was moping by the back gate that she might be contemplating a runner. In September, Adele took off at morning recess heading east and Patty said: “ her parents found her in Winnipeg a week later.” I don’t know how a ten-year-old could travel 500 miles but that is what Patty said and we always listened when she was making pronouncements, beside the goal posts.
At lunch break, Mr. Berg faced east imagining something better. Maybe some excitement would jump in his lap tomorrow. “It is only November, I have 7 months until summer and two months away from this drudgery”. When he was in the noon position, he couldn’t see what was going on at the swings, teeters or climbing bars and was oblivious to the activities at the corner gate. Plots were hatched, nicknames were taunted, horseplay arose and I remember trying to hold Patty’s hand. Nobody swore, or thought about smoking or really hurting each other but the rules were different then.
By the afternoon recess, Mr. Berg had given up on another day and didn’t even come out of the covered entry. The principal always took an extra five minutes before ringing the bell and never did a sweep to see if he was earning the extra $2. If havoc and mayhem was going to break out, this was the time. For most of us, we had no real sense of time but it was obvious that freedom was on the horizon. Even in November, the sun was still promising something and our imaginations worked together to fill the hours between supper and street lights. We were powerless to change the cycle so we adapted to the rhythm.
November 23 started just like November 22. Harvey and I were first to the playground, just before 8:30, and staked the best spot in the grade 4 territory, on the pavement under the Kindergarten window. We bragged about yesterday and proudly prophesized about tomorrow, avoiding today. Four other boys joined us before the lineup bell rang and then the stragglers raced across the field from every direction. If we timed it perfectly, we could meander kicking stones and looking cool to arrive at the back door just as the second bell rang and the girls lined up. The daily dance started. It is hard to flirt and avoid being seen or seeing all at the same time. By now, we were pretty much in sync and our moves were choreographed like the Virginia Reel we practiced in the playroom. “Would today be the day that Mrs. Mattson actually paired me with someone other than Shirley – Squirrelly Shirley?”
I don’t recall what occurred at morning recess or in any of my classes which is weird because I did well in school and this would turn out to be one of the most important days of my life. Maybe I was foreshadowing the upcoming events or maybe the rush that was coming has erased pieces, to leave room for clarity and sharpness, in what was important and remarkable.
Lunch was the highlight, for me. I rushed home to grab a peanut butter sandwich and a glass of whole milk with a plan to meet back on the playground in 5 minutes to play a game of Aerial. Aerial was a local version of football where one kid, the quarterback picked up the ball off the dirt field and all the other kids on his team raced toward the goal posts. The quarterback had three or five elephants to select a receiver and heave the ball in his direction before the opposition madly chased him in an effort to tag him with two hands. Invariably, “ I got you on the back”, “ You only tagged with one hand”, “Missed me” rang from the playground as often as the ball was caught. The team with the ball had three chances to score( CFL rules) and then the other team took over and tried to move the football across the other goal line. A score of 21-14 was a good noon hour, especially if you scored one of the three touchdowns. You could be a minor celebrity for a couple hours. “Nice catch”, “ You really deked him out”, or “ I want to be on your team tomorrow” was the highest compliment.
For some reason, the television was on. It was never on at lunch. Maybe one of my sisters turned it on hoping to catch Flintstones but with only one channel you got what was delivered not what you wanted. A news program was playing and a serious man in a dark suit was saying something important. All the suits looked dark in black and white. “ President John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas, at Dealy Plaza at 12:30 Central Standard Time. “ How could he be shot at 12:30 when it is only 12:10?” was my first thought and then the serious man said “ Reports indicate that the wounds were fatal but the Whitehouse hasn’t confirmed this”. Shot, president, wounds, fatal… fatal meant dead didn’t it? There weren’t any pictures, just serious man. I imagined as hard as I could what the president looked like. I had seen glimpses of him on the news that was on every day before supper, when we all had to be deadly quiet if dad was watching. I conjured his image and a gunshot with blood spurting out like when I got clunked on the forehead with a rock hit off a broken bat. I couldn’t picture dead, I didn’t have a picture of shot dead except from the occasional Saturday movie at the Capitol Theatre. Then no one ever bled, they just fell down when it was their turn.
I was 9 years old, living in a different country but this was the most important thing that I had ever heard and there was no one to tell. My sisters had already headed back to school to sit by the playground and watch the big kids climb, swing and teeter. It felt like I was teetering. My heart and brain were racing. I remember touching my tongue to the roof of my mouth and it felt soft and sticky. I had stopped munching on the PB&J and was sitting with my mouth wide open staring at the first images of the car and the chaos. I didn’t see blood but in black and white not everything is clear. I don’t know how much time had passed but I eventually recovered and washed my mouth out with a big gulp of still cold milk. I picked up my sandwich and glass and took them to the sink. I wasn’t supposed to eat in the living room. There were rules that you never got caught breaking.
I knew who I could tell. There was one adult who I knew would be there. Mr. Berg would be standing guard in the schoolyard and he would know what to do with this information. I slammed the back door on my way out and took the three steps off the stairs in a leap. I raced back to school rehearsing the words, rethinking the words, reconsidering the words. As he got closer, he seemed so relaxed as if nothing had happened. “he didn’t know”. I was going to be the one to tell him, to share this important news. I had something he didn’t have. I knew and he didn’t. I slowed a bit to relish the moment of power but unfortunately, I didn’t have much restraint. From ten steps away I shouted, “ The President has been shot and I think he is dead.” All the kids in earshot turned and the sentinel swiveled in my direction. Everything went into slow motion and this was way before slow motion replay on every second play of the televised football game. The pace crept and sound lengthened so as to be almost unintelligible. Those final steps took what felt like minutes and I had become the center of attention for hundreds of kids. It was likely less than 20 kids, but when you have the spotlight it seems like more.
The moment was greater than scoring a touchdown and greater than what I had imagined kissing Patty would be like. I felt my head swoon and I started sweating and panting. I could taste steel in the back of my throat like when I fell off the roof of the school after retrieving a football. I couldn’t catch my breath.
“Stop, What did you say, young man?” ‘Young man’ was his phrase when you were in big trouble. It was like I had said “ shit, damn, piss”, he was glaring at me with crazy eyes like when Kevin pounded on Larry beside the pump outside the gate. “Why was he furious?” I was the messenger, not the shooter. My left arm felt his grasp and I was lifted into the air in one motion. “ You are coming with me. You are a liar. You can’t spread horrible rumors like that”. He shouted as loud as I had. “ Mr. Davidson will want TO DEAL WITH YOU”. Mr Davidson was the principal and grade 6 teacher. He didn’t come out on the playground unless a man arrived to do an inspection and then we all lined up alphabetically by grade so he could check out our hair, fingernails and for some reason the knees of our pants. What did he mean Mr. Davidson was going to deal with me? I had heard about the ‘strap’ but surely he meant I would get some kind of award.
We were charging up the back stairs and down the hall towards the teacher’s lounge. Before I could feel true foreboding, he opened the door and tossed me through it. I stumbled and fell forward onto a chair where the Kindergarten teacher was sitting. She looked as stunned as I must have looked. “ He is telling lies on the playground and scaring all the other kids”. And then the most shocking statement rose from Mr Berg. like a machine gun in a mobster movie, he rat-a-tat-tatted;“ He needs to be strapped for saying that the President, the president of the United States was shot and is dead. Make an example of him so he learns not to say things just to scare us, to scare the other kids”.
Now my audience was six teachers and Mr. Davidson and the venue was their territory, not the schoolyard where I knew every turn, every stone, every dip and rise. I was in their sanctuary, still not sure how or why I had arrived. My mom, who taught grade 2, must have been there but I don’t remember seeing her and we have never really talked about the incident.
But the teachers and Mr. Davidson weren’t looking at me, they were staring at Mr. Berg. I glanced up and his face was flushed, like he had just run around the schoolyard, his eyes were as big as the big red balls we threw at each other when he wasn’t watching and his nostrils were flared. I had only seen nostrils like that on the horse at grandma’s farm. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one shocked by the past five minutes.
There was silence, staring and then a sigh from the school nurse. Not the kind of sigh that says, this is good but the kind that says “oh no, what should I do?”. The principal broke the spell and stood up. As he approached, his eyes moved from me to my charge and back to me. “ What’s this about William?” I didn’t know who he was talking to but Mr. Berg started “ He came racing across the playground past the grade one and two kids shrieking that the President of the United States had been shot and was dead. I had to stop him so he didn’t really scare the little kids. You know how they are. What if what he said was true? We would all be doomed to the Russians coming over the north pole.”
The voice of authority regained composure and plainly asked “ Why would you say something like that?” Before I could respond Mr. Berg said “ He is a bad kid who will do anything to get attention. I saw him pretending to smoke just to impress a couple of girls.” I wasn’t a bad kid. I listened in class, got mostly As and Bs, didn’t swear when adults were around, didn’t tag hard in football… I wasn’t a bad kid. The voice continued ignoring the rantings saying “ who told you to say that?”
I collected myself, “ no one told me to say it, I saw it on TV and thought I should tell an adult and Mr Berg was the first one I thought of”. This time I could tell where the sigh came from, maybe from everyone. It was probably more of a gasp that sent one of the teachers to the radio on the counter. She either turned it up, I hadn’t noticed it being on or turned it on. I really hadn’t noticed anything in particular but now I saw the yellow-brown walls and thought of my last diarrhea and realized the room smelled like sweat, cigarettes, and maybe fear (not at all like the diarrhea).
As I started scanning the room, which was way smaller than I would have imagined, the radio announcer solemnly reported “ President John F. Kennedy is dead. He was shot in Dealy Plaza in Dallas while his motorcade was on parade. Vice President Johnson will be sworn in as President this afternoon”. Then almost as an afterthought “ Investigators are searching for the gunman or gunmen”.
The silence was different this time. Not driven by fear but rather a disbelief. Not the ‘you are lying disbelief’ but the kind that rises when you don’t want to believe. I felt Mr Berg’s hand leave my shoulder. I really hadn’t known it was there until it wasn’t. He sort of swayed sideways and fell to his knees. No one breathed as if we could reverse time if we didn’t move it forward. The room was choked and I felt responsible. It felt terrible and thrilling all at once. My knowledge, my words, my little voice had power.
“ Bobby, go back out to the playground” the principal whispered. As I made my way to the door I heard
“ What do we do? What do we do now?”
My only visit to the teacher’s lounge was over as the door closed behind me. The hallway was empty and seemed longer than a few minutes ago. I was on a rollercoaster as the floor pitched and the walls shook. I was at the stairs before I knew I was moving and through the east doors. The light was bright and my eyes dilated from the glare. The image ahead of me was fuzzy. It seemed all the kids were huddled in a semi-circle around the entrance. There was no one on the field, or on the swings or at the gate. They were all here waiting. They weren’t pushing. There wasn’t any swearing or name calling. My ears rang from the stillness. Still swaying from the hallway pitching, I hit a wall of anxiety and worry.
Harvey and Brian started it. The applause rippled through the circle. Even Patty and Diane were clapping. My only possible response was a smile, a crooked disbelieving smile. I told the group, who listened without interruption the news I had heard on the TV. The reaction wasn’t like the teachers or like what Mr. Berg anticipated. Like me, they didn’t know what to do with the information. There wasn’t enough information to think about the consequences. Slowly small groups drifted away back to regular lunch hour activities. I was famous for a day but the story of the teacher’s lounge got me an audience every time I told it until I went on to middle school.
We were all changed that day whether we knew it or not. Innocence evaporated for some, dread directed decisions for others. Our future changed and we can only imagine how another 5 years of Camelot might have played out. I learned that knowledge is power and even when you don’t completely understand it you can still wield the sword.