That Sad Thanksgiving

I was just days shy of nine years old that Thanksgiving Day. Much later I read Melville’s line about the “damp, drizzly November in my soul,” but Thanksgiving’s almost always carved out a warm place in my heart. A long weekend. None of Christmas’ ups and downs. And as I’ve grown older, I’ve always been able to find family.

Back then, my older brothers and I usually spent Thanksgiving morning at the nearby schoolyard courts shooting baskets. Not that I ever had the coordination needed or the guts to throw my elbows around, but at least I could show my big brothers I could hit the hoop.

I can’t remember if we went to the schoolyard that Thanksgiving. I remember that six days before, when I was going back to school after lunch, I heard the president had been shot. Panicky, the other kids and I also heard that John-John was shot. And then it was Johnson was shot. And only then, John Connally, the Texas governor.

An hour or so later, we heard that President Kennedy was dead. One girl stood up clapping. Hurt made my mind go blank. I kept my mouth shut.

My brother was home sick, so after school I had to go to his sixth grade class and pick up his homework. He had the only man teacher at the school, and a few of the boys in his class were hanging around talking about whether Goldwater did it. They ignored me and kept me waiting, but even though I felt very small I thought they were idiots.

When I was finally walking home, I thought I had to not cry when I got there. I kept thinking, “I didn’t even know him. Why do I want to cry?” I think I already felt shame from the feelings men gave me.

When I got home, my brother screamed at me for smiling on a day like that. My father got home a little later and walked right over to the hi-fi. We had a Vaughn Meader record called “The First Family,” where he mostly made fun of the way Kennedy said “vigah” and “Cuber.” My dad cracked the album over his thigh.

On Sunday, when my parents were at the grocery store, my brothers and I watched Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald. After that, my dad took us bowling for my oldest brother’s birthday.

Later, when we watched the crowds file past the president’s coffin, my mom told me you could tell the Catholics because they were making the sign of the cross. She stood in front of the TV crying. We all cried when Jackie prompted John-John in a salute to his father at the end of it all.

On Thanksgiving, we knew President Johnson would go on TV to talk to the country. We knew we would watch it. It was after we ate.

I later learned that Johnson was a big talker and a colorful man. That day, he looked like a grandfather. His Texas drawl was soft and slow and his face was very tight. It seemed like we were supposed to feel better after he spoke, but it was still just sad. I really wanted to see Jackie, the beautiful lady behind the black veil a few days before. It would be years before we saw her again, and by then a lot of people had turned on her.

I don’t know if the whole country would watch the president on TV on Thanksgiving today. It’s probably something to think about. And it’s probably good to remember that on one sad Thanksgiving Day, we all did.