Friday, November 15, 2013

The Day He Died

Midwood High
            I’ve always had trouble with keys and locks, especially when there are so many choices and shapes on the ring. Why couldn’t they give me just the right one to open this unmarked utility closet on the third floor of Midwood High School? Shit, I thought, either the lock was stripped or the key was simply not functioning. I tracked down the custodian to see if he had an extra key. Ten minutes later I found the man, known to all as Mr. Nick because of his very long and complicated Greek last name.
            “Look, look, I show you how to open the door. You got to push it in real tight and then turn the key nice and easy, see? Simple.”
            I flicked on the light and proceeded to place 300 rounds of ammunition into a small brown steel case. I gathered up four rifles, made sure the bolts were out, and stuffed each one of them into its light canvas case. I knew those ten minutes I lost were going to cost me as the bell rang for the classes to change. I was already late. I was supposed to be in the coach’s office before 2:30. I was trying my best to fulfill my responsibilities as the cocaptain of the Midwood High School Rifle Team, but I seemed to be staggering my way through the day.
            That Friday morning had gotten off to a rough start. While we were eating breakfast I informed my mother that I’d be home late because we had a rifle match against Lincoln High School that didn’t start until 4:00. My mother was not fond of the idea of her son shooting rifles for sport. It was simply not on her socialist agenda. “Why,” she would constantly repeat, “why of all sports did you choose to be on the rifle team? Why not soccer or basketball? Since when does a fifteen-year-old shoot guns? It’s not even a sport.”
            I’d reply with my stock answer—“Mom, that’s what I can do well, that’s why.” My mother allowed me to stay on the team as long as I promised never to bring my gun into the house. I would then assure my mother that the coach always took all the guns back to the school after the match.
A number of the other students on the team owned their own guns. I was so envious of them. Tom Brown had a brand new Ruger 10/22 and he couldn’t even shoot straight. If only my folks would let me have my own rifle, we’d be the best team in the city.
I gathered up the rifles and the metal box of ammunition and headed for the stairs. There was always a great deal of noise during the changing of classes, as there were over 5,000 students in attendance in Midwood High School. As I took to the stairs I heard the usual jibes, such as “Hey man, don’t shoot, I’m a friend” or “Is that really a gun in there?” “Hey, come on man, take it out, let me see it.” 
Among those usual voices I kept hearing murmurs, quiet, yet audible murmers —“Dallas”— “Kennedy”—“hospital”— “in the head”—“he’s dead.”
            All these words seemed to run together and were somewhat indiscernible, but there was something unsettling going on. I could have sworn I heard the words assassination and president as well. It was as if the air was being poisoned with words. As I walked down the hall toward the office, two girls passed me arm in arm crying hysterically. I noticed my hand was beginning to shake as I approached the coach’s door on the first floor.
            Barney Cohen taught English and math, and he was also our default Rifle Team coach. He knew nothing about target shooting, but he was the only teacher nice enough to take on the job as coach of a bunch of fifteen- to seventeen-year-olds who wanted to shoot targets.
            I could feel something was wrong before he echoed those words that became ingrained in my mind at 2:45, November 22, 1963. “President Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas. They blew his head apart.” When the last words came out of his mouth it was as if someone had hit me over the head with a sledgehammer.
            My body descended into a large wooden chair, my mouth fell open, and my eyes stared at my feet. Our young, idealistic, and glamorous president with the beautiful wife and lovely children was gone in an instant. John Kennedy was the handsome man on the cover of Life magazine. A vibrant person who played touch football and had a welcoming smile.
            The other members of the team came wandering in and we all just gazed at each other with our mouths open. Barney interrupted the silence by informing us the match with Lincoln High was still on and we’d better be taking off.
            The five of us left Midwood High around 3:00 with our rifles strapped on our shoulders and soon crammed into Mr. Cohen’s station wagon. Bob (our captain) was the first to speak. “What if the Russians did it? You think it will lead to a nuclear war?”
            “No, man,” replied Andy. “I bet it was the Chinese. Those guys are out to get us, especially since the Korean War. Did any of you see that movie The Manchurian Candidate? Maybe it’s like in the movie—the Chinese scientists get this American guy and they brainwash him and he doesn’t even know he’s killing the president cause he’s just all screwed up, you know what I mean?” Our coach tried to calm us down by saying he wasn’t the first president to be assassinated. It didn’t work.
            Eddie Galente piped up and said, “Maybe it was Castro and the Cubans—they did it because of that whole Bay of Pigs thing, remember that, man? Remember that? It was a big failure and I bet they were so mad at him that they shot him, you know, they just wanted to get even.”
       We listened to the news for a while until the coach shut the radio off, turned around, and reminded us to start thinking about the match. We sat in silence for the rest of the trip, each of us far away in his own little reality trying to somehow comprehend what was happening.
            I loved target shooting. It taught me how to focus and it taught me the technique of breath control. The first thing you learn is to balance the rifle. Your left hand gently supports the barrel while the index finger of the right hand just barley touches the trigger. You then relax and breathe slowly through the nose. The shooter then gets a proper sight picture. The ball of the front sight centered horizontally and vertically in the Vee of the rear sight. As the air slowly escapes, body and mind meld together, and that’s when you softly squeeze off that shot, so slowly that the activation of the hammer comes as a surprise. There is no thinking, only concentration upon the breath. There’s just you, the rifle, and the target.
            During a match a person would shoot five rounds in four positions: prone, sitting, kneeling, and standing. The target was always 50 feet away. The center of the target was worth 10 points, thus a perfect score would be 200, and most of us were usually up in the 190s. Each person was allowed ten practice shots at the beginning to get sighted in. Meaning that one of our team members would watch the target through a telescope and after each of our preliminary shots would call out “high and to the right” or a “low, just a little low,” and we would adjust our site accordingly.
            Our problems that day began with the “sighting in,” as the teammate looking through the scope was so distracted that the differences between left and right and up and down were obliterated. I couldn’t get my breathing right, and as I focused in on the target I was distracted by all the guys in the back talking in rapid-fire sentences about the assassination. “Three shots, there were three shots.”—“Some other guy got hit too.”—“Dealey Plaza.”—“They blew him apart.”
 The match took place in a basement of a high school, so none of us knew what was going on following the assassination. An hour into the match Coach Barney left to make a phone call, and upon his return he informed us that he was leaving, as his wife wanted him home right away. Barney then informed us as he hurriedly put on his coat that we’d all be responsible for taking our rifles home along with the unspent ammunition. We reminded him of what had happened that day and how odd it would be to get on the subway with a weapon. “Ah, don’t worry boys, just put your guns in your cases. You’re not breaking the law.” As I was about to fire the last shot of the day, the lights went out. We waited a few minutes and then decided that it was over. We all felt that one shot from one shooter was simply not important. No one scored above 175 that day. We somehow won the match, but neither team really cared.
      Before I left the building I took the 200 or so rounds of unspent ammunition and stuffed them in my briefcase with my schoolbooks. I then placed my rifle into its canvas case and said my goodbyes to my teammates. Eddie Galente summed it all up when he addressed us all with the phrase “What’s going to happen now, shit, I mean, who’s going to be in charge?”
      We emerged into the street. Everything seemed calm; the world was still there. It was now 8:00 and I was still a long way from home. The subway ride would take at least an hour due because I would have to change trains twice. It started to rain as I descended the steps to the Independent train.
            There was a short line to buy tokens, and I tried my best to tuck my rifle case into the fold of my coat. I felt so conspicuous, I held the gun case near my body, and as I went through the turnstile I could feel the piece of metal on top of the gun barrel poking through the thin canvas case.

            While waiting for the train I realized that I never took the bolt out of my gun. The thought then occurred to me that the rifle might still be loaded. I began to wonder if somehow the bullet could discharge if I banged the case the wrong way. I tried to stay calm and I picked up a newspaper and held it out in front of me to shield most of the gun case. I felt relieved as the train pulled in. I quickly took a seat and tried to keep my head down.
            Two little punks were staring at me as soon as I entered the train. I tried not to make eye contact. They could sense there was something wrong and kept looking at me as they whispered and pointed back and forth. The tall one with the sock hat asked me what was in the case, to which I replied “a pool cue.”
            The short one with the scar on his cheek replied, “That isn’t a pool cue. I bet that’s a gun and I bet there’s some ammo in that bag you’re carrying. Hey man, you didn’t shoot the president did you?”
            The tall one then said, “Hey Joe, don’t get this asshole pissed off. He might take a shot at us.” They then stood to get off the train and each of them took a swipe at the top of my case. They missed, and as they bolted out the door the short one shouted, “Stay cool, man, stay cool.”
            I had to change from the IND line to the IRT line, and that meant getting off at Franklin Avenue. Franklin Avenue was in a rough neighborhood, and to make matters worse one could spend over a half hour on the platform waiting for the Flatbush Avenue IRT.
            As I exited the train I noticed how frigid the air had become. There didn’t seem to be anyone on the platform, and I began to wonder if some kind of national emergency had been declared and the trains had stopped running. “No,” I thought to myself, I had just walked off a train. But that was an IND train., What if the IRT was the first to shut down? If I had to leave the platform and make my way home on the streets, I would find myself in one of the roughest neighborhoods in the city. I was relieved to see a few people making their way down the steps to the platform. They must have just walked through the turnstiles on Franklin Avenue, which would mean the trains were running.
I sat down on the only available bench. An older man sat down next to me. He started speaking about the assassination, and he went on about how this was the beginning of the end of the world and unless we all turned to Jesus we would all die without redemption.
            He kept muttering, “that poor, poor man, what he ever do to anybody anyway? They killed that poor man because he was a Catholic, that’s what I think happened. He wasn’t some kind of Papist, really, you know what I mean?”
As he was ranting on, all I could think about was the possibility that my rifle was still loaded. I spotted a men’s room. I didn’t know anyone who ever used a men’s room in the subway. A toilet in a subway station is where junkies went to shoot up, or gang members were in there waiting for someone to mug or rob. I couldn’t worry about that as I simply had to check that bolt, and this would be my only opportunity until I got home.
I entered the bathroom, and there was a tall thin man sitting on the floor with a pint of booze in his hand. He looked pretty sick but he was wide awake. He nodded and said, “Hey son, don’t think about going in that stall, I got a little sick and you know it’s just sort of not right in there if you know what I mean. Go ahead and take a piss in the sink, I won’t watch.” I stood and stared at him and as I did he could pick up my state of confusion. “What’s in that case son, looks like a gun, is it a gun? You look like a nice kid, what you need to run around Brooklyn with a gun for?”
I had only one choice and that was to tell the truth. “OK, I’m on this rifle team, you know, we shoot targets. We had a match today and I think I left a bullet in my gun so don’t be afraid because I’m going to take this gun out of the case and remove the bullet, OK?”
            He smiled as he took another swig and replied, “You just do what you got to do as long as you point that thing away from me. You don’t look like the gun type to me son, you just don’t.”
I slipped my rifle out of my case, and as I removed the bolt I could see the end of the 22 long snug in the barrel of the gun. I removed the bullet, and I was so nervous the only thing I could think of was to drop it down the drain of the sink. I placed the rifle back in the case and as I did I could hear my train coming into the station. “Got to go now.”
As I was opening the door he said, “Maybe you should consider playing basketball.”
            I ran and jumped into the first car just before the door closed. There are six stops between Franklin Avenue and Flatbush Avenue, and as the train rolled on I counted each one. I had my case fairly well hidden. I could feel my heart slow down. There was just one old man on the train and he was asleep. The train was slowing down as it entered Flatbush Avenue, the last stop on the IRT. I flew out of the car as soon as the doors opened and walked the long subway corridor under the street to a lesser-known exit. I looked across Flatbush Avenue and there were at least four policemen at the main exit checking people as they came up the stairs. I had made the right decision. I walked up Campus Road and decided to go through the college as I thought it would be a safe shortcut.
            There were many students out, a number of whom were ranting on about how the military and big business were soon to take over the government and we’d all be slaves inside a fascist state. Camelot had fallen and the era we would one day title the “60s” had begun.
It was now raining harder and the moisture was blowing into my face as I quickly walked down Amersfort Place. No one noticed the rifle case around my shoulder. I arrived at my door, reached into my jeans, took out my house keys. They fell from my hand twice. I took a breath and composed myself. I unlocked the first door, fumbled a bit, and then unlocked the second door and slowly began to climb up the stairs to our home.
            I had one more hurdle and that was my mother. As I ascended the stairs I could hear the TV on. When I entered the living room, both my parents and my brother turned around. The sight of me standing there with a weapon in my hand was so incongruous that all three just stared in silence. My mother looked at my dad and then the ceiling as if she was seeking guidance from above, and turned to me and said, “Are you hungry?”
After I ate I joined my family in the living room for our silent reverie as we watched the news until midnight. The networks were constantly showing the photo of Johnson being sworn in aboard Air Force One. Jackie standing by his side in a state of living paralysis, still wearing her blood-stained pink Chanel suit. It was all so hard to comprehend.
Love Field November 22, 1963
            When my head finally hit the pillow, I envisioned a picture I had recently seen in Life magazine. The Kennedy's were in South America or some other exotic location by the sea. To honor the beautiful Jackie and her handsome Brahmin from Hyannis Port, young brown-skinned men were diving from an incredible height, head first into the sea. John and Jackie applauded. They were happy, and in the final photo one of the young men was giving them a stunning bunch of flowers. I could see the colors from the tropical plants reflected in their smiling faces. This was my last thought on that day, the day he died.

Neal Hellman
Felton, CA 95018