From the Night Factory
13. What Concerns Us
“I'm no good at being noble, but it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” – Rick Blaine
I was stopped by a student in the hallway leading out of the hospital, where I had been visiting. He asked if I would be willing to participate in a short interview for a school assignment. He assured me that it was only four questions and it wouldn’t take long. I had him answer my questions first. Mr L attended Pennsbury High School and this assignment was for his Modern American History class. I was agreeable and suggested rather than stand, we could sit in the lobby.
While the good student was taking copious notes, I did not at the time see the value in myself keeping notes. It did not occur to me until five minutes after it was over that this chance meeting would become the subject of my essay. It is now six hours later and the onus is on me if I have remembered the questions inexactly.
The first question was, do I remember the day President John F. Kennedy was shot? Indeed I do. That is, I remember the day, but not the date. I asked Mr L, wasn’t that 1964? He said he wasn’t supposed to tell me, but only to see if I knew the date. I was, in fact, off, the assassination was in 1963 – I checked as soon as I reached home. I told him I thought it was in November, but I couldn’t remember the day of the month.
I was having lunch in the cafetorium (a combination cafeteria and auditorium) at Carl Sandburg Junior High School, now called a middle school. While we were eating, some young boy shouted into the cafetorium, “Kennedy has been shot!” The large room went instantly silent. Hundreds of young minds were processing this news until, after some moments, someone began laughing, and then we all laughed believing it was a prank. We were too young, we were sheltered suburbanites, incredulous to the notion that we could be living in history. We thought we lived at the end of history. History was the past and could no longer touch us.
The second question was, do I remember any other events from that day? I did. I recalled going back to my next class, which was English, and finding our teacher was not there. It was very mysterious and we wondered if it was related to the news we had just heard. One of my classmates had seen our teacher in the hallway walking in the opposite direction crying uncontrollably. Another teacher eventually arrived and told us President Kennedy had indeed been shot and was probably dead. Also, our teacher was unable to go on teaching that day. We were to sit quietly and wait as there would be a decision and an announcement shortly. The announcement soon came over the PA system; President Kennedy was dead, and school was being let out early.
Normally, there would have been unrestrained joy to having only a half day of school, but there was no cheering. It all felt very strange and we were mystified. With my friends, I stepped out into a warm day that felt wrong, not as if we were being liberated from the trauma of secondary school tedium, but that we were entering a world uncomfortably unpredictable.
The third question was, why do you think Kennedy was killed? The question felt vague to me and I asked Mr L if he wanted to know if I subscribed to any of the conspiracy theories surrounding Kennedy’s assassination. I informed Mr L that I accepted the mainstream interpretation of a lone gunman. He asked me who the gunman was and I told him Lee Oswald. As to why Oswald shot Kennedy, we never found out; he was shot before he could be thoroughly interrogated. Who shot Oswald?, he asked. I could only recall the name Ruby, and wasn’t sure if it was a first name or a last name.
I went on to share with the young Mr L my views regarding conspiracy theories. The people who craft them are always looking for proof of their theories and making elaborate explanations for disregarding evidence against their theories. A good scientist is quite different, looking for ways to disprove a theory. Another thing, conspiracy theories grow to include immense numbers of co-conspirators, too many in number for such a secret to be expected to remain secret.
The final question, what other events in my life have as strongly affected me as the assassination of Kennedy? He suggested the destruction of the World Trade Center as another possibility. Yes, the World Trade Center affected me deeply. There had also been other assassinations and I reminded Mr L that after John F. Kennedy, there was Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. (To myself, I thought of John Lennon.) Mr L’s questions had had me privately pondering how I had been alive at such moments that for him were remote, to be imagined as he read about them in his textbook. For Mr L and his generation, they would be marked and represented by an entirely new set of tragic events.
As important as these events were to my life, I said to Mr L, one event overshadows all else. The most astounding event of my life was the moon landing, and I remembered that day too.
I was having dinner in a small restaurant, Toad Hall II, in New Hope, Pennsylvania, yet I was determined not to miss the first step onto the moon. To guarantee I wouldn’t miss it, but not skip out on my date, I had brought along to dinner a small portable Sony television with nine-inch screen. We sat at the bar so the television would not disturb the clientele in the cozy dining room. But when Neil Armstrong stepped off the Lunar Excursion Module and onto the surface of the moon, the restaurant’s clientele had all abandoned their tables and were gathered about me.
There are days of personal interest that were more important to me as an individual, but this was an outstanding moment not in just human history, but in the entire history of life on earth. It was on par with being witness to the first people to cross the Bering Strait (before it was a strait – “Beringia”) and entering the North American continent, or the first Cro-Magnons to step out of Africa and into Asia. I strongly believe the event of landing on the moon compares to the first life form to crawl out of the sea and onto land; or, perhaps landing on the moon was a unique and incomparable threshold.
The interviewed completed, Mr L politely thanked me for the time I was willing to take for his school assignment. We rose from our comfortable chairs and he went off in search of other interviewees. It was an odd thing that such questions would meet me in a hospital where I was dealing with very local and deeply personal concerns that are not likely to affect the outcome of any historical event, despite how deeply they affected me. How odd that Mr L should be searching the answers for these questions in a hospital rather than a mall.
I stepped outside into the cold and made my way west across the vast asphalt plain that is the hospital’s parking lot. Set into a navy blue sky was the sharp-edged crescent Moon, not far beneath it a brilliant Venus – so beautiful, it caused me to pause in my breathing.
Mr Bentzman will
continue to report here regularly about the events and
concerns of his life. If you've any comments or
suggestions, he would be pleased to hear from you.
Just published: Mr Bentzman's new collection of a
hundred essays from Snakeskin, Selected