Tuesday, December 03, 2013

All History Is Local

 I'd been thinking about events and place, about how much happened in the downtown area of Greensburg, PA in my life, my family's and in history.  Did Stephen Foster and Andrew Carnegie meet, just where I used to sit as a boy watching for trains coming through the station?  I was trying to piece together bits of local history I incompletely remembered, and asked my sisters if a history of Greensburg I'd used for writing The Malling of America was still around.

It couldn't be found but my sister Kathy found another one for sale through Amazon, which came from Oregon with a note from the sellers about how much they enjoyed visiting Arcata, where I live now.  So there's a thread.

I've been reading this history of Greensburg, written in 1999, as the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy passed.  I noted one strange thing: though local response to the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968 was noted, and there was a passing mention of RFK's assassination that year, there was not a word about JFK's assassination.  That's hard to figure.  Like most places in America, it was a major event: that dark Friday, then the ceremonies in Washington, culminating in the funeral on that Monday in November 1963.

I've recorded on some of my other sites my recollections of that Friday: hearing that the President had been shot from Father Sheridan's voice over the high school p.a., going outside to gym class--I think we ran 50 yard dashes--and almost forgetting about it, until I was showered and dressed and walking up the narrow steps from the locker room as the next class of boys was walking down.  From one of them I learned that President Kennedy was dead.

I walked home with three friends, including my debate partner who normally would have taken the school bus eight miles home but we'd arranged to work on our debate cases that evening.  We tried for awhile but wound up talking about the assassination and what it might mean for the future.

For the next several days I was in front of the TV. All regular programs on the three networks were cancelled for four days and nights. Apart from the news about Lee Harvey Oswald, the new President, etc. there was the arrival of the President's body in Washington, the lying in state in the White House on Saturday, the public viewing in the Capitol rotunda that drew a constant line of citizens on Sunday, the funeral procession through the streets of Washington and the funeral on Monday.  While my family was at church on Sunday I stayed home to watch, and saw the live pictures of Oswald being taken through the Dallas police station.  At one point I jumped--I saw what I thought was a gun.  But it turned out to be a hand-held microphone.  A moment later I heard the shots, and saw Oswald killed.

The only time I recall leaving the house and the TV was probably on Saturday, when I went with my father to Main Street in Greensburg,  He was the manager of the Singer Store and I helped him decorate the storefront window with black crepe and a photo.  It was one of mine. I had the official presidential portrait framed, and a larger poster of President and Mrs. Kennedy.  We probably used the portrait.

All the stores on Main Street took down their normal window displays and put up a commemorative display.  My recollection is that no retail stores there were open at all that weekend, or probably even on Monday.  It was very quiet.  I remember some snow--I wonder if that memory is accurate.

Later I learned that students from my high school chartered a bus and went to Washington to walk through the rotunda to pass the casket.  It never occurred to me to do that.  I was very sensitive about what I thought was appropriate, at least for me.  I wanted to honor his life.

Still, I watched it all.  The funeral procession made the greatest impression--the caisson, the rebellious riderless black horse, the Kennedy family.  The funeral was at St. Mathews in Georgetown.  I was in Washington for JFK's inaugural and knew that when he was a senator he went to St. Mathews so I got the relatives I was visiting to take me there for Mass that Sunday.  As we were leaving we saw the cordons and the Secret Service, so we turned around and went back in.  After our second Mass of the morning, as JFK strode down the side aisle he shook hands with as many people as he could, and one of them was me.  It took a particular effort, he was reaching back a little.  I was astonished of course.  Now his funeral was in that same church, those few years later.

Somewhere in storage here I have items relating to that week.  The Four Days pictorial book.  A reply to my letter joining with thousands of others requesting that the new national arts center be named the Kennedy Center.  The embossed reply from Jacqueline Kennedy to letters of condolence she received (some of them now in a book published this year.)

But one memento I know I don't have. The next week my high school, Greensburg Central Catholic, organized its own memorial assembly.  As a known Kennedy aficionado I was asked to participate by writing something and delivering it from the stage, as several other students would.  I felt strongly at that moment that I didn't want to talk about my thoughts, but I would select and read excerpts from JFK speeches and writings.  The nun who asked me got testy and refused.

I was permitted to briefly play a few lines from JFK's Inaugural Address which my father had taped in front of the TV on his reel-to-reel while I was there in Washington. I played it on the same tape recorder at the beginning of the assembly, hunkering down backstage unseen.  Then my part was finished and I watched the rest of it from the audience. They had also asked to borrow my large poster of President and Mrs. Kennedy which was ultimately used as the centerpiece, affixed to the back curtain during the ceremony.  I believe there is a photo in my senior year high school yearbook of that stage with the poster in it.

My instinct about the event was justified as I recall one of my classmates sobbing from the stage about little John-John.  It was not a display JFK would have approved.

When the ceremony was over I had to ask for my poster back, but the nun in charge claimed not to have any idea what happened to it. She seemed completely unconcerned and no attempt was made to find it.  I never saw it again. And even today I've never seen that particular image again.

 Eventually I did write something for the school newspaper, which I reproduced recently here.

I may have Greensburg newspaper front pages from that weekend somewhere.  I find now that while the TV images and photos were universal, and many live on in cyberspace (at least for the moment), I look to a more local context to frame my memories.  This particular history of the city doesn't provide it.