Thursday, November 21, 2013

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Today is the 50th anniversary of the saddest day in American history, in modern memory. I never go with the crowd, but this is my story of that day . . . S.L.

I was just five years old.

My family lived in Palembang, Sumatra, which is the largest island in Indonesia. My dad was an engineer, building a urea processing plant. We were an ex-patriate family living in a compound full of other ex-patriate families.

I have written of my father's career here before and how I came to be raised in Southeast Asia. It was an upbringing I would trade for nothing. I lived a life like a character in a Conrad novel - before I had any idea who Conrad was, before I became a refugee from a Conrad novel.

I didn't understand much of the world at that time, but I understood that outside the chainlink fence that surrounded our compound was the jungle. I could see it. And in the jungle were guerrillas, which I understood were enemy soldiers, but I was confused because the word sounded like gorillas. Not that I knew what a gorilla was, either - we had no TV. All we had was the radio, and I listened to the news about the war with the guerrillas, which was taking place somewhere outside that compound fence. It was 1963 - the Year of Living Dangerously.

I knew about life and death, because we kept chickens, and every now and then Dad would chop the head off a chicken and we'd marvel at the way they'd run around without their heads, until they bled out and flopped down. And then it would be us kids job to pluck out all the feathers before Cook would fry it up.

I also knew about life and death because Dad would catch these huge rats in cage traps - that was the only way you could catch these creatures, they would laugh at a conventional rat trap. In the morning after he collected his traps, Dad would take them to the rain barrel, and we would watch, fascinated, as the poor rats went down. I will never forget the look in the rats eyes looking up, clinging to the uppermost edges of the trap's chicken wire, as Dad plunged them into the dark waters of the rain barrel. I swear If I live to be a thousand, I will never forget that look in the rats' eyes.

Life is hard. Life is for keeps. Life is a one-way trip. I learned that early on.

As far as I knew, everybody in that compound was American, they were all involved in my father's project and he worked for an American company. As a five year old in Southeast Asia, I knew very little of America. I had heard stories about America, what it was like. I had seen some Bugs Bunny cartoons at the Saturday night movies, at the community center, that was about it. But everybody knew who was President Kennedy.

He was good looking, with a good-sounding name and a unique square-shaped head. We had all seen pictures of him on the covers of Time and Life magazines. My mother showed me a picture of President Kennedy meeting the Prime Minister of Ireland, on the back of a book of Irish fairy tales - the first book I learned to read. For the record, the second book I learned to read was about the Norman Conquest.

Everybody loved President Kennedy. That was all I knew.

We lived in a small bungalow - the kind of place people lived in Southeast Asia in those days - but we had a nice back yard, with the servant's quarters and the chicken coop and a cement walkway my Dad had put in that featured a roundabout we boys would go around on our tricycles. We had a pet monkey, and some very nice Indonesian neighbors who took care of me once. They were my introduction to the Southeast Asian culture.

One morning, like any other morning, I got up and walked down the hallway to my Dad's study. Dad was drinking coffee and listening to his shortwave radio, like any other morning. Only this morning he was very solemn. In my memory, it was only he and I, although oddly, I know my other brothers were there. We sensed a sea change immediately. Something was very, very different.

"President Kennedy was shot. President Kennedy is dead," was all he said. If I live to be a thousand, I will never forget those words.

"Who killed him?" I asked.

"A crazy man. A man named Oswald." This of course meant nothing to me at the time.

"Who will be President now?"

"Mister Johnson."

To me this sounded like the end of History itself. Johnson? Johnson? There is nothing glamorous or unique about this name. It was explained to me later - I cannot recall who or where - Kennedy's wounds. How he'd been shot through that unique, square-shaped skull. Having already seen death and violence, I could well imagine this.

Later, I saw the pictures of the funeral procession in Life magazine, of John-John standing there, saluting his father's casket. My mother cried. I felt bad for John-John, he was the same age as my younger brother.

Later in life I became aware of the flaws this man had in his life, and the baggage he carried with him to the Whitehouse. Who cares? I say. Whatever he was, he was a veteran, he served his country in war, and he damn near died saving his crew of the ill-fated PT-109.

JFK (right) and the crew of the PT-109

Nobody can ever take that away from him.

My mother explained to me that he was the first Irish President of the United States, and that this was something worthy and significant in and of itself.

As young as I was, I remember it. Everything before that day was different, and everything afterward was never the same again.


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