Remembering ’63

NOTE: This was written originally in 1993

  Just the other day, I noticed it again. “It” being a framed, faded color photograph of me taken New Year’s Day, 1963. I am seated at the piano in the living room of the rowhouse at 3056 North Tenth Street in which I was raised. From time to time it catches my eye, maybe because the pose is apropos considering I am a professional musician or maybe because I am wearing what was, at the time, my favorite suit. Looking at it I remember it was the first holiday season we had an artificial Christmas tree – a silver aluminum one I didn’t particularly like standing in a different corner ot the room where trees of Christmases past had always stood – and the last one we spent in that house. The picture has always given me a strange, uneasy feeling and now, thirty years later I know why. There is the prerequisite smile, though really only a slight upturned slit across my face. But now, directly in the eyes of the head-turned-over-the -shoulder glance, I finally see what the camera captured. I am suddenly able to read the thoughts those introverted eyes reflect and I understand what it is about the picture that has always caused that uneasiness. It is a lasting reminder of change.

In addition to the piano inside, I played halfball and boxball on cobblestone, trolley tracked streets in that section of inner city Philadelphia. When the cobbles and track were blacktopped over, I excelled at a game played on the smooth, new surface, called “bottlecaps”.  A “board” was drawn in the middle of the street with chalk or a broken brick and the game involved flicking a bottlecap with your thumb and middle finger so it could skim into numbered spaces, progressing until you reached the “dead” zone. You could then eliminate your opponents by hitting their bottlecaps with yours to win.

On October 7th of ‘63, just two months past my thirteenth birthday, my family moved to Bustleton in the Far, but relatively sparsely populated, Northeast. No longer could I search for empty soda bottles to return to Lou’s corner candy store in order to trade the two-cent deposit they brought for some penny candy. “Shopping Centers” had taken the place of such securely neighborhoodish establishments. For the first time in my life I saw deer and wondered just where in the hell had we moved. A wilderness, I decided, and so began my period of adjustment.

I also began George Washington High School, where I was the “new admit” in all my classes. Since I was starting that school a month late, I was on my own – finding the cafeteria when I wanted the gym – and generally getting continually lost, arriving late for most classes the first few days. For a kid from Simon Muhr Public School, built in 1899, a brand-new, year old twentieth century facility seemed an impossible obstacle to overcome.

Slowly I made new friends in the newly-developed area in which we now lived. The kids were from such places as Levittown and Cheltenham but they may well have been from Mars. They had little in common with my background and I little with theirs. They called water-ices “snow cones” and I remembered being laughed at because I once referred to my living room as “the parlour”. And nobody had even heard of “bottlecaps”.

On Friday afternoons my eighth grade, seventh period English class took its weekly spelling test. I remember finishing the exam one particular Friday, then looking up from my desk to find our teacher nowhere in sight. I remember wondering why he had left the class unattended during a test. A moment later he appeared in the doorway, half in and half out of the classroom.

“President Kennedy’s been shot,” he said calmly but with a tone of masked disbelief in his voice. The bell rang to change classes almost simultaneously as shock and bewilderment overtook the class. By the time I reached my History class – only a couple of seconds, actually – an announcement came over the school’s intercom asking everyone to stand. President Kennedy, we were told, had died. I remember a girl to my right named Miriam crying, her tears flowing in endless streams down her face. Then we were dismissed.

It rained in Philadelphia the Monday John F. Kennedy was laid to rest. Later that afternoon I was hanging out with Stuart, one of my new friends. We took to our bikes and we rode through the steady, endless drizzle streaming from the sky, like Miriam’s tears in History class. I remember saying to Stuart that it seemed even heaven was crying.

The assassination of the President was the cruelest of all changes ‘63 brought. Barely six weeks into my new home, new school and budding relationships with new friends , a new President was in office and those senseless moments in Dallas had plunged us all into a collective period of adjustment, adding incomprehensible craziness to all that was still foreign to me.

Copyright 1993

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