My grandfather Smith was born in 1867. One day in 1881, when he was fourteen, he was busting the sod of Kansas when his sister came running out to the lower forty to tell him the awful news: President Garfield had been shot. To Grandpa's dying day, which was in 1955, he had a vivid recollection of that moment, where he was standing, what he was doing, what he said, when the news of the calamity arrived. Things like that make permanent impressions.
[quoteright]This month, we will observe the twentieth anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy. Everybody will be recalling the circumstances in which he or she found themselves when they first heard the voice of Dan Rather from Dallas. Dinner conversation will probably be dominated by events of a score of years ago. Just to break the ice, I'd like to tell you about a couple of momentous events from my life and what I was doing when they happened.
In May of 1969, I was standing on the front steps of the duplex in Berkeley which I shared with a person named Gerard. Gerard and I were both watching a National Guard helicopter circling over the campus of the University of California, which had been the center, over the previous week, of the so-called People's Park disturbances.
Gerard mused, "I wonder what they intend to do with that helicopter?"
I had just finished a DoD-funded two-year study of the military mentality, so I felt that I had a clue to the answer. "That's easy," I replied. "They're going to use it to drop tear gas." "You're crazy," he said. "Why would anybody in his right mind do something as stupid as spraying tear gas all over a university campus?"
"That's even easier," I said. "Because they can't use napalm." He said that I was the crazy one, to think stupid thoughts like that. The next day, when he came back from campus, he had a rash, and his eyes were bloodshot and watery. For the next month, CS was dripping from the leaves of the trees in Sproul Plaza. He never forgave me for being right.
On the evening of 13 July, 1977, I was visiting my cousin Valerie and her family on Staten Island. Her husband Frank was there, as was Frank Senior, a.k.a. Himself, in accordance with the usage of Ireland, which is where Himself hails from. Himself was deep in his cups, as was his wont, and as was his wont, he was in a very opinionated frame of mind.
The weather was hot and muggy, and everybody was close to the end. Val hadn't turned on the air conditioning, because she is conservation-minded, and you have to be in extremis before she will waste precious energy on something as frivolous as comfort. Finally, as the family cat was going into convulsions on the living room floor, she relented and turned on the Lennox. Himself and I had been talking about the recent drought in California. All of California's weather had been shunted over to upstate New York by a bump in the jet stream. There was no rain or snow to speak of on the West Coast, and Buffalo was buried under 20-foot snowdrifts. Himself opined that what the Government should have done was to load all of the snow onto flat cars in New York, ship it out to California, and then dump it into Lake Shasta.
By coincidence, I had recently run across a working paper written by a minor bureaucrat in the Department of Energy, in which this same proposal was examined from the standpoint of fuel requirements. It seems the Government had actually considered Himself's scheme for correcting the waywardness of Nature. I told Himself that the bottom line in the DoE study was that reversing the transcontinental flow of wintertime weather for just one year would have taken the equivalent of the world's entire petroleum production for five years.
"Pooh," he said. "Faith, if we have enough energy to put a men on the moon, we have enough to move the snows of Buffalo to California." At the precise moment that he was uttering these words, a bolt of summer lightning struck Consolidated Edison's Indian Head Power Plant Number 2, melting a relay and setting off one of those domino-effect things that took five seconds to plunge all five boroughs and Westchester County, too, into blackness. I waited a few seconds more for the precariousness of the energy situation to soak into Himself's consciousness through all the Bushmill's that had preceded it. "I rest my case," I crowed.
Unfortunately, the effect of this once-in-a-lifetime retort was lost in the ensuing tumult. Little Deirdre howled in fear. Val was beside herself with self-blame; she was convinced that her air conditioner was to Con Ed as the straw was to the camel's back. Frank Jr. was fiddling with a battery-powered radio to find out what was going on. And Himself showed the presence of mind and command of the situation that would have done him proud on the promenade deck of the Titanic. He quickly gathered up all the potable substances from the now-defunct refrigerator and took them out into the back yard to cool in the kill that flows through it. In fact, the main reason I am telling you this story at all is that the one absolutely most trenchant comeback of my whole life, which also didn't occur to me two weeks after it would have been appropriate, was wasted at the time, and I feel that it should be preserved for posterity, although I have to admit to having had a little help from on high.
Let me conclude by telling you what I was doing when President Kennedy was assassinated. I was teaching a class at Berkeley, which was scheduled to end at noon. About thirty minutes before the hour, I noticed several people passing by outside with transistor radios glued to their ears. About twenty minutes to, the bells of the Campanile began to peal a dirge. I continued with the lesson plan until my watch said twelve. I was puzzled that the bells did not strike the hour.
I dismissed my class, and as they went out the door, I saw my friend Ralph standing there waiting for me. When the last student had gone, he came in and said to me, his face a mask of grief, "Gareth, somebody has shot the President."
"Don't be silly, Ralph," I replied. "Why on earth would anybody want to shoot Clark Kerr?"
That was before Ronald Reagan ran for Governor.
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