November 22, 1963

Football season was done. I think it might have been the first Friday without a football game. But it was Friday, so we had to do something. We planned on going to the Vine to see West Side Story. Back then, it took a few years for “big” movies to get to Livermore.

The bell hadn’t rung yet to mark the start of fourth period. Kids were still straggling in to Mr. Fraser’s fourth period Freshman English class. I had just taken my seat when Mr. Snodgrass and Mr. Weiss rushed in, pulled a radio from the closet in the back of the room, then just as quickly left the room. I remember thinking it seemed strange. They looked so grim.

By the time the bell rang, we knew. We heard. President Kennedy had been shot. Mr. Fraser led us in a discussion. We talked about politics, who was Democrat and who was Republican. He managed our bewilderment, kept it light, told us he was a Republican, then said we should use the remaining time to read our assigned book—Great Expectations.

Pete Prassinos, he of the beautiful deep dark brown eyes framed with long dark eyelashes, asked if he could go to his locker to get his book. Across the hall, Mr. Satterthwaite had the radio on, the scratchy sounds of the newsfeed barely audible. Pete returned with his book.

“He was shot in the head,” he said pointing to his temple.

Moments later, we heard the news bulletin clearly. The president was dead.

“Well, that’s it,” Mr. Fraser said and turned away from us.

“President Kennedy has been killed,” the voice over the public address system announced. “School is dismissed.”

The boys in the back row jumped up and cheered. Not because Kennedy was dead, but because school was dismissed. They were teenage boys who didn’t know how else to react.

“Hey!” Mr. Fraser boomed. He was barely five foot two, but his glorious voice drove the hulking members of the football team in the back row into their seats. “A man is dead! The president is dead. We need to respect that.”

And with that, he dismissed our class.

There were other things that remain vivid in my mind from that weekend:

My mother cleaning house wearing the skirt and blouse and heels she had been wearing when she was at the store and heard the news. My mother hated housecleaning and never—never—before or after that Friday wore heals and a dress to clean the house.

My father, the next day, threatening to break the Vaughn Meader record that lightly satirized Kennedy. My dad was an Irish Catholic. That was a big thing to him: an Irish Catholic as president.

Seeing Oswald shot on Sunday morning.

Going to see West Side Story on Sunday afternoon with Mary Ann Kriletich, Kathy Smith, and Kathy Keene. Weeping as we walked home, comparing Jackie to Maria, remembering that Jackie had lost a child just months before.

On Monday, the riderless horse, boots placed backwards into the stirrups, preceding the coffin as it made its way to Arlington. I had seen the same image in the previous week’s Life magazine, an illustration that accompanied an article about the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand—perhaps because Barbara Tuchman’s book, The Guns of August, had influenced Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

We returned to school on Tuesday. It was a two-day week. Thanksgiving was on Thursday.

The Beatle’s arrival in February of 1964 took the focus off of Kennedy’s death. Or at least, that’s my memory. The trauma of the assassination of a president receded, seemed a mistake, something that still couldn’t happen here.

Over next five years, civil rights workers were murdered, fire hoses and dogs let loose on peaceful marchers, cities rioted. The war in Vietnam escalated, driving a wedge between generations—those who fought the “Good War” and those who questioned why we were at war.

By the time Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were killed five years later, we came to believe that assassinations were part of the American landscape.

I had Mr. Fraser again in my senior year for English Honors. That was his last year teaching high school. He had been accepted into the Master’s program at San Francisco State College (later University); I was heading there, too. I saw him once in the Humanities Literature and Language building, drinking from the water fountain.

I later learned that he did not make it through even the first semester. Academia, he quickly learned was not the place for him. He left for New York where for years he made a living doing voiceovers and acting bit parts in soap operas.

In 1996, on a trip to New York, Tom and I reconnected with Mr. Fraser. He had been Tom’s teacher as well. By that time we called him Bert. I thanked him for how he took care of us, my fourth period English class, the day Kennedy was killed. “You gave us a safety net in a very confusing moment,” I said. “And you showed us how important and sad that moment was.”

We agreed to keep in touch. We invited him to our wedding that September, but he was unable to attend. Sometime soon after that, a heart attack took him.

Mr. Fraser introduced me to William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize speech in English Honors. I had to write a paper showing how the convict in “The Old Man” exemplified the sentiments of his speech. I don’t remember my paper. It’s been too long since I read the short story to be able to tell you how it exemplified his sentiment.

But Faulkner’s speech has stayed with me over the years. I go back and read it from time to time. With each reading, it resonates more deeply with me.

Innocence and experience. Experience does not necessarily lead to cynicism. It can, if we are willing to go deep enough, lead us to a deeper understanding of what it means to be human, how to wend our way through sad times. I was fortunate, that on that awful day, November 22, 1963, I had Mr. Fraser as my guide.

From Faulkner’s speech:

“I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.”

Weaving Our Fate

DSCN0251By acting on our creative opportunities, we take our fate back into our own hands. Such is the meaning of the Spider (High Priestess) card in the Animal Wise Tarot deck.

Fate. I usually resist that concept. One is fated for something. Has no choice in the matter.

Acting on creative opportunities to take fate back into my own hands puts a different slant on it.

Michelangelo said that he saw the statue when he picked out marble from the quarry. Then he would get to work releasing it from the marble.

My journey for a good many years was to find the innocence lost in my childhood—to restore it. I entered innocently into friendships, partnerships, jobs, with the assumption that my best interest was central to any agreements that formed the basis of the relationships. That is, I thought that my best interest was at the heart of the other party’s motivations.

I was stuck in the helplessness of childhood. That brand of innocence is actually a bit on the narcissistic side.

I don’t know when the light bulb lit up over my head. It has been there for a while, that light bulb, waiting for the switch to be flipped. I’m not even sure what made me flip the switch. But it was a revelation:

I didn’t need to restore my innocence. I needed to embrace experience.

Experience, not guilt, is the flip side of innocence.

Each one of us is living a story. It might be truly ours, or it might be one we think we are supposed to be living—one given us with such dogma that we think we have no choice but to live it. I think our job is to chip away at the dogma, much as Michelangelo chipped away at the marble slab, so we can release the story we are, not the one we think we are supposed to be. And our story comprises our experience.

My early experience showed me that there is darkness as well as light in the human heart. Maturity has allowed me to see that the darkness of another’s heart wasn’t and isn’t about me, but rather experience stuck in the darkness of shame, humiliation, and refusal to let go of innocence.

Maybe that’s the villain in us—refusing experience, holding onto innocence. The hero in us embraces experience as life, our life, and weaves it into our story.

My fate is my story. The story that is my life, comprising innocence and experience, light and dark, joy and sorrow.

We each have our own life story.