By George Latimer
When I think back across the years, as I reach my 60th birthday, the memory of my 10th birthday remains the one I remember most.
It was a crisp, cool fall day and, while it was a school day, it was a Friday. For an elementary school kid, Fridays are all about anticipating the weekend ahead. Better still, we were a week short of Thanksgiving meaning that, after the weekend ahead, we would endure only a short school week and then enjoy the four-day holiday weekend to come after that. This was a sure recipe for fidgety, distracted kids in the classroom that Friday. Plus, it was my birthday—my 10th birthday—and I knew I had reached a milestone. It was my day.
I lived on the south side of Mt. Vernon and, in that neighborhood, there were no catered birthday parties for kids at a local club or a fancy facility. However, my mother promised me I could invite a few friends over during lunchtime and she would have a birthday cake and a midday celebration of my accomplishment.
I attended Grimes Elementary School, about four blocks away from our home, and going home for lunch in those days was standard procedure. I got back home a little after noon with five friends—and my second grade sister, who I walked with to and from school every day—and, being a Friday, and being Catholic, the menu consisted of tuna fish sandwiches. We wolfed them down as you might expect from little boys, and proceeded to the birthday cake. The 10 candles, the singing of “Happy Birthday” to me and the cake, with chocolate frosting—my favorite flavor in that day—got us all sugared up and giddy. We trudged back to school for our 1 p.m. return, and I couldn’t have been happier.
That afternoon had about 2 hours and 15 minutes left before we were free for the weekend, so it was with great anticipation we settled into class, with the task of quietly reading our Weekly Reader for a discussion to follow. My teacher, Ms. Lipsius, left the classroom and it seemed, as I looked up at the clock for rather a long time. I just assumed she was talking with another teacher in the hallway.
She came back into the class with tears running down her face. She could barely speak, and the class as a whole was shocked. Teachers were authority figures; always in control. We never saw one cry in class.
She told us that, at that hour, a little after 2 p.m., President Kennedy had been shot and killed. None of us could understand it or even believe it at first; we started to cry.
In the chaos, my classroom friends and I chattered without making any sense. Things happened quickly. School was being dismissed, announcements came over the loud speaker confirming the tragedy and giving us instructions ending the school day. There were no cell phones to call home and my mother didn’t drive, so she wouldn’t be there to pick us up. I picked up my sister, who was crying and scared; I played the role of brave big brother and walked her back home.
Awaiting us there was non-stop television for the next four days; the horror of seeing and understanding what had happened in Dallas. Kids who wanted to play and laugh were faced with trying to grasp how this handsome man who was young and was our president—and, in my case, shared my family’s religion, our political affiliation and our ethnic heritage—could be murdered in front of everybody. One of the dominant thoughts for me that day, with all the sense of a 10 year old’s priorities, was an anguished cry to my parents: “Why did it happen on my birthday?”
I have had many other birthdays. I remember a wonderful dinner on my 30th birthday in a restaurant in Alexandria, Va., when I worked and lived in that area. I remember my 40th birthday came while participating in a regular meeting of the Westchester County Board of Legislators. On my 50th birthday, I addressed a group of Mamaroneck High School seniors in their model Congress. The years do fly by.
Twice in my life, on business trips, I have visited Dealey Plaza and, with my own eyes, looked at the iconic red-brown Texas School Book Depository, imagined the motorcade coming down Main Street and turning on Elm Street, as I have seen it happen 10,000 times on television.
And television usually reminds me, with documentaries and special programs, of my 10th birthday whenever the calendar rolls around toward Nov. 22. Especially in those years—1973, 1983, 1993, 2003 and 2013—when the anniversary of the assassination reaches a round number and, of course, I too reach a round number of years.
I share my birthday, Nov. 22, with Hoagy Carmichael, Billie Jean King, Robert Vaughn, Boris Becker, Jamie Lee Curtis and Scarlett Johansson. But mostly, I share my birthday with the sights and sounds of that day in Dallas. When the leaves turn, begin to fall, the air is brisk and the sun sets low and early, when I prepare for another birthday, I remember it all again—the tuna fish sandwiches, the cake, Ms. Lipsius crying. My 10th birthday, forever frozen in time.
George Latimer is a New York State senator, resident of the City of Rye and, on occasion, a contributor to The Harrison Review.