Chapter 57: November 22, 1963

Every person I’ve ever talked to who was alive on December 7, 1941 knew exactly where he or she was and what he or she was doing at the moment they heard the news about the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese fleet. The same came be said for our generation who lived through the Kennedy assassination.

Today celebrates the 49th anniversary of JFK’s assassination.

At 12:30 on a Friday afternoon while in military school, the nuns turned on all the TVs in our classrooms. The news spoke for itself. John Fitzgerald Kennedy, announced Walter Cronkite on CBS, was dead. No need to retell the details in this blog post because they are indelibly etched in our brains. What is of interest is where I was and what I was doing and what I did for the rest of the day.

JFK was special to most of us Italian Americans, not because he was one of us ethnically. He wasn’t. He was Irish. The only positive feelings the Saccos had about the Irish came from Gene and Pam, cousins in blood but brother and sister to me, Herbie, and Anthony. Pam and Gene were half Italian and half Irish. So, we respected the Irish half of their blood. Being half Italian and half Irish made them a mix of some bad shit. (That’s a compliment for those readers not from our neighborhood.)

So we Saccos, except for my Republican father, loved and admired JFK. And even the old man admired JKF after the Cuban missile crisis. Italian Americans loved him because of his faith. He was Roman Catholic like us, which made him an underdog like us. And after watching the movie PT 109, we realized he was a bad ass like us. My nonno, forced to vote for Nixon by my dad, still had a picture of JFK in his house.

After the announcement of his death, the nuns called our parents and asked them to pick us up a couple of hours earlier than normal that Friday afternoon. My dad arrived within an hour. We were mostly quiet, in shock, during our drive home in his truck.

He dropped me off at home because he still had a few deliveries to make as part of his business. I had homework to do, but I did it with Uncle Landy’s old 16-inch, black-and-white TV on. Speculation filled the air waves. Was it the Russians who had JFK killed? That was the dominant theme stuck in my 6th grade head. Were we going to war? Would the Russians nuke us as we had been warned about by the nuns in every civil defense drill? (In school we would hide under our desks in lieu of rushing to an air raid shelter, like our desks would protect us from Soviet ICBMs!)

Where could we hide at home? Herbie, Anthony, and Aunt Mary Ann were up stairs while me, my dad and Uncle Landy lived downstairs in the red-brick two flat owned by my nonno. We had no basement, only the abandoned lot next door with bushes and a huge oak tree to hide in. Basically, we were fucked if the Russians attacked.

Things calmed down when my dad returned home. He knew way more than I did and we watched the TV coverage throughout the evening and the weekend. Sunday evening I had to return to military school where we lived until the next Friday afternoon. The nuns kept us extra busy with military drill and homework to keep our minds off the assassination.

Today, November 22 has another special meaning for me. It is the birthday of my godson, Michael Adler. Michael turned 21 today in Houghton, Michigan, 400 miles north of Chicago. He filled me in on classes at Michigan Tech where I taught for 8 years. He’s planning to intern in Leipzig, Germany next summer with a group of researchers. I am so proud of him and his many talents as a student, classical musician, researcher and human being.

Michael revealed to me a few months ago where my bronzed plaque in honor of my 1988 Distinguished Teaching Award is now located. It’s beautiful with a head shot of me with a lot more hair than I have now. I look both distinguished and bad assed at the same time. The bronze plaque would have looked so much better in my house so I must admit I was tempted to ask Michael to steal it for me. But, I didn’t. I have to set a good example as his cumpari.

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About growingupcalabrese

Professor of French and Italian at San Diego State University
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