Over the years, people always asked what was my favorite place of all the towns, villages, bases and barracks I’d lived in. My favorite place was the very next place we found ourselves in. That would be North East Maryland, a quaint and lovely little town at the northern tip of the Chesapeake Bay. We lived in a large baby blue two-story foursquare house on Mechanics Valley Road. I was seven years old and going into second grade at the Immaculate Conception Elementary School in Elkton. We would be in North East for two mostly wonderful years, from my point of view anyway. There was a lot to remember there…
The hours seemed like forever when I was alone, it was the same thing with distance when you’re a little kid. What seemed like a mile was in fact, only a few blocks away. I was astonishment to discover that on a trip back there thirty-four years later with my sister Paula and my brother John. We pulled up in front of our old house and got out to stare in awe at this far away place in our past and snapped photos. I’ve carried a thick scrapbook of snapshot memories of this place throughout my life.
It was the fall of 1962 when we moved into the blue house. It was the biggest house we lived in up to this point. There were three bedrooms. My parents and my baby brother John had the one room, my three sisters were crammed into one room and as it would be for many houses ahead, Joe and I shared the other. My dad was still a Lieutenant J.G. and worked ten minutes away at the base in Bainbridge, atop a hill that overlooked the last mile of the Susquehanna River as it flowed into the Chesapeake.
Behind our house sat a huge garage and beside it a trail that led forever into the deep woods. God, I loved those woods. Coming from the rolling grass hills of California, I was familiar with small groves of oak trees that grew along the creek beds and the tall gummy Eucalyptus trees that lined the roads outside the village. They gave off a sweet pungent smell that wafted through the hot air when the wind was right. The Maryland woods were vast and filled with thousands, millions of trees, tall and majestic; and for me, a new universe waiting to be explored.
My eyes opened to a bigger world. I became attentive to what was happening around me, to my family, friends, and four lads from Liverpool, even the President of the United States.
The Mechanics Valley Road I knew, was a string of maybe six or seven houses that lined the street. As you went down the street each house had a bigger yard between it and the next. Half way down the street Indian Road branched off to the left into a cul-de-sac of three or four houses on Falls Road where two friends of my brother and I lived. Timmy and Tommy Taylor lived in a rancher surrounded by trees and had a beautiful view of a wide creek that flowed behind the house. They were twins; both were Village of the Damned-blond and sported the popular buzz-cut that would soon be obsolete. I have a picture of us, my brother Joe and I and the Taylor boys standing four across, our hands cupped together in prayerful pose in front of a white statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Timmy, or was it Tommy, looked shorter than his brother and had a rounder shaped head.
Returning to Mechanics Valley Road … just across from Indian Road were the friends of my parents and their bridge partners, the Smiths. They conveniently had two daughters and a house full of cats and became a second home to my sisters who always went there to play. My brother Joe and I were too big to play anymore and only had to say we’re going down to so-and-so’s house and it was left at that.
Continuing up Mechanics Valley Road there were two more houses and a small cement bridge over the creek. Two of my friends lived on either side of the bridge. Elizabeth Brown, a tiny dark-haired girl with sad eyes lived on the south side of the bridge. The Browns had a small farmette and a large barn beside a small field cut into the woods. On the other side of the bridge, another eighty yards up, a small brick colonial perched on a hill at the top of a long gravel driveway. My best friend, Wayne Dean, lived there. Wayne was a tall lanky brown-eyed kid with long arms with the usual close-cropped hair. He had black hair, dark olive skin and a big toothy smile bracketed by a pair of deep dimples. Both he and Elizabeth were in my second grade class.
I still have that class photo of us posing in gawky innocence, shoulder to shoulder stacked three rows deep in front of a freshly washed chalkboard framed with hand cut paper leaves in a variety of fall colors. In the middle front, the only black kid in our class, a boy wearing bottle thick black-framed glasses, is holding up a placard with our school name, teacher’s name and the room number. Wayne was one of the taller kids standing in the back row. Elizabeth was in the second row doing her best to look happy. (It makes me want to cry.) I’m sitting like an Indian brave, cross-legged in the front row, all the way on the right, directly in front of our teacher, Mrs. Cooper, with her black bouffant hairdo and cat-eye glasses.
Because there were so many of us, our driveway became another bus stop on the route to school. It wasn’t a long ride to Immaculate Conception School, maybe fifteen minutes, even with all the stops along the way. Wayne and I usually sat together and made farting sounds, much to the amusement of those within earshot and we gulped air to expel explosive belches. We were talented in the manly arts. I have to say I still have a good chuckle at a good fart or burp. I can’t help it.
After lessons in Mrs. Cooper’s class, we went to our afternoon religion class. We were in the middle of instruction on the reverent sacraments of Baptism, Reconciliation and Holy Eucharist-preparing for our upcoming First Holy Communion Day when it happened. Out of the blue, or rather, into the blue, there was a definite and unexpected bleat when the Sister bent over to pick up a piece of chalk. We all heard it. A chain reaction of smothered giggles broke out. The Nun was so flustered she lost her train of thought and dropped the chalk again.
Oh my God! It was another one, muffled somewhat in the layers of robe. She made a feeble coughing sound for cover, but it was too late. She looked behind her with a Medusa-like glare as though something or someone else was responsible for the deed. We were stone quiet as books and papers were raised to hide our faces. Apparently there were some atmospheric consequences because she thoughtfully rolled open a window before continuing her lesson from that side of the room as though nothing happened at all.
That was funny.
Sister Mary Flatulence was a big woman stuffed tight as a sausage into her black and white habit. The only flesh you could see was her puffy pink face framed in starched white cloth from her chin to her forehead and the thick bulging hands at the end of her long flared sleeves. She wore a wedding ring on her left hand because she was married to Jesus. Her whole head was wrapped tight, including her ears. But her hearing was surprisingly sharp, considering, and she could pick up a whisper from across the room or the sound of gum being chewed, which wasn’t allowed. On her right side, heavy Rosary beads dangled from her waist and made a clicking sound as she walked suspiciously between the aisles looking for cheaters. She was one of those strict Nuns who would remind you of the years you’d be spending in Purgatory… if you didn’t shape up. Purgatory is a weigh station for atonement before they let you in the pearly gates.
You didn’t want to cross her because she would pull out a ruler from a side pocket lickety-split and smack it hard across your knuckles. If she missed she made you hold your hands out and got you real good. My knuckles were worked over a few times that year. I remember her bulging eyes and the satisfied smirk on her face. She enjoyed it all right. She was also a pincher and would painfully jerk you up by your ear and make you stand in the corner or out in the hallway depending on the transgression. Then you had to deal with the Mother Superior who drifted through the hallway like a black wraith looking for souls to suck out. She wasn’t happy to find out there were troublemakers disrupting her classes. At least she wasn’t a pincher, an ear puller, a farter, or carried a ruler. But the Mother doled out punishments in her own way. She carried a pocket full of plastic white (girls) rosary beads strung on cheap string and pull one out to dangle it in front of your face. Your punishment was to pray the rosary for your sinful soul and make sure you include the Fatima prayer. (“O my Jesus/ forgive us our sins/ save us from the fires of hell/ lead all souls to Heaven/ especially those in most need of Thy mercy. Amen.”)
I knew the prayers of the Rosary by heart (except for the Hail Holy Queen part at the end) and was always sincere as I mumbled through the meditative mantra of the beads. You begin with the Apostles Creed, followed by one Our Father, three Hail Marys, a Glory Be, and the Fatima Prayers. Next, come five mysteries, each consisting of one Our Father, ten Hail Marys, a Glory Be, and, if desired, the Fatima Prayers again. You’d finish with the Hail Holy Queen if you knew it. I never thought then, and still don’t, that prayer qualified as a punishment.
It was in the afternoon on a Friday, Nov. 22, 1963 when John Fitzgerald Kennedy, The President of the United States was assassinated. I was in the Church of the Immaculate Conception rehearsing for my upcoming First Holy Communion scheduled for the week later, a day after Thanksgiving. We were lined up in segregated rows of boys and girls practicing our procession to the altar rail, where we would kneel in front of the parish priest, Father Lynch, holding our heads up, mouths open like hungry chicks as we were fed the body of Christ.
The Mother Superior flew into the room, her black robes flapping behind her. She looked scared and held her hand over her mouth. It was something serious because the nuns and lay teachers sitting in the front row immediately jumped up and rushed to gather around the distraught Mother.
From where I was, I could see the Mother Superior was holding her heart, breathing deeply as she tried to regain her composure. But she couldn’t; overwhelmed in the moment, she could only weep. I lost sight of her when she must have said it. Gasps, moans and a shrill scary cry echoed through the room. Almost in unison they made the sign of the cross. One of them kept saying over and over, “Oh my God! Oh my God!” They left the chapel for a couple minutes as we stood in befuddlement, still in line as we exchanged nervous glances. The lay teachers returned, clinging to Father Lynch, who asked us to follow them back to our rooms.
We were told: “The President had been shot as his motorcade passed a bunker in Dallas, Texas.” Mrs. Cooper stood with her back to us as she silently looked out the window and prayed.
We all prayed.
As I did, I imagined a strange scene from my limited reference of Texas, derived solely from the many TV Westerns I had seen: It happened in the middle of nowhere on a flat sun-baked desert landscape filled with giant prickly cactus, the kind with big arms that reached to the sky. The President’s car passed in slow motion in front of a square cement bunker with a black slit opening toward the top, just big enough for a gun barrel to stick through. The assassin, a guy in a black cowboy hat, spit out a wad of tobacco, licked his thumb and wet the sight at the end of the barrel, then took aim. It was a long musket rifle, just like in the Alamo. There was a loud crack and a puff of white smoke. The President was riding shotgun and smiling like he always did, and must have got it right through the heart. Texans were good shooters and could hit a silver piece out of the air, dead center, like it was nothing.
At 2:30 PM, in a CBS news bulletin, Walter Cronkite put his thick black-framed glasses on and read from a Teletype handed to him from off screen. The news flash was official and he announced that the president was declared dead at 1 PM Central Standard Time. He took his glasses off momentarily and checked the clock before continuing, “… 2:00 Eastern Time, thirty minutes ago…” He slowly slid his glasses back on and put his head down to the side, gulping back his emotions as he tried to swallow the enormity of the situation.
Mrs. Cooper told us weeks before that we were ready for Holy Communion because we had reached “The Age of Reason.” That day I couldn’t think of one.