Rehearsing “Arsenic and Old Lace” at Mamaroneck High in 1958…

In senior year (fall, 1958) at Mamaroneck High School in Mamaroneck, NY, we presented the 1939 play Arsenic and Old Lace by Joseph Kesselring.  I was lucky enough to be cast as Mortimer Brewster, the role played by Cary Grant in the 1944 movie directed by Frank Capra, after it had run on Broadway from 1941 to 1944.  (I recall learning at some point that the play, about Mortimer discovering that his two beloved maiden aunts are homicidal maniacs, was originally called Bodies in the Cellar.)  Anyway, I just want to tell you about what happened during our dress rehearsal…

Mamaroneck High

Mamaroneck High

We were rehearsing in the full set with costumes on, going through the entire play non-stop [or at least, that was the intention] while the lights were being adjusted and so on.  Our director was out in the audience — Miss Schmidt, I believe — and I was onstage with the two aunts when my fiancée, Elaine Harper, came through the front door.  The dialogue was supposed to go this way:

Elaine: Mortimer!

Mortimer: Elaine!

[They rush to each other and embrace.]

arsenic-and-old-lace-priscilla-lane-cary-grant-1944It sounds simple, eh?  Well, the lovely girl playing Elaine arrived at the door, right on time, stepped into the living room and saw me.

Elaine held out her arms toward me and cried:  “Elaine!”

I stared back at her.  After a few beats, I replied:  “Mortimer?”

We all laughed so hard that the dress rehearsal stopped in its tracks.  It took at least ten minutes to get back into it without cracking up again.

I have no idea how I might have reacted if this had been a genuine performance in front of a packed auditorium in the high school.  But such surprises are part of the joy of acting.  They give you a jolt of new energy.  They put you into a state of sudden, instant aliveness.  And such surprises are not at all “mistakes,” not while you’re on stage, because there’s no choice other than to react in some real, honest way — to deal with the surprise, to “go with” whatever happens, in the moment.  And hopefully to deal with it the way we might do so in life itself.

Maybe I would have said to her, “Well, now, as far as I can recall, you are Elaine, and I — I am Mortimer!”

Or any of a hundred variations of that reply … or of some response that might have been much more clever.

Why have I never forgotten that moment?  The jolt?  The uncontrollable laughter that followed?  I’m not sure that I know the answer, but it must have something to do with the way all those signals in my brain went on alert and scrambled around to make sense of things.  All I really know is that, out of so many other moments involving Arsenic and Old Lace that I’ve long forgotten, that one has stuck with me.

Published in: Uncategorized on December 18, 2012 at 18:19  Leave a Comment  
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Mom and Dad – 1940 Courtship

Here’s one of my favorite photographs — a picture of my Mom and Dad (Suzette Schwiers and Bill Whittemore) in 1940 before they married that December.  For me it’s an eerie sight because I am watching a moment that will lead, with other moments, to my birth on 3 November 1941, a month before Pearl Harbor.  They were courting each other, yes?  Elsewhere on this blog you’ll see a PARADE story about life with my mom on the home front while Dad was off to war.  Here they are, on the brink:

They're in the backyard patio of my paternal grandparents' house on Virginia Place in Larchmont, New York.

My dad had grown up in the Manor section of Larchmont in a house with two other families, each with a child.  One of the kids was Dad’s first cousin Claire Wemlinger, who would go on to become the great film actress and movie star Claire Trevor, known above all for her work in Stagecoach and Key Largo.

With John Wayne in "Stagecoach" (1939)

Claire died at age ninety in 2000.  She was a sweetheart of a gal, full of warmth and spunk as well as talent.  Her birthday was March 8th and I plan to post up a blog with a little personal stuff about her on that date coming up.

And here’s another photo…

Published in: on February 28, 2011 at 17:10  Comments (3)  
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My Brother Jim & I – A Story About Bowling … and Much More

Here is one of my all-time favorites among the articles I wrote for PARADE from the mid-1970’s until the mid-1990’s.  There’s no need for me to explain up front; I think it speaks for itself:

Two brothers renew a family bond and make a discovery
A POCKETFUL OF DREAMS
PARADE – September 15, 1985

My brother Jim and I have seen ourselves through many good and bad times by going out to the alleys. When one of us feels high or low, the other might say, “Let’s go rolling.” Pretty soon we’re bowling as if our lives depended on getting strikes or spares.

To explain, first I should mention Grosso’s Alleys. This was a worn-out, ancient bowling establishment in my hometown of Larchmont. N.Y. I used to go there with my grade-school friends on weekends. Jim was still too young to bowl, but he knew that I went there often. He knew I went rolling even in the summertime, when other kids were outside at the beach or playing ball. He figured there must be something special and even magical about the place.

Grosso’s Alleys was up a flight of old wooden stairs, above a row of stores. To me, it was a second home. I thought of Mr. and Mrs. Grosso as another set of grandparents. It was still the ‘50s, and in those days the alleys had no computers or pin-setting machines, so we had to keep score and have the pins set by hand. When my friends and I bowled, we acted as  pin boys for each other.

Pin Boys - We used to get a quarter per game!

We became acquainted there with the men who made a living by setting pins. They earned a quarter a game. When all twelve alleys were filled with league bowlers, Mr. and Mrs. Grosso often allowed us kids to work as pin-setters too. That was my first real job. It felt good to be sweating down in the alley pits with the grown men and to be making my own money – which I usually spent on more bowling.

In the fifth grade, I rolled a 207, thanks to an older boy who taught me how to throw a pretty fair hook.  One Saturday morning, my Dad and I won a father-son tournament.  It gave us a new feeling of closeness. We brought home a trophy in the form of a bowling pin crudely painted red, blue and yellow to resemble a doll.

My brother took that weird-looking trophy into his hands. He stared at it with an expression of awe. I knew right then that before long he, too, would be rolling.

Now, there's a nice hook for you -- spinning its way off the edge of the gutter before heading for the pocket!

By the time I was in high school. Grosso’s Alleys was designated a fire hazard and closed down.  Meanwhile, a new, modern bowling establishment was built nearby. Lots of us would go there to roll and play the pinball machines and hang around with the girls. In fact, it was at the new alleys that I met my steady girlfriend, whom I eventually married.

I was on the varsity bowling team. The five of us wore glossy orange shirts with our school initials printed in black. Each week, we went to a new set of alleys to roll against a team from a different high school. There were no cheerleaders, no spectators. It definitely wasn’t a glamour sport.

One of the great feelings you can have -- rolling into the pocket for a perfect strike!

At the same time, off somewhere by himself, Jim was rolling and perfecting his game. He was catching up with me. When I went away to college, he wrote to say that he’d bowled a 253.  That, I had to admit, was a family record.

When I was back in town as a married man with a newspaper job, occasionally Jim would call and say, “Want to go rolling tonight?”  For us, bowling was a way of staying in touch. It gave us a lot of laughs. The time I flung a ball and ripped the seat of my pants up the middle, I thought he’d die.

It also gave us a chance to talk and express our visions of the future. He and his girlfriend were going to get married, Jim said, and then he and I both would have families. We would grow old together as brothers, fathers and uncles, watching our children and grandchildren share their lives and even bowl together. That was one of his dreams.

While rolling we competed, but not really against each other. What we were doing was “searching for the pocket.” We meant trying to find the exact spot to hit on the first throw, so all ten pins would go down for a strike.

We taught each other that finding the pocket is an elusive goal. If you try too hard you lose it. You have to throw the ball out toward the gutter, so it has room to curve back in.  You have to let go and not be afraid and trust your natural hook.  You can’t force the destiny of the ball by aiming directly into the pocket.

Sitting up in back there, you had to watch out for flying pins...

Even if you do find it once – getting a strike – the important thing is to do it again. And again.  And again.  Any triumph is only fleeting at best. It quickly recedes into the past, and you are faced with ten more pins all over. We decided that bowling, by itself, means very little. What counts is how you bring yourself to the game. What matters is not how good or bad your previous try was, but viewing each new roll as the first, last and only one.

We knew without saying it that the lonely concentration and persistence required by bowling has something to do with what’s required by life.

And, in fact, life took over.

My brother went off to the Navy and Subic Bay...

When the Vietnam War started building up, my brother joined the Navy. He went to the Philippine Islands and was stationed on the base at Subic Bay. We wrote back and forth all the time, and the tone of his letters grew increasingly bitter.

He was always under the threat of being shipped over to “Nam,” but what made him angry was the thought that he’d been abandoned by people at home. He imagined that all of his friends in the States were growing their hair long, using drugs and protesting against the war.  He was several thousand miles away, trapped in his uniform. He felt misunderstood and cut off.

My brother's not in this picture, but I'm sure he sat at one of those tables with a very similar bunch of guys ...

Jim wasn’t alone in that feeling.  Just about every week, one of the guys in his barracks would receive a painful “Dear John” letter from a girlfriend, telling of her decision to break off the romance. In the minds of the guys in the barracks, all the girls back home were wearing beads and becoming hippies; and. in their worst midnight fantasies, all were sporting T-shirts either denouncing the military or advertising free love.

My brother tried to cheer up his buddies by holding a ‘Dear John” contest. The winner would be the guy who received a letter using the most original excuse for dumping him: “Dear John. I’ll al ways love you, but I’ve become a different person, and you wouldn’t know me anymore, so…”

The standings in that contest kept fluctuating with the incoming tides of mail. No one, however, could top the experience of the guy who received a copy of his hometown newspaper and discovered a photograph of his fiancée in a bridal gown, taken after her wedding to someone else.

Eventually Jim, too, got a “Dear John” letter.  It was from that girl he had planned to marry. He’d felt it was coming.  Now he went into a rage and took action – for himself and for his Navy pals.

Subic Bay

What he did was form a bowling team. He took four volunteers from the barracks and told them, “I don’t care what it takes – we’re going to beat every team on the base!”

None of his recruits was a great roller. A few had never even bowled before. It didn’t matter. My brother channeled all his fury and pain into this bunch of fledglings. He took his nervous, skeptical players onto the alleys and drilled them in practice. He cajoled and inspired them. Once, to make them see that anything was possible, he lobbed the ball over to an adjacent alley and made a strike for another bowler. His amazed teammates roared with delight. For a while, they even forgot the girls back home.

Jim and his four colleagues entered formal competition on the base. With the concentration and persistence that bowling requires, he rolled up terrific scores. His fellow players continually surprised themselves, week after week, spurred on by a wild cheering section made up of the other guys from their barracks. In the Navy on the Philippines, bowling had been turned into a glamour sport.

Subic Bay Naval Station

Jim’s team got into the finals. In the championship match, they went up against five officers whose scoring average – not to mention rank – was much higher.  It started off as a lopsided contest, but in the end my brother and his motley band of bowlers prevailed. Their barracks mates erupted onto the alley as if the World Series had just been won.

In his letter to me, Jim described the triumph and added, “Wish you’d been here.”

After returning home, Jim looked back on his experience in the Navy with mixed emotions.  He had used bowling to help him and his friends survive the long period away from home, but he also found it hard to forget the feeling of having been abandoned by people in the States.

And he couldn’t really get over that “Dear John” letter he’d received from his girlfriend. He did get married, to someone else, but the marriage ended in divorce.

My brother Jim Whittemore (the handsome guy at left) became a great success in the real estate business in Westchester County -- here in an earlier stage of his career, with former partner Emmy Lou Sleeper at right

By now, we were leading very different lives. He was in real estate, I was an author. We still got together and talked a lot and shared our feelings, but we lived in separate worlds. And we didn’t bowl.

By the fall of 1982, my marriage of nearly 20 years was over.  I joined my brother in the ranks of divorced men and found myself in a daze and feeling low. I couldn’t start up my life again. When Jim invited me into his home, I accepted with a shrug. He gave me a room upstairs and left me alone. He asked no questions. He watched me mope around and heard me blame myself for being a failure.

Several weeks of this went by. On a Saturday, Jim announced that we were going to a sporting goods store. When I asked why, he said nothing and drove to town. Inside the store, I followed him to the counter.

“We want to buy a couple of bowling balls,” he told the sales clerk. “With ball bags.  And we need some bowling shoes.”

“This is crazy,” I told him as the balls were fitted to the size of our hands, “The last thing I want to do is bowl. I hate that stupid game.”

A few days later, we were on the alleys. This was the first time in our lives that we had our own equipment. We took our new bowling balls out of our new bowling bags and put on our new bowling shoes. We started to roll.

My younger brother, who used to look with awe at my trophy from Grosso’s Alleys, beat me soundly game after game, showing no mercy. I kicked the ball- return rack.  I sent my new ball flying so hard that it slammed into the pin-setting machine. I snarled at a kid, just because he was staring at me. Through it all, Jim pretended not to notice and just kept knocking down more pins.

After that, we bowled each week with the same results – until, at some point, all my frustration seemed so useless that I finally let go and relaxed.  I created a mental picture of the ball’s journey into the pocket, but otherwise I forgot my tension and simply rolled as if each new shot were the first, last and only one. Soon my game progressed, and I started catching up with him – the way, long ago, he’d caught up with me.

One day, up in his guest room, without realizing why, I began packing my bags. I walked down the stairs and announced to Jim that I would be going off on my own. He didn’t seem surprised.  I thanked him for the room and explained that I’d stopped living in the past and that it was time to get on with the rest of my life.

As we stood facing each other at the front door, I knew he was thinking about those old dreams of the future and about how the future, which was here, hadn’t become exactly what either of us had envisioned. He blinked tears from his eyes.

“I guess,” he said, “were still searching for the pocket.”

“We’ll never stop,” I said. “And we’ll find it, too.”

We stared at each other until, slowly, he forced a smile.

“Listen,” my brother said as I turned to go, “if you don’t mind, I’ll keep your ball right here in my closet, and whenever you stop by, if we feel in the mood, we’ll – ”

“Of course,” I said.

We hugged.

Of course, Jim – we’ll go rolling.

World War II – Waiting for My Father to Come Home

The story as it appeared in PARADE in January 1985, with a photo of me with my parents in 1942 and another one, taken by the great photographer Eddie Adams, in 1984

When we observed Veterans Day earlier this week, it occurred to me to find one of my all-time favorite articles that I wrote for PARADE magazine.  This one was published on January 20, 1985, at the start of the 40th anniversary year of the end of that horrible war.  It represents a personal memory behind just one of the millions of local announcements that appeared during the war in local newspapers across the country:

FROM THE DAILY TIMES, MAMARONECK, NY: ENGLAND, July 14, 1944 – Staff Sgt. William c. Whittemore Jr. of the Alden House, Larchmont, has recently arrived in England to serve in the Signal Corps.  Son of Mr. and Mrs. William C. Whittemore of 3 Virginia Place, Larchmont, Staff Sgt. Whittemore entered the service in July of 1943 and trained in Camp Crowder, Mo; State Teachers College, Tex.; and at Camp Edison, Sea Girt, NJ.  Staff Sgt. Whittemore and his wife, the former Suzette Schwiers of New York City, have one son, two-and-a-half years old.

WOULD MY FATHER COME MARCHING HOME AGAIN?
After 40 Years, one small story from our biggest war

I don’t think I can recall one thing about my father before he left us to go to war. I was not yet two years old when he disappeared from our lives, vanishing across the Atlantic Ocean’s turmoil of dark water and gray sky on his way to various European battlefields. I can recall, perhaps, the feeling of his presence in my life, but I don’t know that for sure.

What I do remember – vividly – are images formed as a result of looking at photographs and from being told the same stories over and over. Some of them refer to events that happened well before my birth in November 1941, back during the days when my father was growing up to become the handsome, dashing young man who would sweep my mother off her feet and marry her within six months of their first romantic meeting.

Yes, my images of him in those days are illuminated by the sort of glitter and glow reserved for Hollywood stars, and those old photographs only reinforce my conviction that he was a more-than- average fellow. He appears in them as tall and slim, often wearing white slacks and shoes, smiling with confidence and gazing at the camera as if he knew, right then, that he was creating an indelible effect.

The most striking physical fact about him was his bright red hair – wavy, thick, passionate hair that seemed to be perpetually on fire. On a couple of the black and white photographs, his hair was touched up with red-orange paint, and his eyes were given a watercolor blue.  But these were Ineffectual attempts to capture the true flavor of his arresting appearance – or so I was told, at age three, when I would stare at the photos of my absent father and pretend that he was gazing back into my soul.

CLOSEUP OF PIC WWII ARTICLE

He had lived as a little boy on West 150th Street in New York City; later, he moved with his parents out to the suburbs, to the Village of Larchmont in Westchester County, twenty miles north of Manhattan. He met my mother in the summer of 1940, when he was twenty-three and she was twenty-two. She had come up from New York to Larchmont with her parents, who had rented a home for the summer to escape the heat of the city. The house was diagonally across the tree-lined street from where my father lived.

To my mother, the colorful, flowers and green trees of Larchmont were as beautiful and thrilling as the hills and valleys of the countryside. I can only try to imagine the warm summer evenings and sunny weekend days of the courtship that led my mother and father to marry before the year was over.  I think they knew, even on their wedding day in December of 1940, that events beyond their control might soon reach out and pull my father away.

They were married in the city, at the Biltmore Hotel.  They took an apartment in Larchmont (in the Alden House), a short walk from where my father had lived and where his parents remained. I was born eleven months later in New Rochelle Hospital. Just five weeks afterward, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

ALDEN1

The Alden House in Larchmont, on the Post Road, where we lived during World War II

As I say, I have no recollection of my father from the time I was born until he left us. I am told that it took at least eighteen months before he was drafted into the Army.  My mother and I were to stay in the Larchmont apartment while he was overseas, but first he would have to go into training. When he got to Camp Edison in Sea Girt, New Jersey, my mother and I traveled down there by train and took a room in a boardinghouse near the beach and a few blocks from the camp.

The story I like best from that time is about how my father would sneak out of the barracks area at night and make his way to the boardinghouse to be with my mother (and me) for a few stolen hours before racing back, climbing over the fence and slipping into his tent again in time for sunrise and reveille, hen he’d get up and continue, on virtually no sleep, training for war.

I have one other image from that time on the Jersey shore, just before my father was to be shipped overseas. I see myself in a little red wagon. My mother is pulling me on the boardwalk beside the sand and the ocean. I hear the waves slashing and pounding with an angry, threatening force. I feel the wind hurling itself against my mother as she pulls me, afraid but determined.  Her long, dark hair is blowing wildly from the violence in the air, which continues to build as if it were blowing all the way from Europe. Her face is very pale, and she seems so very alone with her willpower and her faith and her fear.

Coming upon the sight of a large crowd on the beach, we can see from the boardwalk that the object of curiosity is the enormous corpse of a whale. The sight of its ugly gray body terrifies my mother, who quickly turns the wagon around and starts pulling me away from the scene. She pulls with sudden, inexplicable strength, as if to save us both from some mysterious danger.  If such a powerful mammal has lost its fight against unchecked brutality, where is safety for a young woman alone with a child in a world whose madness no one, much less she, can fathom?  I see her pulling me faster and faster and calling the name of her young husband, whose vanishing figure she chases in bewilderment along an endless pier beside an endless, churning sea.

Even though I may not remember these things, I feel them.  And I feel my helplessness in being too weak, too insignificant, to protect her.

Back in Larchmont, we lived in the apartment together. It was during this time that my true memories did, in fact, begin to form. In the earliest one, we are on the high rooftop of our building, which itself is on a hill. I am standing on the tar paper, gazing through an opening in the wall.

“Be careful,” she says.

“Don’t worry, Mom.” I reply. Those are the three words I remember speaking most often, taking it upon myself to calm her down, to give her peace. I was acting brave. And, in the same breath, I was also absorbing her fears, her loneliness and her pain, making them my own and trying to reassure myself.

I could feel her waiting.  Always waiting.

One day we entered our building as usual, my mother picked up the mail and we went up in the elevator. When we were in the apartment, she told me to go and wait for her in the bedroom.  I was on my parents’ bed when she walked in, her eyes red and tears spilling down her face.  A letter was clutched in her hand, at her side. In the letter was a small, brownish close-up photograph of a man’s face – like a passport photo.  My mother knelt down, holding it in front of her, and I listened to her sobbing for a long time.

“He’s a prisoner.” she finally whispered. “They won’t let him tell the truth, but he’s trying to send me a message with this picture. He’s a prisoner of war, and he’s never coming home!”

She knelt and tried to pray, and the double bed beneath me became a floating raft set loose from its moorings, carrying me away. I lay face-down on the sheet with my arms spread wide, my fingers clutching but unable to hold on, as she continued to weep, and I felt the inexorable pull of the tide and the roll of the waves, beyond my control.

After that, I could feel my mother’s tension whenever she checked the mail or if someone called. At last, another letter from overseas.  He seemed okay, but the war continued. What would happen to him, and to us, was unknown.     Over the days, weeks and months, we waited.  We shared an unspoken agreement that our most fundamental activity was passing time, dangling, holding on, as if the beginning of our lives had been postponed.

In my grandparents’ house on Virginia Place in the winter of 1945, there is a large gathering of adults. I am playing off to one side, on the rug near the piano, with a jigsaw puzzle whose pieces show the jagged features of men in battle. The house is stuffy and warm from the radiator, the tobacco smoke, the body heat. From my vantage point on the floor, there is an ebb and flow of milling pants, dresses, legs and shoes accompanied by a loud, continuous babble.

I am concentrating on the puzzle when I feel a blast of invigorating air sweep through the forest of legs.  I hear a clamor of cheering. The congregation moves toward the open front door. There are shrieks of laughter and delight.  I remain on the rug, staring at the chaos.  The throng backs up into the living room and, after more commotion, the congestion breaks apart to reveal, in the glow of an amber light, a handsome man wearing an overcoat and a cap with a visor.  He is standing there with a confident smile, greeting people with hugs.  He takes off his overcoat. He is dressed in a uniform of the U.S. Army.  He removes his cap. In the warm, brown- yellow circle of light, his hair is fiery red.

As he puts his arm around my mother’s waist and gives her a kiss, I look away and shut my eyes; in this self-imposed darkness, it seems that my breath has been taken away. I hear his voice distinctly. He is calling my name.  “Where is he?’ I hear him say, and the conversation ceases abruptly, as if all the sound in the world has been shut off.  In the hush, my eyes are still closed; yet I can feel him staring at me from across the room. I wait – in fear, in resentment, in hope, in a darkness stretching away to the ends of a silent universe.

When I open my eyes, he is taking the last strides in my direction.  He bends down in a squat and gazes directly at me. The red hair is a ring of fire around his face, and I stare into his blazing blue eyes, which are familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. I feel his harsh breath and the scraping of his beard stubble on my cheek as he kisses me with strange, scary roughness.

So here is my first real memory of him, with his strong hands gripping either side of my chest under my arms, slowly lifting me off the ground as the scattered pieces of the war puzzle recede far below on the rug; and I soar, weightless, higher and higher, into the amber sky, gliding without effort above his head, looking down at all the faces and at the face of my mother, who is smiling up at me with glistening eyes, with the expression of a little girl being transformed suddenly into my father’s wife, and some terrible burden of the spirit, some unbearably oppressive weight, softly slides away.

Remembering November 22, 1963…

November 22, 2009 will mark the forty-sixth anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas.  On that terrible day of November 22, 1963, I was in New York City…

New York on Nov 22, 1963

New York City - November 22, 1963

Earlier that year I had graduated from the University of Notre Dame.  On the third of November, I had celebrated my twenty-second birthday.  Now I was in Manhattan having lunch with a fellow actor, Richard Fithian, at 666 Fifth Avenue.

I had met Dick in the summer of 1959 when I was seventeen and he was several years older, in his twenties.  We had acted together in Blue Denim at the Barn theater of Mount Kisco, NY.  Heading the cast was the beautiful and talented Eileen Fulton, then just twenty-six years old, who would go on to become a great TV star as Lisa in the long-running soap opera As The World Turns.

After lunch we divided the tab and Dick went up to the cashier to pay while I made a call.  I sat inside one of the several large wooden phone booths with folding glass doors along the wall.  When I hung up and turned around, I saw through the glass that long rows of patrons were lined up at the booths, mine included.  It was a strange sight that made no sense.  Why would so many people be making calls all of a sudden?

I opened the door and made my way to the cashier’s desk, where Dick was waiting.

JFK in New York City

Jackie and Jack - this is how it had been in New York - this is how we thought of them

“What’s going on?” I said.

“The president’s been shot!”

“What?”

“He was shot in the head, I think.”

We were already out on the sidewalk of Fifth Avenue.

“My god,” I said.

The city was gray and bleak.  It seemed that everything had come to a standstill.  The street seemed to be covered with silence.  People appeared to be moving in slow motion.  At street corners, men had stacks of newspapers with freshly printed headlines for sale.  The papers reported that Kennedy had been shot, but there were few details.

Dick and I wandered up Fifth Avenue until we came to St. Patrick’s Cathedral.  A crowd was out in front of the huge church, on the steps.  People were waiting around for something to happen and we automatically joined them.

235px-Saint_Patrick's_Cathedral_by_David_Shankbone

St. Patrick's Cathedral

“Is he dead?” a man in the crowd yelled out.

“If he’s dead,” another man hollered out, causing all heads to turn in his direction, “the bells will ring!”

Just a few seconds later the bells of St. Patrick’s Cathedral began to ring.  They rang loudly and the entire crowd on those steps fell to its collective knees.  We all dropped down, kneeling together, knowing at once that our young vibrant president was gone.  Some began praying aloud; others wept; nothing made sense and we knew the world would never again be the same.  The world would be forever different than what it had been a second ago.  It was impossible, it could not have happened, but President Kennedy was dead.

Later, along the West Side Highway, many cars heading north out of the city were parked over on the side, their drivers hunched over as they listened intently to their radios.

I kept driving back north to Larchmont, where I had grown up, and where I was now living with my young wife and our baby girl, Eva, who had been born just two months earlier.   Some time in the future, I told myself, I will tell her about this day.  I will try to tell her the meaning of November 22, 1963, if only I could learn what it was.