Banner photo of Larry Eugene Meredith, Ronald Tipton and Patrick Flynn, 2017.

The good times are memories
In the drinking of elder men...

-- Larry E.
Time II

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Normal Isn't Normal Anymore

When I was a kindergartener  my grandfather gave me a baseball bat. It was too big for me at the time, long and heavy. It was a Stan Musial model Louisville Slugger. From that day forward I struggled to swing that very thin-handled piece of wood. Musial liked his bats whip-like thin where you gripped them and would whittle and sand them even thinner than they were produced.  "I had the thinnest bats in the National League," he would claim. He said they had a "Babe Ruth handle and a Jimmie Foxx barrel." He would use a pocketknife to cut notches in that handle for an even better grip, because he didn't like the feel of pine tar. My bat, after several decades of use, looked notched up itself, but that was from hitting stones across the field with it. Anyway, Stan Musial became my second favorite Ballplayer (Richie Ashburn was my first).
On August 12, 1963, Stan Musial announced his retirement from the game.
Why bring this up?
Because that is what you do when things go very bad in life, you go back to normal.
Well, I was trying, but I don't think anything ever went back to normal after 1963.

After the baby was taken away, my grandmother stayed at our place from the 14th through 16. Lois was cleared to ride in a car by then, so we took my grandma home and we ate supper at the Exton Howard Johnson, and on the 18th we joined my parents at the stock car races in Boyertown.
Back to normal.
On that race day (no pun intended) James Meredith graduated from the University of Mississippi. One solitary man getting his college diploma and it was headlined in all the media. James Meredith, student and graduate, those moments were sort of his 15 minutes of fame, despite a political career, despite his involvement in Civil Rights marches, despite his getting shot. Most of his life of  now 83 years has faded from our view. Perhaps it is because he was a Republican.
Not so normal, I guess.

We attended the Wilson Family reunion on the 25th.
Back to normal.
Once more my Grandmother came down and stayed from August 26 and remained with us until the 31st.  She went back and forth this way for several weeks, not only cleaning and cooking, but also painting. Man, what was with all the painting of the rooms in that house?
On August 28, Martin Luther King, Jr., made his renowned "I have a Dream" speech. Paul Miller came down to help Mr. Heaney with the cement walk out back and Paul took my grandmother home. On September 5, I went to Temple University and signed up for the fall semester. I took four courses, the most credits I was allowed to take as a part time student.
Back to normal.

I received a letter from Ronald Tipton on August 21. He mustered out of the Army. The Army offered him a bonus to re-up and go to some exotic place called Vietnam, his final big opportunity to see the world, but on the advice of an Army buddy he declined the offer. He lived in Pittsburgh for a while after turning in his uniform, but was now back in our area. He had a job and apartment in Coatesville.
“I would like to extend an invitation for you to visit my home anytime you so desire. As of yet I don’t have a telephone but you can call my mother or write if you should desire to visit.”
On August 25 I replied.
“We are quite glad to here (sic) that you have finally found that elusive occupation which you were seeking.
“We are both, also, rather anxious to see you again. The evening of the day that we received your note we drove to Coatesville and found your place.
“If it should please you how about this Saturday evening (Aug. 31) or better yet, Sunday (Sept. 1). I imagine we both have a lot to catch up on.”
As it turned out we had more to catch up on than we bargained for.

Ronald was the gracious host. He prepared some food and afterward we sat around and talked about old times (as much as a couple of 22 year olds could have "old times"). Lois was kind of lost for much of this palaver, sitting quietly and listening, until we touched on the subject of Philadelphia. She had been born in and lived in the city as a child and then nearby in Upper Darby. She was able to explain about some of the places in Philly, which brought her right into the middle of our conversation. It couldn't have gone any better. (Pictured left Ronald’s apartment in Coatesville.)
Near the end of the evening, Ronald said he had something he wanted to tell us about. His
voice lowered. Someone he knew (I assumed in the Service) gave him the name of a men’s club. The person told him when he got home he might want to visit it. At first he wasn't going to go, but after a while he decided to. It was a nice place, he said, and they had dancing. He paused in his explanation as if unsure whether to tell more or not. Finally he said, "There were only men there and I danced with some. I enjoyed it."
We said our good nights soon afterward. Lois and I drove back to Malvern. We didn’t quite know what to make of Ron’s strange story. It took a while to sink in.

Temple University allowed a maximum of eight credits a semester at evening school. I took the limit. This was a heavy schedule combined with my full time job. I had to make the trek north  from Center City three times a week, a distance of almost 3 miles. Although I had indicated a major in Sociology, I was required to take Basic Studies. This was temple’s core Liberal Arts curriculum. Of course some of the classes were also required for my major. In the fall of 1963 I had Modern World, which was the history of Western Civilization from 1,500 BC. It was Part one of three. I also had Introduction to Psychology One and Introduction to Political Science.
My friend Dave Claypoole suggested I take The Economic History of the United States. He called it an Acer, meaning an easy class assuring an A. He didn’t tell me it was also an advanced Economic course requiring several economic prerequisites. The Registrar did not tell me this either. They should not have permitted me to take this course, but somehow I was accepted while blatantly unqualified for the course. One thing I learned from college was they were incredibly inadequate at performing what they presumedly taught one to perform.
I did well enough with my first three choices, but the so-called snap course had me concerned. Without the prerequisites I didn’t know what the Professor was talking about half the time. There were two things that saved me from flunking. The course was Economic History of the United States. I could understand the history part. The other thing was the Professor. The man was eccentric to say the least, a character. The one thing I remember of all his lectures was how to blow your nose when you had no handkerchief. It was a somewhat gross demonstration, but memorable. Fortunately all his exams were True or False and Multiple Choice. Thoughtout the semester chance was on my side. There were no "fill in the blanks" or any "write a small essay". I knew enough American history to guess right more times than not and I finished with a C.
Just before Thanksgiving my college efforts and puzzling over Ronald's little story were rudely shoved aside . I personally believe this event  was a turning point for the country. On an ordinary day I would have noted with some sorrow the passing of two library giants, C. S. Lewis  (left) and Aldous Huxley (right), and so would have the media. However, just as we don't get to choose our birthday, we seldom get to choose our dying day. We can be quite famous and renown, but even the great among us can be overshadowed by other events. Such it was for these two men on November 22, 1963.

It was lunchtime. I sat at my desk with the Philadelphia Daily News spread across its top. The headline read “Baker’s Pal’s Widow Denies Suicide Link.” A picture of a woman was on the left, who is lost to my memory as is any detail of the story being headlined.  On the right was a photo of Jackie Kennedy with the President standing just behind her. She was speaking in Houston, Texas.

At One o’clock I was supposed to be back on the job, but I had been out to cash my paycheck and do a little shopping with my friend, Dave Claypoole, and late to eat. I skipped the news and turned to the editorial page. Even the usual crackpot letters were dull. I flipped further back and read the comics. My lunch was finished so I stuffed the paper into a drawer, put my empty soda bottle in the wastebasket and returned to sorting the index cards I had been working on before lunch.
As I sorted, a simple matter of putting them in numerical order, I planned for the coming weekend.  First, we would get groceries. Then I would get a haircut while my wife shopped. Saturday I would get up early to change a bad tire on our car and then take Lois bowling. In the evening we would go to a drive-in movie. Sunday I hoped to get my studies finished and work on a story I was writing.
As I outlined my weekend I glanced at the wall clock. It was eleven minutes until two o’clock. At that moment, Bob Keifer, a fellow worker, came by my desk. We were good friends and he often stopped at my desk with a new joke.
“Did you hear? They shot Kennedy,” he said.
I waved him away with my hand. “Aw, come on, Bob.”
But he circled around to the other side of my desk. “I’m not kidding.” He had an odd smile on his face
 I still didn’t believe him.
“They’ve shot Kennedy. If you don’t believe me, ask Bill.”
I decided to take him up on this. Bill Mayberry was fanatical about John F. Kennedy. He had worked as a volunteer for Kennedy during the election and he never ceased praising the President. He had a large picture of Kennedy taped to his desk and a habit of whistling, “Hail to the Chief”.

“That’s Jack’s favorite song,” Bill would tell us.
I walked to Bill’s desk at the front of the mailroom. He was the Mailroom Supervisor. Before I reached him I overheard a conversation between two mail boys I passed. I did not catch the actual words, but I did hear something about the President and a shooting.
Now I saw Mayberry. He was sitting very still with an expression as if his brain had short-circuited. I wanted to know what had happened, but I could not approach Bill after seeing his face. I went over to the mail boys. I did not notice who was saying what.  It was a jumbled conversation. Much of the afternoon was that way.
Sometime in this same general period of time, covering three minutes perhaps, the mail cart returned from a trip around the company offices. It passed by me.
“Is he dead?” somebody asked.
“I heard he was in serious condition,” said a voice behind the cart.
Mayberry stood and moved into the open area of the room. He was shaking his head slowly. He might have said something. I don’t recall if he did.
Someone else was speaking.
“I hear he’s dead. And his wife and some governor are in critical condition.”
I turned toward the voice, but never saw who spoke.
I asked, “They shot his wife?” I felt a quick shiver down my backbone.
“That’s what I heard,” said a voice.
“I heard they missed him,” said another. Voices were in the air, like spirits come to confuse mortal men.
A new mail boy, named Jim Curtain, entered chattering like a small boy announcing information he isn’t supposed to know. “They got him with machine guns," he yelled,  "I heard he was sprayed with bullets.”
Mayberry confirmed the rumor in a low murmur.  “He was shot.”
Curtain was flitting about an older boy named John Pal, asking about a certain caliber of Browning rifle. “That’s a machine gun, isn’t it? It’s an automatic. Don’t you have to use a tripod to shoot it?”

Still at this point, no one really believed it happened. At least, no one believed the worse. People were accepting the rumor someone shot at the President, but not the rumors of his death or injury.
It couldn’t have been more than ten or fifteen minutes since Bob Keifer had first stopped at my desk. It crossed my mind to call my wife. She might have the TV on and know more than we did. I got the company operator on Mayberry’s telephone.
 “Is this a personal call or…”.
“Personal, yes.”
“I’m sorry,” she seemed angry, “we can hardly get business calls out under the circumstances let alone personal.”
I hung up and walked to my own section. I could not work without knowing more about the rumors. George Taylor, the deaf man who ran a stuffing machine, asked me what had happened.
“They shot the President,” I told him.
“Is he dead?”
“I don’t know.”
I returned to the front of the mailroom and Bill Mayberry had left for lunch.  The latest rumor was the President and Jackie was alive and all right. There may have been a Senator wounded. There was a knot of mail boys talking at the front of the room. I saw Bob Keifer and, I believe, John Pal in the group. George Johl was working not far away. George was another close friend. He was a family man, holding down two jobs and going to night school, and he was a Black man with a strong loyalty to Kennedy.
I went to the group and said to Bob, “I wonder if Bill will be heading out for revenge?”
“He went home to get his gun,” said Bob, then he turned to George Johl.  “See what you caused, see what your people caused?”
George's mouth dropped open, but he said nothing.
Bad taste filled the room. It was bizarre, people were telling cruel jokes at such a time, but I think it was because they wouldn’t accept the idea such a thing could happen. It must be a bad-taste joke as well.
A Federal Mailman came through the supply room from outside dragging a dirty gray bag of mail. He was grinning ear-to-ear.  He dropped the bag and pointed at Bob Keifer.
“Why’d you do it?”
Bob kind of snickered, eyes wide, throwing up his palms. “I didn’t do it.”
“Sure,” said the mailman. He looked at the rest of us. “He did it,” he said, pointing at Bob. “You did it.” No one spoke. He looked around. “I’m kidding. But I know who did it.”
“Who?” asked one of the messenger girls.
“His wife,” said the mailman, looking at the girl, “she would have.”
The broad grin on the mailman’s face stunned me as he explained how Jackie hated Jack and had plotted his death. “I’m glad it happened,” the mailman said.
I stood frozen. Your instinct is to slap the man, but one doesn’t do that in real life, do they? They do it in movies.
The mailman left.
I murmured to Bob, adding my own prejudice to the rumors, “And you wondered what Johnson was doing?”
Bob had asked only a couple of days earlier what the vice-president was doing these days.  Johnson’s invisibility was a common joke. Now I was hinting that he had been plotting this crime. But perhaps, considering the rivalry and the location, it wasn’t so uncommon to think such a thing.
Now speculation about the motives and who might have done it ran rampant. Somebody thought it was a Cuban plot. Bob felt it had been a Negro group in Brooklyn.
“The Black Muslins?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said.
“They’re not just in Brooklyn,” I told him.
“I know,” he said., glancing around nervously,  “They’re everywhere.”
An idea came to me. “Hey,” I said, “Edwin Walker! (Pictured right.) Isn’t he down there in Dallas?”
General Walker had become prominent as a leader of an Ultra-Right Wing group known as the John Birch Society. In April of 1963 there was an assassination attempt made against Walker by a guy named Lee Harvey Oswald. In October investigators traced an assassination plan of Walker's own, this one against U.N. Ambassador and former Democratic presidential candidate Adlei Stevenson,

“Yeah, that’s his territory,” said Bob.
“Could be those nuts. Look at what happened with [Adlai] Stevenson.”
Speculation was beginning to repeat itself. I decided to visit my friend Dave Claypoole in the payroll department , where he now worked, to see if he had heard anything. It seemed an eternity until an elevator arrived in the lobby.
I took an elevator, which was crowded. There were three women and at least as many men in it. As we ascended everybody was silent until we reached the fourth or fifth floor. "The President was wounded in Dallas ," said one of the women.
“He’s dead,” said a man.
“Uoh!” gasped the woman. “He’s dead?”
“That’s what I heard outside,” said the man.
Another man nodded his head. “I understand he was shot three times in the head.”
I got off and found Dave in his office. They promoted Dave when he posted after working for me in Addressograph the past summer. We went down to the cafeteria and had a cup of coffee. I leaned against the machine that dispensed the coffee.
“Bad news. This is bad news,” I said.
All of a sudden I was shaking. I could feel it in my legs and stomach. It was a quivering, as if I was outside on a cold day.
A woman walked toward us, as if seeking news or alms.
Dave tossed his arms up and open, speaking in a louder than normal voice. “Well, is this our chance to take over?”
The woman gave him a look of distaste. She hurried away. His words panicked me. I spun toward him. I began pacing with my hands in my pockets, trying to get rid of the cold I felt. I was shaking my head, sucking in on my lower lip. “What a sense of humor,” I said.
“I’m surprised it got you so shook up,” he said. “You didn’t agree with Kennedy’s policies.”
“But he is the President.”
We went back upstairs. I was still shaking. A woman passed us. “It’s true,” she said,  “that was my mother. She said she heard he’s dead.”
The young woman just inside the payroll room spoke, “I have a friend who use to work on the Inquirer. She knows someone there. Somehow she got through to them. They say he’s dead.” She told us somebody else was critical and we thought she said Jackie.
I left Dave and caught a down elevator. People got on and off. Two men were talking, smiling, joking. Other people were calm and normal. One carried coffee. Everybody hadn’t heard yet.
Back in the mailroom, I found Bob. “Let’s see what Russ says?” We found Russ Weeks, who just returned from lunch.  He had a radio. Most of the mailroom staff grouped around him.
Russ was just breaking away from the group when we got there.  His radio was not working. “He died, I understand,” he said.
By now we felt certain the President was dead. It was unclear whom else.
Someone told Russ that Mayberry had left.
“Did he? Has anyone checked to see if he chartered a plane to Dallas?”
“No, but he went home to get his gun.”
Russ shrugged. “It’s a shame he got shot on a Friday,” he said over his shoulder, “otherwise, we might have least got a day off out of it.”
It was useless to try to work, but equally as useless to stand around. I started back to my desk. George Taylor stopped me.
“Ya know,” he said, “they were goin’ ta have steak. Somehow the Pope had made it a special Friday so they’d have meat. I don’t know what was the reason, but the Pope made it so they could eat meat.”

“I’ve heard they already have certain Friday’s they can eat meat.”
“Yeah, well, I’m not Catholic so’s I don’t know what they called it, but the Pope said they could have meat today.”
“I’m not either,” I told him.  “I don’t know myself.”
“Well, ya know,” George lowered his voice; “the chef down there at the place in Dallas wanted to put this large special steak aside for Kennedy. The Secret Service wouldn’t let him. They told him to put it with the others. You cook up 3,000 steaks and we’ll pick one out.”
I kept nodding.
George went on. “Ya know, it’s funny. Just two days ago this turkey farmer wanted to give him a forty-pound turkey. Kennedy told ‘em to give it back to the man who raised it.”
Russ Weeks came in the back door. He stopped between us.
“They got the radio on out there,” he said. “One of the priests they called to perform the Last Rites said he’s dead. It’s still unofficial, though. But why would a priest lie?” He went up front.
George leaned toward me. “What he say?”
I told him. George shook his head. "Last rites," he whispered.
I followed Russ to the front. The messenger girls were chatting to one side.
“I think if he was dead, Bill’s wife would have called,” said one.
"Not necessarily,” I told her, “you can’t get through. I tried to call my wife and they wouldn’t let me through.”
Jim nodded. “That’s likely.”
Somebody else, "You can’t even get a dial tone,”
Jim and I went over to Russ, who began talking right away.
"It used to be when something like this would happen, the newspaper would get out extra editions. I remember when you used to hear boys calling ‘extra, extra’ up and down the street. But now…”
I said the papers put out so many editions they didn’t need extras. But Russ had his own explanation.
“TV and radio get it so fast that the papers aren’t necessary to inform the people anymore. We were at the Cathay Teahouse when we heard. The waiters came around to each table. ‘The President’s been shot,’ they said. They said they would turn on the TV for news. It was something. The whole place went silent. The waitresses moved slowly, trying to be very quiet. Everybody just sat and listened.”
“I wish we’d get the story clear,” I mumbled.
“I don’t know how they feel upstairs,” said Russ, “but I think we should be allowed to go home.”
Mayberry’s wife called and after Russ told her Bill had left she hung up, he, Jim and I began talking about whom might have done it.
“I don’t think it was a Cuban," Russ said. “I think the anti-Castro Cubans hated Kennedy more that the pro-Castro.”
“I hope it’s a nut,” I said, “I hope it’s a lone nut.”
They agreed. Russ spoke. “If the guy was with some group it would be bad. If it was a colored guy, they’ll be a lot of colored people killed. If it was a white guy doing it for the Negroes it’ll be just as bad. If it’s a Cuban, a lot of people’ll want to wipe out Cuba. I don’t think we would invade Cuba, but a lot of people would want us to.”
“That’s why I hope a nut did it on his own.”
“But if this is a group, I’m afraid there will be a lot of violence,” said Russ.
A new report reached us. It said the President was dead; the Governor of Texas was critical and [Vice President Lyndon] Johnson had a heart attack. The police found A German Musser rifle on the sixth floor of some building. Three shell casings were nearby and one unfired bullet was in the rifle. The assassin planned to get Johnson too it was believed.
Bill Mayberry returned and reported they caught the assassin.
“He’s twenty-five and white,” he said.
More and more people knew. It was about three o’clock. There was anger and joy, rumor and speculation. They allowed me to go home. I caught the train and the entire trip I read and reread the headline on the Evening Bulletin.

I wrote to Ronald on the twenty-fourth.
“This has certainly been an unfortunately historical week-end. If you remember the Army and Navy Game in Philly last year, you will recall that a man approached Kennedy as he talked to the team captains in the center of the field. I had felt that if that man had proposed to shoot the president that it would have been done; he had come within a very short distance of JFK. I remember remarking to Lois Jean: ‘Are they trying for a television first; a coast to coast assassination?’
“One would never have imagined how close to a possibility this would come.
“Somehow I can’t believe that it has happened. I feel as if it is only a long dream and that I shall waken in the morning to hear a newsman saying, ‘Today the President spoke at the Merchandise Mart in Dallas, Texas.’ If only it was only a dream.”
I was watching TV. The Dallas Police brought Lee Harvey Oswald down for transport. Jack Ruby stepped forward and shot the suspect. I leaped from a sitting position over our coffee table yelling to Lois, “My god, they shot Oswald.”
When they buried Jack Kennedy later in the week it left more rumors and speculations than on the day of the shooting. I was to read two dozen books about this event over the next several decades.

I believe there are still unanswered questions.

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