The Day They Lowered the Flags
Confused and dazed, I left my mother’s “railroad flat” at 1821 Himrod St. in Ridgewood and walked the eight blocks to the Myrtle Avenue el’s Seneca Avenue elevated station on this seasonably cool autumn afternoon, November 22, 1963. My mother was at work in the City, I had a class that evening and what else was I going to do? I waited for the old wooden el train to arrive staring into space not thinking; numb, robbed of emotion. I boarded the sparsely filled silent car, sat down and resumed my blank stare out the window over the rooftops of Bushwick as the train took me south toward my destination, Downtown Brooklyn. As the train rumbled above Myrtle Avenue, I began to focus on the schools and other city buildings that stood taller than the surrounding residential buildings. Some of these municipal buildings had masts that were flying the Stars and Stripes, a practice rather uncommon at that time. The flags attracted my attention but, what really caught my eyes was the realization that all of these flags were at half-mast. That is when it finally hit me: the President was dead!
The day had begun ordinarily enough. I had a curious schedule at St. Francis College that semester with classes split between mornings and evenings on Wednesdays and Fridays. On Fridays, I had two classes in the morning from nine to 11 and one at night, a two-hour advanced history course from four to six. Professor James (Doc) Flynn, the department head, taught that class. He was a rough, tough professor who loved history majors and I learned more about politics, government and the Constitution from that man than any other person ever. To this day I recall things he imparted to me whenever an unusual political event transpires. He almost made it worth while to lose the early part of Friday night’s fun.
That Friday, after morning classes ended, I left the building on Remsen Street, cut between the courthouses and boarded the el at Jay Street to head home for lunch. We didn’t have a campus and I had become bored hanging around the cafeteria killing the afternoon watching others leave for the weekend. And to be truthful, I also had become addicted to the CBS soap opera, As the World Turns. It was during the episode broadcast that Friday afternoon that a jacketless Walter Cronkite, tie askew, first broke the news that President John Fitzgerald Kennedy had been shot while visiting Dallas. Cronkite returned to the air a bit later, now wearing a jacket and tie. He removed his glasses wiped a tear from his cheek before he told America, “The President is dead.”
Arriving on the train back at Jay Street, I stopped at the bottom of the stairs to scan the afternoon newspapers lined up on the corner newsstand to see if any had reported the awful news. I felt this overpowering need to see the truth with my own eyes, but the Journal-American, Post and World-Telegram and Sun on display were all early editions. Still I stopped and fingered one or two in hope that the absence of news could reverse what I knew to be true. Suddenly, a bundle thrown from a passing truck dropped to the sidewalk at my side. Instantly, someone cut the strap and greedy fingers from a crowd I had not noticed began devouring the latest edition of the Telegram. I was one of them mesmerized by the headline that filled the top half of the front page in four-inch high letters:
I went into a form of a mental breakdown, took my copy and made my way to the building on Remsen Street. I know I went to class.
While many of the classes that afternoon and evening had been cancelled, Doc Flynn didn’t abide by such a notion. His class would go on as scheduled.
I do remember Doc Flynn making a brief remark about our national tragedy before commencing his lecture only to quickly concede that the zoned out group of boys facing him were absorbing nothing. He stopped, dismissed the class and wordlessly, we filed out.
Did I stop for a drink at Jim and Jeans’ our local watering hole on Livingston Street or O’Keefe’s on Court Street, or did I just go home? I have no recollection of the night so I presume I must have just gone home.
On Saturday morning, I walked to our shopping area on Myrtle Avenue in a light rain, bought an American Flag that I brought home to display on a rope between our living room windows as best I could to publicly mourn our collective loss.