“You’re lucky, Spencer. I wish I had a baby brother.” Ten-year-old Spencer Coleman smiled pridefully at his best friend, José Perez, and then down at his month-and-a-half-old brother, Johnny. “I’m glad that he’s a boy,”Spencer whispered. They had to be quiet, or else they’d wake the baby “Now he can’t turn out like Libby.” Liberty, Spencer’s sister, was nearly thirteen years old and as bossy as a mama hen.
José grinned. “Two Libertys in your family would be a disaster.” He leaned closer to look at the sleeping baby. “Did you name him after the president?”
Spencer nodded. “His real name’s John Kennedy Coleman,”he said. “But we call him Johnny for now.”
“Neat.” José put his knee up on the crib ledge and reached in toward the baby.
“José!” Spencer hissed. “Don’t touch him, you’ll . . .” Too late. Jose’s retreating hand brushed against Johnny’s forehead, and his eyes blinked open. Spencer grimaced. “He wasn’t supposed to wake up until 4:30.” Johnny’s face scrunched up, and he let out a loud yell. “Let’s get out of here.”
The two boys dashed out of the room and down the back staircase, nearly falling over each other in their haste to get outside. “Spencer? José? What are you doing?” Mrs. Coleman was calling.
“Um, we’re going to the park, Mom, we’ll be back soon!” Spencer shouted with his hand on the doorknob. He shoved the door open, and he and José tumbled out.
It was a cool, crisp afternoon in late November. Rotten pumpkins left over from Halloween were still out on everyone’s doorsteps, but the usual Thanksgiving decorations were starting to appear in windows, too. Spencer grabbed two baseball gloves from his garage and tossed one, along with a ball, to José. “Spencer, where are we going?”
“To the park,” Spencer replied shortly. “Like I told Mom.”
They turned out of the driveway and fell into silent step. The air smelled familiar, like it always did just before winter arrived. Spencer assumed it had something to do with decaying pumpkin. “Is anyone coming to your house for Thanksgiving this year?” he asked his friend.
José laughed. “No way. Our apartment’s barely big enough to hold us. We’re going down to Abuelo’s house in Florida.” He smiled. “I bet it’s nice and warm there.”
“Lucky you.” Spencer was staying in New York for Thanksgiving. He just hoped it didn’t snow.
* * *
Spencer put his head down on his desk. Paper-bag turkeys were stupid. They had made those things in kindergarten. Fifth-graders were ten and eleven years old, much too old, in Spencer’s opinion, to be pasting googly eyes on a brown bag. He wondered if José’s fourth-grade class was being put through the same torture. Mrs. Latham, their teacher, was going around the room praising the children’s pasting jobs. The setting reminded Spencer very much of Beverly Cleary’s Ramona book. Every time he looked down, those stupid wiggle-eyes stared back at him. He flicked the turkey to the far end of his desk with his index finger.
Suddenly, the PA system turned on. Spencer sat up in his chair. Messages from the principal were always interesting. Sometimes they even meant getting out of school. There was the time last winter that the pipes froze. Then last month, the fire alarm went off, and there was actually a kitchen fire. “May I please request your attention. Could each teacher please turn the class radios to 1130 WNEW. Thank you.”
There was a little radio sitting on the teacher’s desk. In the younger classrooms, the music stations often got turned on when the kids were working on a project. Sometimes, only on very special occasions, the principal would request that classes turn on their radios to a certain station. They had done that when Spencer was in third grade, at Kennedy’s inauguration. Spencer couldn’t remember if they had done it since.
Mrs. Latham stopped praising Becky Halter’s fine googly-eye pasting job and stood up straight. “Whaddaya say, kids, should we turn on the radio?”
Eager to get away from turkeys, the class nodded in unison.
The teacher turned the knob so that the arrow pointed to 1130.
Spencer pressed forward in his seat. Surprises were fun.
“It looks like the shots were fired from the fifth- or sixth-floor window . . .”
The first words alerted Spencer that something was very wrong. The usually calm and smooth voice of the newscaster was panicked and shocked.
“. . . three shots, at the presidential car . . . Kennedy got hit, and maybe Governor Connelly, too . . .”
Spencer heard the screams of police sirens and a buzz of human voices as he tried to piece together what he had heard. He slumped backwards in his seat when it hit him.
Johnny isn’t named after anyone anymore. The words formed numbly in Spencer’s mind.
He should have known, as soon as the newscaster shouted, “Three shots, at the presidential car.” He should have known. “Kennedy got hit.”
Their President was dying. He had been shot, while riding in his car through the streets of Texas.
Mrs. Latham slammed her hand on the knob and the radio turned off in a burst of static. Her face was pallid, and she could barely get out a whisper. “Class dismissed.”
* * *
“Mom! Mom!” Spencer yelled, bursting into the room. “Mom, are you here, Mom?”
Johnny was crying. Mom came up the den stairs as fast as she could, with the baby cradled in her arms. “Your teacher called and told me you’d be home early.” Her face was almost as white as Mrs. Latham’s. “Liberty’s in the den.”
Spencer was shaking as he followed Mom. This was scary. This was scarier than last year’s Cuban missile problem. At least the Soviets and Cubans were the enemies. An American, from Texas, no less, had shot the President.
The TV was on. Liberty was sitting on the floor, rigid, staring at the picture with a blank look on her face. She looked like a ghost. Spencer felt like a spectator to the rest of the world, watching first his teacher’s grief, then the tears of some of his own classmates outside the school, and then his family’s shock. Spencer’s whole body was numb. His mind was numb.
Mom put her arm around his shoulders. “It’s going to be fine, Spence,” she whispered in his ear. “Don’t worry” Spencer wanted to take comfort in her words, but to him, it sounded like she was trying to comfort herself.
The television picture cut to a shot of the newsroom, where the man Daddy always referred to as Mr. Cronkite was sitting behind a desk. He spoke four words. “The President is dead.”
* * *
“There was a father with a little boy . . .” The Colemans hadn’t watched any television for three days, ever since they had turned the picture off at three o’clock on November 22. Spencer didn’t even watch “I Love Lucy,” which could usually be counted on to occupy his mind and rid him of any internal troubles he may have.
“. . . a little girl, and a joy of each in the other . . .”
Instead he filled his time with math problems, fraction after fraction, begging Mom to create new problems for him after he ran out on his workbook sheet. It seemed to Spencer a fittingly solemn thing to do.
“In a moment, it was no more.”
Now the whole family was gathered in the den, around the television. Spencer was curled on the couch. Liberty was sitting on the floor. Mom was sitting on the stairs, bottle-feeding little Johnny. Dad was sitting in the easy chair, smoking a cigarette. These were the funeral ceremonies.
“There was a husband who asked much and gave much . . .”
Eulogies. Daddy had told Spencer what a eulogy was. It was a speech, given at a funeral, in honor of a dead person. A senator was speaking now. Mike Mansfield. Spencer didn’t understand what a lot of the sentences meant, but the words were powerful.
“. . . and out of the giving and the asking wove with a woman who could not be broken in life . . .”
Spencer knew he would remember November 22, 1963 for as long as he lived. Even though he had left it on his desk on his way out the door, he would remember the stupid paper-bag turkey. He would remember Mrs. Latham, so chipper one moment. . . “Whaddaya say, kids, should we turn on the radio?” . . . and so grim and pale the next. But most of all, Spencer would remember the feeling of vulnerability, the feeling that nothing can be taken for granted, and the best things can be taken away without warning.
“. . . and in a moment it was no more.”
Author’s note: The italicized quotes in the fourth and final section are selected parts of Senator Mike Mansfield’s JFK eulogy.