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That Indian Summer day that plays forever in reruns

November 25, 2018

It was a weird, tragic day, that Indian Summer afternoon so long ago.

It was unseasonably sunny and warm, and the kids at Belltown School had just gotten back from lunch on Friday, Nov. 22. The sun was still high enough, and the shirt-sleeve warmth reminded us, so briefly, of the recently completed summer leading into fourth grade.

The events to come would foreshadow a bleak winter that wouldn’t be broken for months. I can argue that we’re still paying the historic price, 55 years later.

It was the day President John F. Kennedy, three years into his term, was shot in Dallas by an assassin, a former U.S. Marine who somehow lived for a time in the Soviet Union, then came back to the United States, and escaped notice from authorities on his walk into the Texas Book Depository. The shooter himself — Lee Harvey Oswald — would be murdered, with a handgun thrust into his ribs, on live TV.

Most of the 300 pupils at that now-long-defunct Stamford neighborhood school went home at noon every day to peanut butter or American cheese sandwiches, maybe, an apple or a homemade cookie, then a quick turnaround back up the street three blocks for the 1 o’clock bell. Bread back then was 22 cents a loaf. No one in the neighborhood locked their doors because there wasn’t anything to steal.

The 25 or so of us arrived in Mrs. Poole’s classroom as ready as would ever be to dive back into the multiplication tables and reading assignments. I recall that at the time, the answer to nine times eight was particularly evasive and mysterious.

Although the day was warm, well up into the 60s, we did not have our baseball gloves. That summer, the five-digit Zip Code had been introduced to speed our postal system, not that I had much reason to use it beyond the pro forma thank-you note for my week’s stay in August at Grandfather Foley’s little farm in Madison.

The baseball season had ended sadly on Oct. 6, with the ignominious four-game sweep of the New York Yankees by the Los Angeles Dodgers, signaling the beginning of the end of a dynasty that would lose again a year later, to the St. Louis Cardinals, then virtually disappear until the late-1970s. The loss to the Dodgers coincided with Hurricane Flora, which killed as many as 8,000 by the time it finished ravaging Cuba, and which I never heard of until I started writing this memory and looked back at major events of 1963.

I do remember that in April, around the time of my ninth birthday, the U.S.S. Thresher nuclear submarine went missing. I recall that story showing up on the front page of The New York Herald Tribune, which landed on our front porch every morning.

I also remember the September bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four girls just a little older than me. At the time, we didn’t know for sure that it was a KKK operation planned by old white bigots. It took 14 years to bring one of them to trial.

It seemed that we had just settled back into our desks in the second-floor classroom at about 1 p.m., but history says the president wasn’t shot in the head until 1:30 Eastern time. The unflappable Mrs. Poole appeared and gave us an early dismissal, uttering something vaguely about the president being hurt, but OK.

A few minutes later, my mother definitely knew something was up, but what do you say to a 9-year-old on a sunny day? That the president was shot dead? That the Soviets could be behind it? That some kind of hope for post World War II America was dead on a slab in Texas?

There would be time for that over the long weekend of mourning, with the black-and-white TV on constantly, and the drumming and the little boy saluting the casket carrying the remains of his dead father, his boots symbolically backward in the stirrups of the riderless horse.

So I ran off, down the hill, mostly oblivious, into the then-expansive woods behind Dolan Junior High, and played army, in my nascent training for the Vietnam War, to which I thankfully did not have to march.

Ken Dixon, political editor and columnist, can be reached at 203-842-2547 or at kdixon@ctpost.com. Visit him at twitter.com/KenDixonCT and on Facebook at kendixonct.hearst.

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