QOTD: “In Vino Veritas”

 

“In Vino Veritas” (Latin) “Ἐν οἴνῳ ἀλήθεια” (Greek) “In Wine There is Truth.” — Erasmus, Adagia I.vii.17

“Drunken old fool.” My mother pulled me away from the old man, grabbed me by the arm with one hand, my sister by the arm with the other, and she led us around the corner, where we walked up the steps to the second floor of our apartment building on Babcock Street in Brookline, MA.

We’d been living there for three weeks, ever since we got off the plane at Boston’s Logan Airport, our port of entry to the United States. Dad was settling in at Harvard, where he was a new Fellow at the Center for International Affairs. My mother was, in her rather haphazard way, settling into life as a Stay At Home Mom (I believe the term at the time was, simply, housewife), caring for my two-year-old sister and trying to placate the woman we called “Fanlight Fanny” in the apartment below, who wasn’t best pleased to have a clumsy toddler making noises and dropping things on our floor/her ceiling at odd times of the day and night. Periodically, Fanny would show up at our door in robe and pink curlers, brandishing the very broomstick she used to bang on her ceiling (I imagined it pockmarked with craters like the surface of the moon) cursing up a storm, like a character from a Frank L. Baum children’s’ book. Mother would listen politely, make sympathetic and apologetic noises, then close the door and swear loudly and colorfully, as only she could.

And I was a fourth grader at Edward Devotion Elementary School, round the corner, about eight blocks away.

I didn’t like it all that much. My classmates were generally standoffish, although I was starting to form a few friendships. The teacher was mean and dismissive. She wasted no time telling me that I had a lot to learn and that I hadn’t been properly educated up till now. (By this time, I’d already attended about eight different schools over four years, with almost one year off from school entirely when there just wasn’t one to be had. My mother wasn’t much for homeschooling, so we just skipped it. I’d been to one-room schools, where children of all ages crowded into the teacher’s living room or kitchen, state schools where English was not the first language, missionary schools (learned a lot of hymns), convent schools, Muslim schools, small schools, and large schools). The teacher also made fun of the way I spoke. It hurt. And, while she didn’t ruin my life for long, the meanness she displayed towards a lonely, scared, and vulnerable little girl still hurts. Except now, when I think about it, my emotions go the other way and play out in a show of sorrow and pity for her. What an ugly woman.

The people I remember fondly from that time in my life aren’t from that school. Neither the adults nor the children. I mostly remember the kindness of grownups: my dad’s friends and colleagues, some of whom were, at the time, noted and awarded economists and mathematicians (who always had time to help me with my baffling “new math” homework); a few gentlemen who later became famous in public life; a couple of politicians, the president of a multibillion-dollar private foundation, and even an international statesman or two. It was something of a charmed life, and I didn’t even know it until much later.

With the singular exception of Fanny, our neighbors in the apartment building were nice, too, particularly the three young bachelors who shared a “pad” across the hall from our two-bedroom apartment. My mother (whose only son wouldn’t be born for another five years) immediately adopted them, keeping an eye out for them (bet they loved that), and feeding them her good British cooking (she was a terrible cook).

So, by and large, by the third week of November 1963, we were all settling in, and pretty well at that.

The only fly in the ointment (besides Fanny, again) was the building’s janitor. He was a tall, angular man with a manner that we’d probably describe today as ‘hyperactive.’ His arms were always waving around. His mouth was always moving. Sitting or standing, his legs and feet were always going, rocking back and forth, tapping and jerking.

And he was always rat-faced. (In best Lewis Carroll tradition, I’ve taken two phrases indicating extreme intoxication, one from my native land, one from my adopted home, neither of which is Code-of-Conduct compliant, and combined a part of each of them into a new one that is. It’s doubly apt because he really was, physically, anyway. Rat-faced, I mean. Just not an appealing specimen at all.) And he’d made matters worse, and run afoul of Dad, by sending all our household effects back to the dock when they were delivered, because they were packed in 55-gallon oil drums. (My parents had learned this trick after several moves in which a high proportion of our stuff was damaged or broken. Since the drums could easily be rolled around on their sides, the dock workers preferred them. So we packed everything in sawdust, hammered the lids on firmly, and that solved the problem. No more breakages.)

But Mr. “A” wasn’t buying it, even though he’d been asked to keep an eye out for them. (This is the one guy amongst the first 200 names in the Boston phonebook that you wouldn’t have wanted running the country. Trust me on that.) He refused delivery, sent the stuff away, and Dad had to move heaven and earth (something he was rather good at, fortunately), to get it back.

So, on that unseasonably warm November afternoon, my mother and my little sister had walked to Devotion School to meet me, as they always did, and we were making our way home. It must have been about 3:15 in the afternoon. I was anxious to get home and turn on the telly so I could watch the local Bozo the Clown show and a couple of cartoons. We’d never owned a TV before, so the only time I’d ever enjoyed one was at Granny and Grandpa’s (golf, Wimbledon, Ronald Coleman movies), and it was still a thrill to listen to it buzz and wait for it to warm up. Even a bit of a thrill to watch the occasional test pattern. Or to fiddle with the horizontal or vertical hold. (I know, it’s like a foreign language, amirite?)

Suddenly, my anticipatory schoolgirl ruminations were interrupted by a figure that appeared out of nowhere like Banquo’s specter at the feast. Mr. “A.” He was in even more of a state than usual. Rat-faced, red-faced, red-eyed, arms and legs waving independently in no known syncopation, his sparse hair sticking out all over the place, his pants unzipped, his shirt buttoned up wrong and two different shoes on. His nose was swollen, and tears were running down his face. He was shouting, as he got about six inches away from my mother’s face, arms going like windmills. He reeked of even more drink than usual.

“What on earth is the matter with you?” my mother exclaimed.

He was crying. So hard it was almost impossible to understand him when he spoke, his voice thick with tears.

“The President’s been shot. President Kennedy is dead.”

“Drunken old fool,” said my mother, and moved on.

Indeed he was. But, for once, he was speaking the absolute truth. As we found out five minutes later when we turned on the television, about 30 minutes after Walter Cronkite made his earth-shattering announcement.

It was an extraordinary experience and an extraordinary time to be new in the country. And to be living where we were, a half-mile from the house where JFK spent the first 10 years of his life, and for me to be attending the same elementary school as he did.

It was the start of a period of numbness, where people sat around for days, crying and glued to the television (where, two days later, a horrified nation watched another murder unfold as Lee Harvey Oswald was shot on live TV by Jack Ruby). The bachelors pretty much lived in our apartment for a week. I don’t know where their own families were, but we became their family, and they became ours. People just cried and cried. Nothing got done. Everything stopped. In unimaginable tragedy, people found what we thought would be unshakable unity. (That didn’t hold. We thought that again 38 years later, on another awful day. It didn’t hold then, either.)

But, on that sad Friday afternoon, we knew nothing of what was to come. All we knew was that something had been lost and that something very bad had happened.

“The President’s been shot. President Kennedy is dead.”

And my mother picked up the phone to call my dad.

And in a world without social media, in a world with no cell phones, no iPads, no 24-hour continuous news cycle, in a world with only three television networks, with limited communications technology among them, and in a world in which most people would wait to hear what had happened today, until tomorrow morning when the newspapers were delivered, she told Harvard University that one of its most famous alumni, the President of the United States of America, was dead.

There are 23 comments.

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  1. Rodin Member
    Rodin
    @Rodin

    Beautifully written, @she. My own memory: I was walking about the neighborhood surrounding my school selling boxes of candy as a fundraiser while my classmates were roller skating in the gym of our small parochial school. As I was walking toward the street at the front of the school a car had pulled over — not one I recognized as a parent or anyone else connected with the school — and was just sitting there listening to the radio. I walked on, knocking on doors, pitching the candy. At some point, it may have been a barbershop about a block away, someone told me “the President is dead”.

    I returned to the school and I do not recall whether I was bringing the news to the skating kids or simply encountering them now in possession of the news. Video playback was relatively new in that time, so memory now is uncertain whether I saw a replay of Cronkite’s broadcast or caught some of it live from the front porch of a home where I tried to sell candy. But certainly throughout the weekend and ever after, those images chronicling the events were fused into my mind.

    Just a few days earlier the President had been in my town. Our school was in the landing pattern for the commercial airport. And I vividly recall the military fly-by that accompanied his visit. Standing out in the field where we played sports I could see the delta winged fighters zoom overhead.

    It had been only a little over a year since I had seen the President announce on TV the presence of missiles in Cuba, and simultaneously heard the rumble of military aircraft overflying my Miami home on the way to Homestead AFB about 30 miles south. I had gone outside to better hear, but could not see in the October overcast the aircraft congregating in southern Florida. But the troop carriers rolling through town were much more visible.

    A different, and now distant, time.

     

    • #1
  2. iWe Coolidge
    iWe
    @iWe

    Thank you for this. Another gorgeous post.

    I confess that I have never understood the magnitude of the perceived tragedy of JFK’s murder. But partly this is because my teachers in high school so revered him that I reflexively took the contrarian position. 9/11 changed the world – JFK’s assassination, to my mind, did not.

    • #2
  3. PHCheese Inactive
    PHCheese
    @PHCheese

    They were scary times. I was a freshman in college and there were many rumors of an impending invasion or a  military coup. She your family should have skipped Boston and gone straight to Bethel Park. Great post.

    • #3
  4. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Well, that’s certainly an engaging story of where you were fifty-four years ago today.


    This conversation is part of the Quote of the Day Series. If you have an interesting quotation, or a quotation you can use to head an interesting story, you might consider signing up for a date next month on our schedule and sign-up sheet.

    • #4
  5. She Member
    She
    @She

    And thank you so much for reminding me that it was that long ago.

    In case I’d forgotten.

    And thanks for the nice comments, everyone.

    • #5
  6. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    I prefer “What is it the vintners buy half so precious as the stuff they sell?”

    I was in seventh grade science class right after lunch when we got the news.  I don’t recall being particularly affected by it.

    • #6
  7. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    I was three and I don’t recall the assassination. I’ve been told by my mother that I watched Oswald being shot in the room where I’m sitting now. (I also watched the Apollo XI landing in this room; that I do remember.)

    Someone from Baaahstin making fun of how other people talk? Feh.

    “Say the eighteenth letter of the alphabet.”

    “You mean ‘ahhh?'”

    “Not even close.”

    • #7
  8. She Member
    She
    @She

    Randy Webster (View Comment):
    I prefer “What is it the vintners buy half so precious as the stuff they sell?”

    I was in seventh grade science class right after lunch when we got the news. I don’t recall being particularly affected by it.

    Were there girls in your science class?  If so, that might explain it.

     

    • #8
  9. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    She (View Comment):

    Randy Webster (View Comment):
    I prefer “What is it the vintners buy half so precious as the stuff they sell?”

    I was in seventh grade science class right after lunch when we got the news. I don’t recall being particularly affected by it.

    Were there girls in your science class? If so, that might explain it.

    Yes.  It was a public school.

    • #9
  10. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    Because of something someone wrote earlier this week in a comment on Ricochet, I just learned that Jackie Kennedy had lost a newborn baby, Patrick Bouvier Kennedy, two months earlier, on August 9, 1963. Poor Jackie.

    The day Jack Kennedy was assassinated, I was in the fourth grade. The teacher wheeled the television into our classroom in time for us to watch LBJ be sworn in as president on the airplane.

    Years later, July 16, 1999, I was so sad that John F. Kennedy, Jr., died in a plane crash off Martha’s Vineyard. I live on Cape Cod, it was a very strange and terrible sad time. We were sitting on the beach while the Navy destroyers were crisscrossing Cape Cod Bay looking for survivors and plane debris. It was a very eerie feeling.

    A terribly tragic chapter in American history.

     

    • #10
  11. Nanda Panjandrum Member
    Nanda Panjandrum
    @

    I was in hospital-school, being trundled back to the ward; hushed staff, unaccustomed kindness; inky-fingers from a still-wet “My Weekly Reader” supplement passed out to us over that weekend.  Now, I think of the three-year-old whose father was buried on his birthday – who also left the planet in a way that made people ask: “Where were you, when…?” for a time.

    • #11
  12. Giaccomo Member
    Giaccomo
    @Giaccomo

    Fortunately or not, when it comes to wine,,in my neck of the woods the operative phrase is ‘in vino hilaritas.’  I give you the joy of the bottle!

    • #12
  13. Gary Robbins Reagan
    Gary Robbins
    @GaryRobbins

    This is a very good post.  My only suggestion is that it be re-titled “November 22, 1063:  QOTD: ‘In Vino Veritas'” so that dullards like me who don’t know latin, or what QOTD means would know that it is about the JFK assassination.  Good job.  You have a flare for writing.  Thank you.

    • #13
  14. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Gary Robbins (View Comment):
    This is a very good post. My only suggestion is that it be re-titled “November 22, 1063: QOTD: ‘In Vino Veritas’” so that dullards like me who don’t know latin, or what QOTD means would know that it is about the JFK assassination. Good job. You have a flare for writing. Thank you.

    Or who have no idea what century it is? ;^D

    • #14
  15. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    @garyrobbins, at least you got me out of trouble. I may have said it was 54 years ago, but at least I didn’t make it before the Norman Conquest.

     

    • #15
  16. She Member
    She
    @She

    JFK’s death sucked most of the air out of that day.  But I do not forget that, thousands of miles away, in Oxford, Clive Staples Lewis, who had been grievously ill for a couple of years, collapsed in his bedroom and died, just an hour or two before Kennedy.  So, a quote from the great man:

    “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”

    And, on the West coast of the United States,  about five hours after JFK died, Aldous Leonard Huxley, suffering from advanced laryngeal cancer, breathed his last, probably as a result of intramuscular LSD injections administered at his request, by his wife, Laura.   (Unable to speak, Huxley made his wishes known to her in writing.) And so, for the trifecta:

    “That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach.”

    • #16
  17. She Member
    She
    @She

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Gary Robbins (View Comment):
    This is a very good post. My only suggestion is that it be re-titled “November 22, 1063: QOTD: ‘In Vino Veritas’” so that dullards like me who don’t know latin, or what QOTD means would know that it is about the JFK assassination. Good job. You have a flare for writing. Thank you.

    Or who have no idea what century it is? ;^D

    Thanks for the suggestion.  I think I like the fact that the date and the reason for the story sort of sneak up on you as you read it.  At least, that’s why I did it this way.  Hope it worked.  I think it might have.

    • #17
  18. She Member
    She
    @She

    Arahant (View Comment):

    @garyrobbins, at least you got me out of trouble. I may have said it was 54 years ago, but at least I didn’t make it before the Norman Conquest.

    HaHaHaHaHa!  (I’d have used all caps, but then I’d have had to redact myself . . . .).

    • #18
  19. OldPhil Coolidge
    OldPhil
    @OldPhil

    I was in Mrs. Fahey’s 9th grade English class. A student knocked on the door (I even remember her name) and told us what happened and everyone was to go to the auditorium to watch TV. That’s where we heard that the President was dead.

    I don’t remember much else, except when we got back to the classroom, one of the guys was joking about some of the girls weeping. Then one of them (who obviously had been on a date with him) said “I saw you cry at the movies!”

    Strange what you remember.

    • #19
  20. Fritz Coolidge
    Fritz
    @Fritz

    iWe (View Comment):
    Thank you for this. Another gorgeous post.

    I confess that I have never understood the magnitude of the perceived tragedy of JFK’s murder. But partly this is because my teachers in high school so revered him that I reflexively took the contrarian position. 9/11 changed the world – JFK’s assassination, to my mind, did not.

    Well, let me try to give you a different take on the significance of the assassination.

    JFK’s assassination made LBJ president. That would never have occurred in normal times as the Kennedy clique all hated LBJ fiercely.

    LBJ got busy, got re-elected as the Peace candidate against the “dangerous” conservative Goldwater, and then went amok with the Great Society (which destroyed the black family)  and the Vietnam War (which tore apart the rest of the nation). Thanks to LBJ, the accidental president, the debacle in SE Asia led to the election of Richard Nixon, and we got Watergate (which destroyed Americans’ faith in the truthfulness of their government and made the media believe their own self-aggrandizing hype about “making a difference”). So I would say, on balance, the assassination of JFK had monumental and far-reaching consequences.

    • #20
  21. iWe Coolidge
    iWe
    @iWe

    Fritz (View Comment):
    So I would say, on balance, the assassination of JFK had monumental and far-reaching consequences.

    … that is the best argument I have ever heard for why it really mattered. Thank you!

    • #21
  22. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    As always, a touching, heart-searing post, She. That time will be forever burned into my brain. Your story brought it home, once again.

    • #22
  23. Gary Robbins Reagan
    Gary Robbins
    @GaryRobbins

    Gary Robbins (View Comment):
    This is a very good post. My only suggestion is that it be re-titled “November 22, 1063: QOTD: ‘In Vino Veritas’” so that dullards like me who don’t know latin, or what QOTD means would know that it is about the JFK assassination. Good job. You have a flare for writing. Thank you.

    QOTD = Quote of the Day.

    • #23
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