Friday, November 5, 2010

How To Grow Up In A Single Day

The Last Fall of Childhood, 1963...

By Peter Rodman
November 22, 2009

Making the transition from grade school to junior high school was hard.
Suddenly, kids I'd never known, from schools all over town, converged on the one 'middle school' we had, called Bethpage Junior High School. It was the oldest school in town, and its Greco-Roman, prison-chic exterior had once housed the high school-- but now, a snazzy new high school (which looked like something out of The Jetsons to us) had been built, a mile or so they dumped the 7th and 8th graders into this moldy edifice, and were done with it.


Bethpage Junior High School.
This is just one side of it.
I almost literally say "Grrrr,"
when I see its singularly
mausoleum-like exterior.
Its interior design motif was 'locker-room-meets-army barracks'; the color scheme, unrelentingly drab.
Even the teachers seemed to have been there since its inception, in the '30s or '40s.

Going to school there was almost like visiting a crypt, in one of those 35 cent horror movies we loved to go see, on Saturday afternoons.

Only the excitement of kids suddenly growing up brought any life to its halls, at all.  But even the cacaphony of pubescent gossip--a newfound art, at that age--could not budge its lifeless foundation.

Cliques began to form, girls and boys began to notice each other, and suddenly, if you weren't cool, well--you just weren't cool.  I'll leave it to you to guess, which category fit me best...

Of perhaps 700 children in the combined two grades, I had the singular distinction of being THE shortest. (I didn't vault to my towering 5'7" stature until many years later.)
The height thing, coupled with my precocious manner and mouthy retorts, combined to suddenly make me a less-than-popular fellow. Grade school had been a far more forgiving, even enchanting time, and 'class clown' had been an impressive thing to be.
No longer.

Kids were moving on now--getting down to the serious business of obsessing on the other sex. And although I eagerly joined in that preoccupation, the laws of nature sorted me right 'out-da-bunch'...if you know what I mean. Let's just say the Darwinian thing did not work to my benefit, and this was an astounding revelation, for a kid who'd been told all his life that "it's what inside that counts."
Looking back on it now, I think my parents and grandparents must have been busily preparing me for the worst, every time they said, "Now, remember: Good things come in small packages!"
Maybe so. But it turns out that what's inside and small packages don't buy you a lot of time with too many good things, of the female variety.
I knew it was time to reassess my entire standing in the world. (First, I needed to convince people that I was standing.)

On top of that, I quickly became convinced that none of my new crypt keepers teachers liked me, because I hadn't yet learned to recalibrate what worked (and what didn't work) in this newly somber environment.
I wasn't tall enough to try out for school teams yet, so I settled upon joining the 'Debate Club', at my father's urging. This new addition to my resume did not assist me in any social way whatsoever.
But somewhere along the line, art and English teachers began to take pity (and see potential) in me, and that is where this story begins.

Even though he had angrily sent me out to the hallway (complete with my entire desk) several times, to tamp down my boisterous behavior in class, Mr. D'Agastino, our art teacher, had somehow become interested in helping The Little Boy That Could.

What I had to carry out to the hall with me,
whenever I got kicked out of art class.
Looking back on it, I think he could clearly see my spirits beginning to sink, after only a few weeks there. A whole new set of priorities had set up social networks and codes I could not yet crack, for the life o' me. In short (to use an unfortunate term), I felt deflated, if not defeated.

 Meanwhile, my Dad saw another kind of potential. Ever the conservative activist, he had made some local news, by challenging past school board decisions. Before I knew it--with no friend-base to help elect me, whatsoever--I had become convinced that running for office at school was somehow a good idea.  And so it was, that during the Fall of 1963 I threw my hat into the ring, to run for 'Vice President of the Student Council'.
This was the highest 'office' you could seek in 7th grade, since the 'President' of the school (of course) had to be an 8th grader.
My disadvantages in the race became evident in...err...short order.

My opponent, a blowhard bully named Jesse, was from a far wealthier family than mine, and it showed. I remember that his house was furnished "oriental style," and to us this was exotic beyond all imagination. (In retrospect, now having spent many moons overseas myself, it was nothing but cliched, tourist-shop crapola.)
Although we once shared a Little League team, my most significant interaction with Jesse up to this point was when he sucker-punched me unconscious, during a street game of stick-ball. As my turn to bat came, he (and all the other kids on his team) slowly converged on 'home plate', and as I felt a strange silence coming over the proceedings, I remember saying "What's going on?"
I woke up to a chorus of "I'm sorrys" and "Is he okays?", and it must have really been scary, to see me laid out cold from that shot to the chin, because they were all very nice to me for a few weeks in a row, after that.
But now, junior high school was "on," and any such detente long over.

The mere act of my running for Vice President was regarded as more laughable than audacious. Kids passing in the hallways would say, "Good luck, Rodman!" or "Oh, look...the next Vice President!" Now I hated my Dad, for suggesting it in the first place.

Life in junior high school sucked, as far as I could see (which was pretty much waist-level, if the truth be known).     
The school held to old traditions, and finally, the momentous day came when, in its hallowed, theatre-like auditorium, more than 700 kids would pack the house, for the carefully staged 'Student Council Election Debate'.  Everyone in school knew what a debate was, but only because a couple of years earlier, we'd all sat in our living rooms with our parents, and solemnly watched the Nixon-Kennedy debates in total silence. (Unlike today, when people routinely talk back to the television, and mock the candidate they've already decided to vote against, people actually used to use the Presidential Debates, to decide how to vote. Strange, I know...)
It's hard to conceive of how new it was, to watch a "live" debate on TV, but the 1960 election was America's first one ever.

Anyway, it was widely known that Jesse would trounce me in the upcoming election, and I dreaded going before the whole school on this huge stage, to further make a fool of myself.
Wasn't there any way out of this?
I just wanted to get it over with, and hopefully not take another sock-in-the-jaw.

At home, my parents reviewed the elaborate drafts of my opening speech (although they wouldn't write a word for me, which was good), and that process helped mask my inner terror, as they would ask me 'civic' sounding questions, like "What are the issues you can say you'd be better at solving, than Jesse?"
They may have suggested that I take out "Less Homework!" as part of my platform.
In truth, there really weren't any "issues" that mattered much. But by the time our late-October debate rolled around, my speech was a solid, issue-oriented, substantive one.
In other words, a total waste of time.
After all, our potential 'constituency' had only one priority, in the end:
"Who do we like better?" 

Now, the day had come. Looking through the thick, two-story curtains from backstage, I was a mess. Holy Shit! The place was packed! And here I was, about to get my head handed to me, by the guy who'd already beat me (literally) in every way possible, for the past six years.  

Picture this size hall, but with ZERO windows.
This was to be the site of my
first great stage appearance.
Perhaps sensing my stagefright, Mr. D'Agastino put his arm around my shoulder and ushered me over to stage left.
"You see that podium?" he asked me.
"Ummm...yeah..." I was petrified.
"Okay," he said, "Jesse's going to go out there and give his speech first. But when it comes time for you to speak, we've put a box behind there, for you to stand on. Can you see it?"
"Yeah." My teeth were chattering.
""Okay, I've got an idea," He said, excitedly. Behind his voice, I could hear the anxious rumblings of 700 kids, eagerly awaiting the slaughter. Kids are like that. Especially 13 and 14 year olds.
"Now, when you go out there, I want you to step in front of the box, but stay behind the podium."
Now I was totally confused! At my height, nobody would possibly be able to see me, if I didn't stand on TOP of the box. What was he thinking?
"Are you with me, Mr. Rodman?" he said, snapping me momentarily out of my trance of horror.
"Now, listen!" he insisted, both hands still on my shoulders. "When you get out there, I want you to stand on the floor behind the podium, just look up towards the microphone, and say really loudly, 'SOMEBODY MUST'VE DUG A HOLE DOWN HERE!'"
I couldn't even reply to this.
I looked at him with eyes that asked if he, too, was being cruel...are you CRAZY?...but his enthusiasm was unbounded. Suddenly, he loved me, and I knew it!
Now Jesse's speech was done, and everybody was clapping...and I had wasted all of the time I had planned to spend going over my speech, listening to Mr. D'Agastino's wacky idea.
"Peter," he said, using my first name for the first time all semester, "Trust me! 'Somebody must've dug a hole down here!'...Have you got it?"
I had no choice, but to 'get it.'
My name had just been announced--to a smattering of applause, some clearly detectable 'boos,' and a discernable air of derision.

I neatened up my tie, and headed out into what might as well have been The Roman Colosseum.
At the last minute, instead of fumbling with the box (which Jesse had shoved off to the side), I decided to head straight to the podium, and just do it.
(Oh well, I thought. My projection was good, anyway.)

Right then and there, the strangest 'onstage' moment of my life occurred (though there would surely be more, in the ensuing years):
I got a sustained, hysterical laugh...from 700 kids, at once!
It was so loud, and it went on for so long, that it actually scared me.
I took the extra time it gave me to grab the box and finally stand on it, but they were still laughing heartily, when I began to deliver my prepared remarks.
For some reason, every line in the speech connected, after that. A single line had already won their hearts, but I plowed on, oblivious to anything but my determination to survive this ordeal.
People often say that to have an audience in the palm of your hand is intoxicating, and that may be true, but for a decidedly unpopular 13 year old shrimp, it was just...well....shocking, is what it was!
Only later on would I find it thrilling, when Mr. D'Agastino kept saying, "I told ya! I told ya!"
It was like a movie.

The election was held later that very day.
Unbelievably, I won by 36 votes. And in classic fashion, Jesse angrily demanded a recount--which made many kids stay after school to count the ballots--something which only further cemented his demise, as the 'villain', in this-here story.

A fairly reasonable facsimile of
my seventh grade German teacher.
Less than a month later, on a cloudy Friday in late November, my 7th grade German class was dragging. Our German teacher looked like a cross between Aunt Bee and Sophie Tucker, and even though I purposely sat at the back of the class, she'd often catch me completely flummoxed, by the indecipherable German phrases she was trying to teach us.
Honestly, it may as well have been a foreign language.
The sum total of my "studying" was confined to the second hand of the clock, in her classroom.
My total retention from that year consists of "Ich habe eine bibliotek," which of course means, "I have a library," a phrase which I've found comes in very handy when you're walking down the street in Frankfurt, carrying a library.

Suddenly, and without any warning, the school Principal's voice came on the PA, and in very official tones (which seem inappropriately dramatic to lay on 13 year old kids, in retrospect) he told the 700 students and their teachers, spread around several acres of classrooms and gymnasiums, that it was his sad duty to announce to us that the President of the United States had just been shot and killed.
That was it.
No instructions, no context, no guidance as to what the rest of the day would be like.
Just "He's dead."

Our big ol' German teacher was as dumbfounded as anyone.
For the first time since I'd known her, she lacked any trace of her usual certitude.
Obviously, she couldn't continue the day's lesson, and now, the growing chorus of crying 13 year old girls was almost sounding like a competition. Seriously, it seemed that each girl was trying to outdo the other, in their display of 'sensitivity' to an event they obviously could not comprehend at all, let alone grieve. 

This was the official portrait
of President Kennedy,
which was hanging in
our classroom that day.
I don't mean to be cruel in this observation, but if you had seen it you'd agree, there was some measure of acting, involved. By this I do not mean to belittle (or deny) their true emotions, in any way. I'm simply suggesting that exaggerated histrionics are one way that 13 year olds communicate confusion and grief, especially when they think they're supposed to.
What else had our 'Principal' left us, but that?

At some point, I had become very quiet, amid the ruckus--which, as anyone who knows me to this day will tell you, is not the usual, for this former Vice President of Bethpage Junior High School.
Pretty soon, kids began to notice that...and almost as one, their pairs-of-eyes (as well as the teacher's, strangely enough) turned back, their collective focus directly on mine.
Some girl finally said, "'re the Vice President!"
It was like..."Do something!"
I looked to the big German lady at the front of the room, thinking she might take over for me, but she looked right back. Her eyes were saying it, too: Do something.

In a way, that day taught me a lot about how much weight people put on you, if they think you've got anything to add to a particular moment.
That simple, stupid, corny joke about my height had been so effective, that barely a month later, on that fateful day, I finally realized it had completely changed peoples' perceptions of me.
All at once, they were looking to me, for some sort of leadership! (That particular arrow was somehow missing from my 12 year old quiver.)
This--almost more than the actual assassination, at first (which up 'til now was still just a bizarre PA announcment, to us all)-- was impossible for me to wrap my mind around.
Suddenly, I was being called upon--by both the students AND the teacher--to say or do something...anything.
What they didn't realize was that this little boy was far more comfortable not having to react to such an emotional turn of events, at least publicly.

It was almost as if at that very moment, my childhood was insisting it remain in charge--but adulthood came barging into the room, and took it all away.
Not that it would be any kind of smooth transition, as you shall see below.
Still, I said a few words from my desk about remaining calm and going home, and soon enough, the final bell mercifully rang, and we all filed outside, to where the buses were waiting.

Now the parking lots were packed with kids from all the classrooms, and the histrionics from the girls only got more and more demonstrative, to where you knew this couldn't possibly be anything real. It was just 13 and 14 year olds, acting as mature as they could, in the age before cellphones and text messaging.

Instead, they sent their messages to each other, on that strangest of days, by screaming and crying, in such sustained levels of tearless wailing that I finally began to nervously giggle under my breath, on the bus ride home. I strained to hide this, by pretending to look out the window as we rode along.
I didn't feel any less sad than anybody else, in fact maybe I was moreso, I don't know. But some girl screaming, "Oh my God!" and running up and down the moving bus finally caught me stifling a laugh, and this was not a great moment, for yours truly.
"You are DISGUSTING!" she said, quieting all the noise on the packed school bus. "He was LAUGHING!"
Such was the effect of the most important historical day in our lives, on the school bus home.
She didn't stop there.
"How can you LAUGH when our President of the United States of America is DEAD!!!"
"I wasn't laughing!" I said, but I had all I could do to maintain my composure, contain my grief, curtail my immaturity, and yes...keep myself from laughing. It was easy to see how phony her display was, but that didn't forgive my faux pas, however involuntary it was.

I was very hard on myself, after that.
How could I have giggled, at the exact wrong moment?
In a single day, my 'stature' had both commanded a classroom--teacher and students--and then, wimpishly returned to its seemingly rightful place, at the bottom of the heap.
I'd gained a certain critical wisdom about observing others, but completely lost confidence in my social skills, which seemed now to be virtually non-existent. Grammar school hadn't been half this hard.
Where had my childhood gone?
I had no idea...but gone it was, and all in a single day.

I got home and cried--maybe for Kennedy, maybe for my poor misunderstood self, I don't know. But I was definitely alone, and that is basically where I would be, for the rest of my school years.
I saved every single newspaper, from that whole weekend--and still have them all, to this day.
In a way, I felt more adult-like than most kids I knew, because each morning that previous summer, right before the sun rose, I had bicycled up to the train station to shine shoes, with my heavy oak box full of brushes and polishes in the baskets. (Again, one of Dad's ideas. "You'll learn what it takes to earn money!")
I had sort of gotten to know how to banter with the early-morning commuters, a little bit. Men in suits, who talked to me like I was a part of the train station itself. I wondered how each of them were processing this.
Do businessmen ever cry?
Probably not those guys, I thought.
Most of the ones I had met were so busy not tipping me (or complaining about the shoe polish I had applied to their socks) that they might not even care if a President died.
They had more important work to do, in the city.
I'd been reasonably priced that summer, at 15 cents a shine--hoping to hear "Keep the change" from a quarter, from the customers. It didn't happen very often. These were not 'warm and fuzzy' fellas--and in truth, I wasn't nearly as good as the REAL shoe shine guys, in Penn Station.

I wondered how my parents would feel, when they got home from work--seeing as how they'd voted for Nixon, in the end.
Would that make any difference? I was sure it wouldn't.
That was 47 years ago today. November 22, 1963.
Everybody knows where they were that day; that's where I was.

Within 48 hours, Kennedy's assassin was also shot--this time, on 'live' television.
We were all visiting my Aunt Marilyn and Uncle Bob, and I could be wrong about this, but I seem to remember interrupting the 'adult conversation' ( a big no-no, in those days) to tell the gathering what I'd just seen, on TV. Soon enough, everyone saw it--over and over, and over again.
The whole weekend was just surreal.

Fast-forward to less than two weeks later: 

The local school board had decided to re-name the Bethpage Junior High School "John F. Kennedy Junior High School." This was, it turned out, the first such re-naming in the country, and as a result, it got the attention of the Kennedy family themselves, who gratefully sent the deceased President's own brother-in-law, Stephen Smith, to personally attend the ceremony.
I had no idea who he was (few did), but I did know we'd be having "an assembly" in the same auditorium I'd spoken in, a month or so earlier, so of course I wore a jacket and tie that day, as was always required back then, for special events. (Decades later, his son would famously stand trial for a rape that allegedly took place on the Kennedy compound, in Florida.)

Before I knew it, the School President and myself were posing for pictures with Mr. Smith, and one of them was printed in the next day's 'Newsday'--the Long Island newspaper I had delivered, a couple of years earlier.
Neither my opponent Jesse, nor myself, could ever have imagined what would come out of our silly little school election result, but I did know one thing:
I owed it all to Mr. D'Agastino, who had single-handedly provided me the joke, the stage, the laugh, the election, and--in many ways--my future...all with one hastily-conceived throwaway line, simply designed to give a leg up--quite literally--to a short kid, who badly needed it.

My Mom cut the picture out of the newspaper and saved it, but I don't really remember dwelling on it at home too much. It was more like, "Oh, look," and then it ended up in a drawer upstairs, in the master bedroom. When she died a few years back, I found it in her apartment.
Also there-- in a manilla file, with my name written on it, in her handwriting-- was an 8x10 glossy of another shot taken that day (see below)--one the newspaper had apparently rejected, and probably later sent to my family as a courtesy--presumably a common gesture, back at the time.
In the picture, you can clearly see a tall, handsome Kennedy man, towering over a 14 year old girl of average height--who was, herself, more than a head taller than me.

This is the 'courtesy' outtake
picture Newsday sent my parents.
Almost simultaneously, Idlewild Airport--New York's biggest--was also renamed after Kennedy. And I don't know exactly why, but for some reason, I thought it must be wrong, if there had actually been a guy named "Idlewild" whose name had already been on it, to take his name away, and re-name it.  To this day, I'm not exactly sure that there ever was a guy named Idlewild.
But now that I was so civic-minded, I decided to do the biggest thing any citizen in America could do about it, which was (of course) to write a letter to Newsday. (Who doesn't know that?)

Much to my surprise, they printed it

But the most interesting thing about that wasn't the fact that they edited it, but that they had added a word to my letter--which, it turns out, none of us had ever heard.
The password was..."denigrate."
As in, "to rename a public facility which already carries a person's name would be to denigrate that person, and their memory." Or something like that.
Anyway, my point was that JFK deserved something new named after him. (I already knew of one rickety old school, so maybe that was my beef; I simply cannot remember why this was all that important to me, at the time.)
Pretty soon, "denigrate" became like a mantra around the house, for weeks after that.
(My family read it as "dee-NYE-grate" --and these were people who could easily finish a New York Times Crossword Puzzle in half an hour. They'd just never heard this particular word, at all!)
I remember we even looked it up, in Webster's Dictionary.
Nothin'.Eventually this became the source of howling laughter at my parents' frequent cocktail parties, as all of the adults wondered aloud, if precocious little Peter Rodman had actually put that exotic new word in his own letter, all along.
"You're a lot smarter than we thought!" they'd say.
That's terrific, I thought.  Have another martini, why don't you.

Kennedy was gone, and along with him my childhood was missing, too.
Lots of hard personal lessons came out of that experience, as I'm sure was the case for everyone.
Nobody really called "Camelot" that, until many years later.  All we knew was, now we were back to having another serious old bulldog-lookin' Texan for President.
No more dazzling displays of youth, fashion, and forward-looking culture; more than just John Kennedy died that day.
All of this was less than a year after "Big Girls Don't Cry" had topped the charts, as the Four Seasons' second hit single. And even as I was beginning my lifelong submersion into music, and practicing my perfect (I thought) Frankie Valli falsetto, I remember pondering the the lyric. At one point it changes around, and Frankie declares that "Big Girls Do Cry."
It seemed to confirm my own observations.
For a while after that, I seriously wondered if any joy would ever return to America (everybody did), and my admiration for Kennedy only grew, after devouring all that I could about him in the papers, and on TV. This may have set me on course to be a lifelong Democrat--something I have been, ever since. (And something my conservative Republican parents found dismaying, to be sure.)
It certainly gave birth to an enduring interest in current events.

The Beatles arrive at the newly christened "JFK Airport"
on  February 7, 1964...just in time to save the day.
A mere two months later, the Beatles landed in America, at that very same airport.
Suddenly, it was okay to laugh again.
Joy was everywhere.
Life was good!
America, it turned out, would actually survive!

It would be nice if there hadn't been any more such events, in our lifetime.
One assassination was enough, right?
But in addition to the three or four additional attempts at presidents since then, we lost another Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr.--and yes, even one of those Beatles to assassins.

Today, my Republican friends get upset with me when I worry aloud that the provocative (read: incendiary) rhetoric, underway 24/7 on right wing hate-talk radio, may fuel yet another such tragedy, in the near future.

Seems you're not allowed to think that way. can think all you want, but you're not supposed to say anything.

When/if it happens, they'll all cry, along with the rest of us. 

Maybe even a little too loudly to believe...just like those girls on the bus.


This article is Copyright 2009 by Peter Rodman.
All Rights Reserved.


Note:  We also know where Brian Wilson was, on November 22, 1963.  He and Mike Love were at the now-defunct Hotel El Dorado in Sacramento, California, when they got the news of Kennedy's assassination. Brian sat down at the piano and came up with this melody. They stayed up all night and finished "The Warmth of the Sun."
You can listen here:

Here are the 4 Seasons, just a few seasons earlier, singing the pertinent song:

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