Back in boarding school where I had been cooped up learning academic skills, the book of the era was Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. Like the protagonist, Holden Caulfield, I felt that the whole show was flawed and phony. Like him, I yearned to find out what was real and I was ready to take some risks to find out.
Once I got to college, I stayed between the lines of conformity but ventured out intellectually. I wrote a paper about the Communist Party of America and attended their presidential convention held in a decrepit building on the west side of midtown Manhattan. The presidential candidate was a half black/half white guy whose name I don’t remember. There were very few people there. I remember that I stood out. I definitely remember that. Then I wrote a paper about Malcolm X, somebody nobody in the white world had heard about unless, like me, they had a sister who subscribed to Ebony Magazine. That paper made me famous in the Sociology Department for ten minutes or so. I believe it is still in the archive there. So, even though I was still an Ivy League preppy, I was leaving those values behind.
On the most memorable day of my freshman year at college I walked across the campus of Brown University and down Angel Street where my psychology class was soon to begin. This was a giant lecture class taught by a little Mr. Peepers-type man with a few strings of gray/blond hair plastered on his bald pate, a luminary in the statistics branch of psychology, the dullest aspect of psychology at least for me and most of the other students as well.
Disappointment hung over the lecture hall like a dripping miasma. Endless rows of Pembroke girls wearing coke bottle glasses sharpened their pencils ready to attack the impenetrable material with their stratospheric IQs. No subject was too dull to keep them on the losing side of the bell curve! Just before class, my girlfriend, Charlene, met me on the street in front of the psych building. She knew my schedule but had never intercepted me like this before.
“Hi, what’s up?” I said.
“President Kennedy has been shot.”
“What? Are you kidding? This is bullshit. Everybody loves the president. Is he ok?”
I couldn’t imagine that he was shot. Things like that didn’t happen at that time. He was the hope of our generation, the promise of good things, good changes in our world, brotherly love, civil rights, maybe even free sex, which would be a fine improvement. It was a shock; it just didn’t compute in my head.
“Ok Charlene, he is shot but he will be ok, right?”
“No, he is not ok Rick. They didn’t say he is dead but he is definitely not ok.”
So much for the psych class. We just walked together down to a local diner, Greg’s, and sat in a booth drinking coffee and listening to the radio with a lot of other people who had heard about it. We all listened not knowing what to do or say. And then the word came. “The president is dead.”