Thanksgiving Day, 2012 – While preparing dinner for eight (what the cooking instructions said the 14-pound turkey would feed), almost entirely during the commercial breaks in the eight-part miniseries, The Kennedys, it was interesting to see the story behind our Camelot president, warts and all. There were not eight people coming for dinner. It would just be my younger son and I, but I’m a big fan of Thanksgiving leftovers.
Kennedy was elected the year I graduated high school and married my high school sweetheart. Kennedy’s assassination just three years later would have a profound effect on my generation, the country and the world.
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I had no idea I’d led such a cloistered life growing up in Southern California beach communities until I sat behind the driver on a cross-country bus ride to Jacksonville, Florida. We passed black tenant-farmer families living in one-room shanties with cotton growing right up to the unpainted wood structures. Some had a passel of barefoot children in tattered dirty clothes playing on front porches. I watched agape through the bus window at the raw poverty of their existence.
It was the dark of night when we pulled into a bus station somewhere in Alabama. A young black woman holding a toddler by the hand and a baby on her hip asked if ours was the bus to Jacksonville.
“No, it’ll be along shortly,” the driver responded, causing a tremor of fear to surge through me, as he shut the door and backed out of the parking slot. I was about to ask if I was on the wrong bus when he said, in a supercilious voice to no one in particular, “Ain’t gonna have no niggers ridin’ on my bus!” I couldn’t wait to get to my husband. He would have known the proper thing to say. I just sat tongue tied while feeling terrible for that poor mother. She would no doubt have to wait hours for the next bus while minding her tired, cranky children. How could the driver or anyone be so hateful?
When daylight dawned the bus was cruising through the piney woods of north Florida. Suddenly we were surrounded by convoys of army trucks, jeeps and some heavy-duty artillery equipment under tarps, traveling the roadways. My husband, Dean, was in training at the Navel Air Reserve station in Jacksonville primarily to avoid service in Vietnam. I had no idea the Cuban Missile Crisis was so real, so in-your-face in Florida. Was Dean now in more jeopardy than if he’d been drafted? I wondered.
We’d been together since the end of my sophomore year of high school. Our very first date was his senior prom, a magically romantic night. I’d been staying with my in-laws since Dean left for Florida, not a good fit without their beloved son. He’d only been gone a couple of months when I quit my job, bought a bus ticket to Jacksonville, and now here I was in the stifling humidity. Dean and Dick, his ski-patrol pal, met me at the bus station. Dick had driven his car to Florida so had his own transportation. My husband did not. But he’d managed to find us a furnished garage apartment.
Dick seemed like a lost soul and hung around our apartment recounting stories of our winter in Mammoth when it snowed something like 30 feet, snow so deep that they shut down the ski lifts and closed the mountain. When the storm finally abated, they actually had to dig the lifts out. At last Dick departed and we indulged our passion, a slippery, sweaty pursuit. The apartment had no air conditioning. Nothing dried in the oppressive humidity, not the sheets, not the bath towels, not the inside of one’s shoes which were prone to gather a growth of mold.
Palmetto bugs, enormous flying cockroaches appeared after dark, crawling over the double-garage walls. Too often one or two would make it into the apartment above, always an alarming encounter. One time I went downstairs to shake out a rug and sweep up around the door. When I started back up the stairs I came upon a snake about the length of a yardstick. I had no clue what kind it was or how it got there, but somehow between the rug and the broom, I got it slithering downstairs and out the door. The heebie jeebies stayed with me until my husband came home.
Dean’s training pay was stretched thin so I found a waitress job in a local cafe and got a continuing education on the southern diet (heavy on starchy and greasy food, high in calories and low in nutrients), as well as race relations. When I asked the heavyset black woman, who literally mixed the ingredients in the tuna salad and macaroni salad with her thick fingers and sturdy hands, if she could just set a sandwich in front ot the customer at the end of the counter, she shook her head no.
“If they sees me touch their food, they be all upset and I gets in trouble,” she explained. I had to laugh at the hypocrisy.
The boss, a white woman in a white uniform dress and white apron, her gray hair confined by a hairnet, lived on milkshakes. She’d recently had most of her decaying teeth pulled and hadn’t been fitted for partials yet (another testament to the poor southern diet), so spoke with a toothless lisp and sucked her meals through a straw. My skinny-as-a-rail co-waitress proclaimed herself to be poor white trash in a thick backwoods accent. She mentioned more than once, when the song “Po’ Folks” came on the radio, that she and her siblings grew up hungry.
“That was us,” she’d say. “If the wolf had ever come to our backdoor, he’d a-gone away hungry fo’ sure.”
Trust grew for this unprejudiced white girl from California until even the black teenage dishwasher shared some of his life, how he and his friends would sometimes drive around in a car with all the windows rolled up. “We’d slink down like we was sittin’ in cool comfort with air conditioning blowin’, you know, and givin’ folks a little wave. Then we’d go around a corner and roll down all the windows so we could breathe.” He painted a funny picture that had us chortling through the steaming kitchen.
But it was starkly different when my husband and I found time to take in our surrounds as we walked around town. Despite the Kennedy administration’s achievements in accelerating integration in the South, signs over doors and drinking fountains still proclaimed “Whites only.” Such blatant bigotry was so incomprehensible to us that Florida seemed more like a foreign land.
My husband stood six-foot-six, without a mean bone in his body. It was startling and embarrassing when black men with downcast eyes would actually step off the sidewalk and into the gutter to give us more than ample room to pass. We made it a point to sit in the back of buses as our own protest, although it was to the consternation of both the driver and the black passengers in northern Florida, even though bus segregation had been ruled unconstitutional in the Rosa Parks case back in the mid-1950s.
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In November of 1963 we were teaching skiing weekends on the slopes of Southern California, while attending the local community college in the South Bay. You really can ski and surf in the same day in the Golden State. We were on the slopes the day that President Kennedy got shot and word traveled quickly. Everything stopped as folks gathered around for the next update. Then came the report that the president had died, had been assassinated. It spelled the end of innocence for our generation.
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The times they were a-changing. It was from there that our paths soon diverged. Dean was happy to ski all winter and surf in the summer, all he said he wanted from life. Eventually he moved to northern Idaho, a place of long white winters inhabited primarily by staunchly conservative white Americans (although he was always a liberal at heart).
I wanted to be a part of the passing parade, a contributor through my chosen profession, photography, for which I moved to New York. I got my degree and bought my first professional camera. Late one afternoon I was walking down MacDougal Street when I noticed the shadows of fire escape ladders creating a strong graphic design against the brick walls of old tenement buildings. I took a black and white photo of the scene.
Later I displayed the untitled image in a photo exhibit I had in Greenwich Village and someone bought it. They said they wanted to use it as a book jacket. I was sent a copy of the jacket (for my portfolio), but not the book. A slice of my photo was on the right with the title, The Political Economy of the Black Ghetto, in yellow on a black background down the left side.
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After watching The Kennedys miniseries this Thanksgiving it occurred to me to google the title, The Political Economy of the Black Ghetto. I was rather amazed to get more than a million references. Published in 1970, the modest 152-page book is available in hardbound and paperback from Amazon to Barns & Noble to used bookstores. I went to Amazon and found, beginning on page one, the authors stating that while surveys show “Americans believe that ghetto unrest, riots, and rebellion are caused by criminals, outside agitators and foreign communist influences” the research found that it was discrimination in education, jobs and housing that was the culprit, especially the dehumanizing effects of individual racism.
Although we weren’t in the thick of the desegregation movement, Dean and I did our small part. And this Thanksgiving I discovered I was a contributor to a seminal work that has become a classic, an outspoken chronology of the way things were and how they needed to change, that would eventually lead to our first black president.
Anyone interested in leftovers? How about some homemade apple pie?