Jilly D.

What I learned in Kindergarten in 1963

In Time and seasons on August 14, 2011 at 4:56 pm

“Ha-ha-ha-ha-Ha-ha,” the red stuffed Woody the Woodpecker handpuppet with its big yellow plastic head said when I pulled his string.

“Booooo. I’m Caspar, the friendly ghost,” said my other pull-string toy. In 1963 play meant watching and reenacting Bullwinkle and Rocky, Captain Kangaroo, the Flintstones, the Jetsens, I Love Lucy, Red Skeleton and The Honeymooners. I lived for Saturday mornings and the Fractured Fairytales.

That was the same year my sister Barb and I first saw the movie, Wizard of Oz, on our black and white Zenith TV with rabbit ear antennae. Barb and I sat together in the big boxy pale aquablue living room chair. My sister wore her toddler-sized pink sleeper suit. I wore my red-and-white striped long johns. There’s a Kodak snapshot of the two of us watching the monkeys fly in the movie. I sit with Barb at her side, with my arm around her and tears flowing from both of our eyes; mine behind cat-eyed glasses. Dorothy’s journey seemed plausible and scary.

We’d been through tornadoes. Mom and dad and Barb and I had been driving home through Fridley, Minnesota, after buying some sweet corn for supper up in Anoka county.  A bad storm come up out of nowhere and then I saw the twister. Dad pulled the Chevrolet Impala station wagon over to the side of the road beside a concrete embankment of an underpass on Highway 100.

“Get up here,” he yelled. Barb and I scrambled from the way-way back into the back seat. My skin sparked with electricity and the hairs on my arm stood up on end. Dad grabbed Barb by the seat of her pants and pulled her over and shoved her under the dashboard. He smothered Barb with his arms. Mom scrambled over the back seat and laid down on top of me; over the hump in the middle of the back seat. We were as low to the ground as we could get inside that vehicle.

Then I heard it roar. My heart beat so fast and hard and I could hardly believe for the terror caught in my throat. The noise and vibrations in the air surrounding us intensified until my ears hurt. Then suddenly it went silent. Mom got up first to look around. Then I sat up and what I saw in front of our car scared me.

A VW bug parked 20 feet ahead of our Chevy Wagon had a 10 foot long 2 X 4 through its’ middle; from side to side like a meatball on a toothpick. Dad sat up. He looked at the looming black clouds behind us and the blue sky straight ahead. He started the car, pushed my head back down and pulled away from the scene. Fire engines and police cars and ambulances drove in our direction in the oncoming lane. Dad drove as fast as he could for home. Tornado alley they called that stretch of highway.

Then Grampa Swenson died. Dropped dead of a heart attack at age 59 shortly after a quarrel with my grandmother. She’d been urgent to get to the Methodist Church’s benefit dinner and white elephant sale. My earliest memories of Grampa putting me on his foot and swinging his leg across his knee seem primal. I can see him reading the newspaper and putting it down and tucking it into the built-in rack of his oak rocker. I don’t remember the funeral, only the fall out.

Woody the Woodpecker, Caspar the Ghost, The Wizard of Oz, the soundtrack to Grampa’s sudden disappearance called death. Then President Kennedy was assassinated.

That November day in Kindergarten at Jenny Lind Elementary School confused me. Its meaning I derived from those who surrounded me in my narrow set of circumstances. Frankly, I had become more interested in the very adorable John Allen whose Native American heritage stood out in my Germanic and Scandinavian kindergarten class. Suddenly class was dismissed. The hushed tones of the teachers conversing at the classroom door sent an emotional crashing wave of sadness into the room. I didn’t know why.

“The President has been shot,” is all I had heard but didn’t understand. Lincoln had been shot. That much I knew.

I walked the two long blocks home from school alone. I ran in the back door of our tiny two bedroom house on Dupont Avenue in the Camden neighborhood of northeastern Minneapolis where a curtain hung for my bedroom door.

“Mom, Mom! The President has been shot!” I delivered the news as I stepped in the kitchen.

Mom was sitting on the lineoleum kitchen floor with a tin bucket of soapy water and a scrub brush. The television set was on and instead of watching “As The World Turns” to find out what happened next to Lisa, mom and I sat transfixed to the live news coverage.

After the kitchen floor dried, mom and I played jacks. Dad came home for lunch. He closed up the furniture store and locked the door for the day. We had grilled cheese sandwiches and Campbell’s tomato soup.

Two days spent watching television together, reading the newspapers, magazines and looking at the pictures of an American prince, Sir Camelot, I made a scrapbook. Something to show and tell.

When school resumed the following Monday, life went on. My elementary years had the sounds of air raid sirens and practice drills in case of nuclear war. I want to laugh now at how I quivered under my first grade desk in fear of Russian Communists dropping bombs on our heads; I seriously thought our desks would save us from atomic annihilation. Crouching in fear of distant threats to God and country, I was raised an American.

Boo! Ha-ha-ha-ha-Ha-ha!

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