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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A Week Never to Forget

Now, everyone be honest when you answer this question?

Was there anything significant about last Monday, November 22? How about the twenty-fourth—or the twenty-fifth?

Think hard, for there is also a little touch of irony mixed in.

After all, it was only forty-seven years ago.

If you can’t pin it down, you aren’t by yourself. I was surprised when none of the local media I read and watch failed to feature it. I had to go online to MSNBC to find any mention of the incident. In all fairness, a few stations did pick it up on the evening news—you know, sort of a knee jerk reaction when they realized the significance of the date.

Reminds me of the lack of exposure for D-Day; Pearl Harbor; and others.

Forty-seven years ago last Monday, November 22, John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas.

There isn’t a person who was alive back then who doesn’t remember where he was when the news hit the airways.

I was teaching at Haltom High School in the Birdville School District (yep, that is a real school district) on the outskirts of Fort Worth.

There was a great deal of animosity toward the president back then. He was Catholic; he was rich; his ideas were too liberal; and half-a-dozen other common gripes when folks don’t like a president. Many voters felt he was leading us in the wrong path although he had earlier stood up to Russia and forced them to remove missiles from Cuba.

In case you don’t remember that incident, I’ll just remind you the U.S. was only hours away from a nuclear war.

Our country had never had a Catholic president. I didn’t know much about Catholicism, so I was concerned about the influence the Church would have on Kennedy as president. Consequently, I voted for Nixon who had served as vice-president under Eisenhower.

I know, I know. I was much younger and lot dumber. And sometimes I wonder if I’ve ever gotten any smarter. My wife says I haven’t.

But anyway, on that day, a Friday, during my conference period, I popped in the men’s lounge for a cigarette. Two or three of us were sitting there discussing Kennedy’s visit to Fort Worth the night before and his parade currently underway in Dallas.

The door burst open and the shop teacher stuck his head in. “What do you think about shooting Kennedy?”

Now the sixties were a different time, a different period with little or no political correctness.

Thinking he was just joking, I popped off and said, “I think it’s a good idea.”
The other guys laughed with me.

The shop teacher gaped at us. “No. I mean, it happened. Some Dallas idiot shot the president.”

We were all stunned and mortified by our joke.

The principal came on the speakers, announcing the news.

The rest of the day, we sat in classes with our students, everyone listening to the
minute-by-minute report of the tragedy that had taken place not thirty miles from us.

There wasn’t a sound in that whole school building when the announcement came that the president had died.

I didn’t see the TV, but word was that Walter Cronkite broke down when he announced
the president’s death.

That year Thanksgiving came late, the twenty-eighth, so instead of just Thursday and Friday holidays, the district turned us out for the entire week. We stayed glued to the TV. On Sunday, November 24, we saw Jack Ruby shoulder his way through the crowd and shoot Oswald.

Kennedy was buried Monday, the twenty-fifth. Everyone in the country watched the procession. None can forget Jackie’s tender kiss on the flag draping the casket, nor Caroline’s tiny hand touching the coffin, nor the poignancy of little John-John’s salute.

None of us moved a muscle as the casket was placed on the caisson and the procession began.

Those days will always be etched in my memory just as Pearl Harbor and the other significant events that mark the passage of our civilization from an age of innocence to the global miasma of uncertainty and confusion facing us today.

The irony? The assassin of the president died the day before the president was buried.

I once scoffed at the Camelot allusion regarding the president and his wife. If I had it to do over, I wouldn’t laugh at it. I would embrace it.


rconwell@gt.rr.com
www.kentconwell.blogspot.com

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A Thanksgiving for Slim

A few weeks back, I was looking through some old family photos. Some of them go back almost a hundred years. The one that caught my attention was a line of grinning men and women standing in front of a clapboard shack. One young man held a baby.


Me. That was seventy-four years ago, but what caught my attention was an old man in his sixties standing at the end. His name was Slim.

I’ve mentioned Slim before. I never knew his last name. He wasn’t blood kin, but he was as much of the family as anyone.

As long as I can remember, he was always around. An old broken down cowboy from the Frying Pan Ranch up near Amarillo, the rigors of cowboying had sent him to the farm.
When I was growing up, he’d bounce me on his knee, then later let me ride on his back. I was around five or so when I heard his story the first time.

An orphan, he grew up bitter and angry, resenting everyone and always looking for a fight. He got in trouble once too often in Mobeetie, and the judge gave him a choice of jail or work, and if he quit work within two years, he’d end up in the calaboose. The next day, he hired on at the Frying Pan Ranch back west.

He remained wild and angry. After a few brawls in the bunkhouse, the foreman assigned him the hated job of repairing fences, all one hundred and twenty miles of four-strand wire.

The young hellion had a choice, barb wire or jail. He took the wire, which kept him away from headquarters a month at a time. And out of trouble.

Now he always looked forward to holidays, the Fourth, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. That was about the only time he could get away from his fence mending other than paydays.

Fence mending shut down at Thanksgiving for the winter.
Slim was counting the days.

Two days before he was slated to head back to headquarters some thirty miles distant, a blue norther swept across the Panhandle.

According to Slim, for one of the few times in his life, he was scared. He had seen too much evidence of the devastation those snow storms brought.

Headquarters was out of the question. His only chance was an old shack with two walls missing about three miles distant.

Hours later, he had not found the shack. His fears grew, but he plodded ahead.
Not long after, he spotted the cabin, and to his surprise, there was a light coming from around the edges of the cowhide covering the window.

Inside, an old man greeted him, explaining that seeing the shack deserted, he had repaired it and moved in for the winter. He had even rigged up a partial windbreak for his horse, and there was room for Slim’s animals.

The cabin was warm and a mouthwatering aroma arose from the pot bubbling on the potbellied stove. It was only rabbit, but the ‘best Thanksgiving dinner I ever had’, he said.

Four days, the storm raged. On the fifth, the skies cleared, and despite the snow, Slim headed to the ranch before the next storm blew in.

‘Everyone thought I was froze to death,” he said. “They didn’t believe me about the old man. So, the foreman and me went back the next day.”

The shack was deserted; two walls were missing; and a foot of snow covered the pot bellied stove.

No one could explain how he had survived four days in such a storm without shelter, but he had.

Now, I never heard Slim say this, but Mama Holly once told me that Slim had confided in her and Papa that he knew how he had managed to survive. Someone wanted him to live. ‘I reckon it was God,” he told Mama and Papa.

Gone was the anger, the resentment, the bitterness that had caused him so much trouble.

Slim stayed on the ranch even after a bronc busted him so badly that all he could do was cook, and for the next few years, he did that with a ready smile and a
willingness to go out of his way to help other cowboys.

You know, old men, especially cowboys, like to tell stretchers. I’ve often wondered over the years if Slim was just making all that up. I don’t think he was, because after Slim passed on, Mama told me an old cowboy from the Frying Pan Ranch showed up at the old man’s funeral.

Maybe it didn’t happen—or maybe it did.

I like to think it did.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Eleven, Eleven, Eleven

Last year as I sat at my desk on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, an eerie feeling ran up my spine. It may seem hokey to some, but at that very moment, to the minute exactly ninety-one years after the event, a strange feeling washed over me, a sense of deep gratitude for our fighting men and women who have struggled to preserve our country’s freedom.

I’m talking about Veterans’ Day, the day set aside to honor all the women and men who have served in our armed forces.

November 11 is the anniversary of the Armistice, which was signed by the Allies and the Germans in 1918 in the forest at Rethondes near the town of Compienge ending World War I.

At five a.m. that morning, an agreement was struck, signatures were fixed to the document, and an order to cease all firing was issued. Six hours later at eleven a.m., the Armistice went into effect. Arms were lowered, whistles blew, impromptu parades erupted, and businesses closed in celebration.

While I enjoy all holidays, the blessings of Thanksgiving, the gaiety and joy of Christmas, the holiness of Easter, the exuberance of July 4, Veteran’s Day is most precious to me because so many in my family shouldered the arms of war and went out to do battle to preserve the freedom I enjoy, and my children and grandchildren now enjoy.

Twenty years passed after that signing before Congress agreed upon a bill that each November 11 would be celebrated as Armistice Day. Fifteen years later on November 11, 1953, instead of celebrating only WWI veterans, Alvin King of Emporia suggested all veterans to be honored.

Representative Ed Rees, of Emporia, Kansas, was so impressed that he introduced a bill into the House to change the name to Veterans' Day. After this passed, Mr. Rees wrote to all state governors and asked for their approval and cooperation in observing the changed holiday. The name was changed to Veterans' Day by Act of Congress on May 24, 1954.

In October of that year, President Eisenhower called on all citizens to observe the day by remembering the sacrifices of all those who fought so gallantly, and through rededication to the task of promoting an enduring peace. The President said the change of name to Veterans' Day was an honor to the servicemen of all America's wars.

Many of my family served. My father spent a year on the west coast and a couple years in South America; a cousin served in the Army Air Corps; an uncle served in the army; and one in the navy. Another uncle served earlier in the Philippines, but was discharged with a blood disease that, according to oral family history, eventually took his life. Another cousin served in Korea and is still listed as a MIA after over half a century.

During the war, despite the efforts of those behind, family gatherings were filled with empty holes. Word always turned to those not present. I can remember seeing my grandmother’s and aunts’ eyes filling with tears as their innermost prayers went out to their loved ones.

We were one of the lucky families. Dad returned. My uncle in the army returned having received a shrapnel wound on Okinawa. My uncle in the navy made it back. My Air Force cousin returned safely. The only casualty we faced was my uncle who had served in the Philippines.

Then five years later, another cousin, Henry Shoop, whom we always called Dooley, shipped out to Korea.

We never saw him again. We never heard a word of his fate. All we know is he went out on patrol one night. The patrol was attacked. None returned, and no bodies were found.

I look around now at those brave men and women giving their lives for America, and I want to cry. I know the families of those serving realize just how dear the sacrifice our military is making, but I wonder about the rest of America. Do they understand?

If they don’t, they should drop to their knees and pray for that understanding be given them.



rconwell@gt.rr.com
www.kentconwell.blogspot.com