For me November 22, 1963 began as a run-of-the-mill, mid-autumn Friday. That Friday, a welcomed prelude to the upcoming weekend that would be chock with football fun and more football. I was a 16-year-old running back and a junior at Northeast Catholic High School for Boys, in Philadelphia. At 12:30 Eastern Standard Time the bell sounded ending of a class period. Storming out of classrooms, an exuberant 3,000, craving for the weekend, anticipating Friday night’s lights or Saturday night dances.
My fifth period was first year “Bookkeeping” with Mr. Fitzsimmons. Right then, I had no clue the forthcoming bookkeeping class would evolve as no other without the slightest idea I’d be writing about that fateful day some 50-years later.
I trudged up the three-flights of stairs merging with the herd of mostly pimple-faces, them noisy, them sporting ’60ish style sport coats-and-tie, yakking about a twisting Chubby Checker, or the silky softness of Natalie Wood or predicting the forthcoming performance of a then unstoppable Jim Brown
Mr. Fitzsimmons was a no-nonsense teacher, always in the present and very much a Catholic layman. He may have mentioned he was married with a couple of children. Thinking back 50 years and guessing, maybe about 30, an ex Marine, crew cut, built like a pro linebacker. When it came to class behavior while enrolled in Bookkeeping, the smartest ass had better toe the line. Those disrespectful while testing the patience of the other priests and brothers soon enough came to realize Mr. Fitz was not to be toyed with. There was order. There was decorum, no instances of grab ass, not even a whisper and in Mr. Fitz’s class no sleepy heads would ever be seen atop their forearms. The man remained frightfully alert and intense.
The Kennedy presidency, along with the Camelot atmosphere, had brought Catholics into the mainstream. Laymen like Robert Fitzsimmons looked to fashion and fasten themselves to the likeness of JFK, perhaps emulating his modern-day, buttondown-ness. Like Kennedy, other men were going without hats. Square jawed men who openly worshipped Christ were elected and led the free world. Mr. Fitz and JFK were the same generation, young men, like millions of other fellow citizens, with beautiful wives, and beautiful children with hopefully a beautiful American future. That dream was thought as attainable by millions of Americans during the early hours of November 22, 1963.
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Some time around the 1 p.m. just when the differences between assets and liabilities were being pointed out on the blackboard, I raised my hand asking permission to use the bathroom. Mr. Fitzsimmons, annoyed, made a condescending face and perhaps spit, “Why didn’t you go during lunch?” Begrudgingly he granted permission with a “get going,” sharply angling his head backwards and then to the side.
The washroom was in the school’s basement, next to the bookstore. On my way back to class upon exiting the boys’ room and passing the bookstore I noticed students and some faculty huddled around the radio with ominous looks on their faces. A kid turns to me and says, “Kennedy’s been shot! Looks like he’s dying or already dead!”
By the way, it just so happened that the president of our student body at North Catholic was a Kennedy. He was Jimmy Kennedy.
I said, “Jimmy!”
“No! The President! . . President Kennedy has been shot and killed in Dallas!” the kid hammered home to me totally exasperated with a dotted line of perspiration appearing on his upper lip.
“Oh, my God!” I thought!
I bolted up the three flights of stairs with the most shocking news I had ever heard or ever had to deliver up to that point of my life. I double stepped those three flights like my life depended on it. I ran down that hallway and stormed into the classroom! I can still see the moment as if frozen in time. Mr. Fitzsimmons, chalk and pointer in-hands, diagramming legers in front of about 40-something, 15-and-16 year olds. There’s still the image of this Italian kid, with great hair with his chin propped up by fist and elbow, him sitting right in front appearing totally disinterested.
Breathless! “PRESIDENT KENNEDY HAS BEEN SHOT AND KILLED IN DALLAS!”
Scores of eyes immediately honed in on me yet there was no immediate reaction. I decided to cry out a second time. Before I could finish the second shout out, out of nowhere I was clocked smack on the chin! It was a Joe Frazier type of roundhouse, coming from my right, off a fist from Mr. Fitzsimmons! The wallop propelled me backwards and up against the blackboard, having me simultaneously bump my head on chalky slate somewhere in the liability column of Mr. Fitzsimmons’ bookkeeping diagram.
The way I began to see it, the second phase of his attack was on the dance card. Mr. Fitz leaped to it, snarling, all over me, with an “I’ll kill you,” expression pasted on his face! He bared his teeth while only inches from my face. He hissed. His muscular forearm pressed hard against my windpipe!
“That’s not funny, Mister! You some sort of clown?”
Oh, I knew I was in real trouble while coming to grips Mr. Fitzsimmons hadn’t grasped that I was that guy they talk about, the guy who bears bad news. I assumed, that he assumed I was pulling off some sort of sophomoric tomfoolery. I sensed I could have been in store for a real ass whooping! Back then, strict discipline and corporal punishment in parochial schools were then the norm.
Talk about being saved by the bell. Miraculously, the school’s intercom came to life, with Father Whatshisname announcing the tragic news to the entire student body.
As events unfolded and as the truth sunk in, even in the early stages of the catastrophe we somehow realized the moment would stay with us for the rest of our lives. Fitzsimmons’ girth continued to press on my throat, yet with each woeful word streaming out of the intercom, his rage against me depleted.
The entire classroom went from stone-cold silence, and shock, to total mayhem. Emotions erupted from many in the room, “Fuck Texans!
“Kill everybody in Dallas,” and other cries for revenge erupted and streamed out into the hallway from bookkeeping in Room 307. Similar shouts rang out into the hallways from other open door classrooms.
With eyes welled up and a froggy voice comming from the man; he slowly pulled back and sort of whispered, “I’m sorry! Go back to your desk.”
I gathered my own wherewithal, summed up, “what a bummer!” I got roughed up a little. So what? For almost 11 school I had been pummeled by ruler and yardstick and on the wrong end of smack-downs provided by some pent up fury coming from priests and rosary-bead clad nuns. My jaw hurt, it was sort of numb. Surely there was a bump forming on the back of my head.
I looked back at Mr. Fitzsimmons. There was a certain calm now between Mr. Fitzsimmons and myself. Before I moved to take my seat I mumbled, “That’s all right.”
The prez took a way-harder hit than me. He was dead! Who could tell what major havoc may have been taking place nationwide at that very moment? What else was going on?
Even as a punk kid I sensed Mr. Fitz’s shock and pain.
Mr. Fitzsimmons regained his composure and took control calming the class.
Shortly thereafter, school was dismissed.
Everybody was screaming along with the sounds of locker doors being smashed closed and even punched by youthful rage and calls for retribution continued throughout the locker room. Students scampered down Torresdale Avenue to take the Elevated trains, buses and trolleys all wanting to get home with family and friends. The next three days most of the cognizant would be riveted to what would turn out to be indelible black and white images on TV. The suspension of regular programming across the board; the various news bulletins, Walter Cronkite, the capture of Lee Harvey Oswald and murder of office Tibbets, the book depository, Parkland hospital, LBJ being sworn in, the site of Jackie, still in her blood stained ensemble accompanying the casket off the plane at Andrews, AFB, cops in ten-gallon cowboy hats, then Jack Ruby guns down Oswald on live TV inside a Dallas police station, the rotunda, the casket, the vigils and streams of visiting of dignitaries including France’s President de Gaule, the caisson with that rambunctious horse in tow, the honor guards, the cold wind, the persistent drumbeats and then there’s little John’s poignant, good-bye salute. It’s all still with me, crammed up there in my own store bank. The world stood still.
Some of you elders recall exactly where you were and what you were doing when hearing Pearl Harbor was attacked or when President Roosevelt died, or of more recent vintage when Neal Armstrong walked on the moon and sadly, most remember their whereabouts on 9/11.
And as the years have passed, 50 of them now, with me in my 66th year for some time now I am aware that it was I who broke the news to my classmates and Mr. Fitzsimmons.
Funny, I can’t remember one member of that class other than Mr. Fitz.
A slew of memory lane moments will occur nationwide on the 50th anniversary, done so by millions of Americans and perhaps millions of others around the world. They’ll regale to their children and even grand children or whoever will listen about their very moment.
In my case, or my ex-class mates cases, for those who were present in Mr. Fitzsimmons’ “Bookkeeping I” class, those still breathing air, if asked or volunteering about such on this November 22, 2013, they might be heard saying, “That Louie Christine kid came running into class and shouted out that Kennedy was killed.”
When it comes to the JFK assassination I’m part of those folks memory.
I wonder some time. Thinking, it was just November. Mr. Fitzsimmons was my bookkeeping teacher for the rest of the school year and also my senior year for Bookkeeping II.
Age serves up the past. And there is valid stock harboring vivid memories of a magnanimous event that took place 50 years ago. Mr. Fitzsimmons never talked to me or recant, as far as I know, about that intimate moment between us nor did I ever see or hear of the man after graduation.
50 years . . . .