Innocence Shattered By Kennedy’s Assasination

Front row, Mike, third from right, in a 1968 class photo.

By Michael C. Finnegan
February / March 2008

“Wish I’d been a kid back then.” That’s my children’s usual reaction after listening to story swapping at family gatherings. “Then” was the 1960s.
While they think of tie-dyed shirts,  rock-’n’-roll and sit-ins, I remember  before all that – to a time some people called Camelot – a brief shining moment when America charged headlong into the future but also firmly embraced tradition. It was a time when everything seemed possible. Even the moon was within our grasp. Our President told us so.

I spent the early ’60s in the protective custody of “Clan Finnegan,” a loose confederation of cousins living in or about the Hudson River mill town of Peekskill. The seat of clan life was an old Victorian house that was home to three generations of Finnegans: two great-aunts, an uncle who was really my father’s first cousin, six of us siblings, and my grandfather. He was the patriarch in every respect.

The house had a large porch and a small yard. Chestnut trees grew between the street and the thick, ancient slate sidewalks long since cracked and rendered uneven by roots and cold winters. Honeysuckle fragrantly shaded the porch, and “Charlie Brown” rose bushes, always struggling for survival, lined the front walk.  It looked like so many other houses in our town and hundreds I have seen since in the residential neighborhoods of Buffalo, Chicago, Philadelphia and Boston.

The Finnegans left famine-ravaged County Mayo in 1853 and made their way – we are not sure how – to Peekskill, New York two decades later. Located 40 miles north of New York City, Peekskill was ethnic, decidedly working middle class and had an urban feel. During my early childhood it was still the kind of place where neighbors walked around the block stopping in on friends for a smoke and a chat.  Everyone had a porch. They used them, too. Ours was large with forest green rockers and a swing reserved for my great-aunts.

It was on that porch that I was schooled in the ways of our Holy Trinity: the Catholic Church, Democratic politics and Yankee baseball.

As we learned at school, St. Patrick used the shamrock to explain the Catholic Trinity: one plant, three stems, all equal.  But this comparison didn’t work for the Finnegan version since – depending on the year and even the time of year – one of the three parts of the trinity would dominate the banter on the porch.  In the fall of 1963 there was only one topic of conversation: Democratic politics.

Earlier that year, Pope John XXIII had passed away and Vatican II was in recess. The Council of Cardinals was deciding whether or not to proceed with the sweeping changes the late Pope had proposed for the Church.  I suspect this was a welcome relief for Grandpa. Like so many at the time, his views were at best mixed on the subject. That thorny matter could be happily left for a later date.

Likewise, it was both too early and too late to talk Yankee baseball. The ’63 World Series ended quickly for the Yanks as they were swept in four games – by the “Damned Dodgers” of all teams! It was a miserable performance. No one hit, the pitching stunk. Whitey Ford, Mantle, Maris, Yogi even “Joe Pepi” (Pepitone), Grandpa’s favorite, all let us down. There was nothing left to say before the leaves changed colors.

But there was plenty of politics. 1963 was an election year in Peekskill. Grandpa was a Democratic District Leader so the front porch was a sort of neighborhood campaign headquarters. There were no signs, no bunting hung from the porch rail, nothing to identify it to a passing stranger. Still, everyone in the neighborhood knew where to go if you wanted to talk politics. It was an unseasonably warm autumn, and a steady stream of relatives and neighbors stopped by.

I don’t recall who won the Peekskill elections that year, it didn’t matter really. What counted most was presidential politics. As Grandpa put it, “JFK’s up next year. That’s our fight. He’s a Democrat, he’s Catholic, and he’s Irish.”  If only he had been a Yankee fan too!

Presidential politics, or at least “JFK,” was also omnipresent in that other cornerstone of daily life, the Assumption School. Naturally, Pope John and Vatican II were frequent topics, especially for an altar boy in training. We had to learn the Mass in Latin and English just in case the “Vernacular Mass,” as it was called, was adopted as the Pope had wished. But these took second seat to the overwhelming pride that a Catholic had been elected President. It was not always overt either. The Space Race was discussed in science class. Excerpts from Profiles in Courage were read in English class. The civil rights battle was incorporated into Religion class. No matter the subject, it seemed, there was room for a Kennedy reference in the syllabus. And, there really were photos of the Pope and President Kennedy flanking the flag in every classroom.

The Assumption School was an old complex that dominated one end of a city block. A large church consumed the ground floor with four stories of classrooms above. A new two-story  annex was added in the 1950’s. Together they formed a brick “L.” A macadam parking lot, which also served as the schoolyard, ensured that no part of the complex was capable of absorbing sound. The voices of children playing tag and Red Rover echoed off the buildings in a wall of sound. Lunch hour was so noisy that it was canceled during the occasional funeral service in the church. That and the cloud of incense were two reasons we did not like funerals. So too were the frequent scoldings that we “could wake the dead without prayer.”

The Franciscan Nuns and their auxiliaries, the “Patrol Boys” – eighth-graders armed with white sashes, silver badges and whistles – maintained the peace. A recess monitor, usually one of the Franciscans, was in charge. Our favorite was Sister Antonia.

Tall, young, athletic and always ready with a magnetic smile, Sr. Antonia was the most popular teacher in the school. Even the tough guys liked her. Best of all, even though encased in a gray habit, with only the mouth, eyes, nose and hands visible, it was obvious that she was Irish . . . one of us. Antonia also liked the Yankees and had an accent that hinted at ‘Bronx Irish,’ a particularly cool Irish-American subspecies with lots of caché in the schoolyard.

During the 1964 World Series, she picked boys who, with transistor radios in hand, would be allowed a “bathroom break” provided that after every inning they report the score to the class and willingly lend his radio to the next fortunate fan to miss some class. All of us were part of the fourth-grade conspiracy. Some adults no doubt would be upset that academics suffered a little. And I don’t know if the principal or other teachers knew what was transpiring in the third-floor bathroom, but I am confident they were proud of the lessons imparted about trust, secrecy and sharing.

Many years later, while working in the New York State Legislature, I would meet Sr. Antonia again. Governor Hugh Carey was appointing “Antonia Maguire” to a position as a chaplain in the State Department of Corrections. I learned that she was indeed Irish-American, but from the Inwood section of Manhattan, not the Bronx. As a nun she could not perform all the ministries of the Catholic faith and was thus, some felt, not qualified to serve as a chaplain. There would be a debate on her appointment in the Legislature, but I warned the other young staffers not to bet against her. Neither Sister Antonia Maguire nor Governor Hugh Carey would be deterred by small obstacles when fighting the good fight. She remains a prison chaplain today.

That conversation with my young colleagues may have been the first time I told the story of what had transpired on an unseasonably warm, sunny November day in 1963. Half of the Assumption’s 800 students were playing in the recess area and Sister Antonia was the monitor. The Patrol Boys walked their beats. As usual, the noise was deafening as it echoed off the five stories of brick, bounced onto the blacktop and back again.

Perhaps it was the gift of an unusually warm day or the knowledge that a cold winter was quickly approaching, but I recall an unusual energy that day. Antonia was everywhere: reminding one group that the priests were eating in the nearby rectory, breaking up a scuffle among another group, directing the activities of the Patrol Boys. The heavy wooden rosary which hung from Antonia’s waist trailed behind, as if trying to keep up with her sudden bursts across the school yard.

And then an unusual silence started to descend on the unruly students. Like a wave, it began in a place close to the old school building. Then it rolled  across the recess area, growing, until scarcely a sound could be heard. The games of tag and Red Rover stopped. No noise. No movement.
Had the whistle blown? No, there were 20 minutes remaining in recess. Had someone been injured? Where was Sister Antonia? Because she was tall, Antonia could always be spotted in the yard, even among the eighth-grade boys. But where was she? The silence lasted what seemed like an eternity. In fact, it was probably no more than 10 seconds. Then the questions started in hushed tones, barely audible. “What’s wrong?” “What’s going on?” “Someone hurt?” We searched for the source of the order to be quiet.

And then, just as the whispered questions started to become kid sounds again, a second wave rippled out from where the silence had started. Soft, low, barely audible, the sounds were not the kind heard on the playground. And then I noticed  that the kids near the old school seemed to be squatting, or were they sitting? “My God, they’re kneeling!”

Being a Cub Scout and aspiring Patrol Boy, I moved through the crowd, drawn now to the muffled sounds, expecting I guess, maybe even hoping, to find everyone kneeling over an injured schoolmate on whom I could apply my newfound first aid skills.  Instead,  I found Sister Antonia kneeling on the blacktop, her heavy wooden rosary in hand. Kids crowded around her in a gradually expanding circle, all kneeling. This was a crowd-
control technique I had not seen before.

What only minutes before had been an unruly mob took to their knees on the blacktop and followed Antonia in the rosary.

Now, if you had been in Catholic school around this time, you would know that kids would not kneel without very specific and direct orders from the nuns. Even at confirmations, with the bishop in attendance, and the prospect of money-laden envelopes in our futures, the ‘click-clack’ of a cricket (little noisemakers employed by nuns to coordinate troop movements in church) was required to get kids to kneel. Furthermore, most of us would merely mouth our prayers, even the rosary. Few of us actually said the prayers – even at “First Friday” and “Consecration of the Host” services. It would not do to be seen by classmates as holier-than-thou. And here we were, kneeling on blacktop, saying the rosary – loudly – and no one had told us to.  Most of us had no idea  why we were doing it.

Sometime during the second or third decade word spread across the schoolyard that President Kennedy had been shot. Then we knew why Antonia had knelt on the blacktop and why we were praying.

I distinctly remember the final Decades being said louder than the first as the shocking news spread.  I guess I was not alone in thinking that somehow, if I put heart and lungs into it, JFK would survive and things would be as they had been, as they were supposed to be.  Of course the President did not survive, and in a sense, nothing ever was the same.

It is not new ground to note ‘“The Assassination” as a  marker in the passing of an age.  Most people over 50 know precisely where they were on that day, just as a younger generation will remember with precision where they were on September 11. These events loom large in people’s lives and it is nearly impossible not to view them in such terms.

When I was a college sophomore, I saw a play in London’s West End called Kennedy’s Children in which the characters recount where they were when the President was shot.  It was an interesting device for developing the characters and providing historical insights. However, as I watched that play, I could not help thinking that, even with the benefit of dramatic license, none of the characters’ stories  better described the time than what I had witnessed on the playground when a woman’s simple act of faith communicated a direct and urgent message that was responded to – without question and without words – in a matter of moments.

The assassination was a mile marker on the front porch too. Within a year we moved out of the big house and out of town. Even Peekskill had suburbs. The new split-level did not have a porch. Neighbors didn’t casually drop by in the new subdivision. Politics was reserved for the kitchen table, behind closed doors. I transitioned from watching the Yanks on a small black-and-white, perched on the arm of Grandpa’s chair shrouded in White Owl cigar smoke, to a color TV and a couch. The picture was better but the color commentary was never as good.

The Yanks won the pennant in ’64, but lost the World Series again, this time to the Cardinals in seven games. While this was a more respectable showing than the year before, the Yanks were never the same. Yogi was gone by year-end and Maris a year later. Mickey lasted a few more seasons, but a long, 14-year winning drought followed. The world, baseball, and the Yankees had changed a lot when they next went to the World Series in 1978.

Vatican II resumed its work in 1964 and wrapped up in 1965. They did ultimately adopt the Vernacular Mass, fulfilling one of Pope John XXIII’s dreams. But for me, Grandpa and many others I suspect, some of the sanctity and most of the mystery was lost in translation. The Catholic Church too had changed.

There also has not been another Irish-American President since Kennedy. No Catholics either. Sure, Reagan had an Irish name and even drank a glass of Guinness in Tipperary. He was a good, maybe even great president, but he wasn’t truly Irish.  He wasn’t one of us.

At the end of the musical Camelot, an older Arthur is sitting with a young protégé looking back at Avalon. Chaos is everywhere and the end is near. The protégé asks Arthur if it was real, had there really been a Camelot? “Once there was a spot,” answers Arthur, “for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.”

Today, after the late-night story swapping is over, my kids ask about my childhood. They ask, “Was it that good, was it real?” I think of that final scene and I think of the Assumption schoolyard on that glorious November day, when a nun asked 400 children to join her in saying the rosary for a fallen hero without ever uttering a word.

It still catches me in the throat, but I smile and answer that “for one brief shining moment there was a Camelot.” I tell them it was good to be a kid then.

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