The Phone Is Ringing


It was after the fourth ring that I fully persuaded myself to not answer the phone.  The restaurant was closed, I had work to do and was still pissed off about missing the gathering at Kennedy campaign headquarters, that little house on Forest Ave.  The phone continued to ring.  It’s probably just those damned square dancers anyway, looking for late night pancakes, consistently messing with my closing shift schedule as a cook at IHOP.

The phone began to ring again but I didn’t even think to answer. I had to focus on finishing my work, getting some sleep and being alert for an early morning speech class where my final presentation fell into the “if time permits” category.

My “cook’s galley” was clean but still needed to be stocked for the morning. The AM shift will do a thousand pancakes before noon and if they didn’t have enough of everything, I’d hear about it.  Besides, I promised Chris, the evening waitress, that I would cover some of her work. She needed rest.

Chris Fuller and I had become friends and she had revealed to me that she was pregnant by her boyfriend who was infantry, somewhere in Vietnam.  She was strong, but all alone and we had bonded through our shared wit and a passion for music and politics.   With barely a high school education, she had an uncanny grasp of the world around her. When Bobby Kennedy entered the Presidential race in 1968, we were both ready to get involved, although I was too young to cast a vote.

Looking like I had been tar and feathered with fresh orange juice pulp, flour and egg yolks, I locked the doors at ten minutes after one, as the phone rang once again.  It must be a wrong number, not even I am supposed to be here at this hour.

Dragging myself out of bed the next morning was difficult, resulting from lack of sleep and the absence of coffee in the house.  I just needed to get through the morning, then plan to  meet up with Chris and some other volunteers.

My anticipated celebration, my day, and maybe my decade ended when I reached for the San Jose Mercury News on my way out the door.  The headline read, “Bobby Shot.”  Two words.  I was stunned.  How could this happen and why didn’t I know about it?  The morning edition of the paper could not confirm his condition, but early morning radio was reporting his death, the result of a shot from a single gunman.  I had heard this same scenario once before and my thoughts carried me back to a high school geometry class in November 1963.

There it was, face down, the latest quiz and that clammy feeling that began on my forehead was moving south, past the heart that was pounding more than usual.  Mr. Bender did his best to make geometry simple, but was not capable of re-wiring the brain of a fifteen-year-old.

During last-minute instructions, the phone rang, a brief reprieve.  The call seems to be longer than normal and Bender’s extended silence was noticeable as conversations subsided.  Should I be concerned or go over my meaningless notes one more time?  Everything became meaningless when Ron Bender spoke in  monotone as he put the receiver down,  “Class, the President has been shot in Dallas. We are all to report to the cafeteria immediately.”

Everyone was scattered, some moving quickly, some slowly. There was little talking, several students walking together, each alone in their thoughts.  I was feeling sorry for myself.  President Kennedy had moved me.  This was so unfair.

The school staff had very little new information, leaving the official acknowledgement of death to newscaster Walter Cronkite later that afternoon.  There was some talk of a book depository in Dallas where a shot or shots were fired at the motorcade, striking the President and Governor Connolly.  Then, as his comments ended, the Principal simply told us all to go home.  There was no mobilization of grievance counselors or heightened security,  just instructions to go home and be with our families.  I wondered if my parents had heard the news.

I wandered aimlessly through the school parking lot looking for my ride.  It was gone amid the chaos, my backup was hours away and the thought of walking home would be too “uncool,” even on a day like this. Then, a voice uttered, “Need a ride?”  I looked up.

It was Mike Jackson, a senior.  Mike drove a hot car, hung out with somewhat of a rough crowd, smoked cigarettes and I would place myself fairly low on his list of people to offer rides to. Maybe he remembered that I once played baseball with his younger brother, Danny, but it was probably the lost expression on my face or simply this moment in time.  “Sure, thanks,” I muttered, using a short answer to disguise the trepidation in my voice.

Once off schools grounds, Mike, with one arm slumped over the steering wheel, lit up a cigarette. I pretended not to notice.  Our limited conversation was mundane, clearly avoiding the reason we were both driving together in the same car on a Friday afternoon.  He asked me where I lived and I told him.  Without looking at me, he said, “I’ll take you home but I gotta make one stop.”  My mouth said, “Ok” while my brain frantically explored a dozen scenarios on where we may be going.  At this time I realized that I knew very little about him.

Confusion, surprise and relief all set in as his car stopped. Mike opened the door, giving me the option to go in or not.  He said that he wouldn’t be long, so I decided to go in.

I knew St. Martin’s Parish.  The neighborhood Catholic kids all went there.  On this visit, Mike Jackson, the intimidating senior, and I knelt in a pew and prayed. We prayed for our slain President, our first Catholic President.  Raised a Methodist, I had to follow Mike’s lead on all the formalities but the experience, although very surreal, was somewhat comforting.

During the next semester, I would direct a quick nod toward Mike as we passed in the halls of the school.  He usually nodded back.  Although our experience had not made us friends, he no longer intimidated me.  He would always be the answer to the question, “Where were you the day JFK got shot?”  I was in a strange church praying with a less sinister Mike Jackson, trying to cope with the setting and what I thought was the assassination of my lifetime.

Now, less than five years later,  this tragedy was even harder to accept than the deaths of JFK and Dr. King.  A large part of me was invested in a small role to make something happen.  Now I was just angry, without an answer.

I seemed to float as I walked across campus, looking for familiar faces, often being judgmental of those not expressing my grief and emotion.  Do they not realize what happened last night or that we have had three assassinations over the past five years?

I needed to find Chris and I knew she was looking for me.  Without cellphones, searching was an arduous process of elimination once people left their homes.  I finally found her later that afternoon.  Paychecks were ready for pick-up on Wednesdays and I knew she would be there sometime.  We both needed the money.

Today, she had been crying.  We hugged as she whispered that she had been looking for me all day.  “I tried calling you last night,” she said, lifting her head from my chest, “why didn’t you answer the phone?”  Lacking a meaningful response, I just continued to hold her in silence.


About Lyle W. Norton

Lyle is a freelance writer who specializes in “lifestyle” issues like wine, food, travel, music, film and memoir. He currently writes “On The Vine,” a weekly wine column for the San Francisco Examiner. View all posts by Lyle W. Norton

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