The Master Sergeant woke me with: “Get going, boy. The day’s half over!”
Another grueling day of the third grade in front of me, I pulled the covers up over my head and wished I was in Captain Kangaroo’s army instead.
I could hear the B-52s howling like dinosaurs at the base.
Your mother made breakfast. It’s waiting.
I loved the Master Sergeant.
The shoe shiners in my family told me they signed up because they loved this country and according to one brother, “Hell, boy, I’ll die for it.” Well, I had signed up for another day in Mrs. Weed’s class, and I was willing to die at the hands of a bully because I loved the girl who sat next to me. Tomorrow was Saturday, holding the reward of “Quick Draw McGraw” and “Sky King” if I made it through Friday. Someday I’ll be a flying rancher. I’ll buzz Myers Elementary School with my own Cessna, and then the cutest girl in the world will marry me. You’ll see.
I could see Myers from my house. Which also meant my schoolyard classmates saw my mom running after me with a sack lunch and a sweater yelling: “I don’t want my baby to catch a cold!” Good grief. What could be worse?”
I fumbled the pledge as Washington and Lincoln glared at me from above the pine-green blackboard. You know who’d be a great president? Rocky or Bullwinkle. The Master Sergeant thought Boris and Natasha weren’t the least bit funny. Everyone in Mayfair Terrace was opposed to Nikita Khrushchev, whoever he was. Dennis wasn’t the menace; for some reason the color red was. In unity with the cause, we 8-year-olds sang a ditty in the alley.
“Whistle while you work,
Khrushchev is a jerk.”
In the next stanza Mussolini would shoot himself in the plumbing.
“Then it would not work.”
Instead of a campfire we had a Magnavox. Every night the Master Sergeant adjusted the rabbit ears and made us watch the news as we peeled away tinfoil and ate our TV dinners. He revered Walter Cronkite more than Red Skelton! How is that possible?
Your whole family is in uniform, squirt. You got to know what’s going on in the world. Kennedy and Nikita are at it again. That’s why you hear air raid sirens every Saturday.
In spite of the Master Sergeant’s anxiety, I knew my future was bright because I had seen “The Jetsons.” I was going to grow up, marry Judy Jetson and live in a sky city. After I flew my Cessna over the entire third grade.
Our house was close enough for me to run home for a quick lunch break. At 11:30 it was a sandwich and a soap opera with Mom.
She was frozen in front of the Magnavox. The drapes were drawn and the only light in the room came from the word “BULLETIN” spelled out in bright white type.
I didn’t go back to school until the drums drummed and the procession clop-clop-clopped to Arlington.
Earlier in the year I came to know the old man who lived alone across the street. Mr. Goldstein was kind and exotic. His aromatic home was full of things from the Old World. When I told my big sister he had a prayer shawl he showed to me, she thought it was time to explain the Holocaust to me. What did she know? No way. Baloney. The world could not be that crazy and mean. The world that gave us “The Lone Ranger,” “Bugs Bunny” and Santa Claus couldn’t possibly produce genocide and gas chambers. Or let a nobody murder a handsome president. When the Master Sergeant promised us that “bad guys never got away with it,” was he protecting us from some terrible truth?
Attention. They’re standing at attention. See? Their thumbs are on their seams. Eyes straight ahead. That’s Parade Rest. He’s a Marine. He’s Air Force. That’s Army. Dad tutored us as we watched.
I had been immunized against measles and mumps, but not this. Those days in front of the Magnavox inoculated me against senseless evil. And the inexplicable tragedies of life to come: a dying dog, a kitten forever lost, Grandma’s end, a broken heart, the Master Sergeant’s cancer, Vietnam, Selma, My Lai, Bobby and King.
That was a beautiful salute. That’s how you fold the flag. Eyes straight ahead.
As the drums drummed and the dark procession clop-clop-clopped to Arlington, this third-grader’s mythic world, governed by Superman’s justice and Disney’s happy endings, followed Jack Fitzgerald Kennedy into the grave, where together they were blessed and mourned.
Eyes straight ahead. That’s called taps, son. The Master Sergeant turned away from the Magnavox.