Steve Lewis is a member of the Sarah Lawrence Writing Institute faculty and freelance writer. He has been published in The New York Times, Washington Post, LA Times, The Christian Science Monitor, Spirituality and Health, and a biblically long list of parenting magazines and books (7 kids, 16 grandchildren). He is also a contributing writer for Talking Writing Magazine.
If memory serves me correctly, and even if it doesn't, Mrs. Gaynor would have packed enough Mott's apple juice, roast beef and turkey sandwiches, pears and apples, Oreo cookies and, of course, paper napkins, to sustain the entire basketball team at Wheatley High School. But this was no bus trip to a game—and there were just four of us heading out to Washington, DC.
I suppose that Mr. Gaynor gathered us around the oval pine table in their Albertson dining room giving us turn by turn directions to the nation’s capitol, though it's clear that Mr. Kotcher, Mr. Diamond and my father would have loved to have unfolded their own Rand McNally Eastern USA roadmaps and showed us, inch by excruciating inch, the way: the Long Island Expressway to the potholed Brooklyn-Queens Expressway to the Veranzano Narrows all the way across Staten Island to the Goethels Bridge and then the long Jersey Turnpike.
Aside from an unscheduled stop at the Joyce Cary Rest Area (so Jon, the most mechanical of this most unmechanical crew, could jerry-rig the hanging muffler), we headed straight down 95, rumbling through darkly industrial Baltimore at 3 AM and arriving in Washington an hour later. The melancholy line of mourners under hazy streetlamps leading to the Rotunda was miles long. A kindly cop on horseback shook his head and said we'd never make it in time. He suggested that we drive out to the cemetery, twisting around and pointing behind him.
Somehow—to this day I don’t know how--we found our way out to Arlington before dawn, shivering down into the dewy lawn, no more than ten feet from the spot where groundskeepers would soon come to blow away the leaves and place a carpet of fake grass around the dark rectangular hole. We were there before the Secret Service men in dark suits staked out their posts. Before the spit and polish soldier with scrambled eggs on his hat politely kicked us out of the low branches of a tree. Before the crowds, mostly adults looking like they were going to a fall picnic, elbowed their way in front of us.
From there I remember almost everything that passed before my watery eyes that chilly morning. The cassons. Nehru. Haile Selassie. Charles DeGaulle and his hat high above the other faceless heads in the cold crowd. Yet all these years later, I remain mystified that our typically over-protective suburban parents had actually allowed us to leave our safe homes at all that evening--at 11pm no less! Four overly coddled boys with combined Social IQs that would be too low to pass Mr. Doig's American History midterm, piling into my Earl Sheib'd Ford Fairlane (nicknamed the Green Weenie), heading out for a rendezvous with history.
Certainly each of us must have tried the old dodge about how all the other mothers had already said yes, "... even Mrs. Gaynor.” But I can't imagine why it would have worked. It never had before. Nevertheless, my mother, who was a cum laude graduate of the "I Don't Care If The President of the United States Allows His Children to ...." School of Parenting, must have been mightily impressed by something.
Or maybe she and the others just knew that this was something not to be missed. Something their sons should never forget.
And I have not forgotten.
Even so, from this vantage point as the father of seven grown children, sixteen grandchildren, I have to admit that I wouldn’t have allowed any of my teenagers to leave the house in the middle of the night and drive five hours for anyone's funeral. "Go tomorrow morning if you must," I would have said. But, of course, for us on the evening of November 24, 1963, that would have been too late. For some things, like births, weddings and state funerals, you just have to be there on time or you’ll miss everything.
Looking back, I’m almost certain that the four of us lacked the humility and the perspective to properly thank our parents for allowing us this indelible moment in our history. So, this Thanksgiving, in addition to expressing my gratitude for the undeserved grace I have found in my life, forty-four years too late I will quietly thank the late Lillian and late Samuel Lewis of Roslyn Heights, Betty and the late George Gaynor of Albertson, the late Zeke and Helen Kotcher of Old Westbury, and, wherever they are, Saul and Bea Diamond of Roslyn Heights for their most uncharacteristic indulgence and for their remarkable, remarkable courage and foresight.