A Perfectly Well-intentioned Person or November 22, 1963

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Last July in the newspaper I read: A perfectly well-intentioned person she has never met approaches her to say…almost anything that they believe is filled with heartfelt sincerity and the secret connection they share together. The “she” is Caroline Kennedy and I must confess that on the anniversary of her father’s death I would probably be one of those people if I ever got the chance.

On November 22 , 1963 just after Kennedy was shot I boarded a school bus for the afternoon session of kindergarten with Mrs. Serfling. Life was relatively carefree. I don’t know if my mother knew he had been assassinated yet but by the time I returned home it was clear something was very wrong. I crept up to my parents’ bedroom and listened to my mother sobbing face down on her bed. My father was sitting in the car listening to the radio and didn’t roll down the window to speak with me when I knocked on the door.

The days that followed were somber and quiet. I remember having the whole upstairs sections of the house to myself as my family sat before the large black and white television set in the basement and watched a slow moving story. The phone rang and I was surprised nobody went to answer it because we normally raced for the receiver, and being the youngest I usually lost. It was my father’s brother and he wanted to talk to my dad. I went downstairs and told my father who was on the phone but he didn’t say anything. I looked at the screen and saw the President’s two children in matching coats. I stared at the girl. She looked through the television set and I felt a connection to her. Then we watched some soldiers and I went back to the phone to say something to my uncle but the line had gone dead.Image

The next day in the newspaper Caroline Kennedy and her brother were on the front page. I pointed to her.

“How old is she?” I asked.

“Five.”

“Like me.”

“Yes.”

Look and Life magazines showed up and I combed the black and white pictures of the President and his family. One picture showed moving men packing up the president’s rocking chair.

“Why do they have to move?” I asked.

“Because there’s a new president now.”

That didn’t seem fair to me and I worried about where Caroline and her little brother would play now that they had to leave the White House.

Over the years I checked in with Caroline when she happened to be in the news. She had long thick light brown hair just like mine. We both graduated from college in May 1980, but her graduation made the paper.

She got married in the summer of 1986 just like me. Two of her three children are the same ages as mine and her son is named Jack and so is mine, and we’re both half Irish. After that the trail goes cold and I have no more dots to connect…she’s rich, ambassador to Japan, daughter of a U.S. president and owns a 375-acre estate on Martha’s Vineyard. I teach art and live on a fifty foot lot  and can’t afford to go to a restaurant again until my daughter graduates from college.

I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about her but when I come across a news story about her I read it. If I ever did meet her I’ve decided I wouldn’t be the perfectly well intentioned person that she forgets about seconds later because I would stay in the background, remembering when we secretly connected through the television set in 1963.

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Me in 1963

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MOLOTOV COCKTAIL MIXED WITH LEAVES or LEAF BOMB

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In 2000 we moved from an apartment with no lawn responsibilities to our current lake house with a naïve perception of what lawn care entailed. The house sits one hundred and fifty feet above the lake at a steady incline. So steady that if you walk up to the house from the dock you’re out of breath.  In a previous post, Satan Zero Us One, I wrote about the challenges of mowing this lawn but all of that pales in comparison to leaf season. Just after the spring flowers pass and the trees are ripe with bright green leaves I pause and remind myself that this is the longest point in time when we can enjoy the benefit of the leafy trees and not have to think about raking. Leaf raking season lasts from the middle of October until the first week in December and no matter how much you rake and bag more leaves always seem to fall. One year we completed our leaf work on Christmas Eve.

That first autumn, the task began brightly as we piled into the station wagon and headed down to our then local hardware store to buy rakes.

“Oh, they’re so cute,” I cooed as I plopped two shrub rakes down next to the regular size rakes. I imagined our two young children heartily joining in the chore.

Ready to pay, Rob lifted a galvanized garbage can patterned with holes onto the counter.

“What is that?” I asked.

“Leaf burner,” the gruff hardware lady said, in a matter of fact tone that didn’t illicit any more comments from me. “Don’t forget to get a permit,” she added.

Dear reader, I know what you’re thinking. Leaf burning? Isn’t that illegal? Most places yes, but in lawless Putnam County it was legal and encouraged. Having a permit meant that we simply called the local sheriff and informed him we were commencing with a leaf burn and then called him back again when we had completed the task. I’m not sure what the phone call did to protect the town from a raging wildfire.

Rob’s idea was to rake all the leaves into the burn can, throw in a match or two and sit back while the fire did all the work.  This plan lacked some basic considerations. All the leaves still had to be raked into a central location to be close enough to pile into the burner which was the same amount of raking it would take if we stuffed all the leaves into paper leaf bags.  The only time saver was hauling the bags up to the curb. Our burn can was only twenty-five gallons which was equivalent to less than one packed paper leaf bag.

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The shrub rakes became swords until one was lost under a pile of leaves my seven-year-old daughter spent the day playing in. Our son Jackson raked just enough to stick around and watch the miracle of leaf burning.  It was a concept he had never thought about until that morning. Which meant I raked masses of leaves down hill to the burn site while Rob supervised the entire burn operation. The way he saw it, he would start burning leaves as fast as they arrived. After we had accumulated an enormous pile, but really a fraction of the sum total, the three of us peered into the can with holes.

“Why aren’t they burning?” Jackson asked.

Rob had already worked his way through half a box of large kitchen matches. “I need a stick so I can stir them. They need air.”

“Isn’t that what the holes are for?” I said.

“Don’t talk. Just find a stick, a long stick.”

Whenever Rob says, “Don’t talk,” you can be pretty sure he doesn’t have a clue about what he’s doing. Nevertheless a stick was procured and Rob stirred and stirred his smoldering cauldron as he continued to drop in lit matches.

“Maybe we need newspaper to get it going.” I suggested.

“I’m not even going to point out how idiotic that sounds.”

“You just did.”

Eventually he ditched the stick in favor of a shovel and started to turn the leaves over. After about an hour of this method the only fire he managed to generate was a few singed leaves and a heavy aroma of smoke on his clothes. At this point Rob declared it was time to really get this leaf burning going “Mario” style. Mario was Rob’s father, who believed that a little gasoline or naphtha could cure just about any predicament, including lighting a household barbeque or killing weeds. Rob went to fetch the gas can. “Now stand back,” he warned as he poured in a splash of gas. We all took one baby step back. He folded the mixture up with his shovel and tossed in a lit match.

What happened next is the stuff legends are made of. The instant the lit match hit the inside of the can a homegrown mushroom cloud explosion erupted upward about ten yards, knocking the four of us off our feet and onto our rear ends. The sound was so deafening it caused our ears to ring and it was several seconds before we even knew what had happened in order to react to the now blazing fire streaming out from the top of the burn can and out through each hole. Rob shook himself off, jumped to his feet and began to control the blaze with the small garden shovel. You could tell he had been raised to think fast in the event of a self-made disaster. Mario would have been proud.  In the end the gas did the trick and Rob and Jackson happily burned leaves until dinner.

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I know we’re lucky we all lived and the house didn’t burn down and it makes sense the county eventually outlawed the practice in 2010 but I look at this picture and I can’t help but feel nostalgic for that day.

The following year we purchased a leaf blower. The things we give up in the name of progress.