Reflections on a day fifty years ago…

Reflections on a day fifty years ago...

As I walked past the tall steel casement windows on one side of the pharmacy, I stopped to watch a supply truck loaded with huge, heavy “H” cylinders of Oxygen, CO2 and Nitrous Oxide back down the blacktop driveway to unload in the basement of Minnie Mae Anderson Memorial Hospital in Mount Clemens, Michigan.  I worked here part time during my senior year of high school.

The stunning two-story red brick building with steep pitched roofs of gray and green slate tiles meandered through groves of old Ash and Oak trees alongside a waterway that connected the Clinton River with Lake St. Clair.  It had been designed by famous Detroit architect Albert Kahn and built in 1925 as Memorial Orthopedic Hospital to treat 6 month to 14 year old patients who contracted infantile paralysis.

It was an incredibly bright, beautiful, but cold day and for no reason I pulled up a chair and sat close to the windows watching the men work and letting the warm sun beat on my face and chest, knowing that soon it would disappear for almost five months.  We were in the midst of another Michigan winter, when people learn to live in cold, overcast sunless days.

I watched as my 18 year old hands, not the ones with aging spots and loose skin with bulging veins that I own today, used a small metal spatula to count Doridan tablets (a popular sleeping medication) on a bright blue plastic pill-counter with a big, square, white letter “A” in the middle of it for Abbott Labs, one of the suppliers of the hospital’s pharmaceuticals.  Pouring them inside a plastic bottle, I rolled a label onto the platen of an old Smith Corona manual typewriter and began entering the patient’s name, room number, medication name and directions, pulled it out and wet it on a sponge that sat in a chipped pottery saucer, and applied it to the bottle.

On a shelf above where I worked was a group of tall Smith, Kline and French brown glass bottles filled with Compazine, Dexadrine, Thorazine, and other anti-psychotic drugs.  Above them, on another shelf, was my small Sony transistor radio in a faded, fake brown leather case, next to it, a white, rotary-dial wall phone.

It was lunch time, and for no reason I switched on the radio.  The Village Stompers were singing “Washington Square” and I briefly thought how much fun it would be to go to New York City, but my train of thought was cut short by a breaking news announcement:

“In Dallas, Texas – Shots have been fired.  First reports say that the President of the United States has been shot as his motorcade passed through downtown Dallas moments ago.  They are in route to Parkland Hospital.  Stay tuned for more information as it becomes available.”

The radio went back to music, but I couldn’t tell you what they were playing.  Feeling weak in the knees and not believing my ears, I went back to my chair by the window.  Outside a hearse backed down the driveway and two men unloaded a stretcher on their way to pick up a body from the morgue.  I stared off into nothingness past them.

When Jack Kennedy campaigned for the presidency, he came to Mount Clemens, Michigan where I lived.  My mother went out into the corn field behind our home and waited for his motorcade to pass on its way from Selfridge field where he landed to downtown Mount Clemens, where he spoke to a group that included our high school class.   As he passed he saw her standing alone in the field and leaned out to waive – just to her.  It was one of the highlights of my mother’s life.

Around 2:30 PM Eastern Time, they broke into programming again and announced that President Kennedy had died.  From that moment on there was nothing but news and talking on the radio.  I didn’t switch it off, but my brain did.  Uncomfortable being alone, I decided to walk upstairs to be among others.  There were close to two hundred people in the building that afternoon but there was complete silence.

No one spoke.

Everything stopped…everything.

Outside the traffic quickly disappeared.

Even the emergency room, usually a busy place was silent and empty.

Life had been switched off.

Some nurses just put on their coats and went home without regard to finishing their shifts.  Some stood silently in groups with their hands over their mouths and tears streaming down their faces.  Others walked around mechanically performing their duties with dead eyes.

In the cafeteria, an old black and white television mounted on a wall bracket repeated over and over the latest developments.  A few scattered people sat at tables chewing their food in silence.  There was nothing to say and way too many questions without answers.

In a far corner of the basement, down a long, dark, narrow and winding hallway there was a place with thick walls that had large, crudely cut openings hacked into them.  If you bent down you could enter a huge room that seemed to stretch for acres.  The walls from floor to ceiling were decorated with old iridescent Pewabic tiles made in an artisan’s studio in Detroit around 1903.  Their beautiful assortment of greens, blues and tans could hardly be seen because the space was almost pitch dark.

There was little room to move.

It was packed with old, abandoned gurneys with thick rubber mattresses, oxygen tents, iron lungs and other antique medical hardware no longer used but too valuable to throw away.  Instead, it was shoved into here to die.   I found an old stainless steel stool and sat looking up at the newer steel that was the floor of the medical library above.

I was in the bottom of the old swimming pool.

It was here, in the warm water that once filled this space that Sister Kenny, an Australian bush nurse and her followers valiantly tried to coax back to life the dead limbs of children paralyzed by polio in 1920s to 50s.

But today this quiet, dark spot was a place to get away and be alone.  It was fitting that I should be surrounded by old medical equipment that day.

Two thousand miles away in a trauma room in Dallas, on another gurney with a black rubber mattress and surrounded by similar medical machines that can sometime work miracles, lay the mutilated, lifeless body of a president – his eyes wide open looking at the ceiling but no longer seeing anything.

Little did I know that the bright sun beating down on my face earlier in the pharmacy window and my dread of the coming sunless days would occur so suddenly – this time it wouldn’t be for just a few months.  Everyone in the United States of America, on the afternoon of November 22nd, 1963 had entered a prolonged period without sun.

Years later I would find myself in Dallas working at a furniture market in the Trade Mart building.  It was here in a large covered atrium surrounded by a second floor balcony that President Kennedy was scheduled to arrive for a luncheon, but instead his motorcade sped past on its way to Parkland Hospital.  A friend of mine told me there was someone he wanted me to meet and took me to a showroom overlooking the center of the Trade Mart atrium.  Ruby Tedder was a gentile older southern woman with a face full of lines and a quiet demeanor that said she had seen it all.   It was here, in her showroom full of porcelain dishes and candles and silver trays that the Secret Service had set up headquarters for the Presidential visit.  Ruby knew each of the men on the President’s security detail by first name.  On the dais below, President Kennedy’s rocking chair awaited him – and it was to her showroom the Secret Service lovingly carried that chair and covered it with a sheet after receiving a call from their counterparts at Parkland, telling them the president wouldn’t be attending the luncheon that day.

Fifty years have passed.  No longer a teenager, I’m close to 70, but the thoughts, sights, sounds and smells of the day my president died are as vivid as though it happened yesterday.


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