Monday, November 22, 2010

November 23, 1963

Dateline: Cuzco, Peru

Thursday evening, November 22nd my roommate, Beverly, and I went into the city of Cuzco to buy groceries and to have our monthly bath. Some other volunteers were also in the city and on Friday, November 23, several of us lunched together, compared notes on our Peace Corps work in the various villages, and afterwards a few of us went to a grocery store.
As we stood in the checkout line another volunteer came up and said, “These people are always starting rumors.” We laughed. Somebody asked, “What now?” He replied, “They are saying that President Kennedy has been killed.” In unison, we all said, “Oh, for pity’s sake.” It went in one ear and out the other. No one gave it a second thought. Everybody loved President Kennedy, or so we thought. No, it was just another of those rampant rumors.

We all left the store together, said our good-byes outside, and went our separate ways. John, a Cuzco city volunteer, and I stopped at the dry cleaners. Bev returned to the hotel. I arrived at the hotel a few moments later and headed for our room. I glanced at the desk clerks who stared at me as I entered, but that was nothing new. People in Peru always stared at me. I was quite the novelty. Today, the stares were not the usual stares. Something about the stares was different.

When I opened the door to our room Bev was crying as if her heart were breaking. I had never seen her cry before. Obviously something was wrong, yet I never asked her what was wrong. I will never understand my reaction. I hung up the dry cleaning and said to her, “It’s time to go to the dentist. Let’s go!”
She turned up a tear-stained, sorrowful face to me and said in a whisper, “Charlene, it’s true.” I wanted to slap her! Between clenched teeth I said, “I don’t know what you are talking about, and I don’t want to know!” I had no clue as to why she was so upset. Or did I know without knowing how I knew? Why was I so angry? Why didn’t I want to know what was wrong? Why didn’t I want to know what was “true”? Only God knows. I left the room. Bev trailed behind me. I could hear her crying. My mind was absolutely blank. I had no idea why she was crying. But the one thing that I was certain of, was that I did not WANT to know. That I knew for certain.

We walked the few blocks to the dentist’s office. There was no one in the waiting room, so we sat down to wait. Bev continued sobbing. I was still angry. At who? At what? I did not know then, and I don’t know now. A radio was on in the background and there was a lot of static. But suddenly the station cleared and we clearly heard the announcement in Spanish, “President Kennedy has been assassinated!”

Like zombies we got up and walked out. In a daze we walked down the street. We passed a group of students and one laughingly said, “Your president is dead!” Bev lunged for him. I grabbed her and whispered, “He would not want this.”

We didn’t have the heart to seek out other volunteers. We returned to the hotel, and when we entered the lobby I realized what was different about the stares of the desk clerks: the stares were not of curiosity, but of pity.

Beverly and I wondered what was going on back home? Who could have done such an act? I prayed that the assassin was not black. I remembered a black woman stabbing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in New York City. I wonder how many other ethnic groups prayed the killer was not one of theirs. We had no way to call home to find out what was going on. We were worried about our families and what they were going through. I knew there were many tears in my family over this man who was seen as a sort of savior of black people. He and his brother, Robert Kennedy, the Attorney-General, had sent troops south to protect black kids trying to integrate so-called white schools, schools for which their parents’ taxes paid, while the black students attended substandard schools. Black people knew the Kennedys were going to end the de facto segregation in the United States. What would happen now? Johnson was a Texan, there were rumors that he and Kennedy did not always agree on important matters. What would happen to black people with him in charge? Would he try to reverse decisions made by President Kennedy? I prayed the Lord would steady and guide his hands.

Somehow we got through the night. The next morning other volunteers picked us up to drive us to our village. We were all sad, confused, and uncertain of our future, or our country’s future. We piled into two jeeps and headed for the first stop, our village of Quiquijana. Cuzco’s mountainous roads were never pleasant to drive on. They are narrow, steep and dangerous. The drop-offs were steep. There were crosses all along the roads where people had died. At some places there were numerous crosses. I was in the first jeep with John. Bev was in the second jeep with Mike and two others. At one point we rounded a curve and saw a bus coming toward us. There was barely enough room for two vehicles to pass. Both usually slowed down and crept past each other. The bus barreled toward us, and we realized he had no intention of slowing down. In fact, he was aiming for us. We glimpsed the bus driver’s face and it was the face of pure evil. We had nowhere to go but over and thousands of feet down! John yelled, “Hold on!” and deliberately went over a huge hump which stopped the jeep and kept us from hurtling to the bottom of the mountain. I held on, but my head hit the top of the jeep. Somehow he managed to stop the car a few feet from oblivion! The bus drove on. The second jeep stopped and everyone jumped out. I was thoroughly shaken. John kept saying, “The guy aimed for us! He aimed for us! Why?” Why indeed! Was it open season on Americans as we grieved for our dead president?

We entered the school grounds and our house without seeing anyone. The news of President Kennedy’s death had not yet reached Quiquijana. The guys dropped us and left. Bev and I were unusually silent the rest of the day and most of the next day. Each of us was lost in her own thoughts. On Sunday we cooked a chicken we purchased in Cuzco. We had no refrigeration, but chicken usually lasted a few days in the cold climate.

After eating lunch and giving the two resident dogs the leftovers, I noticed one dog throwing up. I wondered what he had eaten. I soon found out. An hour or so later I became nauseous and began vomiting. I was also terribly thirsty. The minute the water hit the bottom of my stomach, I had to be on the way outside to vomit in the weeds. There was no way I could trot the block or so to our outhouse. Bev pleaded with me not to drink the water. Even though I knew I would throw up the second the water hit my stomach, I had to have it. My thirst demanded water. I would drink it fast, while standing at the open back door and then dash out to throw up immediately.

An hour later Bev became ill. We looked at each other and said it must have been the chicken. I became delirious. I could hear myself babbling over and over that we were going to die and no one would ever know. Of course it didn’t make any sense. The thirst was indescribable! We were hot and feverish. Bev had more control than I did. She resisted drinking the water despite her thirst. We were two sick puppies all day Sunday.

By Monday morning the village knew about President Kennedy, and villagers began coming to pay their respects beginning at 7:00 a.m. We were usually up by 5:00 a.m., but not that day because we were too sick. Peru’s president had declared Monday as a national day of mourning for President Kennedy. Bev and I took turns getting out of bed to open the door to visitors and fall back into bed. The visitors had to come into the bedroom. We were in no shape to stand. Neither of us knew who was there because it was all we could do to get up, open the door, and stagger back to bed. I vaguely remember people standing over us.

Around 10 a.m. Julia, one of the teachers at our nuclear school arrived, and seeing our conditions, she said no more visitors. She left her teenaged daughter to tell people that we were too sick to see anyone. I remember opening my eyes at one point and three or four people were standing in the bedroom looking at us. We were too sick to talk to them or even to each other. The house was cold. We didn’t have the energy to turn on our little kerosene burner. I remember someone piled more covers on us, lit the stove, and wiped our faces. There was nothing left in us to throw up or out, and since we were so feverish, we slept a lot.

By Tuesday we were beginning to feel human again. Around 8:00 p.m. that evening I was returning from the outhouse with our dogs. Suddenly they stopped as if they heard something. I too stopped, listened, and way in the distance I could hear an engine. I saw lights coming down our road and was astonished to see the jeep of our Peace Corps doctor and his wife. Never were two people more welcomed. They had returned to Cuzco from visiting other sick volunteers, and had an urgent telegraphed message from our school principal that we were deathly sick and needed a doctor immediately. They didn’t unpack; just got back in their jeep and came to see about us. The doctor determined that we had food poisoning, but we were well on the way to recovery. He and his wife spread their sleeping bags on our dirt floor and spent the night. They brought news of President Kennedy’s death and the assassin.

I will always regret not being able to greet each visitor who came to express condolences that day in Quiquijana. Americans were not the only ones who mourned our fallen president. The Quechua Indians of Peru looked to Kennedy and the U.S. as a way for their children to have better lives than the parents had. We were the first links in that chain of progress.

Epilogue: I joined the United Nations as an international secretary after Peace Corps. In 1966 the UN Movie Club showed the new movie, “Years of Lightening, Day of Drums.” The movie was made by the U.S. Information Agency whose work could not be shown in the United States. It was only for overseas distribution. However, since the United Nations is NOT on U.S. territory, it could show the movie. From the opening credits, I began crying and could not stop. For the first time I was able to see what all Americans and most of the world had seen – the mourning, the muffled drums, the dignity of Mrs. Kennedy and her children, the hundreds of foreign leaders who walked shoulder to shoulder with her down Pennsylvania Avenue, and the thousands and thousands of Americans who lined the streets to honor a fallen leader, it was overwhelming. I was not in the country during those terrible, terrible days when most of the civilized world mourned a man cut down in his prime. Seeing the movie was cathartic for me. At last, my grief had an outlet. Later Congress passed a law allowing the government to show the movie to Americans. I saw it once again. It was unforgettable.


Thursday, November 4, 2010


Happy Birthday, Mother,

It’s your 88th birthday. You left us 15 years ago. You didn’t have many happy birthdays, but I want to apologize to you with this letter, and maybe say some things you never knew. Today is also Mama’s birthday, your mother, and my beloved grandmother.

I spent most of my life trying to make up to you what you lost because of my birth: your youth, a bright future, and a loving husband. You got none of that. You were not quite 15 when I was born, so your mother took over my upbringing. She and I lived in one room in a rooming house. I can remember how happy I was in that one room with Mama. We each had a rocking chair and Mama smoked her pipe. I never understood why Mama could not help me print or to learn the alphabet. I didn’t know that she had not gone to school and could not read or write.

Mama wanted me to get a good education because nobody in our family had gone to high school; some didn’t finish grade school. After kindergarten, Mama enrolled me in St. Bridget’s Catholic School at the other end of our block. Life could not have been better. I loved the nuns and loved the Masses and I wanted to be a Catholic. On Sundays I attended Mass, and then went with Mama to her Baptist church across the street where folks shouted and “got happy.” It scared me. I never complained because I knew that the next morning I would be back at my Catholic Church where incense rose, and the dimly lit Church echoed with beautiful sounding chants and soft music.

Mother, when you came home on weekends from Chicago, you treated me like a little princess. We went to the Automat where I put in quarters and the food selections went around and around and then I chose what I wanted. We always went to a Betty Davis or Joan Crawford movie. Sometimes we went to the bowling alley and I watched you bowl. I was so happy.

When I was nine Mama died and life as I knew it came to a crashing end, and so did yours, Mother. You gave up your job in Chicago to move back home to take care of Mama in her last weeks of life. We moved into the home of Aunt Bess and Uncle Frank. After Mama died, you and I were adrift. We didn’t have anywhere to go. Uncle Frank introduced you to Walter Parks. I heard Aunt Bess urging you to marry him because he could give us a home. I didn’t want that to happen. I wanted you to marry Willie who was my heart. He would have been a wonderful father to me. I already loved him because he was funny, and he liked to do fun things with us. He drove us to Kentucky to bury Mama and when Uncle Honey handed that little fur ball to me, it was Willie who urged you to let me keep him. I named the fur ball “Sweetmeat” because he was so sweet.

Suddenly you were married to a man named Walter Parks and we moved into a large house in an affluent part of the city where few blacks lived. Mr. Walt had never said one word to me. Suddenly we were all living together. I didn’t know how to address him, so I began calling him “Mr. Walt.” It was a lonely life for me. I didn’t know anyone in the neighborhood. You said I was too young to take public transportation to get to St. Bridget’s School. I would be going to a public school and I would be bused because I could not attend the all-white school a few blocks from our house.

Mother, I know how hard you worked to help pay for that house. I know that some days you went without lunch at work so that I could have lunch at school. There was no love in that house. I kept silent and spent most time in my bedroom with Sweetmeat. I cried in his fur because I missed Mama; I missed my school; I missed my Catholic Church; I missed my friends, and I felt that I was an albatross around your neck. I knew that you didn’t know anything about raising children. I tried not to cause problems for you. I never missed school where I was a good student. I did well in school. I loved school. Mr. Parks ignored me, but his eyes never left my developing body. When I began menstruating he kept tabs on my periods. I found that strange. He told you when he thought I should begin wearing a bra. I cringed whenever I had to walk in front of him. You took an all night job at RCA because it paid more. I didn’t like being alone with him, but I had no say.

And then came that night when I woke up with a gun to my head and Mr. Walt in my bed. He raped me, Mother. He said that when he finished raping me, we were going to the basement and he was going to kill both of us. At 11 years old I was not afraid of death. My only thought was of you coming home in the morning, and finding us dead. I did not want that to happen. I knew you would never get over it. At first I said nothing to him, but then I said I would not tell anyone, and I didn’t. I never said a word because I knew that Uncle Charlie and Uncle Rabbit would kill him and go to prison. I did not want that to happen. Your two brothers were the best uncles a girl could ever have. They loved me and they would have given their lives to protect me. I loved them too, and I chose to protect them. But I began sleeping with a butcher knife under my pillow. I had decided that that beast would never rape me again. As for people who say they didn’t remember being raped for 40 or 50 years, I say bull! There is no way one can ever forget any second of that horrendous act!

You remember you took me to the doctor the next month when my period did not begin on time. I was traumatized I suppose. And then every day thereafter that Parks called me to the basement and yelled over and over who did I have sex with, who was the father if I was pregnant, and if I was pregnant I would find myself on the street. I kept my mouth shut and just looked at him with as much hate as I could. I don’t know how I got through my classes while worrying about being pregnant. I didn’t know what I would do. I had no one to talk to. I wanted to run away, but I knew that I could not take care of Sweetmeat and myself on the streets. I was far from the Catholic Church that I loved, but I knew how to pray and I never stopped praying. My period finally started, and soon thereafter Aunt Annie came to live with us. The happiest day in my life was when I turned 16 years old because four years earlier I had asked you if I could be baptized a Catholic. You said if I still felt that way at 16, then I could. I never said another word about it during those four years, but I never forgot. The day after my 16th birthday I reminded you of your promise. Thereafter, everybody in the family always said if they promised me anything, they had to live up to it. I was the only Catholic in the family, but they all seemed very proud of that fact. Whenever I was introduced to somebody, my aunts or uncles said proudly, “This is my niece, Charlene. She’s Catholic.” I thought it odd, but we were an odd family.

When I went to New York to “visit” Aunt Alma, I knew I would never return to that house. I got a wonderful job as receptionist with a Wall St. law firm and then came the Peace Corps and the United Nations and the world. When I returned after two wonderful years in the Andes Mountains of Peru, we went directly from the airport to Aunt Bess’ home. You told me that Mr. Walt said he did not want me in the house. I didn’t ask why. I knew that he hated me for being successful. Also his conscience was kicking him in the butt. You said you were going to divorce him. I said nothing, just bowed my head, and began making plans to move back to New York as quickly as possible.

Mother, I guess I blamed you for my miserable life after Mama died. I tried not to, but the hurt and the anger were there. I had buried the anger in my heart for so many years, and each time I was with you, the anger seemed to come out. That man tried to turn you against me, and sometimes I thought he was successful. Remember the time you asked me if I was having sex with my dog?? I remember looking at you and wondering if you were losing your mind. And then you said Parks suggested that. What a wicked man. He told you lie after lie about me. I was taught to respect adults and all I could say was, “No, Mother, I didn’t do that.” You didn’t believe me, and that hurt most of all.

And so, Mother, as a child, I could not talk back to you, but as an adult, I took out my anger, hurt and fear on you. I know you sometimes flinched at my harsh words. You didn’t understand why I seemed to be so angry with you. Sometimes I didn’t even know, I just knew that I was angry. But, as you know, God has been good to me. He allowed me to show you some of the world that I lived in, the world of diplomacy. I know you worried about me in some countries – most countries I served in had serious problems – but you knew that I loved my career, and I loved living abroad. I hated leaving you alone, but I wanted to live my life and I did. When I retired in ’95 I thought we could travel the US so that I could see some of my country. But God had other plans. Four months after I returned, you died.

Today I remember your birthday, Mother, with great sadness. I remember your life and hard times. You were tiny, but had the heart of a lion. You had so many tragedies in your life, but each one just made you stronger. As an adult, I marveled at your bravery. You were stronger than any of us knew. Life was not kind to you, yet you always had a smile on your face. You lost your mother when you were very young, and you were thrust into being a mother and a new wife at the same time. I felt sorry for you. You lived in pain, and I know you died in pain because your little fist was clinched. At the viewing I tried to straighten it, but the funeral director told me it couldn’t be straightened after the embalming fluid was inserted. I wanted to scream, “Then why didn’t you unclench her fist before using the embalming fluid.” You were born in pain, and you died in pain.

I am sorry, Mother. Sorry for all the sorrow that I caused you. Sorry that your marriage didn’t work out. Sorry that the world was so unforgiving. Sorry that I never got to show you more of the world. Sorry that I spoke harshly to you. Sorry that you felt inferior to others. Remember how angry I got and I said to you, “DON’T YOU EVER FEEL INFERIOR TO ANYONE! IF ANYTHING YOU ARE SUPERIOR TO MOST!” I hope you never forgot that.

On your last Mother’s Day you were happy as a lark – as you always was – when I treated you as you thought mothers should be treated – and we dined at a cafeteria-style eatery because I had not thought to make reservations at a decent restaurant. You sat eating and smiling, and you handed me a Mother’s Day card. In it you wrote, “Thank you for teaching me.” I wanted to ask what I taught you, but I didn’t. I concluded that you were thanking me for teaching you that you had a lot to offer the world, that everyone loved you, and you had no need to feel inferior to anyone. Happy birthday, Mother. May you rest in peace.