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.


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