Witnesses to history

Four teenagers drive all night to reach Washington, D.C., in time to see the late President Kennedy laid to rest.

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If memory serves me correctly, Mrs. Gaynor packed enough 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 teenagers heading to Washington, D.C. – to attend President Kennedy's funeral.

I seem to recall that Mr. Gaynor gathered us around the oval pine table in his family's dining room and gave us turn-by-turn directions to the nation's capital, although it was clear that the other dads – Mr. Kotcher, Mr. Diamond, and my father – would have loved to have unfolded their own Rand McNally Eastern United States road maps and showed us the way, inch by inch: the Long Island Expressway to the potholed Brooklyn-Queens Expressway to the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge all the way across Staten Island to the Goethals Bridge, and then the long New Jersey Turnpike.

Aside from an unscheduled stop at the Joyce Cary Rest Area (so Jon, the most mechanical of this most unmechanical crew, could jury-rig the hanging muffler), we headed straight down I-95, rumbling through darkly industrial Baltimore at 3 a.m., and arriving in Washington an hour later.

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The melancholy line of mourners under hazy streetlamps leading to the Capitol Rotunda was miles long. A kindly cop on horseback shook his head and said we'd never make it in time. Pointing behind him, he suggested that we drive to Arlington National Cemetery.

Somehow – to this day I don't know how – we found our way out there before dawn, shivering as we dropped down onto the dewy lawn, no more than 10 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 as though 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 caissons, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Ethiopian leader Haile Selassie, and French head of state Charles de Gaulle with his hat high above the other heads in the cold crowd.

Yet, all these years later, one thing stands out above all else: I remain mystified that our typically overprotective suburban parents had actually allowed us to leave our safe homes at all that evening – at 11 p.m. no less – for such a long trip. Four coddled boys piling into my 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, 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, no matter how historic. "Go tomorrow morning, if you must," I would have said.

But, of course, for us on the evening of Nov. 24, 1963, that would have been too late. For some things – 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 to be part of this indelible moment in our history.

So, this Thanksgiving, in addition to expressing my gratitude for the grace I have found in my life, I also quietly thanked – although it's 44 years too late – Lillian and Samuel Lewis of Roslyn Heights, N.Y.; Betty and George Gaynor of Albertson, N.Y.; Zeke and Helen Kotcher of Old Westbury, N.Y.; and, wherever they are, Saul and Bea Diamond of Roslyn Heights for their uncharacteristic indulgence and for their remarkable courage and foresight. Thanks for the memories.

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