For those of us who dwell in that state of mind called “Geezerville,” the Thanksgiving of 1963 was the Thanksgiving that wasn’t.
On the infamous morning of November 22, 1963, I was sitting at my desk in Miss Rempel’s fourth-grade classroom at Oakland’s now defunct Maxwell Park Elementary School. It was a typical Friday, because my buddy Cecil (Porky) Parker and I were hotly negotiating a lunchbox trade.
Porky’s Yosemite Sam lunchbox contained two of his mom’s delectable bulche (pork belly) burritos, while my Foghorn Leghorn box contained a baloney and Swiss sandwich with lettuce, pickles, mustard, and mayo on balloon bread, plus my bargaining chip of some Hostess Ding Dongs. The debate was getting heated.
“I should get to keep one Ding Dong, because you don’t even like bulche, and if I don’t trade, you won’t eat lunch!” I yelled
Porky saw that my mouth was watering over the bulche, so he threw a game-winning shot.
Defeated, I handed Foghorn Leghorn to him while he forked over Yosemite Sam.
“Gil, you sure stew up a crock a’ hog-drippin’s over nuthin,” said Porky, looking smug.
I often had trouble understanding his Texas colloquialisms, and was about to ask what hog drippin’s were, when I heard Miss Rempel bellow, “Mr. Parker and Mr. Michaels, if you two are done with your latest exercise in gluttony, please join the rest of the class in today’s geography lesson.”
She zeroed in on Porky. “Mr. Parker, please name four U.S. cities that begin with the letter D, and please include the state.”
Porky beamed and smiled. In his Southern accent, he quickly answered “Dallas, Texas. Detroit, Michigan. Denver, Colorado. And Dayton, Ohio.”
Miss Rempel and the rest of the class applauded. Porky looked even more smug, especially after Miss Rempel announced, “Mr. Michaels, now it’s your turn. The same exercise, but use the letter F.”
Because my mind was still stuck on hog drippins’, so I stammered, “OK, Miss Rempel, uh, lemme see, uh…”
“C’mon Gil, we gotta get done with this before lunch!” yelled Louise Coppin, a girl I adored but who despised me.
Just before I was about to say “Philadelphia, Pennsylvania,” the classroom door burst open, and in rushed our star fourth-grade softball pitcher, Rod McCloud, screaming, “President Kennedy’s been shot!”
The whole class gasped, and Miss Rempel dropped her blackboard chalk and eraser.
“Good lord, Rod, did you hear anything else?” she pleaded.
Rod exclaimed, “Yeah, he was in a motorcade in downtown Dallas and three shots rang out, and he grabbed his throat, and his face was all bloody, and Mrs. Kennedy climbed on the trunk of the car to pick up pieces of his head. They rushed him to a hospital.”
Miss Rempel looked pale. She cupped her hands over her mouth and sat down at her desk. She ran her hand through her blonde hair, then picked up a tissue and dabbed tears from her blue eyes. Many of us were also crying.
With a weak voice she said, “Class, from what Rod says, it sounds as if the President may be deceased.”
Several kids in the class began to sob. Miss Rempel choked up, then told us, “It may be a good time for those of us who believe in God to bow our heads and pray for the President, his family and our country.”
Everyone bowed their heads but me. Miss Rempel looked up, glared at me, and barked “Mr. Michaels, don’t you want to pray?”
“I can’t,” I answered.
“Why not?” she asked.
“Because I was excommunicated from church.”
As if the previous shock weren’t enough, Miss Rempel now had to contend with my bizarre statement.
“Because I’m a bass-fisher,” I answered, matter-of-factly.
Miss Rempel stared at me with a glazed look, and just as she was about to speak, the fire drill horns began to blare. Sounding exhausted, she calmly ordered the class to assume the emergency lineup and to exit quickly outside to the playground.
As I passed her, she tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Mr. Michaels, please meet with me after the assembly.” I nodded yes, ran to the crowded playground, and stood next to Porky, just as Miss Mincher, the thin, tall, gray-haired Principal, began yelling into a huge, hand-held megaphone.
“Students and teachers, it is with deep sorrow and regret that I inform you that President Kennedy has been shot and killed in Dallas, Texas.”
There was an audible gasp, then yelling, crying, and screaming as the rest of the school learned what I already knew. Miss Mincher waited for the shock to sink in, then continued. “Students, school personnel have advised your parents and guardians that school is dismissed for today and possibly longer. You will be notified when school resumes. Please go home immediately, and may God help us all.”
I bumped fists with Porky as a farewell salute, then walked up to Miss Rempel. With tearful eyes, she smiled at me and asked, “Mr. Michaels, what exactly were the circumstances of your excommunication?”
I told her the story. “My Sunday school teacher, Mrs. Kramer, was teaching about Noah’s Ark, and I said it couldn’t have happened, because a Tyrannosaurus Rex would have eaten Noah, his family, and all the other animals. And then I called Noah’s Ark a bunch of hooey, and Mrs. Kramer called me a bass-fisher, and had the pastor’s wife excommunicate me from the church. Now my grandmother is embarrassed and furious with me.”
Miss Rempel listened intently, tried not to laugh, then said, “Mr. Michaels, I believe that your Sunday school teacher called you a blasphemer, not a bass-fisher. Okay, good luck with that. Now head on home.”
I ran to the steep staircase that led to the street, then heard a distinctive horn honk. I looked around and saw Nanny, my maternal grandmother, waiting for me in her beautiful 1950 Packard. I waved, but she didn’t smile. She looked distraught. I quietly got in the car, and she pulled away, heading to her large home in Oakland’s Laurel District.
She was still angry about my excommunication and the embarrassment it had caused her at church, because she was chair of the Ladies for Decency Committee, a group that prevented the New Pilgrim Congregational Church clergy from including any of the Bible’s more salacious writings in their sermons.
I broke the ice. “Nanny, it’s a terrible day, and I’m sorry that I’m a blasphemer, and I hope that you’ll forgive me.”
To my surprise, she chuckled and asked, “What happened to a bass-fisher?”
I told her that Miss Rempel had corrected me. Then I asked, “Aren’t you upset about the President?”
“Yes, Gil, I’m greatly upset about many things today,” she said. “Not only was the President killed, but our church was as well. Pastor McKinley and his wife were arrested for embezzling $50,000 from our building fund!”
I mulled over this newest shock, then quipped, “That church is a mess, because I’m a kook and the pastor is a crook.”
To my delight, she laughed out loud. Then, surprisingly, she asked, “What’s in your lunchbox that smells so good?
“I’ve got two bulche burritos that Porky Parker’s mother made,” I said.
“What’s bulche?” she asked.
“It’s pork belly, prepared Mexican style.”
“Yeah, Nanny, but Porky’s mom and dad are from Houston, so they’re American,” I said.
She thought for a moment, then replied, “You’ve got a point. Well, as long as a lot of things are dying today, why not my food prejudices too? So, what the hell, let’s go home and eat bulche!”
Today, 59 years later, here in that state of mind called Geezerville, I’m still thankful for that memorable drive, because six days later, on the weird, unconventional Thanksgiving of 1963 that almost wasn’t, the new liberal Nanny ate some more “un-American” food for the first time—pizza from Alameda’s Chicken Delight (where Domenico’s Deli is now located).