Monday, November 23, 2009

History As Lived By The Cracker Lady: The Day JFK Died

November 22, 1963, Yerington, Nevada

     As a sophomore in high school I sat looking at the clock in my English class, when the principle’s voice came over the loud speaker. “We regret to inform you that President Kennedy has been assassinated. School is dismissed. Go home and be with your family.” My mouth dropped; I could not take my eyes off the speaker box that hung over the door. I numbly heard the gasps and cries of my classmates, but I sat stunned. My mind could not grasp it. Only the voice of Mrs. Crawford, my English teacher, roused me out of my stupor. “Chere, go home. Your brothers and sister will need you right now.”

     “Oh, my God,” I thought, “She’s right! My brothers and sister were being sent home to an empty house. They might be scared and upset.” My mother would be at work. She was a hospital administrator and did not get home until around 8 pm. I immediately shot out of the classroom looking for my siblings. I picked my sister, Lexie, up from school and headed home. My brothers had beaten me home. All of us were in shock. My mom called to reassure us and to make sure we were OK.

We immediately turned the TV on to find out what really happened. In our town, we only had three TV stations. Still I found myself channel surfing, hungry for the latest news. I sat glued to the set as Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather gave minute-by-minute updates. Things were happening so fast. Within hours the president had been shot and died. The gunman had been arrested. And then to our horror, the assassin himself was assassinated in front of our eyes on TV. Vice President Johnson was sworn in as President in the President’s plane. President Johnson, Jackie Kennedy and JFK’s body were back in Washington DC within hours and funeral arrangements were underway. This rapidness of the events kept me in constant shock and amazement. This was a speedy reality show, which this small town, slow moving girl had never experienced.

     As the afternoon and evening faded into night, I cooked dinner and put my siblings to bed, while listening to the TV. I did not want to miss a minute. Mom did not get home until 10 pm that night because the hospital was so busy. When she got home we sat watching the news together until the TV tuned out with the Star Spangle Banner. All TV stations in those days stopped broadcasting at 12 midnight.

My Plan To Attend JFK’s Funeral
     Unbeknown to my mother, I had made a determined plan to attend JFK’s funeral. I can’t tell you when the plan began to form, but as I watched the day’s events; I began to have a very strong desire to see what was happening first hand. I had ambitions of being a newspaper reporter someday. Early in the year I had watched the civil rights movements activities and the Freedom Riders woes. I had the same desire then. I wanted to be there; I wanted to make a difference; I wanted to know first hand.

     I figured I could get there by jumping a freight train out of Wabuska. I thought I could get to Washington, DC, go to the funeral, and be back home within a week. I would leave a note for Mom, explaining my plans so she would not worry. As I sat watching TV with my mother, I had already packed a small suitcase with a few days clothes, some apples, a few sandwiches and about $3 in tip money from my after school job as a waitress at John’s Cafe. The note was already written. I was waiting patiently for TV to go off and Mom to go to bed, so I could sneak out my window and start my exciting journey to the Capitol.

     Everything went exactly as planned. Within 30 minutes of lights out, I was up and dressed. I carefully laid out my note so Mom could easily find it. I quietly opened my window so as not to wake my sister, who shared the room with me, and gently lowered my suitcase to the partly snow covered ground. With racing heart in anticipation of the adventure and fear of getting caught, I crawled out the window one foot at a time. Once, my last foot touched the ground, I knew I was at the point of no return. I could not go back now.

On My Way To Washington D.C.
     The crisp November air nipped the tips of my ears and tingled my face. In all my planning, I forgot about the weather. I had no gloves, no hat and only tennis shoes on. I did have a coat and at first, I was not uncomfortably cold. I quietly tipped away form the house and started my walk to Wabuska. Now in our town, there was a curfew law that said children under 18 had to be in by 10 pm. Being a small town, it did not take long for our one cop car to make its rounds about town. I walked down back streets, constantly watching for the police and any other car that might recognize me. Fortunately, very few cars are out at 1 am. If I saw one, I just ducked down behind a parked car.

     As I approached the outskirts of Yerington city limits, I saw the police car coming up Goldfield
Avenue. I was near the bridge over the Walker River, which ran through our town, so I slid down its bank and lay flat, hoping the officer could not see me. As I lay on the bank, the muddy, icy bank caused my body to slide several feet. My right foot entered the rivers freezing cold waters. As the officer passed, I scrambled off the bank with one wet foot and one dry foot. I was hoping as I walked the wet tennis shoe would dry. To my discomfort, instead of drying, it began to freeze.

     Once outside the city limits, the landscape is a combination of desert and dirt farms. There were no streetlights on the highway. The moon occasionally would shine through a break in the overcast clouds. In the desert sound travels a long distance. A mile outside of town, I began to hear the blood curdling howls of the coyotes or wolves (I was not sure). I kept saying to myself, “I sure hope those are a long ways away.” For the next mile, I started making plans on how to defend myself from the wolves, if they attacked me. An owl in a large cottonwood tree let out a “woo,” which caused me to jump into the middle of the highway. My heart froze in my throat; the owl repeated his wooing as if laughing at me.

     I had no time to feel too humiliated, as I saw the headlights of a car approaching some distance down the road. Suitcase flapping in the air, I raced to the highway bank and laid down flat to avoid being spotted.

     Wabuska is twelve miles from Yerington. I figured I had walked about 4 or 5 miles by now. My goal was to be at the railroad station by 5 or 6 o’clock to catch a train. By now my foot was so cold, I could hardly move it. I walked for several more miles hoping it would get better. As I passed farm after farm, the coyotes howling seemed to let up. I relaxed, as the likelihood of my being the coyote’s supper seemed to diminish. I walked close to the fence lines so any passing cars could not see me. In my relaxed state, I became more aware of the intense cold and pain in my foot. It was getting almost unbearable. As I walked past a large cotton wood
tree, I came face-to-face, nose-to-nose, and eye-to-eye with a large horse that had his face hanging over the fence. The horse reared up and I jumped back. I am not sure which of us was nearest cardiac arrest.
     Within moments of my horse encounter, I determined that I would not make it to Wabuska with my frozen foot. I decided that if a car came by, I would try to hitchhike the rest of the way to the train station. As I could barely walk, I stood on the side of the road hoping and looking for a car going my way. For close to an hour no car passed going in either direction. Fear of death began to creep in. I could not go forward, and I could not go backwards. I pictured myself freezing to death on the side of the road and the coyotes eating my carcass.

My Only Hope of Survival-God
     It was at this point; I decided there was only one hope for me-God. I ditched my suitcase on the side of the road, walked to the middle of the highway, and knelt down on the freezing asphalt and began to pray. I knew the ‘Our Fathers’ and ‘Hail Marys’ I learned in Catholic catechism, but for some reason I just knew that would not do. As the asphalt dug into my boney and frozen knees, I begged God to spare my life and send me a ride. While still on my knees, I saw headlights coming a great distance away.

     Before I could even thank the Lord, I jumped to my feet and remained standing in the middle road. I was determined that that vehicle was going to stop or kill me. As the headlights got closer, I saw it was a tractor-trailer truck with a load of alfalfa. I held my ground. The truck began to slow and eventually stopped about six feet from me. I ran to the passenger door and jumped in. “What the blazes are you doing out here,” the truck driver exclaimed. “I’m trying to get to Wabuska, can you take me there?” I asked. “Are you running away?” the truck driver asked, his voice softened. “No, I have friends in Wabuska.” I said. I don’t think he believed me, but he drove me the rest of the way into Wabuska and dropped me at the train station.

     It was now 5 o’clock in the morning. It had taken me over four hours to make it half way there, and 10 minutes to get me the rest of the way. As the truck headed out towards Silver Springs, I sat on the wooden walkway at the train station waiting for my train to JFK’s funeral. Every thing within me still wanted to go to the funeral, but the agonizing pain and cold, began to speak reason into me.

My Journey Home
     Now Wabuska at that time has a population of about 12 people. Despite it’s small population, it still had a sheriff, who was not very well liked, because his main duty was to give tickets to people who sped through the towns 25 mile-an-hour speed limit over the railroad tracks. My mom had received several speeding tickets at his hand. I attended high school with his daughter, but I was always afraid of her father. It just so happened that Sheriff Bails’ house was the only house within walking distance of the train station. I had a choice of freezing to death or reaching his house for help. As I approached his house, my fear doubled. I was not only afraid of what the sheriff would do, but I was also afraid of what my mom would do.

     Knocking gently on the door, his dogs raised the roof, lights flew on, and I heard footsteps approach the door. Sheriff Bails flung open the door in his bathrobe and said, “Yes, how can I help you?” “Can you call my mom and ask her to come pick me up?” I shivered. He let me in and asked, “What are you doing out here this time of the morning?” Fumbling for an answer that I hoped would make sense to him and my mom, I blurted out, “Oh, I just felt like going for a walk.”

     As he reached for the phone, I thought I detected an amused smile on his face. “Mrs. Barnett, your daughter is out in Wabuska and wants you to come and pick her up. (Pause) She says she was just taking a walk. (Pause) OK. Goodbye.” Hanging up the phone, he slowly walked to the kitchen stove and put on some boiling water. “You look quite cold, would you like some hot chocolate while you wait for your mother to come pick you up?” All I could do was give him a grateful nod.
As I began to defrost in his home, my foot began to hurt even more. I could not move it at all. It was like the tendon in my heel was frozen solid. Sheriff Bails was not much of a conversationalist, which I was glad, as it was taking all my energy to keep from crying. We both just sat in his kitchen sipping hot chocolate and waiting for my mom. 

     Finally, my mother arrived and after a polite thank you, we left for home. The ride home was strange. Mom, who could be quite an interrogator, was being very cautious about what she said to me. I stood by my, “I could not sleep so I went for a walk” alibi. I think Mom was certain that I was running away and was trying to figure out why and how she had failed at being a mother.

     I figured she had not found my note, so I was hoping I could get in the house before her and dispose of it. If I could not convince her that I was not running away, I knew I would never be able to persuade her that I was only going to JFK’s funeral for a week. If she did believe me, she would feel I was mentally ill and might send me to a psychologist. As I jumped out of the car to beat her in, my sister Lexie, came running out waving my note in her hand. Visions of Sparks, the Nevada State Insane Asylum, sprung into my head. Mom sat in the car reading the note as I went to my bedroom. When she came into by bedroom she nursed my foot and said we would discuss it after I had rested.

     I quickly dozed off and when I woke, I heard my mom discussing with a visiting friend the whole event. They explored every possible reason why I would run away, I was such a responsible young lady. I must be going through a stage; perhaps I had too much responsibility throw on me too young; perhaps my friends were a bad influence on me. Finally after her friend left she came in my bedroom to ask me why I had run away. At this point, I decided to tell the truth. I was not running away, I was going to JFK’s funeral. Try as she may, she could get no other story out of me. She never believed it, but I was not sent to the crazy house. It was dropped and I seldom spoke of my adventure, because I did not want to appear insane. 

     God had performed a miracle for me, but I never spoke of it, because if they were not going to believe the JFK story, I knew they certainly were not going to believe my miracle story. Our family watched the funeral on TV like millions of other stunned and heartbroken Americans. When I graduated from high school, I left for the SF Bay Area to study Photojournalism at the height of the hippy movement. I was freed to explore the world first hand now, and explore I did! Nine years later I would come into a personal relationship with the God of my miracle--Jesus Christ.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing your personal story here. I greatly enjoyed it! :)



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