In memory of my Grandpa, Amos Hawkins, and all those nights we sat around the table
there in Beatrice and listened to my Uncle Richard tell his tales.
I had just turned twelve when I first saw a man die directly in front of me. I remember it well, too. Years later, I could definitely answer the question, “Do you know where you were the day President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed?”
Oh, yeah. I could answer that question with certainty. I was standing in my tree fort overlooking the intersection of 8th and Elk Street in small town Beatrice, Nebraska. It was there that I witnessed the shooting that took place on the same day, and almost the same time that President Kennedy got shot and killed.
While President Kennedy was mortally wounded by what some would call the magic bullet, another Kennedy was mortally wounded there before me on the Elk Street intersection by another so-called magic bullet. Because the first five bullets fired at him from point-blank range missed him completely. It was the sixth and final shot fired from a .38 caliber Smith and Wesson that took young Jonathan Kennedy’s life.
It all happened fast, too. My best friend, Declan Connors and I were there in our tree fort having a heated argument about gum. In particular, what gum held it’s flavor the longest.
I know the topic of our conversation doesn’t sound serious, but for two twelve-year-old boys who had skipped school for the first time there in our Mayberry-like community, a heated debate over gum seemed to be the most important subject in our small, sheltered world.
Taller than me by three inches, and slender as a bean pole, Dec fluffed back his long, shaggy blond bangs and huffed, “But, look at the fun you get with Bazooka. Why, do you know how many bubbles you can can blow with just one chaw of that two-bit, pink squishy stuff? And look at the bonus side! You get a comic inside of every pack. You can’t get that with Juicy Fruit, Hawk!”
Hawk is what almost everyone in town had called me since I was little. My real name is Jessie Hawkins, but a long time ago, Dec’s dad tagged that nickname on me, and it had stuck. Hawk sort of fit me, having a lot of Irish in my family plus a sprinkling of Lakota, I guess an Indian nickname like Hawk was a good thing. Dec always said in the summer time my skin turned almost as dark as my black hair, and made me look like either an Indian or like one of the Gypsies who lived down on the lower east end of town.
I wasn’t as tall as Dec, but I stood up on my tiptoes and did some fluffing of my own scraggly black bangs, and huffed right back, “That’s a gimmick, Dec. Just pure and simple. Those tiny comics are a gimmick to get folks to buy cheap bubblegum. You don’t need no comics if you’re a serious gum chewer. Besides, don’t you feel a little more grown-up when you go down to Lawrie’s Shop and buy a pack of Juicy Fruit? I mean, penny gum like Bazooka is really kid’s stuff, ain’t it?”
Dec replied, “Who says I want to feel all grown-up? Besides, how many old folks bother with chewing Bazooka? Ever seen an old fart trying to blow a bubble?”
Dec and I were just continuing our argument about gum when the next thing you know, Henry McGinn pulled to a slow stop at the Stop sign at the Elk Street intersection, half a block away from our high lookout position.
Dec let out a low whistle. “Lookee there, Hawk,” he said with amusement. “If it ain’t King Henry and his Rolls Royce!”
Of course, Henry McGinn wasn’t a king, nor did he drive a Rolls Royce. But he sure acted like one ever since buying that brand spanking new Pontiac. I heard from his daughter, one of my fellow classmates, that Henry saved one out of every four paychecks he got working down at the Mills for a full year before he had enough saved to buy that car.
Henry drove that black and white Pontiac like an old lady going to church on Sunday. He smiled and waved at everyone he happened to pass in his prized mobile. I think it was one of the Catlin brothers who coined the phrase, “Glory be, here comes the King slow-riding his coach down the bricks!”
And ever since then, everyone in town started calling Henry McGinn, King Henry.
Dec and I watched Henry sitting there at the Stop sign. He looked like a bald, skinny vulture as he craned his long neck as if he were trying to see cars coming from the next county. Only when he was certain he was clear, that no cars were coming for at least three blocks either way on Court street, did he slowly remove his foot from the brake and proceed to place it very gingerly on the accelerator.
And that’s when it happened.
Young Jonathan Kennedy from lower west side of Glenover, came barreling up behind Henry in his junk heap of an Oldsmobile.
Dec swore later that Jonathan Kennedy didn’t even brake or even try to steer out around Henry’s shiny new Pontiac in front of him. I, for argument’s sake, swore that Jonathan pumped his brakes twice, and then threw his hands in the air like a man who knew it was too late.
But Dec and I both agreed later that Jonathan Kennedy’s old beat-up Olds slammed into the back end of Henry’s brand new Pontiac with devastating force. Quite a bit devastating force, for he not only dented in Henry’s trunk, but sent Henry’s Pontiac flying out into the middle of Elk Street, where he proceeded through the intersection and came to a stop only after striking the elm tree just west of the Presbyterian church. Which did considerable damage to the front end of Henry’s new Pontiac.
Dec and I exchanged glances as we witnessed this first part of the incident, which led to the fatal shooting. Dec raised his eyebrows the way he always did when he was impressed or surprised by something. He simply looked down at Jonathan Kennedy who was climbing out of his Olds, looking dazed and confused. I looked between the leafy branches in front of us to Henry McGinn, who sat there in his wrecked Pontiac, staring straight ahead like a boxer who was punch-drunk from taking too many shots to the head.
To be continued . . .