ONCE I HAD A HERO

Only once
have I carried a rifle in public,
for a 6th grade school play
about the pioneers,
my father’s World War II carbine
an essential prop.
After school,
when I got into the way back
of a neighbor’s station wagon,
pointing that gun out the rear window,
I already felt strange.
Then she told us
that President Kennedy had been shot.
Driving towards home,
my journey away from innocence
had already begun.

Black and white TV set:
smiling John and Jackie
waving from a black
Lincoln convertible.

Three years before
I played the role of JFK
in my classroom debate.
As the only Catholic,
it was a logical fit.
My pride at how I did
grew when he was elected for real.

Black and white:
a riderless horse
in the funeral procession,
tall black boots turned backward.

Only once
did I shoot a living thing.
My Dad did not teach me
how to change the oil
or fix wooden things but
he did teach me to shoot.
So when my cousin Steve and I
took air rifles behind Grandma’s house,
it was no surprise that
I saw a bird, aimed,
fired one shot, and he fell.
When we ran up,
excited as boy heros,
Steve saw he was suffering,
no longer able to fly,
and killed him point blank.

Black and white:
Jack Ruby in a fedora
shoots Oswald point blank,
camera catching Oswald’s pain.

Only once did I share an experience
with a President.
As Capitol tourists going to Mass,
my parents and I were already praying
when a group of men in dark suits
made a disturbance,
the Secret Service,
clearing an area for the President.
After Kennedy entered,
I thought it odd
that nobody sat near him,
a long pew with one bowed head,
restless hands and a troubled face –
every time I turned around
it seemed darker there.
After Mass, I was outside
as he came down the steps.
When our eyes met,
his bright smile
seemed to match mine.

Black and white:
John John at the foot of steps,
farewell salute to his father and hero,
on the day of his third birthday.