Mum said this would be an historical day, one I’d remember for the rest of my life. She wasn’t wrong. I’ll never forget it.
We’d been allowed entry to America only a few days before. Dad, being a scientist of some considerable reputation in our native Russia, had been invited to work at the big college in Texas teaching physics. It was November, but I remember that it was never as cold here in Dallas as it was at home.
My mother was a fanatical documenter and took photographs almost daily. She was very much the glass half full type and would frequently comment on our absolute good fortune at being able to live in America. She would tell my sister and I how fortunate we were that papa was so clever and loved us all so dearly and how wonderful our lives would be whilst we were in America.
And so, it was with much excitement that day that mother dressed us in our best clothes, newly purchased, and made us stand outside for yet another photograph. I remember my hand being so small against my fathers, and his being so warm to the touch. He was never overly demonstrative, but I never once doubted his love for me, nor his demand for the best of things. We had to always make an effort, try hard, work hard, do as we were told and when praise came from him, it was genuine, craved and left you with a sense of pride that I cannot describe now.
‘Stand up straight, chest out,’ he whispered to me while mother was arranging herself close by, making sure to get us all in the frame. My sister, as always, quietly clung to our fathers other hand. For her, moving to America had been traumatic. She was a quiet child and our home in Russia had been away from the town; moving here to all the noise, hustle, bustle and speed of Dallas made her nervous and edgy. Ever since the day of this photograph, she still has a terrible dislike of loud, sudden bangs and I don’t doubt why.
With our photographing done, mother ushered us all towards the grassy verge around the corner and we bumbled along, looking at the bunting and all the strange American people that called this place home. The atmosphere was electric and even my austere father couldn’t help but be infected, he began smiling and swinging his hands, probably the most relaxed I ever saw him.
Now, as a six year old boy, you don’t get an awful lot of warning when you are going to need to empty your bladder and patience is also in short supply. My need to stay and watch everything going on at this parade was losing a battle against the urgency of my need for a bathroom. A little jig ensued I remember and my father, understanding what was going on, began leading me away to the small fence.
‘If you are quick, you will miss nothing,’ he smiled down at me and led me behind the fence where I could at last relieve myself away from prying eyes. We were close to a railroad track, hidden in brush and I was mid-flow. My father stiffened suddenly close to me and placed his hand over my mouth. He used his other hand to tell me to be quiet and still. I’d never seen fear in my father’s eyes before that day, and he was entirely grey suddenly. I could feel the catch of tears in my throat as I did myself up, urine still flowing down my leg and tried to hide with my father as quietly as possible. Through the fence, I could see my sister and mother chatting animatedly and wished beyond anything, that we’d stayed there, in the sunlight.
Very close to us, a man assembled a big gun. My father and I had nowhere to move to and if we made any movement, the gunman would know our position. He was very focused, looking through the sight of the gun toward the street. I felt my father wrap his arms around me tighter and he whispered into my ear.
‘Put your fingers in your ears and bury your face in my jacket.’
I didn’t know why he said this, but I obeyed immediately. The muffling wasn’t enough to block out much sound though. I heard the crowds on the road cheer louder as a car turned the corner, then a loud bang followed by a thunderously louder bang as the gunman close to us fired. I squeezed my eyes as tightly closed as they would go and not one tiny sound escaped me. The cheering became screaming. The gunman coolly and quickly packed up and was gone.
Suddenly, my father had scooped me up and had reached my mother in about four strides. He spoke to her hurriedly in Russian before we were rushed back to our small apartment.
My mother never told me off for soiling my new clothes that day and once back inside the safety of our new home, my father told me never to speak of what I’d seen and not even to say that we were there. He was adamant and his tone left me in no doubt that it wasn’t open to negotiation. The day was never discussed again.
It was some time before I learned about the Kennedy assassination in School – November 1963 – and I realised; I had been inches from the man that killed John Fitzgerald Kennedy. I broached the subject with my father just before he died, an old man, warm in his bed.
He told me, ‘I am glad that we never spoke of this before today, you should not speak of it at all, not many witnesses to atrocity live to tell the tale.’
I have a feeling he was right.