From Our Point of View We Had Moved to the Left
In the end I suppose it was nobody's fault, but the temptation to assign guilt remains great even today. Taking all the blame for ourselves is especially easy, painfully so. We were only kids then, of course, but we erased a man's career, a man's life. And in the same moment, the face of an entire nation was changed. It leaves a powerful impression on a child to be part of such a thing.
Each time I learn of another quiet blacklisting, or disappearance, or imprisonment, I feel that same familiar burden of guilt drop onto my shoulders. The fact that it has become familiar does nothing to lessen its impact. It may be an irrational thought, but at such moments I can't shake the feeling that, had that first incident with Mr. Kemmelman never taken place, we might have been spared all the madness that has followed.
I believe the others feel the same way. We rarely speak of it, but I see it in their eyes.
We are haunted, all of us, by a misunderstanding.
It happened on a crisp winter day back in '09, the sun blazing high in a sky as blue as glacial ice. Thousands of shivering spectators thronged the Capitol grounds and the Mall beyond, spilling across Constitution Avenue on the north and Independence Avenue on the south. From our vantage to the left of the Presidential grandstand, the crowd seemed to stretch away like a vast sea, its surface crisscrossed by swells and surges that broke against the security cordon below us like surf against a desert island. The Washington Monument rose in the middle distance, stately and imposing even from Capitol Hill, while at the limits of our vision gleamed the quicksilver waters of the Potomac. History was in the making that day, bearing us along like the barges on that river--but only a few of those present, I am certain, could have foreseen the black waters ahead.
A stirring march from the Marine Corps Band, seated on risers to the right of the grandstand, blared across the Mall from floating loudspeakers arrayed in a broad grid above the crowd. Our choral director, Mr. Kemmelman, tramped back and forth through the snow before our own risers in a rhythm at odds with the music, his heavy face creased in a frown. Inscrutable Secret Service agents rimmed the cordoned area like stone sentries, on occasion speaking into their wrist radios, while harried White House personnel scurried to and fro on obscure errands. Mr. Kemmelman's pacing hardly stood out amid all that organized chaos, but we in the choir sensed it keenly.
An intense, brooding cloud hung over our director. This, together with the fear, the respect, and even the love with which we regarded him, only tightened our own nerves like piano wire. "I wish he'd sit down," I whispered. "He's making me nervous."
I was squeezed onto the risers between my friends Charlie and Hughie. Charlie nodded, narrowed his dark eyes, and said, "Know what he looks like, Ben?"
"A big melted candle. With legs."
He was right. We had seen old photographs hanging on the walls of Mr. Kemmelman's office, portraying a large young man with a square face, its features blunt as if hewn from stone. Dark, slightly protuberant eyes lent that young man the deceptive aspect of a droop-lidded hound, and thick curly hair the color of peanut butter matted his head. In the time since those photographs had been taken, however, age had treated the man before us as flame might treat a fat tallow candle. With his chin pressed down to his collar, his jowls lay in folds about his jaw like layered wax drippings. His heavy cheeks sagged like empty pouches, and his sad, baggy eyes seemed in danger of sliding down his face. His forehead was smooth as bone, as if scoured clean by wind and rain. The effect of all this, together with his pacing, was one of subdued urgency. I imagined him anxiously trying to finish his day's business before bubbling down into a shapeless puddle of wax.
"A candle?" I said. "You think?"
"Yep," said Charlie, straightening the cuffs of his school blazer. "Picture him with his hair on fire and you'll see what I mean."
Hughie clawed at his face and rolled his eyes back into his head. "Help me, I'm melting, mellll-ting! Aaaah!"
Our little friend Slapjack craned his head around in the next row, giggling uncontrollably. Slapjack was younger than most of the choir and he never talked much, but he would laugh at just about anything. We were all fond of him, and we regarded him like a mascot. His giggles were infectious. I found myself laughing along with him--I and several other boys.
Mr. Kemmelman looked up sharply. "Find your centers, gentlemen," he said in a stern hiss. "This is the real thing. Ground yourselves." After a moment's cold gaze he resumed his patrol, glancing around as if someone might have overheard the reprimand.
We lapsed into a guilty silence, chastened.
None of us was older than ten.
The band music ended with a sudden grand flourish, a wall of reverberation lingering in the air like a gunshot. As the white-gloved Marines snapped their instruments down to rest, a thunderclap of applause erupted from the crowd, sudden as the onslaught of a winter storm.
The sun had reached its zenith in the sky. I checked my watch. High noon.
Every administration places its own stamp on the inaugural celebration, some symbolic embodiment of its philosophies. In '77, rather than ride in the Presidential limousine, Jimmy Carter chose to walk the full length of Pennsylvania Avenue as proof that he was one with the common man. Mario Cuomo kept the festivities in '97 to a bare minimum, as befitted the dignity and solitude of the Presidency. And in preparation for Tuesday, January 20, 2009, John Isaiah Wheelock, champion of the New Right, had spared no expense in creating the most extravagant display of red-white-and-blue-blooded nationalism since the Bicentennial.
Which was where the Nathaniel Hawthorne Memorial Boys' Academy Concert Choir of North Andelain, New Hampshire, fit into the picture.
On the Presidential grandstand, Chief Justice David Souter, swathed in black robes, stepped to the podium to say a few words in honor of Phyllis Whitely, the lame-duck president. I was distracted from Souter's remarks, however, by all the Secret Service agents in sight, so self-possessed in their dark suits and sunglasses. It took me back to Hawthorne Memorial, the first Wednesday in November, when I had seen my first Secret Service agents in the flesh.
It was the morning after Election Day, and we were truant from choir practice. Four strong, we skittered down the halls of Nathaniel Hawthorne like a squad of miniature commandos, Charlie at point, Hughie and I in the middle, and Slapjack bringing up the rear, one hand over his mouth to stifle his giggles. A door creaked open somewhere in the dim, vaulted corridor, and we dodged around a corner, laboring to breathe quietly until we heard it close again. Slapjack's cheeks were puffed out and he was nearly doubled over with the effort of holding his laughter in. When Charlie cuffed him on the side of the head, the poor kid almost lost control.
"Not a peep, I told you," said Charlie. "That dumb-ass giggling is going to get us all busted."
I shushed Charlie and his foul mouth as firmly as if we were in Sunday services. "You're the one who's going to get us all busted," I said, "dragging us out of class like this." I had followed willingly enough, but now I was having definite second thoughts.
"Yeah," said Hughie, "but at least he'll get us busted with some style."
Only a few minutes before, two men in dark suits had entered the choral chamber. We were rehearsing a chorale entitled Requiem, and Mr. Kemmelman was clearly unhappy about the interruption. After the men had spoken to him, though, he turned his baton over to the class president and accompanied the men out. He told us he would be back soon, and he instructed us to ground ourselves and keep on practicing as if nothing had happened.
Almost immediately, Charlie had grabbed my arm, said, "Let's go, Ben," and tugged me out the door along with him. Hughie had followed, with Slapjack trailing in his wake like a happy puppy. The choral chamber with its hundred-odd boys was in an uproar. It didn't take a quantum physicist to know that those had been Secret Service agents.
We were all a little dazed in the aftermath of the general election, now that a possibility which had seemed so remote only six months before had actually come to pass. Running on his reactionary New Right platform, Senator Jack Wheelock, Hawthorne Memorial's most distinguished alumnus, had edged out both the incumbent Democrat and her Republican challenger to claim the Presidency. Wheelock had served for years as a member of the Academy's Board of Trustees, and we knew from dusty old annuals that he and Mr. Kemmelman had graduated together from Hawthorne in the class of '68. These facts, plus the presence of men in dark suits, told us that our director's old classmate may have dropped by for a chat.
Our brief rest ended. Charlie gestured for us to move on. This was not something to miss.
We flung ourselves down the next hallway and around another corner, where we halted at the sound of an outside door closing somewhere up ahead. A bank of tall Gothic windows overlooked the front grounds of the Academy, and through them in the distance we could see the thickly forested White Mountains with their fresh mantle of snow. Below us in the wide, circular driveway idled a shiny black limousine. Off to the left stood our chorister with his two escorts. One of them pointed him toward the limo.
"Did you see the size of the iron that guy's packing?" whispered Charlie. "That was at least a .38 he had strapped in his armpit. One of those could put a hole in you the size of a grapefruit."
"With Slapjack, there wouldn't be anything left to bury," said Hughie. "Hey, do you think we could send him out to eavesdrop?"
Slapjack shrank back, shaking his head. He did not laugh.
"Look, guys!" I said. "Look!"
As Mr. Kemmelman neared the limousine, its driver held open the passenger door, and John Isaiah Wheelock emerged into the cold.
We pressed our faces to the windows like kids at a candy shop. The man below us was not classically handsome, but his features were strong and arresting, a crown of neat salt-and-pepper hair lending him an air of distinction. Blue shadow stubbled his cheeks, deep lines ran past the sides of his mouth, and crow's feet crinkled at the corners of his eyes. He was rugged, like the distant mountains, as much at home in the outdoors as he was in his expensive clothing. I felt drawn to him--but as he shook hands with Mr. Kemmelman and perfunctorily embraced him, something inside me drew back. His smile did not belong to a man. It belonged to a predator.
"Here it comes," said Hughie. "Kemmelman's about to get torn a new hole for making us sing in Latin."
Slapjack giggled, but I doubt he knew of Jack Wheelock's opposition to the bill which would have made Spanish our country's second official language. Wheelock had promised, in fact, that he would require all welfare applicants to demonstrate intermediate English-language proficiency before they could receive any benefits. Anything to keep the mother tongue pure.
Our director and the President-Elect stood talking for several minutes in the chill wind. Wheelock wore a fur-trimmed overcoat and leather gloves. Mr. Kemmelman, shivering, wore an old cardigan. The expressions on Wheelock's face were animated and forceful, but Mr. Kemmelman's face remained as stone throughout the conversation.
Watching, I was filled with a revulsion for Jack Wheelock as deep as any I have had for him since. My parents had taught me that he was an enemy. They published a small newspaper in Maine, and they had opposed his candidacy from the start. Anti-Wheelock propaganda had surrounded me at home--but I feel strongly that my revulsion that day was instinctual rather than learned.
Wheelock signaled his driver. Before getting into the limousine, he laid a hand on Mr. Kemmelman's shoulder, his face deadly sober. My stomach knotted, and my fists pressed against the window pane.
As the President-Elect spoke, Hughie began to mimic him in a pretentious New England accent: "Now I trust," he said, as Wheelock's teeth flashed ominously in the shadow of his face, "that you're through poisoning the precious bodily fluids of these fine young boys with all that heathen Roman claptrap. You won't disappoint me."
Slapjack started laughing so hard that he smacked his forehead against the glass, and I was sure anyone within a mile's radius could have heard it. One of the Secret Service agents looked up in our direction, reaching for the bulge in his armpit. Charlie clamped a hand over Slapjack's mouth and dragged him down to the floor, where we sat with our pulses racing.
Charlie counted to three and we made a break for it.
It was in Plymouth, New Hampshire--only a short drive from North Andelain--that Nathaniel Hawthorne died in 1864. He passed away in his sleep, on a trip to the White Mountains with his good friend Franklin Pierce, the nation's fourteenth president. I have a disquieting feeling that the foothills of the White Mountains may not be the most propitious location for associating with presidents. Nathaniel Hawthorne . . . Horace Kemmelman . . . Now own my turn has come and gone. I do not find the historical precedent encouraging.
We beat Mr. Kemmelman back to the choral chamber by several minutes. When he arrived, he took up his baton with no greetings, no fanfare, no explanations. "Gentlemen, let us please take the Requiem from the beginning, with--the center section taking the first parts."
Mr. Kemmelman believed that his students should learn multiple voices for each piece and be able to perform any of them on demand, even in concert. We sang our assigned parts strongly that day in rehearsal, with passion and precision, but as we navigated the trickiest passages of the Requiem, Mr. Kemmelman's face became clouded and he lowered his baton. Silent, we awaited correction.
He looked up, but from the beseeching expression in his eyes I realized that he was troubled by something from beyond the classroom. "Gentlemen," he said, and for the first time I recognized how yellowed his hair had become in comparison to the old photographs, "you have been invited to perform on the twentieth of January in Washington, D.C.--at the inauguration of your new president." He took a deep breath. "On your behalf I have accepted the invitation."
An incredulous murmur arose. Mr. Kemmelman's gaze panned across the choir almost apologetically, as if seeking absolution. "Tomorrow we begin rehearsal. We will perform a number by Irving Berlin that most of you already know, 'God Bless America.' The arrangement I will write myself. Come prepared to work." He surveyed us again. "Let us dismiss for the day."
No one spoke or stood up to leave. Mr. Kemmelman moved around his music stand and stood before us with his arms open. "Solidarity, gentlemen," he said, "solidarity."
We young boys, one hundred twelve of us, rose as one and surged together into his embrace as we did at the close of every practice session, but never had we done it with so little reluctance, such total immersion. We were awed, honored--but more than that, it was our inexplicable fear that caused us to huddle together so passionately that afternoon.
And so it was that Inauguration Day found our choir crammed onto a set of irregular risers that seemed designed more to conform to the side of Capitol Hill than to accommodate a group of performers. We were forced to rearrange ourselves as we tried to find places to sit, and Charlie and I and several others ended up displaced from our accustomed center section. In fact, a great number of us were shifted into new positions, which only made us feel out of place and increased our anxiety.
Mr. Kemmelman continued to pace, which did not help.
Chief Justice Souter closed his remarks and asked John Isaiah Wheelock to rise. As the President-Elect approached the dais the vast crowd seemed to swell, like a tide groping for the moon. I find myself wondering today where all the protesters were--where the signs and the placards and the indignant voices had taken refuge. They had turned out in force for Phyllis Whitely's inauguration. Why was no one protesting this?
Mr. Kemmelman had once been a protestor, as I have learned from various sources at the Hawthorne Academy. He once led faculty opposition to many of the policies of the Board of Trustees, and when most of the Board had wanted him terminated, it was Jack Wheelock who had saved him. Wheelock had persuaded the Board that it was better to grant the faculty a few concessions than to risk creating a martyr.
Now Mr. Kemmelman was a player in Wheelock's inauguration, about to demonstrate to the nation the depths of his support for the new president. This is what becomes of protestors in the new America. A way is found to turn them. The lucky ones, that is.
All the October polls had showed Wheelock behind. According to the media, there was no way he could win--but then he did win, decisively. He found the support he needed when he needed it, in places no one else had thought to look, and this leads me to a heretical thought:
Perhaps the framers of the Constitution were more correct than we would care to admit when they designed the Electoral College to keep power away from the people.
John Isaiah Wheelock stood before the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court like a mooring post for our eyes and expectations. Remote holocameras from the major cable companies drifted in loose ranks about the Presidential grandstand like a flock of hovering raptors. Mr. Kemmelman readied his baton, his face a study in severe control, and we felt a thrill of adrenaline. The downbeat would come the moment our new president completed his Oath of Office.
Jack Wheelock raised his right arm.
I should have been concentrating on Mr. Kemmelman, on finding my center, on grounding myself for our performance, but instead my eyes were locked on Wheelock--on his right arm, bent at the elbow like a carpenter's square to form a perfect ninety-degree angle.
A right angle. His right arm.
I was ten years old. I was only beginning to grasp the significance of right and left.
We had thrashed it out one evening shortly after the election. Charlie and I shared a room in the dormitories, and that night Hughie had joined us to prepare for a civics exam. We were studying the important political events of the Sixties, and mentions of a "New Left movement" had cropped up in the text. "What the hell is this left and right business?" said Charlie. "It doesn't make any sense."
"That's to be expected," I said. I was sitting on my bed with several hoarded pillows propped behind me, and I stroked my chin just like our civics instructor did when preparing to make a significant point. "My dad always says that English is the most ambiguous language there is."
Hughie pulled a face. "Then would you mind speaking it?"
"Well, how many different things can right mean?" I said. "You've got right and wrong . . . right answers . . . right of way . . ."
"Right angles in geometry," said Hughie.
"There's the Bill of Rights," said Charlie. "And children's rights, too."
"And then there's voodoo rites," said Hughie.
I sighed and rolled my eyes.
"Okay, what about left?" said Charlie.
"Left out," I said. "Left behind. Leftovers."
"Out in left field," said Hughie. He grinned weakly. "Not a good place to be."
"You know," I said, recalling discussions I had overheard between my parents, "my dad says that liberals get a bad name just because people are prejudiced against the left. Not that left is actually bad--he says we only think that way because most of us are right-handed."
"So then left-wingers are liberals," said Hughie.
"More or less, I think."
"And right-wingers would be conservatives," he said.
"Liberals and conservatives," said Charlie. I could tell he was trying to keep things straight in his head. "Okay, if that's left and right, then what about the people in the middle of the road?"
"We call them roadkill," said Hughie.
I tried not to laugh, but Charlie looked like someone who had been clinging to an expensive vase with sweaty fingers and had just watched it slip and shatter. "Shit," he said, wearily but with venom.
Charlie's swearing made me squirm. My mother had always taught me that vulgar words were what lazy people used to make up for a limited vocabulary. But Charlie's father was a decorated officer from the bloody Second Persian Gulf War, and his children had learned differently.
"Shit what?" said Hughie with some hesitancy, looking to me as if I were Charlie's oracle.
"Shit you bug me sometimes, Hubert Rosenthal," said Charlie. "You really bug me."
Hughie frowned, and the corner of his mouth trembled a little. "My name's not Hubert," he said.
"You're right," I said, sensing a rare opening. "Hughie's short for Humongous Wiener."
"Isn't that a term from the Latin?" said Charlie.
But Hughie was looking at me in some kind of betrayed shock, as if I had just pulled a dagger out of his back. "At least I'm not named after a traitor--Mr. Benedict Arnold Bigmouth!" he said in a thick voice, then ran from the room.
We sat in silence for several moments. The slamming of the door rang in my ears. "He sure left in a hurry," said Charlie.
"Right," I said, feeling injury and guilt run together.
Charlie lay back casually on his bed. "No big deal, though," he said. "Some people just can't take a joke, you know?"
Charlie's words stuck in my head as I watched Jack Wheelock and David Souter together on the Presidential grandstand. The clear, cold air was heavy with anticipation, the crowd clinging to the moment like barnacles to some great ship. Mr. Kemmelman stood like a figure carved in wood. The only sign of life he showed was in the hard, focused set of his eyes.
Some people can't take a joke. I know this well, much to my dismay.
The clear, deliberate voice of the Chief Justice split the air: "I, John Isaiah Wheelock, do solemnly affirm--" The words startled me, rolling over the crowd like a blast of thunder.
"I, John Isaiah Wheelock, do solemnly affirm--" repeated the President-Elect.
A constrictive panic rose in my chest. Mr. Kemmelman was poised as menacingly and impassively as a stone gargoyle. Charlie and all the other boys around me, none of us in our proper, familiar places, seemed to press in on me like the crush of hot bodies in a gas chamber. I scanned every face I could see, but all seemed unconcerned, oblivious. Looking back, I wonder who might have spoken out that day had our choir not done so.
"--that I will faithfully execute--"
"--that I will faithfully execute--"
These were the terrifying voices of twin titans. The President-Elect had always been quick to point out his direct descent from Eleazar Wheelock, the Congregationalist minister who founded Dartmouth College. The Wheelocks, Jack claimed--and, by extension, himself--were part of the warp and woof of American history, part of the nation's destiny. What he failed to mention, however, was that the original Wheelock had resorted to fraud in order to attract funding for Dartmouth. He claimed the new school was meant to educate the local Indians, when in reality he intended it only to produce more Congregationalist ministers. There is nothing new under the sun.
"--the Office of President of the United States--"
"--the Office of President of the United States--"
Wheelock claimed his party would restore America's moral and patriotic fiber, reestablish her as the world leader in commerce and industry. But what we have now is a quiet, pervasive police state, a great octopus with its tentacles strangling every one of our rights. Our courts and legislatures are engaged in a slow dismantling of the Constitution. With each successive Congress, our freedoms are whittled away as surely as small knives can in time reduce a two-by-four to toothpicks.
"--and will to the best of my ability--"
"--and will to the best of my ability--"
Analysts now call Jack Wheelock's election to the Presidency reactionary in nature. Democrats had been in power for twelve years, both in the White House and on Capitol Hill. The country was no better for it. We were ready for a savior. But the ensuing mad dash to conservatism left our country tilting farther to the right it had ever tilted before.
"--preserve, protect, and defend--"
"--preserve, protect, and defend--"
Was it only my fevered imagination, or was that a trace of distaste on the Chief Justice's face? Did Souter perhaps foresee what was to come, and was he sick with despair at setting that evil machinery into motion?
"--the Constitution of the United States, so help me God."
Mr. Kemmelman came to life, like an iceberg flash-thawed. "The section on the right will begin," he hissed. "On the right. Ready?"
Jack Wheelock's voice rang out with the finality of a death knell: "--the Constitution of the United States, so help me God."
I wanted to scream.
But there, in the split-second of silence before cheering and wild applause could erupt, flashed Mr. Kemmelman's baton, insistent as an icepick, signaling the onset of the magnificent canon he had crafted from the strains of "God Bless America."
And the downbeat fell, precise as surgical steel.
Some of us opened our mouths. Some of us did not. Some of us managed to croak out a ragged opening note before glancing around in sick confusion and falling silent.
A funereal stillness ensued. We faced an audience of a million staring corpses. Cold hands squeezed my heart.
But things still might have turned out all right if not for what happened next. It was something any other president could have shrugged off, forgiven of a hundred or so small boys. Ronald Reagan, a product of the entertainment industry, would have understood. I'm sure either one of the Roosevelts would have just smiled and signaled for us to have another go at it, chomping on a thick cigar or clenching a thin cigarette holder between gleaming teeth. I can picture Abraham Lincoln patting each one of us on the head, unbearable depths of sympathy in his sad, dark eyes. We would all have been changed men had Lincoln been with us.
But this was John Isaiah Wheelock. To him we were not small boys. We were mere symbols in his thrall.
Now President of the United States, Wheelock glared at us in that interminable moment with eyes that burned an angry demon's. The crowd, the cameras, the Secret Service cordon, all seemed to vanish like smoke, the way dreams flee at the cold touch of reality. The world had narrowed down to just us and our president--a pitiful army of children facing a modern Goliath.
Mr. Kemmelman seemed to me suddenly a fragile marionette, suspended between warring puppeteers. He looked old and very brittle.
Only a few seconds passed in that horrible silence, but it felt like eternity, a soundless freefall through ice.
Someone began to laugh, and the freefall ended with a sickening jolt. I spat the only word I could find: "Shit."
It was Slapjack--God keep his soul--defending us against the President's baleful anger the only way he knew how, with the only weapon he owned for warding off what he did not understand. His was not merry laughter, not delighted laughter, not the laughter of relief, but rather terrified, hysterical laughter, too shrill by several degrees to be mistaken for an outpouring of joy or mirth. It clawed its way into the still air like some ferocious infant dragon, ripping itself free of the birth canal and fighting to gain a purchase on the sky with its still moist wings. Slapjack's eyes were wide, as if he were helpless to quell that ghastly sound.
And we, his classmates, laughed along with him. A few nervous titters broke out at first, but those quickly expanded into full-throated gales, and in a few moments we were holding our sides, writhing in our seats like a bunch of weak-kneed kindergartners, tears streaming down our faces.
It wasn't at all funny. There was not one blasted funny thing about the entire situation. We were honored guests at the Presidential inauguration, and we had just blown our golden moment in the spotlight before the most powerful men in the country, before foreign dignitaries, before a gathered crowd of thousands and thousands, before the disbelieving eyes and ears of millions of Americans, before the microphones and cameras of the entire world--so what else was there to do but laugh, and laugh like raving lunatics?
Our laughter multiplied and echoed back from the floating loudspeakers, from the mausoleum-white marble of the Capitol, from the monuments all down the Mall, as if a horde of demons were descending on the city. Mr. Kemmelman stood frozen, arms still raised, with the faintly surprised air of a man just impaled on a spear. His eyes betrayed only disbelief.
Then the laughter spread to the crowd.
I will not attempt to describe any more of it here. Every news outlet in the country has it on tape in three-dimensional surround. The only way to know the how it really felt is to have been there in person, but the tapes come close. I know. I've reviewed them often enough.
Chaos reigned for a minute or two, but after a few stern words from Chief Justice Souter, order was restored. We were even given a chance to try our number again, and we did a respectable job of it. It didn't make us feel any better, though. We had already upstaged ourselves, and no performance, no matter how good, could make up for that.
But we had also upstaged the President of the United States. After that first horrible instant, he had managed to mask his true emotions, but we weren't fooled. He smiled graciously as we pushed through our number, but from that smile shone malice as pure as beams of black light. We had laughed at his inauguration, and from his point of view I'm sure he felt we were laughing at him.
But time marches on, as inexorably as the parade which soon installed Jack Wheelock in his new home at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Twelve years have passed, and he has been laughing at the rest of us ever since. My parents eke out a meager subsistence back home in Maine, two old reporters whose suddenly liberal press was forced into closure nearly a decade ago. Charlie's father, once a critic of military rearmament, has not been heard from in seven years. Hughie's mother is dead, killed in religious violence in the streets of New York City. His family had never been practicing Jews, but strangely enough now they are, covertly.
The source of the laughter is dead, as well. In his first year at Harvard, the black depression which had been creeping over Slapjack for years at last reached its high tide. I suspect it was Charlie who sold him the gun--from his missing father's collection, perhaps--though I'm sure Charlie supposed it was intended for a very different purpose.
We left Washington that day in three chartered buses bound straight for North Andelain, New Hampshire. Mr. Kemmelman stayed on, supposedly to attend the Inaugural Ball as a special guest of the President. None of us ever saw him again. We finished out the term with a substitute teacher, and by early spring a full-time replacement had been named. No one offered us an explanation.
When I think of Mr. Kemmelman now, I try to remember the stern, generous man who strove to embrace us all that day back in our choral chamber, but whose arms turned out to be too short. I try to remember him that way, but all too often what I see is his heavy, slightly stunned face congealing into horror as our laughter rolls past him in ugly waves--and then I realize, once more but never with any less force, that it was we children, we small boys, who laughed him into nonexistence.
I am back in Washington today--Wednesday, January 20, 2021. The occasion is Jack Wheelock's fourth inauguration. I attend Dartmouth, and I have begun my student teaching at the Nathaniel Hawthorne Memorial Boys' Academy. By a peculiar twist of fate, I have drawn the same duty forced upon Mr. Kemmelman some twelve long years ago. My boys are here with me, crowded onto ill-sized risers adjoining the Presidential grandstand. The day is again cold and clear. President Wheelock has waited all this time for our choir to reattain its former level of excellence, and he is determined that we serve him today with fierce allegiance--as if that will undo the affront of so long ago.
Charlie and Hughie are here somewhere also--perhaps as part of the crowd, perhaps atop one of the nearby buildings, or perhaps in some cunning disguise inside the security cordon. I prefer not to know where. For their part, they are determined that Jack Wheelock not be allowed to serve a fourth term. For my part, I am determined only to draw from my boys the most haunting and plaintive music that has ever been heard in this city which was once the cradle of democracy.
I am determined to give Mr. Kemmelman, wherever he is, the performance we failed to deliver that Tuesday in '09.
Everyone will be waiting for another colossal blunder. They will be waiting for us to disgrace ourselves again, to humiliate our president, but we will not. We will sing like angels, and we will seize the minds and souls of all within the sound of our voices. They will hear, see, and feel nothing else but our music. And when the shots ring out, to signal the end of an era, we will not miss a beat, and the strains of Horace Kemmelman's magnificent arrangement of "God Bless America" will wash out over the Mall like a cool breeze from heaven. It may be the last song I ever hear, but my boys will make me proud. And I will be happy.
There is something my parents never understood about America. It is that America only understands itself. It knows little of anything else, and what it does know it comprehends poorly. My parents named me Benedict--from the Latin for good word, or good saying, or even good voice--for they hoped I might someday write or speak with a powerful voice in defense of all that is good about this nation. But they made a mistake. In this country, even among those who know nothing else of American history, the name Benedict is associated with one thing only: treason.
And perhaps a traitor is what I am. Perhaps that's what we all are. Who of you can blame us, though, for a certain amount of confusion that dark day twelve years ago? With the crowd, the cameras, the very weight of history hanging over our heads like some giant Damoclean sword, who can blame us for one small and treacherous mistake?
All it boiled down to was a breakdown of communication. Charlie and I and many of the others were used to sitting in the center section of the choir. When Mr. Kemmelman asked that the section to his right begin the canon, he was forgetting that many of us had shifted positions, and that from our point of view we had moved to the left.