A Birthday Surprise

by Sue Hecht


It was my birthday. I had just turned 14 years old, reluctantly. My body had been double crossing me and changing since I was 10. People were telling me that I now had to “act my age” and “be ladylike.” I kind of liked boys and I liked wearing make-up and having new clothes but other than that I hated the idea of becoming a grown-up and a prim and proper lady. There were so many things I wasn’t supposed to do anymore! Climb trees, beat up my brother, play ball. So instead of walking home from junior high school 74 in Bayside, Queens, I did what I always loved to do when I was happy as a kid, I cartwheeled home. I loved doing cartwheels. They made me feel so free.

I left my best friend Carol Zibowski off at her apartment on Bell Boulevard. She too had just had a birthday. In fact, we had just had a flop of a birthday party together. None of the boys we wanted to come to our party had showed up.  And a rowdy bunch of tough boys from school had tried to crash it. We had to call the police and felt  depressed and disappointed. Our boyfriends could not come to our birthday party. My boyfriend was in the Navy. Her boyfriend was going to military school.

But today I felt jubilantly alive. After all it was still the day of my actual birthday.  I was walking through a shortcut path via the Windsor Park apartments. I passed one of the playgrounds. But the funny thing was there didn’t seem to be any kids playing outside. In fact, I suddenly noticed that there was practically no one outside at all. It seemed eerie and much too quiet for a normal unseasonably warm November day.

A lady was sitting on her stoop so I asked her what was going on. I worried that maybe the United States had gone to war or the Russians had sent us a bomb. Perhaps the end of the world had come and everyone had escaped to their bomb shelters. The neighborhood seemed much too quiet for Bayside, Queens, New York.

She was crying. She shook her head and said ”You don’t know?”

I shook my  head. “Know what?” I asked baffled. Today is my birthday I told God internally. Nothing bad is supposed to  happen on my birthday, I warned.

“Didn’t they tell you at school about the President?” she asked peering into my eyes.

Again I shook my head no. This was bad. Real bad. “No, what about the President?” I was confused. JFK was a great guy. Did he do something wrong? We had just been reading his book Profiles in Courage in school. I really liked him and thought he was probably the handsomest president the United States ever had. I think they also said he was the youngest.

“You better go home to your mother. She’ll tell you.”

Omigod, I thought. This is bad. Really bad. God, nothing bad is supposed to happen on my birthday. It’s MY birthday. I told myself and God as I ran the rest of the way home through the Park, up the hill that is 75th Avenue, the street where I lived.

I got to the garden apartments, Windsor Oaks, the court is what we called it. I ran over to our apartment and ran up the stairs like a herd of elephants. I was sure my mother would be mad at me for that. But instead even she was quiet that day. I got really scared in the pit of my stomach. This was bad. Really really bad.

“Someone shot the President. Look,” she said and led me over to our big television set in the living room. We soon watched as Jack Ruby took out his gun and shot down Lee Harvey Oswald. Right on television. Scene after scene unfolded. And all we could do was cry and stare at the TV. We looked at one another as if the world had suddenly gone haywire and all we could do was helplessly watch TV.

We stayed in front of that TV for a week. We watched Mrs. Kennedy and everybody said that she was so brave. She didn’t ever cry, just held in her tears. We watched as John-John saluted his dad. And we cried and died inside.

School was out that entire week. Usually I was glad that school was out. But I felt numb. The greatest President we’d ever had had been killed on my birthday. Nothing bad was ever supposed to happen on your birthday.


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