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(25 Stories)

Prompted By That Summer

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I was sailing into summer, flags flying, in 1964. Things were good. I had just finished school and would be a rising 9th grader in the fall. I had made the cheerleading squad. My first job, at a summer camp, would start in a few weeks. My best friend “J” and I were eager to fit in some fun before my job started.

But what kind of fun? Beach trips, of course, the usual teenage stuff. Then it struck us: we wanted to go into the city to be in the audience of Boston’s top radio personality, Jerry Williams.

You could say this was a weird choice. We were sensible girls. But Williams was a pioneer of talk radio. His novel, popular weeknight show skewered Boston politicians and surveyed the local scene. Bombastic and rude, he often hung up on callers and called them “cockamamies.” At our age we thought this was hilarious.

Williams’ show was for adults, but we knew it well because his show started at 10 p.m., right after DJ Arnie “Woo Woo” Ginsburg’s Top 40 Night Train Show. We could stay up past 10 and listen to Williams only on a Friday, the same night he opened his studio to fans.

To our secret relief, neither J nor I was allowed in Boston alone, day or night. We would need a chauffeur and a chaperone. In her one lapse of judgment that I can recall, my mother agreed to do it. My father quietly shook his head in disapproval.

The next Friday night off we went. Mother steered us expertly into the city and ultimately down a creepy alley near Fenway Park. It was dark, dark. As we approached the building we saw an angry mini-mob gathered at a closed door blocked by a Boston policeman. What was going on? My mother was about to pull the plug on this sketchy situation when the officer called out to us: “You three — you come in.” 

The crowd parted and in we went. Why us? I wondered. We climbed a steep flight of stairs that opened onto an unexpectedly cavernous, high-ceilinged room. There were just eight metal folding chairs set up, and three were free. We took them and sat down. 

Looking around, I spied three of the biggest men I’d ever seen. Their identities soon became clear when one’s sport coat opened to reveal a shoulder holster. They were serious plainclothes police. I sensed my mother had seen the gun too. I think that if she could have fainted to the floor from a sitting position, this would have been the moment. Later she admitted she was imagining newspaper headlines along the lines of Foolish Mother Puts Teen Girls in Peril.

I turned to the front and saw, seated at a table, a very somber, handsome man. He looked familiar. To his left I saw Williams, seated on a dais high above his guest in what reminded me of a lifeguard’s chair. Suitable for such a big ego, I thought. Good grief, this was bizarre. And hugely exciting.

The rest of the night is a blur, except for the fact that the guest was Malcolm X and that Williams, at one point, looked up at the room’s only window and informed us that there had been a bomb threat.

My summer proceeded in a comparatively mundane manner after that. The camp job was great. Soon after it ended I started school and the cheerleading gig.

Then, in late February, news broke: Malcolm X had been assassinated. I was stunned. Just months before I had been sitting perhaps eight feet away from a national figure who now had been murdered.

There is a chilling Edith Wharton short story that features an American couple giddy at scoring a suspiciously cheap rent on an English country house. Jokingly, the wife asks her friend, Is there a ghost? Yes, the friend answers, but you won’t know it until long, long afterward.

I couldn’t have known, that fanciful summer, that the scourge of U.S. assassinations was not over. That the nascent war on the other side of the world would metastasize to haunt my college years and involve both my brothers in military service. That societal unrest would rock our country and continue to do so, off and on, to this day.

Reader, please forgive me for ending this story on such a down note. That summer of ‘64 really was a magical time.

Foolish Mother Puts Teen Girls in Peril
Profile photo of Susan Bennet Susan Bennet
I'm so happy to have joined the gracious Retro family. The basics:
I have a background in marketing and museums.
I come alive when the leaves turn red.
I regret every tech mistake I have made or will ever make on this site.
I want a dog.



Characterizations: right on!, well written

Comments

  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Such an interesting story, Susan. Your mother was a real trooper to chaperone you two on such an adventure, and what an adventure you had! Growing up in Detroit, I remember my father driving quickly past gatherings of Black Muslims, fearful of what they meant for Jews. It made a huge impression on little me. And there you were, seeing native Detroiter Malcolm X, who would moderate his rhetoric at the end of his life, only to be assassinated by a Black Muslim, in person. It must have been thrilling.

    Your musings about what that summer foreshadowed are apt, though I’m glad you and J had a great time and enjoyed being on the cheerleading squad in the fall.

    • Susan Bennet says:

      Thank you, Betsy. Detroit Red, a play about Malcolm Little/Malcolm X’s Detroit (and then Boston) years, ran at the Emerson Theater in 2020. Getting that close to unrest was never my intention. And yes – my mother was a trooper in so many wonderful ways, but that night was an “adventure” she never repeated!

  2. Marian says:

    You’ve conveyed the drama and the extreme nature of what was going on that summer, Susan. I’m so glad you wrote this story. Amazing that you were that close to Malcom X, and I can only imagine what you must have felt when you read about the assassination. Thank you for a glimpse into that turbulent time.

  3. Suzy says:

    Thank you for telling us about your magical summer of ’64. I was a rising 9th grader then too. Your description of going off to that radio show is so vivid, I could feel myself there with you. Only eight chairs for audience members? And you occupied three of them? And the guest was Malcolm X? Kudos to your mother for taking you there for that unforgettable experience!

  4. Susan, what a smart and bumptious coupla kids you were! No Boston version of American Bandstand for you. No! You wanted to see rhetoric in action. Great story telling, as well. You really built expectations with the creepy alley, the angry crowd and the cop singling you out. Your realization a short time later only heightened the significance of your innocent summer adventure. And Arnie “Woo Woo” Ginsberg. As a Boston guy I just gotta say “fuh cryin’ out loud!”

  5. Khati Hendry says:

    This was a wonderful story! You did such a great job of building the drama that I was almost as amazed as you when the guest was Malcolm X!!! I wonder how your mother processed the experience. The coda resonated too. No apologies.

  6. Well, Susan, Woo Woo lasted a long, long time. If I remember correctly, I was listening to him in 1957. Is that even possible?

  7. John Shutkin says:

    As others have noted, a fascinating story, Susan. And, as you sadly note, a harbinger of horrific events in the following years. But more than that, you unfold your story so well from your own, young and naive perspective, trying to figure out exactly what was going on in a very strange and obviously troubling situation.

    Two quick asides. I had heard of “Woo Woo,” and knew he must be a big deal DJ, but only from some pop song anthologiy LP’s that he was involved in. Jerry Williams is new to me. But media was so localized then, and these were clearly Boston guys. And, at the time, I was a New Haven kid.

    Also, did you happen to see “One Night In Miami,” the movie that was released (streamed) last year about the 1964 meeing of Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown ansd Sam Cooke? Might have worked better as a play than a movie, but still fascinating,

  8. Laurie Levy says:

    I loved how you build suspense over the guest, who turned out to be Malcolm X. What an amazing experience to have been part of that special audience. 1964 was a bridge into the very troubled waters that followed. Glad you got to be a cheerleader and have fun for a bit because, as you said so perfectly, societal unrest would soon rock our country.

  9. Susan Bennet says:

    Thank you, Laurie. Suzy recently pointed out that I must have mixed up my age (she’s right). I was just 13 (not 14) that summer and cheerleading would start the next year. Wow — what an editor!

    But the rest of the story/date happened as described. I suppose it was a trauma for me to have remembered it so.

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