Fifty years ago today my mother gave me permission to accompany my brother, Rick and sister, Dianne on a trip to Washington, DC. It was my sixteenth birthday. Rick was driving south from our Jersey Shore home to see his future wife as she visited her sister living in Maryland. I hopped up and down with excitement at the thought of seeing cherry blossoms in bloom along the Potomac and all those monuments.
Concerning my missing a school day, my mother said she’d write an educational excuse, meaning my absence should be excused because a visit to our nation’s capitol enhanced my learning experience. At that moment neither of us could imagine how educational it would prove to be. It wasn’t until early evening that Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Tennessee.
The following morning as we three drove to Oxon Hill, Maryland I watched Rick or Dianne intermittently fiddle with the radio dial in an effort to keep up with the news. From my back seat perch I listened as reporters announced riots breaking out across the country, including turmoil in Washington, DC. Should we turn around and go back home? No, we decided to continue on to our destination. It was a somber ride as we pondered the implications of King’s murder, the riots, an impassioned plea from Bobby Kennedy to choose peace over violence.
In Oxon Hill we saw peace, but plumes of smoke rose in the distance as something burned in Washington, DC. The door to the apartment where my brother was staying was opened by a man holding a pistol. I wasn’t afraid. Everything but the gun and the smoke in the distance seemed normal. Yet nothing was normal. It wasn’t going to be the weekend I or anyone in the nation anticipated.
As we heard about destruction and people running in the streets, I never did go into Washington, DC. The riots were quelled by Sunday when Rick and my sister-in-law to be went to church there. Deemed too dangerous for me, I stayed behind with Dianne. Upon their return, they reported soldiers lining the streets to keep the peace. I wished I’d seen that.
Back at school on Monday, I handed my excuse to my homeroom teacher. He looked at it, then at me. “What did you see?” Nothing I told him. There were riots. Without a hint of sarcasm in his voice, he said, “I guess that was educational.” He looked so serious. It was a serious time with more to come.