The Wiener Wrap Tribute
A JFK recollection
by Dave Lister

As a third grader in Mrs. Ennis’ class at Grout grammar school in Portland much of my daily preoccupation was with lunch. I was a participant in the Federal Hot Lunch Program. Each day my mother would carefully place one shiny silver dime and one nickel in my rubber coin pouch. That was my lunch money. I would pat my pocket several times during the morning to make sure I hadn’t lost it. At lunchtime the kids would queue up in the hall outside the cafeteria and hand over those dimes and nickels to the eighth grader assigned to collect them. Upon receiving a chit we would proceed through the lunch line.

The lunch program offered no menu choices and although nutritious, many of the dishes were less than palatable. When I could, I’d try to listen to the radio with my mother in the early morning for the day’s menu. Local radio celebrity, Barney Keep, would give a school lunch report during his show. He’d usually improvise a little tune and extend the virtues of meatloaf or tuna casserole in falsetto voice.

Knowing the menu ahead of time could either lead to a long morning of anticipation or a quick morning of dread. When we finally did pass through the line, a humorless woman known to us only as the “lunch lady” would load our segmented plastic plates with ladles of khaki-colored canned peas and slabs of flavorless meatloaf. When we sat down to eat we were confronted with a teacher or two serving that day as lunchroom monitors. On the worst menu days, we would surreptitiously consign blobs of casserole or creamed vegetables to the linoleum beneath the tables.

About twice a month, however, there was a menu offering that was coveted by all. Wiener wraps.

Those tasty franks encased in a golden brown pastry coating were delicious. After dipping them in bright yellow mustard the children wolfed them. We fought over them. We wheedled, cajoled and bargained with one another to try to obtain more. All offers of trade were turned down. No slab of Jell-O, no brownie, no piece of cornbread had the worth of even half a wiener wrap. The normally unapproachable lunch lady was besieged with requests for seconds and, once in a while, some beaming kid would walk away with a second one and gobble it down before he was mobbed by others wanting bites. John Fitzgerald Kennedy was my President. Elected when I was six, he was the first president of whom I was aware. His portrait adorned our classroom. He was young. His wife was pretty. He had little kids, just like us. He was what stood between us and that crazy Khrushchev fellow; the one we’d seen on TV beating the desk with his shoe and insisting that he would bury us.

Two weeks before my eighth birthday President Kennedy came on the television. He showed us pictures missiles in Cuba. He told us he wouldn’t allow it. We were scared. I still recall vividly those days in October.

My friends and I would study the maps in the newspaper. Maps of Cuba with the location of the missile sites. Maps of the United States showing the concentric rings that illustrated the ranges of the SRBM’s and IRBM’s. A map of Portland with its own concentric rings surrounding downtown which showed us the zones of fatality should an atomic bomb be detonated. My sister and I huddled with my parents in their bed to watch Walter Cronkite on the black and white Zenith TV. Civil Defense films showed us how to stock our basement and how to duck and cover. Other film showed wood frame houses like ours disintegrating in the blast wave of an A-Bomb test. That film made us cry. But my President prevailed. The Soviet ships stopped at the quarantine line. The missiles were crated and shipped out. Our lives returned to normal and our attention returned to dodge ball, foursquare, and lunch.

A little over a year later I walked to school with eager anticipation. I’d caught Barney Keep’s lunch report and he’d sung about a “wiener in a wrap.” It was wiener wrap day. I was lighthearted as I splashed through puddles filled with yellow and red fallen leaves on the six-block walk to school. I probably checked my coin pouch 20 times before ten o’clock.

Sometime in the late morning things became odd. Mrs. Ennis told us to behave for a few minutes and left the office. Normally this would have resulted in barrages of spit wads and chalkboard eraser throwing, but not this time. Something in her tone, something in her demeanor made us uneasy. We sat still and behaved. When she returned she resumed giving our lessons but without her usual cheerfulness. It was in the lunch line that whispered rumors alerted us to Mrs. Ennis’ concern. Someone said that President Kennedy had been shot. Our President. My President. We heard of a town called Dallas. We heard he was wounded. We heard he was shot in the head. We hoped he would live, but feared he was dead. No one knew yet. No one could say.

And then, at that moment, I felt for the first time in my life a sick, hollow feeling in my stomach. The same feeling I would later feel when my mother wept over my grandmother’s death or when my cat had to be put to sleep.

My President had been shot.

We shuffled through the lunch line without appetite. There was little talking. Each of us silently contemplating the uncertainty of a future without our President. Each of us contemplating a world filled with A-Bombs and Castros and Khrushchevs. Each of us contemplating a future without John Fitzgerald Kennedy to protect us.

At the end of the lunch period I witnessed something never seen, before or since. Mounds of untouched, uneaten wiener wraps accumulating in the trash can as the children filed out of the lunchroom.

BrainstormNW - Nov 2003

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