“The Ransom of Red Chief” – 53 Years Later

The Ranson of Red Chief

“The Ransom of Red Chief” as it appeared in the 8th grade literature textbook. Photo by John Selig

I was substitute teaching 7th grade Language Arts at a talented and gifted middle school here in Dallas that is one of my absolute favorite places to teach. While the kids were working on an assignment I was scanning through their 8th grade literature textbook. I did say they were talented and gifted. All of a sudden I came across “The Ransom of Red Chief,” by O. Henry. In the blink of an eye I was shockingly taken back over 53 years! For a few seconds I froze and didn’t know how to process what I was feeling.

I hadn’t seen anything about “The Ransom of Red Chief” since late November 1963. So why did this totally freak me out? “The Ransom of Red Chief” will always have a direct link for me to President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. JFK was assassinated on Friday, November 22nd approximately 3 or 4 miles from where Rodolfo and I live. President Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline, landed at Love Field about 2 miles from our condo. Their motorcade drove just a block from where I am siting right now and he died at Parkland Hospital about 2 miles from here.

The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy

The Texas School Book Depository is the building on the left. The Warren Commission concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald shot President through a window on the 6th Floor. Many still question their findings and believe there was a conspiracy. Photo by John Selig

I remember President Kennedy’s assassination vividly. I was in 6th grade and our teacher, Mr. Kregler, dismissed us early. I walked home with several classmates instead of taking the bus because of the early dismissal. I lived maybe a mile from the school but I never walked home except for this one time. When I got home my mom was in the den watching TV and she was crying (something I rarely saw her do). Dad came home early too and we were all glued to the TV for the next 3 days until after JFK was buried. It was the first time that TV, which was only broadcasted in black and white back then, had no commercial interruptions, just continuous live coverage of the national tragedy. President Kennedy was my parents’ hero. They felt about him much the same as I do about Barack Obama.

President John F. Kennedy and Texas Governor John Connally were shot on Elm Street just in front of the Grassy Knoll. Many people on the Grassy Knoll claimed to hear shots coming from the Grassy Knoll, not just the Texas School Book Depository. Photo by John Selig

My 11th  birthday was just four days later on Tuesday, November 26th, the day after JFK was buried. I wasn’t allowed to open any birthday presents (some of which arrived prior to my birthday) until after President Kennedy was buried.

Notice the white “X” in shadow at bottom left. This is position of President Kennedy’s limo when he was shot. The Grassy Knoll is on the right and the Texas School Book Depository is behind where I was standing when I took this photo. Photo by John Selig

Celebrating My 11th Birthday

My parents had a tough call to make. Instead of a typical birthday party my parents had purchased tickets to a matinee performance of a play in New York City. They had gotten tickets for us along with two of my friends. Mom and dad decided to go ahead and take us to see the play. They didn’t think it was fair to prevent my friends and me from attending the play, a special treat that we were excited about seeing, because of the national tragedy. I know this wasn’t an easy decision for them to make as they were devastated by the assassination.

We got in our silver-blue 1963 Chevrolet Impala and drove into The City as planned. People I knew who lived in the New York Metropolitan Area always used “The City” as the preferred name when referring to New York City (specifically Manhattan, not the other four boroughs (Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island and The Bronx) which are also part of NYC. Dad drove the 40 miles into Manhattan from Huntington, my hometown, located on Long Island’s North Shore. We listened to continuous am-radio news coverage during the entire drive into The City. However, we lost radio reception as we drove through the Queens Midtown Tunnel, which goes under the East River between Queens and Manhattan.

The Queens Midtown Tunnel had historical significance to our family. The first time mom ever drove a car was when my grandmother was driving home with my mother from a doctor’s follow-up appointment in The City after a recent surgery my grandmother had undergone. Mom was just 12 years old as I distinctly remember her proudly sharing this story. So, mom’s sink or swim introduction to driving took place in 1937 or 1938. Back then cars were the size of small cities. As my grandmother approached the tunnel from the Manhattan side she pulled over and told my mother that she felt very weak and asked mom if she thought she could drive them home. This meant that mom would have to drive through the tunnel and then about another ten miles to their home in Queens on roads with lots of traffic. Mom replied, “Sure.” Not only did she have to drive a huge car on busy roads but also all cars back then had standard transmissions. The means that mom had to instantly learn how to shift and deal with a clutch having never driven before. WOW!!! I always remember mom as being an exceptional driver. Mom frequently received positive comments from others about the way she drove.

As We Emerged From The Queens Midtown Tunnel Into The City

As we exited the tunnel on Sunday, November 24th in 1963, in the opposite direction from mom’s first driving experience over 25 years earlier, radio reception returned as we emerged onto 34th street. We immediately heard a news broadcaster report that Lee Harvey Oswald was being taken through the basement of the Dallas Police Headquarters to be placed into an armored car that was going to transfer him to the county jail. Oswald never made it to the armored car. Less than a minute after radio reception returned we heard nightclub operator Jack Ruby kill Lee Harvey Oswald live as it happened. I can still hear the sound of gunfire just as New York’s majestic skyscrapers popped into view.

I don’t remember anything about the play except for its name, “The Ransom of Red Chief.” Over the years I have shared my memories of President Kennedy’s assassination. However, I haven’t run across the story since that Sunday over 53 years ago… that is until this morning.

So you can imagine how I totally freaked out this morning as I was dragged back to events that happened 1,400 miles away from where I was living at the time but were within blocks and just a few miles from where I live now.

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