George Samiljan was a captivating young man and is a compelling adult. I liked him as a child and admire him as a man. But I’ll never socialize with him — never — and we both know why. He and I are tied by tragedy, and divided by tragedy.
Nov. 22, 1963, was a shimmery afternoon in Swampscott, the beach town where we both grew up, and when the dismissal bell rang at 2:10 at school, he and I set out to walk through Orchard Circle and up Humphrey Street en route to my house on Stanley Road. We were pupils in Dorothy Rich’s fourth-grade classroom, and the Stanley School was one of those timeless places on the New England coast, and not only because the clock on the outside of the brick building was stuck, much like the clock atop the Old Vicarage in Grantchester immortalized by a splendid man who died young, Rupert Brooke.
This was a Friday and we were free of school, and there were snacks to be had at home and a weekend ahead to be enjoyed. We were halfway home when the police lady who stood at Salem Street — flustered, frantic, even — hurried to us. “The president’s been shot,” she screamed, the volume intended to impress us with the urgency of it all, though the words were startling enough. “Get home immediately.”
We did, and there at home was my grandmother, a worrywart on her best days, a portrait of panic on this day. Her son — my uncle — had been on PT 111 in John Kennedy’s star-crossed squadron, and though ordinarily she had no patience for Democrats, Kennedy was a special case and had enjoyed special favor.
In his landmark 1952 Senate race against the redoubtable Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., Rep. John F. Kennedy, the congressman from Massachusetts’ 11th district and the onetime commander of PT 109, had stopped in her hometown of Salem and had spoken to her about the son she had lost in the Pacific during World War II. That meant the world to her, because that son — and of course her other, surviving son, my father — had meant the world to her. And so on this day the one loss mixed with the other, so profoundly that a 9-year-old could sense it, so poignantly that a 59-year-old cannot forget it.