Not long ago I described in this column my trips to the 1964-65 World’s Fair as a young boy with my grandmother.
My grandparents lived in Forest Hills, Queens, NY, and it was a quick ten-minute trip from their house to get to the World’s Fair in Flushing. Each trip more wondrous than the last for my nine year old mind to grasp.
I also explained that after our day of walking through all the great exhibits, my grandmother would receive her payment for escorting us around for most of the day in the form of having us sit and being quiet for a half hour or so as she enjoyed a cold beer at the Irish Pavilion before our grandfather would pick us up for the ride back to their house.
It was give and take like this with my grandmother. She would give us a lot but we had to give back sometimes as well. (I am not counting the numerous times my brother and I would go down to the local drug store…remember those…and buy a trinket for a dollar or so for her as a gift. Touched by our sensitive and caring nature she would proceed to give us a hug and then five or ten dollars…it worked every time.)
This week’s visit to the U.S. by Pope Francis reminds me of one of those times I had to give back.
It is a day that is embedded into my childhood memories.
It was October of 1965 and Pope Paul VI was making his first trip to the U.S. and his first stop was to be in New York.
It was a very exciting time, not just for Catholics, but for the country as a whole. Though I, at the age of ten, really didn’t understand what the big deal was. It was talked about on the TV and radio endlessly. You have to remember this was years before 24-hour a day news, so it wasn’t just “news” to fill space. It was a big deal!! (I do remember thinking it was pretty cool that he was going to make a visit to the World’s Fair.)
My grandmother was a devout Catholic and was as excited as the rest. What really put her over the top was that Pope Paul would arrive at Kennedy Airport and then make his way by a motorcade that would take him down Queens Boulevard in Forest Hills; a few mere blocks from where my grandparents lived.
Now, I don’t recall the day of the week, but I do recall I was staying at my grandparents’ house that famous day. Whether by accident or design I really can’t recall. Still, it didn’t matter. I was to accompany my grandmother down to Queens Boulevard to wait with the rest of the masses (no pun intended) who had lined up along the street to wait for the Pope’s arrival.
And wait we did.
I don’t know if there was an actual scheduled time for the Pope to be travelling through Forest Hills and maybe he was late or we had arrived way early on purpose. All I know is it was an extremely long wait; especially for a boy of nine.
I wasn’t alone. There were many kids like me, wanting to be home watching cartoons or playing made-up games instead of spending a lot of time doing nothing, Many of us sat on the curb, chins in our hands, waiting and waiting.
This was decades before smart phones and hand-held devices. We were left with only our own thoughts and imaginations. It was when kids actually used to, when bored, look up to see what the cloud shapes reminded them of instead of down into their hands to see who was doing something on Facebook.
Still, even with all of the people to look at, it was a long and boring wait.
Hours, it seemed.
Then it happened.
Someone, somehow, got wind of the Pope’s arrival at the airport and the eventual departure of his motorcade. The buzz went through the crowd and the adrenaline began to flow. We kids were told to stand up, be ready, pay attention. Not only was Pope Paul about to come by, but history was to be made as well.
Folks craned their necks, looking to the right, since that was to be the direction he would be arriving from.
Still, the wait seemed like hours.
Another rumble came from the crowd as the motorcade was spotted; it was a mere few blocks away. We all stood in anticipation, the big moment had arrived at last.
My sitting on the curb had paid off, I now had a prime viewing spot for the historic occasion. I was entranced.
First there was a line of policeman on motorcycles, then a bunch of cars, some people were beginning to cheer, others were making the sign of the cross, other grasping rosary beads; I was simply staring.
As the pope got closer, the cheers got louder; it was truly electric.
Suddenly, the vehicle the pope was riding in was right in front of me….at least I think it was the vehicle the pope was riding in, I wasn’t really sure. It passed by at a pretty good clip, all of the windows shut tight. Maybe I saw a white hat for a second through the glass, maybe it was just my imagination; it all happened so fast.
We waited for hours and all I saw was some police motorcycles and a bunch of cars.
No pope that I could see.
“What the heck was that all about?” I screamed in silence.
I looked back at my grandmother, she had a smile on her face and was blessing herself with the sign of the cross. I kept my mouth shut.
The crowd dispersed. I didn’t hear anyone else complaining. I guess you just didn’t do things like that when it came to the pope.
I walked home with my grandmother and never said a word. Maybe she asked me what I thought, I don’t remember, but if she did, I’m sure I said it was great.
After all, I owed her.
Brendan Smith welcomes your comments at brendan@weirs,com. His books “The Flatlander Chronicles” and “Best of A F.O.O.L In New Hampshire” are available at his website www.BrendanTSmith.com.