Billie Silvey
I felt the bullet smash into my jaw.  I don’t
know why it was my jaw that I imagined it
hitting.  Maybe because my teeth are
crooked, and I’ve always felt self-conscious
about my mouth.  It was in an era before
everyone had their teeth straightened and
everyone had identical, perfect smiles.  

The brilliant Southern California sun beamed
down, belying the dark fear that grasped my
chest, making it hard to breathe.  I’d left my
apartment to go to work because that was
what I always did.  I needed that sense of
normalcy, but somehow I knew that nothing
in my life would ever be normal again.  

When I walked around the corner, the first
thing I saw was that neatly hand-lettered card
taped to the office door:  “In honor of the
death of Martin Luther King, Jr., the offices of
Hardesty College will be closed the
remainder of the week.”

I almost smiled at the irony of it.  We were a
small Christian college, full of white people
from the South, plopped down in South
Central Los Angeles, an area that was
rapidly losing its white population to what the
papers called “white flight.”  In the three years
since we’d moved here, I’d heard more than
one person on campus express less than
Christian views about the black religious
leader who had been assassinated the day
before.  And now we were closing the college
in his honor.  

I hadn’t heard about his death until my class
let out the night before.  Dr. Matson had
wrapped up his lecture on Pope’s
Dunciad
and was telling us what to expect on our
finals.  I’d blanked out a bit on the Pope
lecture.  Satire wasn’t really my thing.  I was
more of a Romantic.  Besides, after a full
day's work followed by a two-hour night
class, I was beginning to flag.  But I perked
up and my pen flew on the details of the
final.  He hadn’t quite finished when the bell
rang.

Darn!  I knew I should have paid more
attention to Pope.  He was the last author in
the 18th century lit class that also took in the
Restoration comedies and Dryden.  We were
on the new trimester system, which meant
three classes a year instead of the usual two,
and they really seemed to fly!

Dr. Matson took off his wire-framed glasses,
slipped them into his inside jacket pocket,
and rubbed his eyes.  It was the signal for the
class to erupt into talking, laughing and
scraping chairs.  The students surged out of
the stuffy classroom into the hall of the two-
story building, like pent-up water released
from a dam.  I was eager to join them, but I
lingered to ask one more question about the
exam.

By the time I stepped out, most of the
students had disappeared down the stairs in
front of the big window at the end of the hall,
and the noise was beginning to subside.

Just then Willie Freeman, a round-faced
black student, came puffing up the stairs:  
“Martin Luther King’s been shot!” he yelled.  
“There’s rioting in all the cities!”  

For many people, college is a quiet time of
preparation and contemplation before
confronting the demands of real life.  For me,
it had been anything but that.  I was a
journalism major, preparing for a glamorous
life reporting the news.  But no class had
prepared me for the very real news that  
rocked my life like a series of earthquakes.  

I had been taking classes at Abilene
Christian College in Texas and working in
the publicity office on that campus when
President Kennedy was assassinated.  It
was unfathomable, something that
happened in military coups in banana
republics, not in a civilized country like the
United States.  Still, it had, and the world
would never seem as stable.  

The next year, I was editing the school paper,
the
Optimist, when we lost the last two
members of our journalism faculty.  That’s
when I transferred to Hardesty, where
journalism was still flourishing and I could
work in their publicity office.  

I had been at the cleaners, picking up the last
of my clothes and talking with the man who
ran it, when we heard the news on his radio.  
He turned up the dial.  The Watts Riots had
broken out in Los Angeles.  

“You’d better just stay here,” the man said.  
“You’ll lose your life.”  It wasn’t the first time
we’d been warned.  “You’ll lose credits,” the
registrar warned.  “You’ll lose your faith,” my
preacher said.  The challenges just made
me that much more eager.  I was young and
invincible, and Los Angeles was where the
news was being made.

Frank had had a student deferment while we
were in Texas, and we expected that, since
we were married, older than the average
draftee, and in college, he wouldn’t be
called.  But he was.  Probably it was the
move that did it—that and Lyndon Johnson’s
escalation.  We hadn’t been in California six
months when Frank got his draft notice.  

We went to Disneyland the night before he
left, holding each other desperately on the
rides.  Because he was a journalist, he’d
been able to avoid the horror and danger of
slogging through the jungles.  He’d joined
the Navy, and now was putting out a daily
mimeographed newspaper on the
Ticonderoga, an aircraft carrier as big as a
small city, in the Gulf of Tonkin off Vietnam.

I missed him horribly.  It was like a part of
myself had been ripped out.  I worried about
him constantly, but suddenly, standing in the
empty hallway, looking out the big window
into the darkness, I began to worry about
myself.  I turned and followed the retreating
students downstairs.  

I stepped out of the building into the quiet
April night just as the last two cars pulled
away from the curb.  I ran after them.  “Wait,” I
called, but nobody heard me.  I was alone.

I’d always enjoyed the three-block walk to our
apartment after class.  The blossoms of the
jacaranda trees overhead glowed blue in the
light of the streetlamp.  The scent of jasmine
filled the air.  But tonight, it was a nightmare.  
There was rioting in the cities, and I was
walking home alone through a black
neighborhood in the city that wrote the book
on riots.    

At first, I sought the comfort of the
streetlights.  Then sickeningly, I realized what
a target my white face made when I did that.  I
tried to melt into the shadows, the metallic
taste of fear in my mouth, my books clasped
tight against my chest.

As I passed an apartment building in the next
block, somebody slammed a door.  It
sounded like a rifle shot.  The street was
silent—eerily silent.  Despite the row of
apartment buildings that stretched all the way
down the block, there was no sign of life,
except for the occasional flicker of a TV
screen behind drawn curtains.  

Then I heard footsteps.  I slowed down, and
the footsteps stopped.  I walked faster, and
they did, too.  By the time I approached my
building, I was almost running, my heart in
my throat, my purse banging against my
knees.  I fumbled with the key in the lock, and
I was inside.  

Leaning back against the door to catch my
breath, I felt my legs go limp.  I slid down to
the floor and sat there, books and purse
scattered around me, and cried—great
rolling tears of sorrow and pain and
loneliness.  What was I doing here, a small
girl from a small town in Texas?  Where was
Frank?  Where was God?  

The next morning, I was standing in front of
the building on Vermont Avenue where I
worked, reading the note on the door when I
first felt it—that strange sensation of a shot
shattering my jaw.  I raised my hand to my
throbbing jaw, then turned slowly and walked
back home, bathed in brilliant sunlight and
an unaccustomed silence.  The streets were
strangely empty, though birds were singing,
brightly-colored flowers were blooming, and
the occasional scream of a siren rent the air.  
I jumped at the sound of each one, though
they were common here in the 77th precinct,
the precinct with the highest crime rate in the
city.  Today, they seemed a sure signal that
riots were underway.

We had been grateful to God for bringing us
to Los Angeles.   It was a veritable Garden of
Eden—so different from the bleak and barren
plains of the Texas Panhandle.  There, a
constant wind pelted bare arms and legs
and cheeks with sand or rain or snow,
depending on the season.   Frank and I were
young and in love and ready to face anything.  
Certainly God intended us for greater things
than the provincialism of a small Texas
town.  After all, Frank had lived all over the
world, and I had read a lot.  

I spent the rest of the day rereading the four
Restoration comedies and two tragedies that
would be on the exam.  I also reviewed the
theory of satire.  Now, with just three nights
left to study, I was planning to spend one-
and-a-half on Dryden and one-and-a-half on
Pope.  As a graduate student, I had to
maintain a B average to stay in school.  
I smiled as I read Congreve’s
Way of the
World
, where Mirabell says of his lover Mrs.
Millamant, “she once used me with such
insolence that, in revenge I took her to
pieces, sifted her, and separated her
failings;. . .  I so used myself to think of ‘em
that at length . . . they gave me less
disturbance.  They are now grown as familiar
to me as my own frailties, and, in all
probability, in a little time longer I shall like
‘em as well.””  It made me recall Frank’s
recent letter about my “Christian virtues.”  “I
was not saying that you’re perfect,” he wrote,
“in fact, I may know more of your faults than
you do.”

After five years of marriage, I knew most of
his faults as well, but I was so eager to see
him, he seemed perfect to me.  What was he
doing thinking of my faults?  But then again,
he had no idea what I was going through.  It
was hard to study when my mind kept
slipping back to the potential danger in the
streets around me.  My jaw still ached from
the pain of an imagined bullet.  And my
shoulders were taut from straining to hear
the sirens that signaled that riots had broken
out again.  

The shrill ring of the phone made me jump.  
My parents were calling from Texas to see if I
wanted to move back home “just until Frank’s
ship comes back in.”  I tried to assure them
that I was fine and that this was home now.  
As I returned to my books, I tried to convince
myself that the offer wasn’t all that tempting.  I
had moved back for the summer after I
graduated, and it hadn’t worked very well.  It
was hard for two grown women to live in the
same house.  Before long, I got a temporary
publicity job at a college a hundred miles
away and moved into the dormitory there.

After a few more hours of studying, I was
startled by a knock at the door.  Mary Hall was
a tall, brittle widow with dyed red hair who
used to be a dorm mother and now lived in
the apartment above me.  “Everybody says
there are snipers on the roofs,” she said,
glancing around nervously.  “They’re
shooting down on people on the sidewalks.  
You’d better just stay inside.”

I laughed.  “I can’t do that.  I’ve got a job and
classes.  Right now my biggest fear is
flunking my final exam.”  I indicated the table
strewn with books.  But she looked so
frightened that I asked her to sit down and
have a cup of coffee.

“I doubt that we’ll have any trouble in this part
of town,” I told her.  “Most of the people here
are good, solid citizens.  They’re deeply hurt
by King’s death, but they’re too level-headed
to blame everybody for what one person did.  

"Like I always say, we have nothing to fear
with God protecting us.”  As usual with Mrs.
Hall, it was something of a mixed message.

“I’m sure you’re right,” I said with more
confidence than I felt.  We visited a little while,
and she started to relax and went back
upstairs, with the reminder that, if anything
happened, I should come right up.

I stopped studying again to open a can of
beef stew for dinner.  I turned on the radio
with its continuous reports of the lone
gunman at the Lorraine Motel, hoping
against hope that it wasn’t some redneck
country boy.  I’d recently read that most
murders were committed by someone close
to the victim.  Couldn’t it be someone he
knew--a black person with a grudge--rather
than someone like the people I’d grown up
with?

As I ate the stew, I remembered the meal
Frank and I had at the Brown Derby not long
after we got to LA.  We couldn’t really afford it,
but we’d been certain that its glitter and
elegance would become commonplace in
our lives.  Next time we wouldn’t arrive in a
battered car the valet would sneer at.  We
were destined for glamour, the theater and
concerts and hobnobbing with the literati.  
After all, we would be part of it, writing great
literature and living the lives of celebrated
authors.  

Now the world we’d dreamed of seemed very
far away.  My ambitions were suddenly
simpler—that Frank wouldn’t die in a flaming
inferno on the decks of the
Ticonderoga and I
wouldn’t die from a bullet to my jaw on the
streets of Los Angeles.  

The recent assassinations prompted
thoughts of death.  Of course, thoughts of
death were common to students of our age
and seriousness.  We were artists after all.  I
loved to dress in my little black Jackie
Kennedy suit with the box jacket, wearing
pale lipstick and nail polish and looking
gaunt and suffering.  Frank played folk songs
on his guitar, and we sang of lovers
separated by war, separated by death, living
in changing times in a changing world.  

When we married, it had been a clash of
titans, a union of great potential--Frank’s vast
intellect and my fiery passion--which only
occasionally erupted in shouting.  Once
Frank sent a fist through a flimsy door, and
once I went at him, fists flying.  He just caught
my wrists and held them till I exhausted my
fury and collapsed in tears on his chest.  
Mostly, we lived on pasta and books and
music and love and hard work and very little
sleep.

But this was different.  This wasn’t the least
bit romantic.  Surely God wouldn’t let us die
before we’d recognized the great potential
everyone assured us we had.

The mail that day had two letters from Frank,
both full of news of the election and the war.  
Though he probably already knew about
King's assassination from the wire service
machines on the ship, it would be days
before I’d get his reaction.  The first letter was
about Lyndon Johnson’s surprising
announcement that he wasn’t running for a
second term.  Frank thought it was a plot to
make Johnson come off looking like such a
statesman that the Democrats would draft
him to run again.

It sounded unlikely to me, but I’d never really
trusted the man.  Being from Texas, I’d grown
up on stories of Mexican supporters culled
from cemetery rolls.  Still, I had to admit that I
was really relieved when he took over after
Kennedy was killed.  It was great to know that
the system worked, and everything didn’t fall
apart when the President died.  Now the
repeated shocks were creating a fault line of
violence, and the whole country was toppling
on the edge of the breach.

Politics was one of three major interests
Frank and I shared, the other two being
religion and writing.  We both were political
junkies.  I’d grown up on my Dad’s tiny
weekly newspaper, doing hands-on stuff like
writing articles, selling ads, setting type,
justifying pages, and running the ancient
presses.  Frank had been putting himself
through college working as a proofreader on
a daily from before we met until we moved to
Los Angeles.

There were two surprises in Frank’s letters.  
He was starting to look at Eugene McCarthy,
the far-left peace candidate, as a possible
choice.  McCarthy had a lot of college
students campaigning for him.  We’d both
opposed Frank’s being in the war, but on my
part, it was more selfish than a point of
principle.  I wanted him to be safe.  I wanted
my little world to be stable and secure.  And I
wanted us to be together.  

Frank’s letters, on the other hand, were
increasingly negative about the war in
general.  He was against it.  I had grown up a
patriotic, conservative, Christian, small-town
girl.  Daddy had been in the Army Air Corps in
World War II, and our newspaper office was
decorated with a wooden propeller, a blown-
up photo of a fighter escorting a bomber, and
an empty bomb casing that had been turned
into a lamp.  I grew up singing my parents’
songs—“I’ll Be Seeing You in All the Old,
Familiar Places,”  “There’ll Be Bluebirds Over
the White Cliffs of Dover.” I wasn’t sure why
the world would always be free tomorrow,
why it could never be today.  But wars
seemed to be something every generation
had to get through, something to win, though
some were better than others.  I wasn’t sure
where I’d come down politically, but I was
pretty sure it wouldn’t be with McCarthy.  

The second bombshell was that Frank was
thinking about changing his major to
philosophy.  It scared me to think that we
were drifting further apart.  Not just half a
world apart, but apart in our minds and
hearts and dreams.  Part of it was just that it
took so long for his letters to get to me that
we seldom seemed to be talking about the
same thing at the same time.  It made me
feel like something was dying.  

We’d always talked about everything.  We’d
scheduled our classes so we’d be able to
graduate together.  The war had spoiled all
that.  I had finished, and all I wanted was for
Frank to come home and catch up fast so we
could get on with our lives.  

But right now, I was obsessed with the
second assassination to rock my world, and I
wasn’t even sure Frank knew about it.  His
ship was getting ready to leave the line and
go to Singapore.  It was one of the places in
the world where Frank hadn’t been, and he
was eager to see it.  In the second letter, he
anticipated crossing the equator with its
accompanying Shellback initiation and being
able to call me from Subic Bay.  

Mail delivery seemed pretty arbitrary at the
best of times, but when the ship was
underway, I never knew if they had it or not.  
Once, after I’d gone more than a week
without a letter, I got several at once.  One
envelope had been scorched around the
edges and most had water damage.  I was
petrified with fear until I finally got a letter
explaining that the mail plane had crashed
on deck.  That bit of news mostly confirmed
just how much danger Frank was in.

As a journalist, he had access to the AP wire
service machines on ship, though even then I
wondered if everything was getting through
without being censored.  It wouldn’t be the
first time the Navy tried to control information
for the “morale of the men.”  

I wanted my man here with me.  I wanted to
feel his arms around me, to hear his voice
telling me that everything would be all right.  
But I wondered, would anything be all right
again?  We hadn’t done right by black people
in this country, and now those chickens were
coming home to roost.  We were involved in a
war that was tearing the country apart.  And
all our dreams to become big city journalists
seemed to have evaporated.

I’d spent most of Friday cowering in my tiny
apartment trying to study, but the next
morning, I started to the Lighthouse, the two-
story house on the corner of Vermont Avenue
just a couple of blocks past the campus
church Frank and I had attended since we
first came to Los Angeles.  We used the
house for Saturday programs for
neighborhood children and youth.  A young
black couple, James and Margaret Parker,
ran the program, and it was staffed by an
assortment of black and white graduates and
undergraduates who taught classes and
offered sports and crafts.  

I taught reading using Dr. Seuss books and
the Good News version of the Bible.  The
children would dictate the lines of plays to
dramatize the stories we’d studied.  I’d write
down the dialogue, and they’d read it, acting
out plays to reinforce the lessons.  

We had a lot of other activities, but that was
the most popular, drawing shouts and
screams from actors and audience alike.  I’d
been shocked at how easy it was to tell
which kids attended the local public school
and which attended nearby St. Michael’s
Catholic School.  The kids from St. Michael’s
could read.  

When the kids showed up, they were thrilled
to find us there.  Even some of their parents
stopped by to tell us how glad they were that
we’d come despite the tensions.  Everybody
was extra polite, as though we were
balancing something delicate between us.

As I started my lesson on “Who’s God?” I
was surprised to realize that the girls in my
class were as frightened as I had been.  “If
we’re afraid,” I told them, “we should ask God
for courage.  If we live in a world of hate, we
should ask him for love.”  

We closed with a chain prayer, and when one
of the youngest girls asked God to “make Mr.
King all right,” nobody had the heart to correct
her.  One of the Dorsey girls, remembering
my words about God’s being a Spirit, prayed
with deep longing, “God, I wish you wasn’t
invisible.” I could hardly hold back the tears.  

She expressed what must be the deepest
need of all of us, to have God appear in the
flesh and tell us what he wants us to do.  I
wished he weren’t invisible so often in my
life, and wished he weren’t so invisible in a
world so full of war and tensions--both
between us and other countries and among
ourselves at home.  

The next day was Sunday.  I dressed carefully
and walked down to the church building.  I
was running late, so I slipped into one of the
rows at the back.  This building was different
from church buildings at home.  They were
mostly stark, functional buildings, something
like a barn with rows of seats.  This building
had been the home of St. Michael’s Catholic
Church.  Some of our older members
remembered seeing it, cut in half and carried
on trucks down Vermont Avenue, chandeliers
swaying with the motion.

Catholic buildings, like their worship
services, were more ornate, with pillars and
curlicues and pointed windows with stained
glass panes.  High church, it was called, as
opposed to low church like us.  They had
even had a ceremony to de-sanctify the
building before we could use it.  It was
embarrassing and made me feel like we
needed to be particularly good and kind to re-
sanctify the place.  

I picked up a song book and was fumbling to
find the number when the dean of the
college, J. P. Sanders, slipped into the row
beside me.  He was tall, slightly stooped and
slender with thin white hair and glasses and
a kindly, distracted air.  How many times had
I met him in the alley behind the
administration building, our usual route
between the administration building and the
main campus?  He’d be striding along, head
angled up, lost in thought, when he’d stop
and pull a little stack of papers from his shirt
pocket.  They were notes from his secretary
to remind him where he was going.

We smiled at each other, and the song
leader announced the next number.  This
time, I found it easily and stood to sing
“Peace, Perfect Peace.”  We sang it often in
these days of war and of “thronging duties.”  
But when we came to the fourth verse, “with
loved ones far away,” the words caught in my
throat.  I felt a tear fall onto the back of my
hand that was resting on the pew in front of
me.  I brushed it off and continued to sing,
“our future all unknown.“

Dean Sanders laid his hand on mine, and
we sang strongly, “Jesus we know and he is
on the throne.”  As we finished softly, “earth’s
struggles soon shall cease, and Jesus call
us to heaven’s perfect peace,” I was smiling.  
Even though Frank was far away, even
though our city was erupting around us, I was
loved, and God was here, and “in Jesus’
keeping we are safe, and they.”

The next day, I was back at work, writing the
final news release about Forum, the annual
political event the college put on the for the
community.  Publicizing it was a massive
project, but now that it was done, I could
concentrate on my finals.  

It was a great experience.  I especially
enjoyed the debate between William F.
Buckley, the conservative founder of the
National Review, and Michael Harrington, a
democratic socialist who wrote a book called
The Other America.  

I had a crush on Buckley, who had a languid,
sexy manner and a flattering way of dropping
ten-dollar words as if we all knew what they
meant.  He spoke with the cultured voice of a
person descended from wealth, and his
words left the impression that you could be
rich as well, if you just tried hard enough.  I
was proud to have my picture made
interviewing him.

Harrington, on the other hand had a foreign
look.  He was from Chicago, and he talked
fast, like a city slicker working a con.  Still, he
talked about the other America, where people
were poor.  I didn’t want to think I knew what
he meant, but there was that family in West
Texas that lived in a deserted box car at the
turnoff to the road to our farm, the girl I went
to high school with whose house wasn't
much larger, but was shared with half a
dozen other people, and the kids I taught at
the Lighthouse who came to class in torn or
dirty clothes.  Were they just lazy?  Didn’t they
want the same things we did?  

Covering Forum for the college publicity office
was a far cry from the big city reporter’s role
I'd imagined, but it kept my typewriter
clanging and my mind and hands occupied.  
A few hours later, I boxed the completed
articles and carried them downstairs and out
the side door.  The light at the corner
changed, and I was just stepping off the curb
when a car came careening down Vermont
and squealed around the corner in front of
me.  It was full of grim black men in black
berets.  Rifles pointed up from the windows.  
It was the Black Panthers.  Of all the groups
emerging from the turmoil of those turbulent
times, they frightened me most.  Was it the
guns?  The hard faces?  Or that vague sense
that we had a lot to answer for?

At first I just stared after them, trying to steady
my breathing.  People with guns driving right
by the campus?  I knew I wasn’t still in West
Texas, but this was more than I’d bargained
for.  Still, I couldn’t just stand there on the
street with my hands full of news releases.  
The next time the light changed, I crossed the
street to the administration building and
dropped them off in the mail room.  Then I
made the rounds of key offices there before
starting out the back door and down the alley
to the main campus.  

The campus had been built on the site of one
of the ranchos that made up early Los
Angeles.  A vast carpet of green, it was
bordered with beds of creamy white calla
lilies.  The Promenade, a walkway lined with
short, fat palm trees, ran in front of the dorms
and the cafeteria toward the president’s
house, the original ranch house, across
Budlong.  A sidewalk ran perpendicular to it,
from the cafeteria to the back of the two-story
classroom building.  It was cut in the middle
by the circular sidewalk around Dolores, a
plump cherub of a child with a towel who
stood on a pedestal in the middle of a
fountain.  

Sidewalks branched from the circle to other
buildings built in the low, Streamlined
Moderne style with the curved corners and
glass blocks that were pervasive when the
campus was built in the 1930s.  They were
painted a distinctive turquoise blue that
made the campus seem cool even on the
warmest day.  

I stopped first in at the Fine Arts building to
get details on the coming chorus tour.

Later that evening, I got home to another
letter from Frank, full of news that “the peace
talks showed promise of getting underway.”  
Hanoi was claiming that U.S. planes had
bombed north of the line, and, while 41% of
people thought Johnson was doing all he
could to end the war a week before he
withdrew from the race, 75% thought he was
not.  That convinced Frank that he was right
in considering that withdrawing from the race
was a ploy.

He took issue with something our preacher,
Gordon Teel, had said about preachers, as
they grow older, exchanging their
enthusiasm for ideas for love for people.  And
he suggested--not for the first time--that we
have a baby.  At that time, having children
was just what happened.  You got married
and you had children.  Of course, going on
the pill just after we married meant that we
had options.  We could wait until we
graduated, or even until Frank got out of the
Navy.  

I read the letter as I ate, then got back to the
books.  I still had Dryden and Pope to cover
in the three days before the exam.  

An hour or two later, I came across a couplet
from “Eloisa to Abelard” which I copied into
the letter I was writing:  “Even thought meets
thought, ere from the lips it part,/And each
warm wish Springs mutual from the heart.”  
“My ‘warm wish’ tonight (and I’m sure it’s
mutual),” I wrote, “is that we may soon be
warm and real together.  I miss you, darling,
and I love you so much.  However, now with
finals upon us, you might be better off where
you are.  Here are a few lines of my own
about the situation here:

Each man should, for a moment in his life,
Suffer with a student for a wife.
‘Twould serve to make him ever so content
To have a wife with a housewifely bent,
Who washes dishes, sweeps, makes up the
bed,
And keeps her family better clothed and fed.

But I was a student when you married me, so
I guess you asked for it.  Hope you don’t
regret the choice."
Revolution!
The Lorraine Hotel, scene of Martin Luther King's assassination.
September 2015