Gunfight At Blair House

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On November 1, 1950, All Saints’ Day, my twin sister and I joined four other cheerleaders from St. Ann’s School at the Ellipse, the open park in Washington, D.C., near the Washington Monument, to cheer our eighth-grade football team in a game against a rival school. The morning was crisp and bright, and since it was a holy day, we had no classes. Decked out in navy blue pleated skirts, white blouses with Peter Pan collars, and blue and white beanies emblazoned with our school initials, we executed long-practiced routines: “Gimme an S … gimme an A … gimme an S-A-S today!”

It never seemed to matter to us which team won. Just hollering for Tom, Bill, or Jim and hoping they noticed us was thrill enough. After the game, we would pile into People’s Drug Store, commandeer the soda fountain, spin our stools, and blow straw wrappers at each other until it was time to leave (or we were asked to).

On this particular day, after a lengthy farewell to friends we would see at school the next morning, my sister and I stopped for a half-pound scoop of warm salted Spanish peanuts at the Planter’s store on Fifteenth Street, distinguishable by the giant figure of Mr. Peanut, wearing spats and a monocle, tipping his hat from the roof of the shop. Walking up the street, munching our snack, we talked about the only thing we ever talked about: boys. At Pennsylvania Avenue we turned left by the Treasury building and headed toward Seventeenth Street and our streetcar stop. It was about two in the afternoon.

Suddenly we became aware of a commotion up ahead, and people were running frantically toward us. “What’s happening?” we called to a lady racing by carrying two heavy shopping bags. She screamed something about the President’s getting shot and disappeared around the corner. Our natural curiosity honed by a steady diet of Nancy Drew mysteries, we continued on, oblivious of any danger, unaware of the gravity of what we had just heard.

Policemen on horseback had surrounded what we would later learn was Blair House, where President Truman and his family were living while the White House was being renovated. Emergency personnel were scrambling to cordon off the block. Dodging the ambulances and police cars that had converged, sirens wailing, on the east side of the mansion, my sister and I got close enough to the driveway to see a body (actually all we glimpsed were the feet) surrounded by Secret Ser vice men. We decided it must be the President, as the lady had said.

In seconds we were ushered away from the area. Filled with the importance of what we had just witnessed and eager to get home to tell our parents, we ran the four blocks to our streetcar and boarded, our hearts pounding with excitement. It felt strange sitting there among the other passengers, who had no idea the President had just been shot. They were acting so normal.

We enjoyed a small measure of notoriety when we got home. We blurted out the news to our mother, who quickly called our father at work. Listening to the radio that evening, we learned that the body we had seen had not been President Truman’s. While we were buying our peanuts, two members of the Puerto Rican Independence party had shot two Secret Service guards outside Blair House, killing one. They never reached the President, who was inside taking a nap. One of the gunmen had died and the other had been captured. Truman later said of the attempt on his life, “A President has to expect those things.” He kept his appointments that day and took his usual walk the next morning.

Twenty years later, when I was married and living in California, I took my children on a trip to Washington, D.C. We spent several days visiting the museums, the monuments, and the White House, and we walked up Pennsylvania Avenue to Blair House. I pointed out where my sister and I had seen the body through the wrought-iron fence, a story I had told the children many times. Trying to make it as real for them as it had been for us, I described the policemen and horses, the sirens, the confusion, until my youngest pulled on my arm and pleaded, “Can we go now, Mom? We don’t care about the President. We want to see Mr. Peanut.”

Grab Shot