In the second newspaper photo, taken on January 24, 1954, my brother and I have become Thomas and Dominick Birdsey. We wear matching sailor hats and woolen pea jackets and salute the readers of the Daily Record. Mamie Eisenhower squats between us, one mink-coated arm wrapped around each of our waists. Mrs. Eisenhower, in her short bangs and flowered hat, beams directly at the camera. Thomas and I, age four, wear twin looks of bewildered obedience. This picture is captioned first lady gets a two-gun salute.
The President's wife was in Groton, Connecticut, that winter day to break champagne against the USS Nautilus, America's first nuclear-powered submarine. Our family stood in the crowd below the dignitaries' platform, ticket-holding guests by virtue of our new stepfather's job as a pipe fitter for Electric Boat. EB and the Navy were partners in the building of the Nautilus, America's best hope for containing Communism.
According to my mother, it had been cold and foggy the morning of the launch and then, just before the submarine's christening, the sun had burned through and lit up the celebration. Ma had prayed to Saint Anne for good weather and saw this sudden clearing as a small miracle, a further sign of what everybody knew already: that Heaven was on our side, was against the godless Communists who wanted to conquer the world and blow America to smithereens.
"It was the proudest day of my life, Dominick," she told me that morning when I started, then halted, the renovation of her kitchen and sat, instead, and looked. "Seeing you two boys with the President's wife. I remember it like it was yesterday. Mamie and some admiral's wife were up there on the VIP platform, waving down to the crowd, and I said to your father, 'Look, Ray. She's pointing right at the boys!' He said, 'Oh, go on. They're just putting on a show.' But I could tell she was looking at you two. It used to happen all the time. People get such a kick out of twins. You boys were always special."
Her happy remembrance of that long-ago day strengthened her voice, animated her gestures. The past, the old pictures, the sudden brilliance of the morning sun through the front windows: the mix made her joyful and took away, I think, a little of her pain.
"And then, next thing you know, the four of us were following some Secret Service men to the Officers' Club lounge. Ray took it in stride, of course, but I was scared skinny. I thought we were in trouble for something. Come to find out, we were following Mrs. Eisenhower's orders. She wanted her picture taken with my two boys!
"They treated us like big shots, too. Your father had a cocktail with Admiral Rickover and some of the other big brass. They asked him all about his service record. Then a waiter brought you and your brother orange sodas in frosted glasses almost as tall as you two were. I was scared one of you was going to spill soda all over Mamie."
"What did you and she have to drink?" I kidded her. "Couple of boilermakers?"
"Oh, honey, I didn't take a thing. I was a nervous wreck, standing that close to her. She ordered a Manhattan, I remember, and had some liver pate on a cracker. She was nice--very down to earth. She asked me if I'd sewn the little sailor suits you and Thomas were wearing. She told me she knitted some still when she and the President traveled, but she'd never had a talent for sewing. When she stooped down to have her picture taken with you two boys, she told you she had a grandson just a little older than you. David Eisenhower is who she was talking about. Julie Nixon's husband. Camp David."
Ma shook her head and smiled, in disbelief still. Then she pulled a Kleenex from the sleeve of her bathrobe and dabbed at her eyes. "Your grandfather just wouldn't have believed it," she said. "First he comes to this country with holes in his pockets, and then, the next thing you know, his two little grandsons are hobnobbing with the First Lady of the United States of America. Papa would have gotten a big kick out of that. He would have been proud as a peacock."
© June 1998 , Wally Lamb. Used by permission.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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