Catherine Mancini was a girl of Italian descent who lived with her family a few miles down the road from SIU. According to Peter Federson,
'"She was pretty in a country way and had a cute way of talking, a combination of a Southern and Midwestern dialect. I loved the way she said “quit” (“kuh-wit”). She’d said “quit” to me a lot. But what set Catherine apart from the other girls I’d dated during college was that her personality was made up of a critical balance of empathy and assertiveness that could have awakened me from my emotional slumber, had I allowed her to."
Thrown back from the 21st Century to 1971, Peter now has a chance to re-write his life with Catherine-- the girl he should have married the first time...but didn't. He takes her on a romantic canoe outing on Lake on the Campus.
“So Peter, I heard you on the radio today,” said Catherine.
“I had some technical problems.”
“I wasn’t paying attention to that stuff. I was listening to you. You sounded really good.”
“I’ve been practicing.” I was flattered.
“It sounds like you have, and not just on the radio. I can’t quite put my finger on it exactly, but you seem calmer, less strident. I think Mom senses it too. When you called me yesterday, she told me that she thought you had matured some.”
“Gosh, you mean I got the endorsement from the great Mrs. Mancini?”
“I wouldn’t go so far as to call it an endorsement, exactly, but I think she is a little more partial to you now.”
“Yah, and she wasn’t very partial to me at all before,” I said with my best grimace.
“Well, she’s a lot more tolerant than you may think. As they say, you can’t judge a book by its cover.”
“Speaking about books, do you still want to work as a…uhh…” I had forgotten what she was going to school for.
“A social worker.”
“Yes. It was on the tip of my tongue.”
“I can’t help it. I guess I’m the helper type, and I think that anyone who has had the advantages that I’ve had growing up should help those less fortunate.”
“Noblesse Oblige. That’s what Roosevelt believed in.”
“‘Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.’” Catherine looked out across the lake.
“I can’t believe he’s been dead for forty—for all these years.” I was thinking of the dreams of Camelot in the ‘60s, and the revelations of JFK’s indiscretions in the late ‘70s.
“I remember the day he died like it was yesterday,” she said. For her, that “yesterday” was eight years ago. The shock of November 22, 1963 never really went away. My mother told me that when she heard the news on the radio, she thought it was about JFK’s father.
“Where were you when it happened?” Catherine said quietly.
“In sixth grade. Howie Fergusson ran through the hall yelling, ‘The president is shot. The president is shot!’ Then they wheeled in a TV and we watched Walter Cronkite tell the nation that he had died. I think they dismissed class for the rest of the day. No one could concentrate. It was pretty grim. ”
“I was home sick from school, and had just finished some soup when I heard my mother crying. She came upstairs and gave me the news. I wrapped myself in blankets and went downstairs and watched it on TV. Both of us were crying. I guess it was just his time to go. We had such high hopes. I think all of us had high hopes, the whole country.”
“The next summer my family visited the New York World’s Fair,” I said. “And you know, it wasn’t sanctioned by the World’s Fair commission, but was held anyway because we were the mighty USA!”
I thought about the Kennedy years, with the stock market blasting along, plenty of good jobs, NASA aiming at the moon, the Soviets humbled by the Cuban Missile Crisis, and few Americans having even heard of Vietnam. “We considered ourselves the greatest country in the world,” I said.
So what happened to us? What happened to me?
Suddenly I was depressed, and perhaps so was Catherine—she for the past, me for the future. We somberly contemplated the Camelot years as we sat in the canoe and watched the picnic in the shelter on the distant shore.
Soon, the warm sun passing in and out of the fluffy clouds brought us out of our post-Camelot funk, and Catherine stretched her legs out in the front of the canoe, and I did the same in the rear. The sounds of picnickers, joggers and bicyclists mixed with the chirping of the birds, the lapping of the water, and the rustling of the leaves. The canoe drifted on the calm blue water, which reflected the dark green and chocolate brown woods on the shore.
I never wanted to leave this lake, and for the first time in decades, I felt a combination of the health of youth and a sense of well-being. I was giddy with happiness.
Twenty reflective minutes later, I was staring at Catherine, who was by now framed by the campus beach behind her.
She stared back with a smile on her face.
“A penny for your thoughts?”
“You know why you’re so cute?”
“No, tell, tell.”
“Because you’re right back there in the ‘50s.”
“I am not!”
“Your language, your glasses, your car, even your family, it’s all out of the Cleavers’ neighborhood. I used to watch ‘Leave it to Beaver,’ and I wanted to be part of that family.”
“Well, then, who are you? Lumpy? Hello, Lumpy."
“Hello, June. Oh speaking of the ‘50’s, I just remembered, this old—new film called ‘American Graffiti’ just came out. It’s showing at the Varsity this weekend. How about seeing it with me this Saturday, with maybe dinner at uh, Pagliai’s first? And I willpay this time.”
“No, I’m sorry, Peter. I’ll be busy Saturday night.”