I have a deeply personal perspective from which I saw President Richard Nixon’s resignation forty years ago. It’s a perspective that has ordered my steps nearly every day for the past four decades. If it weren’t for a kitchen accident and his televised resignation speech, I probably wouldn’t be the person I am today, or the person I’ve been over the past 14,610 days. Nixon and my kitchen accident combined to “pop my memory cap,” to quote a line from the original Total Recall (1990) starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.
That Thursday evening, August 8, ’74, was the very first time I became continually self-aware, forming memories like a video camera records scenes, with thoughts of myself and the world around me. I didn’t understand everything I saw, of course. But I did know that I saw what I saw, and for more than just a few moments.
Seeing Nixon’s big head on my Mom’s 19-inch color Zenith wasn’t my first memory, though. I remember crawling by my Mom’s TV set in ’72 at our second-floor flat in which we shared a kitchen with another family in Mount Vernon, NY. I remember because it was the first time I’d seen numbers, the numbers being 1972 with a copyright symbol in front of it. (I told a graduate student friend of mine about this first memory once – she told me it would be impossible for me as a two-year-old to remember specific numbers. What did she know?) I also remember the closing theme song from the show that was on immediately before Another World, which I figured out in later years was NBC’s other soap opera Days of Our Lives.
Two other memories prior to August 8, ’74 stand out. One was me escaping from the front yard at 48 Adams Street and walking down the block to the local asphalt playground, with basketball hoops and jungle gym included. I remember playing with much older boys, having fun, and my Mom whupping me from the playground all the way down the block back to the house. The other was when our babysitter Ida bathed me and my older brother Darren in a tub full of scolding hot water with Tide Detergent. I was so angry, I called her a “Bitch!” Angry likely because I was itching all over, the b-word likely because my Mom and my father Jimme used the word like it was a period to end a sentence. Miss Ida backhanded me like I was going cross-court as a tennis ball at the US Open. All of this happened when I was three.
The flood gates opened the following summer of ’74, though. It started because of a traumatic injury. My Mom was cooking in the shared kitchen at 48 Adams, making some kind of chicken dish. She had the oven door open, having just taken the chicken out of it and having placed it on the stove. I asked her if I could have a bite. Of course my Mom said, “No, Donald, it’s too hot!” I didn’t listen. I tried to climb up to the top of the stove by using the open oven door as a step stool, and lo and behold, I scorched my right leg when I put it on the inside of the door. I remember my Mom screaming, “Oh my God!” as I fell to the floor, screaming along with her.
The skin around the burn area was gone (if it had happened today, it would’ve been a pretty good second-degree burn, and I probably would’ve ended up at the hospital), leaving a white — not pink, white — circular burn mark. My Mom applied ointment and a bandage, made me take two Bayer aspirin for the pain, and told me to calm down and be quiet. She plopped me down on the couch in the living room, which was slightly to the right of the TV.
I was still crying in pain from the shock of seeing, smelling and feeling my skin being seared in the kitchen. As my Mom sat me down, a man with a gigantic head appeared on the television screen, a man I vaguely knew as the President of the United States. I really didn’t understand much of what President Nixon said, but I do recall my Mom shaking her head, and Cronkite calling it a “sad time” for the country. Given how sad I already felt, I think I might have felt sorry for the man with the big head on the TV set.
From that moment on, I’ve had continual memories. I remember my Mom taking me to Darren’s Headstart program somewhere around South 2nd or South 3rd Avenue in Mount Vernon the next day to pick him up, seeing the man with the big head wave with his fingers sticking in the air before going on a helicopter ride, and then being dragged to Met Grocery Store on South Fulton Avenue for groceries, all with a painfully sore leg. Luckily, my Mom caught us a cab home.
And the week after that, we moved to 425 South Sixth, next to Nathan Hale Elementary, where I would go to kindergarten the following month. And the week after that, my father Jimme introduced Darren to The Clear View School, after an argument with my Mom about him “drinkin’ up all his money again.” Ah, the parallels between big historical events and key moments in my life haven’t stopped since!