I’ve been thinking a lot about Squeaky Fromme — the woman who attempted to assassinate Gerald Ford — lately. It started because of a made-up celebration of frozen food, but it’s gone beyond that, to the point that I’m scrutinizing unflattering pictures of her online — and they’re all unflattering pictures — staring at the creases that form parentheses around her eyes and the lines that stretch across her forehead.
This all started when the editor for one of my other jobs sent an email reminding all of the writers on staff that Monday was National Frozen Food Day, a three-decade-old holiday that is either the most or the least embarrassing part of Ronald Reagan’s presidential legacy. (He established National Frozen Food Day in 1984, asking that the American people “observe such a day with appropriate ceremonies and activities,” like, I don’t know, having erotic but respectful fantasies about Clarence Birdseye). Anyway, my editor asked anyone who was interested to write a short piece about their favorite frozen foods. Since my blood type is basically sodium benzoate, I said heck yes.
I wrote about Jeno’s Pizza Rolls, the yellow-boxed predecessor to Totino’s, and about how founder Jeno Paulucci’s legacy is a combination of pizza-flavored snacks and third-degree mouth burns. I remember the rare occasions when Kid Me was allowed to microwave a box of Jeno’s, while my mom reminded my sister and me not to stand in front of the microwave (because in the 1980s, everyone’s parents were convinced that the microwave would cause our DNA to tangle around itself like earbuds in a jacket pocket).
In December 1987, Squeaky Fromme somehow managed to escape from the women’s federal prison in Alderson, W.Va., leaving her life sentence in a cinderblock cell underneath a scratchy blanket and a metal toilet. She’d been sentenced to life after she waved a loaded .45 at then-president Gerald Ford, an assassination attempt that was quickly diffused by a Secret Service agent. The next week, she was on the cover of Newsweek, dressed like a deranged Elf on the Shelf and staring defiantly into the camera.
We lived a solid 40 miles from the prison, but the neighborhood parents were all freaked out before the evening news anchors adjusted their shoulder pads and finished reading the headlines. We weren’t allowed to go outside the next day, just in case Fromme might’ve been casually leaning against the swingset, ready to lead us into lives of crime, of running from the cops and never returning those Nancy Drew books to the library.
My best friend — who lived less than 15 feet away — was allowed to come over, presumably because our mothers looked out their respective windows and didn’t see any suspicious looking shrubbery wearing a prison uniform. We were both fascinated by the escape, mostly because her name was Squeaky. (We were 8 years old.) We sat in front of the TV, eating the edges of Jeno’s pizza rolls and jumping at every sound that didn’t come from the speakers. We were totally obsessed with her for two straight days, hiding from each other, Squeaky-style, while being slightly terrified that she really was standing in the shadows outside.
“You didn’t try to shoot Gerald Ford,” I reassure myself, right before I freak out and ask, “But what have you done with your life?”
We had no idea what she’d done or who she was, really, but she was the closest thing to a celebrity that we’d encountered in southern West Virginia, other than Bob “Gilligan” Denver who owned a mini-golf course, or the local guy who became a lesser astronaut. We also thought she was old. Like, ancient, honorary pharaoh old. Our version of Squeaky spoke in a creaky voice, moved slowly and leaned heavily on my mother’s decorative planter.
I had to double-check the dates for this Frozen Food Day assignment and discovered that, in actuality, she was 39 years old. Thirty-nine and, to us, she was a brittle bone with wispy bangs, a literal dinosaur who could crumble to dust at any time. That’s troubling, because I’m not 39 yet, but I’m rubbing shoulders with its neighbors.
It makes me wonder how people see me and how they evaluate (or estimate) my own age. I’ve been staring at Squeaky’s grainy booking photos and reassuring myself that I don’t look quite that worn. (“You didn’t try to shoot Gerald Ford,” I reassure myself, right before I freak out and ask, “But what have you done with your life?”)
I’m now convinced that everyone who is even 15 minutes younger than I am now thinks that I’m a thousand. I’m convinced that they can see through the under-eye cream, through the concealer and straight to the folds on my forehead. I’m convinced that they expect to hear an exhausted, reedy voice when I open my mouth to ask the Publix cashier whether she’s ever been attracted to Clarence Birdseye.
“Just this box of pizza rolls,” I’ll say instead. “That’s it for tonight.”