The Day President Kennedy Died

Fifty years ago today, life as we knew it changed with a bullet and a blood-spattered pink suit.

It was Friday afternoon in Miss Seiler’s fifth grade class. For the short time left in the day we were allowed to work on a project in small groups. There was a low hum of activity in the room as we chatted with each other, a bit of restlessness, as dismissal was just about an hour away.

Miss Seiler had sent one of the boys to the office to deliver an attendance slip. When he returned he mumbled something about someone being shot. The buzz in the room escalated audibly with nervous laughter. We thought it was a joke. Some of the boys pretended to point a gun and said bang bang, you’re dead, and we giggled.

The Long Ride in Silence

My parents and younger brother were waiting outside for me that day. We were leaving straight from school to travel across the state to my grandmother’s for a pre-Thanksgiving visit. As soon as I got in the car I knew something was terribly wrong.

They told me that President Kennedy had been shot and was dead. I remember that long, somber ride in the car, with spotty reception of AM radio as we crossed over the mountains. My parents struggled to answer my questions. “Why? Why would anyone want to do this?” I wailed.

We spent most of the weekend in front of my grandmother’s black and white TV. This was a new thing, this round-the-clock coverage that we are so used to today. Walter Cronkite, visibly shaken when he took off his glasses and announced JFK’s death, steered us through these first few days of confusion and sorrow.

Cronkite announcing the death of President Ken...

Cronkite announcing the death of President Kennedy on November 22, 1963 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I remember the sadness of Jackie’s stricken face at the funeral, people lining the street and sobbing, John-John’s salute as his father’s casket passed by.

funeral of John F. Kennedy, Jr.There was another story being reported about John-John.. Someone had given him a toy flag to play with. “Can I have another one to give to my father?’ he was reported to have asked. That broke my 10 year-old heart.

I had felt an emotional connection to President Kennedy. Perhaps it was the romance of Camelot, perhaps his charisma, the allure of the Kennedy family. Maybe it was because several years earlier he had smiled at me.

He Smiled at Me

When JFK was running for President he made a campaign stop in my city, and my mother and I drove downtown to see. There were people lined up and down the city streets. The air was electric with excitement.

We got there too late, or we weren’t in the right place, and we missed it. Gloomily we walked back to the car. But then miraculously the motorcade appeared on the side street where we were parked. JFK’s car passed right by and he waved and smiled at us.

He was my President. From then on, I idolized him and his glamorous, soft-spoken wife and his adorable children.

The World Would Never Be the Same

In a way, the 1950s ended that day in 1963, I felt the change, the loss of innocence. The world no longer felt predictable and safe.

This feeling of despair would strike again, in April 1968 when Martin Luther King was killed, and again in June when Robert F. Kennedy was killed.

I remember the morning when I heard about RFK. My clock radio had clicked on at 7 a.m. with the shocking news that I could only barely comprehend, and, tears streaming down my face, I ran into my parents room to tell them.

They tried to soothe me, thinking I had had a nightmare about JFK, but of course the nightmare was that violence had claimed another life full of promise. The nation was again thrown into turmoil.

 

To commemorate this anniversary, my blogging friends at Midlife Boulevard are sharing their own experiences. Click on the links below to read their stories.

 

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28 Thoughts on “The Day President Kennedy Died

  1. Hauntingly beautiful. Nothing else to say except….well, may he rest in peace.

  2. What a wonderful view to that day from you. I loved the part about him waving to you. That vision gave me a sense of him as a President instead of him as a tragedy. Great post! Virginia

  3. That gave me goosebumps, especially that he smiled at you. What an amazing experience. I will never forget that time — we also spent it in front of my grandmother’s black and white TV. And, I agree, the world never felt the same after that.

  4. Lucky for you such an up close and personal version.

  5. I was only 22 months old, so all my memories are based on media representations of a person already gone. But you actually SAW him. In person. Wow. Thanks for taking the time to write that up.

  6. Helene, I love how much detail you recall about the day, your classroom, your grandmother’s TV. Sad time and you recalled it beautifully.

    • hbludman on November 23, 2013 at 9:34 am said:

      Thank you GandF. I don’t know why it has remained so crystal clear, but I am thankful to be able to recall it so well.

  7. I remember a few times my life has personally intersected with someone of historical significance. There is an electricity and a clarity in those moments. Or perhaps we manufacture those accompaniments. It does not matter. What matters is that those moments shape us. What a wonderful experience to be able to remember and draw upon. Thank you for sharing it with us.

    • hbludman on November 23, 2013 at 9:36 am said:

      Nancy, you are so right. I also had the occasion to see Bill Clinton in person and was actually very close to him. There was absolutely an electricity about him.

  8. Helene, thank you for your beautiful post. His death really did mark the end of an era and the end of our innocence.

  9. I enjoyed your story and especially it’s similarities to mine; family Thanksgiving and the funeral on a black and white TV.

    • hbludman on November 23, 2013 at 9:37 am said:

      Thanks, Kay Lynn. Reading all these posts has been a trip back in time. It’s remarkable how similarly we all experienced this tragedy.

  10. Few things are more iconic as that pink suit. You describe well the loss of innocence that occurred in your 5th grade classroom and all over the nation that day.

  11. Lovely piece, Helene. I also remember the TV being on all the time–unheard of in my house at the time. But my parents loved JFK and my mom idolized Jackie, and so the TV stayed on and we watched it all. What a memory you have of him–very special.

    • hbludman on November 23, 2013 at 9:38 am said:

      My family was the same, Risa. Staunch Democrats and Kennedy admirers. Thanks so much for stopping by.

  12. Thank you for sharing your touching and beautiful memories. Hearing your story gives me such a different perspective on what life was like then.

  13. I can just imagine your disappointment at not seeing JFK and then seeing him. You must have been so excited.
    I remember actually feeling the heavy sadness for weeks and wondering what I could do to make my parents feel better.
    I once met, had tea and spoke with Janet Bouvier and had NO idea who she was until she asked me if I wanted to see the room John and Jackie stayed in when they visited.

  14. What a wonderful piece, Helene! I, too, was in 5th grade, but on an Army post in Maryland when my teacher returned to the classroom after being called to the principal’s office where he learned of the tragedy. I’ll never forget the response of Billy, the boy seated two desks to my right, when he heard the news. “Good,” he said. To this day, I wonder at the contempt and negativity that must have permeated a household which spawned such a remark from a 10-year-old. It’s truly sad.

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