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.
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.
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.