It was chilly grey day, that November Friday, much like today is.
I was in fifth grade. Fifth grade was a really good year for me. I loved my teacher, Mrs. Stepp, who seemed to be able to make every subject interesting and challenging. My new best friend Ashley was in my class. We’d just moved to this new city in June, but my family seemed settled in and life was good.
Ashley’s birthday party was scheduled for that night, and we were excited. After lunch all the fifth graders gathered in the large room at the end of the hallway to begin rehearsing Christmas carols. We’d be singing them at a local nursing home the week before Christmas. Yes, we could still do that then.
We’d begun singing with some enthusiasm when one of the sixth grade teachers peeked in and beckoned to Mrs. Stepp,who went into the hall. When she returned a moment later we knew immediately that something was wrong, very wrong. After a quick whispered consultation with the other fifth grade teacher she turned to us and said, “The President has been shot.” And with that, our world changed forever.
Our teachers quickly ushered us back to our classrooms. In those days we didn’t have TVs in every room, but Mrs. Stepp may have turned on the radio. We knew the President had died, however, when the principal, Mrs. Jefferson, announced it over the loud speaker. And there was stunned silence.
I walked home from school that day, and found my mother in the den, sitting in front of the TV watching Walter Cronkite who was just as stunned as the rest of us. Momma had been in the grocery store when she’d first heard that JFK had been shot, and she rushed home to get confirmation. In those days before CNN and FoxNews, live non-stop coverage of events was a rarity, but that is what we got. It was surreal–the TV announcers seemed at a loss for words, details were much slower to emerge than we’re used to now, and there was no immediate video footage to show over and over and over again. That would come later.
Soon it was time to go to Ashley’s party. We went to the movies, although I have no idea what we saw. What I do remember was the somberness and sadness that hung over everything like a pall–even a kid’s party. We went back to Ashley’s house to have pizza–my first pizza ever (and it was Chef-boy-ar-dee from a box, if you can imagine, with ground beef–hey, it was the 60s!) Our parents huddled together talking quietly as they came to pick us up. By that time Lee Harvey Oswald had been arrested, but there were still more questions than answers.
I remember nothing about the next day except that nothing felt normal. On Sunday we got up and went to church as usual. After church Daddy went into the den and flipped on the TV while Momma started lunch. Turned on the TV to more shocking news: Lee Harvey Oswald had been shot while in police custody. Unreal.
School was cancelled the day of JFK’s funeral. I will never forget the riderless horse, the caisson holding the casket, the sad widow with two small children bravely processing down Pennsylvania Avenue. This was my first real introduction to death. And it still felt surreal. Although our TV was black and white, my memory is a montage with images in color mixed with those in shades of grey. I’m sure that’s because for weeks afterwards I poured over the Life and Look and Saturday Evening Post magazines that filled our mailbox.
When we went back to school, the sixth graders put up a bulletin board memorial–a picture of JFK, and the words of his inaugural address that have been burned into our memories, “Ask not what our country can do for you, ask what you can do for our country.”
When I look back now, I am keenly aware that the President’s assassination was but the beginning of a string of cataclysmic events that would come to define my generation: MLK’s killing, then Bobby Kennedy’s, the Kent State shootings, riots all over the place, Viet Nam, Watergate. I was but a child when JFK was elected but the hope and optimism of “Camelot” was palpable even to me. All the dreams that marked the beginning of JFK’s presidency ended with the sharp retort of gunfire, and with it ended our innocence.
Was that hope, that optimism warranted? We know so much more about JFK and the realities of his life and presidency know, we know things that certainly tarnish the memories that I grew up with. Nonetheless I wonder what we really lost that day, what might have been. And it still makes me sad.