November 22 is the day I lost my illusion that the world is a safe place and our leaders are more than mere mortals. I was fifteen and a sophomore in high school. It was a Friday, cold and bright; the best day of the week. I had at least two evenings and one day over the weekend when I didn’t have to deal with biology, geometry, world history, Latin, and English homework.
I was on my way to my last class of the day, World History with Mrs. Boden. I don’t recall what class I was coming from but I had to walk outside to go from the old to the new building. Three girls were crying in the courtyard. I recognized one, Margie, from my 9th grade art class, who was wailing loudly- surprisingly uncool. I had no idea what was happening. I proceeded to my class and there my classmates were talking excitedly about JFK and Governor Connelly being shot. They were saying that Connelly was dead but JFK was O.K. I remember feeling relieved. But then, the principal, Mr. Slutsky, spoke on the crackly PA system. I can’t remember his exact words but he was terse and clipped. He announced that President Kennedy was dead, shot to death in Dallas, TX. I didn’t cry. I waited for the tears but felt only confusion and fear.
My teary-eyed teacher sat silent and red-eyed at her desk at the front of the room for the whole interminable class period. We talked quietly among ourselves. I remember saying how terrible this was for Jackie who had so recently lost a baby. I remember wondering if I would have Sunday School on Sunday or if regular school would be closed on Monday. The assassination seemed unreal, as if it were part of a movie I wasn’t allowed to see.
Later at home, my mother sat on the stairs that led to the bedrooms and cried. She had never sat on those steps before, and she had never given into sobs before, just the occasional wet eyes. I was shocked. I was frightened.
We went to our house of worship that night. There was a special service that seemed to attract everyone I knew. There was a feeling of solidarity, almost “gaiety” as we said hi to all our friends. Even my father was silent, refraining from criticism and irony.
I thought that LBJ seemed curmudgeonly and homely but I figured he could take over and prevent the country from falling to pieces. I had seen Jackie standing next to him when he took the oath of office. I thought that was a good sign. I hoped he was wearing a bullet proof vest.
On Sunday morning (Sunday School was cancelled) my mother and brother were watching Oswald being taken from the jail. She screamed: “Oswald’s been shot, Oswald’s been shot.” My father and I rushed downstairs to see the melee that followed. They kept re-running the film: The sheriff drawing back in horror, Oswald’s contorted face, Jack Ruby with the gun in his hand. We just sat and stared at the drama unfolding again and again and again.
Monday was the funeral. The TV set was on all day- something that had not occurred before and never would again. I watched for a while and then left, only to return and watch some more. So sad and mournful. The riderless horse, the drum beats, the sorrowful family, adorable John-John saluting his father. Jackie looking so elegant and brave. Caroline touching her father’s casket.
And now 50 years have passed. The sun has risen and set 17,500 more times. Wars have been waged and peace has been made. Jackie and John-John are gone. Little Caroline is a woman in her fifties with grown children. JFK’s brothers and sisters have disappeared into the ether.
I have gone to college and graduate school. I have married, divorce, married and raised a child and stepchildren. I have had five jobs. I have lived in Baltimore, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Billings, and Newark. I have bought and sold houses. I have written two books. I have been happy. I have been sad. I have mourned. I have celebrated. I have loved. I have hated. I have retired. I have lost my father and am losing my mother in increments.
“President Kennedy was shot? No one told me about it!” said my 94 year old mother indignantly when I asked her if she remembered the events of November 22. Then she closed her eyes and went to sleep.