Today is the 57th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination.
The President had come to Texas for a two-day stretch and then it would be back to Washington. I yawned my way through my high school home room that morning while the President said a few words to the crowd outside his hotel in Fort Worth. There was a light rain. As the morning progressed, it was geometry, American history and English classes for me. By lunchtime the rain had cleared and the weather had turned into a beautiful November day. After lunch came gym.
During this time the President spoke at a breakfast with the Ft. Worth Chamber of Commerce, then flew the short flight to Dallas. Later we would see on television that Jackie was given a bouquet of red roses when JFK and his First Lady arrived at Love Field, reminding us of the reception the two had received in Dallas. She carried them with her as she and the President got into their limousine. They were joined by the Governor of Texas, John Connally, and his wife Nellie. Vice President Johnson and Lady Bird followed in another car. Their cavalcade wound through the streets of Dallas until they came to Dealey Plaza.
Just as we were beginning to run laps in gym, someone came and whispered into the coach’s ear. Coach announced, “The President has been shot.” It seemed only a short time after that when we were called into the auditorium. There we were told the news that the President was dead. Through that auditorium there were sobs, but most of us sat in our seats stunned. The President was dead. JFK was dead. How? What? The principle and his staff and the teachers tried to console us best they could but they were just as stunned as we were.
When I got home, the black and white television was on. My mother hugged me. Then, for the rest of the day, we watched the film together, my mother, my younger sister and I, and later my stepfather. Film of the earlier part of the day until the shots rang out at Dealey Plaza in Dallas. Film of the President’s time in office. Film of the life of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the youngest president ever.
I can’t remember whether we ate or what we ate that night. I can’t remember when we learned that the First Lady and the body of the President were back in Washington, D.C. I can’t remember when we learned that we had a new president. All I can remember is the tears and sitting in front of the TV and thinking that the world had ended.
I remember one anchorman broke down on television, then calmed himself and continued. I remember seeing grown men and women crying openly, unashamed. In those days, you never saw men cry. At least, not in public. That weekend we were all grieving. That weekend we were all Kennedys. It was as if our father, our brother, our son had been shot. We would no longer see that face telling we Americans that anything was possible for us. Even putting a man on the moon.
Sometime that Friday afternoon, Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested. It was said that he had shot the President. On Sunday morning we watched him being transferred from police headquarters to the sheriff’s jail. Before millions of viewers a man stepped out of the crowd around Oswald and shot him. That man was Jack Ruby. Again we were stunned. Had the world gone truly mad?
That afternoon the President’s body was taken from the White House to the Capitol building. Seeing his casket drawn by six horses and led by a riderless horse proceeding down Pennsylvania Avenue will always stick in my mind. Thousands lined the street and men in uniform saluted their Commander-in-chief as he passed them by. He lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda for 21 hours as thousand walked by his coffin. And we cried. We couldn’t help ourselves.
On Monday morning, the funeral, and the final procession of the body to Arlington Cemetery. We watched his brothers, Bobbie and Teddy at the graveside while Jacqueline Kennedy lit the eternal flame. Then Jackie and his daughter Caroline kneeled. Jackie kissed her husband’s casket. His very young son John Jr. bravely stood nearby and saluted his father. They were saying goodbye one last time.
Since that day, people have speculated about conspiracies surrounding the Kennedy assassination. I don’t. It really doesn’t matter to me. The President was dead and that was that. As hard as it was, we had no choice but to accept it.
I went back to school the next day, a Tuesday. But like so many around me I was sleepwalking, trying to get back to normal. Whatever normal was. Two days later there was Thanksgiving and then Christmas came and went. There wasn’t much to be thankful for that year and not much to celebrate either. A new year came and it seemed like life was one gray sad day after another.
And then something extraordinary happened. It hit the country like a bolt of lightning and woke us up from our sleep. It was the sound of a song. Four lads from England singing, “I want to hold your hand.” Since then I have often thought how much President Kennedy would have loved the Beatles. For in that February moment in 1964 hope returned to America. It felt good to be young and alive.