Many people will share their story today, here and elsewhere. Some will read the accounts, others will make cynical comments, as if there could ever be enough remembrance of this day. My story is no more interesting than any of the others. I share it because it felt somehow comforting to write it down. It reminded me of a time when my family was together, a moment just before hope was lost.
Mr. Jablonsky’s reading class had just started. It was the last class of the day, and being Friday, the last class of the week. Even though I enjoyed the reading class, I was ready for the weekend, and I’m sure the other seventh-graders sitting around me felt the same way.
Some time during the class the school intercom speaker crackled, and the voice of the school Principal, Mr. Sterling, was heard. It was well known to students and teachers alike that Mr. Sterling did not know how to use a microphone properly. Each time he tried to make a school announcement it emerged indecipherable. He would get too close when he spoke, as if he was afraid he wouldn’t be heard if he didn’t shout into the thing. It was like trying to hear a schedule announcement in a crowded train station. Although the words were garbled, a few words came through clear as a bell:
— We don’t know if our President is alive or dead.
Since the idea that the life of the President of the United States might be in jeopardy was inconceivable to my 13 year-old mind, anyone’s mind really, I couldn’t really grasp what the Principal was talking about. My first thought was that perhaps something had happened to our class president. Although Mr. Jablonsky was clearly shaken, we returned to our studies.
It wasn’t long afterward, just before the class was scheduled to end, that the intercom crackled again. This time Mr. Sterling delivered the blow clearly.
— President Kennedy is dead.
With any doubt about what he was talking about removed, the shock began to set in. Like everyone else, I felt numb. Somehow I made my way out of the school. My mother didn’t always pick me up. Sometimes I walked home, or hitchhiked up the hill from the school. On this day she was parked right outside the school’s front door though. When I got in the car she was crying.
— He was like a brother to us, she said.
In those days there were only a few tv channels. The national networks cancelled their regular programming and went full-time on the happenings in Dallas. And when there was nothing to report, they repeated what they had reported already, or ran old documentaries about the President. Only the local stations, WOR and WPIX, ran non-assassination programming that weekend.
I lived in a divided household as a child. While my mother was a Democrat, my dad was a staunch Republican. The lines blurred that weekend though. It was one of the few times in my life that the nation was truly, tangibly, united. My father was just as shaken as my mother, if less visibly so. If the President could be brutally gunned down, how safe were any of us? I’m sure they were worried about their children, as parents are in times of tragedy, and their country.
We stayed glued to the television along with the rest of the country. On Sunday the President’s body was taken from the White House to the Capitol Building where it would lie in state. By that morning we needed a break and went out to a late breakfast at our favorite restaurant, the Claremont Diner. We were joined by my grandparents because family had never seemed so important as it did that weekend.
It was on the way to the diner that we heard on the car radio about the second murder, the killing of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby. The world seemed to be spinning off its axis. I tried a joke.
— Scorecard, get your scorecard. You can’t tell the assassins without a scorecard.
The NFL played a full schedule that Sunday. They said it was to take our minds off what had happened in Dallas two days earlier. I don’t think I watched. Even at 13 I found it disrespectful.
Sunday passed into Monday, the day of the funeral. The nation was still glued to the television. There was the First Lady, looking beautiful and as fragile as glass. The horses drawing the caisson on which the President’s casket was placed through the streets of the nation’s capitol. The riderless horse representing the lost commander. The President’s young son offering a final salute to his father as the procession passed by. The lighting of the eternal flame at Arlington.
And then it was over. There was a new President and it was up to him to keep us safe in what had become a dangerous world. We went back to school on Tuesday and time, which had stopped for four days, marched on. Things seemed to return to normal. It was an illusion that lasted for years. Finally we realized that something had broken that day. Something that seemed so beyond repair that we finally decided to stop trying.