To those of us old enough to remember the week of 11/22/1963, the videos and commemorative specials about the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy have freshened old memories and feelings.
Of course I remember exactly where I was, as does anyone who was alive at that time. On Friday, 11/22/1963, I was in the fourth grade, and we had just returned from lunch. We were sitting at our desks when the principal’s voice came over the intercom system. He said, “Teachers and students, let me interrupt your classes for a special announcement. We have just learned that President Kennedy has been assassinated in Dallas.”
He then went to the live radio broadcast and we all listened intently. I didn’t know exactly what “assassinated” meant, though it became clear when the announcer related that our president had been shot and killed. Then I knew the meaning of assassination, a word that would be used far too much in the 60’s.
Our classroom was silent. We were old enough to grasp the situation, but not old enough to have adult feelings about it. I do remember the teacher crying. School was dismissed and the bus ride home was quite somber. Hardly anyone spoke, and the high school students stared straight ahead with blank expressions on their faces.
It was all we would see on television for the next week. Images so sad, and people so heartbroken, that it eventually filtered down to us children. And I felt so guilty about the whole thing. I had complained loudly when President Kennedy–really the first president to use the television so extensively–would come on TV and interrupt our Saturday morning cartoons. I despised him for that.
But because we had seen our president so much, at just about every stage of his presidency, we had a real connection to him. I watched, along with everyone else, the entire week’s events unfold, including that moving and emotional day in Washington when three year-old John-John* (John Kennedy, Jr.) saluted his father’s casket. And I don’t think any of us will ever forget that riderless horse.
It was, for many of us, a kind of loss of innocence. Like many people, I felt that the assassination of JFK marked a turning point in our country. Before his death we had a kind of optimism that we have never quite had since. Whether you believe in the whole “Camelot” era or not, you have to admit that the substance of his presidency matched every bit of the imagery. He and his young wife and children represented a lot to us.
The events of that week still have the power to make me teary-eyed. To those born later, that may be hard to comprehend. I don’t know that we’ve had a president since who has had that kind of love or affection, and that’s perhaps the saddest thing of all.
Do you remember where you were that week?
*I had the occasion to meet John Kennedy, Jr. when I worked at the Atlanta Marriott Marquis. It was during the Democratic National Convention in 1988. His effect on people cannot be overstated. John’s uncle, Ted Kennedy, had already been in the crowded suite for quite a while, when John came in. Every head in the place turned to watch John Jr. He had a kind of charisma that was beyond description. Of course he was handsome, but it was much more than that. I, for one, got chills when I realized I was seeing the same little boy who had saluted his father’s casket all those years ago. It was surreal–here was living history. As John Jr. moved about the suite, greeting friends and relatives, every eye in the place followed him. It was uncanny. I had met many wealthy and famous people while working at that hotel, but I had never seen people react so to any one person. I have no doubt that had he lived, John Kennedy, Jr. could have had a commanding presence in politics.
© Wade Kingston