Friday, November 22, 2013

Kennedy, 50 Years After

Today is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.  In 1963 I was ten years old, and in the Fifth Grade class at Washington School in Raritan, New Jersey.  When the first news reports of shots being fired at the President in Dallas made it onto the transistor radio in the school office, I think everybody was caught completely flat-footed and off-guard.  Remember that this was in a time before the many mass shootings we all have to live through now -- nothing like this had happened before.  It was before King, before Bobby Kennedy, before any of the other notable assassinations of the 1960's.  There had been nothing like this in people's memories since the attack on Pearl Harbor some 22 years earlier.  There are occasions where the journalists inevitably ask us where we were and what we were doing.  These were not common occasions in 1963.  I guess they still aren't; the Pearl Harbor remembrances are mostly over as most of those living then have passed.  Today we talk about when the Twin Towers fell and maybe a couple of other things.  Kennedy's assassination was the first time anything like this had happened to a society that I was a part of, or to anybody I knew.

Dallas in in Central Time; we lived in Eastern Standard Time.  So the first reports that so paralyzed our school staff came in just after 11:30 in the morning.  It was around 12:40 PM, during lunch at the school, that Walter Cronkite announced that the President was dead.

The school staff had no idea what to do.  There were no counselors, no grief experts or PTSD consultants, not in 1963 small-town New Jersey.  So they sent us home.

My kid sister and I walked to school, probably about a mile, a distance that would be considered unsafe or unconscionable now, not for five- and six-year-old children.  So we got home a little after 1:00 PM.  My father was at work, of course, and my stay-at-home mom was doing household chores.  She was not expecting us for at least another couple of hours, and, sadly for us, she was not listening to the radio or watching our tiny-screen black-and-white television.  She asked us, with some alarm, what in Hell were we doing home so early?  We told her the school had sent all the kids home because the President had been shot.  I received the beating of my life for "telling such an awful, awful lie."

No kidding.

Finally, when through our tears we kept sticking to our "story," my mother turned on the radio.  It was a tube radio and it took a few minutes to warm up.  I remember she kept looking at us like, "This better not be true, because if it isn't, the beating you just got is nothing compared to what you're going to get" coupled with a confusing measured leavening of "You'd better not be lying."

And when the radio warmed up, WOR 710 out of New York City, the station my family had on that morning for "Rambling with Gambling" and Bob and Ray, reported that the President was dead.  At this point my mother didn't know what to do either, I guess.  So she sent us to our rooms.

Over the next few days we watched the news reports, the funeral cortege proceeding to the cemetery, the horse-drawn coffin, little John-John's salute, all of it.  We were watching live TV when Lee Harvey Oswald was being transferred to a different holding facility and Jack Ruby shot him in the stomach.  It was the first time I had ever seen anybody actually killed.  And on live television.  I wouldn't see anything like that again until the second plane crashed into the World Trade Center live in 2001while I was watching.  I would go on to see a lot of people die on live television that day, as the towers collapsed one by one.  We all saw it on the news that night, and in the days to follow, ad nauseam, but there was something awful and traumatic for me when I saw it happen on live television.  I don't think I've ever gotten over it, and I still have nightmares of the towers falling intertwined with Oswald being shot.

My daughter was in the fourth grade when the towers fell.  Her school staff did not tell the kids much.  They did not send them home early.  I was waiting for her bus at the usual time and we walked home together during those first eerily silent hours when nothing man-made flew in the skies.  She was nine.  We talked a little about what had happened, and how a lot of people had been hurt and worse, and things were going to be a little strange for a while.  We were careful about what we watched on the news when she was around.

The only good that I can see to have come out of all this tragedy is that I learned from mine how not to handle my daughter's.  As we seem fated to ride this same merry-go-round over and over through history, I have no doubt that someday my daughter may have to deal with her own "where were you?" tragedy.  At least she has a decent example of how to cope.

No comments:

Post a Comment