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Remembering JFK

Today, November 22, 2013, marks the 50th anniversary of the death of President John F. Kennedy. Fifty years is a long time. This past week the airwaves have been flooded with remembrances of Pres. Kennedy and those tragic events in Dallas so many years ago.

CNN aired a nice piece this week, featuring the black-and-white coverage of 1963. In one 50-year old clip a newsman (they were mostly all men back then) looked into the camera and boldly predicted that years from now (1963) people would still remember where they were when they heard the shocking news of the assassination.

How prescient. I’ve seen several clips of now middle-age baby boomers talking about where they were when they heard of the President’s death. So here’s my story:

It was a day not unlike today is on the East Coast. Cloudy, but warm for late November. It was Friday, just as today is. I was sitting in my last class of the day at St. Paul School, the parochial school in the little town in which I grew up. The time on the clock was about 1:40 Eastern in the afternoon. The classroom door swung open and our principal swept in. The sisters of this particular religious order back then wore long flowing black habits that seemed to fly on the breeze when the good sisters walked with any great purpose.

The President has been shot in Dallas, she announced. Along with the governor of Texas. Then she began to lead the class in prayers. The President being Catholic, the staff and students had more than just a passing interest in the story. The teacher continued the prayers as Sister left to tell the next class.

We were dismissed shortly after 2:00. This was a different era. The town was small enough that most of us walked home from school. As I neared my house a schoolmate, Mike Shea—still remember his name—came running breathlessly up from behind.

“He’s dead,” he announced. “Kennedy’s dead.”

The first thing I did after entering the house was to flick on the television. And it stayed on for four straight days. Both of my parents worked so as they arrived they home they joined me in the living room. I remember being mesmerized by the coverage.

Even prior to the assassination I had been a little news junky. Probably why I ended up in a newsroom. I was aware that only three weeks before the president of the Republic of South Vietnam, Ngô Đình Diệm, had been assassinated, in a coup allegedly approved or tacitly agreed to by the American government.

That was of great interest to me since my older brother was in the second year of his four-year Marine Corps hitch, certainly ticketed to end up in Vietnam at some point.  I remember thinking, first Diem, then the President and the governor of Texas. Is this what a revolution is like?

We watched the coverage all day Saturday. And then Sunday.

I remember waking up Sunday morning and turning on the television. My father was with me. My mother told me to get ready to go to Sunday Mass. Out of the living room I heard my father shouting. I came running to see what happened. A gunman had just assassinated the alleged assassin live on national TV. And I had missed it.

Monday was like a grief-filled national holiday. Stores, schools and businesses were closed. We watched the funeral on television. I remember Cardinal Richard Cushing of Boston presiding over the funeral Mass. I actually remember wondering for some reason what non-Catholics who were watching were thinking, listening to Cardinal Cushing intoning the Creed, the Eucharistic Prayer and the Preface in Latin. I remember the slow funeral procession.

Six days later we celebrated Thanksgiving. My parents asked me to say the blessing. I included a prayer for President Kennedy. I remember my parents thinking I was cute.

Mostly what I think of when I remember those four days wasn’t the actual events. Sister Alice sweeping into our classroom. The President’s young wife with his blood incongruously splattered over her pink outfit. Jack Ruby killing Lee Harvey Oswald on national TV.

What I mostly remember was the feeling that that the big, wide world had suddenly intruded on the small world of a little kid. And the realization that there’d be no going back to the way it was.

I was Huck Finn on the raft and the Duke and the Dauphin had just come aboard. And they weren’t leaving any time soon.

A year later my brother was in Vietnam. And the images of that war morphed into the images of anti-war riots. And two more assassinations at home. And more riots. Two presidents in a row driven from office. And two more assassination attempts on the lives of U.S. presidents. And then 9-11, my children’s Kennedy assassination. And for their generation…there would also be no going back.
That’s what I remember today.