November 22, 1963

 

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 Every Baby Boomer has their story of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy: where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news.

I’m a Boomer as well, so of course I must share my story:

November 22 fell on the Friday before Thanksgiving that year. In grade school we had to sell turkey raffle tickets all through October. Actually, they weren’t tickets; we were given cardstock sheets with numbered lines printed on both sides in two columns. When people bought chances, they paid so much per line and wrote their names and contact information in the numbered spaces. At the end of the selling period, we’d turn in our sheets and our money.

I never really knew how that worked. Did someone fill out tickets from our sheets? Often someone would buy several chances, and instead of repeating their information, they would simply “X” through all the blank lines they were entitled to. I remember the thrill of seeing relatives do this, little dollar signs dancing in my head. Hitting up family at First Communion parties was an October ritual (First Communions were an autumn ceremony then). Sympathetic relatives with cash to spare might X out an entire column of numbered lines.

That Friday before Thanksgiving 1963, the students were being treated to their own festival, starting at lunch time. I was in third grade, and there hadn’t been a kids’ turkey festival the year before, my first at St. Cecilia’s. There was an adult festival over the weekend, with games of chance and the drawing of names for the turkeys, but there was nothing there to interest a child.

One of my favorite lunches at St. Cecilia’s was their fish sandwich on Fridays. Somehow, Mom gave me extra money so I could have two sandwiches that day, which just added to the celebratory spirit. After lunch, we roamed the tables set against the walls of the cafeteria, playing fish pond and ring toss.

I was especially pleased because of a prize I won: a small white plastic mouse with a rubber band mechanism underneath. I could pull the elastic string, set the mouse down, and it would go scurrying. I loved it, and I couldn’t wait to show it to Mom as soon as I got home (even though she hated mice).

I don’t know where my first-grader brother was that day; I have a faint memory of seeing him at the festival, but he probably was running with his own crowd. We could leave whenever we’d had enough of the games (i.e., spent all our money), which was another bonus, so it was early afternoon when I left school. I forget now whether I walked home alone or with my school friends. All I remember is that it was a pleasant autumn afternoon and I was happy.

As I approached our house, my mother came out onto the porch holding my three-year-old brother. I ran to tell her about the festival, but she stopped me cold with the words, “President Kennedy got shot down in Texas.”

This is how a child’s mind works (okay, a child with an unusual imagination): I had a sudden mental image of JFK in a cowboy hat, hands hovering above his holster, ready for a showdown. I was rather indignant, thinking, “Why would the President of the United States get into a gunfight?”

Mom’s stricken face brought me to reality, and we went into the living room where the television was showing the empty banquet room where Kennedy was supposed to have spoken that afternoon. Soon we saw Walter Cronkite make his emotional announcement that the President was dead.

My mother broke down. “That poor woman with those babies!” she wept, cradling my brother. I was in shock. The fact that someone had shot the President as he rode down the street was more surreal to me than my momentary fantasy of JFK failing to outdraw an hombre. Assassination was something we read about in our history books, not something we lived. It was unthinkable that we were now participants in the same tragic drama that the people in Lincoln’s time had experienced when he was shot. I couldn’t get my mind around it.

I wandered up the street to my friend Roseanne’s house. It was common to say “Did you hear…” even when you knew the other person had already heard. “Did you hear about Kennedy?” we asked each other, incredulous.

Roseanne’s mother, with her own baby on her hip, was crying as well. She pulled out a prayer book and found a prayer especially for an assassinated President. As she read it out loud, her voice broke. Later, in the kitchen, she declared, “This is exactly when the Russians could attack us, when we don’t have a leader.” Everyone was always on edge waiting for the Russians to attack. It made sense that this might be as good a time as any.

Roseanne and I wandered off on a walk. We sat at the end of a downhill driveway that ended in a kind of drop-off. It was a mild day. The last leaves were drifting from the branches overhead. We talked about how strange it was, to be living the kind of history we’d only studied in books. We talked with some shame, and a little regret, of a pattycake-type playground chant (Went to Washington in a canoe, went to the White House and saw you-know-who. We–saw–KENNEDY!) and how we couldn’t say that chant anymore.

Wall-to-wall, 24/7 news coverage was a new experience. There was saturated coverage for NASA liftoffs and the like, but that took up a limited part of the day. That November weekend saw a total cessation of anything not related to the assassination. Most radio stations ceased to play popular music; only somber, classical music could be found on the dial. (To this day I associate “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” with sitting at the kitchen table the evening of Kennedy’s death.)

It was a long, somber weekend. On Saturday evening there was a memorial Mass at church, which we attended. The parish was debating whether to cancel the adults’ turkey festival out of respect. For some reason, it went on. I forget whether we went on Saturday or Sunday, but I do remember the empty feeling in the school gym, folks milling around with no heart for the proceedings, the rackety sound of the wheels of fortune echoing into the high ceiling.

Jack Ruby shot Oswald shortly after we returned home from Sunday Mass, although we missed seeing it live. We’d been watching a station that wasn’t covering Oswald’s transfer, and suddenly they broke in with a bulletin. It truly seemed the world had gone insane. It was a frightening, confusing spectacle, all the more so because the adults didn’t have any answers, either, and seemed as shaken as the children.

By Monday, life must have been edging back toward normalcy, because I remember watching part of Kennedy’s funeral on the small, snowy black-and-white television at the bowling alley, where my mother was participating in her weekly Mother’s Club league. School had been cancelled for the day and my father was off work from his municipal job. The television was set up behind the counter where bowlers paid for their games and picked out their shoes. I stood with my arms and chin on the glass counter. I couldn’t hear what the announcer was saying, so I just stared at the screen, which was such a fuzzy mix of translucent gray that everyone looked like ghosts.

We’d watched the procession over the weekend as JFK’s caisson was drawn through the streets of Washington. I found the riderless horse with those backward boots in the stirrups positively haunting. My mother pointed out that the rhythmic drumroll was the beat to “Hail to the Chief.”

It was typical of the time that there was immediate talk of sainthood for John F. Kennedy, an American martyr. We schoolchildren knew nothing of his lifestyle, his peccadilloes, the many reasons the Church should not have honored him as a saint, regardless of how he died. We Catholic schoolchildren knew only that the first Catholic President, the one over whom the nuns led us in celebration on election day two years before, had been murdered. And our lives would never be the same.


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