On November 22nd in 1963 I was a newly minted high school freshman. After only two months in high school, I hadn’t yet gained any sophistication or maturity as had many of my classmates. I admit it; I was a dweeb, but that was OK.
Mr. Crampton taught freshman English and, although I thought he was kinda cute, he was a strict, demanding teacher. [I thought several of my male teachers were kinda cute, but it was just raging hormones.]
In my high school, it was unusual to hear announcements over the P.A. system during classes. When the familiar little noises of the system being activated got our attention, Mr. Crampton stopped his lesson so that we could all hear what was so important. All eyes went to the speaker on the wall.
In mere seconds, our world stopped rotating on its axis and everyone held their breath in shocked horror -- President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, Texas and had been rushed to a hospital. As we gaped, open-mouthed at each other we had no idea what to do or think. Even stolid Mr. Crampton was at a loss for words.
What seemed like mere seconds later, word came that the president had died. The blood that had drained from our faces earlier stopped when our collective hearts skipped a beat.
After the moment it took to absorb this dreadful information, tears started burning and breathing became difficult. The next announcement was to release us from class to gather in the gym to await buses to take us home.
Melancholia is common among teens, but it was outweighed by fear and dread that day. I wouldn’t say mass hysteria broke out, but every one of us wondered how our country could survive the blow and, indeed, how the world would not collapse around us.
I don’t remember how I got home. I don’t even remember what members of my family said -- I was in a daze that lasted until the funeral. I can still hear the slow beat of muffled drums accompanying the cortege to Arlington National Cemetery. The magnificent, high strung, black, rider-less horse with boots facing backwards in the stirrups was so evocative of our young, charismatic president. The truth of our loss was overwhelming.
Memories from those days are still vivid:
The president’s hands flying up to his throat;
Mrs. Kennedy crawling over the trunk of the limo to help the Secret Service agent into the car;
The horrified and heartbroken crowds who had gathered to welcome the president;
Lee Harvey Oswald being shot by Jack Ruby in a crowded hallway;
The view from the book depository where Oswald took aim;
Mrs. Kennedy stoically witnessing Lyndon Johnson’s swearing-in on the plane that would bring her husband’s body back to Washington;
Events seemed makeshift until the funeral. It was formal, orderly and dignified. The solemnity of the event was not spoiled by too much talk from TV commentators. The simplicity of the formal, military honors was utterly appropriate and moving.
When the bugler muffed a note while playing TAPS, it was as if he was as overcome with emotion as was the rest of the country. He felt bad for missing the note and had never done it before but I can’t imagine anyone not understanding.
Fifty years after that horrible day, the memories are surprisingly vivid. JFK’s daughter, Caroline has just been sworn in as the U.S. Ambassador to Japan and will be there on the 22nd. I wish her peace.