Friday, November 22, 2013

Remembering JFK: 50 years ago today

The note was delivered from the office. I was pulled from my 12th grade English class to go home and drive my dad to the doctor's office. Dad had been coughing for days, and now he had a high fever. It was a dull grey November day, and he was about as grey as the sky.

I was sitting in the doctor's waiting room, thumbing through an old magazine. In the background music spun from a radio. A news bulletin broke into the music, only half heard, something about a shooting. The music returned, dad came out, there was a brief stop at the pharmacy next door, I dropped him home and headed back to school.

I slid into my seat in my Latin American History class just as the last bill sounded. My classmates seemed much more subdued than usual. None of the usual laughter and talking before our teacher, Charles W. Stevens, began call roll.  Everyone was quiet, somber. 

I turned in my seat to my friend Dusty,  and whispered, "What's going on?"

"Where've you been?" he asked.

"I had to take my dad to the doctor. I've been off campus for two hours."

"Kennedy's been shot," he said. "In Dallas. They've taken him to a hospital. We're waiting to hear how he is." I felt an ice-pick of fear in my heart.

At the front of the room Charles Stevens stepped to the podium. He was a small man about 35 with dancing blue eyes, prematurely bald, a natty dresser. Witty.  I was a history buff and he taught history, so I'd been in one of his classes three of my four years. I was also his Teaching Assistant for two hours a day, marking papers, working on the bulletin boards, teaching freshman history classes. He introduced me to classical music, opera, fine art. He encouraged me to use my mind. I adored him.

But if he called roll that day I do not remember it. If he said anything in the echoing room I do not remember it. We sat in silence with only the thudding of our hearts in our ears and the sounds of 18 high-school seniors and their teacher breathing in and out. Suspended between disbelief and terror. 

Somewhere down the street a siren began to wail. The PA system crackled and the voice of our vice-principle George Berger hunted around for itself before saying, "I regret to inform you that John Fitzgerald Kennedy the President of these United States…" His voice broke and he sobbed the rest.. "…has died as the result of an assassin's bullet in Dallas Texas. Classes are dismissed until further notice."

As he spoke the air was sucked from the room. No one moved. At the front of the room Mr. Stevens was gripping the podium for support, his knuckles blanched. As he heard Mr. Berger's words he went white, his eyes closed, then he flushed a deep red. Behind me several of the girls began to sob.  I felt like I had dropped 50 floors in an elevator, hollow inside, as if my entire being might collapse down that rabbit hole. 

I don't remember leaving class, driving home. I remember that my parents and I were glued to our 18 inch black and white TV for the next several days. The steadying voice of Walter Cronkite walked us through what we could not turn away from, the swearing-in of Lyndon Johnson, looking like a whipped bloodhound with Jackie at his side stunned and bloodied.

Oswald's arrest, and his subsequent shooting by Jack Ruby were a blip in those days. It was JFK who had us transfixed. The multitudes of people waiting in dumb misery to pay their respects, the heart-breaking moment when Jackie, in black veil and dress led Caroline into the Lincoln Room to kneel beside the coffin. The procession down Philadelphia Ave,  the riderless black horse.  John-John's salute as his father's coffin passed. Arlington National Cemetery and the eternal flame.

Two bullets tore the heart from America, and were the pivotal event for a generation. Ask anyone of my generation where they were when John F Kennedy was shot and they will recall it in an instant. Who they were with, how they heard, the taste in their mouth and the pit that dropped out of their stomach.

And it had all begun with such hope;

"And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.

My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.

Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God's work must truly be our own."

And now I do what I couldn't do then. Weep for a brave and brilliant man's potential cut short. Yes he had many flaws, but his flame, his eternal flame, was his sense of purpose and justice for all Americans.

1 comment:

Linda P. said...

A beautiful tribute. I join you in remembering where I was when I heard the news.