There are images and times that are seared in the collective conscience of our humanity and the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States of America, is one of them.
If you were alive in 1963, you remember. If you weren’t, you’ve heard the stories from those who were. It is still one of the great tragedies and mysteries of our time. There are theories and conspiracies and books and movies and reports about the grassy knoll, but today I just want to remember.
There are moments in a person’s life that are life changing–that you learn something or experience something that changes how you see the world and the death of JFK was that for me.
It was a school day in 1963. A Friday with everyone looking forward to the end of the school day and the end of the week and a beautiful sunny weekend. We were busily working on reading or writing or learning to add numbers when a knock at the door of our 2nd Grade classroom caught our attention. Our teacher was motioned to come out in the hallway by a fellow teacher who I was sure was crying. What could have happened?
They were out in the hall for what seemed to be an hour for a small child. Especially a curious one. We were allowed to go into the hallway for a drink of water at the water fountain so I went to the door to ask, but in reality, I just wanted to see if I could figure out what terrilble thing had happened. The two teachers stood huddled together whispering, their tears readily falling.
A few minutes later, our teacher returned to our classroom. The normally boisterous class kept working quietly. The mood, subdued. In our world, grown-ups were in charge. What could make them cry? It had to be something bad. Really bad. A few minutes later the PA crackled to life and the Principal solemnly announced that the President had been shot and had died in Dallas, Texas. We looked at each other trying to figure out what it meant to us.
It was the first time in my short life that I knew we had a President. Or if I had known it, it wasn’t of any importance to me. I was more concerned with learning to jump rope and who might come over to play. I didn’t really understand who he was or what he did. But over the next weeks, the grief of a nation affected even a small town small girl in Kansas.
If you think about that time, people watched the 6 o’clock news. There wasn’t 24 hours news coverage. But there was for this. Even now, my minds eye remembers the constant replaying of the day in Dallas– the motorcade with the smiling, young handsome man, now gone, Jackie’s pink suit stark against the black convertible. Her husband’s blood blotched stark across her suit. The pictures of Lee Harvey Oswald.
The aftermath of grieving and accusations and suspicions and Jack Ruby shooting Oswald.
As a child, I just wanted to know when my Saturday cartoons would come back on. I was scolded for not understanding how important this all was, but I think my child’s mind just wanted the sadness to end and the laughter to be a part of life again.
And eventually it was.
But my innocent childhood became stained with more deaths that marked the years. Martin Luther King in April 1968. RFK in June 1968.
When I was grown and Reagan was shot, my first reaction after fear then relief he was okay, was “here we go again.” I’m so grateful that hasn’t been the case.
For my children, the sentinel event of their lives was 9/11. And that day, too, is etched forever in my memory. But the first time I felt the collective heaviness of grief in our nation was 53 years ago and today, as I remember, I feel it again. How would our world have been different if that day in Dallas hadn’t happened? He was our youngest President at 43. Would he still be alive at 96? Instead, we grieved his loss as a nation and it changed all of us and our world.
What event(s) changed you? Do you remember 53 years ago today?