It’s a warm Friday afternoon for late fall in Northeastern Ohio and we’re going to have a pep rally, so seventh period will be shortened. Although I hate football and would never think about going to a game, I still love pep rallies. On those days, even the most obnoxious sports morons are nice to me because they’re so psyched they forget that in their books, I’m a dork of the highest degree.
We’re halfway through sixth period and I am in eighth grade shop class. I’m thirteen and next week is Thanksgiving. The metal shop is in the bowels of West Buttfok Junior High in the basement next to the boiler room. Our building is old and not very pretty and this classroom is even less pretty. We’re all making garden trowels. I am bending a piece of sheet metal on a machine I never remember the name of. My mother will save this little shovel when it is finished and re-gift it to me when I am nearly a forty-year-old man.
Some guys are already starting to shut their machines down. Ralph, the friendliest janitor, appears in the doorway of the shop, looking for our teacher, Mr. Graham. He calls to Ralph from a grinding machine where he is demonstrating in the far corner. Not moving from the door, Ralph shouts back in his direction “We been listenin’ to the radio. President’s been shot. He’s in Texas. They rushed him to a hospital.”
Ralph announces he’s going back to the radio, then turns and disappears into the hallway. Mr. Graham slides his safety goggles onto the top of his shiny bald head. We begin moving towards him from all directions, looking to hear what our teacher has to say to us. We’re hoping for clues to know how we should react to the shocking news.
“Je-zus Christ”, he says slowly under his breath. His face gets very pale, like he’s ready to pass out. He tells us to follow him, to keep our mouths shut in the hallway and to not fool around or touch a thing in the boiler room. We join Ralph and the other janitor in the corner by the oil tanks, clustering tightly around an old wooden desk strewn with the morning newspaper, an over-filled ashtray and a bakelite brown AM radio perched near the edge. The local affiliate has switched over to the network for updates. We listen intently, but there is not much to report. “There was an attempt on the President’s life.” He has been shot and is being treated in a local Dallas hospital. Mrs. Kennedy was traveling with him. The governor of Texas has also been shot. Who cares about him, I’m thinking. Even if I recognized his name, I have no face to connect with it.
Will Kennedy be all right is all I care about. I’m guessing I must look pasty too, because I’m feeling sick. And all these guys are just standing around, shoulder to shoulder listening, but nobody is saying a thing. What’s going to happen to us? Just before the dismissal bell is supposed to ring, the xylophone plays the four notes which means a P.A. announcement. It is Mr Cahill, our principal. “At the bell, all students should report to their homerooms and not their seventh period classes. Repeat. Report to your homerooms.”
We leave quickly. At the top of the basement stairwell is the girl’s locker room. I see my friend Sandy who I’ve known since second grade. We’re in the same homeroom. She asks what do I suppose is going on. I start talking quickly, filling her in about the President as we rush upstream against the crowd. She reacts to the news like I want to. The only way I know how. “Oh my God how horrible! What should we do? What’s gonna’ happen? Will Kennedy be all right? Who shot him? Why would anyone want to hurt him?” All the while she fires her questions non-stop and seamlessly, the two of us race up the confused hallway to our homeroom.
Our young, unattractive teacher is good at quieting us down. Still everyone is agitated and frightened. Yes, it is true that the President has been shot, she explains, but we don’t know much else so she begs us to calm down and take our seats. For probably the first time ever, we all do exactly what she asks. There are some kids, one of them a cheerleader in her ugly blue and gold uniform, who are questioning our homeroom teacher about the pep rally. Today, even football has taken a backseat to this awful news. She tells us to keep quiet, then goes out into the hallway to talk to the teacher next door.
In our desks we are strangely quiet now, especially for a Friday afternoon before a home game. It is typically a perfect excuse to act more like the junior high animals we so easily can become. And with no teacher in the room this is really asking for it. I’m so worried about Kennedy that I am silently dialoging with God, bargaining with him so that everything will turn out all right. Our teacher comes back in, saying Mr. Cahill promises to update us as soon as he hears anything.
She walks back to her desk, sits down and looks up at the P.A. speaker mounted on the wall very near the flag. It seems like she hopes if she stares at it, she can make good news come out of it. I put my head down on my desk like an ostrich in the sand. Within minutes the xylophone sounds again. Our heads all turn to fixate on the wooden box above us. Mr. Cahill announces slowly that “the President died at two o’clock our time.” His voice is a little shaky. That is all I hear, or can bear listening to. He says something about school buses and canceled activities. I just want to be home.
Quietly we exit our homeroom, zombie-like into the hall, heading for our lockers. On a normal Friday it is typically a shrill, screeching chaos like an asylum with no attendants. Now no one is talking. Any voices are hushed, most bodies eerily going through the motions of opening and closing lockers in a silent daze. Everyone around me acts numb, like I feel. My stomach contracts in a painful knot and all that keeps going through my mind are our principal’s few words “the President died at two o’clock our time”, as though it were the same as reciting the lunch menu for the day.
I don’t talk to anybody on my school bus. It is not a silent ride, but the closest thing to it. My house is only a mile and a half away, but that translates to nearly forty minutes, mine being the second last stop on the route. I want to get home, but not because it is a comfortable or welcoming place. In fact, it is just the opposite-a place I typically look forward to being away from. I only want to get there quickly to turn on the TV so I can see what’s happened to JFK. My generation is the first to be raised on television. For us, each family gathers nightly around our sets together, like primitive families did around the fire. Here must be the greatest American tragedy since Pearl Harbor, and just like my parents’ generation had, I learn of it from disembodied voices in picture-less boxes.
The house is still empty when I rush into the small living room and turn on our twenty-one inch Philco in its blonde wooden cabinet. After waiting so long to get home, I grow impatient for the minute or so it takes to warm up. Already, regular programming has been preempted by network news on all three Cleveland channels. There is an Officer Tippet, a policeman younger than our President, who was also killed. An ID picture is flashed on the screen. “He leaves a wife and three children.” And so a cast of characters, names and once unknown faces, begins to assemble before my eyes and onto the pages of a living history that all started this awful weekend in November.
I am sitting literally on the edge of our sofa, nearest seat to the television screen, still processing the idea that JFK is dead. There is footage of him arriving at Love Field before the motorcade, with Mrs. Kennedy carrying a huge bouquet of roses. “A suspect is in custody.” By the time both of my parents get home from work, the plane carrying the President’s body is minutes away from landing in Washington. I bring the set of TV trays stored in the basement upstairs. It will be the first time they are actually used to sit in front of the TV and eat on. Those tables won’t go back downstairs for another three days.
We are eating supper, some meatless meal because it is Friday and that’s what Catholics still do. We watch a huge, beautiful wooden casket being lowered from the belly of Air Force One, and following it is Mrs. Kennedy with Bobby. She is in the same two-piece suit and pillbox hat from this morning, with what looks like mud all over her legs. Did we figure out it was her husband’s blood, or had a newscaster reported it to us? It was one week later, once LIFE and LOOK magazine finally arrived in the mail, that we saw her suit was bright pink and the roses and dried blood dark red. Even network news is still broadcast only in black and white, like that entire grey weekend would be for us all, glued to our televisions together.
None of us wants to leave the living room for fear we’ll miss something-some update or tidbit. There is a new face now, a small and insignificant scrawny man in a baggy white undershirt with bruised and swollen eyes and the name Lee Oswald. And with him follows the image of a mail order rifle raised high overhead by some Texas sheriff. Assassinated, assassination, assassin-all forms of this word that earlier this morning was still only connected with Abraham Lincoln, has crept into the television set like an over-used jingle to sell soap or cigarettes. How could anyone so freakishly nondescript kill someone so awesomely powerful? We stay up Friday night until there is no more television to view.
I go upstairs to my attic room alone, with the rest of the family in bedrooms downstairs. I love the solitude my room affords me, until tonight, realizing the bottom has fallen out of my world. I am once again afraid of the crazy old fat man in Moscow. I was seven years old when he threatened “we will bury you” and at that moment it was Khrushchev’s face that replaced the face of the boogeyman for me. I spent the remainder of my childhood in fear of Soviet domination-whatever that meant. Not until JFK, only one year and one month before today won his standoff in the Cuban missile crisis, could I sleep easy. Without pushing the red button or firing one shot, the Russians turned their ships around. Kennedy had slain my dragon. The handsome WWII Navy hero became a hero for another generation, and tonight he lay dead, killed by some failed Soviet wannabe. I am scared once more for myself and the country tonight.
The Saturday vigil begins with the President’s flag-draped casket lying in repose in the East Room of the White House. A military honor guard flanks the coffin, solemnly standing guard hardly moving. But then it seems no one is moving today. It is a very still and sad day everywhere. We don’t go out shopping and errand running like every other Saturday. There is little traffic and not many people about. Families are home burrowing in. All day long news comes from Dallas and DC. Every reporter we have ever seen or heard on the small screen is somewhere with a microphone, speaking endlessly with government officials, world diplomats, police and sheriffs, investigators, eyewitnesses about the past two days. We hang onto every factoid, filing it away as the story of what happened grows and the bleak day wears on.
Sunday morning we finally leave the house to go to church. We speak with people we didn’t even know, before and after an early mass. Our pastor prays for the soul of John F. Kennedy. It is like a funeral without the body. It makes the grim reality of his death even more real. There is sobbing and nose blowing coming from every pew, by men and women alike. Once home, my mother prepares dinner while the rest of us take our seats back around the tube. There is to be a ceremony moving the President’s body to lie in state in the Capitol. In Dallas they are moving his killer to another security facility.
Oswald is being led down a corridor flanked by men in trench coats and guys in cowboy hats-a scuffle and then a loud pop. Some reporter shouts into a microphone “Oswald has been shot!”. My Dad calls to my mother to come quick. Still dressed for church with the addition of a frilly apron, Mom runs into the room with a wooden spoon clasped in hand. “They got him? Good. They got the son-of-a-bitch! Good!”, threatening the screen with her spoon. I am certain this is not a good thing my parents are cheering about. Later we learn their hero is called Jack Ruby.
We eat our entire dinner on our TV trays, still dressed in our church clothes. We see Mrs. Kennedy with Caroline and little John John look on, while the coffin is carried up the steps on its way to the Rotunda. A military band plays Hail to the Chief, only this time as a funeral dirge. I cannot believe anything could make me sadder, yet this does. We do the dishes, then pile into the car to go to Grandma’s. It is Sunday and we always visit, and today there is a death in the family to mark.
In the early evening we are back home watching the endless line of Americans who have come to mourn their fallen leader. Even in the darkness of night the line continues to grow. So many people are still waiting, they decide to keep the Capitol open until morning. For the first time ever, the networks do not sign off. Television continues broadcasting. Midnight comes and it is very early Monday morning, the day our new President Johnson has declared a Day of National Mourning for the state funeral of John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
I doze on and off, keeping our family vigil in front of the set while the others sleep in their beds. Somewhere in the early part of the morning a voice is discussing the similarities between the Kennedy and Lincoln assassinations. A commentator, or some other person still awake and lucid, begins to read Walt Whitman’s Oh Captain! My Captain!. I sit up alert and amazed. We read the poem the year before in seventh grade English. This Civil War era poem suddenly grabs me today like I could never have imagined it were possible.
Monday begins with the family up early. No one goes to school; not many companies expect workers to show up. Television networks promise today to be something unlike any other funeral in the history of the world. There will be a procession with over two hundred foreign dignitaries following behind the caisson carrying the casket. The Kennedy family, the President and his family, members of Congress all are out walking in the open in the street. Their safety is in question. After Friday, we all worry that it might happen again.
This is the day for iconic images: Mrs. Kennedy in her heavy black veil, John John’s farewell salute, the rider-less horse with empty black boots, lighting the Eternal Flame. But there are sounds underscoring these images burned into history: the incessant rhythm of the marching drum corps, the clopping of the horses hooves on the cold pavement, military bands whose music now laments a once vibrant man. At the end, there is a lone bugler playing Taps. One of his first notes falters and the world holds its collective breath until he finds his way back. A commentator remarks afterward, that his lip had quivered for an entire nation.
Now, it is fifty years later. I remember those four days, some of them hour-by-hour. Anything I might have forgotten today is only a Google search away. There is a single image which is foremost in my memory, whenever I hear “Dallas” or “Kennedy” or “assassination”. It is Jackie, her huge, dark eyes, (before that weekend, always beautifully expressive), staring down at her husband Jack’s casket being unloaded from Air Force One-frightened and at the same time vacant-an expressionless expression. She had been the Princess of our land for the briefest time in history. No one came before her, nor anyone after. They were like a fairy tale, those Kennedy years. But unlike every other childhood story, there was no happily ever after.