Walter Cronkite-JFK - video powered by Metacafe
"I am absolutely sure he never knew what hit him," Dr. Tom Shires, chief surgeon, Parkland Hospital, Dallas, November 22, 1963
If you remember the assassination of John F. Kennedy, you'll agree we didn't know what hit us either. It was an act equally as shocking and incomprehensible then as the attacks on the World Trade Center were almost four decades later.
The assassination of our president literally rocked our world. It was the seminal experience of the Baby Boomer generation -- even those still too young to fully understand at the time would come to feel its aftermath.
The sudden--and too easy--shooting of JFK and then, incredibly, the wanton shooting of his captured assassin while surrounded by police, and on live TV, changed our lives profoundly, just as 9/11 changed our children's. Our complacency, our sense of safety, fair play and trust in American invincibility were shattered in an instant, never to be truly regained.
You remember where you were, what you saw, how you felt on 9/11 and its immediate aftermath. Believe me, you always will. Those of us old enough to remember the events surrounding JFK's assassination can pull up images and feelings as if it were yesterday. Even though it was 45 years ago today.
Friday, November 22, 1963. I remember how excited my sister and I were that morning. We didn't want to go to school. Our cousin Polly, one of the "big girls" (i.e. in the tier of cousins 10-15 years older) was getting married that weekend. We'd have to sit in the synagogue's balcony and be very quiet, but still, it was such an honor to be included.
Even better, the wedding was in the town where we'd been born and we were going to stay the whole week after the wedding and have a traditional Thanksgiving with our father's family. Which was going to be so much better than the two we'd endured since our father's death in August, 1961.
We'd see all the relatives, be fussed over, stuffed with food, play with cousins and friends we hadn't seen in a long time. Three days off from school that Thanksgiving week, so of course our mother said we couldn't stay home Friday, November 22, 1963.
There we each sat in our classrooms, fidgety, thoughts anywhere but on our schoolwork, imagining the pretty party dresses we'd wear, how the bride would look in her white gown, the bridesmaids in their matching blue ones, who would take us ice skating, how many sleep overs and in whose houses, what movies we'd see, let's go, let's go, won't this school day ever be over?
Then footsteps running in the hallway. Doors banging. One of the older girls bursting into our classroom. Crying so hard she could barely speak. Before the teacher could move, shouting, "They killed him! They killed him! He's dead! He's dead." Just like that, each horrid sentence repeated twice, scaring us, maybe even scarring us. I'll never forget it. I can see her face, hear her voice to this day.
I didn't even know yet who she was talking about, but I've never forgotten my first thought, Oh, please don't let them stop the wedding! I've never really gotten over the guilt of such childish selfishness. Yes, I know it's irrational, especially in today's world. But on Friday, November 22, 1963, my world, which had been so innocent, wasn't like today. That would change. Fast.
Things I remember. First, pandemonium. Children and teachers crying, hugging, confused, then, as the word spread that the president was dead, some refusing to believe, my best friend laughing, saying, Oh, it's a practical joke. Arguments, more tears.
Teachers so uncharacteristicly helpless, trying to maintain order, decide what to do. Moving everyone into the main hall. Then, a radio is on, total silence falls as a man's voice says unthinkable words. "President John Fitzgerald Kennedy is dead. He was shot today in Dallas."
Shot? The president was shot? How? No. The president doesn't get shot. He's the president. Where is he? Who did it? What's going on??? School closes, parents are called.
I remember looking out the car windows on the drive home into other cars, seeing faces streaked with tears. Heads shaking No, No. People standing on the sidewalk, hands to their faces, shoulders heaving with sobs. Strangers holding onto strangers for comfort, for reality.
At a stoplight, one black woman in a gray coat sitting on the curb, head down in her hands, slumped over, rocking, crying. Another standing, her hand patting the woman's shoulder, tears streaming down her face too. I can still see that face to this day.
My mother crying. "I remember when FDR died. That was bad. This is much worse." We were so stunned, so afraid, we almost couldn't cry. "Will there be a war?" my younger sister asking. "Will we all be killed?" Our mother reassuring us as best she could, then turning to the phone. Telling us to make sure we were packed.
The TV stayed on. All assassination all the time. No cable back then. No VCRs. But you couldn't turn away. Wouldn't. The country glued together through television, in mourning. In disbelief. In fear.
Then our car radio on for the two and a half hour drive. Not the joyous welcome that should have been, but still, loving arms, hugs, tears and smiles. In every house the TV stayed on. There would be no ice skating. Instead, everyone in front of the TV watching a lying in state. A country in despair, a new president trying to tamp down the fear, encourage calm without showing disrespect.
The wedding was held on schedule. For a few precious hours two families embraced joy and happiness and promise for a newly married couple, trying to forget the newly minted widow in the White House. Now I realize it must have been even harder for my mother, not so long a widow herself.
Then back to the TV, the state funeral on Monday, scenes no one could ever forget, even if you've only seen the pictures. Jackie and little Caroline kissing the flag-draped coffin. The caisson pulling the coffin behind the rider-less black horse, stirrups turned backwards to signify death.
The widow and his brothers, walking, she draped in a black veil that fell to her waist. At the grave site, a flat stone circle, bending to toddler John-John, whispering. Then in his little coat and cap he bravely steps forward and salutes. An image of a lifetime. Tears come just remembering.
The eternal flame is lit. The country must go back to business. No one can. Still the TV is on. Reports about the widow, the children, endless loops of the shooting, both shootings, the widow standing in her blood-soaked suit next to the new president as he's sworn in. The assassin himself shot on live TV. More loops of the funeral, the child's kiss, the little boys' salute.
We and the other cousins don't want to watch any more. We want to play, to feel our world isn't ending. We want to know Normal will be back soon. My sister and I, maybe even our older married sister, having too many flashbacks of our own father's funeral in this very town, where we no longer live. And suddenly don't want to be.
My mother feels the same. Again she's on the phone. Suddenly in a flurry of movement, we're packing, saying goodbyes, climbing in the car. Hitting the road for home. Realizing Philly is home now. No radio. A mother, two girls, quiet, trying to absorb five phantasmagoric days of, well, maybe a tiny bit of heaven, but mostly just plain hell.
Thanksgiving day we are pulled into the warm, welcoming circle of my mother's family, cousins who have cared for us the past two years gladly adding our three plates back to the tables again, making us realize we hadn't endured, we'd been protected, sheltered, loved.
Discussions, talk of what had happened, what would likely come next, sure. Always lively talk at the adult table. And at the kids table, laughing, teasing, telling 'dirty' jokes, stealing a glass of wine and sharing sips, trying to act grown up, though it tasted like piss. Bursting into gales of giggles as one of the younger cousins can't help it, spits the bitter wine in an arc onto the table.
No TV on. Just the music of family voices. And so even after that harrowing, frightening, world-changing, life-altering week, Thanksgiving Day, November 28, 1963 is the one that meant the most.
Please, share your memories of JFK's assassination. Where you were, what you thought or said, whatever.