Friday, November 22, 2013

Still somber 50 years later: Memories of a sad, sad day

2 PM, Nov. 22, 1963.  Those of us that are around my age and older can probably remember where we were and what we were doing at that moment.  Besides personal triumphs and tragedies, there are probably only a handful of other events in our life spans that take permanent residence in our memory banks.  For instance, the moon landing in July of 1969 and the 9/11 attacks come to mind with relative ease.  Specifics come to the fore pretty quickly.

In my case, I was at the very tail end of my 7th year, attending Wycliffe Elementary School in Upper Arlington, Ohio. It was 1:30 in the afternoon, and for some reason, there was a delay in heading outside for our afternoon recess.  My third grade teacher, Mrs. Swanson, had a worried look on her face.  An announcement came over the school P.A. system requesting that every class of the school was to proceed outside and line-up behind each of our teachers in single file rows on the playground next to the north entrance. As we were gathering our coats and shuffling down the halls, I noticed the adults talking in hushed tones with each other. Some of them were crying. It was still Indian summer, and was probably around 50 degrees and cloudy as we gathered outside. The school principal had a bullhorn to address everyone.

“Something very sad has happened today in Dallas, Texas with President Kennedy.  We think it is best to dismiss school early so you can go home immediately to be with your families,” came the amplified declaration from the lady in charge (When I think about this now, I realize this would’ve never flown in today’s world.  But back then, nearly all of us walked or rode our bicycles to school, and in practically every case, there was a full-time mom awaiting each of us when we would get home each afternoon at 3:30).  “Please, children, no running or playing as you leave…it is VERY important that you go home immediately.  No dawdling.”

Of course, every child is bubbly with excitement when school is cancelled because of weather…but this was the first time any of us could remember that it was called off right in the middle of a day. And what the Principal shared, along with the distress shown on the faces of the other teachers, we knew this was something very bad.  I located my little sister, Joyce, who was a kindergartner, then found my older brother Jim, a 5th grader, and we began our eight block walk. It seemed like every one of us hurried our ways homeward much more quickly and quietly than I could ever recall. Several times, Joyce whispered, “Why are we going home early?” Jim and I just kept telling her, “We’ll find out as soon as we get home.”

When we rushed in through the front door, my mother had an ironing board set up in the living room—which was not the norm--and she was pressing clothes while watching Walter Cronkite (the news anchor of choice in the Hollingsworth household).  

“What’s happening, with the President, Mommy?” Jim blurted out.

We could tell she had been crying, and she replied, “President Kennedy was shot by someone in Dallas.”  Then, with a catch in her voice, she said, “They are afraid that he is dead.  Let’s pray that the doctors can help him.”

It was odd to see the normally stoic Cronkite taking his reading glasses on and off as sheets of paper were handed to him.  He wasn’t wearing a suit coat, and was speaking from a work desk surrounded by telephones, files, and scurrying people in the background, as opposed the more formal look of his nightly newscasts.

I guess it was around 2:30 PM when we saw Cronkite give the official, heartbreaking news (at the 5:00 mark of the video below). Even today, I can remember him pausing several times, as if to stifle tears. 

For a family that didn’t watch much television, we spent a lot of time over the next several days being bathed in those cathode rays.  Everything seemed so much more subdued.  A pall fell over our house, the whole neighborhood, and indeed, the nation.  We asked questions to our parents, but ultimately, none of their answers made sense, and I think they realized it as well.

My birthday was the day after the assassination.  While my mother made me my favorite meal of spaghetti with meatballs and a warm chocolate cake, there was no sense of joy to the proceedings.  

During the funeral procession two days later, the joint military band played “Eternal Father, Strong to Save,” also known as “The Navy Hymn,” as they marched with the coffin from the Capitol Rotunda to Arlington National Cemetery. It was Kennedy’s favorite, and he had heard it plenty himself as a WWII hero in the Pacific when fellow sailors were laid to rest. The third verse seemed particularly apropos for the scene:

Most Holy Spirit! Who didst brood

Upon the chaos dark and rude 

And bid its angry tumult cease 

And give, for wild confusion, peace 

Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee 

For those in peril on the sea 

It was in the midst of that long, somber march, that the slain President’s toddler son, John F. Kennedy Jr., gave his father’s flag-draped coffin the formal salute he had been taught to do by his daddy.  It was his third birthday.

I don’t normally dwell on these things, nor do I think many Americans alive to remember it ponder on it, either.  It was an especially sad chapter in our nation’s oft-violent history. But it lingers in our collective consciousness, and on this 50th anniversary, I felt the need to open up.  Perhaps you have memories as well.  Feel free to share them…

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