The day started out like any other day at St. Bernard’s Catholic school.
Morning lessons that dragged and then , mercifully… getting close to the lunch hours and a welcome reprieve.
It was partly cloudy outside and pretty cold: it was getting close to Thanksgiving and the New York weather was cooperating with the mood of the season. The classroom mood was a bit more upbeat now that our lunch break was nearing and we were only a few days away from our four-day Thanksgiving weekend.
Mrs. M, our teacher, was called out of the room for a moment and, with that special glare only teachers and parents have mastered, she warned us to behave or there would be no lunch break and we would all stay after school to boot.
When she left,there was the usually snickering and commenting, but over all, we stayed in our seats and didn’t burn down the school: too close to Thanksgiving break to be taking any chances of losing any free time.
She was gone for about 20 minutes which was unusual because normally she didn’t trust us for that long. When she came back in the room, her face was ashen. Even oblivious young boys like us, noticed something was wrong. She told us to quiet down and listen up. It was odd… she said it in a gentle tone…. not her normal drill sergeant command.
“I have something to tell you, and I want you to listen carefully…”
For a room full of boys, the silence was deafening.
“….. a few moments ago, the President of the United States was shot……… he has passed away”.
What? What did she say? Sister E must have just told the girls class across the hall… we could hear faint cries.
“We are cancelling school for the rest of the day. You need to go home and be with your families, and please pray for President Kennedy’s family and for his soul.”
What? What did she say?… nothing really registered. We began to walk slowly to the coat closet to get our stuff to leave the school. No one was saying much… a few “oh yeas!!”School is out for the day!” and a lot of other mumbling.
I remember the words of one kid… they stick with me to this day. His name was John….. John H for our purposes here. As I neared the coat closet to get my jacket, John stopped a few others and I, and uttered some chilling words:
“Good! I’m gad he’s dead! I hope they slaughtered him….”
What? Why? Now,let’s be clear… I was a young boy and I had no political views as yet. Most of what I knew about President Kennedy I overheard at the “adult” table and I don’t remember specifics other that some liked him, some didn’t. Some thought he screwed up something called the “Bay of Pigs”…. which made no sense to me.
All I knew was that he was young, and good-looking and I loved listening to his weird New England accent. I knew Mrs Kennedy was beautiful and I enjoyed looking at pictures of them playing football with their family. He seemed like a nice guy to me …. and he was Catholic! That was big to us back then…I was still a Catholic and he was the first Catholic President. He was one of us.
So, the words of John H confused me. How could he hate this man that much? He was just a kid and an Irish kid at that, and all the Irish kids just about worshipped this Irish/ Catholic President.
I never found out what John H was talking about, but now, looking back… I wonder what kind of hate John heard at home to make him say such a thing. There was no way that this was an original thought. Parents, Teach your Children well.
Anyway, back to that day.
We departed the school in silence. One could feel it in the air… the normal hectic New York streets took on an almost empty feel. People had stopped what they were doing and were looking into store windows where the tragic events of the day were unfolding on black and white TV screens. Many of the people were crying openly.When I got home, our Tv was also on and Mom was watching;stone faced. She didn’t even say a word to me as I made my way to my room. She held a damp tissue in her hand.
I quickly changed into street clothes and got ready to go the Horatio street playground to shoot some basketball with some of the other boys. We were young enough and immature enough to think there was no reason to waste an afternoon off.
The streets had an eerie silence to them and playground was all but deserted.It was only a few moments after we began to play that the park attendant came over to us.
“Boys”, he said…”this is not a day for play…. show some respect and go home…”
We nervously laughed amongst ourselves and continued playing as he walked away sadly shaking his head. We played for about another 30 minutes, but it felt wrong….the world felt somehow “off” and the only safe place to be was home with one’s family. As I mentioned, I had no idea of President Kennedy’s politics and I was too young and immature to think much about it, but I knew that I felt sad…I felt even a little scared, and one by one we said; “I gotta go”……. and we headed home with darkness starting to settle on the city. My mind played back a few moments I didn’t even know had registered with me. Kennedys inauguration: A bitter cold day in Washington as we watched as a family from home. Kennedy broke tradition and did not wear a hat that day. This impressed the hell out of Dad. “Look at that!”, he declared “Its freakin freezing out there and he’s not bothering with a hat!!!”
Maybe I’m off on this, but I sensed some pride in Dad’s voice for the new ,young President. I recalled Kennedy’s immortal words… “Ask not what your County can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country..” all said in that distinct, Kennedy accent. These thoughts, hidden in my young memory made me sad. Sad that he was killed for no reason, as far as I could see. Killed while so young and vigorous with a pretty wife and kids. It just seemed so wrong and as I walked back to the apartment on that cold November evening, I felt both sadness and anger.
Images of the next few weeks remain indelibly marked in my brain: the body resting in State in the Capital as throngs of people passed by to pay their respects , the moving funeral procession with little John Jr. poignantly saluting his daddy’s casket, the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald , and on and on.
But, walking home that evening I felt that something had been ripped from us…and , slowly, night fell on the city, and in many ways , the world.