I remember sitting at my little wooden school desk at PS41, with no idea of what I was supposed to be listening to, or learning. Suddenly the loud speakers (do they still have them?) in the classroom announced that the school day was cancelled and we were to wait our for our parents to come pick us up. We had no idea of the reason but obviously that was good news! We waited patiently but noticed that the teacher was upset, though we didn’t know why. It was very disconcerting to see your home room teacher, a big part of your young life, be upset. What could upset this paragon of control and authority? There were periodic updates as the box on the wall would squawk when some kid’s parents had arrived and they were allowed to leave, bewildered and afraid because it was all so strange. We who were left behind were just as bewildered and afraid. Why were we being separated like this? Picked off, one by one as the box continued its incessant squawking. We had been taught to duck and cover in case the Russians had decided to send a nuclear missile our way, which even then struck me as rather stupid. What was a wooden school desk going to do against a nuclear attack? But we went through the drills as we were told as this was the Cold War after all, though we didn’t know that at the time. Maybe they had launched the missile and someone decided it was better for us to be home and annihilated instead of under our school desks, and if that were the case, I would have to agree with them. If you are going to go, go with your family, not cowering under a stupid school desk.
It was my turn eventually and Mom was visibly upset when she came to pick me up.What was happening I remember asking her. Something bad had happened she said and it was important that we were all home together. Mom always had that philosophy about anything in life so that didn’t really elucidate anything. When we got home the television immediately went on and would stay on for the next three days. It would bring us images I could never have imagined at the time, and news that seemed to be from another more primitive country. Mom had tried to explain in her own way, but probably did a good amount of censoring of the more disturbing details but I learned that the President of the United States had been killed. This was 1963, and when we were growing up, figures of authority like Policemen and those in the Armed Forces were revered and looked up to with no hesitation. But the President?? That was beyond reverence; that office represented all of us, the entire country. Now I admit, I was young and naïve and have since spent almost fifty years studying that day in Dallas and I am not young nor naïve anymore, but then it was different. I looked at my Mom as we watched the black and white images replaying history, and saw tears streaming down her cheeks. And that made me sad, sadder than I had ever been up until that point in my young life. I tried to understand it better but the words coming from the commentators on the screen were confusing and scary. When Walter Cronkite choked up delivering the news, something monumental had happened. And it had. Dad came home later loaded with late edition newspapers and I heard him cursing about someone but didn’t really understand who. “One guy?” Dad would mutter from behind the World Journal American when he wasn’t looking at the television screen..”That guy?? How is that possible??”
Of course in later years I learned it wasn’t possible but at that moment we were all just plain confused and scared. It had to be the Russians, it just had to be! The Cold War was in full swing; it had to be those bastards! And we waited for the sounds of air raid sirens; the old duck and cover might come in handy I thought. Mom hugged me as we watched the television and sometimes she held on so tight I thought I would faint. Dad just kept shaking his head. He was an uneducated man, but that didn’t mean he was stupid, and he just couldn’t get what was happening through his head. And rightly so.
The rest of that Friday and the next day were a blur of television images as we tried to get back to a normal routine, not realizing there was a new normal in the land. It had been unleashed in the streets of Dallas. I being again young and rather silly, immediately decided I hated Dallas though I probably had never even given it a thought in my life prior to that day. I am still not sure I have gotten over that, as it was at the time a hotbed of right wing nuttiness.
And then came Sunday the 24th and once again we were glued to the television as it showed the supposed assassin being escorted through the basement of Police Headquarters. And then more gun shots. Dad literally flew off the sofa.“Did you see that?? Did you see?? Someone shot him! Right there just now!!” ‘Mom shook her head some more and cried some more, not for the victim necessarily but for the country. I remember watching Dad settle back on the couch as the pandemonium broke loose on the screen and I watched as his eyes dulled, went darker somehow. Something was dying in him right then and there, and it frightened me. Later of course I understood. No way this could happen- not like they said. Something was dangerously wrong in the country and its second act had just been played out on national television. I am not sure Dad ever trusted anything again, even if he read it in his beloved Journal American. We had all stepped through the looking glass, and though I didn’t know it at the time, the world had truly changed in a few short days. Power had shifted. New leaders, new wars,new everything.
We didn’t need to go to school the next day as the President’s funeral would take place and the whole nation wanted to see it; to pay respects I hope. And of course there came the now famous moment when the President’s son saluted the caisson that carried his father’s casket as it passed by and the whole world cried again. I think he was about my age – I may be wrong – but I felt for that little boy; couldn’t imagine what he was going through. We had lost our President, our leader, our guide; he had lost his Dad. I looked back at my own Dad on the couch, still shaking his head in disbelief, and I was scared I would lose him and I couldn’t imagine life without him.
So what is worse? Losing your President? Your leader? Your nation’s leader or your own father? I realized even then the question was silly. Not because they were un-relatable,but because at the time, and because it was JFK, it felt like the same thing.
Confession: I go to JFK’s grave way more often than my Dad’s. Most of that is because of geographical logistics; some of it is because I don’t want to see Dad’s name on a block of granite. And when I go to Arlington, the most sacred place in America, and I am surrounded by scores of tourists, I still kneel and say a prayer. Every time.
And that prayer goes out to both of them.
Some losses you never get over.