To commemorate today's date:
Thursday, November 21, 2013
A Nine-Year-Old's Memories of 11/22/63
Given all the anniversary commemoration -- all the rehashing of historical perspectives and the conspiracy theories, the Dallas-bashing, the assassination porn, etc. -- you don't need any more of that from Buster. Instead, and mainly for those who weren't around then, I thought I'd share what I personally recall from that time, and why, like so many, I'll never forget it. (You don't need that either, and it's not unique, but for whatever it's worth I'm gonna do it anyway.)
In November 1963 I was 9 years old and in the 4th grade at Woodland Elementary in Mansfield, Ohio. My little world was pretty much Beaver Cleaver Land. I knew nothing of politics, of course, but I knew for sure I lived in the greatest nation on earth, from sea to shining sea, and all that good stuff.
I certainly knew who the President of the United States was. John Fitzgerald Kennedy and his beautiful wife Jacqueline were young, charismatic, photogenic, and witty. They were approximately the age of my parents. Their daughter Caroline was same age as my sister. In my young logic, I figured their family was probably just like my own.
I had other reasons to like JFK. Going back to 1960, I was vaguely aware that Eisenhower was the outgoing President. And I knew that his Vice President, Richard Nixon, was running to be the next President. How could I forget, after my lifelong-Republican mother dragged me to the high school football stadium to hear Nixon speak under a scorching September sun? I was only six, bored to tears, and sun burnt. I became a JFK fan on the spot.
The first-ever televised debates solidified my first-grader opinion. My parents encouraged me to watch this moment of history, and I tried, for a while. This show had no plot to speak of, and I didn't understand what the characters were talking about, but as a kid raised on The Lone Ranger, Superman and Gunsmoke, I had no trouble telling the good guy from the bad guy. In the first national election which I can remember, as far as I was concerned, the good guy won.
Once in office, Kennedy continued to win people over (even my mother, I believe) with his wit and humor, shown regularly on the evening news and displayed in his innovative televised press conferences. Vaughn Meader put out a classic comedy album, "The First Family", in which he impersonated JFK and an ensemble cast mimicked other political figures of the early 1960's. My parents bought the album and played it often. It made them laugh, so I laughed too. (Kids love to laugh with their parents.) I still have that piece of vinyl to this day.
Around that time, someone gave me a hardcover copy of the book "PT 109 - John F. Kennedy in WW II", which I think I still have somewhere. I also had a paperback copy of "Profiles in Courage", which I lost long ago. Add to that the fact that the Kennedys seemed to be in Life magazine every week doing something appealing, and it's pretty clear that long-ago young Buster was worshipping at the altar of JFK.
November 22nd was a Friday, like any other Friday -- anxious for the school week to be over and the weekend to begin. Mid-afternoon, we were all outside on the school's west playground. Was it a scheduled recess, or did the grown-ups already know what was up and feel the need to shove us all outdoors while they puzzled out what to do with us? I'm guessing the latter.
Teachers stood together in clumps and whispered earnestly and completely ignored their young charges. Passing cars stopped in the middle of road. Drivers rolled down their windows and conversed with the teachers in the most serious manner. Some of them appeared distraught. This was clearly not our usual recess, but we were clueless.
After some time, we were herded together and marched back inside to our classrooms. My 4th grade teacher was Mrs. Egner, a no-nonsense, farm-raised disciplinarian who had no qualms about hurting your feelings or your body, as the case may be. (Even so, she was a good teacher for her time.) After we took our seats and grew quiet, Mrs. Egner stood up from her desk and said curtly, "I suppose you know by now that our President is dead. We're dismissing early. Everyone go straight home to your parents now."
Shocked, stunned, dumbstruck -- all put it mildly. No, ma'am, I did not know! How could I know? What are you saying? What happened? Mrs. Egner would not elaborate, she just shooed us out the door and said our parents would explain it to us.
I have no memory of the short walk home. I was in a fog of disbelief. This had to be some sort of mistake. My sister was in kindergarten at the time. Did she walk home with me? I'm blank.
Mom was at the kitchen door and I immediately demanded answers. She gave them, as calmly and gently as she could. President Kennedy was dead. He'd been shot and killed while visiting Texas. He's really dead? Yes, I'm afraid so. It's terribly sad. Why would somebody kill him? I don't know. Who did it? Nobody knows yet. What will happen now? Vice President Johnson will be our new President. Everything will be OK.
I could feel the tears beginning to well up. I ran to the living room couch, buried my face in a pillow and began to cry like a . . . well, like a little boy. Hot bitter tears of anger and grief and confusion. No, things will not be OK! I remember my sister asked, "What's wrong with him?" He's very sad because the president is dead, Mom explained.
It was a surreal weekend. There was none of the usual playing with friends, just a steady stream of assassination news updates as most families kept to themselves and tried to comprehend the awful state of affairs. (It didn't dawn on me until years later that this was a first not only for me but also for my parents generation -- the "Greatest Generation." They had experienced the death of FDR, but this was clearly something different. In their way, they had to be as shaken as I was.)
TV and radio were devoted to constant JFK coverage. They caught the guy who did it. They said he killed a cop too before he was captured and taken to jail. He said he didn't do anything. Saturday morning cartoons were cancelled. I'm not sure, but I think all the college football games that Saturday were cancelled as well. The NFL considered doing the same, but decided to go ahead and play their Sunday games as scheduled. Sounded good to me. I could do with a break from ugly, depressing realities.
Around noon on Sunday the 24th, I turned on the TV hoping for a little football pre-game stuff. Nope. Still rolling with JFK coverage right up to kick-off. So I sat there and watched NBC's live coverage from Dallas. Tom Pettit was the reporter on the scene, explaining that the accused assassin was to be transferred to the county jailhouse, and the police were going to parade his sorry ass right through this hallway and we would all get a good look at him here in just a few minutes.
And as they marched Lee Harvey Oswald through a gauntlet of press and on-lookers, some guy stepped out of the crowd and shot Oswald at point-blank range, right there in front of my little 9-year-old eyes. The shooter was overtaken instantly in a madhouse scrum. "Oswald has been shot! Oswald has been shot!" Pettit kept saying. I hollered for my parents to come see this. Holy shit! What is going on here? Is this the way things work in the greatest nation on earth? It was unbelievable, just too much.
We all watched in stunned silence as, in a matter of minutes, an ambulance arrived and hauled Oswald's carcass away. A good chunk of my childish faith and innocence was hauled away too, and an unforgettable series of events was seared into my mind.
(Please leave a comment to share your own memory of 11/22/63. This isn't Twitter -- no character limit. Say as much as you like. I always do.)