Thursday, November 21, 2013

Where I was when I heard President Kennedy had been killed....

Dear Grandparents,
We're told that people who were alive at the time, remember where they were when they heard President Lincoln had been assassinated,  Pearl Harbor had been bombed, planes had crashed into the World Trade Centers, and for my generation when they heard President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. I am no exception and thought that on this 50th anniversary of Kennedy's death, I should write about what I remember about that day and those that followed.

I was home from school sick and watching television (CBS), doing French verb conjugation homework, while my mother ironed. They broke into the broadcast with a bulletin that the "President had been shot in Dallas, Texas. He is being taken to the hospital and his condition is not known." We were shocked and waited, and waited for some word on his condition. It seemed like a long time but probably was about 30 minutes until Walter Cronkite appeared in the oft seen clip and announced "President Kennedy is dead."

We were stunned. Our family were not democrats, nor were they Kennedy supporters. We had recently moved to Willingboro, New Jersey from La Habra, California. Richard Nixon had law offices in La Habra and his mother lived next to Starbuck Junior High School where I had attended. Still.... the President, his beautiful wife and those little children...

My sister Peggy (Leslie) was a sixth grader at Pennypacker Elementary School in class when a teacher came by and told her classroom teacher that the President had been shot. She overheard the conversation and then was asked to keep the information to herself. Less than an hour later, an announcement was made that President Kennedy had been killed and most of the teachers and children were crying. During the 1960 campaign, John F. Kennedy had visited Willingboro and many people in the community had turned out to hear him speak. His death seemed very personal. School was immediately dismissed. All students lived within walking distance of the school so no provisions were made to notify parents that the students were being sent home. It was expected that there would be someone at home for them.

Peggy clearly remembers what she was wearing that day.... a madras plaid sleeveless dress that Mom had let her wear over a turtleneck as it was cold.

Her husband Hugh remembered he was working at the Bureau of Land Management Office in Salem, Oregon and they were notified when someone rushed into their office. His brother Paul was working, building Clearwater River Road in Idaho. Someone had a radio and that was how they heard.

Sister Trude's 4th grade class was on a field trip to the Township Library which was about 4 blocks from Pennypacker School.  The class had walked there for their special tour. At the announcement of Kennedy's death, the students were dismissed directly from the Library and expected to walk home. She remembers being scared. While we were living in California during the Cuban Missile Crisis, there had been air raid drills where each student was made to crouch beneath their desk while sirens blared, waiting until the 'All Clear' bell was sounded. At nine, Trude didn't really understand the emotions of the adults. That night she dreamed that witches were trying to bite off her toes. She recalls the need to keep her toes under the covers and safe from the witches stayed with her well into adulthood.

Her friend Michael Blackman was a high school student in Philadelphia. He remembers a student passing in the hall saying that the President had been shot. He did not believe him. After arriving in his next class, it was announced that Kennedy was dead and a moment of silent prayer was offered by everyone. He does not remember that school was dismissed.

My brother Rusty was a 7 year old 2nd grader at Pennypacker. He remembers being dismissed early and walking home with some friends. One boy yelled that the President had been shot but Rusty wanted to wait until he heard it from his mother to be certain. He's not sure if they told the younger kids that Kennedy had been killed or if it was lost in the excitement of getting out of school early.

The family spent the next several days huddled in front of our black and white television set. We were mesmerized by the steady parade of events. There were so many things that we had never seen before. The silent vigil in the Capitol Rotunda, the family walking behind the casket. I'll never forget the sound of the muffled drums accompanying the caisson. Lee Harvey Oswald killed in front of so many. Most unsettling for me was the tears streaming down my father's face as the coffin was carried down the steps of the Capitol.
Photo from NY Daily News
For all of us, the images of John John saluting his father's coffin, the caisson's slow progress to Arlington National Cemetery are burned forever in our minds.


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