Fifty Years Ago
Like most members of my generation, I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard that President Kennedy had been shot.
I was a freshman at South High School in Worcester, and my class attended the afternoon session due to overcrowding. That November day I was sitting in Mr. Timon’s Latin class, trying to pay attention. I remember Mr. Timon’s little jokes — if you couldn’t answer quickly, he’d say “Tempus is fugiting!” The classroom door opened and the Assistant Principal came in and announced that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. That’s all he said — he looked shocked, gave us the news and walked out. If I remember correctly, our classroom was near the office and I think he just needed to tell someone. We were all sitting there looking at each other waiting for Mr. Timon to say something and just a minute later we heard the chimes of the PA system followed by the announcement that President Kennedy was dead. Then there was some confusion, and they sent us back to our homerooms and dismissed us early. I remember the awkward feeling of everyone standing around not knowing quite how to react, what to say. I left the building with a group of friends and we just stood around on the sidewalk on Main Street by the Main South library branch in a block with some stores and a coffee shop. I remember looking in the window and seeing the shocked-looking customers sharing the news. Eventually we walked over to the corner of Main and Maywood Streets, across from Clark University and in front of Crystal Park. (There was a sign identifying this as University Park, but I never heard anyone call it that.)
We just stood around there for a while, feeling historical. Someone mentioned that this was like when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, and we talked about how there was no television then, and maybe a guy on a horse would have ridden up to our school to give us the news three days later. We knew this was a major event, sad and also scary. We had grown up during the Cold War, hearing about the Atomic Bomb and fallout shelters and watching Khrushchev bang his shoe on the table at the UN. The previous autumn, we had lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis, watching President Kennedy on television addressing the nation, and we could see this was serious. I watched the address at a friend’s house at the top of our hill, and when I was walking home I remember looking at my street, my house, the streetlights illuminating the leaves on the ground, a chill in the air, thinking how beautiful and special it all was, my world in all its ordinariness. Would the peace be broken with the sound of planes about to drop bombs on us, ending it all? And that’s what was on my mind when we were standing around at the edge of Crystal Park — what did the President’s assassination mean? What would happen next? Please let things just go back to being ordinary again.
We stood around on Main Street talking until it started to get dark, and my friends got on buses to take them to their neighborhoods, and I walked home. I dreaded going in the house and having to talk about the death of our young, handsome President, who seemed like a regular dad playing around with his young children. My own father had died a few years before, and I tried to avoid thinking about that, or saying anything that might remind my mother of our loss.
The next few days were rough. Our life centered around the news on television, and we went to a memorial service at a church downtown. I tried to avoid connecting the assassination with the loss of my father, but on the second night I remember going into my room and crying uncontrollably for a long time, holding the pillow over my face to try to muffle the sound. Then I wrote a lengthy sympathy note to Caroline Kennedy, telling her how sorry I was that she had lost her father and that I understood just how she felt. I remember saying random things that I hoped would somehow make her feel better, like that I thought she was pretty and that I loved her pony and thought “Macaroni” was a really cute name. But writing the letter just made me upset so I ripped it up.
The news came so fast in the next few days. We saw Lyndon B. Johnson sworn in as President, Lee Harvey Oswald caught and then shot by Jack Ruby. We saw endless photographs and video of Jackie Kennedy looking beautiful and tragic, and heartbreaking pictures of the Kennedy children. I had not attended my own father’s funeral (my choice, one I deeply regret) and I became somewhat obsessed watching the President’s funeral and looking at all the photographs in the newspaper and Time magazine. I think I conflated the two funerals in my mind, and to this day when I imagine my father’s funeral I picture a riderless horse and a flag-draped coffin.
I don’t have an ending for this. My friends and I grew up listening to our parents’ generation talking about where they were when they heard the news about Pearl Harbor. We knew this was going to be our generation’s “where were you…” moment, and I just wanted to record mine.