The ordinary day that changed us
For the AARP crowd one question awaits an answer this weekend. Where were you that day, 50 years ago, when President John F. Kennedy was shot?
For most people my age the school day dictated our location. I sat in a sixth grade classroom in upstate New York preparing for the class’s monthly birthday party. We had moved the desks around in a circle to make a party atmosphere in the class taught by Mrs. McMindes – a warm, motherly woman. In that country school with all 12 grades on one campus, the bank of windows on the south side of the room gave us a wide view of the world outside, but showed us little of its harsh realities.
For us, it was just another day at Jasper Central in a classroom overflowing with children from the Baby Boomer generation. The ordinary day came to a shocked halt when Principal George Johnson turned on the speaker and interrupted our afternoon fun to announce that the president had been shot in Dallas.
The president shot?
The principal announced school would be dismissed early.
We absorbed the information then turned back to our party. We were kids, many years away from focusing on headline news. Only Melody Bliss, the solitary child of the school’s music teacher, lost interest in the party. She adored the Kennedy family. She had filled scrapbooks with news clippings and pictures of Jack and Jacqueline Kennedy and their children.
As we turned to our cake, she protested loudly, “It is like we are celebrating his being shot.”
Properly subdued, we quietly ate our treat, gathered up our papers and boarded the bus to go home.
The bus left us in the middle of the family dairy farm. We tumbled off the bus and saw our father walking up from the barn.
“Why are you home so early?” he called up the path.
“President Kennedy was shot.”
He stopped and stared at us.
We ran to tell him what we knew of the astounding news.
Because my parents thought we had too much to do to have a television in the home, we heard the follow-up news on the radio.
To watch the earth-shattering news, we went to visit our grandparents. For that historic moment, even my mother left her usual chat at the kitchen table to watch the television in the living room. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt died in office, she was a young teenager, but an assassination was so different. Mom shook her head at the pictures of Jacqueline Kennedy still wearing the blood-spattered suit on the plane as Johnson took the oath of office.
“Someone should have taken her to change,” my mother said.
Someone had, but only later did we learn that remaining in that suit was a deliberate decision by Jacqueline Kennedy. “I want them to see what they’ve done,” she said.
School was canceled Monday so we could watch the funeral.
Seated on the couches and chairs around our grandmother’s television set, we joined the hushed crowds lining the streets in Washington D.C. paying their respects.
We listened to the clip-clop of horses’ hooves and the tap of drums. We caught a glimpse of Mrs. Kennedy with her children as the casket approached them.
“Look,” my mom said, pointing at the widow and her children. We saw the little boy in the short coat raise his hand to salute his father’s passing casket.
That image of the little boy in his pale blue coat standing at attention made the cover of magazines across the nation. To this day it summarizes what the country lost that day: the fallen leader of a nation and a family and a three-year-old son who never had a chance to know his father.
As the adults and we older children watched the tragedy unfold, my youngest sister and brother lost interest and went outside to play. In a house just a couple of blocks from our school, we experienced that sad chapter in our nation’s history. We watched the slow march of the funeral cortege with its flanks of military men, the white horses and the solitary horse without a rider.
And then it ended. We returned to school with the flag still flying at half-mast – the first time I ever saw that. Life returned to normal, except it didn’t. Through the turbulent 60s, headlines screamed the unrest of the nation that included two more assassinations.
As baby boomers we were the last to have a president die in office from an assassin’s bullet. May that never change.
(Joan Hershberger is a staff writer at the News-Times and author of “Twenty Gallons of Milk.” Email her at email@example.com)