It was 1963. I was a sixth grader that Friday in November, living with my two sisters and our parents in a small town in the northwest corner of the continental United States, far from the reach of the fears of the world. I knew nothing of the Cuban Missile Crisis; but I did know that my father’s workshop in the basement of our newly-built home was a fallout shelter in the architectural blueprint. A family in a house up the road with the same house plan allegedly had theirs stocked and ready to live in should the Cold War ever heat up.
We practiced “duck and cover” drills at school, with civil defense film strips instructing us on the proper technique. When the siren sounded we ducked under our desks immediately. In the absence of our coats, which were hanging in the closets, we were to cover our heads with our hands. I read now in Wikipedia that the objective was to shun human instinct to run to the windows when “the bright flash occurs,” protecting ourselves from the blast waves that will cause burns and “window glass implosion, shredding onlookers”; a learning from the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
How were we not terrified? Perhaps my parents were. But John F. Kennedy, the young and handsome Camelot president with the beautiful family, was going to protect the country from harm. Wasn’t he? Until that 22nd day in November when the world tilted.
The desks in Mrs. Conrad’s sixth grade classroom at the end of the hall at Washington Elementary School were in a circle. My desk was the one closest to the door, my back to it so I didn’t see Principal Bogen open it in the middle of that morning and come in. He set the boxy black portable transistor radio down on my desk and we listened to the crackly news report that the President had been shot while riding in an open-air motorcade in Dallas; he had been rushed to the hospital. Without a word, Mr. Bogen picked up the radio and went on to Mrs. Lamb’s sixth grade classroom, leaving my little sister and her first grade classmates to learn the news at home. I felt very old that day.
I have no memory of what happened in the minutes and hours that followed. I remember only the silence in which I and my classmates absorbed what for most of us was the first tragedy of our young lives; the moment of the knowledge of evil in the world. I don’t remember if we went back to our lesson and then to lunch, or if school was dismissed and we went home.
All weekend we watched the TV coverage on the grainy black and white set that had been my grandmother’s. And we poured over the photos in Life Magazine, and a book that came out later: The Torch is Passed, along with A Thousand Days, neither of which are still on the bookshelf at the foot of the stairs. The oversized pages were filled with iconic photographs: Jackie in her blood-splattered nubby pink suit and matching pill box hat; and Lyndon Johnson taking the oath of office on Air Force One, flanked by Lady Bird and Jackie, still wearing the suit. Of Lee Harvey Oswald grimacing as Jack Ruby shoots him. Of John-John playing under his daddy’s desk in the oval office in happy times, and saluting as the horse with the boots backward in the stirrups pulls his father’s casket down Pennsylvania Avenue. Of Caroline in her little princess coat and black velveteen headband holding her stoic black-veiled mother’s hand as the procession passes. The photos are indelibly etched in my memory.
I became aware that day of the world as a frightening place. The Viet Nam War escalated during the last few years of my childhood and the huge block headlines of The Daily Chronicle screamed the war’s death toll day after day, while the college students on TV chanted, “Hey, hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” High school ended with the first draft lottery; and two years later, before it ended, included my high school classmates. I was also ignorant of the Civil Rights movement, but I knew the horror of the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968; and the rise of the Black Panther Party in California, closer to home than the activity in the deep south, where I would one day live. And then Bobby Kennedy was killed on a déjà vu day.
That November day fifty years ago, a bullet changed the course of the world…and everything I thought to be true. There has been no going back.
(Also published in the Centralia Chronicle, November 17, 2013.)