November 22, 1963 Reflections

November 22, 1963 Reflections

November 22, 2013 – Average life expectancy at birth being what it was in pre-war America, it’s a sobering reality that a significant percentage of Americans who were adults aged 30 and older in 1963 are no longer around to share their “I remember the day President Kennedy was shot” stories with us.

In another 20 years or so, all of them will likely be gone.

So the story-telling will ultimately fall to those of us who were just kids on that tragic day to share our reflections until, by the 100th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination, no one will be left to talk about what they remembered.

And given a kid’s natural lack of appreciation for the true significance of current events as they occur, I hope any insensitivity of our perceptions will be forgiven.

My Story

IJFK can’t actually remember whether or not it was preceded by a P.A. announcement but sometime in the middle of the afternoon, not long after lunch and shortly before we would leave school for the weekend, Sr. Marlene told us President Kennedy had been shot.

Because we all wanted to help him get well, we were instructed to get out of our desks to kneel and pray for his recovery.

President Kennedy was, after all, the second most important Catholic in the world after the Pope.

At Holy Family, we had kneeled by our desks in prayer before.  A rote exercise, like saying the Pledge of Allegiance, our regular prayers were part of our morning routine if we didn’t have Mass.  Usually, though, it was not much more than a quick Hail Mary and maybe a Glory Be or two.  Kneeling for a bit wasn’t a big deal.

But this day would be different.

Whether the floors were hardwood, tile, terrazzo or whatever they make anvils out of, I can’t recall.  I can only tell you that people were not meant to kneel for extended periods of time on hard surfaces.

Maybe this kind of thing was de rigueur in the Middle Ages but it certainly wasn’t cutting it in 1963.  At least not for me.

If the president would just hurry up and get better, we could get back in our seats.  What was taking so long?  Why wasn’t this working?  My knees hurt!

We weren’t allowed to talk but, wondering if my classmates were equally discomforted by this cruel rite that went on for the better part of an hour if not longer, I turned toward my friend John Bodnark when Sr. Marlene wasn’t looking to see how he was holding up.

His expressive look of disbelief was only slightly reassuring that someone else felt the same as I.  He mimed that he was kneeling on his fingers every so often to disperse some of the weight.  Not a bad idea.  I tried it.  It helped and I was grateful.

Over on the other side of the aisle, Joni Baugh, the apple of my second grade eye, was downright stoic.  Angelic in her sincerity with eyes closed, head bowed piously and mouthing devotions with the conviction of a saint, I was only too aware that girls just seemed to be better equipped to handle this kind of thing.

With mixed emotions of agitation and relief, we were finally allowed to board the school buses for home still believing the president was in the hospital.  We may have even been sent home early.  I don’t remember.

Walking through our back door by way of the garage that day (nobody used their front doors except to greet delivery people and company), my mom was waiting in the kitchen to meet my older brother and me when we arrived home from school.

“Do you know what happened today?” she asked not even bothering to find out how our day was as she usually did.

“Someone shot the president,” I responded matter of factly.  “Is he okay?”

That’s how I learned John F. Kennedy was dead.  My mom told me in our kitchen.

The nuns must have known by the time we left school that JFK was dead but wanted our parents to tell us the news I’m pretty sure.  Probably a good call.

My mom’s delivery of the news was pretty steady.  However traumatized she may have been inside, she probably didn’t want to upset her boys so she kept her emotions in check.

While this news surprised me a little bit because it never occurred to me that the president would actually die, everything in my house still looked the same so I just assumed everything would go on as usual.

I went to change out of my school uniform into my play clothes shrugging off the news of one of the seminal moments in world history.

Thanksgiving was next week and my birthday was coming up in a few days on the 25th, a birthday I shared with my baby brother, Dennis, who would be turning  two and the president’s son, John-John, who would be celebrating his third birthday.  I was going to be eight.

Wonder what kind of presents I would get?

The next morning was when the gravity of the situation hit me personally and really made me sit up and take notice of what was going on.

Where were the cartoons?

Every single television station, all three of them, had continuous coverage of nothing but old people talking and walking around in overcoats.

Whoever heard of a Saturday morning without cartoons?

I wanted Beany and Cecil, Quick Draw McGraw, Bugs Bunny and the rest of my regular Saturday morning pals but all I got was the drone of people talking about the same thing and no amount of protesting and complaining was going to change my weekend reality.

“You watch this. You’ll never see anything like this again as long as you live,” my dad insisted.

It would be many years before I fully appreciated how right he was.

The next day when Oswald was shot, I assumed everyone would be happy.  After all, in the movies, when bad guys were shot, it was a good thing.

Wasn’t this the way it was supposed to be?

This is why I was so surprised to discover my mom talking to someone on the phone, probably her mom, late that Sunday afternoon crying because Oswald had been killed.

“First Kennedy and now Oswald,” she sobbed.  “What’s this world coming to?  What next?”

No comforting answers would be forthcoming.

Now I was really confused though.  My mom never cried when Kennedy was shot but she cried when Oswald died?  Why wasn’t she happy about this?  After all, he was the bad guy, right?

As the weekend drew to a close, my final Kennedy remembrance was that of my dad and family friend Henry Withers watching the news coverage of Oswald’s assassination in our living room.

“Look at him. He’s just waitin’ for it. He knows it’s coming,” Henry insisted, an early devotee of the conspiracy theory that casts Jack Ruby as the hired gun sent to silence Oswald.

Henry and my dad spent the rest of Sunday evening drinking and debating what really happened that fateful weekend.

Within the year, our family would relocate to another city causing me to leave behind friendships that would never fully develop but paving the way for many others that never would have been.

Both events were early, if harsh, lessons that life always goes on.

Tragic events often cause people to make decisions they might not otherwise make so who knows if the Kennedy assassination had anything to do with my parents’ decision to relocate back the city where their own parents still lived.

I just know that fifty years later, people are still debating what happened in Dallas on November 22, 1963.

And even if a lot of them are doing so online instead of sitting in living rooms together, such a shared experience connects us all regardless of our backgrounds.

A few of us are even still around who can still say “I remember the day President Kennedy was shot.”

Now if only we were sure we knew the whole truth.


One Response to “November 22, 1963 Reflections”

  1. Jan Arcari says:

    Thank you for writing this article, Dan. I, too, was at Holy Family that day, and remember how upset the teachers were; it was frightening. I knew John Bodnark, and wondered if we were in the same class? Who knows, as I was very shy then.
    Anyway, thank you for sharing the story.
    Take care,

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