Saturday, November 22, 2014

Dallas - The Day the Music Died

I was only 9 in November of 1963, and I saw the world in shades of black and white. Just like this photograph of President and Mrs. Kennedy. This still gives many of my early childhood memories a distant, sepia like feel, almost as if I were watching them, rather than being an actual participant. But that was all about to end on this Friday afternoon in late November.

I was in third grade, and a big supporter of President Kennedy. I participated in the President's Science Program, and even the Physical Fitness Program, at Public School 255 in Brooklyn, where I lived. I also had a picture of the President that had been sent to me by the White House. The space program alone was enough to capture the minds, and hearts, of every kid in the nation. It seemed that there was nothing beyond our reach. And then came Dallas.

My 3rd grade perception of Dallas was all tied up in the fact that it was in Texas. The Texas that I imagined was made up of dirt Main Streets, with raised wooden sidewalks, where everyone wore a gun on their hips. My perception of the world was about to grow larger.

My class had been visiting the Museum of the City of New York in Manhattan. We left the museum shortly before 2PM that afternoon to head back to Brooklyn. Whatever we had seen in the Museum that day is a complete blank to me now.

Stepping onto the bus I noticed that the bus driver was listening intently to his transistor radio. You could feel the tension in his body as he strained to hear the radio over the sound of 35 yelling 9 year old boys and girls. At some point I recall the teacher conferring with the bus driver and then turning to the class, all of whom were by this time seated and quiet. She spoke with an earnest quality, one that I had never before seen in my dealings with adults, as she said, "Class, the President has been shot in Dallas, Texas. We don't know yet whether he is going to live." The rest of the ride back to Brooklyn was uneventful, as 9 year olds we were not fully cognizant of the more serious implications involved in the assassination, beyond the fact that it was of historical importance.

About 10 minutes into the trip the driver spoke with the teacher, who informed us that President Kennedy was indeed dead. We were also informed that a "lone nut" had done it.

Arriving back at school I remember being released to go home. It was right about 3 o'clock when we got there, so everyone was getting out of the building when we arrived. We would not return to school until after the following Monday, November 25th, when the President was buried.

I remember walking home from school that day and thinking that I was living through history. This was like Lincoln! This was something I would someday be telling my kids about. And I have...

Since this was a Friday, Uncle "I" would be coming over, as was his usual custom. We spent the the night in front of the TV, first watching the arrival of Air Force One at Bethesda Air Force base, outside of Washington, with Jackie Kennedy still in her blood smeared clothes stepping off the rear of the plane with Robert Kennedy, the President's brother.

The funeral would occupy the next four days, as tens of thousands of Americans poured into Washington to pass the President's casket as it lay in State in the Capitol beneath the Rotunda. Millions more watched on TV. I remember getting up several times during the night and turning the TV on, only to be confronted by the same image on each station. The casket laying on the bier, surrounded by one member of each of the Armed Forces posted at the corners of the casket, with rifles. I'm writing this now with no photo in front of me. Even at the distance of 47 years the memory of it is still crystal clear.

My family would not see John Kennedy's grave until about 6 weeks after the assassination. There were still crowds and a line to see the grave, which was nothing like it is today. This photo shows the grave at the time of our visit in January 1964. The President's son, Patrick, who had been stillborn that August, is interred to the right in the photo. The gravesite today is a concrete monument, which leaves you feeling disconnected, both from the man, and the events of his life and death. When I was there, the earth was still freshly turned, and the only thing separating the people from their fallen leader was a white picket fence.

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