It was one of those days when you’ll never forget where you were when you first learned the news.
I was a little shaver, although to look at me now you’d never think I was either little or shaved. It was a Friday, and all of us at school were looking forward to the weekend. Thanksgiving was only a week away, and that meant we’d have four whole days off from school. It would be the first holiday in 2½ months, so we were anxious.
No matter if you’re in grade school, high school or college, any chance for time off is greeted with glee by students of all ages.
Recess came about the middle of the afternoon, or at least what amounted to midafternoon in a school schedule. Almost everyone was outside, although I and a few others still were in Mrs. Woolridge’s classroom for some reason. I’m not certain if it really was a cloudy, gray afternoon – a front had moved through that morning – or if in light of the day’s events, I just recall it that way.
We could see through the open door of the classroom, and some of the teachers were acting strangely as they moved through the halls, herding youngsters back to their classrooms without saying much. Helping herd us back to class wasn’t that unusual for the teachers, but recess wasn’t over, and for some reason the teachers looked grim and gray themselves.
As the students from Mrs. Woolridge’s room filtered in, somebody said, “Kennedy’s been shot.”
I glanced around the classroom quickly, wondering why in the world anyone would want to shoot Kenneth Kennedy, a tall-for his-age, lanky classmate. Then Kenneth walked into the room, and it dawned on my young brain that another Kennedy had been shot.
Slowly, deliberately and gently as she could, Mrs. Woolridge explained to us that the President of the United States, who that very morning had arrived in our own state of Texas, had been shot in Dallas. At that point, she didn’t know many details other than that the president had been taken to a hospital along with Gov. Connally, who also had been shot.
We got to go home a lot sooner tan expected that day, but the gleeful anticipation had turned to quiet confusion. None of us were sure what assassination meant, although we’d learn the meaning of the word during those four days in November. Some are still trying to determine what it meant to the country.
At our house, the television was on, and one of the anchors, I think it was Frank McGee, was announcing the details of the day’s tragedy in living black and white. Someone had fired at the president’s motorcade as it passed through Dealey Plaza, apparently from the Texas School Book Depository. Both President Kennedy and Gov. Connally had been hit. The governor was wounded, the president dead.
We spent that weekend in front of the television set, taking in every piece of information as it filtered through to the public. There was nothing else to do. Most people where we lived stayed home or went to friends’ homes because almost everything was closed down. It was like Christmas Day, when everything is closed, only without any joy.
Throughout the weekend, we read and listened and watched as the story grew. Lee Harvey Oswald, a Marine who had defected to Russia then returned to America, had been arrested for shooting the president and a Dallas police officer. Television reporters kept updating everyone with what they learned about Oswald between retrospectives about JFK, features about Lyndon Johnson as he became president, comments from world leaders who paid their respects to a wounded nation and the long visitation at the Capital Rotunda, where the president laid I state until his funeral three days after the shooting.
That may have been the first time I thought about becoming a reporter. They seemed to know everything that November weekend when most people seemed to know so little,
On Sunday afternoon, I was lying in front of the television, watching history unfold on a flickering gray screen as Owald was being taken through the police garage in Dallas. All of a sudden, somebody pushed through the crowd, and Oswald went down on the floor as bedlam erupted. I hollered for Mom to come out of the kitchen, something was happening. I’d just watched the alleged assassin murdered on live, national TV.
Tragedy compounded tragedy that day as Jack Ruby forever clouded history, leaving the nation with a small, nagging doubt about what happened Nov. 22, 1963.
School didn’t open Monday. It stayed closed all week, giving us a few extra days off. I stayed close to the television during that week, fascinated by all the pomp and circumstance of the occasion: the flag-draped casket atop the Army caisson, the riderless black horse with boots placed backwards in the stirrups, the slow, deliberate march to Arlington National Cemetery.
We had Thanksgiving dinner that week, although even for us it was a fairly quiet, solemn occasion, unlike previous or subsequent Thanksgivings. Of course, it was unlike any other Thanksgiving we’d ever gone through because o the events of that autumn.
Hopefully, we’ll never have to go through such days again.