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Friday, November 22, 2013

Remembering the Kennedy Assassination

This article was originally published 11/22/2013, the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination. It has now been 53 years.

Do you remember where you were? Were you even alive or old enough to realize what was going on? I was alive, am old enough and I vividly remember the moment I heard the news. It was the first of those "where were you" events in my life. There were other events and days before this that are permanently etched into my brain but they are more personal. There were also events like the Cuban Missile Crisis that didn't have a specific day or time although those of us living in Florida were very concerned just the year before this fateful day. This particular event was shared with the whole country, no, the whole world. What am I talking about? It was the day President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. It was November 22, 1963. It was a Friday the week before Thanksgiving which was very late that year. Ironically on this 50th anniversary of the assassination, the calendar lines up exactly the same. November 22 is again a Friday and Thanksgiving is late on the 28th.
JFK in Fort Worth 11/22/63
There have been thousands of essays, reports, studies, theories, documentaries, books, TV shows and movies about the assassination. Especially in the last couple of weeks and especially here in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area. Everybody has an opinion about the who, how and why of the event. This post is neither a recount of the actual events or my theory on those events. This is about one teenager's remembrance of that day. While I distinctly remember first hearing the news, some of the details after that moment are fuzzy. Part of that is because it happened 50 years ago and part is because I think we were all in at least partial shock at the time. Even 1963's self-centered teenagers were shaken from their insulated world.

I was in my 11th grade English class which was probably my second period after lunch. Kennedy was shot at 1:30 PM EST (12:30 CST in Dallas) and pronounced dead at 2:00 PM EST. The official announcement was at 2:30 PM EST. This was in the days way before the internet, cell phones and Twitter so we would have gotten the news at least several minutes after the events occurred. Since it wasn't World Series time, none of us had sneaked a radio into class.

I attended a Catholic high school. Although it was technically a co-ed school, we did not have co-ed classes and in fact had separate girl and boy buildings which were across the street from each other. There was minimal sanctioned cross pollination between the genders. The girls had to come to our building for lunch or to use the library. We had to cross the street to the girls side to take typing class or maybe go to a yearbook or prom meeting. Lunch was still segregated as was the typing class.
The Alma Mater

My English class was taught by Sister Violetta. It was one of the few classes I had in my four years of high school that was taught by a nun. The boys mostly had priests and lay male teachers, the nuns mostly taught the girls. Sister Violetta was probably the youngest nun at the school. As I remember she was a good teacher. She tried to be serious and very professional but some of our male teenage antics made her smile. The classroom was the homeroom for Coach Parete. In fact, we had Coach Parete as our American History teacher in that room either right before or right after English. We even got a break on a couple of assignments. Coach P. would grade a paper on the history content and Sr. Violetta would grade it on grammar and spelling for English. One paper, two grades, sweet. I digress.

That particular classroom's front door was the first one you would run into when coming from the administration wing to the classroom wing. So on that tragic day, we were probably the first class, at least in the boy's building to get the news. We were going along normally in class when Sister Thomas Joseph (Sr. TJ),  our principal, came to the door and knocked. There were small windows in the doors, so we saw who it was. Sr. Violetta went to the door and had a short hushed conversation with Sr. TJ. When she came back into the room she was crying. I sat near the front and had caught a glimpse of Sr. TJ. She was or at least had been crying too. Sr. Violetta went to her desk, sat down and told us the sad news. We were all shocked. She said class was over and to just stay in our seats. The advice was to put our heads on our desks. I'm sure we were told to pray too. How is a 16 year old suppose to process that kind of devastating news? We didn't have an army of school counselors available, in fact, we didn't have any counselors.

I honestly don't remember what happened at the end of that period. Did we change classes, did we stay where we were, did we go to our homeroom? The funeral was the following Monday, November 25th. I remember watching on TV, CBS in our house. Walter Cronkite was anchoring and it was in black and white, at least on our TV. I also don't remember whether we went back to school on Tuesday and Wednesday of that week before the normal Thanksgiving holiday. I do know it was a sad Thanksgiving. It was also probably my Mom's saddest birthday on November 25th, the day of the funeral. Like 9/11 almost four decades later, everything stopped for a few days and then the country got on with life.
JFK Funeral Procession
This was a devastating event in our history. It was a particularly devastating event for an Irish Catholic teenager. Kennedy was the first Catholic president in our history. I'm mostly Irish. I was in the 12th year of my 13 years in Catholic schools (K-12). I was an altar boy. I was in a class taught by a nun when the news broke. Kennedy was adored by the nuns. JFK was the youngest elected president, 43 years old. Younger than my parents. Every other politician I knew of was an old fart.

Like the nuns, my Mom was devastated. John Kennedy may have been the first national Democrat she ever voted for. My parents were only five years older than JFK who besides being the first Catholic was also the first president born in the 20th century.

We eventually recovered from this tragedy. School continued, we went back to our self-absorbed teenage lives. We immersed ourselves in our romances, the Beach Boy, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Kingston Trio, finding booze, going to the beach, talking dad into using the car, and a myriad of other very important activities. Despite our return to almost normal, we were never the same. Camelot was gone. In the years to come almost everything got turned around. The Vietnam war and the draft hung over us. Bobby and Martin were assassinated. Nixon came and went. We lost our unquestioning faith in the government. The post WWII victory blush and boom were gone.

I think those quantum changes started that November day in 1963.

I know that day changed Dallas. The establishment got a little more tolerant. Even to this day, there is some guilt and embarrassment. For the first time ever, Dallas is recognizing the anniversary of the event. There are finally ceremonies at Dealey Plaza for the first time in 50 years. I find it somewhat ironic that I now live in the area where JFK spent the last two days of his life. I've been to all the places the Kennedy's went back then. I've been to Dealey Plaza and the Sixth Floor Museum.
Dealey Plaza 

I also find it ironic that this area (D/FW) is so anti-Obama. In some ways, the old white conservative anti-Catholic (maybe anti-black) guard are reemerging. It died down a little for a few years. I guess 50 years is too long ago to remember or to learn from. They once hated a Catholic president, now they hate a Black president. Funny, in 1963 Ft. Worth was much more blue collar and Democratic. Kennedy had a good reception there. Now it's mostly a very red area.

We are all a conglomeration of our genes, upbringing, environment, education, friends and extraordinary events we witness or live through. This was one of those extraordinary events that shaped my life and my views. I am a child (a very old child) of the 60"s. It's too bad we had to kill our best and brightest before we emerged from that decade.

Where were you that day?

wjh

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