The Day Kennedy Died

The Day Kennedy Died
The eternal flame, burial site of President John F. Kennedy, Arlington National Cemetery

e Day Kennedy Died

It has been fifty years, but I remember it as though it were yesterday. Those of my generation can tell you exactly where we were and what we were doing when John F. Kennedy, the thirty-fifth President of the United States was shot. While we push the tragedy to the back of our minds 364 days of the year, it comes forward on November 22 and we relive those sad, indelible moments when we lost our joy, our innocence, and our belief that nothing like us ever was.

Each evening from December to December
Before you drift to sleep upon your cot,
Think back on all the tales that you remember
Of Camelot.
Ask every person if he’s heard the story,
And tell it loud and clear if he has not.
That once there was a fleeting wisp of glory,
Called Camelot     Richard Burton, "Camelot" Reprise

President John F. Kennedy

President John F. Kennedy

I was teaching Social Studies to eighth graders at Skokie Junior High School in Winnetka in 1963. I remember it was raining when the class walked into the room at 1:45 on Friday afternoon, November 22. They did not run in as they usually did, shouting some quip or enthusiastic greeting. They walked in slowly, reluctantly, and looked at me; hoping I would tell them that what they had heard in the halls was not true—hoping I could take the world back to where it had been when they walked out the door forty minutes earlier. I could not tell them what they wanted to hear. I could not say anything at all. So, I turned up the radio, and we sat together listening to the newscasters report the details of that incredible, horrible event. From the jumble of information that began to come through, one fact was clear: John Fitzgerald Kennedy had been assassinated as he rode in his motorcade through the streets of downtown Dallas.

Presiden't Kennedy's motorcade, Dallas, November 22, 1963

Presiden't Kennedy's motorcade, Dallas, November 22, 1963

He was rushed to the hospital. After some moments, Walter Cronkite, his voice breaking, announced what we already knew—that at 1:00 p.m. Central Standard time, the President had died. Outside, the rain continued to beat against the windows.

President John F.Kennedy, 1917-1963

President John F.Kennedy, 1917-1963

In the days that followed, we all lived with grief. We saw a family, a nation, and a world say good-bye to our thirty-fifth president. We heard the mass for the repose of his soul; we saw him carried in state and laid to rest beneath an eternal flame in Arlington National Cemetery. We saw, we heard, and it was all very final.

Caroline Kennedy, John F. Kennedy, Jr., Ted Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy, Robert Kennedy watch as the hearse passes by

Caroline Kennedy, John F. Kennedy, Jr., Ted Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy, Robert Kennedy watch as the hearse passes by

On Tuesday, we were back in Room 35, each of us a little older, a little sadder. I picked up the test paper I had left ungraded four days before; and the class opened their history books, turning the pages that would take them back two hundred years. But, somehow, each of us knew there was one more thing to be done before I could assign a grade to that paper and they could continue to unravel the long and complicated threads of the Revolutionary War. We put our tasks aside and, pens in hand, searched our hearts for a fitting tribute to the man we believed was all of us, grown a little taller.

All over the world, many tributes were offered in memory of the President—in song, in art, and in poetry. None was more eloquent than those produced by that group of fourteen year old students in Winnetka, Illinois. I will share only one with you. It was written by a young man who, like our President, was charismatic, talented, and blessed with great humor and promise. He would come to class with his guitar slung over his shoulder, and if I were having a bad day, he would whip out that guitar and launch into a chorus of “Puff, the Magic Dragon”. It worked every time. He also used to joke that the students always took the long way round to get to Room 35, because for Mrs. Lucking’s class (my name in those days), you had to walk a little left. Didn’t realize I flaunted my liberalism so openly. This is what he wrote.

President Kennedy
I lie in bed, awake at night, and speak to his spirit bright.
“President Kennedy”
“Call me John.”
“Did you suffer?”
“Briefly.”
“I’m sorry.”
“Thank you for your thought.”
“You know, when I was younger, I really thought Nixon was the better man. I continued to think so even after you had become President. Eventually, I began to like you better. After you died, I learned so much more about you. I suppose you really don’t know how good a thing is until it is taken away. I really am sorry.”
“You needn’t be. I am in no pain. You, in the world, have it worse. It could be a much better place.”
“It is better because you were here.”
“Thank you, I hope so. I made my mistakes.”
“Regardless, you helped so much.”
“Time will tell. I only wish I could have done more.”
“You’ve done more than your share.”
            Jim Davis, Ab Core, Nov. 26, 1963

Jim, and the other members of his class, would be 64 years old now—older than President Kennedy when he died. Hard to believe, they are on the brink of retirement. How did they get on, I wonder?  Once past that unhappy day , did they go on to lead lives of distinction and fulfillment. I rather think they did. I would not recognize any of them if I met them now, but like Mr. Chips, I remember them as they were: young, gifted, confident. And wherever they are, I hope they take a little time today to revisit their 14-year-old selves and think back on that day in Room 35 when we were united in grief and in the determination to somehow right that terrible wrong.

Remembering speechlessly we seek the great forgotten language, the lost lane-end into heaven, a stone, a leaf, an unfound door. Where? When? O lost, and by the wind-grieved ghost, come back again.  Thomas Wolfe

Grieving Lincoln, Bill Maulden, Chicago Sun Times, November 23, 1963

Grieving Lincoln, Bill Maulden, Chicago Sun Times, November 23, 1963

 

 

 

 

 

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