Friday, November 29, 2013

November 22

"Where were you on that day?"

This newspaper was among my late husband's papers when he died

It's a question that was asked throughout the media, this being the 50th anniversary year of President Kennedy's assassination.  This topic was far from my mind until November 22nd approached this year. As I began to see the biopics and editorials and essays on this topic, they brought back a flood of memories that I'd filed away, never thinking I'd ever resurrect them.

Where was I??  I was 15 years old and living the naïve and sheltered life that all 15 year olds lived at that time.  We were insulated from the cruel adult truths that surely existed back then but were hidden under the sugar-coating of innocent sit-coms and throttled back by the news coverage that was limited to newspapers, radio and brief nightly news segments.  If there was violence, it was relegated to anonymity by lack of instant, global news access.  And by our parents who tirelessly shielded us from the adult world for as long as they could.  Scarred from the Great Depression and a World War, they wanted our lives to be better, more perfect.

I remember well the Sunday morning we were coming home from church and were rear-ended at a red light by an elderly man.  It was the most exciting brush with adult truths that had ever happened to me up to that point.  Turns out the elderly gentleman was even more titillating fact, one that I chalked up to an improbable chance happenstance.  And my insular life went on.

Beyond that one tiny glimpse into what the adult world might possibly look like, our lives were lived in a bubble of Eisenhower-era simplicity, of post-World War II conservatism.  Sure...we had bomb drills and earthquake drills at school and toured bomb shelter mock-ups at home shows, shelters that were euphemistically referred to as "storm shelters."   But that was all so remote to our lives, some sort of superstitious ritual, like throwing salt over our left shoulders, practiced to keep away the evil demons of somewhere else, somewhere beyond our own safe world. 

It was a time when the Milky Way was clearly visible, when prime-time television included such idyllic family life programs as The Ed Sullivan Show, Lawrence Welk, Father Knows Best, I Love Lucy.    Women wore gloves and hats and men wore suits and ties at restaurants and when traveling.  Cars and houses were left unlocked and parents didn't keep their children on a 'short leash.'  "Just be home by dark," they'd say.

As children, we vaguely knew about the cold war, and I can conjure seeing flickering black-and-white images of Khrushchev and Castro if I try really hard.   But to us Eisenhower-era children, they lived a world away.  It had no effect on life as we knew it in our insulated childhood.  Even though we were living in Florida at the time, I only vaguely recall limited detail about the Cuban Missile Crisis.  I remember my dad being gone for a couple of days, participating in some "military show."  I now know the nature of that "show"...much different than what my innocent pre-teen mind imagined. 

When John Kennedy was elected president I was old enough to notice.  To notice how youthful and handsome he was compared to the previous presidents who seemed to me to be ancient old men.  The fact that he had children much younger than me or my sisters, made him seem even more youthful to me.  I remember how much I admired his wife Jacqueline, admired her fashion sense and how beautiful she was.  My own burgeoning interest in fashion was fueled even further as I pored over photos of Jackie in issues of Life and Look and Newsweek and Time magazines.  I might have been a young pre-teen, but not so young that I didn't notice how much the country as a whole admired and respected Kennedy as our President.  

We lived in one of the most repressively segregated areas of the South, but I was born and had lived in California for most of my life prior to moving to this area, and segregation was entirely foreign to me.  Shortly after we arrived, my mom took us to Gayfers department store to buy some summer clothes.  We were ill-prepared for the heat and humidity of the Florida panhandle.  Even though I was 11 years old at the time, I remember as if it happened yesterday.  As we headed for the escalator, I was distracted by a bank of two drinking fountains.  They were labeled "white" and "colored."  Well I just had to try that colored water.  Imagine my disappointment when it came out clear and colorless.  

I didn't understand this at first.  It took me several months, but I did eventually figure it out.  The "No Colored" signs in the doorways of some stores and restaurants, the separate waiting areas for "colored" at bus stations, the separate schools and churches for "colored students" eventually sunk in.

So in my youthful naiveté I was unable to grasp the historic importance of Kennedy's push to enforce the Civil Rights Act in the South.  I was neither for or against it simply because I didn't understand it in the first place. Didn't understand why colored people had their own churches and schools, their own drinking fountains.  Why they weren't allowed into a restaurant or store.  I remember the news coverage of the stand-off with Governor Wallace on the campus of University of Alabama.    But even Alabama, just a few miles north of where we were living, seemed far, far away to my pre-teenaged mind. 


On November 22, 1963 I was 15 years old.  I was engrossed in all things relating to young teenaged girls:  That new group, The Beatles.  Getting my learner's permit.  Bass Weejun loafers.  Make-up.  A blossoming sense of style and fashion. 

It was homecoming week at high school.  The pep rallies, the booster ribbons, the posters all over the school campus announcing the game and homecoming dance afterward.  I had my homecoming outfit, a gold-colored wool skirt suit, very Jackie-esque, and brown mock turtleneck sweater to wear underneath.  Brown gloves. 

The homecoming parade was that day.  We were all let out of school at
12:00 noon and the parade was staging in the high school parking lot, getting ready for a 12:30 PM kick-off.  I don't know why I wasn't in the parade this year, since in past years I was always on one of the floats, dressed in my cat outfit - black leotard, black tights, cat ears - representing our school mascot, the black panther.  But for whatever reason, I was a spectator this particular year.

My mom dropped my little sister off at the high school so that she could join her twirling group and then mom and I drove less than a mile away and parked our car in a bank parking lot on the parade route.  We got out of the car and waited for the parade to come by.

I remember what happened next as clearly as if it just happened yesterday.

The front of the parade passed by and then as a float passed by, we could hear kids and adults on the float hollering to the spectators.  At first we couldn't make out what they were saying.  Then it struck, sharp as a knife:  "The President has been shot!"

We were stunned.  Surely they're mistaken.  But adults associated with the parade, those driving the vehicles that were towing the floats confirmed it.  They had heard the news on their radios. 

Soon the news rippled across the town and throughout the parade route.  Those marching in the parade drifted to the curb; parade vehicles sped toward the finish point in the center of town.  My mom and I jumped in the car and headed toward the finish to find my little sister. 

It was bedlam.  It's a small town and to have the entire parade converge into the courthouse square all at once created a huge traffic jam. 

Would there still be a game that night?   Would the homecoming dance go on as planned?  Well this is deep into high school football territory so the game was definitely still on.  It was determined that the dance would still go on as well.  Even among us high school students the mood was somber.

The World was stunned.  Certainly here in the U.S., nothing had ever happened like this in our lifetimes.  Violence - or violence that we knew about - was unknown to us.  It seemed improbable that this could ever have been a random act, performed by a single person.  This didn't happen in America.  Assassinations of other public figures had never happened in our life time.  Assassinations of other public figures would be several years in the future.  Random shootings from bell towers and at schools and theaters were decades in the future.

Because of this, and because of the temperature of World politics at the time, America feared it was the start of a larger attack.  Even in my youth I could sense the tension.  I didn't have the perspective back then, but I can now see that we were relatively fresh off the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Relations with the Soviet Union were not good.   Escalating activities in Vietnam were beginning to divide the country.   Here at home, inter-racial relations were simmering.  There were a number of possible world and domestic enemies that could claim responsibility for this.  This truly set the mood of the country as we watched the aftermath of this assassination unfold.


We were all glued to the television for the next few days as coverage continued non-stop.  And we all held our breaths and waited for the other shoe to drop.  Would there be more attacks to follow?

For the first time ever, the television brought extensive news coverage, live and direct, right into Americans' living rooms.  This had never happened before.  Ever.  We saw live reporting on the scene.  We saw taped coverage of activities that had happened earlier that day.  We saw footage of the shooting and, later, we saw footage of Oswald's death.   We saw the funeral procession live as it happened.  It set a precedent for news coverage and was, in fact, the birth of news coverage as we know it today.

It was Reality TV before there was such a thing.  Up until that day, there were no dedicated news networks.  Only the regional and national news that aired at dinner time and then again before TV stations signed off for the night, usually at midnight or earlier, the screen reverting to a waving American flag and then to a test pattern and then to "snow."

As a 15 year old witnessing all of this, I felt that my world had suddenly changed.  It jarred my sense of security and safety.  At the time, I remember hoping that it was a once-in-a-million-years event.  That surely nothing as heinous would happen again in my lifetime.   Time would soon show me that I was indeed very naïve at the age of 15.


  1. I was 5 and remember very little, except the somber mood of the household. Our family purchased the pictorial book, "...The Torched Has Passed...". I remember looking through all those famous photos for years and eventually, the horror of the act sunk in. Being from Massachusetts, JFK was a local treasure. Soon, it seemed his initials were engraved on every thing. Athletic fields, schools, roads, etc... When RFK was killed, it was another blow to the optimism the Kennedy's represented. We all expected that Ted, the youngest brother, would be next. Fortunately, that didn't happen. I must say I misunderstood Ted until reading his autobiography "True Compass". The much maligned liberal persona has a much deeper spirit than I appreciated. One of the most poignant moments was his description of how he mourned his brothers. Being brought up not to cry and held a stiff upper lip but couldn't take it forever. He set sail, in his family sailboat, alone and at night and somewhere between P'town and the coast of Maine, he let the emotion out. People criticized him for his drinking, especially while in the Senate, but to understand the weight he carried on his shoulders is an explanation, not an excuse, but it's an explanation. When he died, the streets were lined with people to say good-bye. The last of the Kennedy's died naturally, but with him, their legacy was gone. Someday, somewhere, another person or family will carry the torch, but for us, there was only one Camelot and it's time has come and gone, except for the memories and life lessons we absorbed as kids and exhibit today.

  2. I can't imagine the panic and chaos of that day. My mom has never talked about it but she would have been 14.