It is a little late to be writing about Kennedy’s assassination, but it has taken me a while to “process” (as people like to say nowadays) the 50th anniversary of that day. My first reaction was to be completely horrified that it has been 50 years since I was in the 4th grade! How is that even possible? But now that little more time has passed, I thought I would write down my own memories of that day, since I suspect they are somewhat different from those of others.
I was sitting in my 4th grade classroom at Savage Elementary School in Savage, Maryland, listening to Mrs. Smothers, my beloved teacher, read another installment from our latest Hardy Boys mystery. I was completely enthralled, so it was a little hard for me to come back into the real world when the school secretary, Mrs. Patterson, came tearing into our room with tears streaming down her face. “President Kennedy has been shot!” she gasped to Mrs. Smothers. I don’t remember much else, except that we got let out of school a little early, and I came home to find my mother sitting glued to the black-and-white television set in our living room. I know that my father arrived soon after that, and my sisters came home from their respective schools, but I don’t remember much in the way of detail except the distinctive face and voice of Walter Cronkite as he announced that President Kennedy was dead. I know that my mother and my oldest sister both started crying.
I was completely fascinated by the pictures in the paper for the next couple of days–the black-bordered portrait of Kennedy, the side-by-side images of Jackie Kennedy in her beautiful pink suit with the pillbox hat, smiling and carrying red roses as they arrived in Dallas, and Jackie in that same suit, now blood-stained, her hair disheveled, her roses left on the floor of the limousine, standing by as President Johnson was sworn in on Airforce One.
We lived outside of Washington, D.C., only about thirty or forty minutes from downtown. The next thing I remember is standing in freezing cold temperatures in the dark on Capitol Hill, waiting with thousands of other people in a line that wound up several and down others, all the way to the Capitol, waiting to file past Kennedy’s coffin lying in state in the Rotunda. I would like to say that I was deeply aware of the meaning of that night, but the main thing I remember is feeling very cold and very hungry and longing to be home in bed. The highlight of that night for me was the fried egg sandwich my father bought for me from a little corner drugstore that had stayed open to sell food to the people in line. That sandwich was the best thing I have ever tasted in my life. I felt guilty for years after that about the fact that my family didn’t actually get inside the Capitol to see Kennedy’s coffin because we ended up leaving the line for me: I had two bad leg aches, and I guess I complained enough that my parents decided to give up and take me home to bed. I would like to think that they just wanted me to get some sleep so that I would wake up early the next morning for the actual funeral.
We drove into D.C. very early and found a good place to stand and watch the procession go by. I know that we had a perfect, close-up view when Jackie Kennedy came walking by in her black outfit and long black veil, flanked by Robert and Teddy–and followed by tons of other famous people. I mainly remember Charles De Gaulle and Emperor Haile Selassie–De Gaulle because he was so tall and because I recognized his distinctive nose and hat, and Selassie because he wore a beautiful uniform with fancy medals. His beard just added to his mystique.
Mostly I remember the horseless rider, with the boots turned backward.
That horse, the muffled drums, Jackie’s face under her veil, and John-John’s salute (which I only saw in the newspaper the next day) made Kennedy’s death hit home for me in a way that nothing from the national news ever had before. I know I will never forget any of it.