Saturday, November 23, 2013

50 Years On...

On November 22, 1963, at a little after 1:00 PM, I was sitting in my 9th grade civics class, in junior high in the small college town in Minnesota where I grew up, when the PA system came sputtering on and the principal cleared his throat and announced that there was a report on the radio that President Kennedy had been shot in Texas. I was 14 years old.

The principal didn’t say anything about Dallas in that first announcement, and at 14, I pictured Texas as a vast, wild, plain, interspersed with occasional men in cowboy hats riding around on horseback. The father of one of my classmates had been shot in a hunting accident, so I thought perhaps the President had gone hunting there and been injured in a hunting accident. I assumed being shot meant he was wounded, not dead. The word “assassination” never crossed my mind, because that was a word that had only historical or foreign meaning for my classmates and me. Lincoln was assassinated, and in recent memory, Patrice Lumumba had been assassinated, but that was in Africa. Modern American presidents were not assassinated; people didn’t shoot each other in 1960’s America.

In those first couple of minutes, upon hearing that the President had been shot, our social studies teacher, a woman in her 50’s, became hysterical. Immediately after the first announcement everyone had begun talking. Of course this wasn’t allowed, and it contributed to her agitation. I remember her face got very red, and she began to clap her hands in a futile attempt to get our attention, and her voice got very shrill, and she began to shriek, “HEARSAY! This is nothing but HEARSAY! Listen to me; I’m telling you this is only HEARSAY!” She shrieked that over and over and over, but no one was listening. Always a skeptic, and analytical even at 14, I remember thinking the principal wouldn’t have turned on the PA and announced that the President had been shot if he wasn't pretty sure the report was accurate. I sat at my desk and looked at her and I also looked around the classroom. Some of my classmates were laughing nervously, but most just looked shocked. Within 5 minutes, the PA came on again, and the principal cleared his throat again and announced that the President was dead. Our teacher then gave up any attempt at trying to maintain order, and just sat down at her desk and burst into tears. Most of the girls and many of the boys in my class also began to weep. I felt very nervous, but I didn’t cry, because I didn’t want to cry at school.

We were dismissed early. We didn’t own a car, and even if we had owned one, Mom and Dad were both at work, so I walked home as usual. Normally I walked fast, but that day I walked slowly, because I knew that when I got there, I’d be alone. I remember I wished there would be someone at home that I could talk to about this. I was just beginning to realize there were families where, if you were a kid, your parents would talk to you about stuff like this, but that wasn’t my family.

I remember what I was wearing. It was an outfit that I'd sewn for myself in August: a long sleeved, cotton blouse, in a small, dark green paisley print, with a lime green, narrow wale corduroy straight skirt. I wanted to cut a swatch out of the blouse and the skirt,  and put them in an envelope to keep, but I thought Mom might not like it if I did, so I didn't do it, but I wish I had. We had a television set, so when I got home, I watched the TV coverage until Mom got home.

I wanted to go to Washington to see the President’s body lying in state. There was a special fare on the train; I think it was $25.00 round trip, Minnesota to DC. I asked Mom if we could go, but she said no. At 64, I understand all the reasons why she had to say no, but at 14 I didn’t.

On Sunday morning, I was watching TV when Lee Harvey Oswald got shot. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, that I had just watched someone get shot. It was as if everyone was going insane. And in a way, that was accurate, because America changed, in so many ways not for the better, on November 22, 1963.

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