On Friday, November 22nd, 1963, disbelief coursed through my body, as did shock, confusion, and a deep well of sorrow. I was a kid who, until this moment, knew nothing scarier than Abbott and Costello meets Frankenstein or the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz, whose freakishly-painted flesh made my own skin crawl.
I was of a generation raised by parents whose wartime experiences were still fresh, and who now craved better lives for their children. Entering an era of peace and prosperity, we were raised on Madison Avenue icons like Tony the Tiger and Elsie the Cow. Salisbury Steak TV Dinners were our go-to meal and Saturday matinees included a cartoon and a double feature. Jerry Lewis and Doris Day films were the best and all day long, AM radio played songs like, “Shake, Rattle and Roll” and “How Much is That Doggie in the Window?” We spent our days in school, carrying our metal lunch boxes and sharing silly secrets with friends. We’d swing from the monkey bars at recess, and, after school, beg our mothers for a dime so we could buy Hershey bars at the candy store.
This was our reality. This was the life we knew. This was real.
But someone killing the President WAS NOT REAL.
The assassination of JFK was the shock felt around the world. I’ve written before about the kinship my Latino family felt for the Kennedy family and our first Catholic president, and how, like most everyone else in the country, we were devastated by his death. It was hard not to be. Frankly, I had never heard of Dallas but suddenly, I hated the place.
On that fateful afternoon, 50 years ago, I was sitting in my third-grade class at P.S. 154 in Queens when the news came. Mrs. Warmbrand, who looked a lot like one of those serene moms you see on TV shows like Ozzie and Harriet or The Donna Reed Show, was teaching us about decimals. I was doing my best to concentrate, though my mind kept drifting, anticipating the start of the weekend, which was just hours away. I eyed the clock. Less than two hours to go.
My friends, Elizabeth and Sonia, were sitting at their desks on either side of me. Elizabeth had brown hair and pale skin with a spray of freckles on her nose. I don’t know why, but to me she reminded me of Elsie the Cow in the Borden’s milk commercials. I once told her that, but she thought I was kidding. I wasn’t. I thought Sonia, who was Puerto Rican, was beautiful with her olive skin and large hazel eyes, a far cry from my own, beady little eyes.
There was a knock at the classroom door, but before Mrs. Warmbrand could get up from her seat to see who was there, the door swung open and Miss Low, the school principal strode in with a sense of urgency about her. She was tall and always wore a navy blue pencil skirt, white blouse, and her graying hair wound tightly into a bun.
Mrs. Warmbrand and Miss Low spoke in hushed tones. My classmates and I just stared blankly, straining to hear what was being said, but not being able to decipher a word, though from their expressions, we knew it wasn’t good. I felt Elizabeth take my hand and nervously squeeze it. Something was definitely amiss.
When Miss Low left, Mrs. Warmbrand, whose face had gone ashen, said in a faltering voice, “Class, I have terrible news. President Kennedy has been shot while in Dallas. He’s in the hospital and that’s all we know right now. Now, let’s get on with our work.”
President Kennedy? I couldn’t believe what Mrs. Warmbrand was saying, yet I knew it must be true, for Miss Low would never play such a practical joke on us. Not even if it was April Fool’s Day. But, why would anyone shoot the president? And, what about Caroline and John-John? Were they okay?
As we returned to the lesson, Mrs. Warmbrand asked us to take out our Composition notebooks. While we did, she handed out a mimeograph sheet with a series of decimal problems on it.
“Now, class, I want you to answer the first five questions here and we’ll see if we have time for—“
Just then, another teacher rushed in, without bothering to knock this time. Her face was stained with tears, as she spoke to Mrs. Warmbrand, who then turned to us and announced that the President was dead.
The President of the United States of America. Dead. Not the kind of thing you ever expect to hear as a kid. Never.
Mrs. Warmbrand instructed us to gather our things and go home. School was to let out early, and the buses would be outside waiting to take us home.
In stunned silence we walked out to the curb with tears stinging our eyes. After that, it was all a blur. My mother was home with my baby sister. The TV console was already on. For the first time, television was providing non-stop news coverage and we were eating up every morsel of information it relayed. I sat next to my mother, who put her arm around me. Pretty soon, my brothers, who had also been dismissed from school, and my father, who was enrolled in a college in the city, also returned home. I was glad we were together.
We spent that day and the rest of the weekend, watching, crying and not believing. We were reeling from the blow and feeling the collective anguish of the nation. My father, who would normally be scolding or beating any one of us kids, refrained. It was as if the shock was too much for us all and a truce had been declared in our household.
Until that day, I’d never seen so much agony. The whole world shut down and parked itself in front of the console and, like us, watched and watched, craving every bit of information, clamoring to see a glimpse of the First Lady, to know how she was faring, and praying for the children, Caroline and John-John. We wondered whether they’d ever be the same again and whether we’d be, for that matter.
Even Walter Cronkite couldn’t hold it together. And, when I saw Jack Ruby shoot and kill Lee Harvey Oswald in front of the country, on national television, I naively cheered, thinking him a hero, and not realizing what effect it would have on the investigation.
This happened so many years ago, but as the 50th anniversary of the assassination is upon us this week, I am reliving it all over again. Many say, that’s how you know a Baby Boomer. If they can remember where they were when shots were fired in Dallas. I suppose, if there’s ever a good side to events like these, it’s the power to bring a people together.
Young and old, we mourned. We were one in our bereavement and in our loss of a place in time that we once called, Camelot.
Recently, as programming about that day has been airing on TV, I decided to ask my son his thoughts on the JFK assassination. He responded that to him, it’s just another date in our history and that other than that, it means nothing to him. Wow. It’s hard for me to understand that view, but I suppose someday, someone may be saying the same about September 11th. Who knows.
So, what are your thoughts? And, if you were around then, where were you when you got the news?