Fifty Years Ago Today
Like almost every American of my generation, I can tell you exactly where I was fifty years ago today.
I was eleven years old and sitting in Mrs. Choate’s sixth grade class at Frayser Elementary School. It was a Friday afternoon, and I was looking forward to a weekend of freedom – riding my bike, chasing my dog Velvet through the woods across the street from my home, and playing basketball at the community center.
It was the 100th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and Mrs. Choate required that each member of the class memorize it. . .all 272 words. The first six were easy. “Four score and seven years ago. . .” After that, it became a real challenge.
One of my classmates, Danny Michael, was standing by Mrs. Choate’s desk, trying to recite it. There was a knock at the classroom door, and the school principal, Mrs. Griffin, walked in. She told Mrs. Choate she needed to talk with her immediately.
They left the classroom and were gone for what seemed like an eternity.
When Mrs. Choate returned she looked ashen.
A half century later, I can hear her words as if it were a tape recording. “Children,” she said, trying to compose herself, “I have some terrible news. Some man got a gun and shot President Kennedy.”
My classmates and I sat there in shocked silence. Finally, someone asked, “Is he dead?” “We don’t know,” replied Mrs. Choate. She then left the room again. My thirty classmates and I just sat there in stunned disbelief.
A few minutes later, Mrs. Choate returned. “Children,” she announced, “the President has died. . .Mrs. Griffin says we should all go home.”
I was convinced that Mrs. Choate was wrong. There was no way President Kennedy had been shot. I knew it was all a terrible hoax, and I assured myself that when I got home, my momma would tell me that everything was fine.
But when I arrived at my house, I noticed my father’s car in the driveway. Dad was never home in the middle of the afternoon.
When I walked into the house, my mother was sitting on the couch in our living room crying. Dad was standing beside her. “Isn’t it awful?” he said.
And it was at that moment that I realized it wasn’t a hoax or a misunderstanding. President Kennedy was dead.
I can’t tell you that President Kennedy was one of my heroes. My heroes were baseball players – Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Bob Gibson, Tim McCarver.
President Kennedy was more of a father figure to me. In fact, he reminded me of my dad. They were both Navy men, veterans of World War II. They both wore dark gray suits. They both projected strength and confidence. I felt safe at home with my father, and as I had watched “JFK” on TV during the Cuban Missile Crisis the previous year, I felt safe with him as well.
And that’s what made the news so devastating.
To me, the President wasn’t a politician. He was a father figure.
Over the next four days, my mother and father and I sat in front of our black and white TV set and watched the developing news.
We saw Air Force One land in Washington. We saw Mrs. Kennedy and the President’s brother, Robert, accompany the President’s casket as it was taken off the plane.
We saw the President’s casket in the Capitol rotunda. I remember when Mrs. Kennedy and Caroline kissed the flag covering it.
We watched the funeral and saw “John John” salute his father.
It was truly a death in the family, and we grieved.
There are two days of my life that I will never get over – November 22, 1963, and September 11, 2001. On both days, I lost something, and it’s hard to define precisely what. Innocence. Security. Confidence. Peace.
We have learned a lot about President Kennedy over the past fifty years. He was no saint, and his administration wasn’t the idealistic “Camelot” of revisionist history.
But fifty years ago, we were a nation that strived to do great things. We were going to send a man to the moon and explore the New Frontier. Idealistic American young people were joining the Peace Corps.
America was a nation of confident, ambitious people who were, in the President’s words, willing to pay any price and bear any burden for the cause of freedom.
And now, our politicians in Washington fight and squabble and shut down the federal government. We are a dispirited nation that no longer believes we are capable of doing great things.
We lost so much that Friday afternoon fifty years ago.
I hope that somehow, someday, we will reclaim the spirit we lost that fateful day.