Friday marks the 50th anniversary of the murder of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. There have been and will be many excellent narratives and accounts of the events that day in Dallas, Texas, and their meaning for us in the here and now.
This is not one of them. I am not apologizing for that.
I was a Child of Eisenhower born just a few months before the General was elected to be the President and, in truth, spent much of my earliest years as blithely unknowing and indifferent to his existence as he was to mine. I was in third grade and have memories of grown-ups talking about Nixon and Kennedy without any comprehension what the talk was about except that Kennedy was a Catholic.
So was I.
I and my younger sister were in Saint Peter's (sic) School in New Brunswick, New Jersey-it was after lunch (most of us brown-bagged it; I had an American cheese sandwich on white bread and bought a small carton of milk for a dime) and we were back in our classrooms after a recess break on Division Street, always blocked off so no cars could park or drive during school hours.
I was in fifth grade, in a basement classroom with high casement windows so all you could see were the socks and shoes of passers-by on the sidewalk. My teacher was Sister Thomas Anne with, I am guessing now from a distance of half a century, about fifty of us (or more) probably doing arithmetic because I have a memory of doing arithmetic after lunch in every class while at Saint Peter's.
We had no clocks in the classroom or in any classroom. There was a crucifix on the front wall above the teacher's desk and some of the more clever of us would whisper and snicker about how that was what happened to kids who didn't turn in their homework. I realized years later Sister Thomas Anne had undoubtedly heard the whispers and probably from classes long before ours.
I had to look the time of day up, later, much later, because as I said there were no clocks in the classrooms, but just before 1:30, Sister Immaculata, our principal, turned on the speaker high up on the right hand corner of the wall in the front of the room to tell us President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, Texas. She told us we should say the Rosary and we all knelt down to the left of desks and prayed, led by Sister Thomas Anne who was crying.
As a Catholic kid, in addition to studying the Baltimore Catechism in preparation for Confirmation, praying was what we did the most if not always the best. When you went to Confession it wasn't unusual to be directed to say a decade of the Rosary and two Glory Be's ('and call me in the morning.'). We had children's faith in the power of prayer and I can still feel the numbness when Sister Immaculata announced on the speaker that the President had died. But we had prayed...
The murmuring in the classroom ceased and a silence settled over us and across the school that seemed to permeate the country as the remains of the day gave way to the evening. Televisions in living rooms across the nation glowed softly in black and white replaying the same snatches of film over and over again as we each gathered around the electric fire of an America so long ago that writing about it now seems like recounting a fever dream.
None of us knew what would happen next, for our family, our friends or our country. We didn't know that everything we had ever known had been swept away.What was to be and what was to come was, as always, unclear and for us to decide, but with a little less confidence and faith in ourselves than we had only a moment earlier.