Monday, November 22, 2010

Has It Really Been 47 Years?

It was fourth period, Mr. Belcher's American History Class at Beverly Hills Jr. High School. The 30 something crew cut teacher had his work cut out for him, trying to get 25 eighth graders to pay attention to some policy called "Manifest Destiny", while the students were still keyed up from the time spent socializing during the earlier lunch period. The class hour was nearly over when the voice of Principal, Mr. Doug Greenlee, came on to the intercom and made a terse announcement that seemed to cause time to stand still.

"We have a news report that the President has just been shot in Dallas, Texas. His condition is unknown at this time."

There was an eerie silence in the room. For the first time, I had noticed the sound of the old school clock on the wall, ticking off the seconds. We all looked at one another in disbelief. Each student was mulling over the news, and the questions were racing through our minds.

"Why is the President in Dallas?", I wondered. (at that time I had no clue that the Chief Executive was involved in much of anything outside of Washington).

"Who did it?"

"Were the Russians involved?" After all, this was at the height of the Cold War. We all vividly remembered the Cuban Missile Crisis, and wondered if this is something that would lead to a shooting war.

A few moments later, the silence was shattered when Mr. Greenlee's voice again came over the intercom and made the announcement that "President Kennedy died today in Dallas as a result of his wounds".

I remember Mr. Belcher leaning forward on his desk with his head in his hands, mumbling something about "Oh no! Now we've got Johnson". The rest of us were just stunned. No one quite knew what to make of it. No one knew what to say.

The bell rang and we went on to our 5th period classes. Three hundred students moved quietly through the hallways to take their seats in the next class. School was technically over for the day. We still had another class period to go, but there would be no studies going on the rest of that Friday. There were no televisions or even radios in the class rooms in those days, so information sources were virtually non existent. One of the girls mentioned that she had a transistor radio in her locker, and our math teacher gave her permission to go get it. For the rest of the school day, we sat transfixed, listening to faceless reporters talking about such strange sounding places as Parkland Hospital, Dealy Plaza, and the Texas School Book Depository building.

The next few days were my first exposure to round the clock television news coverage. The blue flickering glow of so many black and white television sets shone from windows of nearly every home into the wee hours of the mornings. We watched at President Kennedy's body was returned to Washington, as his beautiful widow still wore the pink blood stained dress from earlier in the day.

We listened to our new President, seeking to assure the American people that we were in no national danger, and leading us in mourning our loss.

We held disdain for the man named Lee Harvey Oswald, who had been arrested for the killing of Dallas police officer, J.D. Tippit, and was later charged with the murder of the President.

We gasped with unbelief as Oswald, himself, was gunned down by a night club owner named Jack Ruby, in the very basement of the Dallas police station.

We watched as an endless line of Americans passed all day and all night through the Capitol rotunda, just to get a glimpse of the fallen President's flag draped coffin.

We choked back tears as we saw the President's brothers, his beautiful wife and pretty daughter and his little son, John, saluting the casket as it left the Capitol building.

We were there in spirit as the funeral procession made its way to the President's final resting place at Arlington National Cemetery, and we witnessed the lighting of the eternal flame.

Our lives changed on that weekend 47 years ago. In a sense, it was the end of the innocence. The rest of the 60's were wracked by violence, trouble, and assassinations (King and RFK).

47 years... a lifetime ago.

Yet anyone who remembers that day can tell you where they were and what they were doing when the news came.

Today we remember.

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