Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The End of the Innocence

Mr. Belcher leaned back in his swivel chair until the back of the chair rested firmly on the chalk tray of the new green chalkboard. It seemed to be his favorite position during fourth period American History class at Beverly Hills Jr. High School. When lecturing the class of eighth graders, he normally sat on the front edge of the big wooden teacher's desk, but when the students sat quietly reading an assigned chapter, he would lean the chair back against the chalkboard. This allowed him to be within arm's reach of one of the black felt erasers. That was important to Mr. Belcher this time of day.

Fourth period was just after lunch, and sitting in the quiet class, with a full stomach, head in hands, reading about such things as Manifest Destiny, it was not unusual for a student to drift off into dreamland. That's when the flat top crew cut Mr. Belcher's eyes would light up and he would slowly grasp the nearest eraser, and with a lightning like delivery, hurl it across the classroom, bouncing it off the head of the sleeping pupil. It always made for a cloud of chalk dust, a roar of laughter from the other kids, and a red spot on the forehead and complete embarrassment for the rudely awakened malefactor.

It was in that setting, studying American History, my fellow Black Hawk classmates and I were plunged into one of the most defining events of 20th Century America. History was being made fifteen hundred miles away in a Texas city called Dallas.

About a half hour into the class, the voice of Principal Doug Greenlee broke the silence over the intercom speaker located on the wall behind the teacher's desk, just below the Register Clock.

Mr. Greenlee sounded even more serious than usual when he said, "May I have your attention please. There is a report that shots have been fired at President Kennedy while he rode in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas. That is all we know at this time."

A buzz went through the classroom. There were many unanswered questions. A concerned look came over the face of Mr. Belcher as he sternly reminded us to get back to our reading. There was going to be a quiz on the chapter at the end of the class period. Only 32 days past my 13th birthday, I wasn't even sure what a motorcade was. Up to that time in my life, I had never been any farther from home than Atlanta, Ga. Dallas seemed to be so far away it might as well have been Mars. Besides that, I wondered what was the President doing in Dallas anyhow. Wasn't he supposed to be in Washington, DC?

The suspense didn't last too long, as within a few minutes the voice of Mr. Greenlee came over the intercom again. In a somber tone, he announced to faculty and students that President Kennedy had, indeed, been hit by gunfire in Dallas, and that he had been pronounced dead. We all sat in stunned silence. Mr. Belcher had already sat up in his chair, and now with elbows resting upon the desk, he dropped his crew cut head into his hands and said softly, "Oh God! Not Johnson!"

I knew who Lyndon Johnson was. He had been a rival to the young Massachusetts Senator. I remember hearing that Kennedy had chosen LBJ as his Vice President, to "balance the ticket" by bringing southern voters into his camp. That was about as far as my knowledge of Johnson went at that time. Obviously Mr. Belcher was not a fan. I knew that Kennedy was a war hero and a good looking younger man with a beautiful wife and to small kids. I had seen him one time when he was in our town, shaking hands at the main gate with workers at the shift change at International Nickel Company, where my Dad worked. Then there was that booth at Jim's Steak and Spaghetti House in downtown Huntington where he had sat with Congressman Ken Hechler on a campaign trip there during the 1963 West Virginia Primary Election. A photo marks the spot there even today, where guests still like to sit at "President Kennedy's Table".

The rest of the school day was surreal on November 22, 1963. It was a sunny "Indian Summer" Friday afternoon in November, but even though bright and beautiful outside, there seemed to be a pall cast over our lives. Our classes were not cancelled, as they might have been if it were to have happened today, so we continued on through fifth and sixth period until the final bell rang - but school was truly over for the week.

To my knowledge there was not a television set in the entire school. We only had three television stations in our market and there was no cable TV here at that time. The only time I remember a TV in school was when Mrs. Esposito brought a portable one to Mrs. Stone's class room at Gallaher Elementary so our class could watch President Kennedy's Inauguration in January, 1961. Since no televisions were on site, we kept up with the sketchy news reports the rest of the school day on small transistor radios that someone had in their locker, or that some of the girls may have had in their purses. We gathered in little groups around the classrooms, listening intently to every report that came in from Parkland Hospital in Dallas, and from NBC radio studios in New York and Washington.

Over the next few days, we would be bombarded with the first 24 hour television news coverage I had ever seen. There were those grainy black and white video images of Air Force One arriving in Washington later that night, with new President Johnson, his wife, and Mrs. Kennedy still wearing the blood stained pink dress she had worn in Dallas earlier in the day. The slain President's younger brother, and Attorney General, Bobby Kennedy was there to meet them and oversee the President's casket being unloaded from the cargo bay and placed in the hearse that would take his body to Bethesda Naval Hospital for an autopsy.

We watched intently as reports came back from Dallas about a slain policeman named J.D. Tippit and a strange man named Lee Harvey Oswald who was arrested for Officer Tippet's death. Oswald was later implicated in the shooting of the President. We were introduced to a building known as the Texas School Book Depository Building, where Oswald had allegedly set up his sniper's nest to assassinate the President at a sixth floor window in the area where Oswald was employed.

We watched in horror as Oswald was, himself, gunned down on live television by a man named Jack Ruby in the basement of the Dallas Police Department Headquarters. Our collective heads swam with confusion and questions.

We saw live video of thousands of Americans lining up outside the Capitol Building to file past the President's flag draped coffin. And we wept as we saw his beautiful young widow kneeling there, children at her side, gently kissing the casket that held the remains of her slain husband.

None of us will ever forget the image of young "John - John" Kennedy saluting his father's casket, and the funeral procession as the former first lady and her brothers in law walked behind the hearse as it made its way to Arlington National Cemetery. An eternal flame marked the grave of our slain President. It burns there still today.

For one of those rare times (much like in the wake of 9-11) for those few days there were no Republicans or Democrats. only Americans who mourned a President who had brought much hope to a nation. It's been a lifetime ago, but it all began 48 years ago today, and I can remember it like it was yesterday.

For my generation it was the end of the innocence.

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