by Jeff Golomb
I was in sixth grade on that beautiful Friday afternoon. It was unseasonably warm for November on Long Island, New York. We had our Spanish lesson every Friday after lunch, and I was captivated, as usual, by our exotically beautiful Spanish teacher. Our regular teacher, Mr. Anderson, always stepped out of the classroom during our forty-minute Spanish lesson.
Mr. Anderson was a kind, friendly teacher, as calm and unflappable as any TV dad. He always wore a jacket and tie and there were no questions he couldn’t answer. School was a safe place in 1963. We’d even be safe from the atom bomb, we were assured, as long as we kept our heads covered, as we practiced in air raid drills. Life seemed as idyllic as an episode of Father Knows Best, but it was an illusion about to shatter.
“The president has been shot,” Mr. Anderson shouted as he burst into the classroom, interrupting the Spanish lesson. He ran so fast, his jacket and tie seemed to trail in after him like Superman’s cape.
The president of what? The president of the school system? My classmates and I were confused, and Mr. Anderson’s anguished expression was alarming.
“May I have your attention, please. Attention, please.” All eyes turned to the loudspeaker on the wall. Our principal announced that President Kennedy was shot while riding in his motorcade in Dallas, Texas.
The word motorcade struck a nerve because I once saw John F. Kennedy in his motorcade when he was campaigning on Long Island. I was only in third grade then, but we learned about the election in school and I knew who he was. He was in a long, black limousine, standing up through a hole in the roof, waving and smiling to the crowds lining the streets.
“He isn’t dead, is he, Mr. Anderson?” Someone asked. Maybe I did. Mr. Anderson said they didn’t know yet. Mr. Anderson seemed to be looking for something he lost.
I remember getting a ride home from school. I usually walked with my friends unless it was raining. Mom was always happy to see me, but never waited for me in front of the house as she did that day. My grandparents, visiting from Brooklyn for the afternoon, stood behind her.
Mom hugged me and asked, “Do you know what happened?”
All the Moms in the neighborhood seemed to be outside hugging their kids.
“President Kennedy was killed,” I said.
“Do you understand what that means?” I’d never heard her speak with such urgency before.
“Yes,” I said, trying to convince us both.
When my grandfather bent down to kiss me, his whiskers stabbed my cheeks as usual, but this time I felt something new: his cheeks were wet with tears. I never knew men cried until that day.
We always watched The Flintstones on Friday nights, but none of our programs were on TV. We stared at flickering black and white images: an airplane, an ambulance, the president’s casket; the beautiful, grieving Mrs. Kennedy, who had shown us the White House on TV the previous year. They showed older film clips of the president and his family, which were startlingly similar to our own home movies.
News and history fused right before our eyes, as we watched the flickering black and white images for four days. I was beginning to understand that the good guys don’t always win and that grown-ups didn’t have all the answers.
School was closed on Monday, November 25th, the day of President Kennedy’s funeral. We went to our synagogue for a memorial service. The rabbi and congregation sang “America, the Beautiful” at the end of the service. People were crying, so many sad people.
I still cry – fifty years later – whenever I hear that song.
Find much more on JFK and the anniversary, including a remembrance by CBS journalist Bob Schieffer, and a slideshow of Kennedy family life starting in the late 1950s.
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