Thursday, November 21, 2013

On the day the president died

Of course I remember where I was,
In fact, I think just about everyone in my generation can still tell you, more or less, where they were and what they were doing when President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated 50 years ago. In my case, it was on the stairway going down to the basement level of the old Galva High School. An eighth grader, I was on my way to band, which was located all the way at the opposite end of the building from the gulag known as the junior high wing.
"What did he say?"
The stairway was packed with kids, like always. Somebody had said something I couldn't quite hear... .
Something awful.
By the time we got to the classroom, everybody was saying it.
"Somebody shot the president."
I was like a low, painful punch in the stomach. I had only felt something like it one time before, when my one and only gramps had died just a few years earlier.
Somebody shot the president.
The band teacher pled ignorance as to just what, if anything, had happened in Dallas that day, but as soon as we got back to our regular classroom, I knew it was all true.
Our teacher was crying.
It really started to hit me then. You see, back then, adults didn't ever seem to cry.  Not in public, at least. Certainly not in front of a bunch of adolescent twerps like we were. The fact that it was my no-nonsense homeroom teacher with tears streaming down her cheeks made it real in no uncertain terms.
Somebody shot the president. The president was dead.
The next days went by in a sort of a haze. It was Friday, so there was no school anyway. The NFL went ahead and played its games on Sunday, but otherwise, television was almost entirely dedicated to the assassination and the funeral that was to follow.
They buried him on Monday.
I watched the funeral on television. I remember the riderless horse, the caisson, the silent drill of the Irish cadets and the lighting of the eternal flame by Mrs. Kennedy.  I remember the distant sound of the muffled drums, the whirl of the bagpipes and the near silence that accompanied the walking mourners.
But mostly, I remember that little boy.
We all called him John-John. He was the president's son, and that day, the awful, endless, beautiful day of his father's funeral, was his third birthday.
Standing on the steps of St. Matthew’s Cathedral, the tiny son saluted the horse-drawn caisson carrying his father's casket.
It made me want to cry.
Come to think of it, it still does.

And so my fellow Americans 
Ask not what your country can do for you 
Ask what you can do for your country 
My fellow citizens of the world - ask not 
What America can do for you - but what together 
We can do for the freedom of man

With a good conscience our only sure reward 
With history the final judge of our deeds 
Let us go forth to lead the land we love - asking His blessing 
And His help - but knowing that here on earth 
God's work must truly be our own.
-Inaugural Address - January 20, 1961

Requiescat in pace

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