A VERY TERRIBLE THING
Remembrances of a National Tragedy
now four and a half decades afterwards
Saturday, November 22, 2008
by Richard E. Berg-Andersson
The day for which this piece is intended for original posting, 22 November 2008, marks the 45th Anniversary of the death of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy after having been cut down by a sniper's bullet while riding in an open car during a motorcade through downtown Dallas, Texas.
As with my earlier piece this year about the 1968 presidential nomination campaign that, sadly, saw the assassinations of both the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy (D-New York), this Commentary constitutes "Remembrances"- and not "A memoir". To here repeat at least some of what I wrote at the head of that 6 June 2008 piece (and which well applies to this one):
"Human memory is all too fallible: events, especially those from so long ago, tend to become telescoped in one's mind's eye. However, within this limitation, I honestly believe that, when it comes to my own personal recollections recounted below, these occurred pretty much as I have told them below...
"My attitude, then, when it comes to what the reader will see herein, is that 'well, at least I'd pass the polygraph!' [;-)] but I would much more want the reader to understand that my principal intention here is to provide the overall sense of what all of this meant to one so young- and came to mean over the years, and decades, in memory..."
The scene, as I now think about it, at least appears vivid enough, seemingly playing in my own mind as if on film permanently stored in my own memory-- even now, four and a half decades after the events themselves:
At a little after 1:50 p.m. EASTERN STANDARD TIME on Friday 22 November 1963, my second grade class in the local Public School on Staten Island in New York was right smack dab in the middle of an Arithmetic lesson when we pupils could see the school's principal- one Mr. Miller- suddenly appear at the doorway out to the hall at the front of our classroom (almost always kept open) to the right of the full-length blackboard all our seats were facing and gesture to our teacher who had been standing at the front of the class writing out examples of long division on that very blackboard with chalk (a note to my much younger readers: I attended an urban American elementary school in a long-ago era well before whiteboards and computer-generated 'overhead projection' imagery). As a result, our teacher walked over to where Mr. Miller was standing and proceeded to have a brief conversation with him in low, almost whispered, tones: while we couldn't hear what was being said, we knew that any conference between a teacher and the principal was most serious business ('which one of us is in trouble now' was certainly the prevailing thought amongst us).
After this, the teacher returned to the front of the class without any easily discernible indication that anything was at all wrong and proceeded to continue with the long division lesson until around 1:55 p.m. when the Blackboard Monitor- a 5th grader who happened to be the older brother of a girl in my class on whom, I have to now admit, looking back all these years later, I had my first real crush (during recess, she and I often would try and stump each other when it came to matching States of the Union with their Capitals [yes, indeed-- we were made for each other! ;-)])- strode in with his eraser basket in tow (I should explain- again to younger readers- that the Blackboard Monitor's job was to, each afternoon, collect all the chalk-covered erasers in every classroom in the school so that they could be cleaned and made ready for the very next day of class). Now we 2d graders all knew something was up-- for the New York City Public School day, back then, ended at precisely 2:30 p.m. and the Blackboard Monitor normally didn't show up to collect our classrooom's erasers until at least 2:15; on this day, however, he was decidedly early: yes, indeed-- something was going on!
Then, as if she couldn't contain herself any longer, our teacher abruptly turned to the Blackboard Monitor and asked of him "Isn't it a very terrible thing that has just happened to our country?": to which he replied "Yes, ma'am- it is" just before turning to leave the room with most of our classroom's erasers. Almost immediately, many of us seated in that 2d grade classroom began openly querying excitedly- where not also rather indignantly- as to just what "very terrible thing" had just happened to our America while, at the same time, our teacher suddenly clasped her hand over her mouth with something of a look of horror, as if she had just done something- by commenting to the Blackboard Monitor in the way that she just had- that might well cost her her teaching job itself.
After a time, during which she appeared to be well reflecting on her best possible options, she walked over to the classroom door at which she had so recently had that quiet conversation with the principal and firmly closed it, as if she were about to let us in on some dark secret or even deepest conspiracy: then she pulled her high-backed wooden chair out from behind her desk in the front of the classroom against the tall windows opposite the side of the room which contained the doorway out to the hall, placed the chair in front of the very middle of the blackboard and sat down in it with her hands clasped in her lap.
"You'll have to forgive me", she began- as she so obviously was trying to choose her words most carefully, "but I will have to be sitting down as I tell you all this right now; it is all so overwhelming. All those from 3rd grade on up have already heard about this over the Public Address system but it was thought that 2d graders like yourselves would be too young to be told about this; however, I have come to know all of you over the past two and a half months I have been your teacher and I honestly believe all of you are old enough to hear about this, as long as it comes from someone like me. After all, you will be 3d graders yourselves in less than a year".
Her voice now cracking somewhat with evident emotion, she bravely went on: "What Mr. Miller told me just now was that, about 20 minutes or so ago, our country's President- John F. Kennedy- was shot". There were quite audible gasps amongst us, along with several "Wow!"s and even a few sobs at this news, quite shocking even for 7 year olds like us---
Three months before the assassination of President Kennedy, my family went on vacation to Cape Cod- interestingly, the location of the famous "Kennedy Compound" at Hyannisport; it happened to be my very first visit to "the Cape". On the way there, we had stopped overnight in the vicinity of the city of New Haven, Connecticut in which I had been born and I was able to visit with my grandparents (all six of them: my biological father's parents as well as my stepfather's mom and dad and my maternal grandparents [with whom I had actually lived for more than five years during my early childhood before my mother remarried and, as a result, I ended up attending 2d grade on Staten Island come the Fall of 1963]).
My maternal grandparents were inveterate regular readers of Reader's Digest and, in addition, my grandfather- in particular- had accumulated a fair-sized collection of hardbound volumes of Reader's Digest Condensed Books: abridged versions of the best-sellers of the day as originally published in the monthly Reader's Digest itself. One such "condensed book" happened to catch my attention-- an abridgement of Jim Bishop's The Day Lincoln was Shot in which each chapter is an hour of that earlier "most terrible" day back in the Spring of 1865. Wanting something to read while out on the Cape, I asked my grandfather if I could borrow the volume of Condensed Books containing it (we would be stopping by again on the way home, at which point I would be able to return it) and that was fine with him.
As promised- because, on the trip back, we again stopped overnight in Connecticut- I returned the volume and spoke- in the rather excited manner of a 7 year old- about what more I had learned about the assassination of President Lincoln. My grandmother then told me of how, as a young woman, she had been a 'servant girl' for a member of the Massachusetts General Court (that Commonwealth's legislature) who had lived in Gardner ('Grandma' was originally from nearby Fitchburg, Mass.) and who once told her about how he still remembered the day Abraham Lincoln was shot:
Apparently, he- the legislator (who was already in his own 70s by the time he was telling my grandmother about all this during the 1920s)- had been working in the fields of the family farmstead with his father and siblings on the afternoon of Saturday 15 April of 1865 when a neighbor rode up on horseback and called to his father in order to tell him something important he and his siblings could not hear at the time (very much in the manner Mr. Miller first told my teacher about President Kennedy having been shot, I suppose), after which his father came back over to the future legislator and his brothers and said, in a rather grave tone, "President Lincoln was shot last night in Washington and died early this morning; no more work today, boys- let's just go back to the house and tell your mother".
It had very strongly struck me- even as a child, as my grandmother related this story to me- that the assassination of a President of the United States was something of a major deal worthy of remembering, forever, to the end of one's days. Thus, less than three months later, when a similar event happened to be occurring in my own still young lifetime, I consciously made it a point- even as my 2d grade teacher was first telling us all about it- to remember everything I possibly could about what was going on around me that now-so long ago Friday afternoon (which is why I can still- to this very day- remember what happened at precisely what time, just as Jim Bishop had written about Lincoln's assassination in his book about that event).
Our teacher now asked if any of us had any questions or concerns which she would try to answer as best she could. One of my male classmates- who happened to be one of my good friends- got the nerve to immediately, yet haltingly, ask the most obvious question on all our minds: "Is President Kennedy dead?"
"I don't know", our teacher replied. "Mr. Miller told me that all he knew was that the news on the radio was reporting that he had been shot and taken to the nearest hospital".
Next, one of the girls in the class asked: "How was someone even able to shoot at him?"
"Well", our teacher replied, "the President and Mrs. Kennedy were on a trip to Texas and were riding in what is called a motorcade- a line of convertibles that goes along the streets so that people could see them- something like a parade..."
I could immediately, even at that tender age of 7, well visualize the scene---
One of my earliest childhood memories is of a 4-year-old me sitting on the curb in front of a crowd of people lined up along the major street through the Westville section of New Haven (not all that far from where, a decade later, I would shake hands with future U.S. Senator and 2000 Democratic vice-presidential nominee Joseph Lieberman while he was campaigning to be the State Senator from that neighborhood).
The date was Sunday 6 November 1960 and then-Senator John Fitzgerald Kennedy of Massachusetts, the Democratic presidential nominee, was on a final campaign swing (the Presidential Election would be the following Tuesday, the 8th) through the Mid-Atlantic States and New England. In the wee hours of that morning (as I now know, though- of course- I did not back then) occurred one of the most famous moments of the 1960 campaign- when candidate Kennedy arrived in Waterbury, Connecticut in the wee hours of the morning to tens of thousands of people who had stayed up late to see him and hear him speak; now he was being driven, in a convertible, down the Litchfield Turnpike into New Haven where he would speak on the city's famous Green.
I had been spending that New England Fall weekend with my biological father's parents in Westville (my mother and I were still living at my maternal grandparents' home in nearby Hamden at the time) and my paternal grandmother- my 'Nana', as I called her- walked me the block or so over to Whalley Avenue ('Nana' was, as things would turn out, also to be the one I would be with when I met Senator Lieberman) and, somehow (perhaps being a small child had its inherent advantages), I ended up sitting on the curb, from where I got a very good look at the limousine carrying the soon-to-be President and a huge banner on the side of the car with the words 'KENNEDY for President'-- a most vivid memory I still carry with me to this very day.
"Now, because of what has happened", our teacher told us, "we're going to be ending the school day a little earlier than usual. You'll be let out at 10 minutes past 2, rather than half past".
Sure enough- at 2:10 p.m.- we were told we could get our coats from the closets lining the back of the classroom and leave. I recall the scene in the hallway and out onto the street as being somewhat surreal. Every time we 2d graders- or kids even younger than us- started to talk among ourselves (as kids usually do when school lets out), some older kid passing us by would tell us to shut up and keep quiet.
Every day, I rode the New York City Transit System bus to/from school from/to my family's garden apartment on Grymes Hill and- as I did each and every day- I would stand at the bus stop across from my school with my best friend Jon, who lived in a garden apartment up the street from my own. But, on this day, we dare not say a single word to one another!
Once Jon and I were seated together on the bus, there were the usual handful of women- laden with bags indicating they had spent the day in Manhattan shopping at, say, Macy's or Bloomingdale's- heading home so as to arrive just as, if not before, their children returned home from school: normally, the bus would be filled with their idle chat mingling with the low-level "horseplay" of kids just released from yet one more day of state-required education... but, on this day, the bus was strangely quiet: nobody was talking- not the adults and certainly not we post-toddler/pre-teen children back in an age when we kids did not necessarily wish to so earn an adult's ire.
When we got to Jon's stop- one ahead of mine- I merely waved meekly as he left his seat instead of offering him my usual, cheery "See ya later!" At my own stop, I simply got off the bus instead of- as was my usual practice- turning to the bus driver to say "Goodbye" (a good relationship with the bus drivers on Staten Island was most important to the average 7 year old of the time: for, at the end of the day, the more friendly drivers would throw pads of their extra bus transfers out to we kids waiting on the sidewalk at a bus stop [for some odd reason, NYC bus transfers were as hot a 'collectible' as bubble gum Baseball trading cards!]).
But, by the time I walked in the front door of my family's apartment, I could no longer contain myself. Although my mother was seated on the couch along the right side wall as I entered watching the black-and-white television set to my left and I could clearly see her clutching a facial tissue and her facial makeup rather smeared (she had so obviously been crying so recently), I could not help but (finally!) blurt out: "Mom! Mom! Did you hear that President Kennedy got shot?" to which she, simply yet rather tersely, responded "He died!"
At this further- even more shocking- news, I turned toward the TV only to see the flag atop the United States Capitol (with the famous dome looming directly behind it) being lowered to half-staff, the image itself conveying- in a manner even a mere child could understand- the very finality of what was behind my mother's statement. Yep: President Kennedy was dead- that was that- and, immediately recalling a phrase I only barely understood but which I had read about in Jim Bishop's The Day Lincoln was Shot the previous Summer, I thought 'Now he belongs to the ages'. It was now just about 2:50 p.m.- a mere hour after Mr. Miller had first motioned my second grade teacher to come over to him so that he could quietly tell her what was going on.
But the ongoing analysis becoming background chatter of the network newspeople that tragic afternoon was no match for a 7 year old's altogether all too short attention span. Thus, after a time, I walked over to my 9-month-old brother Dave who was in his playpen directly underneath the window in the front of the apartment: one of my favorite things to do around that time was to get Dave to pull himself up into a standing position using the bars of the playpen to do so, after which I would hold both his hands and say "Dave! Dance!" to which Dave would begin buckling his knees in order to move himself up and down while smiling and gurgling the way babies so often do. I did so now only to hear the angry words of my mother, still sitting on the couch behind me-- no, actually-- a much better way to put it would be to say that I felt my mother's words (I will swear, to this day, that what my mother said at that moment was like hot breath on the back of my neck):
"RICHARD! STOP DANCING WITH YOUR BROTHER! THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES IS DEAD! SHOW SOME RESPECT!!"
I immediately let go of Dave who fell back onto his well-padded (thanks to his diapers) bottom into his playpen and seemingly jumped backwards into a seated position on the couch next to my mother. Now I fully understood exactly why no one said a word on that bus ride home only an hour before and I dared not say anything for at least several minutes after my mother had yelled at me.
The next thing I can remember about that day is my stepfather (whom I call my Dad, since he ended up raising me) coming home from work in Lower Manhattan just before 6 p.m. with his copy of a New York City afternoon paper (back when such a thing still actually existed), the World-Telegram and Sun emblazoned with the huge headline KENNEDY SLAIN. I practically ripped the paper out from under his arm holding his briefcase not all that long after he had walked in the door because I so badly wanted to see the first photos (taken by Associated Press photographer Ike Altgens, as I would later learn) of the terrible events earlier that day in Dallas, yes, but also because I wanted to "read all about it" in cold print.
Not all that long after 6 o'clock, we all watched the TV as the new President, Lyndon Baines Johnson, came out of that Air Force One which had carried both him and his slain predecessor's body back to Washington from LBJ's native Texas, stepped in front of a bank of microphones that had been set up on the tarmac of Andrews Air Force Base with the new First Lady- Lady Bird- standing by his side, and spoke his first public words as President of the United States:
This is a sad time for all people; we have suffered a loss that cannot be weighed: for me it is a deep personal tragedy- I know the world shares the sorrow that Mrs. Kennedy and her family bear.
I will do my best- that is all I can do: I ask for your help- and God's.
To which even a 7 year old like myself could only answer "Amen".