ON THE 50th ANNIVERSARY OF THE DEATH OF A PRESIDENT
a SPECIAL [repeat] Presentation of The Green Papers
Friday, November 22, 2013
by Richard E. Berg-Andersson
Just as is the case this year, November 22nd a half century ago was on a Friday; but November 22nd of the Year 1963 was, in fact, a very different Friday (or, at least [considering we are now, of course, typing this before we can possibly know what 22 November 2013 will actually be like], one sincerely hopes so!)
Exactly five years ago- upon the 45th Anniversary of the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy (in 2008)- a Commentary by Richard E. Berg-Andersson was posted to this website in which he provided a narrative of his own memories regarding the immediate impact of what his second grade teacher (before she herself haltingly, yet carefully and simply, explained so recent events to the 7 and 8 year olds [one of whom was 7 2/3 year-old Richard] in her classroom) had called "a very terrible thing" on himself, his classmates and his own family.
The reason that Commentary was posted back then, as opposed to now (on the 50th Anniversary of the Murder of a President of the United States), was that Mr. Berg-Andersson had already posted a Commentary earlier that same year (again, 2008)- one specifically timed for the 40th Anniversary of the Assassination of Senator Robert "Bobby" Kennedy- about the overall tone and temper of the 1968 Democratic Presidential Nomination campaign as best as then- 12 year old Richard could have comprehended it and doing the same for one of the darkest days in American History prior to the 9/11 Terrorist Attacks of 2001 seemed a natural "follow on" (and, as things turned out, these two Commentaries would end up as part of something of a Trilogy on the Political Legacy of the Kennedy Brothers come the passing of Senator Edward "Ted" Kennedy the following year  when yet another such "natural 'follow on' " was also to be posted to this website).
However, it seems just about impossible to allow the very day a half- century after the most recent Presidential Assassination in U.S. History to pass without some significant notice on this website (considering the very Mission Statement of The Green Papers itself) related to same! Centuries, almost by very definition, seem themselves the very lynchpin of History (even when historians feel they have to stretch them out [as in the so-called 'Long 19th Century' from both the effective date of the Constitution of the United States and the beginnings of the French Revolution in 1789 to the start of the 'Great War' (that is: World War I) in 1914] or, for that matter, truncate them [as in the so-called 'Short 20th Century' from the end of that (in the main) not so great a War in 1918 to the collapse of the Soviet Empire in 1991]) in order to best advance their respective concepts as to what might constitute a graspable historical "era").
But centuries fascinate the ordinary, everyday human being in any event: we ever bundle years- even those marking the passage of personal history- into decades and then, if we're lucky, again wrap same into a century (if not for ourselves then, perhaps, for some loved one- or, at least, an acquaintance or a neighbor- who, somehow, lived to be 100); for it is highly unlikely that the vast majority of those reading these words (at least at, or not all that long after, they are first posted [perhaps future medical technology will intersect with these very typed bits someday floating "out there" in whatever Cyberspace will have, by then, become to then allow some, say, 145 year old to read these in, say, AD 2137: this we cannot now know!]) will live out an entire century from their own birth.
The centuries of History itself become markers- "mileposts"- if only because we instinctively know that the more than 5 centuries that (as this is being typed) have passed since Columbus's voyages is more than 5 times that allotted to even the longest-lived human beings of our own time: how, then, to so easily grasp the more than 20 centuries since the Birth of Christ or the establishment of Imperial Rome and the 30-plus centuries since the biblical Exodus or the end of Pharaonic Egypt's 18th Dynasty and the subsequent rise of its 19th?
As a result, to then say 'such and such happened a half-century ago' is alone arresting (more so than simply saying '50 years have passed since...'); no doubt: even half a century is a LONG time!-- yet, unlike an entire Century, it is- at the same time- graspable, simply because it is well within the ordinary lifespan of so many people. Thus, when that half-century "mile marker" of History so starkly ties one to a particularly noteworthy event (whether personal or public in nature), it fairly grabs one's own attention...
and so the fact that a half-century has, indeed, passed since that "very terrible thing" which took place in and around the streets of Dallas, Texas back on Friday 22 November 1963 cannot help but grab our respective attentions (including those of they who were either too young to remember [even though they were, indeed, alive at the time] or were- on that awful November Friday so long ago- yet to be born); it certainly must so grab the attentions of those associated with this website!
For this reason, then, The Green Papers repeats- below this introduction- the Commentary, by Mr. Berg-Andersson, entitled 'A VERY TERRIBLE THING' originally posted to this website back on 22 November 2008. This introduction will now close with the commentator's own words as regards his own approach to his memories- his reminiscences- of Friday 22 November 1963 itself:
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...
A VERY TERRIBLE THING
by Richard E. Berg-Andersson
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, a full five 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 now, almost certainly, the most pressing question within our own minds).
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 classroom'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 I, as a result, 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 brothers 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".
A FINAL THOUGHT on the part of The Green Papers:
Sometime during the weeks and months following the Terrorist Attacks of 11 September 2001- themselves, so clearly, combining to produce an event that rivalled (where it might not have even exceeded) the horror, the confusion and the emotional impact within both America and the World at large produced by the assassination of President Kennedy- the now-late "angry Atheist" Christopher Hitchens, while being interviewed on television, opined to the effect that 'no one should publicly share that which they have experienced personally during an event such as 9/11, as no one else will- nor should- care'.
Here taking Hitchens' notion as his arguing- in the broader sense- that publicizing such personal reminiscences risks, somehow, "cheapening" the more public remembrances (those culturally shared by an entire society) of an event of such magnitude (as the JFK Assassination itself certainly was) rather than its merely being (as at least some of the negative reactions to Hitchens' comment at the time themselves seemed to suggest) something of a "cheap shot" taken against a generation seemingly so obsessed with all too often expressing personal feelings about otherwise public events, this reposting of Mr. Berg-Andersson's own reminiscences re: 22 November 1963 should be evidence of no little disagreement- on our own part- with at least the basics behind Hitchens' assertion.
Fact is: this very day 50 years after the event (22 November 2013) is producing, in the minds of tens of millions still alive who were both alive and aware of the wider world half a century ago now, their own reminiscences of that "very terrible thing that happened to [America]" back then-- many such personal memories (some more flawed, if only as to detail, than others) are being shared, this day, with friends and family, acquaintances and co-workers- even strangers on busses and trains, subway and light rail, in bars and restaurants: many are being shared on personal blogs and Facebook 'timeline's and the like; volumes are already stocking the shelves of bookstores, such volumes fairly filled with recollections of both the famous and not-so-famous as to where they were, what they were doing, who they were with, when they first heard that John Fitzgerald Kennedy had been shot and/or had died... Mr. Hitchens be damned!
Mr. Berg-Andersson's own reminiscences above are to be seen as neither more nor less than these: in this one case, simply the (perhaps- as already admitted- at least somewhat flawed) memories of one American- one but a child at the time- of that other Friday November 22d half a century ago. If the reader might, therein, find something of a "kindred spirit" in relation to his or her own memories of that terrible day, that's all fine and good; if the reader, on the other hand, finds that he or she does not even care-- then that's all fine and good as well!