Commentary

Saunders: Fifty years later, the news of JFK's death is still vivid – and painful

bsaunders@newsobserver.comNovember 20, 2013 

When Elson Floyd woke up that morning, his birthday, and hustled off to school, he was your typical 8-year-old living in a happy house with his mother, father and four siblings. By the time he got home that day, his world – and ours – had changed.

Floyd, who grew up in Winston-Salem, turned 8 on Nov. 22, 1963, the day President Kennedy was killed. He doesn’t remember what, if anything, he got for a birthday gift that day or any of the joyousness usually associated with that age.

“I just remember that everything was gray, sad,” Floyd said Wednesday. “My father was a Baptist minister and my parents thought a lot of the president.”

Jesus, King and Kennedy

For years, Floyd said, his family had on a wall the same holy trinity that most families I knew had – Jesus, John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.

Floyd said he remembers gathering around the television with his family to watch the funeral.

So does James Benton, who was 5. “I remember asking my mother why were those stripes on the casket,” he said.

Benton wasn’t blind. Not then. He was actually gaining the vision that he’d been born without – he had his first eye surgery at 4 months old – but that he would eventually lose completely. He is now an employment specialist with the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

“I remember my mother rushing to turn on the television after someone called her, and screaming, ‘Oh, my lord!’ She was very much impacted by the Kennedys. ... My sister, Jacqueline, was born in April 1963. She was named after Jackie Kennedy.”

The “stripes” he saw on the president’s casket were, of course, from the U.S. flag.

A touchstone event

The assassination of the president was a – no, the – touchstone event for the nation, and I’m guessing that for people of a certain generation, the most asked question has been, “Where were you when President Kennedy was shot?” Have you ever asked anyone who was alive then but wasn’t a knee-baby who doesn’t remember?

Neither have I.

Durham Mayor Bill Bell was 22, a commissioned officer in the U.S. Army at Ft. Monmouth, N.J., when he heard. “I think I was in the officers club with some friends,” he said. “It was shocking. I was shocked that it could happen, shocked that it did happen and shocked that it happened here.”

Sometimes, unless I burp, I can’t remember what I ate for lunch. Don’t even think of asking what was on the TV channel from which I just turned 10 seconds ago. But even I recall that moment from 50 years ago.

I was in Mrs. Johnsie Watkins’ first-grade class at Leak Street School in Rockingham when Principal James Clyde Watkins announced over the intercom, “The president has been shot.”

Minutes later, he came back on and said, “The president – (pause) – is dead.”

Weeks later, during the Christmas holidays, my aunts and uncles vigorously debated whether “that old Johnson wanted Kennedy to kick the bucket.”

The consensus was that he did.

Now, at 6, I took that as something worth knowing and couldn’t wait to go to school and let Mrs. Watkins know that Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson wanted Kennedy to kick the bucket.

Why would he want him to do that? she asked after calling other teachers over to, I thought, give witness to what a brilliant pupil she had in her class.

Don’t know, I said, nor did I know what would happen when he kicked the bucket.

“It would turn over and spill what was inside?” I imagined but, thankfully, didn’t say.

Remember the scene in the underappreciated movie “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka,” where Fly Guy gets out of prison after a decade and strolls down the street in his outdated canary-yellow bell-bottom outfit and the stacked heel shoes with goldfish floating around inside them?

He initially thought the people pointing and laughing were admiring his style, but quickly realized they were guffawing at him.

That’s how I felt that day as the teachers stifled laughs and asked more questions about kicking the bucket.

Like most first-graders, I had no idea what “kick the bucket” meant – it meant he wanted him dead, I discovered too late to save face. Nor did I know that Johnson and Kennedy, despite being vice president and president, respectively, despised each other. None of us did.

None of us knew someone would shoot the president, either.

bsaunders@newsobserver.com or 919-836-2811

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