The Editors' Blog

Nov. 22, 1963, and what it meant to me

(I wrote this five years ago as a column in the N&O, and thought I would share it again by posting it here on the blog. In the last few days, I have read a lot of stories about how people experienced the Kennedy assassination. A lot of the stories were about Baby Boomers like me. I came to the conclusion that those of us who were 9 or 10 were old enough in 1963 to be aware, but not old enough to comprehend. And today, 50 years later, a Friday like that Friday, many of us remain frozen in 1963 when it comes to processing this horrific event. Anyway, here is what I wrote in 2008. The story hasn’t changed any in five years.)

I was seated in my fifth-grade classroom in a suburb west of Boston, 45 years ago today. It was a Friday.

Over the years, I have retained shards of memories about Nov. 22, 1963.

I remember Miss Ford, a very old, white-haired teacher (probably my age now) entering the room and interrupting our math lesson. She was watery-eyed. She walked up to our young teacher and whispered in her ear.

I was on the right-hand side of the room. My teacher's eyes opened very wide. Trembling, she was staring right at me. I thought she had caught me cutting the fool, which I was.

But she wasn't seeing me at all. When people ask, "Where were you when you heard President Kennedy was shot?" the answer is, I didn't hear it first. I saw it in my teacher's eyes. Looking back, I don't know if the president had been pronounced dead yet.

Outside our school, everything was changing. The '50s ended that day; the '60s, whether viewed with nostalgia or loathing depending on your particular trench line in the culture wars, abruptly began, nearly four years into the decade's official calendar.

As for the kids in fifth-grade math, we would live in an uncomplicated world a little bit longer. Nothing was said to us of Dallas by our teachers until the end of the day. Every Friday, around 3, we would gather in the auditorium for a talent show. On this day, at the end of the show, Miss Ford walked to the front, gathered herself, and said the president was dead. We were dismissed. There were no grief counselors.

Just Mom, Dad and Walter Cronkite.

Do you want to know why I think JFK's murder continues to hold us in a vise grip? A few years ago, I was in Dallas, and I took a cab to the crime scene.

In the middle of the day, people were swarming over Dealey Plaza, all doing the same thing. They stared at the spot where JFK was shot as he rode slowly, so slowly, in his open limo, Jackie on the seat near him, Texas Gov. John Connally and wife, Nellie, in front of them, crowds cheering on the sidewalks. (Just before the shots, Nellie turns around and says: "Mr. President, you certainly can't say Dallas doesn't love you.")

I watched the visitors to Dealey crane their necks to look up at the old Book Depository, where Lee Harvey Oswald fired down on the motorcade, according to the Warren Commission, from a sixth-floor window that is now part of a museum.

Then the visitors would look back at the road, at the spot marked in white by an X. Then they'd look back up.

You could see two thoughts forming: 1. Well, maybe it happened the way Earl Warren said it did. Or, 2. No way Oswald did this alone. No way. Not alone.

Some tourists legged it to the grassy knoll and peeked behind the fence, where assassins of conspiracy lore are said to have been hiding. As for me, I wondered how Kennedy was allowed to ride through this maze of potential sniper perches.

Every Nov. 22, in my mind's eye, it is the end of the school day, and I am headed homeward with my young friends. There's none of the hat-stealing, punching and general boy stuff. We trudge west, past trees that have been bare of foliage for weeks. Silently, sullenly we march, blinded by a sun low in the sky. I am barely 10, and I don't understand why this happened.

And today, 45 years on, I still don't.