November 22, 2013

Bill Nemitz: Others' anguish engulfed innocent kid when JFK was killed 50 years ago today

By Bill Nemitz

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The eternal flame burns this week atop the grave site of President John F. Kennedy at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

Carolyn Kaster/The Associated Press

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Only then did we learn of the motorcade through Dealey Plaza, the shots from the nearby Texas School Book Depository (“What’s a depository?” I asked), the race to Parkland Hospital, the oath of office that had just been administered hastily to our new President Lyndon Johnson aboard Air Force One. (“Wait,” I remember asking my father. “That guy’s our president now?”)

Hard as it all was for my father to absorb, my poor mother had it much worse.

Her flight back from Boston was scheduled to depart early that evening, but she and her real estate agent still had several more houses to view.

Each time, the agent knocked softly on the door, apologized and asked the owners if it was still OK to walk through because his client, who felt terrible about intruding on this terrible moment, had very limited time.

And each time, as the potential sellers wept openly in front of their television set, my stricken mother – the Irish Catholic daughter of a Boston policeman who worshiped “Jack” like few others – wept right along with them.

I remember looking down from the top of the stairs when the taxi finally dropped Mom off late that night. Dad met her at the front door and they just stood there holding each other for dear life, his bathrobe absorbing her tears.

“I didn’t know what to do,” she repeated over and over as he tenderly stroked her back. “I didn’t know what to do!”

I lived in front of the television that weekend. Thus I became one of the millions of eyewitnesses just after noon on Sunday as they prepared to move the bad guy – Lee Harvey Oswald – to jail.

“Here he comes!” I yelled to Mom as she prepared Sunday dinner in the nearby kitchen.

Then all hell broke loose.

“Mom! Look! The guy who shot Kennedy just got shot!” I hollered, jumping off the couch and pointing at the black-and-white TV screen.

I’d never seen anyone get murdered – at least for real. Nor had my mother, who watched as they replayed, over and over, Jack Ruby lunging forward with his handgun, Oswald grimacing, the shot, the screams ...

“Jesus, Mary and Joseph,” my mother said, trembling and clutching a dish towel to her mouth. “What is happening?”

Then it was Monday. School was canceled for the president’s state funeral and again I watched as the horse-drawn caisson moved ever-so-slowly across Washington, D.C., and another son of Boston, Richard Cardinal Cushing, presided over the requiem Mass at St. Matthew’s Cathedral.

Never in my young life had I seen such a spectacle: the riderless horse, the rat-a-tat of the military drums, the clip-clop of the white horses’ hooves on the pavement as they pulled the flag-draped caisson to Arlington National Cemetery, young John-John’s farewell salute to his father.

Yet once again, my thoughts were elsewhere.

It seemed like only yesterday that a “Kennedy for President” trailer had appeared in an empty lot right in the middle of downtown Needham – and they were giving out buttons and bumper stickers! For free!

I remembered how I’d plastered my bike with the stuff, weaving the stickers through my wheel spokes and pinning the buttons across the back of the seat until I was a rolling advertisement for this young, very cool guy they called “JFK.” A guy who, at least through my innocent eyes, embodied all that was good about the United States of America.

Now JFK was gone, laid to rest beneath a flame that the guy on the television said would never, ever go out. And while Massachusetts still beckoned, I got a terrible feeling that the place I missed so dearly, the place to which I would soon return, would never be quite the same.

I watched, self-consciously dabbing at my eyes, as the cannons fired a 21-gun salute, as the lone bugler played taps (and missed a note), as Cardinal Cushing, for whom I would proudly serve Mass just a few years later, sprinkled the coffin with holy water.

Then, as the honor guard ever-so-slowly lowered the president’s casket into the ground, my mother dried her own eyes, abruptly rose from the couch and turned off the television.

“That’s it,” she announced, shooing me and my older siblings out of the family room. “Go outside, find something else to do!”

I’d have watched for another week if I she’d have let me. But Mom, wise woman, already sensed what a child my age couldn’t.

The world, while forever changed, had not ended.

JFK, while gone, would not be forgotten.

And I’d seen enough to last a lifetime.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

Twitter: @billnemitz

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