Friday, April 18, 2014
So here it is. The 50th anniversary of the day burned into the memory of every American who was old enough to turn on a television.
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
I was in fourth grade, the new kid in Sister Jean’s class at St. Joseph’s School in O’Hara Township, just outside of Pittsburgh.
It was a Friday and we’d just settled in after lunch recess when the principal’s voice came over the loudspeaker: “Attention, please. We have just received word that President Kennedy has been shot in Dallas, Texas. Sisters, please set aside your lessons and direct your students to pray for the president’s recovery while we await more information.”
And so it began.
“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee ...” we recited in unison, hands clasped, eyes closed, young minds reeling. “Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus ...”
The words tumbled from my lips, but my thoughts were on a separate track: “President Kennedy? Shot? How bad? Is he OK? Who did it? Is this really happening?”
“Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen. Hail Mary, full of grace ...”
Minutes passed as we droned on. Suddenly I heard a faint knock on the classroom door and looked up to see another nun quietly poke her head inside the classroom.
“Sister Jean,” she whispered from the doorway. “Have you heard?”
Sister Jean, lost in prayer, looked up expectantly from her rosary.
“He’s gone,” said the other nun, gently closing the door behind her.
Seconds later, another announcement: “Attention school, the president has expired. All classes should now proceed to the chapel, where we will pray for the repose of President Kennedy’s soul.”
Repose of his soul? Walking down the hallway, I spotted my older sister with her fifth-grade class. We traded question marks with our eyes.
Shoulder to shoulder in the long, wooden pews, the entire school recited the full rosary. I heard the buses rolling up outside as we finished and, in somber silence, the nuns ushered us out to the parking lot for early dismissal.
Minutes later, I bounded from the bus and ran as fast as I could up the hill to our house.
It was already an unsettling time for my family of nine. My father, who worked for Westinghouse, had been transferred from Massachusetts to Pennsylvania the previous year. Now, much to his seven kids’ delight, he was being transferred back.
I hated Pennsylvania. I was a Massachusetts kid to the core, same as President Kennedy, and I’d already been counting the days to the upcoming Christmas break, when at long last we would pile into the Volkswagen bug and the old Plymouth station wagon and move back home. Where we belonged.
My mother had traveled east that week to go house hunting in our old hometown of Needham while my father took a few days off to watch us kids.
“Dad! Dad!” I hollered, bursting through the door. “Have you heard?”
“Heard what?” he asked, coming up from his basement workshop. “And what are you doing home so early?”
“President Kennedy!” I said, trying to catch my breath. “He got shot. He’s dead!”
At the tender age of 9, I hadn’t a clue what it all truly meant. But the stunned look on my father’s face, as he turned without a word and bolted for the television, was like nothing I’d ever seen.
“Oh no,” he said under his breath as Walter Cronkite, struggling to contain his own emotions, delivered the bulletins hot off the news wires.
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: