“Where were you?” is a common conversation starter in our culture.

For my generation it was the space shuttle Challenger explosion (I was home. It was the only shuttle launch I ever watched on TV.) Next was 9/11 (I was climbing Mt. Katahdin and missed the whole thing.)

For my parent’s generation it was the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Anyone who was around during that tragic event can tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news.

While hundreds of thousands of American soldiers have lost their lives in battle, only four commanders-in-chief have been killed in the line of duty: Presidents Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley, and Kennedy. Teddy Roosevelt and Reagan both took bullets, and others escaped assassination attempts. But Kennedy is the only president to be killed in living memory. Some readers will remember the funeral and the national day of mourning that took place afterward.

A copy of the Bath Daily Times from Nov. 25, 1963, shows a picture of a uniformed Legionnaire standing at attention in front of a mourning wreath hung over the door of the old American Legion building on Washington Street. The Legionnaires did this all night long in two-hour shifts, from Sunday afternoon until after the funeral on Monday.

Downtown Bath was mostly deserted, with most stores closed all day, and a few others closing between 11 and 2 so that employees could observe the services. The paper lists cancellations for the day: no cribbage game at the Bath Iron Works, no Cub Scout meeting, no lodge meetings, no classes at Bailey Evening School, and no PTA meeting. School was cancelled.

A short parade was organized from the Bath Junior High School to the Armory building just up the street. It was led by Buccaneers drummers with muffled drums, and behind them marched the Elks, American Legion, Amvets, Sons of Union Veterans, members of the Junior Chamber of Commerce, and others. Inside the Armory was a rare interfaith service, with the invocation, benediction, and eulogy delivered by the pastors of the Winter Street Church, Beth Israel Congregation, and St. Mary’s Catholic Church.

Not everyone got the day off, unfortunately.

With a ship launch and the Thanksgiving holiday coming up, BIW stayed open for business. They held flagpole services during the lunch hour. The hospital had to be staffed, and police had to investigate two reports of vandalism and find two girls who had run off from the Children’s Home.

I’m sure, however, that everyone who could do so watched the Kennedy funeral on TV. NPR reported that 93 percent of all TV sets were tuned to the news coverage of that sad event.

In Washington, D.C., hundreds of thousands of people came to see the procession. Representatives of 53 countries were there, including Prince Phillip of England and 23 heads of state. The saddest and most iconic image is that of little JFK Jr. saluting his father’s horse-drawn coffin. It almost makes me cry to think about it.

Thankfully, security has improved such that no president has been assassinated in 56 years. If it ever did happen again, I wonder if a divided nation would come together the way we did back in November of 1963.

Zac McDorr is the founder of the Bath Maine History Center on Facebook.You can reach him at [email protected].

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