Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The day Kennedy was shot

I updated my father's genealogical timeline on Ancestry.com the other day, adding the traumatic event of JFK's assassination to give it context.

 For me, a third grader in Los Angeles, 22 Nov 1963 began like any other day.

Weather-wise, too, it was classically L.A.: Hazy blue skies (one part high clouds, two parts smog), pleasantly warm, a soft marine breeze from the west. No sweaters, jackets or batteries required.

Being little more than a skinny bean sprout, the world at large – the one beyond school, play, cartoons, and our dog Trixie – was not yet my concern. I was an eager but empty vessel waiting to be filled with practical knowledge and, someday, the wisdom gleaned from the relentless vagaries of humankind. I was unaware that its latest vagary was unfolding in a placed called Dallas. In that, at least, I was not alone.

When the recess bell rang that Friday morning, getting to the playground sock-ball courts first was my top priority. Running to my goal, I unleashed a breathless whoop when I succeeded (ostentatious fist-pumping like Tiger Woods – who wouldn’t be born until 1975 – had yet to be invented). Then, maybe 15 minutes later, my world shifted from its normal, late morning course. I began to hear whimpering. It was emanating from the outdoor lunch tables. A number of the older girls were weeping. Was someone hurt? Teachers had suddenly clumped together along the edges of the schoolyard’s black-top. They were urgently whispering to each other, some nervously covering their open mouths with both hands. Some of them, too, had moist red eyes. What, I wondered absently, had happened? Still, many other kids were playing and doing what kids do without a care in the world. And the bright California sun sat contently overhead. Not comprehending, I inwardly shrugged as I took in this kaleidoscope of contrasting images.

Then the bell rang again, abruptly ending recess, and we filed back into our classrooms.

There may have been an announcement over the PA system. My teacher, Mrs. Buchanan, probably passed on the solemn news to us as we sat facing her, blank-faced at our little desks. I simply don't remember. I do remember going home early, walking up the gentle hill of San Pedro Street, jumping over the familiar cracks on the sidewalk, but noticing an uncharacteristic stillness at the houses along my path. I didn’t know it then, of course, but my school, like most in southern California, had shut down almost immediately as word spread. Mom was not surprised to see me. She knew.

At the family dinner table later that evening, I recall my father intently watching the news. Having just gotten home, he was still wearing his royal blue work shirt, the one with the orange “AA” (American Airlines) patch above one pocket. Dad was a CBS man, so the anchor on the low-def, black & white TV screen had to have been Walter Cronkite. I would come to know “Uncle Walter” well in the coming tumults triggered by civil rights marches, riots, Vietnam, nightly body counts, and student protests at places like Kent State. I vaguely recall Dad sighing in resignation, and making a kind remark about Mr. Kennedy. I knew was our president. JFK was an admired figure in our staunchly Democratic household. Something bad had occurred, but my child-mind could not yet grasp its gravity. Besides, I was busy patting Trixie, our German Sheppard, who was quietly panting her dog-smile below the overhanging table cloth.

After dinner, I went off to play – and onward to finish living my boyhood. Only many years later did I connect the dots and have that oh-my-god epiphany. Only then did I realize I had been part of a greater American family whose members could recall exactly where they were on the day Kennedy was shot. Like them, I had borne witness to a shocking tragedy, one with the power to knock the breath out of me even years after the fact.

Our 35th President, of course, was assassinated at 12:30 p.m. Central Time (10:30 a.m. at my playground) on that black November Friday in Dealey Plaza. It explained the crying girls, the anxious whispers, the pained look on Mrs. Buchanan face, my dad’s dismay at the somber words coming from Mr. Cronkite, and the hush that seemingly enveloped my little world along San Pedro Street.

But that's the way it was in 1963, to paraphrase Cronkite's trademark phrase. It was momentous history, the day Kennedy died, as witnessed through one child’s eyes in L.A.

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