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In the middle of a Friday afternoon in November a sixth-grade student came bursting through the gymnasium doors at Simpsonville Elementary and moved quickly to speak to our teacher, who was standing in front of the stage and watching us play basketball or generally run That someone came into the gym distracted us to a point of pause, because it was so out of the ordinary, but what happened after that let us know why the extraordinary was in order, even if for a while we didn’t understand truly.
That student strode quickly up to Christine Mathis, the prim and tolerant woman charged with educating us, and I saw Mrs. Mathis sort of bow from the waist, in that fashion that people do when they are struck head-on with a stunning piece of overpoweringly bad news.
She called us together. She was in tears, almost overcome. We stood generally as quiet as could be expected. I don’t recall her exact words, but the message has lingered for generations:
“President Kennedy is dead.”
You have to understand that we knew who our president was, and we knew what it meant to be dead. But not until we returned to our classroom and listened to a radio broadcast piped through the intercom did we fully understand: He didn’t just keel over from a bad heart or something.
A man with a rifle had shot him while he rode in a parade through downtown Dallas.
They kept using the word assassination, which until that day wasn’t part of most of our vocabularies. Rumors kept spreading that others in the car were shot and perhaps were even dead, that a gunman had shot it out with police.
We lived a course in American government, understanding how and when Vice President Lyndon Johnson would become president, but we didn’t conceive how our lives would change that day, the filter through which we observed an unfolding American tragedy tainted by naivete and the selfish unconcern of youth. We had no clue a nation’s innocence passed away on a cold city street.
I was very sad that day, to be sure, but it had nothing to do with the murder of an American hero and had everything to do with the fact that such an act had caused an early end to our always much-anticipated game of basketball in a real gym.
After school I said as much to my friend Walt Carpenter, who was a year older and far more attune to ways of a world that blew past me like so many leaves in the November wind. He looked hard at me and gritted his teeth and said, “I ought to punch you in the arm for saying that.”
He was right. I deserved a punch in the arm, although Walt spared me.
And it is with a quick reddening of immediate embarrassment that I type these pathetic words.
One of the greatest presidents of our history lay with his skull shattered by an assassin’s bullet, and I was concerned about a loss of 15 minutes of court time.
You can imagine, then, how disruptive I found television for the next few days, when Cronkite, Huntley and Brinkley, Reynolds and Rather and a host of other overworked news anchors and reporters told us the details of that horrible afternoon.
We watched on any or all of our three, black-and-white channels. We waited for reporting from afar, as inconceivable as that would seem in today’s era or instant and even premature delivery of every imaginable tragedy.
We waited for real journalists to ask real questions and tell us what was happening. We waited for the film to develop before we saw the blood-stained suit of Jacqueline Kennedy and understood that Texas Gov. John Connally was shot while riding in that convertible as well.
We watched as Johnson raised his hand and became president, and we found the presence of the First Lady and the informality of the setting to be chilling.
I recall not understanding why there would be no NFL games on Sunday, why a casket lying in the rotunda of a capitol was in its quiet and static way something that had to be seen. With no alternative, we watched and learned. We learned what a caisson was, what Arlington National Cemetery looked like, why widows wore black veils and why children walked behind that caisson.
We even watched when the man accused of firing the deadly bullet, Lee Harvey Oswald, was led among a phalanx of people lining a corridor, and we saw an onlooker, later known to be Jack Ruby, step out with a pistol and shoot him dead.
You have your memories of that day, and mine are an evolution from ignorance to awe to enlightenment to, well, perspective.
John Kennedy changed our world in more ways than we can measure. There are people with whom I would relate years later that I would not have known and embraced without the efforts of JFK, accomplishments we would not for generations appreciate without his vision and charisma.
Some people hated Kennedy – he would not have been murdered if not so, of course – but many see those few years of his presidency as sort of the end of a Valhalla, of a world that was better for all of us, when hope far outraced despair in the dash for human existence.
Only now, some 18,261 days later – 2 days shy of 50 years – can I look back with any true understanding about why it was important that my basketball game had to end and why we had to confront the cruel and unjust twists that we all must endure.
I’m sorry for the way I felt that afternoon, but I’m not sorry that my eyes were opened and my perspective grasped and straightened. America lost a true hero, and those of us who witnessed learned what that meant.