Steve Jaeger remembers the day that John F. Kennedy died. Where were you?
It was fifty years ago but still in my mind’s eye it just happened. The moment has burn burned into my memory and it’s as fresh as if it happened yesterday. I was sitting in Miss Farnham’s class at my desk. It was Friday afternoon and like every Friday we had quiet time to read and study until the school day ended. A secretary from the office, a lady I saw nearly every day for eight years but don’t recall her name came to the classroom door and called to Miss Farnham, “Nora, I need to speak with you.” She had a strange look on her face. She and Miss Farnham spoke in very quiet voices and then Miss Farnham turned to the class and said, “Boys and girls, I have terrible news. President Kennedy has been shot and killed”. The classroom was completely silent for a few moments and then everyone started shouting questions to the teacher. We were stunned, very few of us had any experience with loss and our nine-year old brains could not completely process what we’d just heard. Miss Farnham held up her hands to quiet us and said, “All of you get your things, we are all going to the auditorium until school is released. We were herded into the huge old auditorium, which the following year would be condemned and spell the end for our fifty-year-old school building. There was none of the usual chatter of an assembly it was eerie and very quite especially for a large room filled with pre-teens.
The Principal was on the stage at a microphone. He told us all to sit and keep our voices down. He tried to explain what he knew which was little. The president was in Dallas and was riding in a motorcade and he’d been shot and killed. No one knew who did it. A kid in the front row shouted out, “Was it the Russians?” Dr. H as he was called, said no one knew who did it. We were all terrified of the Russians. Every month we had air raid drills in the school where at the sound of the siren we all had to climb under our huge old wooden desks and cover our heads. It wasn’t until I was a little older that I realized that in case of a nuclear attack a stout wooden desk was not going to be much help. We all stayed in the auditorium for about another hour and were released. Everyone I saw seemed to be crying. My mother picked me up from school to take me to my Friday afternoon music class. She was sobbing as she drove. We had a picture of Kennedy hanging on our kitchen wall right next to the picture of the Pope. My parents were old time New Deal Democrats but Kennedy had special meaning for us, an Irish Catholic elected to the highest office in the land.
What I remember most about the aftermath was the stillness. Everything seemed to be closed. There was no traffic and the usual flow of our suburban neighborhood had disappeared. Everyone was hunkered down in their own home. After 9/11
I felt the same sense of absolute quiet. Looking up in the sky and seeing no planes was a bizarre and frightening feeling. My favorite TV show in those days was Officer Joe Bolton and the Three Stooges but then I turned it on there was Officer Joe wearing a dark suit and talking about the life and greatness of our slain leader. I went outside and ran into my friend Butch and we rode our bikes between my house and his looking for something to do. I got together with Butch a few years back and we spoke of that day and we both had very clear memories but interestingly what he and I recalled did not match up. He remembers my mother sitting in front of the TV crying and I remember going into his house and seeing the rest of his family gathered around the TV in their dark den.
Two days later as we walked up to Butch’s house, his older brother burst out the front door and breathlessly said, “The guy who shot Kennedy just got shot! It was on TV!” We rushed inside and watched the news reports and I remember the reporter yelling into his microphone while the room around him was in complete pandemonium. It just added to the surreal sense of the bizarre and shocking events.
The following Monday I watched the President’s State Funeral on TV with the rest of the nation. My mother had her head on my father’s shoulder and she cried and cried. She went on and on about “His beautiful wife and children” and how would we all go on. The one image of the funeral that has always stayed with me was the family kneeling at the coffin where it lay in state at the capital and Caroline lifting up the flag and peeking underneath. Probably because it brought on a fresh round of sobs from my mother.
The next Thursday was Thanksgiving, which had always been (and still is) one of the highlights of the year for my family. That year was somber and quiet and when the adults did talk it was only about the tragic events. If any of us had known what lay in store for the rest of the decade we would have marked Nov. 22, 1963 as the day the country lost its mind.
When I think back to that day I still feel a palpable sense of loss. I can not count the number of friends and family members who have died since that time including my parents and older brother but the shock of that day, the uncertainty and fear has remained with me to this day and will be with me as long as I live.