SP Premium
150,000-199,999 SparkPoints 179,398

Fifty years ago...

Friday, November 22, 2013

Asking “Where were you when--?” is an age-revealer. “Where were you when ‘Challenger’ exploded?” “Where were you when you heard Elvis had died?” And this week, most of all, “Where were you when JFK was assassinated?”

Just as it is this year, in 1963 the 22nd of November was on a Friday, with Thanksgiving on the 28th.

I was in sixth grade. Someone came to the door of our classroom and spoke to the teacher in a low voice; she turned and announced that the President had been shot in Dallas, with no further news available. Perhaps ten minutes later, the principal came on over the loudspeaker to tell us President Kennedy was dead.

We were sent home earlier than usual that day, and when the funeral was scheduled for Monday it seemed as though everything closed: we had no school, and my father’s employer closed as well, giving him an unexpected day off.

My family spent the weekend watching television - unheard of in our house - and I’m not sure but what my parents practically slept in the living room. If the coverage wasn’t round-the-clock, it was close.

My brother and I asked if we could all go to Washington to see the funeral; we lived maybe some forty miles northwest of DC. Dad said it wouldn’t be worth it, as the tremendous crowds sure to turn up would mean we wouldn’t be able to see anything, that we’d have a better view with the TV broadcast.

He was right. While he had a genuine appreciation of history, and an awareness that this was history in the making, he also recognized that "modern technology" was a tool to be used. Watching on television took none of the immediacy away, and if anything probably enabled me to see the funeral live in its entirety, rather than only a glimpse of what might pass directly in front of us. And indeed, the scenes from that day have stayed in my memory for these fifty years.

Because we didn’t go to the funeral my father earmarked the Friday following Thanksgiving for a trip to Arlington National Cemetery. Dad said that we could pay our respects, and also get a sense of being part of the history, the drama, of the event.

So the Friday after Thanksgiving, one week after Kennedy’s assassination, we drove to Washington.

We had to park some distance from Arlington’s gates, as there were no cars permitted on the grounds, at least on that day. The weather was clear, chilly but not freezing cold, as I recall. The crowds pretty much filled the walkways from side to side, perhaps four or five people abreast, and the line stretched… well, I’m not sure how far. Almost to the gates, maybe. We were near the end of the line when I turned and took this photograph:

I’m not sure how well this picture will turn out, but I think you’ll be able to see the cars parked at the bottom - they were DC police, stationed there to make sure no one drove into the cemetery, I suppose. And you may be able to see the groups of people making their way up to the gates.

The Kennedy gravesite looked very different then, of course. Although the eternal flame had been lit - and I don’t think it’s visible in any of my pictures, as the black-and-white film doesn’t really show it up - there was no stonework, no engravings, no markers. All of that came later.

There were posts with ropes to indicate the path to follow and a picket fence around JFK’s grave - I don’t believe either of the children had been moved there yet, and obviously this was years before Bobby Kennedy’s death.

The gravesite was knee-deep in flowers with masses of them also laid out on the rise of the hill, above the grave:

In this next one, you can see some of the crowds of people as they moved past the gravesite. You see what I mean about the posts - movable stanchions - with ropes strung between them. There were honor guardsmen, perhaps from the same detail as those who patrol the Tomb of the Unknowns:

As much as anything it was the silence that impressed me. I don’t remember hearing a sound. I suppose there must have been murmured conversations, a cough, the click of a camera, perhaps some whispers. I remember only the immensity of the silence. So many people - so little sound.

I found the next photo on the internet, with no credit given. It was taken after the posts had become permanent, with chains instead of ropes, but still looks to be before the Kennedy babies were interred beside their father. If the picket fence was temporary early on, it appears to have become more solid by this point:

This photo is after the children’s bodies had been moved to either side of the president’s:

I think the following - which clearly shows the eternal flame’s point as well as at least two of the name-plaques on the gravesite - is a picture taken relatively early in the stone remodelling of the site, as there is more extensive stonework now, I believe:

I haven’t been there in a few years. Each time I go, it seems they’ve added something new. It’s a beautiful site, with an incredible view over the city.

None of my subsequent visits has had the impact, though, of that first one. Dad was right. He knew it would make an indelible impression, of the time, the era, of that very moment when the world changed.

Share This Post With Others
Member Comments About This Blog Post
    I have to admit I don´t remember exactly, but then I am swedish and I was young... our trauma is our prime minister Olof Palme being shot - THAT I remember, the shameful thing that we never caught the murderer had an influence of the selfesteem on all swedes...
    2489 days ago
  • PHOENIX1949
    Thank you so much for sharing this memory and your photos.

    I was in 9th grade P.E. class, outside on the grounds about to do chin-ups for my Presidential Fitness Test. I had just told a classmate I was excited because I was going to babysit for two families (State Representative and another Attorney) during the Kennedy Dinner here in Austin and was being paid much more than my regular rate. I had asked to have an autographed program/menu brought back for me.

    Someone whispered to our teacher who turned pale and ushered us quickly indoors where the announcement was made over the speaker system.

    Words are not adequate for this. Surreal & sad at top of my list.

    Backing up to 6th grade, I had a vested interest in this President. At my Parochial school (private, church-affiliated) as part of our Civics lesson, we examined issues and campaigned for our chosen candidate with a class voting day scheduled on Election Day. Someone misbehaved that morning and the entire class was punished by the voting being cancelled.

    2638 days ago
    I was a 14 year old HS sophomore in chemistry class when The Announcement was made over the intercom. I have never been one for crying, but I simply lost it and had to leave the room. I remember the halls being vast, completely silent, dark and empty. Heading downstairs to the second level I found the only other person in those otherwise deserted corridors - my sister. I don't think either of us were consciously aware that we left class to find each other, but when we did we went home. (see my Stolen Christmas blog for insight into our response to the assassination.) We both sat in front of the TV in my mother's bedroom, day and night, watching the same footage over and over, grieving.

    When I was growing up, I felt that The President was like a surrogate father - wise, loving, handsome, my protector... the protector of my country. At my elementary school, the whole school gathered outside for the morning flag ceremony and an honor guard stayed behind to lower and fold the flag at the end of the day. I don't remember there being a daily recitation of the Lord's Prayer, but we stood at attention, right hand over heart or, if wearing a Scout uniform, saluting, saying the Pledge of Allegiance. I remember this ceremony as being very solemn and moving, a time when the class clown did not cut up. I also remember "Duck and Cover" exercises where we had to crawl under our desks and cover our heads in case of an atomic bomb.

    I was in love with JFK. The brother of my sophomore HS English teacher was Jackie's obstetrician when she lost her premature baby boy, Patrick, in August of 1963. My own little brother was born 7 weeks premature weighing 1.5 lbs, but he miraculously survived. Through commonality, our hearts were already extended to the Kennedys when JFK was assassinated.

    So much faith, hope and innocence died then - beginning with the President on Nov.22, 1964, and then Oswald and Jack Ruby and then Dr King on April 4, 1968, and Bobby Kennedy a mere 2 months later - what a time that was.

    Thank you so much for posting this, Kasey - what a wonderful blog!
    2640 days ago

    Comment edited on: 12/13/2013 6:03:13 PM
    Hello friend, I was in the fourth grade also outside at recess and as we returned to the building parents were there waiting with the news. What I remember most, living so close to DC we went there often, was that picket fence and we have many pics of it as well. We also lived close to the railroad tracks and remember when Bobby Kennedy was shot and we walked up to the tracks to see the train go by with his casket. The tracks were lined with people waiting to see it slowly roll by.

    Just don't think the public would get the same effects if such tragedies happened today. The Kennedy's were just so special to us.

    Good to see you and hope all is well in your world. HUGS !!!
    2654 days ago
    Thank you so much for sharing this. I was in 5th grade (we're the same age, I think, but I started school "late"), and it was a similar sort of thing. One girl who'd gone home for lunch brought the news back to the class. They rolled a television into the room and we watched from that point forward.

    Living as far away from DC as we did (Nebraska), there was no chance of going, but when my own son was in 5th grade and we lived in upstate New York, their class took a trip to DC and among the sites on the tour were the tomb on the unknown soldier and Kennedy's gravesite.

    I, too, noted the coincidence of days of the week. We were in church a whole lot that week! Special memorial service, regular Sunday and Wednesday services, and Thanksgiving service all fell in the same week.

    This year, as they do all the memorials... it brings it back.
    2657 days ago
    Oh Kasey--great blog----Memories!---- I was in a nursing class--We all cried-----
    2658 days ago
  • no profile photo CD6484093
    I was in 3rd grade. "Back then," we all went home for lunch each day. I still remember stepping up on the closet step to reach for my stocking cap to get ready to go back for the afternoon session of school when an announcement came over the radio that the president had been shot. Later that afternoon, our Principal came into our classroom and had a whispered conversation with our teacher. Once she left, our teacher told us that the president had died.

    Our family, too, were glued to the TV all weekend long. Unheard of back then.

    THanks for sharing the photos -- they bring it all back.
    2659 days ago
    I was in 4th grade (Mrs. Boyle's class). I was more upset about my sister because she was living in Dallas at the time and I thought she might get shot, too. I was young...I had no clue how big Dallas was...guess I thought it was the size of Gamber!
    2660 days ago
    I so vividly remember where I was and what i was doing....
    It was a saturday in my country and we were getting ready to go on a picnic.....I was 11 years old and I so remember hearing the announcement on the news.....
    2660 days ago
  • PROT358
    That was well before my time, but your recollections and especially those black and white photographs brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for sharing!
    2660 days ago
    What a moving memory---and the explanation of the quietness of the crowd really shows how important this event was.
    2661 days ago
  • no profile photo CD14049861
    I was in a 7th grade history class. The teacher was called to the door and returned to tell us what had happened. She was sobbing as she told us and ended with "a sad page was added to our country's history today." I'll never forget those words and her sobs. We too watched TV all weekend. I've been to the gravesite twice - once when my dad took the family and again after I had started teaching.
    (Just a side note - my first teaching job was enriched by the wonderful "older" woman teaching in the next room. I learned so much from her! You can imagine my surprise when I discovered she was the mother of my history teacher!)
    2661 days ago
  • SROUS1340
    thanks for the really personal memories Kasey. I was in 6th grade too, in Fort Worth, Tx. We were watching the parade on TV, and I remember the moments that no one understood, until an annoucement was made, and the shock and the sadness. My parents weren't Kennedy supporters, and they didn't grieve, but I did. I didn't understand politics, but I got tragedy, even at 12. I loved seeing those original photos and hearing your story.
    2661 days ago
    Such a sad event. I remember watching Jackie and the kids and how stoic they were and so sad. I was in school assembly near the end of the day. Was out on the practice field when a friend came over and told us he was gone. That night we had a football game but don't remember who won.
    2661 days ago
    I was a young architecture student attending a big exhibition in London. When it closed a bunch of us headed off to the pub for a really lively night out on the town.
    We walked in to this crowded pub and rushed up to the bar, a seriously shocked guy came to serve us and we were suddenly aware of the fact that in this whole, huge, pub the only sound was us.
    Looking round at the barman, no question asked, he said "Kennedy has been shot" and walked away.
    We picked up our drinksand sat in silence till we had to get the train home.
    2661 days ago
    Thank you so much for your post and pictures. How I heard about it was very similar to your story; however, our TV was broken and we couldn't afford to have it fixed (for a few years); so we listened to the radio and only saw still pictures after. Living in Massachusetts, we felt a special affection for President Kennedy and mourned with the rest of the country. I have only been to the grave once, but it is incredibly moving. I have gone to the small Kennedy Museum in Hyannis a number of times, which memorializes his down time on Cape Cod… wonderful photos and stories of him relaxing with his family. I cry every time I go… an end of innocence.
    2661 days ago
  • JAROL7
    Oh yes, the memories. I was moving into an Air Force Base house 50 years ago today.
    2661 days ago
  • Add Your Comment to the Blog Post

    Log in to post a comment

    Disclaimer: Weight loss results will vary from person to person. No individual result should be seen as a typical result of following the SparkPeople program.