On Memorial Day of 2010, we visited the Grassy Knoll in Dallas TX.
I needed to go there. to see and experience it for myself.
My son asked me to write about that day so many years ago,
How I remember it, how it changed me.
NOVEMBER 22, 1963
It was a day that began like any other, but ended like none I have ever lived through before or since. Most people of my generation remember where they were that day, what they were doing, how they found out. It is marked in our minds as a day set aside, one that made no sense at all. And as such, it was a day that defined a lack of control over our lives that has haunted me ever since. All the possibilities, dreams and promises of Camelot came to an end that day. President Kennedy had been assassinated.
I woke that Friday morning, dressed, grabbed my homework and headed for my sixth grade class at DeLong Elementary School. Our teacher had given us an assignment, and we were busy working on it. Between 10:30 and 11:00, someone knocked on the door. The student seated closest to the door performed his assigned task of answering. The secretary of the school asked to speak to Mr. Selforse.
This, in itself, was strange. Usually, if a student was needed in the office, the secretary would announce their name over the loud speaker, and the student would be excused. We were all waiting to hear who was in trouble, when Mr. Selforse let out a loud “Nooooo!” His eyes immediately began to tear up. Everyone’s eyes were riveted on our teacher.
He turned to face the classroom, obviously overwhelmed by emotion. “There has been an assassination attempt on President Kennedy,” he announced. He went directly to the large TV that hung on a bracket from the ceiling. He flipped it on, turned it to a news channel, then returned to his desk. Walter Cronkite announced that President Kennedy had been pronounced dead in a Dallas Hospital. I was told by friends that the teacher cried. I can’t say, because I didn’t look. I kept my eyes on Walter Cronkite, and watched him take his glasses off, and wipe a tear.
My mind could not wrap around what I was hearing. How could he be dead? I had just seen him two months earlier while he was in Tacoma. Who could do this thing? The broadcast droned on, telling and retelling what they knew so far. As the day went on, people who had been at the scene told what they had witnessed. The motorcade made its way down the street. President Kennedy waved at all the people lining the street to greet him. Jacqueline, beautiful as usual, sitting by his side, wearing pink. Shots rang out. The world stopped.
The 11 year old girl, watching TV in her classroom in a small school in Tacoma, WA suddenly realized how fragile the world really was. All the dreams he had talked about just two months earlier in her home town were not to be realized by him. In moments, three shots, and everything was changed. Nothing was as it had been just one hour before.
It was like everything was happening to someone else. I could picture the United States, seen from space, everyone in their places listening as one to the events that were taking place that day. All of us were being thrown into a future that no longer felt safe, or certain. I suddenly felt so much older, like my childhood had been ripped out of my heart. I suddenly became aware that vibrancy did not guarantee continuance. Goodness did not guarantee safety. And that sometimes paths just end. I wished I could go back to the day in September when I had attended his speech at Cheney Stadium. Maybe if we could just start over at that point, something would change, and none of this would happen. But, in life, there are no do-overs. I watched the newscast, watched them tell and retell his last moments, and each time the result was the same.
The only other assassination that I had learned about at school was that of President Lincoln. I began wondering if this was how those of his day had felt when they learned of his death. My mind was busy thinking of any similarities that would help me make sense of the two events. Later, I discovered that others had done the same. There is a feeling of safety in cataloging similar events. It somehow means that things don’t just happen randomly. Forty-seven years later, and I’m still not certain of the validity of that thought. I find that I sleep better though if I believe it’s true.
I don’t remember much about the rest of the day of school, or whether we were let out early. I do remember that by the time I got home, Mom had the news on. It was unusual to find her in the living room, watching TV. I almost always found her in the kitchen when I got home from school. “Did you hear?” she asked me quietly. I could only nod. I sat down next to her, and continued watching. A sixth grader, but I remember holding hands with my mother. We were still there when Dad got home. He had heard about it at work. Mom went in to make dinner, but none of us were really hungry, and we were allowed to eat in the living room where we could continue to listen to the story over and over.
From time to time they would show pictures of Jacqueline. One, in particular, made me cry whenever they showed it. The picture was taken on Air Force One, and showed LBJ, Ladybird, and Jacqueline standing together while he was being sworn in as President. I’ve studied this picture as an adult, and I think what I was reacting to as a child, was how lost she looked at that moment. The full grief had not hit her yet, I believe she still felt numb. But her eyes looked dazed. Like she had just seen what she had feared the most. She still wore the beautiful pink suit, her pink pillbox hat gone. Across the skirt, she wore the blood and brain matter of our President, her lover, and husband. There have been times in my life that I have worn that same look. I understand it now. But at the time it was bewildering to me. I had believed that all adults controlled their lives, and if something bad happened to them it was because of something stupid they had done. Walking into a busy street, carelessness behind the wheel of a car, perhaps buying the wrong train ticket. Now suddenly I realized that things and people could be taken from you by no fault of your own. I felt powerless to stop it.
We stayed up late watching TV, and got up early Saturday morning to continue. Now there were pictures of Lee Harvey Oswald, the man believed to have fired from the Texas School Book Depository. Much of the coverage that day were pictures of the scene and descriptions from those who had witnessed it. A real feeling of unreality began to form. Some of the reports were contradictory. My father picked up on those and couldn’t understand how several people who had witnessed the same event could hear and see different things. Judging from the pandemonium that occurred following the assassination I could understand the panic and confusion the witnesses must have suffered.
Saturday melted into Sunday. The TV became our link to Washington DC. The President’s coffin arrived on a horse drawn caisson to lie in State in the Rotunda of the Capitol, on the same spot President Lincoln had lain almost 100 years before. We watched as people from all over the world, dignitaries, presidents, celebrities all paid their respects to JFK. Jacqueline, dressed all in black with her face covered with a veil, knelt by the casket with Caroline. One by one, people filed past the casket, crying openly, for hours and hours, the entire day.
By evening, a news bulletin was aired. Lee Harvey Oswald had been shot. He died shortly after arriving at the hospital. Now there would be no answer to the question the Nation wanted to hear the most. WHY.
Monday was declared a National Day of Mourning, so Dad and I were home. The State Funeral began that day. I will never forget the sound of the drums as the caisson once again carried the casket. Only this time, it made its way past the Lincoln Memorial, and across the Potomac to the Arlington National Cemetery. Thousands of people walked behind it. I was so impressed with Jacqueline as she walked in her black heels, keeping pace with the caisson that carried her husbands’ body. Everyone walked behind her, silently.
There was something else I had never seen before. A black horse with no rider was a part of the procession. In the stirrups were black boots, facing backwards. A symbol of a fallen leader.
I had never known the meaning of mourning something. But I realized that day what mourning meant. So many levels of loss, only one of them was my childhood. The world was never the same for me after that, it never felt secure for me again. Like the earth had shaken right out from under my feet. The drums beat all day. I felt mesmerized by them. I closed my eyes and let them enter my heart, until their beat became mine.
c.2010 Fai Marie Dawson