Do you remember where you were on November 22, 1963?
Like many, I well remember where I was on November 22, 1963. I was in Dallas, Texas, my hometown.
That morning, my father had wanted to take us (his two daughters) to his office so that we could watch the Kennedy motorcade meander through downtown. My mother put her foot down with “no,” not her usual style. We went to school. My mother had volunteered to help with the Kennedy luncheon. My father went to work.
At that fateful hour, I was in music class singing along with my classmates when Mother Ruth, our seventh grade teacher, interrupted the class – again, unusual – and announced that the President had been shot.
Time stopped. Mother Ruth was clearly upset. There were no guidelines or rules on what to do. My memory is of ill-defined chaos in the school. I took it upon myself to walk out of the school building and head to the chapel. (Chapel or no chapel, this was considered a highly renegade act in its day.)The nuns had taught me that if I had a problem, I should turn to God. So, I did. I knelt in the empty chapel and prayed for everything to be ok. I knew things weren’t right, but I didn’t really understand the enormity of the impact. Prayer did not help me; maybe, I didn’t know how to pray the right way. I left the chapel, restless with disappointment. I didn’t know what to do.
When I returned to the building, I headed to the Principal’s office for some direction as what I should do. I needed to do something to quell my unnamed fears. It was a small office in state of upheaval. I joined the secretary and picked up a phone and began calling parents to come pick up their kids. (Remember this is in the day of pre cell phones, much less computers. There were telephone trees.) We were all going home. School was over for the day. It felt like the world had ended, but everything looked the same, except the adults were panicked and very upset.
I have no memory of who took me and my younger sister home that day, most likely a carpool mom.
At home, we turned on the TV — in the middle of the day — to watch the news – in the middle of the day. When they announced that the President had died, I wondered what this meant, I had no idea, but it fell a bit like free fall. It felt scary, especially because everyone – news reporters, parents, teachers, all the adults — were becoming unglued.
From that moment on, I was very embarrassed to say I was from Dallas, Texas. By association, I felt ashamed; as if living in Dallas had somehow made me complicit with the assassination. There was a groundswell of anti-Dallas sentiment. One dad of a classmate headed to New York City for a business trip a few days following President Kennedy’s death. He landed at Idlewild (now known as JFK) airport and was en route to the city via cab. The cabbie, your archetypal garrulous New Yorker, upon learning that his passenger was from Dallas, threw the dad out of the cab and dumped him in the middle of the Van Wyck Expressway. Even six years later, as a freshman in college in New York, when people learned I was from Dallas, the immediate question that followed was about the Kennedy assassination. It was a kind of geographical stigma.
Now, time has passed, 50 years to be exact, and this tragedy is like an old photo, not as sharp and blurred around the edges. In retrospect, I know I was naïve and sheltered — a child of the Father-Knows-Best-and-June-Cleaver era. On November 22, 1963, I learned a hard life lesson: Big bad things can and do happen for no apparent reason.
The world continues at its fast and furious pace. Violence has metastasized across the planet. The media brings it all into our living rooms on a minute-by-minute basis. Today’s children, unfortunately, have witnessed so much more, and their parents have become adept at crisis management.
On this fiftieth anniversary, my wish is that we not only give a nod to a soulful President who encouraged us to dream and take action, but we also strengthen our efforts to practice, model, and teach peace.