COMMENTARY | I remember it being sunny Friday afternoon. With a little more than an hour left in the school week, I probably was fidgeting at my desk in my white, button-down shirt and clip-on tie – standard attire for just about every day I spent at St. Paul Catholic School in Allentown, Pa., in the 1960s.
I have no idea what subject my fourth-grade teacher, Miss Kastelnick, might have been discussing at that moment. But what happened next has stayed with me for 50 years.
There was a small box speaker box on the wall above the blackboard behind Miss Kastelnick’s desk. Announcements usually came over it from St. Paul’s principal, Sister Mary Esther, and she always preceded them with one “ding” of a desk bell. This one was unusual because it came across without the ding, and in someone else’s voice:
“Attention please! Our president has been shot!”
I seem to recall a quick, sharp noise immediately after, maybe everybody at once shifting in their seats to sudden rapt attention. Our president? Shot? Before such a flabbergasting declaration had any chance of being processed, sounds from a radio came on over the speaker as something a confirmation that this had really happened.
A news commentator was explaining how John F. Kennedy had been riding in an open car in Dallas, Tex., when he and John Connolly, the governor of Texas, were struck by gunfire. They had just been raced to a nearby hospital and an update on his condition was due momentarily.
More commentators took turns adding details of events leading up to the shooting. As I remember, it was only a matter of minutes before the original speaker broke in with a bulletin: “President John F. Kennedy, 35th president of the United States, is dead.”
I can still hear that voice, how is tailed off with “… is dead.” The speaker above Miss Kastelnick’s desk went silent shortly after.
It’s hard to explain to people who weren’t there to experience that extraordinary weekend what it was like to live through it. I’ve tried to compare it to 9/11 in terms of palpable astonishment. But it’s a hard sell. Many wonder how it can remain such an enduring memory a half century later, particularly since I was just 9 years old at the time.
The assassination of John F. Kennedy was the first unfathomable national catastrophe we were able to share continuously in real time on television. Every network covered it from the moments after the shots were fired in Dealey Plaza that Friday to the conclusion of his funeral the following Monday. This was a period when the television set had only recently become an integral part of every American household, give or take a few years. Imagine witnessing all the emotions of such a monumental event through an electronic window in your living room for the first time. That’s literally what was happening.
Most of the public wouldn’t see Abraham Zapruder’s film, the only clear footage of the shooting of the president, until years later. But that Friday we would see Kennedy’s coffin being taken off the presidential plane with his wife, Jackie, right behind in her bloodstained pink suit. That Saturday we would see thousands of people line the streets of Washington, D.C., for the chance to view the flagged-draped casket in the Capitol Rotunda. That Monday, we would see 3-year-old John F. Kennedy, Jr., saluting his father as the funeral caisson passed on the way to Arlington National Cemetery.
And that Sunday we would see accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald being murdered in the basement of Dallas police headquarters.
It was impossible not to feel it all, even at 9 years old. This was our tragedy like Pearl Harbor was a similar tragedy for the generation before ours. But that generation could only hear about Pearl Harbor on the radio. They could only see its aftermath in movie newsreels much later. We got the chance to live those four days in November in 1963 as they happened, regardless of how far from Dallas and Washington we happened to be. As Americans, we got the chance to take it personally.
The John F. Kennedy assassination set the tone for the way we would see world events going forward. Just a few years later, we would be there in much the same way for the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy. We would be there for riots in our major cities and a war in southeast Asia. We have been there to witness every terrible event since Nov. 22, 1963 in complete detail. We’ve seen it all. What was the likelihood of being caught so emotionally off guard, of being so absolutely astounded again as we had been that day in Dallas?
Then on Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists flew two planes into the towers of the World Trade Center. A plane also crashed into the Pentagon and one likely intended for the White House or the Capitol building went down in western Pennsylvania. America was shaken to its core. The despair was beyond measure. The effects of the events of that day will be here as long as our flag continues to wave. We all watched it unfold. It was impossible not to feel it.
And as those events unfolded, I couldn’t help but think I had felt it before.