For a couple of weeks now, this newspaper has been running an ad inviting readers to share stories of where they were on November 22, 1963 when the news broke that President Kennedy had been shot.
Until I saw that ad, I’d planned to review Stephen King’s novel “11/22/63” in today’s column. It’s a time travel tale about a twenty-first century schoolteacher who, quite by accident, is whisked back to the early 1960s and tries to stop Lee Harvey Oswald from killing the president.
But I’ve been writing a lot of book reviews lately. Maybe too many. So I decided, instead, that I’d join those Herald-Citizen readers who were willing to share their memories of that awful Friday almost fifty years ago.
I was in the fourth grade at Forest Hills Elementary School in Augusta, Georgia. Our principal came over the loudspeaker and asked all the teachers to come to the office immediately. As far back as any of us could remember, this had never happened. Even in those simpler times, teachers didn’t leave students alone in a classroom without supervision.
My teacher, Mrs. Kaylor, dropped what she was doing and looked at us piercingly. “Everybody stay in your seats and be quiet,” she said softly. “I mean that.” We nodded solemnly. And you know what? We did. For the ten minutes Mrs. Kaylor was gone, not a single one of us got up or said a word, sensing—I suppose—that something hugely monumental was taking place.
When she came back into the room, Mrs. Kaylor was crying. “Boys and girls,” she said, “President Kennedy was shot and killed this afternoon in Dallas, Texas.” That was it. She continued to cry and we sat in stunned silence until the dismissal bell rang a few minutes later.
Because I lived less than three miles from school, which—in those simpler times—meant that I walked instead of riding the bus, I had plenty of time as I made my way home to mull over how I would break the stunning news to my mother. Though I knew she “caught up on her ironing” every afternoon while she watched “As the World Turns,” I didn’t realize that a soap opera would be interrupted for any reason, including an assassination.
It had been, of course. Mother wasn’t crying but she seemed very sad. Which kind of surprised me, because my parents had been ardent Nixon supporters in 1960 and were oftentimes quite vocal in their criticism of JFK.
“I thought you didn’t like President Kennedy,” I told her.
“Oh…honey,” she said, “it doesn’t matter that we didn’t vote for him or that we didn’t like some of the things he did. He was the president of our country and this is a terrible, terrible tragedy.”
Like every other television set in the USA, ours was on constantly for the next several days. The most vivid thing I remember from the coverage of the funeral was the question my brother Rusty, who was six years old at the time, asked: “Where is President Kennedy’s head?”
“What do you mean?” Daddy asked.
“They keep talking about what’s happening to President Kennedy’s body. I just don’t understand where his head is.”
Fifty years later, those are still my most vivid memories of a day that changed America forever. I look forward to reading many other memories in today’s paper. I hope you will, too. And if you get a chance, give Stephen King’s book a look. It’s one of his best.
(November 17, 2013)