It was Friday, and I was looking forward to school getting out so I would have the weekend for pizza at Paul’s Friday night, work Saturday, and a little fun Sunday. I thought I was due some fun, because just three-days earlier, November 19, 1963, we had buried my great-grandmother, Frances Livinia Johnson Swain. Granny died at the age of ninety-two, and my family had been living with the sadness since.
At school that Friday, I had just returned to my seventh-grade classroom from lunch when we received shocking news. As I was digging under my cluttered desk searching for the book needed for our next lesson, the principal’s voice came on over the loud speaker hanging above the blackboard. Sister Mary Iratus’ voice, usually commanding and menacing was soft and halting. She said, “Boys and girls, a few minutes ago President Kennedy was shot in Texas. Please get on your knees and offer a prayer for our President.”
Our teacher said, “Everyone down on your knees.” Each of us knelt on the floor next to our desks. We made the Sign of the Cross and, together, we recited an Our Father and a Hail Mary—two prime prayers in the spiritual arsenal of every Catholic. I was so shaken, without thinking, I said both prayers in Latin. When we finished, class started, but I couldn’t concentrate. In my youthful naïveté, it was hard to imagine how someone could shoot the president. I was sure it must have been a terrible accident, but he would be okay soon.
About thirty-minutes later, Sister came on the intercom again, and it sounded like she was crying. “Boys and girls, President Kennedy just died in the hospital in Dallas. Please get on your knees again and pray for the repose of our president’s soul.”
Everyone became quiet, and moments later, I could hear some of the girls crying. Screams and gasps of shock were coming from other classrooms. I felt myself getting dizzy, and my face was tingling. I knelt in stunned silence, and we prayed again. A few minutes later, Sister told us school was closing, and she told us to gather our things and wait outside for our parents to pick us up. I reached for my jacket under my desk and put it on. I went outside the school building and started searching for my younger sister, Kristie. I found her quickly. She had a frightened, bewildered look on her face, and I took her hand, smiled at her, and we started walking toward the area where Mom always parked on the days she picked us up after school. Kristie asked me, “Why is everybody crying? Is this because of the president? Where are we going?”
“Don’t worry. You’re safe.” She would always be safe with me; I saw to it. I felt the skin crawl on my back and the hair tingling on my neck. It was that feeling that came over me when I sensed the need to protect Kriste or my mother. Today, no one was going to get near my sister. I would never let that happen.
Mom was already at school. She waved to us, and we went to the car and got in. I saw that Mom was crying, and this caused Kriste to start crying. After asking how we were doing, Mom began the short three-minute, and silent, drive home. The only sounds in the car were the sniffles coming from Mom and Kriste. When we went in the house, I turned on the TV to CBS, and Walter Cronkite was reporting everything that had occurred up to that moment. The dead president, and his blood-spattered, beautiful, young wife Jackie, were still in the hospital emergency room. The press were speculating what might happen next.
I was wobbly as I sat on the floor in front of the TV trying to comprehend everything. I wondered why anyone wanted to kill the president, and I started getting angry. “But he was our president,” I thought. John F. Kennedy wasn’t just the president of the United States. He was special and unique, because he was one of us. He was Irish and he was Catholic, just like us. Sure, he was from way up North in Massachusetts and he was rich, but he saw the world the same way we did. He prayed to the same God, he attended Mass on Sundays and holy days, and he said the same prayers. He squirmed with anxiety as he waited to enter the confessional, and when he was in school, he suffered at the hands of angry little nuns, just as we did. I was sure he dreaded tasteless meals of navy bean soup, gummy macaroni and cheese, vegetable soup, meatless spaghetti, grilled cheese sandwiches, and freezer-burnt fish sticks on Fridays, just like us. He was like one of our family, an uncle, or a cousin. He belonged to us. How could anyone take him from us?
The more I watched, the angrier I became, and soon my own tears came. A short time later, Dad came home. He was several hours early, and he sat on the couch to watch the sad proceedings on TV. He said everyone left work and went home when they heard the news. All over America, businesses, schools, and stores closed. On all three television channels (There were just three TV channels in those days—ABC, CBS, and NBC and the local public TV channel.), news of the assassination filled the airwaves. It remained this way throughout the weekend and on Monday, the day of President Kennedy’s funeral.
Early Saturday morning, the day after the assassination, I woke Mom and asked her to drive me over to Mr. Morton’s store so I could go to work. She said the store would be closed, but I didn’t want to take the chance of missing work. I was going to be late already. When we arrived at the store at 7:30, it wasn’t open. I told Mom to go home and said I would go to Paul’s house to watch TV.
Mom drove off, and I walked to the parking lot in the rear of the store. I climbed over the chain-link fence into Paul’s back yard and let myself in the back door of his house. Paul was in the kitchen making coffee. Paul and his siblings were the only kids I knew whose parents let them drink coffee. He fixed a cup for me—black, no cream, and no sugar—because he thought this seemed like a morning when I could use some coffee. We spent the day in front of Paul’s TV watching the non-stop news coverage. A few of our other friends came and went as the day progressed. When we had seen enough, we all went to our homes.
That night I didn’t feel like going out, so I sat in Grandfather’s living room with him and Grandmama and watched more of the non-stop TV coverage. The FBI, the Secret Service, the Dallas Police, and the news media were trying to learn more about the alleged assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, who was captured just hours after the shooting, and after he gunned down Dallas policeman J. D. Tippet. Finally, I went to bed and fell into an uneasy sleep.
On Sunday morning, I got up, dressed, and walked the several blocks to St. John Church for early Mass. The early Mass usually was sparsely attended, but on this morning, people filled the large church. I looked around at all the unfamiliar faces. I thought how neat it was that as Catholics, we could go to any Catholic church in the world, and the Mass would be the same. We belonged to whatever church we entered. Whether you were in Memphis or Madrid, New York or New Deli, Boston or Buenos Aires, if you were in Church, you were home. It was just another aspect of Catholic culture that drew us so close. We weren’t just Catholics by birth or by choice; it was in our DNA.
After Mass, I walked to Marty Martin’s house where I met a few of my friends, and we watched more of the assassination coverage. About 11:00 A.M., a special report came on TV, which grabbed our attention. The broadcaster said the Dallas police were about to transfer Lee Harvey Oswald from police headquarters to the county jail. Television cameras were positioned in the basement where the transfer would take place. We wanted to get a good look at the creepy, little lowlife who had killed our president. As the deputies brought Oswald around a corner of the building, a man wearing a dark hat and suit stepped out of the crowd of reporters and took several steps toward Oswald. In one, swift movement, he pointed a gun at the alleged assassin’s abdomen and fired. Oswald grimaced in pain, puffed his cheeks out, moaned a very loud “Unnggh,” and sank down. He collapsed on the floor, and the deputies holding him reached out, disarmed, and captured his attacker, a man later identified as Jack Ruby.
We sat in stunned silence and stared at the live events on the TV. Marty turned and looked at me, I looked at Gary, he looked at Billy, and Billy looked at Marty. We could say nothing. We had just watched the actual murder of a man on live television. Our eyes were locked on the screen, as an unconscious Oswald was lifted on to a stretcher and placed in a waiting ambulance. Almost fittingly, he was driven to Parkland Memorial Hospital where President Kennedy had died just two days earlier. Minutes later, doctors pronounced Oswald dead, and we boys cheered the news.
Later, I left Marty’s and went back to my grandparent’s house. I sat on a chair in the breakfast room and looked out of the window for a long time, staring at a tall, ancient oak tree, one of its large branches broken off and hanging by a few strips of bark, the result of a terrible storm earlier in the week. I realized that any life could end, without warning, in an instant, and it could happen at any time.
I thought a lot about President Kennedy, and wondered why he was so popular and so important to so many Americans, not just us Catholics. I guessed that it was because when we thought about ourselves or looked in our mirrors, we saw who we were, but when we looked at President Kennedy, we saw who we wanted to become. He made us feel safe after the way he handled the Cuban Missile Crisis in October the year before, which saved the world from nuclear annihilation. He gave us hope and inspiration. It was the promise of hope that died on that terrible Friday.
What I didn’t know then, but would learn later, was that a large part of my childhood and my youthful innocence ended that day. I discovered that the world was real, filled with pain and loss, and it was just one more thing I had no control over. That thought made me furious.