Tuesday, November 22, 2011
November 22, 1963
Mrs. Tharp's second grade students had already finished our lunch that Friday, and we'd had fun at recess. November days were great for recess, pleasantly cool with crisp breezes that produced a torrent of colorful leaves falling down around us. We'd played the usual games, chasing each other with no particular purpose in mind, or maybe swinging as high as we dared. But recess was over, and we had settled back into our school work. Handwriting, it was; we labored to shape the manuscript letters carefully on our paper. The paper came with little red dotted lines between the blue lines; they were there to show us where the little parts of the letters should reach. Somehow, we could never get it just exactly right. You could be making the most perfect loop on a lower-case "b" and all of a sudden there was that little red dotted line, but you were already commited to the particular curve on that "b" and there was no way it was going to end on the red line. Darn.
Someone came to the door and began to have a whispered conversation with Mrs. Tharp. We didn't pay much attention at first, but soon we became aware that the conversation was lasting much longer than was normal. Then, we heard what sounded like muffled crying. There was a group of teachers out in the hall, all talking in whispers. Something was definitely up.
The years have washed away her exact words, but Mrs. Tharp came back into the classroom and told us what had happened. President Kennedy was dead. Our President, the man we knew from TV, the man who was about the same age as our own parents, had been killed.
I'm sure Mrs. Tharp never expected to have to deliver an announcement like that. We didn't know how to process that kind of information. No one said anything; we just kind of looked around at each other. Nothing else to do or say. Quietly, we returned to our handwriting.
When we got home, our parents were watching events as they unfolded on TV. As Walter Cronkite led us through the terrible events, we began to understand. The President had gone to Dallas, Texas and while he was being driven through the streets of town, someone had shot him from a building. They had caught the man, and his name was Lee Harvey Oswald. Nothing about it made any sense.
We continued to watch the news through the weekend. When we got home from church on Sunday at noon, we found out that the story now made even less sense. As the Dallas police were taking Lee Harvey Oswald to another jail, someone came up to him in the parking garage of the Dallas Police Department and put a gun in his gut and fired. Now, the man who had killed our President was dead himself.
People say the world changed that day. We all saw the President's little son, John-John, stepping forward and delivering a salute as his father's flag-draped coffin passed by. That has become probably the most heart-breaking image in all of America's history. At the time, there was a guy named Vaughn Meader that used to impersonate President Kennedy, and he was frequently on TV and even had a hit record doing his impersonation. I remember thinking, "I'll bet that guy feels really bad now, after making fun of President Kennedy like that." Of course, his impersonation was not mean-spirited, but to a kid it just seemed that way.
A lot has happened, both bad and good, in the world since that day in November of 1963. It became a landmark in people's lives, and almost anyone can tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing on the afternoon of November 22nd. A whispered conversation, the sound of someone softly crying, and getting that manuscript "b" just right. That's where I was.