On November 22, 2013, we marked the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination. This is the biggest event in my lifetime. Nothing stands above it. Not 9/11. Not the Challenger explosion. Nothing. I was in the sixth grade attending L.C. Curtis Junior High School in Santa Clara, California, when President Kennedy was assassinated. My teacher, Mrs. Ruth Chapin, the teacher I shared this historic moment with, turned out to be one of my favorite teachers in my life. Here’s my story. There will undoubtedly be thousands of stories like mine that will be written this year.
The Principal of the school came over the public address system about 11 a.m. Pacific time to announce that President Kennedy had been shot. Mrs. Chapin heard it at the same moment we did. She looked scared. That was really concerning to me. This was big…really big.
In 1963, there was no cable TV, there was no Internet. News unfolded a bit more slowly than it does today. About forty minutes later, we heard another public address system announcement that President Kennedy was dead. We were to leave our classrooms and go to lunch. I’m sure as much as anything, the Principal wanted to get the faculty into the teacher’s lounge so they could hug, cry, and figure out what to do. You could see the deep concern and distress in the faces and eyes of the faculty members who couldn’t retreat to the faculty lounge.
My schoolmates and I were rattled—it was even more concerning to us that the faculty were as rattled by the news as they were. Your teachers were supposed to be above anything that could go wrong—they were our bedrock. Or, so we thought. Oh, how naïve we were that day.
After lunch, we were sent to the playground. I remember discussing with my friends the kind of horror we wanted to inflict on the person responsible for killing the President. We were miniature “Dick Cheney’s” that day—nothing we could do to the assassin would be extreme enough. I’ll spare you the gore.
I’m not sure what time my mother picked up my sister, Deborah, and younger brother, Brian, and me from school that day. I seem to remember we stayed at school until the normal school day ended.
I’m pretty sure we had to go to a place to get my mother’s hair done that Friday afternoon—it’s what we did every Friday. My mother got her hair put into a French twist each and every week. It prepped her for her weekend of playing the 36-rank pipe organ at our church: Junior Choir practice on Saturday morning, practice for church the next day, and 2 church services on Sunday. This was our routine. The pipe organ was a grand instrument; my mother was an extremely accomplished church organist.
That day—and for a number of days and weeks afterward—I didn’t like the idea of having a glass window behind me in the car or the house. It seemed to me that what happened to President Kennedy could happen to me. I don’t believe I ever mentioned it to my parents or friends. But, I was very uneasy with having a glass window behind me for any reason.
This particular Friday evening, my mother and father had plans to go out, a rarity. There was a 15th anniversary event marking my dad’s graduation from Stanford University. My parents were to travel to San Francisco for the evening. I was not happy about this though I don’t believe I let them know how upset I was about their plans that evening. I was scared.
My world had been rocked by the assassination and I didn’t want to be left with my grandmother that night. My grandmother spent the evening pretty much sequestered from us in her room watching TV while I stayed glued to the TV in the family room watching all the news. I didn’t like that the window behind the kitchen table was behind me but it was the only way I could watch the TV based on its positioning in the house.
For four days, I stayed glued to the TV. There wasn’t one detail that I wanted to miss. I did miss out on Oswald’s slaying by Jack Ruby on live TV on Sunday—my family was at church. We learned of Oswald’s death as we were leaving church. We were stunned at this news. This further fueled the idea of a conspiracy.
This was the first time ever that TV news offered round-the-clock coverage about a story. That, in and of itself, was history in the making. I remember like it was yesterday the images of Parkland Memorial Hospital, Lee Harvey Oswald who was paraded in front of the camera and proclaimed his innocence, Walter Cronkite and many other news anchors who learned on the spot how to fill hours of TV time. I saw:
- The blood on Jackie Kennedy’s clothing
- President Kennedy’s personal belongings removed from the White House—especially his rocking chair
- His casket in the White House on Saturday
- His casket being taken in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda on Sunday
- His son, John Jr., saluting his casket as it was removed from the U.S. Capitol Rotunda
- Jacqueline Kennedy’s charm and grace during the event as it occurred with the whole world watching
- Emperor Haile Selasse from Ethiopia—a very short man wearing a military uniform covered in medals—walking in the funeral procession to Arlington National Cemetery
- The Riderless Horse with a rider’s boots facing backward in the saddle
- The lighting of the Eternal Flame at Arlington
- The heads of state from all over the world who attended the funeral signaled what a monumental event had occurred
- The sound of the muffled drums
- Taps played after President Kennedy’s burial
I became a news hound as a result of this event. My parents bought me books that captured the details from JFK’s travels to Dallas, the assassination and the state funeral four days later. About 1992, I went to Dealey Plaza and saw with my own eyes how small an area it really was. This further fueled my thoughts that the assassination had to be part of a conspiracy and more than one man had to be involved.
Why do the majority of Americans to this day believe there was a conspiracy to assassinate President Kennedy? The answer is simple: it just seems completely improbable that one man—Oswald—was capable of pulling this off by himself. It is hard to believe that Oswald’s death wasn’t part of a larger conspiracy. Yet, after 50 years, the majority of Americans feel that there was indeed a conspriracy.
The passing of such a young, inspirational president was horrifying. I’ll never forget what it felt like to suffer a loss. Years later when Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated on November 4, 1995, in Israel. I immediately understood what the people and the youth of Israel were going through. I’m grateful we’ve not had to face another presidential assassination in my lifetime. I hope I never do.
© 2013 Dave Gardner