On the early afternoon of November 22nd, 1963, I was sitting in 3rd grade at a wooden desk drawing hearts with a BIC pen. It was 2:13 on Friday. I couldn’t wait for the weekend. My 3rd grade teacher, Miss Wells, wore pleated skirts that flowed behind her and she was tall, with slender limbs, but she had a kind, round face.
I was 9 years old. I didn’t know what I was about to find out – at 1pm CST, 2 o’clock South Carolina time, President John F. Kennedy had been pronounced dead at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, Texas. He’d been shot, half hour earlier, while I was coming in from recess.
By 1 o’clock EST, I had finished lunch served on gray plastic trays by hair-netted, uniformed women: Tater Tots, Velveeta mac and cheese, a pint of whole Borden’s milk (sporting a daisy-ringed, smiling, Elsie the Cow), and all American apple crisp with brown sugar, oats, apples, cinnamon, nutmeg, flour, water, salt, and lemon to taste.
At 1:30, the moment Kennedy was shot, I was being called in from recess. When the bell rang, I stopped romping on the wooden planked teeter-totters, playing hopscotch in the dirt, and jumping through the wiry, jute ropes and tall metal swings of the 60’s. I walked toward the brick school building and flirted with freckle-faced Billy while we were standing in wobbly 3rd grade lines waiting for Mrs. Payne.
Mrs. Payne was on playground duty, just about to pull up her lanyard to blow her trademark silver whistle so we could walk single file back to the classroom. I loved Billy because he could rabbit wiggle his nostrils like me, a recessive gene trait we shared. The very act of flaring our nose holes, simultaneously, on command, endeared him to me.
By 2:00, when Kennedy was pronounced dead, Mrs. Wells was preparing to teach the afternoon lesson, South Carolina history. South Carolina, the Palmetto State, dressed in dark blue silk, a white crescent moon and silhouetted palm, was one of the 13 Original Colonies. Can you name the others? A 5th grader probably could. And in 3rd grade, I knew the following about South Carolina:
State Capitol: Columbia
State Bird: the Carolina Wren
State Beverage: Sweet Iced Tea
State Snack: Boiled Peanuts (hmmmm)
State Fruit: the Peach
State Motto: “While I breathe, I hope”
Around 2:15, out of a worn brown speaker cover high on the wall, dotted with symmetrically punched holes, the principal’s voice floated, disembodied, out of the public address system (remember the tinny, boxy sound of the PA?) I can’t remember the principal’s name. Just that she was stern, with an apple shaped, peasant stock body like me, curly short hair, and hard-soled pumps that clacked along the waxed linoleum when she snapped us to attention.
But this afternoon, she wasn’t snapping. In a quiet voice, the quietest I’d ever heard, she slowly announced, “Can I have your attention. I’ve got some sad news. President John F. Kennedy was shot today at 12:30 CST. He died at 1pm from gunshot wounds. Let’s bow our heads in a moment of silence.”
We sat there in our seats, stunned, looking up at lanky Clara Wells for direction. Miss Wells stared up at the speaker, blankly, but only for a few seconds. Then she quickly recovered and led us through the moment of silence. I don’t remember what, if anything, she said. I only remember the sinking feeling and the sadness that swept over me like a shroud.
Later that night, on the black and white Zenith, my parents and I, along with 189 million other Americans, relived the day: Walter Cronkite’s low jowls, Jackie’s pink pill box hat and Chanel suit, the raised right hand of Lyndon Johnson’s “do you solemnly swear.” It played like a dream sequence. My young mind could not comprehend the full impact. But I knew something big had changed.
When I went back to the South in 1999, Belvedere Elementary stood in the same place, along the scrub pines and dirty salt and pepper playground, across from the Methodist church. The Baptist church that my best friend, Susan, attended every Sunday was still on the opposite corner of the street. The school wasn’t open that day. I peeked in the windows but couldn’t see much. I took some photographs.
The place seemed smaller than I remembered it. But the memories, huge. I did a lot of growing up in that place.
A few weeks ago when I was doing Internet research for a presentation, I ran across Bryan Woolley’s account, The Day Kennedy Died, from a 1983 article he wrote for the Dallas Times Herald. The story is based solely on the facts. In this case, the facts are enough. The facts are powerful.
That day in 1963, this country had the breath knocked out of it. Something died: our collective sense of well-being and hope. Back then, I was the next generation. And the seeds of fear took root in my 9 year old heart.
But while I breathe, I hope.
Wednesday, November 22nd, 2006
Here’s Bryan’s story. Just the facts, M’am. Just the facts.
Volume : SIRS 1991 History, Article 02
Subject: Keyword(s) : KENNEDY and ASSASSINATION
Title : The Day John Kennedy Died
Author : Bryan Woolley
Source : Dallas Times Herald (Dallas, Texas)
Publication Date : Nov. 20, 1983
Page Number(s) : Sec. Sec. 2-3