My memories of November 22, 1963

Shot in Dallas

 

It feels like yesterday. My grief is still raw.

Though I never met John Kennedy personally, I felt close to him for many reasons. At the time, I lived in Washington, D.C. — in fact, my home at 211 “A” Street, N.E., was just a block from the U.S. Capitol. I was already deep into Democratic politics when Kennedy decided to run for president. His messages inspired me, and I passionately believed he was the person our country needed. I quit my job and volunteered to work on his campaign. They needed people in the office who could take shorthand, and soon I was given the task of not only typing but preparing letters for his signature.  Most of the letters got routine responses, but sometimes I would have to ask for guidance – especially when the writers were seeking favors, judgeships, and the like. Long before he was elected, folks were already carving out a piece of the pie for themselves. My letter-writing efforts were rewarded with an invitation to the Inaugural Ball.

Later I was offered a job in his administration. Many starry-eyed young people like me were anxious to have a part in the New Frontier. Adventure was in the air. Though the appointment didn’t work out, by that time I had met a number of his aides and I had friends who knew him personally. I avidly followed every speech, every event of his presidency. I rationalized his failed invasion of the Bay of Pigs and I bit my nails and celebrated his leadership in the Cuban missile crisis. He was my personal hero, the center of life as I knew it.

JFK thumbnailOn November 22, 1963, I was working in an office building on “K” Street. I had gotten up from my desk to walk down the hall when I heard a woman say “The President’s been shot!” At first I didn’t take her seriously. It seemed too crazy. But I sensed that something was wrong, so I put on my coat and went down to the street to see what was happening. A newsboy was hawking an early edition of the city’s afternoon paper, the Washington Daily News. I bought a copy.

I told myself: surely it was only a minor wound. An article on the inside of the front page was titled:

Trip backfires - detail

It started out:

“HOUSTON, Nov. 22 — The story of President and Mrs. Kennedy’s ‘non-political’ trip to Texas is chock full of bad timing and highly political backfires.” This piece of reporting was wisely omitted from the paper’s next edition, but I saved it because of the cruel irony.

The news of his death came about an hour or so later. I was shocked numb. I couldn’t believe it. We were sent home from work early. It was Friday, and, like the rest of the nation, I spent that evening and all day Saturday staring at the television set, tears streaming down my face, my heart unable to accept what I was hearing and seeing. The live minute-by-minute coverage bore on and on, gradually turning the nightmare into reality. On Saturday I went to buy groceries at the A&P, and I remember the stillness. No one said a word. People were wrapped up tight in their grief as if it was deeply personal, even though all of us shared the same sorrow. Everything felt strange. My body was functioning, but I wasn’t inside it. I could hardly feel what I was touching or the ground underneath me.

The funeral was on Sunday. I bundled up against the cold and stood waiting on the sidewalk for the procession to arrive at the Capitol, where the President’s casket would lie in state in the Rotunda. At the exact moment when the riderless horse passed in front of us, followed by his casket on a horse-drawn caisson, a man next to me holding a radio announced to the crowd that Lee Harvey Oswald had been killed. He held up his radio so we could hear the news and a replay of the gunshots. What an emotional moment that was, with Kennedy’s casket in front of us and the sound of shots in Dallas in the background.  Moments later, those shots were replaced by the deafening salute of cannon on the Capitol grounds.

I got in line and paid my respects to my hero, overwhelmed with sadness but at the same time awed by the majesty of the occasion. As the day wore on, people started to arrive from all over the country. The line to the Capitol passed right in front of my house. I watched through my window as thousands filled up the narrow street, slowly shuffling through the night as they patiently waited their turn. When I woke up the next morning the line was still there. The record shows that “hundreds of thousands lined up in near-freezing temperatures to view the casket.  Over the span of 18 hours, 250,000 people, some waiting for as long as 10 hours in a line up to 10 persons wide that stretched 40 blocks, nearly 10 miles, personally paid their respects as Kennedy’s body lay in state.”*

While Camelot didn’t turn out to be quite as perfect as I believed at the time, John Kennedy inspired a generation and his legacy cannot be denied. The assassination of a president is a horrific act that wounds a nation forever. You can tell me that it was 50 years ago, but it still feels like yesterday.

__________

* http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/State_funeral_of_John_F._Kennedy

18 Comments

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18 Responses to My memories of November 22, 1963

  1. Nice job.

    Even after 50 years, it still feels like an open wound that refuses to heal!

    Douglas

  2. Isabel Leonard

    Thank you for your memories. You were certainly “sur place.”
    Mine: I was in the green room waiting to sing, with my choral group, a planned program of the Faure Requiem and something by Delius (which I forget). This was at Bristol University in the UK. The rumor of the assassination was going around as we chatted nervously in groups, but it didn’t seem real. After we had lined up and walked on stage, the conductor made the announcement, and said that in the late President’s memory we would sing the Requiem only. It was hard to concentrate on the performance, but fortunately it’s a pretty easy work to sing. I had just developed a sore throat and was relieved that we didn’t have to do the Delius, which had a number of very high notes I didn’t think I could reach.

    It continued to be unreal because, like most of my fellow undergraduates in England at the time, I had access to neither radio nor television in my “digs.” Just newspapers.

    • Hi Isabel,
      Thanks for sharing your experience. It’s hard to imagine that we relied on newspapers so much back then. Today the commentators were saying that it was the first time TV devoted steady live coverage of an event. It was a turning point in the history of media as well.

  3. I was living in Boston on Columbus Ave. on that day. A young mother living on “skid row,” I was out in the street when I heard the news. Everyone just stopped and stood still – pedestrians, homeless, beggars, shopkeepers. Hard to forget a moment like that.
    Muriel, this is fascinating, and I’m waiting to hear when you start writing your complete autobiography!

    • Hi Amy,
      Thanks for sharing your experience. It’s something you never forget, even after 50 years.
      I think my next book is going to be “profiles” like the ones I’ve been posting here. Also, I’d like to write more about my mother. She was a complex and talented woman. Her talent (writing) was suppressed.

  4. Laurie Gerber

    Because I remember my parents reaction and the television coverage, I have somehow believed that I knew what happened surrounding the assassination. But from your story, and others the past few days, I see that I knew nothing. Thanks for sharing your story, so immediate and personal. I had no idea of your involvement with the Kennedy campaign – you have a seemingly inexhaustible fund of stories and experiences. I am shocked by the number of people who endured the cold and a wait through the night to view the casket.

    • Hi Laurie,
      Thanks for your comments, Laurie. You were spared the enormous grief that everyone felt. The assassination changed our national story forever. I personally believe that the shock was so deep that people had to invent conspiracy theories to distract themselves from the pain.

  5. Diane Smelser

    I walked home in a daze. Some of the kids in the neighborhood didn’t believe it and thought the President had only been wounded. I walked through our front door and I knew it was true when I saw my mother crying and watching our black and white TV. We never watched endless TV in our house but this was different. We were glued to the live TV broadcasts for about 5 straight days. We saw Lee Harvey Oswald killed on live TV and lived in a state of shock for a long time. After all these years and many other tragedies, I still feel a little shaky when I think about what happened that day in 1963. Thank you, Muriel, for sharing your experience of that day, as well as your life in Washington DC, in your wonderful book!!

    • Hi Diane,
      Thank you so much for sharing your story – it’s important to me to share the grief with other people who went through the experience.

  6. Bijan

    Thank you so much for sharing your memories, he was indeed my hero as well.

  7. Pat Bryan

    The memories you shared painted a very vivid picture of that difficult passage in our nations history. I was a young mother of 25 with 3 kids and a Navy husband who was on a submarine submerged somewhere unknown to me. We were stationed in Groton, CT and I was driving home from shopping alone in my car. All of a sudden there was a pile up of cars – no one was moving. I thought there was an accident. It was very cold and yet people were getting out of their cars knocking on windows of other cars yelling something. Other cars were honking their horns and it was a total frenzy. At first, I was too frightened to open my window…finally, I just had to know what was going on with these people yelling, banging and crying in the street. Then, I lowered my window and heard the terrible news of Kennedy being shot.

    That weekend is my first memory of becoming interested in politics.

  8. It does my heart good to read an incredibly well-crafted story which moves me to goosebumps!

  9. Joseph Swafford

    Muriel: poignant and well-written…

    I was teaching in a Beverly Hills private school for emotionally-disturbed children (6 to 19 years) when another teacher called me out into the hall with the terrible news. We made a great effort to shield the kids from what had happened so that the final twenty, twenty-five minutes before they were picked up to go home would not trigger a traumatic group breakdown. We wanted each kid to handle the horror within their family. In four days it would be Tuesday and we knew we would have much to do when school resumed. And we teachers had our own numbness and anguish to work through so we could be of help to our kids.

    • Joseph, thanks so much for your story. Also very poignant and well-written. I remember our teen years in Silver Spring. You found the Left Coast long before I did.