Thursday, November 14, 2013

November 22, 1963

2013 marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John. F. Kennedy. Everybody knows that. It is difficult to avoid, with all the newspaper and magazine articles and television specials. In today’s cynical climate, people are already getting turned off by the hype and hoopla. I am not. Please allow me to explain.

The murder of President Kennedy is probably the single most important, most shattering event of my childhood.

There. I said it. Kennedy’s murder is certainly a landmark for my Boomer generation, but it still depresses me when I reflect back on it half a century later. In my next series of blogs, I want to explore the assassination from various angles.

First of all, let me say that I am fully aware that Jack Kennedy was no saint. The man was a notorious womanizer who embarrassed and humiliated his wife Jackie through his open flirting and alleged affairs. He was addicted to painkillers that helped him deal with his fragile health. Historians say that in his brief tenure as President, he really didn’t accomplish much, at least from a policy or legislative point of view. I am not sugarcoating the man’s flaws, and I will deal with all this in future blogs. But when I was a child I did not know these things. My selective childhood memories and the generally positive outlook of the early 1960s give me a more sunny view of the Kennedy years — an outlook forever shattered on that fateful November day. So in this first blog, I just want to recreate what I experienced as a child fifty years ago.

I grew up in poverty, in a massive 62-building housing project in Culver City, California. The oldest of nine children, we somehow crammed together into a small four-bedroom apartment. My father worked to support the family as a waiter in a fine restaurant, with my mother taking on occasional side jobs. But as kids, we didn’t really know how poor we were. This was the only life we knew, and we had no way of comparing ourselves with anyone else since all our peers were in the same boat.

My parents did instill in me the importance of working hard at school. I excelled, bringing home straight A’s almost throughout my elementary years at Stoner Avenue public school. I was elected president of my class in 3rd, 4th and 5th grades, something that made my parents proud. My classmates called me “President Kenny,” and I reveled in how much that sounded like “President Kennedy.”

John Kennedy was my hero. In 2nd grade, as I was beginning to discover my love for music, I remember how happy we were to sing “This Land Is Your Land” at school assemblies because our teacher told us it was one of President Kennedy’s favorite songs. America’s space program was just taking off and our principal let us watch the television coverage of astronaut John Glenn’s historic orbital flight in the Mercury capsule. I was mightily impressed when President Kennedy presented Colonel Glenn with a Distinguished Service Medal shortly after he returned back to Earth. Our teacher told us America was on its way to landing on the moon. How could a kid not be taken up by all this? The early 1960s was a very exciting time!

President Kennedy inspects the Mercury capsule as Astronaut John Glenn looks on.

In 1962, while in 4th grade, the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolded. I will write in more detail about that later, but suffice it to say that in the midst of those scary and traumatic thirteen days of October, our teacher kept our courage up by saying that President Kennedy would see the country safely through this calamity. And she was right.

This is the context in which I remember November 22, 1963. It was sunny that Friday, just an ordinary Southern California autumn morning. We were getting excited about the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday the following week. I was once again president of my class and my teacher, Miss Plested, had sent me on an errand to deliver an envelope to the school office. Our school secretary was always so friendly and greeted all students with a smile. But that morning, she was listening gravely into an office radio as she sat at her desk. I overheard the crackling voice and couldn’t believe what the announcer was saying:

“We have unconfirmed reports that President Kennedy has been shot in Dallas and is gravely wounded. . .”

Our principal, Dr. Kravitz, gently put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Kenny, could you please let Miss Plested know that I will be visiting your classroom soon?” Our school was not equipped with a PA system, so I ran back to my classroom and gave my teacher the message. I also told her what I heard on the radio. She gasped in disbelief.

After 11:30, Dr. Kravitz entered our classroom as he had promised and whispered something to Miss Plested. She started crying. We had never seen our teacher cry before and it was a shock. Dr. Kravitz then went to the front of the class to address us. I could guess what he was going to say.

“Class, I’m afraid I have some bad news. President Kennedy was shot in Dallas this morning. The White House just announced that he died from his wounds a few minutes ago.”

We were a bunch of noisy and talkative 5th graders but at that moment we could hear the proverbial pin drop. I don’t remember any of us crying. No one would want to do that in front of the other kids. But there was a definite blanket of sadness that covered the whole classroom.

Dr. Kravitz continued. “Those of you who go home for lunch can stay home for the rest of the day. For the rest of you, we’re calling your parents now. You can go home when they come to pick you up.”

My friends and I walked home in silence, with our heads down. I met my brother Keith along the way and asked if he had heard the news. He said his teacher was crying. We were kids. We didn’t know how to react to such a horrific event. I really wanted to cry but did not want to lose face in front of my brother or my friends. So we just walked home, slowly and silently.

As we approached our apartment, my steps got quicker. I could no longer hold it in and I ran through the back door and into my bedroom. My parents followed me to see what was wrong.

“They shot the President,” I sobbed. “He’s dead.” My mother rushed over and embraced me. She knew how much I admired President Kennedy. I held on to her tightly and just cried and cried.

Next Blog: Cuban Missile Crisis

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