The question of the day: Where were you when President Kennedy was shot?
Perhaps more important, what did it mean to you at the time? For me, it all boils down to one word.
On November 22, 1963, I was three weeks away from turning four years old. As young as I was, I can still remember it well. It was late afternoon, getting dark, and I was playing on a swing set with a neighbor boy across the street. His older brother came out of the house and yelled, “The president was shot!” My playmate responded with something like “Oh, no; that’s terrible!” We all ran inside to find their mother in front of the television, hysterical.
Without paying much attention to the TV news story, I probably toddled home for dinner as almost-four-year-olds did in early-1960s suburbia.
I hadn’t grasped what had just happened; still, I was upset. There was only one meaning of “shot” in my young consciousness. And it was indeed horrific.
For me, “shot” was what the nurse gave you when you were sick. On every drive to my pediatrician, Dr. Bunce, I’d ask my mother, “Will I have to get a shot?” I’d tremble with fear and anxiety until the appointment was finished and I was sucking on my good-job-being-brave lollipop. Getting a shot was the worst possible thing to come from a doctor visit (next to spending Christmas in the hospital, which is what I did later that year, but that’s a story for another day).
So, on November 22, as far as I was concerned, the anguish I witnessed in the neighbor’s back yard, in their living room and, most likely, in my own house was a result of the President of the United States being injected with a needle. I probably wondered if he got a lollipop.
Yesterday’s Washington Post ran an article on how parents can help their young children understand clips of Abraham Zapruder’s footage they’d see in the news coverage of today’s 50th anniversary. Sadly, gunfire isn’t new to today’s youngsters. I’m just glad I made it almost to age four oblivious to anyone being killed with a gun.
On a brighter note, I’m reminded of a scene in the 1989 movie, When Harry Met Sally in which Harry is out with a much younger woman. Attempting to make conversation, he asked her where she was when Kennedy was shot. The date replied, “Ted Kennedy was shot?” Out of the mouths of bimbos.
5 responses to “Into the ears of babes”
President Kennedy and his beautiful wife were bigger than life. As a child, I stood along Pennsylvania Avenue in the snow and watched his inaugural parade pass by. I was sitting in Latin II when he was shot; end of innocence.
Loved reading this.
I was seven years old at Jamestown Elementary School in Arlington, Virginia when someone was shot. The hysterical homeroom teacher wouldn’t tell despite my pleas; she sobbed, shaking her head, until her neck dripped with sorrows. I learned it was the President on the bus ride home. I ran into the house yelling, “Grandma. Grandma. President Kennedy has been shot.” We turned on the television and there were men speaking in graven voices and Mrs. Kennedy in a blood-stained pink suit, carrying roses. We wept until we turned to stone. Grandma said that even stones weep at times like these.
The day of the funeral we stayed at home or thought that we had until the 50-jet squadron thundered over our house and one second later thundered onto the television screen at Arlington National Cemetery. I learned the word caisson. The riderless horse, Black Jack, explained everything that my Grandma and my Mother could not. The first day the Eternal Flame was open to the public, my Mother and I visited President Kennedy’s grave and I took a single red rose to place among the other damp red roses.
The next year my Mother joined Peace Corps Staff, and we moved to Tunisia and then Sri Lanka for four years to help the Eternal Flame burn brightly. We returned to the US different people; I spent my developmental years in Africa and Asia and became a global adult not only an American one. Flying back from Sri Lanka to Washington, D.C. in 1968 on a long, long flight that passed over centuries and half the planet, we learned in London that Dr. Martin Luther KIng had been shot. As we flew down the curves of the Potomac River for a landing at National Airport, the pilot announced, “Ladies and Gentlemen, if you look out the left side of the plane you will see smoke. The nation’s capital is on fire.” I wasn’t seven years old any longer; I would soon be twelve and I knew there was something desperately wrong with a society that took the lives of its greatest leaders. My later work as a professor was, in part, to teach the words and life of great non-violent leaders such as Gandhi and Dr. King so the lesson will continue to inspire and we will not forget.
My Mother continued with the Peace Corps in Washington D.C. while my Grandma and I watched the rest of 1968 on television from our southern Indiana farm. During that time, Bobby Kennedy came to Bedford, Indiana, “The Limestone Capital of the World,” a few weeks after he announced Dr. King’s death in Indianapolis. Nobody came to Bedford except Birch Bayh, Sr. who personally knew by name every Democrat south of Bloomington because we were so few. Nobody came from the outside, but Bobby Kennedy came April 24,1968. He came and rode around the courthouse in Bedford pushing back his shock of graying hair with his hand and reaching out to the hundreds of hands that reached toward him. Bobby won the Indiana Primary, and we hoped that visits to placeless towns like Bedford (a visit still absent from many history books) invited him into the hearts of poor farmers and stone cutters as he had invited us into his heart.
Bobby’s life was an eternal flame, a light that people sought to touch.
They sought to touch his hand, as million of the same photographs witness–his hand reaching out and a thousand hands reaching back.
More than that, people wanted to touch the light, the hope, and the dream that he represented and illuminated with his words.
Another local event happened in Bedford. My mother’s sister, a local businesswoman, supported the first African-American contestant
in the Miss Bedford pageant. A beautiful singer, my mother offered Debbie the strapless pink satin gown that she had worn to President’s Kennedy’s inaugural ball. Debbie was a stunning singer and a stunning woman and Bedford was able to see an inaugural gown come home to a local beauty.
The Eternal Flame is a traveling flame. It travels around the world. It travels from brother to brother and sister to sister; it burns forever in the hearts of little children; it lights unknown, dark places in the immortal words of Gordon Parks, “Somewhere a man sleeps in the shadows and no one sees him; somewhere a woman sings the blues and no one hears her.” November 22, 1962 is an eternal date, one that travels through time and lives on every calendar.
Thank you, Monica, for asking the second question. What it meant to me and to my family at the time is what it still means to us today. The Eternal Flame that sprang from President Kennedy’s death reminds us that there is work to be done and much inspiration to guide us. The Eternal Flame shimmers in the stars and lights the way for the journey ahead.
That is a poignant and insightful remembrance, Kathy. Now let’s talk about when you’ll be starting your blog.