Each generation has a formative moment. For the Greatest Generation and the Silent Majority, the moment was December 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. For my millennial son’s generation, the events of 9/11/01 are seared into memory.
For Baby Boomers, the day President Kennedy was shot is that moment.
An ordinary Friday at South Whitley Elementary School, teacher Jane Stump led 30 first graders in the Pledge of Allegiance at precisely 8:20 a.m.
We worked on an art project that morning, making Thanksgiving decorations. Using my chubby, oversized pencil, I traced my left hand on brown construction paper. With sticky Elmer’s Paste, I glued feathers of orange, yellow and red paper, and finished with my crayons. My 64-pack of Crayola’s – with the special sharpener – was still pristine in its yellow box.
Near lunchtime, Mrs. Stump marched us through the green-tiled hallway to the cafeteria. Balancing a yellow plastic tray with a glass milk bottle precariously to one side challenged any six-year-old. Twice that fall I dropped my tray, shattering my pride and the glass milk bottle.
That day there were no accidents.
Mrs. Stump prayed before our meal as she and every other teacher did throughout my elementary school years. Madelyn Murray O’Hair’s influence wasn’t yet felt in this small town in northeastern Indiana, even though prayer was officially removed from public schools that year.
Shortly after lunch our principal came to the classroom door and motioned for Mrs. Stump to come out into the hall. Returning, the shaken Mrs. Stump told us President Kennedy had been shot.
At six, I didn’t know what that meant. Every male over ten years old had a gun; boys started with a Daisy pellet gun for shooting tin cans off a fence, or other egregious things parents aren’t supposed to know. For adults, guns were for hunting, shooting deer or quail or an errant coyote.
Within minutes, the principal came on the overhead intercom and announced that President Kennedy was dead. The principal dismissed us for the day.
Just as I did every day, I walked unescorted the three blocks home from school.
My mother was watching our Dumont television when I arrived home. She was crying.
The old black and white television — a box on spindly legs – was usually on only for the fifteen-minute nightly newscast. My parents preferred listening to Andy Williams, and Broadway cast albums on their RCA Victor hi-fi.
The television remained on for several days. I remember the televised funeral – the overwhelming, heavy, repetitive beat of Beethoven’s funeral dirge and the stark, sleek reality of “Black Jack,” the rider-less horse.
We could not yet how this public violence would change everything.
A military conflict in a steamy jungle halfway around the world would escalate, and three sons of this town would lose their lives.
The martyred president’s brother would be a voice of calm in Indianapolis five years later on April 4, 1968 when the crowd around him learned of the violent death of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Back in Indiana a month later for the primary, Robert Kennedy’s motorcade pulled off Highway 37 in Madison County near Duck-Creek-Boone Elementary School. Dozens of fourth graders, including my husband, rushed out to shake the Presidential candidate’s hand. A month later, another Kennedy son would be dead from a violent act.
Now fifty years since the unexpected death of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, scholars and pundits have published works ad infinitum speculating on the crime and its meaning.
Is it a human trait to search for deep meaning in what may have been a random, crazy act?
Is it more acceptable if the murder was committed by Castro, the CIA, the mob or the Soviet Union?
Life can change in an instant. One moment life is good, the next the aneurysm strikes or the speeding bus hits or the land mine blows.
Whatever the reason, Kennedy’s assassination plunged us into a more violent society, the legacy of which we cannot shake with our gun-happy culture, brutal movies and video games, and near daily shootings in public places.
When I think of the events of that weekend a half century ago, my thoughts go to another little girl, a child born just four months after me.
Caroline Kennedy celebrated her sixth birthday five days after her father died. Despite her family pedigree and great wealth, she would not have her father on special life celebrations, or even the small ones.
He was not there to walk her down the aisle at her 1986 wedding nor later celebrate the birth of her three babies.
On that Friday afternoon I walked home, my construction paper turkey in hand. Two parents waited for me, along with my three-year-old brother. My father, a science teacher at the high school, was also dismissed early.
Our country lost a president, but Caroline and her three-year-old brother lost their father.
My parents praised my turkey, and my father proudly taped it on the white Kelvinator refrigerator in our tiny kitchen.