The Day Kennedy Died

Highly literate and idealistic, John F. Kennedy spoke well and wrote well.  I never read his book, Profiles of Courage, but I know he lived a life of courage.  And his charisma channeled his idealism to us and created a magic world in our minds.  An acquaintance of mine built an altar to the family clan.  A friend of mine, a compulsive liar, had us believing she enjoyed a warm, personal relationship with the Kennedy clan.  When JFK commented about the lack of physical fitness among American youth, he also said how people used to walk 50 miles.  Today, we realize he was exaggerating, but then, the statement captured the imagination of young people so that we’d often see hikers along the roads, going for that 50 mile mark.  My sister set out for a hike from Orland to Corning and back.  When JFK started the Peace Corps, many of various ages responded.  My older brother and I were interested, and I went so far as to teach myself Swahili, which I have since forgotten.  Many were entranced by the family activities of John, Jacky, Caroline, and little John-John.

Even now memories of the day JFK was assassinated flood to the surface and moisten my eyes.  On Friday, November 22, 1963, I was student teaching biology, and a fellow graduate, John, was student teaching English.  He was just leaving the Orland High School campus when I arrived at noon, planning to eat first in the cafeteria.  We crossed paths and he pointed upward, what I took for an odd wave of greeting.  I waved back, and we continued on our separate ways.

Upon entering the cafeteria, I was struck by the silence.  No student chatter, no boisterous laughter.  I grabbed a tray of food and sat at the teachers’ table.  A teacher facing me looked up, tears in his eyes.  “It’s sad,” he said.

The teachers told me Kennedy was shot about an hour ago in Dallas.

“Are you kidding?” I asked, looking for their humor.  After all, things like this didn’t happen in the US, no more than one expected Martians to land on Earth.

They were serious.

I finished eating, walked to my car and turned on the radio.  It was true.

And I realized that John hadn’t waved a greeting.  He’d pointed to the flag.  It was at half mast.

No teaching occurred that afternoon.  We discussed the tragedy and then went home.

Many tears fell.  On TV I saw a black lady crying into her purse.  And I sensed her dread of a Civil Rights Movement ended.  Fortunately it had its own momentum.

Some compared the 1963 scenario to 1863.  I remembered the poem, “O Captain, My Captain” which mourns Lincoln’s death.  Later I read the book, Joshua, Son of None, by Nancy Freedman, about a scientist who takes a DNA sample from the dead JFK and clones him.

Memories of the time continue to birth many discussions and many books.

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