Last Saturday morning, I was in Calgary. I was short on sleep, but yet I was still up at 5am local time that day to run the outline of the talk I was about to give — my last speaking engagement for 2013. I’d showered and put hooker dust all over my face. With a few minutes to spare before I had to head downstairs, I picked up my phone to glance at email. I saw an email from my mom with the subject line “Nov. 22, 1963” addresses to me, my brother, and sister. I clicked.
I don’t think I moved a muscle for the entire time I read her email. Soon, all that perfectly placed hooker dust was streaming down my face in a dark and smokey course of tears. Definitely not how I thought my “smokey eye” would turn out.
When my mom came to visit me in Colorado this summer, we went to see Lee Daniel’s The Butler. After, it was the first time my mom and I talked about what it was like to grow up in such a tumultuous time in our nation’s history. Isn’t it funny — and sad — how we forget that there were darker days behind us? I think it’s even more sad that we rely on history books to tell us the facts when there are perfectly good human beings (like moms) standing in front of us who can tell us more about history than any book or film.
So I emailed my mom and asked her if I could post her email as a guest blog today — the 50th anniversary of the assasination of Preseident John F. Kennedy.
I’m glad she said yes. This is mom’s second appearance on my blog (the first being a widely popular blog about The Birds). And I do hope not the last.
With all the extra news coverage of the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination in the news and on TV lately I thought I’d write to you a little bit about what it was like at the time.
I was a junior in high school in the fall of 1963. It was cold and snowy outside. I had just gone to my next to last class of day – American History (how ironic) and the bell for class to begin had not yet rung. A couple of students not in our class ran into the classroom and told our teacher, Mrs. Oliver, that they had heard on the radio in the school office that President Kennedy had been shot. She did not believe it and shooed the students out of the room. The bell rang and class began. We were studying the beginnings of the Civil War at the time and had to take our daily “pop” quiz over the previous night’s homework. About two-thirds of the way through class, about 2:10pm, the school principal, Mr. Radtke, came on the PA system and announced that the President was dead. He asked the entire school for a minute of silence and not a sound could be heard except for the static crackle of the PA system. He then announced that school would dismiss early that day (and that we would not have school on Monday) and that buses would be arriving within 10 minutes. He also announced that any of the Catholic students in the school had the opportunity to go directly to St. Patrick’s Church if they so desired. A lot of students walked to school so a couple of extra buses were provided for them to be driven to their church. (A side note: the majority of the town where I went to school was Italian Catholic. I lived seven miles outside of town in the country. Most everyone out there was Protestant.) The rest of us got on on normal buses and headed for home. I was weird how quiet the bus was; almost no one talked. It was Friday, Nov 22, 1963.
When I got home, Grandma had the TV on (black & white of course with an about 12-inch screen) and was quietly crying. I sat down on the sofa next to her and watched the (primitive) coverage of the events in Dallas. I remember watching Walter Cronkite in his newsroom passing along information as it was provided to him. As always on his nightly newcast there was a picture of President Kennedy on the wall behind him. We watched as someone from the news staff took black tape and put it around that picture. Usually the tv did not stay on for long periods of time at home but it was on almost constantly from Friday through Monday.
When Grandpa came home from work he had not heard the news. His car did not have a radio and no one at the workplace was allowed to have radios at work. He couldn’t believe what had happened and sat down to watch the TV. I actually saw tears in his eyes that night – something I had never seen before. We just had sandwiches for dinner that night as none of us really cared about eating. We watched the news and finally saw the President’s casket removed from Parkland Hospital to a white hearse for the drive to the airport and loaded into Air Force One. Jackie Kennedy looked totally broken and her blood-soaked pink suit was heart wrenching. Lyndon Johnson took the oath of office and became our new President. His voice was barely audible and I thought it was awful that JFK’s widow had to stand next to him and watch with her husband’s casket only a short distance away.
Sometime in the evening it was announced that the probable assassin had been captured and was in police custody in Dallas. We saw Lee Harvey Oswald surrounded by police being taken for interrogation. He looked so small and insignificant and smug.
We watched until Air Force One arrived back in Washington, DC and the casket was unloaded from the plane and put into a hearse with Jackie as a passenger. The hearse went to Bethesda Naval Hospital for a brief autopsy overnight. The casket was driven to the White House, I think it was Saturday morning. The flag-draped casket was carried into the White House by an honor guard and placed on a catafaulk. The honor guard stood at attention at all times between this point and the burial. (Normally an honor guard stands facing outwards from the casket but Mrs. Kennedy asked that they face inwards so the casket would not look so lonely. – this from Walter Cronkite.) We watched her bring her young daughter Caroline to the casket and both touched the flag and Jackie kissed the flag-draped casket.
The next day, Saturday, the casket was moved to the Capitol Rotunda to lie in state until the funeral. People had been lining up outside the Capitol all night to have a chance to walk through the Rotunda and view the President’s casket. They kept coming all day Saturday and Sunday.
From Friday evening through Monday I also listened to my radio. It was so eerie when there were no news bulletins. The radio stations all played very somber music interspersed with “Hail to the Chief” and the National Anthem.
On Sunday we were all watching TV when Oswald was brought out to be transferred to the county jail. Although he was surrounded by police as before we saw a man rush up to him and fire a gun. We later learned that he was Jack Ruby. He was tackled by the police and dragged to the ground. Oswald was rushed to Parkland Hospital and later died there. Sometime later the story was given out that Ruby had killed Oswald so Jackie Kennedy would never have to go through his trial and have to relive everything.
Monday was really rough. It was the day of the funeral. Grandpa had to go to work as usual, but Grandma and I watched TV from the beginning to the end. (Prior to this time I had only attended one funeral.) We saw the honor guard bring the casket out of the Rotunda to the waiting caisson. They secured the casket to the caisson and took their places surrounding it. The procession started to move off and Jackie stood on the steps of the Capitol with her two children. (Everyone has since seen the pictures of John Jr. saluting as the procession started to move off.) Jackie and the President’s brothers Robert and Ted joined the procession behind the caisson and walked to the Cathedral. The other dignitaries followed behind. Drums played during the entire procession.
The funeral seemed very strange to Grandma and me. Not being Catholic we did not understand the meaning of bells ringing and incense burners being swung. Grandma tried to help me cope by making little jokes about all the bells, but we both still cried. It was amazing to me to see all the representatives of foreign governments that were in attendance at the funeral. Many of them had just been names I read in the newspaper or heard on TV but this really made them real to me.
The funeral procession left the Cathedral and again moved slowly down the Washington streets to Arlington Cemetery, drums still beating. The burial service was spooky with cannons being fired and the President’s casket being lowered into the ground until the top of the casket was even with the ground. Then Jackie, Robert and Ted lit the “eternal flame” that burns at the grave site.
The one thing in the funeral procession that had an enormous impact on me was the riderless horse with boots turned backward, signifying a fallen leader. I had never seen anything like this and every time I have seen this scene since when other former Presidents have died I cannot keep from crying.
President Kennedy’s funeral took place on Grandma and Grandpa’s 24th wedding anniversary: November 25th, 1963.
When we returned to school on Tuesday after the President’s funeral our history teacher, Mrs. Oliver took the time out of our strict schedule and talked with all of her classes about what had happened and what it meant to all of us and the nation as a whole. She let us speak our minds and hearts and I know she helped all of us understand everything much more than we had the week before. I don’t know if she ever knew the impact she had on us that week and I wish I could go back and tell her how much she helped us cope.
When we became seniors the following September and started working on our yearbook someone found a picture of the American Flag flying at half-staff over the U.S. Capitol building. We took that picture to our yearbook photographer and asked that he enlarge it and put a caption on it of “November 22, 1963”. He did that for us at no charge and that is one of the things that our class presented to our school at graduation. That picture is still mounted on the inside wall of the school today and is one of the first things that anyone entering the school sees. It will be a constant reminder of one of the saddest days in modern history only eclipsed by the events of 9/11.
Sometime over that weekend between Friday and Monday I wrote a poem (long since lost) about the death of our President. Grandma wanted me to send it Mrs. Kennedy and I finally did. A few weeks later I received an envelope with a black border with “Jackie Kennedy” on it. Inside was a thank you note for the item sent (generic and pre-printed with her signature) but it was surprising to me that I got anything back at all. I think it was in the spring that an announcement was made that all of the cards, letters and other items sent to Mrs. Kennedy after her husband’s death were going to be stored at the Smithsonian. I know my poem was nothing great but it said what was in my heart.
There are a lot of events that shape who we are but a President’s assassination is something that is (hopefully) a once in a lifetime event. I think all of us young people were changed by that day in Dallas, hopefully for the better.
Since this is the place I put every guest blogger’s bio, I’ll do the same for my mom. Karen Jensen is my mom. She’s amazing. Born in upstate New York in the Fingerlakes region and raised around Canoga, Seneca Falls, and Penn Yan, she atended both Syracuse University and Texas Lutheran College. She then joined the Air Force, met my dad, and went on to add the title of “mom” to her name, bringing my older brother, myself, and younger sister onto this great big blue ball (all kicking and screaming, I’m sure). She went on to earn her MBA from Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio, raising three kids in the process. While I’ve never seen her cape or invisible plane, I’m quite sure she’s a superhero. She’s now retired and lives in Houston, Texas and has a middle daughter who wakes up every day knowing she won the Mom Lottery.