I was 12 years old when President Kennedy was assassinated. It was such a shocking event that even 50 years later, many details of that day and the days that followed remain intact in my memory. Now living part of the time in the Boston area where Kennedy grew up and began his political career, it feels a bit like I am walking through history–the places that I heard about as a child that were only dots on a map are now alive and real.
I was in the seventh grade in a newly constructed middle school in Tawas City, Michigan. The teacher, Mr. Alexander, taught us both math and history, math in the morning and history in the afternoon. I recall that the school had decided that year to separate boys and girls into different classes (undoubtedly an experiment in hormone control) , but because I was in the band I was in a mixed class. I still can see where I was sitting in that classroom, as well as the arrangement of the room, almost as if I were watching an old home movie. It was a Friday afternoon in the period after lunch hour, and we were taking a test. In the middle of the test, Mr. Alexander was called out of the room. When he came back, he told us to finish the test, and then he would have something to tell us. When everyone was finished, he told us the news that the President had been shot. A few minutes the principal came on over the loudspeaker and told us that it had now been confirmed that President Kennedy was dead, and dismissed school for the day.
As we waited for the buses to arrive, I don’t remember what we said to each other. It seemed an impossible thing to understand—the President was dead, shot by an assassin. The main memory that lingers of how I learned of the assassination is a sense of annoyance that with such a momentous event, Mr. Alexander made us finish the test we were taking. On the bus there was none of the usual laughing or rambunctiousness of 12 and 13 year olds—everyone was in shock.
When the bus arrived in East Tawas, I walked the block from the elementary school where the bus stopped, to the family store, where my father and grandfather were waiting. I always stopped there on my way home, but usually just for a few minutes. On this day I was there much longer, as we all tried to process the news and watch the small television in the back office as the news station played over and over the footage of the day. After a time, my grandfather and father began to reminisce about the death of FDR 18 years earlier, and the bombing of Pearl Harbor four years before. My grandfather told me that as long as I lived, I would never forget where I was on this day. “It will be seared in your mind,” he predicted, and indeed it has been.
Over the next two days it seemed like we were mostly glued to the television as news of the capture of Lee Harvey Oswald unfolded. Then, on Sunday morning, we, along with millions of others, watched on national television as Jack Ruby shot Oswald as he was being moved to the county jail.
The following week was Thanksgiving, just as it is this year. We always got together with an aunt and uncle and cousins on my mother’s side, and it was such a somber occasion that year. My father, who had not been a Kennedy fan before the 1960 election, had totally turned around by the time of the assassination, due in no small part to Kennedy’s vow to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. We were not done with tragedy in the remaining years of the 60s–when Neil Armstrong finally took his “giant leap for mankind” on July 1969, it was a more hopeful end to a decade that held the triple tragedies of the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, his brother Robert, and Martin Luther King.