Everyone of a certain age, it is said, remembers the moment when they heard that John F. Kennedy had been shot. Yet even though I was 13 years old at the time, and recall quite a lot from 1963, I do not remember this, though for a technical reason.
I was a beleaguered freshman at the Sidwell Friends School in Washington, sitting in French class. A classmate who had been excused to go to the bathroom returned with a quizzical expression on her face to announce (in a strained voice, as I recall) that she had heard a radio in the hall, and that “Mrs. Kennedy has been shot.”
Undoubtedly, at some point soon thereafter, that misinformation was corrected; but I have no recollection of it. I do remember, however, that our teacher—a testy gargoyle with slicked-back hair—peremptorily insisted that French class continue. And sometime later in the afternoon, when the freshman class was assembled together in one room, a delightfully pompous science teacher announced, “I regret to inform you that the president of the United States is dead”—which, by that time, we all knew.
Fifty years is a long time in anybody’s life, and the anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination reminds me that 1963 means to us now what 1913 meant to me on that day—a mysterious moment fixed in the distant past. I remember that, over the weekend, local television stations sent reporters off to nursing homes to interview people who recalled the last presidential murder—of William McKinley, in 1901. That event, at the time, seemed immeasurably antique; but McKinley had been shot in Buffalo 62 years earlier—or in 1951, from our present perspective, just within my lifetime.
Nowadays, when catastrophe occurs, people swiftly resort to their smartphones and instantly learn everything anyone needs to know, and much else besides. This was not the case a half-century ago, needless to say. I do remember some slight adolescent embarrassment at the sight of one prominent senator’s daughter weeping as she crossed the campus. I also recall hanging around school after hours to discuss what little we knew, aided by nothing more than speculation and rumor. And seeing a box on the street with an Extra edition of the old Evening Star bearing the news.
My homeward trek, in those days, was a slow, infinitely laborious journey by city bus, with one change, out to the National Naval Medical Center (now the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center) in Bethesda, Maryland, followed by a mile-and-a-half hike, over two steep hills, to my home in neighboring Kensington.
By the time I left Sidwell, it was starting to get dark, and the bus’s harsh interior light illuminated a handful of subdued passengers. I recall no conversation—and of course, there were no cell phones, or iPods, or even transistor radios, in use. Changing buses at the station in Chevy Chase, I recall seeing one driver I recognized, standing on the sidewalk sadly shaking his head, and noted that the customarily aggressive salesmen for Muhammad Speaks, the Black Muslim newspaper, were not to be seen. Had they sold out, or were they lying low?
As it happens, the death of the president caused a personal inconvenience unimaginable today. As the bus approached the naval hospital in Bethesda, I could see that the familiar art deco skyscraper was surrounded by dozens of vehicles, streets and sidewalks were closed, and flashing lights lined the roadway to the hospital entrance. We were informed that Kennedy’s body, not yet arrived from Dallas, was expected for autopsy, and the bus was forbidden to drive onto the grounds. The driver opened the door, and out I went.
To where? So far as I could tell, the usual path home was effectively blocked, and to circumnavigate the hospital grounds on foot, and approach my destination from the other direction, was a very long detour. I decided I should try to call home and see if my father, who was seldom inclined to offer taxi service, could retrieve me somewhere in Bethesda.
But there were no nearby businesses with pay phones, I was much too shy to approach a residence—and I remember realizing that I might have had a dollar in my wallet, but no dime for a telephone call. This was not a trivial matter in the prehistoric era before cell phones and credit cards.
In fact, I cannot recall precisely how the problem was solved, although I do remember entering the first restaurant I reached, and must have managed a “collect” call. To my surprise, my father was not visibly annoyed when he came for me. Or perhaps he was distressed by the day’s events, which might explain the silence as we drove home in the dark.