November 22, 1963
I was too little to understand what was happening the day John F. Kennedy died, having just turned four. My family lived in a house across from Smith Road Elementary School on the south side of Columbus, Ohio. My friend Holly lived a couple of blocks away. I wanted to go down and play with her, but the rule was I had to call first (Smith Road was a busy street, and Mom had to walk me down). I had learned how to dial Holly’s number by sticking my finger into the holes on the circle, but that afternoon I couldn’t get a call through to her on our party line. Every time I picked up the receiver, people were already on there, talking and talking. The news on TV didn’t interest me, and I was frustrated. At some point, my mom must have gotten upset and told me to quit pouting, the President had died and I wasn’t going anywhere today.
When we watched the news coverage of JFK’s funeral a few days later, I was fascinated with Caroline, who was two years older than me. I thought she was pretty. She had a little brother, like me. I still didn't understand what happened, but I knew their daddy couldn't come home and play with them anymore. I was sad their daddy had died, and hoped my daddy wouldn’t die.
My mom was 22 then, and her memory of the day JFK died is a lot clearer. She was driving the car, with my brother and I in the back seat, when a special bulletin came over the radio announcing that President Kennedy had been shot. She had almost reached Town and County Shopping Center, but was so unsettled by the news that she turned around and drove home. She called my dad at Reeb’s Restaurant, then switched on our black-and-white TV. They were showing footage of the President in the car. It looked like he was ducking down. Then they announced he was dead.
Mom doesn’t remember me trying to call Holly, but thinks it was probably after we got home from our aborted shopping trip. Her mind, naturally, was on bigger matters by then. Kennedy’s death left her with a deep sorrow. She couldn’t understand why someone would want to kill him. He was doing so many good things. Two days later, Mom was watching the news on TV when she saw Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald, live, right there on the screen in front of her. She was horrified. What would happen next? It seemed like the world was going to hell in a hand basket.
Mom says she didn’t feel like going out or doing anything for days after Kennedy died. When she did, it felt like a lot of the young, carefree feeling had gone out of her and the world.
|My brother and I eating breakfast in our TV room, 1965|
As small and insignificant as our individual memories may seem, they matter to us, and they’re worth preserving. As any family historian knows, someday they’ll help future generations understand us and our times. Collectively, our memories add up to the legacy of a nation. Think of how much of my mom’s memory, and even mine, is tied to the television. This was the first national tragedy to come into our homes on live TV. No wonder it shook the country to its core.
I'll be reading accounts of other people’s memories with interest today and in the days to come. I’ve also been watching some of the televised specials commemorating the life of John F. Kennedy and analyzing his assassination. The one that moved me the most, and gave me the best sense of what it was like to live through those days, is Letters to Jackie: Remembering President Kennedy on TLC. The program has already aired, but I imagine they’ll rebroadcast it at some point.
Fifty years later, I still think Caroline is pretty, and I wish her peace in remembering her father today.
Kennedy photo credit: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.