I was sitting in Miss Chambliss’ 5 grade classroom at Oakhurst Elementary School in Fort Worth. It was a beautiful, crisp late autumn day, one of those days we cherish, living in the oven that is often Texas. We had just come in from lunchtime recess and were getting back to studying when one of my close childhood friends, Steve Ellis, burst into our classroom yelling, “The President has been shot in the face! The President has been shot in the face!” In an instant, my own life, and those of millions of Americans, changed forever.
The previous few days had been very exciting. President Kennedy and Jackie (everyone called her Jackie) had been in Texas, first stopping in San Antonio, then on to Fort Worth that night. The next morning, JFK gave a speech at the Hotel Texas to around 2,000 people, and several of the kids from my school had gone to see him. About mid-morning, we had a student body assembly which our principal, Donald Couch, had called to talk about the President’s historic visit, and several of the kids who had gotten to see him talked about their experiences. I remember wishing I could have been been allowed to go. After all, how often did you get to see a President, especially in Texas? After the assembly we all returned to our scheduled classes, and back to normalcy, at least that is what we believed.
My school was located in north central Fort Worth, only about 5 miles east of Carswell Air Force Base, where my father worked at Convair, now Lockheed. He was an Air Force pilot, and we lived and breathed aircraft of all kinds. For many years, our favorite pass time was to sit off the end of the runway at Carswell, watching various military craft fly in and out of the base. I remember seeing the B-36, the B-52, the B-58, the F-111, the F-16, and many other aircraft including even a visit by the spectacular, but short lived B-70, a mammoth all-white supersonic bomber that never made it to production. On this day, though, the government version of the Boeing 707, dubbed Air Force One, flew out of Carswell, on its way to Dallas, carrying JFK and Jackie. I remember it as if it were just yesterday; as I was playing in the school yard after lunch, this beautiful sky-blue and polished aluminum 707 passed directly overhead. I instantly recognized it as Air Force One taking the President eastward to Dallas. My wish had come true; I had gotten to see President Kennedy during his historic visit to Texas. I was elated; however, that too, was short-lived.
I’ll never forget that afternoon and the next 3 days following; just as Steve gave us the terrible news, Mr. Couch came on to the PA system, announcing that the President had indeed been shot. He put the microphone up to an AM radio, and we all listened as the story unfolded right before us. First reports were that the President had been shot from the railroad bridge at the end of Dealey Plaza; then possibly from the grassy knoll. The radio reporter even described police officers rushing up the hill where they believed the shooter was hiding. Then came those words: <strong>The President is dead</strong>. The next few hours were a blur. Mr. Couch immediately dismissed the entire school. As I began my bike ride back home, I was struck by the scene outside the school as frantic mothers gathered up their kids to take them to the safety of their homes. When I got home myself, my Mom was already watching the television. I sat down with her, and in the ensuing 4 days, witnessed the transformation of a nation, all in black and white.
I stayed glued to the television day and night, throughout the weekend. For the first time ever, neither of my parents complained about me watching the “boob tube” as my father liked to call it. They understood the significance, I believe, of the events unfolding before us. Sunday morning, though, we went to church, as always; we were just leaving after the service when we heard that accused assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, had been shot and killed in the Dallas Police Station. The fear and uncertainly swelled even more within my young consciousness…what had happened? Why is our world suddenly such a scary place? Why are grownups letting this happen? We immediately returned home to the family vigil in front of the television, our only connection to the death and tragedy that seemed to be all around us.
My memories of watching the events on that black and white television that weekend are crystal clear, even today; one particular discomforting moment happened that first evening when Air Force One arrived back at Andrews with the new President, Jackie, and, of course, JFK’s body. The chaotic scene was frightening as the honor guard was overwhelmed by others wanting to help move the casket from the aircraft to the waiting hearse. Jackie tried to get in with the casket, but couldn’t. The door was locked. I remember being afraid that no one was in charge. I had seen the photo of LBJ taking the oath of office, but it was clear to me at that particular moment, he was not in charge. For a 10 year old, that is unsettling, at best. My other clear memory of that weekend is of the drums. I can hear those drums clearly even today, and think of them often, somehow living in my sub-conscience, often playing like a mantra in the background.
Most of all, I remember Jackie, still a young woman at the time. She led the nation in mourning, and her composure and grace while suffering profound grief provided an example to all Americans. When she chose to walk behind the gun carriage in the funeral procession, she did that to inspire millions, and will never be forgotten for her strength during those terrible days.
It is said that the assassination of John F. Kennedy marked the beginning of a new chapter in American history. That is true, at least to me; as one of millions of baby boomers, I came of age during a time of great instability and fear, including the escalation of the war in Viet Nam, the awakening of the civil rights movement punctuated by the assassination of its spiritual leader, Martin Luther King, Jr., followed almost immediately by the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, who I dearly loved and wanted to be President. Our world was rocked by rapid change with which, it seemed, no one could keep pace. One great change, though, and one begun by JFK himself, was our journey to the Moon. The space program was kick-started by him and he challenged us to land on the moon before the end of the 1960s. And we did just that, inspired by his words:
Those tragic days, from November 22 to November 25, 1963 profoundly changed America. They also changed me, helping form me into who I am today. I’ll never forget those days, and pray I won’t forget the lessons that were taught; unity, courage, humility, strength, resolve, and love of our fellow man. Some of our leaders today could benefit from our experiences, if they would only stop talking long enough to listen.
That is my hope for future of our country.
Cross posted on <a href=”http://www.huffingtonpost.com/robert-l-cavnar/50-years-ago-in-texas—t_b_4320607.html” target=”_blank”>Huffington Post</a> and the Daily Hurricane.