We had returned to Cincinnati in March, 1963. Michael, who was two at the time, and I flew back to Ohio and Jim followed by car a month later. I was pregnant with Steve and immediately returned to my old job downtown. I worked until two weeks before Steve’s birth on August 21st. And so it happened that I was coming upstairs in my mother-in-law’s house with a basket of diapers to fold—when I caught the news coming in on the television. President Kennedy had been shot!
The next three days are a blur of everything running together; I cried for three days, unable to stop watching the TV coverage. The election in which JFK was elected president was the first time I followed all the election results on television. I watched the debates between JFK and Richard Nixon, during which Kennedy won the debates, hands down. JFK had such enormous charisma—I couldn’t understand how or why anyone wouldn’t be captivated by his charm. I wrote several letters to Jackie – the first one when their newborn infant, Patrick, died—I think the baby died right about the same time that my son Steve was born. I wrote to her again when JFK was assassinated—and amongst my treasures are the cards that Jackie sent out to everyone, acknowledging our sympathy. I remember she received an avalanche of letters and sympathy cards (I read somewhere that over 800,000 cards and letters were received). My heart ached for Jackie and her children. It was not until years later that I realized how young she was to direct and order everything for the funeral with such eloquence and an eye on the historical significance of everything she ordered being done.
In December, we returned to California for financial reasons; this time with a toddler and a 4 month old baby. We drove across ice and snow until we reached the middle of Texas—it was a risky trip—looking back I would never risk the lives of two little boys like we did that December, anxious to get back to California before the weather got any worse. We rented an apartment in Toluca Lake and for a short while I was a stay-at-home mother. Jim went to work for Weber Aircraft in January, and soon I was hired by Weber Aircraft too, to work in their offices.
I bought and saved all the newspapers and magazines about JFK; there were a lot of memorial booklets. Now, fifty years later, there are 50th anniversary memorial booklets. I do remember 1963, far more clearly than I remember other years of my life.
MY LONG-TIME OREGON PENPAL BEV WROTE: “IF you are old enough – oh, ya….. Yes, I certainly can remember. I was relieving on the switchboard at the paper mill when my bosses’ wife called in. Before she asked for Ted, she told me what had just happened. The reaction, of course, was disbelief. I can still see the switchboard as it was in front of me at that very moment. It was one of those old things with the cords that you connected from the outside line coming in, to whomever they wanted. It was lots of fun to operate, and we rotated out taking over on breaks and lunch for Doty, the gal who worked as the receptionist for nearly 30 years. Beautiful gal, still is. She was 2 years ahead of me in school, the yell queen, married the handsome guy a couple years older. I digress……..but then, when don’t I?
Leroy (Bev’s husband) said he was in the car just ready to get out to go inside the Lloyd Center Mall in Portland where he worked at Leeds Shoes. America probably would have been in a much better position now if that shot had never been fired. Makes you wonder… In that day and time, he [JFK] would not have been brought down for his hanky-panky.”
Richard is an email penpal who is from Cincinnati, and now lives in New Jersey: RICHARD WROTE THE FOLLOWING TO SUBMIT TO A NEWSPAPER:
UP A TREE AT JFK’S FUNERAL
Like most people my age, I remember precisely where I was on the day JFK was assassinated. But I also remember where I was two days later: up a tree – literally.
On Saturday morning, the day after the assassination, three of my college classmates and I decided to pool our meager funds and drive overnight from Cincinnati to attend JFK’s funeral. We drove all night to Washington, D.C., arriving at about 10 am Sunday morning.
The crowds were already 8-10 people deep on the sidewalks, and at first I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to see anything. But then I spied a tree devoid of leaves, and I climbed up and claimed a spot that would provide me with a good vantage point from which to watch the procession.
Not only did I have a good view of the funeral route, but I also could see all along Pennsylvania Avenue, up towards the White House and down to the Capitol. Throngs of people lined both sides of the avenue. Estimates were that 300,000 people had come out that day to pay their respects. I had never been part of such a large gathering in my life. Nor would I ever again.
Then about 11:45 in the morning, while I was trying to keep warm up in the tree, someone just below me who had a transistor radio, began to yell out,
“Oswald’s been shot! Oswald’s been shot!” Like the effect you get when you throw a stone into a lake, the news rippled out in waves all along the route for as far as I could see. Many cheered and applauded upon hearing the news, as if some just retribution had taken place. But I must confess that certain sadness overwhelmed me then, for all I could think about in my perch above it all was, “Now we’ll never know. Now we’ll never know.”
An hour or so later the funeral passed by: the muffled drums, the caisson bearing JFK’s remains, the rider-less horse, and the Kennedy family. The crowd was respectfully quiet, although many openly shed tears. White handkerchiefs dotted the sea of people. The mourning was so intense I could feel it rising from the street. It was clear that people genuinely loved this man, and I felt that I was witnessing a defining moment in 20th Century American history.
After the funeral passed I dropped to the ground and joined my friends and hundreds of others following the procession on foot to the Capitol. Once in the crowd, I turned to find myself walking and arm’s length away from Charles de Gaulle and Halie Selassie, and I was astonished to see that they and the scores of other foreign dignitaries had no security around them. Such openness, I feared, would soon come to an end.
The lines were so long outside the Capitol rotunda where JFK’s body lay in state that we decided we couldn’t afford to wait many long hours to pay our respects. Instead we turned around and drove home for twelve hours, each of us quiet for long periods of time, silently lost in our personal mourning. As we drove into the night, I thought about the country’s loss, and how, for one brief moment, JFK brought us a fresh spirit of change and hope for a better tomorrow.
But now Camelot had ended. Hope was gone. And I realized that America would never be the same after that day I spent up a tree in Washington, D.C., on November 24, 1963.”
BARB, A CLASSMATE FROM MY ELEMENTARY SCHOOL, ST. LEO’S, WROTE THE FOLLOWING: “I think all of us can remember what we were doing on November 22…..what a terrible day that was. I was watching TV where they had TV Bingo. I was covering numbers when they interrupted with the news. The announcers were crying…..everyone was crying. My son was about 18 months old and I was glad he kept me busy. My husband was upset too as was most of the USA. It was hard not watching the TV, we just wanted to know everything we could. We all just felt so helpless and sad. I don’t know if I would feel that sad if it was today’s president. No……I know I wouldn’t!” (me, either, Barb—sls)
PENPAL AND PRAYER PAL GIRLFRIEND WROTE: “I was living in Ne and my son Ted who will turn 52 Nov 24 was so little and I remember the news about Kennedy coming on TV and what a shock. I called his grandma who lived around the corner from us and we were so sad with this news.”
GIRLFRIEND AND FORMER COWORKER LORRAINE WROTE: “Sandy- I was 5 years old and am not sure what I was doing that day- probably playing- but I do remember the day – the shock and tears of my grandparents, mother and Aunt. Watching the events unfold on tv and realizing even at that young age that our country had just lost a very special man. It is one of my earliest memories of realizing there was a whole big world out there and not just my little 5 year old one.”
GOOD FRIENDS RAY & SYLVIA WROTE: “We were living in Dallas on that day. Ray’s office was actually on the parade route & many of them went down & watched the president go by, then back upstairs where a few minutes later Mr. Kennedy was shot & killed. It was a numbing time in Dallas, just pure shock whether you were a Kennedy supporter or not. For months after that we got dirty looks from people when we drove out of state with our Texas tags.”
FROM MY LONG-TIME GIRLFRIEND FAYE: “Sandy, I cannot believe that 50 years later I find out that we were both in Cincinnati on Nov. 22, 1963, but me and Marvin were living outside of Cincinnati and I had just taken Kathy to school and was listening to the news when Walter Cronkite came on with the news. I also cried all day and was really sad, but Marvin worked for a Republican that hated Kennedy and naturally he said the same thing that his boss said and it was ‘I’m glad he is dead, as far as I am concerned it took them too long to get rid of him’.
But what floors me is that we were both back there and I did not know it. Marvin’s unfeeling remarks are not news to me but I was shocked that anyone would say that about our beloved President…”
PENPAL MARGE N. WROTE: “ Yes, I remember that day. I heard word of it while sitting in a dentist office in Boonville, NY, with my two young sons. We didn’t have a TV at home, so after I got home I listened to the radio – the one station that we were able to receive way out in nowhere! It also happened on what would have been my father’s 56th birthday – he had passed away when he was 47…”
DONNA, WHO IS ONE OF MY GROUP EMAIL PALS WROTE: This is what I sent to my local newspaper
“I was a High School Senior in my World Problems class in Tacoma, WA. We were not allowed to go home, but no work was done. We maintained the regular schedule, but just sat around and mourned. First we heard the President had been shot, it was some time later we heard that he had died. Because he was such a young President, we all liked him very much. Actually, it had just been about a month earlier that he had come to Tacoma and we got out of school to go see him at the Cheney Baseball Stadium. The place was packed
with people; of course with a lot of security, including gunmen on the roof of the bleachers. Our group ended up out in center field. Kennedy was at a Podium placed at the Pitcher’s Mound. We really could not see a thing. I remember jumping up in the air to see and even my quick glimpse of the President was exciting – as he had plenty of charisma.
I finally got home on that fateful day and found the house empty. My Mom sold Avon at the time and was out seeing one of her customers. I think she felt the need to talk to someone. I quickly turned on the TV. Shortly, I heard a funny noise in the nearby fireplace. I heard it several times and wondered if I was “losing” it.
It wasn’t too long before my Mom got home and I told her about the noise in the fireplace. She had heard it earlier and thought a fairly large bird had gotten caught in the chimney. She had called the Humane Society, but with the sudden turn of events no one came. The next day the bird was still caught in the chimney. We called the Humane Society again. My Dad and I had gone to the store and so we missed being there when the HS officer came to the house. My Mom said it was a red bird (fairly large), called a Towhee and that it was very pretty. They were not common to our area.
Our family was glued to the TV all weekend, like everyone else. I was the only member of the family watching the live broadcast when Lee Harvey Oswald was shot by Jack Ruby.
When we went back to school, maybe the next Tuesday – the student teacher in our World Problems class (where we had first heard the news) surprised us with a Pop Quiz on World Issues. Nothing to do with the National Tragedy. I didn’t think that was fair, but I guess it was his way of telling us to get on with our life…”
CHRIS, ANOTHER MEMBER OF ONE OF MY EMAIL PENPAL GROUPS, WROTE: “Wow 50 years! Nothing out of the ordinary as far as memories go…..just that I was in high school. I can still remember the room and the looks on everybody’s faces when the loud speaker cracked, came to life and the principal made the announcement. I’m sure the first thing we did was pray. Then a TV was brought in so we could watch.”
MY CANADIAN PENPAL, SHARON, WROTE: “Sandy, I remember so well what I was doing, even though I’m Canadian. I was in my Grade 11 Science class when the announcement came over the PA system. The principal told us that school was dismissed and I remember how quiet it was as we left our classrooms and our school and headed home.
We watched as events unfolded in the days that followed, glued to the TV and I can remember the funeral broadcast as well…”
MY OTHER CANADIAN EMAIL PENPAL, DOREEN, WROTE THE FOLLOWING—AND IT IS SO WELL-WRITTEN, I will use this to bring my blog post to a finish on this topic. DOREEN WROTE:
“Okay, I was at work in the steno pool for Sears Catalogue in 1962 when Kennedy was shot. We stopped work and listened together to a small plastic radio in the manager’s office. It shook me up plenty. Jack Kennedy was the voice of political change. All the leaders were old men in the US and Canada with military leadership styles and along came Jack. The Black movement had started in the South and on our television screens we saw the US as we had never considered it before. There stood Kennedy saying things needed to change and people had rights. Change was all over in the 60’s and we all were coming out from under autocratic rule in our homes, schools, and workplaces. We were all finding we had voices and Jack Kennedy represented hope. The looming wall of Soviet Russia was over our heads but here in North America we were changing and when President Kennedy was shot it was like the iron hand of Soviet rule was falling over our heads and squashing change. However; there was still Bobby and we expected he would continue to make it right. The door had been left ajar and we were young and nothing could stop it from flying open as we all stormed out.
No one could understand (children and grandchildren) the rule of law we grew up under. Parents were absolute, children were seen and not heard, from daylight to nightfall someone adult was ordering us around to pick up a share of the work that surrounded us all. Children could not decide when to talk about something or choose whom to speak to. Everything was tight, money, freedom, hope, and our futures were something looming but not to be spoken of. It was like we were supposed to grow up and poof like an inflated balloon be gone from our parents home with no thought to how the process would take place. Jack Kennedy was planning and Martin Luther King was planning. Kids of the 60’s were making plans for themselves. “It was the best of times and the worst of times,” as Charles Dickens wrote.” ***
I wrote the following poem a few years after the assassination and submitted it to the Valley (San Fernando Valley) News, where it was published.
Sandra Lee Smith
November Twenty Second
Nineteen Hundred Sixty-Three
Is remembered and recorded
On a page in history.
Scores of generations, yes,
And even those unborn
Will remember–and remembering–
They too shall sadly mourn.
The sun was shining brightly
As crowds gathered to behold
Their leader — and would witness
All the drama to unfold;
They came to see a motorcade
And watch their chief go by –
Unknowing that their buoyant cheers
Would swiftly, mid-air, die.
Sharp shots rang out–a nation bowed
Its head in wordless shame–
Joined together, briefly now,
A land without a name.
His head was clasped upon the lap
Of his beloved wife,
A motorcade raced desperately
To save his ebbing life.
To what avail? Their efforts failed!
What matters that they tried?
Shepardless, this nation watched,
As he, their leader, died.
A nurse said “Caroline, my dear,
Your darling daddy’s dead..”
And on November twenty-fifth,
A little boy was three,
He stood and watched a cortege pass
And asked “Where can he be?”
Horses, six-gray-white drew near–
The small boy breathed a sigh,
Saluted, without knowing that
His father had passed by.
–Sandra Lee Smith