This is not the first time I have written on this subject, but sitting here on this beautiful, sunny Thanksgiving morning, I am reminded of a darker time almost a half century ago.
I was sitting in my 7th grade math class in Asheville, North Carolina when the principal’s static voice came out of the classroom squawk box mounted over the blackboard. President Kennedy had just been shot in Dallas. “I’ll keep you posted” he told us as he asked us to return to our studies. How was that possible? A short time later the bell rang and we moved to our next class. In my case, it was art appreciation. As I arrived in that classroom our teacher walked in, eyes red and tears streaming down her face. “The President is dead.” Classes were dismissed early on that clear, late autumn Friday afternoon. I grabbed the books I would need for the weekend and I caught the bus home.
When I arrived my mother was crying, watching the news from Dallas. There, for the first time, I saw those now iconic images of Walter Cronkite replaying on our black and white television. White shirt and dark tie, with papers scattered around him, trying to make sense of the conflicting reports out of Texas. Of course I already knew the outcome, but watching those replayed images of Cronkite I thought maybe it was OK. Maybe the president had survived. Then came that image I will never, ever forget. Cronkite taking his glasses on and off . . . those thick-framed glasses . . . as he told us of blood transfusions being given to the stricken president, of a Catholic priest being called to the emergency room at Parkland Hospital to administer the Last Rites. Later he shared Dan Rather’s report from Dallas saying that President Kennedy had, in fact, died. Then came that moment when Cronkite put his glasses back on and ran a finger quickly along the edge of his nose. A pause as he removed his glasses again, looking at a studio clock as he told us what we already knew. From Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently official: President Kennedy died at 1 pm Central Standard Time. 2 o'clock Eastern Standard Time, some 38 minutes ago. Trying hard to keep his composure Cronkite went on to tell how the ship of state would continue to function. It was a lot for a twelve year old boy to grasp. Thinking back on it today . . . 49 years later . . . it is still difficult to grasp.
Over the next three days the American people were flooded with lasting images as the nation, shrouded in grief, said farewell to its leader, and perhaps to its innocence. The muffled drums, the riderless horse with the boots turned backwards in the stirrups, the crowds in the streets as the cortege passed down Pennsylvania Avenue, a young son saluting his father for the last time, the broken note as a bugler played “Taps” at the hillside grave in Arlington National Cemetery. Those who watched will never forget them.
Now . . . finally . . . it all seems so long ago. But will we ever really forget?
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