Fifty years ago today. I can barely recall what I did last Friday — in fact, I can’t — but I can recall every detail of the events that unfolded on Friday, Nov. 22 in 1963. If you are of my generation, so can you.
It happened shortly after the noon hour. My classmates and I had returned from lunch and were sitting in Miss Martha Ramsey’s sixth-grade class. I was seated in the second row from the door, fourth desk from the front. Yes, I am certain.
Our principal, Jordy Tanner came to the door and called Miss Martha out into the hall. We were very curious and wondered who was in trouble. She whispered something in Miss Ramsey’s ear and Miss Ramsey put her hand over her chest and sort of slumped against the doorjamb. She began to cry softly, then she motioned for me to join her in the hall.
That wasn’t particularly unusual. I was always the teacher’s pet in that particular class. There is no use denying it. The words that came out of her mouth shocked me. “The president has been shot,” she said. “You need to go and tell the other teachers.”
I began to slowly walk away, my 11-year-old mind trying to comprehend what she had said. She grabbed my arm and whispered, “Tell Betty first.”
“Betty” was Betty Ramsey Robertson, now Kincaid. She had been my fourth-grade teacher and remains my friend to this day. In fact, we often reminisce about that November day, and I am sure Mrs. Betty has already thought about me today.
I made the rounds and let all of the Porterdale School faculty in on the bad news and returned to Miss Martha’s class. She was sitting at her desk sobbing. My classmates were sitting at their desks wondering how one was supposed to act in such a situation. None of us had ever experienced a presidential assassination or a distraught teacher.
We may have been sent home early, but perhaps not. We got out at 2:30 anyway and Dallas was an hour behind us, time-wise. I do remember walking to the drug store after school to spend the dime that was burning a hole in my pocket. They were all listening to the radio and that’s when I realized that all the news of the assassination would be on television, so I headed home.
I was walking past one house on North Broad and a man whose name I shall not reveal called out to me. “Did you hear that Kennedy was killed?” he asked.
“Yes, sir,” I answered. “I am going home now to watch the news on TV.”
“Well I’m glad the n-lover is dead,” he said.
I have never forgotten the hatred in his voice and I never have understood how a grown man could make such a statement to a child on such an occasion. I never looked at that man the same way after that.
The rest of the weekend I did what all of you did, who are old enough to remember 1963. I sat in front of the television as the story began to unfold. The words and phrases and names I heard that weekend will be with me as long as I live. Texas School Book Depository. Triple Underpass. Grassy knoll. Parkland Hospital. Lee Harvey Oswald. Officer Tippens. Jack Ruby.
I saw Jackie get off the plane at Andrews Air Force Base, still wearing her blood splattered dress. The commentators told me it was pink. I had to take their word for that for our television was black and white. I watched the recap of the news at 11 p.m. and watched the same news all day on Saturday.
I was watching on Sunday afternoon when Jack Ruby murdered Lee Harvey Oswald. It may have been the only time my mother allowed me to eat Sunday dinner in the living room, in front of the television. I remember running into the dining room and yelling, “They shot Oswald,” starting a stampede by my family to the only television in our house.
Of course there was only one television. It was 1963. We barely had it.
I watched Sunday night as JFK’s body lay in state. I watched the funeral, the rider-less horse, Blackjack, with the stirrup over the saddle to denote a fallen leader. The caisson that had held Lincoln’s body. The bugler playing taps. John John saluting his fallen father. I remember it all.
I have read volumes of books about the assassination and watched dozens of movies and documentaries and television specials. I have been to Dallas and stood on the grassy knoll and looked through the sixth floor window that Oswald looked through, and I still don’t believe that what the government said happened is what really happened.
But 50 years after the fact I haven’t forgotten one thing about that weekend. I hope I never experience anything else that affects me so deeply.