Tuesday, April 06, 2010

One November Day

As I remember it, that autumn had been relatively mild. By mid-November most of the corn fields had already been picked. The leaves on the trees had dropped some weeks before. It was a time in that interlude when the high school football season, for better or for worse, was history, but the basketball season was yet to start.

For those of us in our relatively quiet rural Southern Michigan community, it was a time of routine leading up to the Thanksgiving holiday. Our community was somewhat off the beaten path; a good hour away from any big cities, and not on any major highways. There was a certain degree of isolation. TV, radio and the newspapers were the vehicles that brought the outside world into our midst. There were the vacations that would occasionally take us outside our normal boundaries. Also from time to time there might be a day trip to Toledo or Jackson, or maybe even Fort Wayne, but for most of us growing up in that rural area, the rest of the world was "out there".

That Friday started off like any other normal Friday. I got up early and went out to do what farm chores needed to be done. Sometime or other in the course of the usual morning ritual, I had breakfast, and got ready for school. Then it was off to school. The morning classes went by, and the lunch hour came. So far it had been a pretty ordinary normal day, one among the many others at that time of our lives.

Sometime around 1 PM or so, I and my fellow high school Freshmen classmates were in our Science class. For some reason our regular teacher was out for the day. Mrs. Welling was filling in as the substitute teacher. Mrs. Welling and her husband were retired teachers. Sometime in her life Mrs. Welling had received a certain amount of musical training. She directed one of the local church choirs, and occasionally sang special numbers. She was a petite slender lady which contributed to the nickname of "Mrs. Canary Legs" which we students sometimes callously called her, but not ever to her face or in the hearing of other adults. In truth she was a pretty nice lady. In all the times she substituted for the teacher in any of my classes, I never remember her saying any unkind words to any student, or ever in any way speaking sharply or roughly to any class at large.

I do not remember what the exact time was. It most probably was around 1:45 PM our local EST. I have no memory of what we were specifically doing in class at that time. Mrs. Welling may have been speaking to some aspect of Science, or we may have been doing some in class study time. We heard the school PA system come on. The PA system was always used for announcements of some kind or another related to school activities. In my mind, that was the expectation at that time. However, what we heard was something much different then anything we had ever heard on that PA system before. We realized the voice we were hearing was not that of the high school Principle, or the Superintendent, or any of the teachers. It was a voice on a radio. I don't remember the exact words, but to the best of my recollection they were:

"......We repeat. President John F. Kennedy has been shot while riding in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas.... At approximately 12:30 PM local time, the President of the United States was shot...."

We sat there as the radio broadcast continued over the PA system. It took several minutes to process the meaning of the words we were hearing. Assassinations are things that only happen in history, such as in the Lincoln assassination. They are not suppose to happen in our United States of America of 1963. How could this be? What was going on? Even then there was a certain detachment from what we were hearing, as though listening to some kind of fictional account.

But it was not fiction. It was real. It was actually happening! Any thought of continuing with the Science class was totally erased from everyone's mind. We just sat there listening. It was about 20 minutes after we first heard the news of the shooting when the voice on the radio announced a news update bulletin had just come in.

"President John F. Kennedy died at approximately 1 p.m. Central Standard Time today here in Dallas. He died of a gunshot wound in the brain."

We were stunned. Mrs. Welling had tears in her eyes. In the wisdom and perspective of her older years, she much more fully comprehended the meaning, importance, and impact of what we were hearing. She had already in her lifetime witnessed December 7, 1941 when the shocking news came through that Pearl Harbor had been attacked. In contrast, we as students in our youthful inexperience and naivete could hardly comprehend the tragic historic moment we were listening to over that PA system.

At some point the buzzer rang to signal the end of the class session. We left the classroom as in a daze. Any conversations in the hallway were subdued. We were struggling to comprehend what we had heard, what it all meant, and what was going to happen.

My last class of the day was Phys. Ed. We went to the gym, but no one bothered getting ready for gym class. We just sat there on the bleachers or wandered around the gym aimlessly, talking quietly among ourselves. At one point one of my classmates, in a demonstration of youthful folly, made a smart-aleck remark about cancelling school because the President was shot. The Phys. Ed. teacher angrily and curtly told him to just shut up.

Finally the school day ended. We headed home. My mother was a teacher at the school, so she had heard the news in the same way we had. My dad had also heard the news. The normal afternoon TV shows we liked to watch were cancelled. All the TV and radio stations were focused on the assassination. We started hearing the name Lee Harvey Oswald mentioned. He was now in the custody of the Dallas Police Department. President Kennedy's body was being flown back to Washington, DC aboard Air Force 1. Lynden Johnson had taken the oath of office, and was now President of the United States.

Saturday morning dawned. We did our usual farm chores, but I don't remember doing much else that day. The news came that President Kennedy's funeral would be on Monday, and there would be no school that day. Lee Harvey Oswald was still in the custody of the Dallas Police Department. The only thing else I remember about that Saturday was that it was sunny with mostly clear skies.

In looking back at that time, it's the routine details of your life you don't remember. Sunday morning came. I had probably gone to church that morning, but have no memory of it. I would have got back home a little before Noon, our local EST. What I do remember was watching the TV coverage of the assassination, funeral preparations, the public viewing of the closed casket in the rotunda of the Capital building, and all the rest.

Then the network broke away to the coverage in Dallas, Texas where the Dallas police were about to transfer Lee Harvey Oswald from the police headquarters to the county jail. There on the black and white screen in front of me, I saw police officers escorting a man into the basement of the police headquarters. Then another man stepped quickly forward and shots rang out. It was 11:21 am local CST, Sunday, November 24, 1963. As he was about to be taken to the Dallas County Jail, Lee Harvey Oswald was fatally shot before live television cameras in the basement of the Dallas Police Headquarters by Jack Ruby. I was watching the whole thing on TV. I along with millions of other Americans saw it happen right before our eyes. It was surreal, as if in a dream.

Ruby was immediately taken into custody. What was going on? This stuff happens in fictional movies and TV shows, but this was real life. Two murders in two days! I don't remember watching any more TV that day. I may have, but that scene from the basement of the Dallas Police Headquarters remains etched forever in my memory.

Monday November 25, was President John F. Kennedy's funeral. In our part of Michigan, it was another sunny day with mostly clear skies. I may have watched bits and pieces of the funeral on TV, but I remember very little. A few years in the future, in 1969, my college roommate and I would visit Washington, DC. While there, we would cross the Potomac River to the Arlington National Cemetery and visit the grave site where the eternal flame was burning. But that is another story for another time.

After the President's funeral, at some point school resumed. The Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays came and went. A new year began. We would go on with our lives, but for each of us who lived through that tragic historical time, our lives would never ever be the same after that one tragic fatal November day in 1963.

(J. William Newcomer, Copyright © April 2010. All rights reserved.)

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