Saturday, November 22, 2008

A SIGNIFICANT GENERATIONAL EVENT

Today is a significant generational event for me. It still is as fresh in my mind as the day it happened back in 1963. Many of my friends and I thought August 28, 1963 was a really important day we would never forget because of the 250,000 participants at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom at which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his I Have A Dream speech.

But November 22d is at the top of my list because it ended the “era of innocence” for me and many of my classmates. I remember clearly that I was in French class at Detroit’s Mumford High School 45 years ago today. French was my last class of the day and as a senior, I really didn’t think that I should have had a class that late. Worse, because I had lived in France and had taken several years of it, I was forced into French 4, a literature course that I extremely disliked.

When the announcement came over the PA system that someone shot President John F. Kennedy in Dallas (we didn’t know he died), there was stunned silence, followed by the sniffling, the sobs, and then the crying. I often wonder why we had the spontaneous reactions that we did. At our various reunions over the years, the conversation invariably gets around to the question, “What class were you in when they made the announcement?” Just knowing what “the announcement” refers to says a lot about how deeply the event is embedded.

The school sent us home that Friday afternoon and some people missed the last two hours of the day. Taking the City bus home (we didn’t have school a yellow school bus!) was an eerie experience; silence all the way, except for the quiet sobbing and sniffling. Everyone knew. Everyone seemed lost in his or her own thoughts. No one ever seemed to be trying to make sense of what happened.

We all watched TV for the next few days — it was Walter Cronkite in our home who brought all of the news. Saturday the remains were at the White House and laid in state at the US Capitol on Sunday. Our new President, Lyndon Johnson, issued Presidential Proclamation 3561, declaring Monday to be a national day of mourning. As one source reported:

In the only public viewing, hundreds of thousands lined up in near-freezing temperatures to view the casket. Over the span of 18 hours, 250,000 people, some waiting for as long as 10 hours in a line that stretched 40 blocks up to 10 persons wide, personally paid their respects as Kennedy's body lay in state. Many of them were weeping when they viewed the bier. Capitol police officers politely reminded mourners to keep moving along in two lines that passed on either side of the casket and exited the building on the west side facing the National Mall.

That Monday was the first state funeral I had ever seen, and I guess the same applied to most folks. All of the pomp, ceremony, and precession had a lasting impact. And who can forget the image of John F. Kennedy, Jr. saluting his father’s casket while standing with his mother, uncle and sister?

I think we went back to school on Tuesday but I really don’t remember. I do remember that we followed the investigation, read all of the reports in the newspaper, discussed things in our classes even though it was off topic, and followed the coverage at home on TV. As the new year and second semester came, we turned our focus to college applications and preparing to graduate, but the shock never wore off.

Some things in our lives changed and there was a sadness that continued to prevail. With the firing of a bullet in Dallas, it was clear that superfluous stuff like a late afternoon French class became small potatoes. Life went on, but it was clear that Camelot died.