It has been 43 years; nearly half a century. Forty-three years ago — Nov. 22, 1963 — I was just another high school senior, finishing lunch period and heading back to the career day assembly. I began to notice groups of guys clustered around those little transistor radios we had back then.
Somebody talked about Kennedy and shots and Johnson. I envisioned them on some sort of outdoor stage and shots being fired. But, frankly, it just didn’t make any sense.
Shots? The President? What? Where is he? Are you serious?
The mood was apprehensive when the assembly program began several minutes later. Then, one of the priests made a fast-clipped, solitary walk from the back of the gym to the doors leading to the stage. He whispered in the ear of the student leading the session. Jim Egizii stepped to the microphone and announced, "The President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, is dead."
Dead? Dead? What do you mean, "He’s dead?"
Joe Lofy, who sat in front of me, fell to his knees in prayer.
The next four days found us staring at our black-and-white televisions, watching black-and-white news pictures. There were no commercials. We watched clear into the night, as he lay in state at the Capitol and throughout the following four days: confused reports, arrests, Lee Harvey Oswald, Officer Tippet, Jack Ruby and the Texas Book Depository.
On the third day, Sunday, I was just about to eat a plate of scrambled eggs after getting home from church, when I looked at the television and saw Oswald being shot.
And on Monday Jackie, Caroline and John-John led world leaders in a solemn procession from the White House to St. Matthews Cathedral, where the little boy saluted his father's coffin. Then the procession to Arlington began; the drums beat over and over and over, interrupted by the funeral dirge and then by the Navy Hymn, which, serendipitously, we'd learned in Glee Club just weeks before.
And now the time has lengthened to 43 years, and you have to be of a certain age even to have recalled that horrific, surrealistic time.
The upcoming anniversary made me search for the facts surrounding the tale I’d heard told of JFK "picking out his grave." According to an article Kathie Scarrah wrote for the Voice of America News in May of last year, the President had been at Arlington just days before his trip to Dallas; walking near the front of the Custis-Lee mansion with its magnificent view of the river, Memorial Bridge, the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument and the Capitol further in the distance.
His guide at the time, Paul Fuqua, told Ms. Scarrah, "The president didn't know the story of how the Memorial Bridge links Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee, pulling the two sides of the Civil War together. He had never heard that story before, so we talked about that. And then he was standing about where I'm standing now, looking down between the two, and he said that it was so beautiful that he could stay up here forever."
Not long after uttering those words, he did, indeed, stay there forever.
That vista had contained the March on Washington scene, where Martin Luther King had given his "I Have a Dream" speech just a few months prior to Kennedy’s visit. While on television Vietnamese monks were burning themselves alive over religious persecution, churches in the South were being torched by white racists.
Then, just days after his wistful moment at Arlington, shots tore through our young president’s head. Driven by his duty, a Secret Service agent had climbed onto the back of the Lincoln limousine; and a black-and-white still photograph showed LBJ being sworn in on Air Force One, with Jackie at his side in her blood-stained outfit.
No one knew what to think, except that this could not be happening. Not in the United States. These were peaceful times — peaceful, that is, if you were white — times when life had a steady, "normal" pace.
It all vanished that weekend in November of 1963. The Christmas pageant was canceled. But soon there would be the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, and then the killing of the three civil rights workers in Mississippi; the rioting at Ole Miss; and radio reports of black citizens trying, in vain, just to register to vote.
Nothing was ever the same. Our young president, who’d, inspired us to give of ourselves for the good of others, had been snuffed out. Tears would well up when you heard Richard Burton sing Camelot. We learned of the ugly side of U.S. policy overseas, the "benign neglect" of African Americans robbed of the basic right to vote — a right still challenged by those who would suppress from our citizens what we demand of other nations.
No. Nothing was or is the same as it had been, during that "brief shining moment."
We’ve been told, "We can do better." Can we? Will we?
Dare we dream of ever again knowing hope and justice? Is there someone out there who can turn this nation away from selfishness and toward compassion? From "What’s in it for me," to "What can I do for them?"
Nick Penning (www.nickpenning.com) is an Arlington freelance writer. His column, "Penning Thoughts," appears in alternating editions of The Arlington Connection.