On this day fifty years ago I was a high school junior. I do not even remember most of the day and some that I do remember is foggy and questionable. I remember some very small pieces all too well. I remember going to my chemistry class and taking a seat in the second or third row. It was the rightmost seat facing the teacher’s desk and the wall of blackboards. My memory is that the principal, Mr Pawlowski, entered before class actually started and gave us the news though it might have come from Mr Conrad, the instructor. In my memory, Mr Pawlowski quickly moved on to personally deliver his message in other classrooms so that every student heard the same version. It is logical and might indicate how important he thought the message — and its uniform delivery — was but I cannot be certain that my memory is accurate. The message was, of course, “The President has been shot.”
The remainder of the school day is blurred. I believe that no more classes were held and I have a vague memory that students who walked to school were allowed to leave. Maybe we all were. I’m fairly confident that I drove to school that day. I was sixteen with a car and a driver’s license. What else would I do? I do remember that by the time I left school, whenever and however that occurred, the message was no longer that the President had been shot; By then we knew that the President was dead.
The time between hearing that the President was shot and learning for certain that he was dead could not have been long. Other points of uncertainty were not so easily or quickly resolved. Who did it? Was the country under attack? Were we, in our tiny Ohio town far from both Dallas and D.C., safe? With the exception that New York replaced Dallas, those are the exact same questions I had on a September morning nearly thirty-eight years later. The world in which the terrorist attacks of 2001 took place was not, however, at all the same as the world of 1963.
The basement of the school building in which I heard the news had sealed containers of “rations” stacked along the walls. With their Civil Defense markings, they were visible reminders that this was a designated fallout shelter. The first anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis was not even a month in the past. I recall learning, only a couple of years before, a new prefix: mega. I didn’t need it to discuss megapixels, or megabaud, or even megabytes. I needed it to try to comprehend the power, in megatons of TNT, of hydrogen bombs being tested in the friggin’ atmosphere. The Cold War was not as nebulous as the War on Terror and I think it was somewhat scarier. Has there ever been a more accurate acronym than the one referring to Mutual Assured Destruction?
I do have some memories of the evening. A buddy and I went driving around because that’s what sixteen year old boys with cars did. The world was closed. Games and dances were canceled; Restaurants shut down. The buddy had a little battery powered tape recorder. This was well before cassettes or even 8-tracks. It used very small reels. It was pretty much a toy which we used to make Dickie Goodman style “break-in” recordings that were even worse than the ones Goodman did. That night, as we drove through the one city (1960 population 10,585) and some of the small towns in the county, we made comments and observations into the recorder. It is long gone, of course, but I’ve often thought of just how interesting it would be to listen to that tape today. It might offer a unique look at rural Ohio on the night of the assassination or it might just be filled with stuff like “Holy cow!. Even Frisch’s is closed.”
The weird uneasiness continued through the weekend as facts and rumors tumbled out. Lee Oswald was arrested. The shooting of a cop, J D Tippit, was somehow related but it was not at all clear how. Then Oswald was shot and things got even more confusing. I’ve convinced myself that I watched Jack Ruby gun down Oswald on live TV but the scene was shown so many times I can’t be sure. Two things helped; The eventual realization that the office of President of the United States had been transferred just like the rule book said and the fact that Walter Cronkite was in the newsroom. I think it a pretty safe bet that I’ll never trust any one the way I trusted Walter.
President John F Kennedy was officially pronounced dead at 1:00 PM CST; The same time as the posting of this article. The scan at left is of an introductory page of my high school’s 1964 yearbook. I imagine something similar appeared in the yearbooks of thousands of schools across the country. I believe the picture is a closely cropped version, with the background removed, of the official one at the beginning of this article.