Sunday, November 17, 2013

The End of Camelot

Ohmygosh! I can’t believe it! This is THE week it happened. The watchword for the week will be “Where were you when you heard?” At least for the baby boomers it will be. Fifty years ago, this coming Friday, also on a Friday the world stood still for a heartbeat as America discovered that we had lost our young charismatic president John F. Kennedy. The news flashed via television, radio and word of mouth like a wildfire that sunny bright November day. Politics were cast aside as the news spread, whether or not they voted for him, everybody was shocked.

For me personally, the news came in two waves. The first came as I was walking back to my dorm after meeting with one of my professors at DeSaussure College on the horseshoe. I had followed the brick walkway amongst the leaves falling from the great oak trees, around by the campus police office breaking out on Green Street between Preston and Woodrow dormitories. I had just started walking diagonally across Davis Field where I drilled the day before with the Naval ROTC unit. I was about a third of the way across the brown grassy expanse when a student leaned out his third floor window to yell that President Kennedy had been shot. As I turned in disbelief, he filled in that it had happened in Dallas Texas. I quickly picked up my pace to a jog and completed the rest of my journey to my room in the “H” Dorm, a part of the Honeycomb complex nestled at the corner of Sumter and Devine Streets.

A hush had fallen over the residence hall as I punched the button on the elevator and selected the seventh floor and made my way to my room that overlooked Sumter Street and the Undergraduate Library. The resident floor advisor has his door open to accommodate the small crowd of my hall mates that had gathered there to watch his television. I didn’t immediately join the group as I sat on the edge of my bed and stared out the glass of the sliding doors that opened onto the small porch surrounded by the veil-block brickwork that gave the complex its name. “Who could have shot him? Was it a foreign agent? Will we be going to war? Would I follow the tradition of midshipmen before me and put my college education on hold and go fight?” Memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis just a year and a month before welled up in my mind. I was a sworn member of the Naval Reserve now and many of my high school friends fathers were recalled to active service during that troubled time.

As I sat there taking all of this in, I heard the familiar voice of Walter Cronkite crack just a little as he announced that the President had died at Parkland Memorial Hospital. The second wave had just hit, there was not going to be a miracle. The President did not survive. All the thoughts and uncertainties circling through my mind kept spinning faster and faster. I joined the crowd near the corner room for a while but it seemed that the reported news was getting farther and farther behind the events happening in Texas. I felt a driving need to get closer to real time. I considered going to the ROTC unit, but it was a Friday afternoon and the officers and staff had already left campus for the weekend. It was then that I decided to get the news at the same time that Walter was getting it by walking over to the Russell House and watching the UPI and AP teletype machines at WUSC Radio.

Back in those days WUSC was on a late afternoon / evening broadcast day schedule and we were not scheduled to begin broadcasting for another couple of hours or so. Nearly the entire student staff was gathered near the teletypes reading every letter as they click clacked in purple ink onto the yellow roll of copy paper throughout the afternoon and evening. We preempted the usual schedule with funeral and other somber music inter-spaced at odd intervals with impromptu newscasts as we brought the rest of the campus up to date with events from Dallas, Air Force One and Washington. It wasn’t until after the President’s Funeral on the following Monday that we resumed a normal schedule.

Only once again in my life would I experience the feeling of restlessness, loss and sadness that I experienced on 11/22/1963. This time, it was a bright sunny fall morning. I was sitting at my desk in Des Moines Iowa when I received a phone call from my wife that a plane had crashed into one of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. That date was 9/11/2001, another generation’s “where were you when you heard….” watchword had been created. Oh MY!

1 comment:

  1. Rick, the mother of a middle school student asked me to help her with a report on this tragedy. This is what I shared:

    Dear Emily, Fifty years ago our country experienced a trauma that I hope you will never have to face.

    I was a sophomore at Spartanburg High School, and I and a whole bunch of other 10th grade boys were outside in gym class. We were probably playing some organized team sport like flag football. It was a crisp, sunny November day. About 15 minutes into our class, someone came out of the main complex and handed the coach a note. He read it, and blew a whistle for us to gather around. He told us that we should go back to the gym, shower, and wait for our next class because the news was reporting that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. We really could not comprehend what this meant.

    When we had changed back into our school clothes, we were told to report to our next period class. Mine was an advanced chemistry class, and many of the students were juniors and seniors. I walked in, and the first person I saw was a very good-looking girl whose normally beautiful blue eyes were blood-shot and red from weeping. I looked around and felt the somberness of the room. People were dazed and uncomprehending. A few minutes later, the intercom came on and the school principal told us that John F. Kennedy was dead, that the President of the United States had been assassinated. The final bell rang a bit later, and we went home.

    Emily, one thing you should understand is how different things were back then. Television was just beginning to have an impact, in fact the first color sets were just arriving. It was a black and white world, with television stations signing off and going off the air each night at midnight. The televised coverage of the assassination of John F. Kennedy and his funeral was the first major story covered by nationally by television. It echoed major coverage of two other Kennedy events – the first televised presidential debates, where it is widely acknowledged that Kennedy had come across as much more photogenic than his opponent, Richard M. Nixon. The other major national coverage event had been the coverage of the Cuban missile crisis the previous fall, where the United States and Russia had come close to nuclear war.

    We now accept as routine national coverage of news events. But please remember that the first Super Bowl was not played until January 1967 – years after the national stopped dead in its tracks with continuous uninterrupted coverage for several days of the Kennedy funeral. It was totally unprecedented, and our whole country was mesmerized by a truly awful event, both for Jackie Kennedy and her two young children as well as for our nation.