The desks were placed in three rows from the front of the room to the back. It reminded me of how the cars lined up for the start of the Indianapolis 500. The rows of desks were separated by aisles. Two desks were side by side. Each row had eight desks, there were twenty-four in all, and twenty-four students sat and listened carefully as their teacher spoke. I sat in the middle section in the back of that row. I was always in the back because I was always the tallest student. A large blackboard dominated the front wall of the room. The teacher’s desk was neatly organized. A textbook was opened and a pencil was used as a bookmark.
Miss Lesk was our third grade teacher at P.S. 102 on Van Horn Street in Elmhurst. She had taken over for Miss Jennings. Miss Lesk was far and away the prettiest teacher I had ever seen; she was also the youngest, a brunette.
A knock on the door interrupted our studies and Miss Lesk walked through. It seemed to magically swing inward. As much as I tried I couldn’t see who was waiting for her. At first she held the door just slightly open, about one foot, and then, very quickly, she shut it completely. Even from the back of the room I saw and heard the doorknob spin around and around and yet the door remained closed. Apparently Miss Lesk was holding on, squeezing it, perhaps nervously. When she returned her beautiful face, her smile, that the boys loved, and the girls hoped to emulate, was gone.
With little said except, “Collect your books,” school was dismissed an hour early. No one said a word. The look on Miss Lesk’s face, shaken and fixated, told us to be quiet. It was a Friday. It was November 22nd, 1963. It was a day like no other.
My sister Lynn is three years older than me. She was a door monitor. As I passed her by and walked through the door she turned to me and said, “The President was shot in the head.” I remember feeling nothing, nothing at all. I made the short walk, five blocks, to my front door. I walked up one flight of stairs in my two story house. My mother was in the kitchen and the radio was on. She stepped out and looked at me and I said, “Lynn told me. I know.” Moving to the left I walked into the living room and turned on the television. The first feeling I had was confusion; then I felt really bad. My mother came into the room and sat down beside me. She didn’t say anything. We both listened.
What was strange is that I felt bad for the newscasters; who looked different. They weren’t sure of themselves. Newscasters were always sure of themselves, almost too sure, but not on this day, not then.
I had heard the word Camelot, even though I wasn’t sure what it meant. I remember Richard Burton sang loudly about a Camelot on the Ed Sullivan Show. I was told the President is a handsome man; he is the first Catholic President. He comes from a very large and very wealthy family. The words used to describe the First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, are elegant, graceful, and beautiful. Their children are young; they always looked happy. They were lucky to be living in the White House. Who wouldn’t want to live in the White House? Who wouldn’t want their pictures on television and in the newspapers, magazines? I know I would.
I watched television all weekend long. Everyone was so sure that a small man, Lee Harvey Oswald, killed the President. They seemed so determined to want this to be true.
At the crime scene, they would later report, the shooter was eating fried chicken while waiting for the President’s motorcade to come into view. I was only eight years old, a third grader, and I knew eating fried chicken before picking up a rifle and trying to make a difficult shot would be a stupid thing to do. Fried chicken is greasy. My mother always told me to wash my hands after eating fried chicken.
What’s Going On?
On Sunday morning I saw a man in a dark suit and gray hat jump out of a crowd, and shoot Oswald as policemen just watched. The policemen wore strange cowboy hats. What was happening? Was anyone safe? Could something happen to me, my family? Was someone going to shoot me? I didn’t know. The world, as I knew it, was slipping away. I was scared.
Eighteen years earlier World War II had ended. Men returned to their families, to restart their lives. The country was ‘booming.’ The children who were born after WWII were labeled the ‘Baby Boom Generation.’
If you were born in the 1950’s, or earlier, you remember where you were when President John Kennedy was assassinated. If you close your eyes you can see it now. A big part of all of us died that day. We may not have known it then, a lot of people were in shock, disbelief. But looking back five decades later, we know it now.
President Kennedy was replaced by a harsh looking man, Lyndon Johnson. He had big ears. His wife was more plain, to be kind, than elegant. I don’t remember seeing too many pictures of their children.
The Days and Years After
The following year, 1964, the Vietnam War erupted and we could watch it on the nightly news. Walter Cronkite said it was bad; he was right. The Warren Commission told lies, made fools of us, and didn’t care one way or the other on how we felt or what we thought. Their report was 888 pages and no one wanted to read it. It was too long, too involved and too absurd. They told us a bullet could pause in mid-air and change directions. The men of the Warren Commission had no problem believing Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. Case closed, life moves on. Mind your business; we know better than you.
War protestors took to the streets. More men were shot and killed, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert Kennedy, the Presidents brother. George Wallace was wounded, confined to a wheelchair. College students, at Kent State, were killed. Richard Nixon was elected President. A madman squirmed his way into an evil, villainous reputation; his name was Charles Manson. He sent kids out to murder; slaughter, innocent people. They wrote on the walls with the blood of their victims. The country was going crazy.
President Richard Nixon was re-elected. Then Watergate took center stage and after a televised hearing, an investigation, Nixon was gone. Gerald Ford became President and they tried to shoot him. They failed. I became cynical; never trusting what I had heard or what I had read. To this day I still don’t. If I have a question I’ll find the answers on my own.
President Kennedy brought a youthful enthusiasm to the country, whether you agreed or disagreed with his politics. I grew up in a Republican, Protestant home; Eisenhower, Nixon, Goldwater and then Nixon again. We could see why everyone loved President Kennedy. He was young, charismatic. He didn’t look, or act, like the politicians we had seen before. His speeches were full of life, hope, passion. The United States could accomplish anything.
Setting a Goal to Reach the Moon
In 1961 President Kennedy said, ‘I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.’
On July 20, 1969 the United States accomplished this goal. It’s very sad President Kennedy didn’t live long enough to see his vision become a reality.
We’ll never know what would have happened to this country had President Kennedy lived. Would each one of us be in a different place right now? Would our own lives have changed dramatically? So many questions have gone unanswered. In November this year it was 49 years since that fateful Friday afternoon, 49 years. It’s hard to believe it was that long ago. Time passes so quickly.
When I walked out of the classroom on that Friday in November, 1963, I remember tears clouded and glazed Miss Lesk’s eyes. She stayed strong as each student made their way out the door. I glanced over at her and the smile I had always seen was long gone. It was a smile I had learned to love. It always made me feel good. I don’t remember ever seeing Miss Lesk smile again. It was a day like no other; it was a day I’ll never forget.