Friday, November 22, 2013

Where Were You...? JFK Edition

Some of my CTY students believed that, since I was born in the previous millennium, I was there for everything that occurred. I was not, in fact, present at the Battle of Hastings, nor was I aboard the Nina, the Pinta or the Santa Maria. I did, however, suggest to Thomas Jefferson that we buy Louisiana and kick out the French. ("We don't have much money, Bob." "I know, Tom, but they're busy fighting a war so make them a crazy offer and see what happens.") And, of course, there was the charge up San Juan Hill with Teddy Roosevelt.

I wasn't standing on the grassy knoll in Dallas fifty years ago. I was a seventh-grader eating my lunch in the Elmont High School cafeteria with a couple of my classmates. It was a Friday and the day that our first seventh-grade dance would take place after school. Admission was an item of non-perishable food for a drive the class was running; I had brought a can of green beans. Our big concerns were whether we would be forced to ask girls to dance and what we would do if a girl asked one of us.

The news was quite sketchy at first. I don't know whether it came from a student who was listening to a transistor radio or from a teacher who'd heard it in the teachers' lounge or the main office. This was long before smart-phones and the internet and 24/7 news broadcasts.

As word spread around the cafeteria, I recall someone scoffing, "Yeah? Who shot him? Caroline with a popgun?" When the bell rang, no further information was forthcoming, so we all proceeded to our next class.

For me, it was gym class. We changed into our gym clothes and went outside, where we did calisthenics and then started playing soccer. Not long into our game, someone came out and told the teacher to bring us all back inside. We got back to the locker room just in time to hear the principal making an announcement over the P.A. that President Kennedy had been assassinated.

The principal said that all after-school activities were being cancelled. Students who had brought items  for the food drive should drop them off but the dance would be rescheduled. He also advised us all to go straight home.

He didn't have to tell us why we should go straight home. This was the Cold War era. Nikita Khrushchev had promised to bury us. The Russians had tried to put nuclear missiles in Cuba, only to be stopped by our now-dead President Kennedy. The assassination could, in fact, be the start of World War III with the Commies, with mushroom clouds blossoming all around us. We should be home with our families if that was what happened.

I don't recall much more about the weekend, though I do remember that I was watching when Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald in front of all those Dallas cops and the TV cameras. That was, perhaps, more unbelievable than the assassination.

One other odd thing I remember: Channel 5 was showing reruns of The Untouchables on Wednesday nights at the time.  According to TV Guide, scheduled for the following week was the first half of the two-part "The Gun of Zangara." It was the story of the attempted assassination of President Franklin D. Roosevelt by Giuseppi Zangara that resulted in the death of Chicago mayor Anton Cermak. Not surprisingly, Channel 5 pulled the episode; I did not get to see it until the series was released on DVD decades later.

Despite the grave concerns of that weekend, World War III did not happen. Nikita Khrushchev didn't bury us; in fact, he was replaced as Soviet Premier the following year. Lyndon Johnson took over as President and our lives went back to normal. 

Our seventh-grade dance was never rescheduled. The great concern about having to dance with a girl was forgotten. I hope someone eventually got to eat the can of green beans.

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