Thirty-nine years ago today, on the Friday before Thanksgiving, I was in the sixth grade. We were in our classroom on the second floor, having just gotten back from our weekly trip down to the Bookmobile, which the Newark Public Library parked outside our school all day every Friday. The shades were drawn, and we were watching a program on WNDT, Channel 13, the educational station in New York. The black and white TV images were up in the corner near the ceiling. As usual, the faint sound of rattling cans from the nearby Ballantine brewery could be heard in the background.
I can't remember which show we were watching. It could have been "Parlons Francais," the French lesson show with Anne Slack. Or it might have been the music show with that nice African-American woman (Negro lady, in those days) who taught us such hot numbers as "Grinding Corn." Or maybe it was "Places in the News," the geography/current events show with that nice, smart Jerry guy.
But it was interrupted for a bulletin. Apparently shots had been fired at President Kennedy's motorcade in Dallas.
Our teacher, Mrs. Matheson, wasn't in the room at the time. She was down in the principal's office, where she retreated when she needed a break from us, which was often. One of the girls ran out to find her, because it seemed like this was big news.
The bulletins continued to interrupt the show, which no one could concentrate on any more, anyway. Each time, the screen would cut to a card that they showed that said "Bulletin." It also included the station logo, which was a very simple cartoon owl. Sometimes the cards they displayed between shows would have three of these owls sitting side by side on top of the station call letters and channel number. You always heard the announcer, but you never saw him or her. Now a man was reading copy from one of the wire services, and sounding very agitated.
By the time Mrs. Matheson got back, there was no more show, just the owl card and the news. Indeed, Kennedy had been hit and was at the hospital. There was a rumor that he was dead. Then Channel 13 switched over to CBS, and just started simulcasting what was being broadcast there. It was Walter Cronkite.
It looked like he was crying.
We prayed a lot at that school, but when Cronkite confirmed the worst, we did something we never did before or after: we all knelt down on that cold, hard tile floor, right next to our desks. We prayed like there was no tomorrow. We didn't know what else to do. While we offered up Hail Mary after Hail Mary, Mrs. Matheson ran down to break the news to the principal. Soon the principal got on the intercom and told the whole school what the sixth grade already knew. The last classes of the day were cancelled, and we headed across the street to the church for another round of prayer, probably a whole rosary, before we went home to our stunned, frightened parents.
Friday evening at our house usually featured either fried flounder or pizza -- no meat on Friday, of course -- and a raft of TV shows. Maybe Man from UNCLE would be on, and definitely Jack Paar at 10:00. That particular Friday night, though, the three big network stations broadcast just the grim news, and the other stations continued to simulcast it. By the end of the night, the grownups were simply dumbfounded. Our moms and grandmas cried, and the men swore.
Where I lived, JFK was our man. In any given school, office, barber shop, or veterans post, you were likely to find pictures of three men: Jesus, Pope John XXIII, and JFK, and not necessarily in that order. Jack was the bright, young Democrat President. A robust (or so we thought) Catholic daddy with a beautiful, rich wife and two adorable boomer kids. And, we all joked, he had a lot of hair. He played touch football on the White House lawn with his huge Irish family. He had a temper, and as he showed the steel guys, he wasn't afraid to use it to his advantage. He stood up to Krushchev. He stood up to George Wallace. He and his brother even stood up to Jimmy Hoffa. We loved him, and now they had killed him.
I saw him once in person. He was coming to New York to address the United Nations, and my godmother, my mom's sister Peggy, insisted on taking my brother and me over to see the motorcade. And so over to the city we went on the Public Service no. 118 bus. We stood behind a police barricade along the curb on one of the big north-south thoroughfares as the giant parade breezed by. Kennedy was standing in that open car, smiling, waving at folks. Since we had only seen him on television and in the papers, we were surprised to see that his hair was a reddish brown, not black.
I also distinctly recall, as we were waiting for the motorcade to arrive, looking across the street at a man who was standing in a full-length second story window doing the same. I remarked to Aunt Peggy that that man could shoot the President from there. We all laughed then.
The assassination made for an exciting weekend for us kids, but at our age, we didn't realize how badly the wind had been knocked out of the nation and the world. We were getting used to impending disaster. Just a year before, we had trained for weeks about what to do if the air raid sirens went off. Walk quickly to the cafeteria in the school basement, where the prayers would start up again.
We knew that New York would be ground zero, because it was the center of the world. Our folks had calculated that we were just eight miles from where the Cuban missile would hit. When that crisis was defused, we had all thanked God, the Pope, and JFK, and not necessarily in that order. We had gone about the happy business of post-war America.
A few months later, the Beatles would give us our childhood back. But on that Friday before Thanksgiving, that childhood, and we, were lost.
(Photo of St. Aloysius School by my friend Bill Montferret)