As many of you know, my mother and I are working on a memoir. I’ve recently begun adding some of my own stories. Here’s what I remember from the year John F. Kennedy died:
I was nine the day JFK died. My brother Michael would make his entrance five days later. It was a pivotal year in many ways. My parents had moved me and my three brothers from City Island in the Bronx to New Jersey, but something went wrong and they weren’t able to move us into our new home. So they rented a nice big house within smelling distance of the Atlantic and kept looking. Avon by the Sea was a resort town, buzzing with vacationers in the summer, and reduced to its core population during the school year. We had a new house, new school, new town, and new friends.
Everyone idolized President Kennedy for his good looks, charming accent, and perfect wife and kids. When our teachers asked us who we most admired it was him, the youngest president ever and perhaps the most powerful person alive. If the world needed saving, he alone was the man for the job. Our future was safe in his capable hands.
We kids spent our year in Avon growing our moxie muscles, running at large in the quiet streets and squirming through boarded up windows in the massive hotels on Ocean Avenue. We took turns jumping off the boardwalk seven feet above the deep beach sand. Or we’d huddle beneath the drawbridge and watch the counter balance, a piece of concrete the size of a car, grind its way down the wall. After dinner we played “Who Dies the Best” on our sloping front lawn, perfect for rolling down.
None of this prepared us for our fearless leader’s death.
Friday, November 22, 1963 started out like any other day. The elementary school was only a few blocks away so Johnny and I walked. Bobby would have been in kindergarten so he probably tagged along. I pledged allegiance to the flag in my fourth-grade home room, fidgeting, distracted by the prospect of another delicious weekend.
After lunch, we were unexpectedly herded into the auditorium. My giddiness at the interruption was immediately dampened by the bleak look on my teachers’s face. When all the classes had filed in, the principle cleared his throat and said, “The president has been shot. School is dismissed. You are all to go home to your families.” No one moved for a minute, the only sound was that of a muffled newscaster backstage.
A classmate asked me to walk her home because she didn’t trust her legs. She lived further from school than I did. She was smaller than me, which made it easy to catch her each time she swooned. We were both in shock and I was glad for the company. What we had just heard made no sense. Why would anyone shoot President Kennedy?
I deposited my friend on her front steps and continued towards home. The streets were uncharacteristically quiet except for the seagulls. Everyone was inside watching TV.
I was surprised to find my father camped out in front of the television when I walked in our front door, his shoulders rigid, oblivious to anything but the news. I paused mid-step, transfixed by a single tear sliding down his cheek. The unimaginable had happened. John Fitzgerald Kennedy was dead. I didn’t know heroes could die or grown men cry.
The wallpaper blurred with my own tears. I’d been strong until this moment. I heard the swish of tires on asphalt, a squealing gull, the heavy step of my ultra-pregnant mother in the other room, and the ticking of our mantle clock.
I was confused and off-balance. Life as I knew it was over and yet it continued to tick along. We would eat dinner, go to bed, and on Monday return to school, yet nothing would feel the same.
Two days later, the whole family went house hunting. I remember all of us silently transfixed in a stranger’s living room as JFK’s funeral procession paraded across her TV screen, united in our grief.
His horse-drawn coffin was followed by a symbolic riderless horse. Black Jack was distractingly magnificent, picked because even at sixteen he couldn’t be ridden. He jigged down the street, fighting the man with his hand on the bridle every step of the way, a pair of tall riding boots set backwards into the stirrups. The black gelding fought his handler the same way I fought to contain my emotions as I tried to make sense of what had happened.
In the weeks to follow I aged a million years. I found myself questioning things I’d always known for certain. I caught myself pausing before jumping off the boardwalk or looking over my shoulder before climbing into forbidden places. I saw the same hesitations in my brothers and our friends.
The assassination had damaged our confidence, and in the coming years I came to know that this was the day a whole generation lost its innocence. Up to now, I’d believed in the infallible protection of our leaders, but with a single bullet I realized I was on my own.