I was six. It was a normal day until the announcement, and then it was anything but. What happened after that--the whole weekend that followed--became what I refer to as my earliest memory.Of course I have snippets of memories before that, bits and pieces of things that happened on the first day of first grade, in kindergarten, at home in my childhood, etc., but it is the weekend of Kennedy's assassination that forms the first solid, continuous sequential memory in my mind. I realize it is only highlights of what happened, but still it lingers in all of its stark vividness.
It also marks the start of a lifelong passion for knowing what is happening in the world. At the age of six, I started reading newspapers that weekend. Why not? They were and are aimed at a reading level of sixth grade and I, a precocious reader, was reading well above my grade level. I certainly did not comprehend most of what I saw there, but I gleaned enough to understand what was happening, and I learned that these things that were delivered to our home each day could let me know about a lot of things...and also that they had col comics. (Hey, I was a kid.) I have always read papers or sought news online; it almost hurts not to know what is going on. Even if I am on vacation, I need to know. This began fifty years ago today; I still have all of the papers from that weekend.
Many years ago, I wrote a poem that expresses my childish reaction to the events of 11/22/63. Today, half a century later, I share it with you.
The crackle of a classroom speaker.
Dozens of small voices, stilled
by the sudden intrusion,
stop at once.
No movement in the room but
the rhythmic metronome of the teacher's ruler
swinging back and forth in her craggy hands.
The crackle sounds once more,
and our faces turn in unison,
towards its source.
A small, broken voice--
recognizable but not normal,
not the rich, strong voice usually carried into the room that way,
but a fragment of it,
a shell, without depth,
cracking like the speaker itself--
interrupts the silence.
"Bow your heads in prayer," it says.
Confused eyes stare at the oval grill
awkwardly jutting out of an ancient beige wall.
The voice, more broken now, continues.
"We have just received word that the President has been shot."
Vaguely we try to recall just what a President is;
visions of white-haired men in blue coats leap out of history books into
our brains, blur, roll into each other. Names, mostly from holidays,
flash through our minds.
And one more.
Again the electronic crackling,
as if the speaker itself does not wish to hear the news:
"President Kennedy was shot this afternoon in Dallas."
A pause. A sound like weeping. "Pray for him."
Dozens of eyes,
watch the teacher sit in stunned silence at her desk,
tears welling in her gray eyes,
the ruler grasped still tightly in her palm,
some connection to the world which has ended so abruptly.
Her face quivers, the gray in her hair even duller,
and her head slips to the desk.
We look at each other, recognizing
that something is terribly, unalterably wrong,
and bow our heads as well.
Eternity goes by.
No sound in the room but the humming of the clock
and the almost imperceptible click of its hand
An airplane in the distance rattles the blinds on the window.
Somewhere a woman is calling someone,
her pained voice reaching out into the bright autumn sky.
Somewhere a baby is crying.
And we sit, heads on our desks, unsure exactly
what it all means,
still as we have ever been, waiting.
And the history book images flood back in:
Abraham Lincoln was a President who had been shot, but that was long ago,
very long ago,
and the quaking voice from the speaker had said, "this afternoon."
Voices from the mind: fathers' voices, mothers' voices,
in dinner conversation,
working around the edge of a roast,
red and dripping,
saying something about a new age, a new life for the country,
a new hope.
The speaker comes to life again, startling us out of our thoughts;
the voice is choking back tears.
"President John F. Kennedy died this afternoon in a Dallas hospital."
Wailing from somewhere down the hall.
Silence in the classroom.
Our faces blank, our minds blank.
The speaker fades.
In the halls, there is silence.
Something terrible has happened, something
which will shape and define our lives.
So young, but we know that.
And we file quietly to our buses,
no tears in our eyes.
On this day, the tears are left to the grownups.
On this day, it helps to be a child.
And the buses roll through empty streets,
early afternoon traffic
stilled by the flickering blue light
of the television screens all are staring at,
and we go home to the arms of our waiting mothers,
and the blue lights transfix us too
Perhaps some of us cry then.
Perhaps some of us wait
for the scratchy images
of a frigid November morning
with a horse-drawn carriage
rolling along the street lined
with men in black and
women in dark veils and
the young boy raising his hand
in a silent salute,
or perhaps we wait until the small flame
begins its eternal vigil,
solitary on the hillside,
or perhaps we never cry at all,
and return to our desks
bursting with children's vigor,
forgetting what we have seen
not fearing the next crackle of the tiny speaker.
But there are some memories,
stark or vivid,
stark or vivid,
that haunt and cling and will not let go.
And there are some tears, shed or withheld,
that never go away.