It was 1963. I was a sixth-grader that November, living with my two sisters and our parents in a small town in the northwest corner of the continental United States, far from the reach of the fears of the world.
I knew nothing of the Cuban missile crisis, but I did know that my father’s workshop in the basement of our newly-built home was a fallout shelter in the architectural blueprint. A family in a house up the road with the same house plan allegedly had theirs stocked and ready to live in should the need arise.
We practiced “duck and cover” drills at school, with civil defense film strips instructing us on the proper technique. When the siren sounded, we ducked under our desks immediately. In the absence of our coats, which were hanging in the closets, we were to cover our heads with our hands. How were we not terrified? Perhaps my parents were. But President John F. Kennedy, the young and handsome Camelot president with the beautiful family, was going to protect the country from harm. Wasn’t he? Until that 22nd day in November when the world tilted.
The desks in Mrs. Conrad’s sixth-grade classroom at the end of the hall at Washington Elementary School were in a circle. My desk was the one closest to the door, my back to it so I didn’t see it open in the middle of that morning as Principal Bogen came in. He set the boxy black portable transistor radio down on my desk and we listened to the crackly news report that the president had been shot while riding in his open-car motorcade in Dallas.
Without a word, Mr. Bogen picked up the radio and went on to the other sixth-grade classroom, leaving my little sister and her first-grade classmates to learn the news at home. I felt very old that day.
I have no memory of what happened in the minutes and hours that followed. I remember only the silence in which I and my classmates absorbed what for most of us was the first tragedy of our young lives — the moment of the knowledge of evil in the world. I don’t remember if we went back to our lesson and then to lunch, or if school was dismissed and we went home.
At home, we watched the TV coverage on our grainy black and white set. And we poured over the photos in Life magazine, and a book that came out later: “The Torch is Passed.” The iconic photos of Camelot and the day it ended are indelibly etched in my memory.
I became aware that day of the world as a frightening place. The Vietnam War escalated during the last few years of my childhood and the huge bold headlines of The Daily Chronicle screamed the war’s death toll day after day, while college students on TV chanted, “Hey, hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”
High school ended with the first draft lottery; and two years later, before it ended, included my high school classmates. I was also ignorant of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, but I knew the tragedy of the assassination of Martin Luther King, and the escalation in California of the Black Panther Party, closer to home than the activity in the deep South. And then Bobby Kennedy was killed on a déjà vu day.
That November day 50 years ago, a bullet changed the course of the world — and everything I thought to be true. There was no going back.
Gretchen Staebler has lived in three eastern states since membership in the first graduating class from the new Centralia High School, class of 1970, and has recently returned home. She writes at www.writingdownthestory.com.
The Chronicle is asking for readers to submit their memories of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy as the 50th anniversary approaches. Submit your stories to firstname.lastname@example.org, or mail them to Assistant Editor Eric Schwartz at 321 N. Pearl Street, Centralia.