John F. Kennedy’s Assassination: Where Were You on November 22, 1963? My Story

Artist: Aaron Shikler (1970)
Posthumous Official Portrait of John F. Kennedy
Wikipedia
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Anyone who was alive and at an age of awareness 50 years ago today remembers exactly where they were and what they were doing on that terrible day.
These memories are etched deeply in our minds and our hearts, after all these years, still breaking.
As I watch the grainy TV footage, I am reminded of what we lost that day – much more than our beloved President.
But we couldn’t know that then.
I was 13, an especially vulnerable age. Too old to be unaware, too young to process this tragedy on a sophisticated level. In many ways, my grief is still stuck at this level, the child grasping for an explanation – anything to make everything better. But there were no and are no adequate words to smooth over the crushing grief that blanketed me – and most of us – that day.
I loved President Kennedy. In my mind, he represented the young father I never had and Jackie the mother who was beautiful, stable, and loving to her children, a family I never had. Once, I even wrote a letter to him, spelling out my adoration for him and his family. Perhaps I had a little crush on him. I received a letter from a representative along with an unsigned photo. But I was thrilled anyway because the person who wrote the letter said that President Kennedy had enjoyed reading my letter, and I believed it!

The unsigned photo sent to me
Jackie, Caroline, and President Kennedy
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In those days, we believed everything we were told.
But JFK’s death was difficult to swallow.
Yes, my generation would laugh again, but it would be a deeper, more cynical laugh; we would spend our teen years and young adulthood acting out: drugs, hard rock, Woodstock, protesting – an entirely different story only tangentially related to the assassination.
But on that ordinary Friday, I was in eighth grade at St. Boniface Elementary school, Sioux City, Iowa, working at the cafeteria scrape table, the worst job in the world for a teenager.
Let me explain: back then, the eighth-grade girls – the boys got a free pass — were expected to do cafeteria duty. Although we hated it, we never questioned “our duty.” We just gritted our teeth and obeyed the nuns and the pastor in this matter – with our parents solidly supporting this “for-our-own-good” free child labor.
And that day, I, smelling like rotten vegetables and meat, was scraping, with a spatula, gloopy scraps from lunch trays into the garbage.
The janitor came over to me and leaned on his broom.
He opened his mouth slightly and paused before speaking. “The President has been shot,” he finally said.
I started laughing. “Yes, and I’m a Martian. Take-me-to-your-leader.”
He was a natural jokester, so I just assumed he was messing with my head.
“No, Jennifer, I’m serious. And you need to return to your classroom. The kitchen staff will finish up.”
It was then that I knew he was serious.
I dropped the spatula and fled, without even washing up, to my classroom, a roomful of morose children and a distressed nun, Sister Jacinta, who I still remember with great fondness.
We sat silently in our rows as bulletins on the President’s condition were delivered over the loudspeaker from the principal, also a nun.
And then, the message we were dreading but expecting: “The President is dead.”
And then the weeping, a roomful of crying children. He was, after all, a Catholic President, and now he and our hopes were all gone, in one awful instant when someone (and, perhaps, others) thought it was okay to snuff out the life of our President.
“You are dismissed for the day, to pray with your families for our dead President,” the principal said.
There was no whoop or happiness at being dismissed early; we just filed out silently, numb from our sorrow and the cold as we walked home.
At home, my grandparents were glued at the TV, watching the non-stop coverage in real time.
The arrival of Kennedy’s coffin at Andrews Air Base is what stands out for me.
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I remember clearly Mrs. Kennedy accompanying the casket and being led off the elevator, still in that pink bloodied dress (about 5:40 on the video).
It was then that the finality of his death hit me profoundly, that image of Jackie standing by her murdered man, no matter what, even riding down a clunky airline elevator that belied her cool, sophisticated branding, stubbornly insisting on not changing out of that iconic pink dress, splattered with her husband’s blood, surely wanting a part of him still close to her.
At that point, we had no Abraham Zapruder film and just scant footage of happier times earlier that day in Dallas when everyone was still hopeful, happy, and innocent.
Those images would fill the airways and magazines later.
And the images of his funeral had not yet happened; we were still in the moment, still disbelieving.
Lee Harvey Oswald was still alive.
“WHY?” still hung in the air, palpable and painful.
We were simply experiencing our personal grief as it unfolded in black and white and in our own way. My own grief was too large to process all at once, and I believe that in many ways I’m still processing it, stuck in that teen angst and disbelief of 50 years ago.
On that terrible day, ordinary folks didn’t know about his infidelities and Jackie’s depression over her husband’s wandering eye, and the other foibles of our leader, his Addison’s, his relationships with other women, his impetuousness, and his regular visits by Dr. Feelgood.
But, even as I still mourn, those human frailties do not matter.
John F. Kennedy was an important symbol of those times, and nothing can take that and my good memories of him away.

What are your JFK assassination memories? Feel free to comment (No outside links, please).




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