Fifty years ago, I was in third grade. I had no idea that I would remember that one day so well all these decades later. The following story, which I’ve broken into two parts so that it’s not too long, is about the Kennedy assassination from my 8-year-old self’s viewpoint without much adult reflection.
The weather was warm for November in Michigan, maybe sixty degrees. The end of the day bell rang early. That was unusual, but we were used to doing what the teachers told us to do. Valerie* and I walked to the bus loading area in front of the school with our jackets over our arms.
Her brother rushed over to us with a transistor radio pressed to his ear. His excitement radiated from his body like heat waves. “Wait til you hear what happened!”
Valerie looked at her brother sideways, as if she didn’t trust him. “What?”
He seemed about to burst open with the words. “The president’s been shot!”
Valerie and I looked at each other. “Nuh uh,” she said. “Bob, you’re such a fibber.” I was speechless at his whopper.
Bob insisted, “No, really, I heard it on my radio. President Kennedy’s been shot.” Bob climbed on the bus, telling one kid after another that the president had been shot.
Valerie and I rode home at the back of the bus, while Bob spread the lie through the front. “Why doesn’t he shut up?” Valerie frowned at the back of his head.
“I don’t know. He’s your brother. “
“Yeah. I’m lucky,” Valerie said, but she didn’t mean lucky.
“If I lied like that, I’d get my mouth washed out with soap,” I said.
As I walked into the house, I heard a weird noise as if the tiny people called The Borrowers were having a party in the wall. Eyeing the coat closet door, I took a deep breath and pulled it open.
Mom stood inside the closet, with my knit hat crooked on her head. Her eyes were red-rimmed, and she was sniffling and rubbing at her eyes with mittens on her hands. I’m sure my eyes were goggling out of my head like Daffy Duck at finding a crying mother in the coat closet.
Pulling off the mittens, Mom stepped outside the closet. She didn’t say how she ended up wearing the stuff she was sorting, and I didn’t ask her.
“Something very important happened today. I want to talk to you.”
I dropped my belongings down on the armchair, then followed her as she walked into the kitchen. “I was cleaning the closet out and listening to music on the radio. They interrupted the song and the announcer said that three shots were fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade.” It was typical of my mother to tell me a story in her own sweet time. I didn’t explain that I had already heard about President Kennedy. My knees started to wobble.
We sat at the kitchen table listening to the radio. The man’s voice said Mrs. Kennedy’s pink suit was blood-soaked with the president’s own blood. He said a bullet had entered the president’s head. It sounded like in The Manchurian Candidate, the movie I was supposed to sleep through at the drive-in. I hadn’t slept. Now I remembered the big hole in the middle of the man’s forehead.
Mom said, “We could be watching the television,” and she walked into the living room and turned on our set. She adjusted the rabbit ears when she saw Walter Cronkite’s face zigzagging. “The President is dead.” The President is dead, I thought.
The President was dead.
Mom answered the phone on the kitchen wall. “Jean, yes, I’m watching television. Did you see her? . . . So elegant. . . . All that blood and confusion. . . . She has a lot of class. And those poor little children.” Mom talked and cried and emitted little giggles every so often. She pulled on the phone cord and wrapped it around her hand. She didn’t sit down, but sort of paced, tied to the phone by its leash.
By the time the Kalamazoo Gazette was thrown onto our front porch, Dad had come home from work. Both my parents acted bewildered, as if they were robots from a science fiction movie. Mom made pancakes for dinner.
*The names Valerie and Bob have been changed.