Friday, November 22, 2013


It was a Friday. I clearly remember sitting in art class with Mrs. Brown. We were making palm turkeys for Thanksgiving the following week. My seat was near the windows. As I worked away happily with my Fall colored crayons, the sun streamed in on my desk, and the shadow of falling leaves made gray, moving patterns across my paper.

A voice came over the PA system; it was Sister Immaculata. The President had been hurt while in a motorcade in Dallas. Everyone needed to stop and say a prayer.

I had no idea where Dallas was. It sounded like another country. I knew Jackie Kennedy had been to Delhi. Maybe it was somewhere like that. Then we were told it was in Texas. I knew about Texas, but it may as well have been the dark side of the moon. Regardless, my father had just gotten hurt, working at his garage, and HE ended up alright. Surely the President had enough Secret Service men to see to it that he wasn't too badly off....

But then the voice cam back again, only a short time later. The President was dead. We were being sent home. We got in our lines for bus and parent pick-up. (I was in line 3. We met our parents in front of the Hungarian church). Finally, with coats on and half finished palm turkeys in our hands, we made our way out onto the streets.
It was dead silent. We could see our mothers huddled together, in front of their cars, but if they were speaking to each other we couldn”t tell. We saw them stiffen as we approached, and quietly they gathered us into the back seats and left.

I don't remember if my sisters were in the car. The oldest may have been driving by then, and surely we must have picked up my middle sister from the pubic school at some point, but I only recall me and Mom.

What did they tell you?” she asked, cautiously.

The President is dead.”

Not what happened to him?”

No.” I looked at the rear view mirror and caught her eyes. “Why? What happened?”

All I know is that your Father called me from the garage and said, 'They just blew Kennedy's head off'”.

Nothing else was said until we got home. That's when my Mother began to be afraid.

This first, ever, Irish Catholic President was like a family member in every Irish American home. One of our own had made it to the White House, however the means: money, position, connections, or just plain politicking. At 6 years old, I wore all the campaign buttons, had the bumper stickers, and knew the “High Hopes” song by heart. (I still do!) His victory was our victory... and now, somehow, he was dead in a place called Dallas.

My brother was in college in Jersey City. He came home. The six of us huddled in the living room, like millions of other families, listening to the old vanguard of reporters piece together each step of the tragic path. 

When we heard that the President would publicly lie in State in Washington, my brother wanted us all to go. He argued that it was a part of history, something we should all experience, but my mother was terrified. We would be hurt on the road, we would be lost in a storm, we would be targeted for being Irish. She was so unstrung that my brother relented. Again, the TV became our main focus.

Over the next few days, we were wrapped in communal despair, depression, and grief. Flash images appeared before our eyes and stayed with us forever...Caroline's hand slipping under the American flag to touch her father's coffin, little John' salute, a pitch black horse (named Black Jack) with backward boots in the stirrups, refusing to settle down while being led to Arlington.

What dwelled underneath, however, also would last all our lives... the loss of more than a single human existence: the innocence of the New Frontier, the trust that all will be well, the promise that promises come true. We became a jaded Nation on that day, 50 years ago. But, like Pandora's box, something small, and huddled, and bright, remained tucked in the corner of our souls – hope.

We had our Camelot, and it rumbled to dust with the vibration of three shots in a plaza. Yet, having had it once, perhaps – one day – when things are at their bleakest, we may yet see another such as he.

Not long ago, I found our copy of “The Torch Is Passed”. Tucked in the back was a copy of Kennedy's official Presidential portrait, and a half-finished palm turkey. There is still much to do, work to bring to completion, that has it's roots in November 22, 1963.