November 22, 1963
I was eight years old. I was in second grade at an elementary school in small-town Ohio. The announcement speaker on the wall crackled to life. Our principal had bad news to tell us. He said that our nation’s president had been shot and was gravely injured. And that we could go home. I think it was around 3 o’clock, and the day was nearly done anyway. It was sunny. It was Friday.
My teacher put on her brave smile and told us, “All is well.” But even at that age, we all knew that it wasn’t just by virtue that we were told to line up in our fire-drill emergency-exit lines to be dismissed for the rest of the day.
President John F. Kennedy was as popular a politician in our little town as anyone ever has been. Our parents simply fought with him. Alongside him. My dad served on the U.S.S. Benner, a destroyer in the South Pacific, and was a true Kennedy follower. They shared that experience. They were kindred. For my parents, this was their president, one of them.
Once at home that sorrowful day, I recall my parents asking questions of each other. Ones they couldn’t answer. I was in the living room watching our VistaVision TV, and of course the news was on. I recall thinking that I’d never seen the news on at this time of day. All three stations told of the events unfolding, pre-empting normal broadcasting. All the newscasters were sad. My parents were sad. Everyone in town was sad.
The excitement of Thanksgiving was quelled. At church we all prayed a little harder. And then more bad news. The man accused of assassinating JFK was himself killed. We watched it on TV. We heard the shot and saw Lee Harvey Oswald go down and pandemonium break out once again in Texas.
Later, back in front of the TV, our family took a break from the news to watch our beloved Cleveland Browns defeat the Dallas Cowboys. We wanted this win because Dallas wasn’t a very popular town in our parts at that time, if for some reasons unfair. A little stability returned when the Browns whipped the Cowboys, 27-17. Justice, in a small, strange way, was served.
The decision to play that NFL game so close to Kennedy’s death has haunted pro football as one of the worst decisions in the league’s history. But yet, for our family and town, it was a greatly needed distraction from the events of earlier and even later that Sunday, when Jack Ruby shot Oswald. On the flipside, the Army–Navy college game that year, which was to be attended by JFK and brother Bobby, did go on as planned and was lauded as a great decision, one that gave the country something to rally around.
I started with the memory that I was in school when I heard the grave news of JFK’s demise. A question for those who were alive then and recall: Where were you when JFK was shot?
Feel free to tell your story in the comment thread below about that fateful day in November 1963.
Illustration by Sam Clark